Captain Moonlight's Notebook: Sorted your pension, John?

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The Independent Online
IS JOHN BIRT, the Director-General, a member of the BBC pension fund? A simple enough question, you would imagine. But as with most inquiries surrounding the salary and tax affairs of this public servant, mine led everywhere but got nowhere.

This much is known. Two months after this newspaper revealed that Mr Birt was still being paid as a freelance, and six years after he joined the organisation from London Weekend Television, he finally joined the staff of the BBC. To ease his passage to the PAYE system, Mr Birt received a salary package which has been reliably put at pounds 200,000 a year - pounds 40,000 more than his predecessor, Michael Checkland, was receiving when he retired just before Christmas.

As if this was not sufficient reward, Mr Birt also took delivery recently of a replacement runabout from the Corporation - a new, top-of-the-range, Range Rover - which he received in addition to the chauffeur-driven limousine that automatically comes with the job.

Travel beyond these visible symbols of his job and you enter thick fog, particularly when you ask about his pension. You may think this none of my business, but it exercises the BBC's 23,000 staff who work for a public corporation with strict rules. One such rule is that the BBC will pay into only one pension scheme: its own. Staff who choose not to join the scheme do not receive any contributions from the Beeb. So is Mr Birt a member or not? Some disgruntled BBC sources say not.

Time to check with the powers-that-be, since this is, after all, a publicly funded post. Easy question - not so easy, it seems, to answer.

My first call regarding this publicly funded post was to the press office. 'The BBC does not pay directly to any employee's pension fund,' a spokesman said, tartly.

Yes, I know that, but I am given to understand that an exception may be being made in the case of the Director-General. 'He's in a position now to consider joining the BBC pension fund,' the spokesman said. So he's not a member yet? I asked, warming to the reply. 'I don't know. He's in a position to consider the options.'

I asked whether the two-month delay in Mr Birt joining the staff since the story of his freelance status was published had anything to do with protracted negotiations. Perish the thought. It was due to slowness among the staff at personnel.

And the Range Rover? 'He's had it replaced on the same terms as any other company car arrangement.' Even though he has a chauffeur-driven

limousine to take him to and from work and anywhere else on official business? Yes.

I tried the BBC pensions department at Broadcasting House. Is he or isn't he a member? 'We don't know. Try Cardiff.'

I tried the BBC pensions administration centre at Cardiff. 'I don't know. You should ring White City.'

'I can't help you,' said the man on the end of the phone there. 'It's true we're responsible for the administration of the BBC pension scheme, but I don't know. I'd like to know, actually.'

So who does? 'Well he knows, obviously, and there's always personnel.'

Margaret Salmon, the BBC director of personnel, was busy when I called. Later, a woman phoned and asked where I was from. When I told her she put down the phone.

If anyone can help, please let me know. I promise not to keep it a secret.

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