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Lord Patten - more sinned against than sinning in the BBC Trust debacle

JackieJackie Doyle-Price is the Member of Parliament for Thurrock

It isn't unusual for the Public Accounts Committee to hear tales of taxpayers money being wasted, but the cavalier way in which senior public servants look after their own is, on occasion, truly shocking.

There appears to be an emerging culture where it is totally acceptable for redundancy to be accompanied by a golden handshake which can be as large as you can negotiate.

Payments in lieu of notice, or PILON as they are known, appear to have become custom and practice to a degree which is unacceptable at a time of pay and expenditure restraint.

Public servants must always recognise that they are using taxpayers money for a purpose voted by Parliament. It isn't there for them to do as they please once they have been given the budget. Furthermore we need to ensure that the systems of governance in place to establish accountability are genuinely challenging the executive and delivering value for money.

The Public Accounts Committee has been horrified by the size of severance payments given to departing BBC senior executives. It is up to those who are given positions of accountability to ensure that our money is not squandered. Clearly the BBC Trust has failed in its responsibility to us as licence fee-payers. It has done so as a consequence of poor governance procedures. Just as sofa government undermined the integrity of Government decision making, so email traffic is weakening standards of governance in our public bodies.

The Public Accounts Committee has been trying to establish a clear chain of accountability for the decisions. We act on behalf of the taxpayer and ought to expect full cooperation from those who take public money. In this respect the behaviour of all seven witnesses who appeared before the committee was disappointing. It was clear that some were more interested in their own reputations and there was behaviour which was not consistent with the principles of public service.

In summary, the dispute is this:

The trust accepts no responsibility for the payoffs as severance is not in their terms of reference and in any case they were assured by the Director General that the payoffs were within contractual limits. 

The Director General claims he kept the board informed throughout and that although the payments were within contractual limits, they were above the contractual minimum. Our hearing has indeed established that there was considerable contact between the Director-General and the then Chairman of the Trust, Sir Michael Lyons.

In respect of Lord Patten, I find him a man more sinned against than sinning. He has taken in good faith the briefing advanced to him by the Trust.  Unfortunately for him, his briefing was incomplete. This led him to inadvertently mislead Parliament and to open up a line of defence for Mark Thompson.

In order for the trustees to be effective in looking out for our interests as taxpayers they need to be adequately briefed. This requires an effective secretariat and good systems with procedures to capture all records that are pertinent to establishing an audit trail of the facts that have informed a decision.

It also requires all concerned to adhere to those procedures. It isn't acceptable to have informal discussions and consider the matter cleared - especially when one of the participants is enjoying the sun in the Med. Such discussions need to take place at times when all understand the implications, otherwise they are no more than a back-covering exercise

Mark Thompson clearly has a management style which is tough and dynamic and which led him to use informal contacts with the Trust with which to exchange information. This included email and conversation.

It is essential that such contacts are recorded in some way. On this occasion they were not. Thus a note entitled "Project Silver" which dealt with the options for the removal of the Deputy Director General was not brought to the attention of Lord Patten and he was not adequately briefed.

I would suggest that the Trust learns serious lessons from this episode and overhauls the systems in the secretariat so that the record keeping system has integrity and so that the Trust is not embarrassed again as it has been by this episode.

In a previous life I worked in a secretariat for a board and I was constantly challenging the material I was provided with in order that the people I dealt with we're fully informed and had all the information they needed to make an informed decision.

On the basis of the evidence given by Mr Kroll, he appears to have considered himself as little more than a mailbox on this occasion. In fairness to him if Sir Michael Lyons was content that everything was contractually above board why would he question?

Nonetheless, given the real public interest in these issues and given the real concern on the part of other trustees about the size of severance payments, it really would have been wise to challenge and obtain chapter and verse on the detail behind the payoff.  That is what I expect of the Trust. I expect it to take whatever steps it needs to to establish whether taxpayers money is being used wisely and appropriately.

The trustees need someone working for them who is prepared to use their judgment and ask the right questions and furnish them with the information they need to make a judgment.

We cannot ensure the good performance of our institutions without good governance.  This requires robust challenge, clear processes for decision making, good record keeping and transparency.  Without it executives can simply pay lip service to consultation and do as they please.

The increasing use of email and mobile phone conversation in place of scheduled meetings increases the likelihood of accountability being compromised.  It is incumbent on all public bodies to make sure they have adequate procedures in place to avoid the scenarios we have witnessed in the context of the BBC.

As for the BBC, the Trust model is broken, but not to the point where it cannot be fixed. It surely cannot be beyond the wit of Mr Kroll, who is after all paid £238k a year, to give the Trust a shakeup and ensure that he is equipping the Trustees with the tools to do the job we as licence payers expect of them.


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