BBC strikes 'could breach political impartiality rules'

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A Cabinet Minister called for reassurances from the BBC today that planned strikes by staff would not breach impartiality rules by blacking out the Conservative Party conference.

Party chairman Baroness Warsi wrote to the corporation's director general Mark Thompson after dates for two planned 48-hour walkouts over pensions were announced yesterday.

Journalists, technicians and other broadcast staff will strike on October 5/6 - when the Tories are gathered in Birmingham, where Prime Minister David Cameron is making a keynote speech.

The action, announced by Bectu, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and Unite, is planned to resume on October 19/20 when Chancellor George Osborne is to unveil details of spending cuts.

In her letter, Baroness Warsi said: "Like many people in Britain, I was concerned to read reports today that BBC staff plan to take industrial action in October.

"I understand that you have already spoken to staff about this issue and on the specific point of contention regarding staff pensions.

"Everyone's hope remains that a fair and amicable resolution can be found to the dispute so that strike action need not go ahead.

"In the meantime, I would be grateful if you could let me know what contingency plans are in place to ensure political coverage is maintained during the Conference period in line with the BBC's obligation to provide impartial political coverage."

The industrial action came despite the BBC offering a new concession in an attempt to avert strikes.

The broadcaster has offered to set up a new career average scheme for workers who belong to its defined benefit pension, who are concerned that the planned changes will reduce the value of their retirement income.

The BBC announced plans to overhaul its defined benefit schemes in June after discovering the deficit had ballooned from £470 million in 2008 to about £2 billion.

It gave existing members of the scheme the choice of either staying in it but having any salary increases used in pension calculations capped at 1% a year, or leaving the scheme and joining a new defined contribution one.

But members of the NUJ and the technicians' union Bectu voted to strike by more than 9-1 in protest at the "punitive" changes the group planned to make to the scheme.

Unions will consult with their members over the next few weeks before meeting on October 1 to decide whether to press ahead with the strikes.

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt said all sides in the dispute should consider the impact on licence fee-payers of any cuts in coverage.

He told a meeting of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee: "I think the real point here is not the impact on political parties but the impact on licence fee-payers who fund the BBC.

"I hope all parties in this dispute will reflect on the fact that this is a very, very challenging time in politics for all of us, politicians, ministers and most of all challenging for members of the public who are very concerned about public services and the BBC has a very, very important role in informing people about those decisions so they can make their mind up as to whether they support them or not."