Whistleblowers: BA pre-empts probe into prize

March 19, 2004

The country's most prestigious arts academy was accused of "playing fast and loose" this week, as it appeared to pre-empt an investigation by the public spending watchdog into its handling of a research prize, writes Phil Baty.

The British Academy informed its members that it had been cleared of impropriety in its handling of a £2 million research award, weeks before the investigation has been completed by the National Audit Office.

The NAO confirmed this week that it had not received evidence from key protagonists in its investigation into the British Academy's centenary research award, and had not reached a conclusion.

But the NAO said that its officers had held an "informal meeting" with the academy to discuss "preliminary findings" after an audit visit in January.

This meeting led the academy to announce in a circular to its fellows last month that it "has been informed orally that there is no evidence of any impropriety and that no further action is recommended".

Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, said: "The only conclusion to be reached is that the British Academy has been playing fast and loose."

"They appear to be either trying to get ahead of the game with a crude attempt to influence the NAO or to bolster their position among fellows.

Either way, it is a pretty crass thing to do. I would expect the NAO now to bring this element into its investigation."

The news has alarmed the Sussex University research team that raised concerns about the handling of the competition, the biggest in the academy's history.

In a letter to the NAO last week, the Sussex team, Richard Grove and Vinita Damodoran, said: "We were shocked to (learn) that the conclusions of the NAO have apparently been pre-empted."

This letter says: "The statement published to all fellows of the British Academy either indicates that an... entirely improper private arrangement has been reached over a major investigation between individuals in the National Audit Office and officials of the British Academy, or that the British Academy [has misled members]."

The pair is due to meet the NAO this week with a dossier of evidence. In a reply to their letter, the NAO's director of value for money, Angela Hands, said: "Our review of the matters you have raised is not complete, since we have held the review open pending receipt of your material. We have not yet reached our conclusions."

But Ms Hands confirmed in her response that the NAO's preliminary findings from an audit visit in January - which included the investigation into the centenary award and a routine general audit - had been informally discussed with the academy several days after the visit. She said their findings were subject to "review by management".

The British Academy appeared to stand by its claims. Its secretary, Peter Brown, said in a statement: "Apart from observing that the quotation is... drawn from a routine report to the fellows of the academy on various different matters of academy business, there is nothing to add by way of comment."

The NAO was called in after an investigation by The Times Higher last year raised concerns about "old boys' favouritism".

Want to blow the whistle?
Contact Phil Baty on 020 7782 3298
or email him at phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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