Trustees’ meeting: at last some answers

Just back from the special meeting with the trustees. There were many passionate and well argued contributions from members of the scheme, all making the case that the trustees simply must take a higher profile. It was striking that the trustees all professed their shock and dismay at what the BBC has done (words like “aghast”, “outraged” and “scandalous” were used by the trustees themselves). But how many of us would have known that they all oppose what the BBC is doing before tonight?

At the end of the meeting a vote was held on the motion

“This meeting of members of the BBC Pension Scheme calls on the Trustees to perform their duties to protect the benefits of the members. Specifically, we call on them to oppose the BBC’s plan to reduce the eventual value of contributions already made to the Scheme”.

It was passed unanimously – with more than 800 proxy votes and about a hundred votes in the hall. The trustees got the message: they expressed regret that they hadn’t acted sooner, accepted that there was a very strong desire on the part of members that they should fight harder to defend the scheme, and fell over themselves to criticise the BBC’s conduct.

There were many points of clarification, and I’ll run through some of the most important here.

1) The 43rd deed

I have been banging on in this blog for some time about the 43rd deed of the pension scheme, which defines pensionable salary as basic salary. Why, I asked, does this not give the trustees the scope to challenge the BBC’s plan to redefine pensionable salary as only rising by a maximum of 1% a year? The answer from the trustees’ legal expert was breathtaking. The BBC is going to present us with two options. When our next pay rise comes along we will have the option of either a) declining the pay rise or b) agreeing to the pay rise but with strings attached. The main condition will compel you to agree that your basic salary has now been redefined as your existing salary plus 1%. The extra bit of the pay rise will be labeled a “salary supplement”, or something similar. Over the years your newly redefined “basic pay” will continue to rise by a maximum of 1% a year, but you will accumulate a larger and larger “salary supplement”.

It is to me simply staggering that we have a DG who is prepared to advance such an egregious piece of sophistry as a way of swindling us out of our rightful pensions. No wonder the BBC has been so reluctant to spell out the legal shenanigans on which it is basing its bypassing of the pension scheme rules. Mark Thompson should hang his head in shame.

2) Why do the pension scheme changes have to happen before the valuation is complete?

Again, the trustees supplied the answer, albeit in a roundabout way. First of all, they explicitly confirmed that there is no legal need to come up with a deficit recovery plan until the end of June next year (after the pension scheme valuation is complete). So why does Mark Thompson keep saying it must be dealt with before then? Because once the valuation is complete in March next year, there is a legal requirement to come up with what’s called a “recovery plan”. And – critically – that recovery plan must be negotiated with the trustees. At that point all the trustees’ legal obligations to protect the interests of members kick in. And the BBC would never get its way through that route.

Again what strikes me here is the dishonesty of Mark’s statements. A week ago Mark wrote: “We are facing a large pension deficit and must act now to reduce it” (my emphasis). There is no “must” about it. Rather there is a choice, made by management to avoid having to do what any reasonable member of the pension scheme has a right to expect – sit down with the trustees to discuss how to fund the deficit.

3) Why can’t the assets of BBC Worldwide be used to help cover the deficit?

There’s a simple answer to this one. According to the trustees, they can! Indeed, they were hoping to have discussions with the BBC about this very plan. But the BBC’s plan to rewrite our contracts – redefining basic salary – has bypassed all discussion with the trustees. If ever there were proof needed that the BBC’s plans are not primarily about the pension scheme deficit, then it is this. There is a perfectly good plan that could go a long way to cover the deficit, the trustees are in favour of it, and the BBC refuses to even discuss it. (You can read elsewhere in this blog why I think the BBC is taking this course.)

As I write this I have my BBC pass in front of me. On the back are the BBC’s values, and the first one says: “Trust is the foundation of the BBC”. How is it possible to have trust in a DG and senior management team when they have been so dishonest about their motives, their strategy and their goals?


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