Another seminar…

Today Mark Thompson held another pensions seminar, and some more interesting information seeped out.

Mark came perilously close to admitting that getting rid of the pension scheme deficit is not the BBC’s main aim. When I suggested that the assets of BBC Worldwide be set against the deficit, he and Zarin Patel said that even if they did this, and it did close the deficit, then it would not meet their other objective, namely to remove the long term “risk” to the BBC of rising pension costs in the future. In other words, even if the BBC could get rid of the deficit, he’d still want to remove our pensions benefits.

So let’s be very clear. There ARE ways to deal with the deficit that don’t involve extra licence fee income. But the BBC has decided to use the “opportunity” presented by the deficit to drastically cut our pensions. In their polite phrase this involves a “transfer of risk” from the BBC to us. The plain truth is it is breaking a promise the BBC can afford to keep, but no longer wants to.

More and more he is relying on the argument that change is inevitable. A big slide was put up showing all the other companies that have made changes to their final salary schemes, completely glossing over the fact that many of these companies have found much less draconian ways of responding to their pension fund deficits. Time and again he returned to the argument that the BBC’s current pensions are out of kilter with “the market”. I have the very strong feeling that for him the political argument that the BBC cannot be seen to be out of kilter with other organisations trumps everything: even if there was a way of funding the existing (or close to existing) pension arrangements, Mark doesn’t want to. He is attempting to cover his flank from Daily Mail style attacks on supposed “gold plated” pensions.

It’s worth at this point remembering that the price of this defensive maneuvre is pensions robbery. When the pension scheme was set up it included a set of arrangements for dealing with deficits. It carefully defined the responsibilities of the BBC, employees and the trustees. One clause says quite clearly that pensionable salary is basic salary, and to get around this the BBC has had to bypass the trustees, and effectively change our contract of employment by engaging in linguistic sophistry, forcing us to agree to redefine what basic pay means. This is nothing to do with clinging on to “gold plated” pensions, and everything to do with holding the BBC to the promises it has made and which we have every right to expect them to keep. I do not expect to see  my basic pension rights traded to protect a political flank that was exposed by the incompetence of the BBC’s senior management in awarding and then defending outrageous executive salaries (not to speak of extravagant pension provisions).

Incidentally, as an aside, Mark has finally – finally – seen the light on executive pensions. The “special supplements” that have been paid to senior managers to get around the cap on their pensionable salary (a miserly cap of £123000), are to end. Again, it’s a case of following, when what was required was leadership.


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