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Staff slam Trustees at BBC pensions meeting

Members of the BBC pensions scheme called an urgent meeting of the scheme’s trustees on Tuesday night (14 September) in order to call them to account for not doing or saying anything about the BBC’s plans to dismantle the final salary pension scheme. (More on the BBC’s proposals here.)

It’s clear from the BBC’s approach that ’solving the deficit’ is not its aim. Transferring the risk to pension scheme members and lowering the BBC’s pensions bill are the priorities. Along with helping the government by getting one major public-sector pension slashed before the main assault on all the others begins. There’s also a clear drive to get all current defined benefit schemes closed to new members before the BBC starts recruiting lots of new staff in Salford at the end of the year.

The meeting was dominated by a lot of hand-wringing from the Trustees, particularly Jeremy Peat, the Chair, who went on about how they’d been bypassed and couldn’t legally do anything about it. Yes, in retrospect, he said, maybe they could have been more vocal in defence of the scheme. Mark Thompson was aware they weren’t happy, he said, but there wasn’t anything they could do, since their legal advice was that the BBC was within its rights and there are precedents for this sort of underhand action.

One speaker from the floor pointed out that with the new proposed definition of ‘basic’ salary, BBC employees in the future could end up with a ’salary supplement’ several times bigger than their ‘basic’ (ie, pensionsable) salary. Several people pointed out that Trustees are supposed to work in the best interests of the members and asked why hadn’t they done something - at the very least, a public statement condemning the move might have had a significant impact on the atmosphere surrounding the debate in the press.

The elected union-backed trustees had very little to say for themselves either. One talked about feeling ‘personally offended’ by the proposals, whilst the other merely ‘recognised’ that there really is an ‘enormous deficit’ about which ’something’ would need to be done, etc. Much applause was received for the point that the defecit could be got rid of by staking BBC Worldwide (the commercial arm) and Television Centre as assets against the pensions scheme.

One very vocal campaigner made good points about the outrageous and underhand way the BBC is changing its definition of basic pay and asked the Trustees why they hadn’t taken a public position against that.

A Bectu branch rep pointed out that, in 2008, the BBC had signed an agreement with the Trustees (the Statement of Funding Principles, which remains in force) saying that if there was a deficit they would pay it off through increased contributions. This agreement is now being comprehensively broken. The Pension Trustees’ lawyer said that BBC management’s behaviour was not illegal. The Pension Trustees’ actuary and chairman refused to express an opinion when asked more than once whether BBC management’s behaviour was reasonable or ethical.

An NUJ rep gave an excellent speech based on detailed analysis of pensions regulation, in which he called on the Trustees to ‘fail to agree’ to the new ‘concession’ being offered by Mark Thompson in the hope of staving off a strike, which is a very poor Career Average proposal, but which, unlike the other changes being proposed, would have to be approved by the Trustees in order to be offered at all.

Before the debate closed, another Bectu branch rep made the following points:

  1. All the emphasis on the lack of legal avenues is just aimed at demoralising us.
  2. It’s not surprising that we are legally powerless, since it’s been clear for some time now that the courts are colluding with the government and employers in enforcing a concerted attack on pensions across the board.
  3. The BBC’s is not the first pension scheme to be attacked in this way, but we have found ourselves in the front line as far as the public sector is concerned.
  4. So the real question for the Trustees is: Are you going to help the employers/government to decimate the BBC scheme?? Will you need pensions yourselves one day? Do you think it’s ok for us to be denied ours?
  5. We don’t need you to be having a ’strong word’ with Mark Thompson over a cup of tea or a glass of sherry; we need a public expression of support from you, denouncing the BBC’s attack and coming out strongly in our defence. (Much applause for this point!)
  6. You’ve complained about being ‘bypassed’ by the BBC; but it seems to us that you’ve LET YOURSELVES be bypassed. It’s not too late to do something; are you going to continue in the same way?
  7. No matter what the legal advice is, no matter what the BBC management says, WE are going to be fighting in defence of EVERYONE’S pensions; in defence of the right to a dignified old age.
  8. When we do that, the media will try to demonise us. They’ll ask the public to forget about £850bn to the banks and try to brand us as ‘greedy’ for upholding our right to a pension we can actually live off.
  9. So the real question is, are the Trustees going to help us in that fight or not? (More applause)

Overall, the feeling of the meeting was extremely clear, reflected in the unanimous vote calling on the Trustees to oppose BBC management’s proposals. Some of the Trustees (including the chairman) expressed their personal opposition to the proposals, and it’s at least possible that they may now be more forthright in expressing that opposition either publicly or privately – they have a meeting with Mark Thompson in the near future.

For reasons that are totally unclear, the members present were refused the right even to discuss an alternative/supplementary (and much more militant) resolution that over 100 members had signed in the days before the meeting. The Trustees claimed it was against the rules of the meeting to discuss it without prior notice (of some unspecified period). But in fact the rules of the meeting say nothing about this at all.

The motion that was passed at the meeting was as follows:

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.

But the tenor of the meeting overall was far stronger and the Trustees went away in no doubt as to how the members felt about their performance thus far.