BBC in union talks at Acas to avert second strike

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The Independent Online

The BBC is to meet unions at the conciliation service Acas tomorrow for talks aimed at resolving the industrial dispute that led to Monday's strike action.

The BBC is to meet unions at the conciliation service Acas tomorrow for talks aimed at resolving the industrial dispute that led to Monday's strike action.

A further 48-hour walkout is scheduled to go ahead next week, unless the two sides can reach an agreement over the BBC's plans to cut up to 4,000 jobs.

Gerry Morrissey, the assistant general secretary of the broadcast union Bectu, whose members balloted for strike action with the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and Amicus, said: "We have accepted these talks without preconditions. The strikes next week are still scheduled to go ahead, because we have no idea what the BBC is prepared to offer. The fact that they are prepared to come to Acas means they are willing to negotiate, but what we don't know is whether the concessions are going to be big enough."

The announcement comes after a clash yesterday morning between the BBC deputy director general Mark Byford and the presenter John Humphrys on Radio 4's Today programme, which was not broadcast on Monday as a result of the strike action.

Byford was challenged by Humphrys over money spent on "fancy" management courses that saw senior staff sent to the United States and gave the impression he had not considered the services of Acas when pressed on the issue.

Also interviewed was Jeremy Dear, NUJ general secretary, who accused the BBC of refusing to negotiate.

But later yesterday, the BBC director general Mark Thompson said: "We have always said we wanted to get back around the table and talk. We wanted it all along. It was not us who got away from the table and we are just pleased now that there will be room to talk."

The unions estimated that between 13,000 and 15,000 employees took part in Monday's strike, while the BBC put the total at a rather lower 38 per cent of its 27,000 strong workforce.

Speaking at the Westminster Media Forum yesterday, Mr Thompson admitted his plans to make savings of £355m a year by 2008 made for "an uncomfortable and challenging period inside the BBC".

He said: "We can't make the need for change, or its scale go away, but we're prepared to be very flexible about how we go about it.

"At no point have we set preconditions or refused to discuss any aspects of the changes."

Unveiling the BBC's response to the Government's green paper on its future yesterday, the corporation's chairman Michael Grade robustly rejected the idea of "top-slicing" the licence fee to fund other public service broadcasters.

The green paper, published in March, concluded that while the licence fee was "not perfect" it was the best funding model available and said it should continue.

Mr Grade warned that any funding review should not take place until the switchover to digital was complete in 2012, adding that the BBC remained "fundamentally opposed" to the idea of top slicing.

"It would pose a threat to the political independence of the BBC, handing a punitive fiscal sword of Damocles to any unscrupulous government that wanted to bring the BBC to heel.

The BBC accepted the green paper's recommendation that its board of governors should be replaced with a new trust that would be more accountable.

The governors also backed the green paper's proposal to open up an extra 25 per cent of programme commissioning to competition from the independent sector, but insisted it would only work if there were a level playing field.

How Humphrys got Byford to the table

John Humphrys: What about going to Acas?

Mark Byford: Well that isn't on the table yet is it?

JH: What if it is, what if somebody says let's go to Acas?

MB: We'd look at that with the seriousness it deserves.

JH: Because then of course Acas would come up with an offer, wouldn't they... and you might have to accept fewer job cuts.

MB: What we would want to do, John, is to resolve this dispute as quickly as we can, recognising that the BBC has... to generate more monies to invest in programming and deliver the savings programme that we'd already agreed with government. But we'll listen to the unions, we'll discuss these changes with them and we would like those strikes next week not to happen. If they do we'll make every effort to reduce the impact on licence payers - the people that own the BBC - but we want to talk with the unions but in a context of change and investment in content.