BBC Tory conference strike is off

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A planned strike by thousands of BBC staff during next week's Conservative party conference was called off today after unions said they had received a "significantly improved" offer on pensions.

Journalists, technicians and other broadcast staff had been due to walk out on October 5 and 6 when the Tories were gathered in Birmingham, threatening disruption to the keynote speech by Prime Minister David Cameron.

Gerry Morrissey, general secretary of the broadcasting workers' union Bectu, told the Press Association that an improved offer will now be put to a ballot of members.

Next week's strike has been called off, but there is the threat of industrial action later in the month if the deal is rejected.

Labour Party leader Ed Miliband earlier called on BBC staff not to black out David Cameron's party conference speech by going on strike next week.

He said in the "interests of impartiality and fairness" the Prime Minister's speech should be broadcast on television and radio."

Some of the BBC's most prominent presenters had warned over the timing of the strikes in a letter.

The letter, signed by Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman and BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson among others, said the move "risks looking unduly partisan".

Members of Bectu, the National Union of Journalists and Unite had voted in favour of industrial action in protest at changes to their pensions.

Mr Morrissey said a strike planned for October 19 and 20 would remain until the ballot result was known, and unions had decided to add another strike date of October 25 and 26.

Mr Morrissey said: "We have had a significantly improved offer from the BBC which we believe is the best that can be achieved through negotiation. If it is accepted, all the action will be called off, but if it is rejected, strikes will take place. We welcome the movement from the BBC."

The dispute flared after the BBC announced plans to cap pensionable pay at 1% from next April and revalue pensions at a lower level, which unions said effectively devalued pensions already earned.

BBC management said the changes were needed to try to tackle a huge pension deficit of more than £1.5 billion.

Last month, Conservative Party chairman Baroness Warsi wrote to BBC director general Mark Thompson asking for reassurances that the planned strikes would not breach impartiality rules by blacking out the conference.

Unions said talks with BBC management today led to "key improvements", including reducing employee contributions in a proposed new career average pension scheme from 7% to 6%, as well as other changes and revisiting elements of the pension reforms.

The new proposals, described as a "breakthrough", also included important new measures to provide staff facing compulsory redundancy with time to identify alternative employment in the BBC, said unions.

The BBC's pay offer remained, giving a £475 flat rate increase to all staff earning up to £37,726, backdated to August.

Mr Morrissey added: "The union side has worked very hard over three long months to arrive at this point. We believe that the current proposals are certainly the best that can be achieved without industrial action and on this basis we will be consulting our members further.

"We have secured these improvements because of the willingness of all union members to make a stand against attacks on pensions; staff should be proud of their resolve."

Jeremy Dear, general secretary of the NUJ, said: "Given the outrage the BBC's pensions proposals have caused, which staff have consistently viewed as a pensions robbery, we're obviously pleased that the BBC have seen fit to table an improved offer, rather than face strike action. Clearly, the determination of staff at the BBC to fight to defend their pensions has forced a rethink on the part of the BBC's management.

"Though we still have a number of reservations about the new offer, we remain committed to clarifying the BBC's proposals through negotiation over the next couple of weeks and are hopeful that an acceptable offer, protecting benefits already accrued and not limiting future pensions accrual through the imposition of a punitive cap, can be agreed."

Peter Skyte, national officer at Unite, said: "The BBC has made some attempt to bridge the gap between us in order to resolve this dispute.

"Members are looking for the BBC to stand as a beacon of excellence in pay and pensions as much as it does in broadcasting, and not join a race to the bottom by irresponsible employers in shedding all risk and drastically shrinking incomes in retirement. Our members will now be asked whether the BBC offer meets this test."

Don Foster, co-chairman of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Committee on Culture, Media, Olympics and Sport, said: "I welcome the further concessions made by the BBC and the decision of the union not to strike.

"It is absolutely vital that the BBC demonstrate complete political impartiality by covering all the major party conferences.

"We can now be hopeful that both sides will build on this development and come to a long-term agreement."

Mr Thompson sent an email to staff welcoming the decision to call off next week's strike, adding: "We have listened carefully to you throughout our consultation on pension reform and have adjusted our proposals as a result. It is only right that union members and staff should have the opportunity to consider these amended proposals carefully before being asked to take industrial action."

"Today we tabled some further adjustments to the option we first announced a few weeks ago. These adjustments should be taken as a final position from the BBC in our discussions with the unions about pension reform. They represent a fair way forward.

"They still deliver the overwhelming majority of the financial effect we knew we needed to achieve in dealing with the deficit and containing future pension costs and risks, so that we could continue to offer affordable pensions. But I believe that they are also reasonable and equitable from the point of view of staff. They are offered, and should be considered as a package. We cannot and will not make any adjustments to them which would involve further cost or any loss of future affordability.

"Pension reform is difficult and painful for any organisation and the BBC is certainly no exception. I hope that the steps we have taken to respond directly to the views you've expressed during the consultation, and today's decision by our unions, will help us to deliver affordable and fair pensions in the future."