The National Audit Office (NAO) has qualified the accounts of the British Tourist Authority (BTA) for the third year in a row, due to repeated and ongoing issues with irregular procurement activities and failure to secure government approval for more than £1m of unauthorised payments
The BTA is an arm’s length body of the Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) and operates as VisitBritain and VisitEngland.
It is not allowed to enter into a contract worth more than £50,000 through single tender procurement without the approval of DCMS before the contract is awarded. However, in 2018-19 the audit watchdog found BTA repeatedly entered into contracts above this value without DCMS’ approval.
On four contracts, the BTA did not seek approval from DCMS before entering into the contracts, while in another three instances, the BTA asked DCMS for approval but entered into the contracts without approval being given.
There were also two contracts which were expanded beyond the parameters approved by DCMS. These contracts were for a range of valid business activities and the NAO said it found no evidence of fraud or corruption.
DCMS has since retrospectively approved one contract but has declined to approve the rest. Payments totalling £1.115m made as part of these contracts are therefore in breach of regulations.
Previous NAO audits of the BTA have also found irregular payments. In the years 2016-17 and 2017-18, BTA made non-contractual severance payments without getting approval from DCMS and the Treasury beforehand.
These audits concluded that the BTA repeatedly broke the regulations because of failures in its internal controls on spending. The BTA’s 2017-18 accounts also received a qualified opinion.
In response to the NAO’s findings on procurement activities, over the last six months DCMS has strengthened its oversight and intervention. The BTA has acknowledged similar issues have also taken place in 2019-20 and it is currently working with DCMS to tackle these challenges.
Gareth Davies, NAO head, said: ‘The last three audits of the British Tourist Authority have uncovered repeated failings in the way it has spent public money.
‘The BTA has knowingly entered into contracts for which it did not have approval, disregarding regulations designed to ensure that public money is being spent as Parliament intended.
‘The BTA needs to work closely with DCMS to significantly improve its internal controls on spending and ensure that it fulfils its obligations as a publicly-funded body.’