New mystery over Birt's BBC staff status

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CONTROVERSY is sweeping the BBC following the discovery that John Birt, the director-general, was on an official staff list at a time when, according to official statements, he was being paid as a freelance.

Two years ago the Independent on Sunday disclosed that Mr Birt was not even an employee of the organisation he headed, but was being paid through his own private company, enabling him to pay less tax.

Now, according to leaked microfiche personnel lists, it appears Mr Birt was, at least for a time, staff number 268530.

BES News, an underground internal BBC magazine, says the entry is proof he was "a member of staff when he joined the BBC in 1987". As an employee, he would be paid PAYE and would enjoy the benefits of holiday pay, sick pay and pension.

But if that was the case, why did Mr Birt and Marmaduke Hussey, the BBC chairman, state two years ago that he had never been on the staff and only became an employee after the disclosures over his freelance pay arrangements? Sir Michael Checkland, Mr Birt's predecessor as director- general, even made a joke of the issue at the height of the controversy by beginning a lecture: "Checkland, M. BBC staff number 113895."

A former director of the BBC said last week that, as far as he was concerned, "a staff number is prima facie evidence you're a member of staff". This was emphatically denied by the BBC, which claimed it was a personnel number and did not mean someone was an employee. "John Birt had a number which identified him as working for the BBC but it did not mean he was a member of staff in the sense Mike Checkland was using it," said a BBC spokesman.

The puzzle is deepened, however, by the rest of Mr Birt's entry. Underneath his number is printed: "cessated 1/4/91". Where the word "cessated" appears elsewhere among the names, it is accompanied by the date they left the BBC payroll. But Mr Birt did not leave then, and his freelance status did not become public for two more years.

The BBC was at a loss to explain. "The normal reason for putting 'cessated' is that is the leaving date, but that is not the reason in John Birt's case," said the spokesman. "'Cessated' in his case means his records were moved to another database." Why Mr Birt? And why then, at the start of a tax year? "I am happy to accept the precise reason is one we can't be certain about."

Later, the BBC issued a statement. "The printouts you have are from a special programme which used to be produced for the central post room, in case post arrived for individuals they did not recognise or who had recently left the BBC." It went on: "The number has nothing to do with tax status. John Birt was recorded on [the system] when he joined the BBC in 1987 but his records were removed in 1991 for security reasons."

Another senior official insisted: "Staff numbers are given to people who work for the BBC, but don't reflect the way they are remunerated. I can assure you there was no change in John Birt's status between 1987 and 1993."

In 1991, Mr Birt was deputy director-general. His then boss, Sir Michael Checkland, stayed on the system, so what "security reasons" required Mr Birt's removal? The spokesman suggested: "Somebody thought, 'Hello, the nature of his relationship with the BBC is a bit odd. Perhaps he shouldn't be recorded on the list in this way.' " That person, the spokesman stressed, was not Mr Birt, and whoever it was, was "not around any more".