November 12, 2012 5:56 pm

Concerns grow over BBC chief’s pay-off

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Pressure on the former BBC director-general to refuse his full £450,000 payout grew on Monday as the government warned that the public spending watchdog had the power to review the payment.

The National Audit Office could examine whether George Entwistle’s severance pay was value for money for the licence payer, the culture secretary said.

Speaking after being called to the Commons to answer an urgent question on the matter, Maria Miller said she had written to Lord Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust, raising concerns about the size of the severance payment for George Entwistle, who was only in office for 54 days.

The debate was called as the crisis at the broadcaster deepened, with the new acting director-general sidelining the BBC’s head of news and her deputy as he attempted to restore trust in the crisis-hit news operation in the wake of a series of revelations linked to its Newsnight programme.

Ms Miller echoed the comments of the prime minister that it was “hard to justify” the payment, which was twice what was stipulated in Mr Entwistle’s contract.

“The circumstances make it hard to justify the level of severance payment. This is a trust matter but it has a clear responsibility to ensure value for money for the licence fee payer,” she told the Commons.

“Members will know that we have in place procedures to scrutinise – strengthened by this government – and that the National Audit Office can do a value for money review of any issue. If they decide to review, we expect them to co-operate fully.”

Harriet Harman, deputy Labour leader and shadow culture secretary, said Mr Entwistle should hand back the half of the pay-off that was not due in his contract.

But she warned that enemies, including “commercial competitors” and the “political opponents” of the BBC, were waiting to pounce and attack the broadcaster in its moment of crisis.

Some MPs have called for the resignation of Lord Patten, who oversees the corporation’s governance and backed Mr Entwistle for the job of director-general. Others suggested the licence fee, which funds the broadcaster, could be scrapped.

Ms Miller criticised the trust for being “slow off the mark” but said it was now acting decisively and she appeared to back Lord Patten, stressing the need for “stability”.

Conservative MP David Nuttall asked Ms Miller if the crisis would bring forward the day “when the British public will have the freedom to decide for themselves whether to pay to watch the BBC, rather than being forced to pay for it by criminal law”.

Ms Miller said the charter renewal process, which looks at the licence every 10 years, would examine this as usual, adding that she thought “every member in this chamber attaches enormous value to the role of the BBC”.

The National Audit Office would not comment on whether it intended to pursue an investigation.

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