Unions highlight 'hypocrisy' faced by freelance staff

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The Independent Online
UNIONS at the BBC said yesterday that John Birt's tax avoidance had outraged employees and made a mockery of the BBC's reputation as 'an outreach department of the Inland Revenue'.

Tony Lennon, president of the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU), described the revelation about Mr Birt as unprecedented. 'The BBC have always operated with the utmost propriety in matters of tax. They are almost puritanical about extracting every last penny out of people who work there.'

It is partly because of this approach that the staff, particularly freelance staff, were so angry about Mr Birt's financial arrangements, which they described as hypocritical.

Mr Lennon said that the BBC had innumerable self-employed freelancers who were charged under PAYE. 'What's happened to the vast bulk of the people at the bottom of the pile is the complete opposite to the treatment John Birt has had.'

The BBC said last night that no other management board members were being paid in similar circumstances to Mr Birt. However, a spokesman declined to discuss other staff 'because it would not be right to discuss their contractual arrangements'.

It is thought that there are other employees who are being paid other than through PAYE, particularly some of the star names who supplement their living by working elsewhere.

Tony Morris, head of the media and entertainment group for solicitors Cameron Markby Hewitt, said it was not unusual for senior executives to be paid through a service company. 'It's a recognisable way of creating a tax structure that is beneficial to the individual,' he said. 'However, with the BBC, it's not a question of legality, but morality.' The guidelines for BBC employees are laid out in a document published in 1989.

According to Mr Lennon they 'explicitly state that anybody above the level of controller who has a financial interest in a business or a directorship or anything else must state that so as to ensure that any possible conflict with their BBC responsibilities is examined and they are given appropriate dispensation'.

He added: 'There is no question that a consultancy on entertainment and television is absolutely the business the BBC is in, and so therefore they are in conflict with the rules.'