Strike ballot planned over BBC cuts

BECTU, NUJ, and Amicus, are poised to begin a vote for industrial action after BBC redundancy talks reached deadlock.

Formal notice of a strike ballot is due to be sent to the BBC today, April 13, and voting papers will be sent out to members seven days later - the earliest date possible under current labour laws.

Representatives of the staff unions spent three hours with BBC Director-General Mark Thompson on April 12 to discuss demands they had tabled on behalf of staff in March.

Thompson, on behalf of the BBC, was unable to give a commitment that his redundancy plan, which cuts more than 3,000 jobs, would be halted to allow in-depth discussion over the future shape of the Corporation.

BBC management offered a limited moratorium on redundancies until June 2005, during which no staff whose jobs were threatened would be given notice of dismissal.

However, unions were told that if the BBC agreed to a hiatus in job cuts, voluntary redundancies would still be processed, and staff hit by compulsory redundancy could be given notice of dismissal as soon as the period of respite ended.

While every effort would be put into measures to avoid compulsory redundancies where possible, said the BBC, there could be no blanket guarantee that all job cuts would be voluntary.

Nor was the BBC willing to promise that any staff affected by outsourcing of professional services like finance and HR, or the sale of BBC Broadcast and BBC Resources, would be guaranteed continued membership of a final salary pension scheme.

Unions told Thompson that his limited offer did not satisfy a list of demands they had tabled in March, after the BBC announced job cuts among programme-makers, and plans for outsourcing of back-office services which affect almost 4,000 staff.

The BBC had been asked for a 90-day moratorium on job cuts, a promise of no compulsory redundancies, and cast-iron guarantees that terms, conditions, job security, and pensions, would be protected for staff affected by outsourcing or privatisation.

At the April 12 meeting, the first time that DG Mark Thompson had faced a full team of union representatives since he arrived back at the BBC last year, management emphasised their view that some pruning of the BBC was necessary.

Money raised by the proposed cuts and privatisation would help fund new services, like content delivery to mobile telephones, that the BBC is promising to launch in return for a generous licence-fee settlement in 2007.

BBC accountants also need cash to meet commitments made in 1999, when the government agreed an inflation-plus licence formula, but demanded that "self-help" savings should also be made.

In particular, the BBC needs to raise £155 million to pay off its overdraft before its current Royal Charter expires at the end of 2006.

Unions believe that the changes Thompson plans are too deep, and could prevent many parts of the BBC from delivering the new services that the Corporation hopes to offer.

Luke Crawley, BECTU's chief BBC official, said: "These are the most damaging cuts in the BBC's history, with nearly one fifth of all staff being made redundant, and thousands more due to be handed to new employers.

"Our members want a BBC that works well, but Thompson's plans could stop some parts working at all."

Officials have not yet finalised the timetable for balloting members, but confirmed that subsidiaries BBC Broadcast and BBC Resources would be involved, in response to the BBC's unwillingness to give guarantees about treatment of staff if they are sold off.

Members in the BBC's Global News division, including BBC World Service, are also due to be balloted - a review currently being conducted by management is expected to result in the announcement of redundancies this summer.

13 April 2005