Lucy Adams accused of using the term 'sweetener' to describe severance payments to senior staff
Source: The Guardian
The BBC HR director, Lucy Adams, is facing calls to quit over an allegation that she used the term "sweetener" to describe severance payments to senior staff.
Adams was alleged to have said "Can I get a sense of the scale of the sweetener?" in a leaked internal BBC email revealed in a tense hearing before MPs on the Commons public accounts committee (PAC) on Monday.
At Monday's hearing Adams said she could not recall using the word "sweetener" – which she described as a "strange term" – when asked repeatedly by Stephen Barclay, the Conservative MP and PAC committee member who obtained the email.
However, when the MP said it came from a leaked email in his possession she conceded: "I may have used the term by means of an incentive to get to a swift resolution."
On Tuesday Barclay described the term as a "damning illustration of the attitude at the top of the BBC" towards six- and seven-figure payouts to departing executives.
He said the position of Adams, who last month announced she will leave the broadcaster in April, is untenable and that she should resign immediately.
"The email shines a light on the real culture of the HR department which saw payments [that went beyond] contractual terms as simply perks of the job," he said.
"Clearly the decision to leave the BBC removed some of the need for further questioning, but it was clear she had lost the confidence of the committee in the accuracy of her recollections."
Another MP on the committee, Guto Bebb, said the "sweetener" email was a "clear sign of the attitude of senior executives at the BBC to these above-contract payments".
He added: "Whilst concern about sweeteners for senior officers was expressed, the evidence from the NAO shows that as you go down the 'food chain' your chances of an above-contract deal receded."
Margaret Hodge, chair of the PAC, accused Adams of "developing a habit of changing your evidence" during Monday's three-hour inquisition of BBC grandees including Mark Thompson, the former director general, and Lord Patten, the BBC Trust chairman. Adams replied that this was unfair.
Adams previously issued a correction to her claim that she could not recall a key memo proposing a controversial £1m payout to the BBC's former deputy director general, Mark Byford. She later admitted helping to write the document along with Thompson.
Barclay said: "I think her position is untenable and it is surprising that she will be continuing at the BBC until next spring when it is clear that, on more than one occasion, she denied any knowledge of material documents that she wrote before parliament.
"I found it a very sad day to see an institution with so many talented and hard-working staff being led by people paid telephone-number salaries and performing in a way that fell far short of what those staff deserve."
The Tory MP Justin Tomlinson, who also serves on the PAC, added with regard to the "sweetener" email: "It is clear this cavalier approach showed scant regard to the licence fee payers' money, impacting unfairly on staff, viewers and ultimately the reputation of the BBC."
Adams denied on Monday that she had instructed HR staff to be lax about paying handsome severance deals in an effort to reduce the senior management headcount at the BBC.
She said the BBC had spent £1.9m going above contractual entitlements against cost savings of £20m, and added: "Certainly not lax. We were trying to get people out of the door, to minimise disruption and to reduce the risk of litigation."
The BBC announced in August that Adams, who is paid £320,000 a year, will leave in March 2014 without any severance pay after five years at the corporation. Tony Hall, the BBC director general who said the corporation "lost the plot" on payouts, backed the HR director during her previous appearance before MPs in July.
A BBC spokeswoman said: "Although the BBC has not seen the email, Lucy Adams explained the context in which this term might be used at the hearing."
At Monday's PAC hearing Adams asked Barclay if she could see the "sweetener" email. He declined, but said he was happy to share it with the comptroller and auditor general of the National Audit Office, Amyas Morse, who also attended the committee meeting.
Shortly afterwards Morse told the committee he had seen the email and suggested Adams be allowed to view it and respond after the hearing.
Adams replied: "Absolutely. I am more than happy to have a look at that document. As I say, what we were trying to do was to find a way of moving people out of the organisation."
© The Guardian