The 2018-19 accounts of the British Tourist Authority (BTA), also known as VisitBritain and VisitEngland, have received a qualified opinion1 from the Comptroller and Auditor General of the National Audit Office, Gareth Davies, due to irregular procurement activities and payments of £1.115 million. This is the third consecutive year that irregular payments have been identified in the NAO’s audits of the BTA’s accounts.

The BTA is an arm’s length body of the Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport (DCMS).  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.2 However, in 2018-19 the BTA repeatedly entered into contracts above this value without DCMS’ approval.

In four contracts, the BTA did not seek approval from DCMS before entering into the contracts. 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; the NAO found no evidence of fraud or corruption.

DCMS has since retrospectively approved one contract but has declined to approve the rest. Payments made as part of these contracts are therefore in breach of regulations. The BTA made irregular payments of £1.115 million through these contracts.

Previous 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 HM 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.

“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.”

Gareth Davies, the Comptroller and Auditor General

Read the full report

British Tourist Authority’s annual report and accounts 2018-19 (trading as VisitBritain & VisitEngland)

Notes for editors

  1. A qualified audit opinion means that the auditor has found a material issue with the accounts. In this case, the C&AG has qualified his audit opinion on the basis of regularity, as resources have not been used in the way Parliament intended and authorised.
  2. HM Treaury’s Managing Public Money explains how to handle public funds with probity and in the public interest. Annex 2.2 explains the extent to which authorities may be delegated and A2.2.11 notes the requirement for government departments to agree delegated authorities with their arm’s length bodies. DCMS has a Management Agreement with BTA which outlines the delegated financial authority DCMS has given the BTA Accounting Officer. Part B of this agreement outlines Financial Controls with paragraph 1.2 detailing the delegated limits for single tender actions.
  3. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website. Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website.
  4. The National Audit Office (NAO) helps Parliament hold government to account for the way it spends public money. It is independent of government and the civil service. The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Gareth Davies, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO. The C&AG certifies the accounts of all government departments and many other public sector bodies. He has statutory authority to examine and report to Parliament on whether government is delivering value for money on behalf of the public, concluding on whether resources have been used efficiently, effectively and with economy. The NAO identifies ways that government can make better use of public money to improve people's lives. It measures this impact annually. In 2018 the NAO's work led to a positive financial impact through reduced costs, improved service delivery, or other benefits to citizens, of £539 million.

Latest press releases