- Monday January 14 2008
A Labour politician is to raise in parliament concerns over the sale of BBC Resources relating to pensions and asbestos exposure.
With the BBC's resources division due to be sold off by the end of March, staff are increasingly nervous that they have not been given assurances over pensions or insurance for asbestos-related illnesses.
John McDonnell MP is now looking to raise the issue in parliament under the forthcoming employment simplification bill.
The BBC has refused to reveal details of the bidders for BBC Resources, making it more difficult for the division's 1,100 staff to decide their future.
McDonnell said some staff are "quite rightly worried about their long-term future".
"I'm going to raise the issue and will be trying to use the employment simplification bill as a hook. I believe the government needs to take this issue seriously," he added.
McDonnell told MediaGuardian.co.uk that despite BBC Resources staff being covered by the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations - which preserve employees' terms and conditions when a business is transferred to a new employer - in practice the law is often "not worth the paper it's written on".
"What we're exposing here is how TUPE is almost irrelevant - a company can manipulate the situation," he said.
"Despite having arrived at a negotiated position, when it comes to the reality, they [staff] aren't protected ... a company that takes on outsourced contacts will maximise profit by undermining terms and conditions and pensions."
The BBC Resources chief executive, Mike Southgate, told the BBC in-house magazine Ariel this week that bids for the business as a whole or in part have been "very encouraging" and "broadly in line with expectations, including staff issues".
Those companies rumoured to be interested in the corporation's studio hire business, post production, outside broadcasts and costume department include Satellite Information Service, the racecourse television company which recently lost its monopoly on UK betting shops.
Pinewood Shepperton is also believed to be interested in the BBC studios in White City and Elstree if they are sold as a separate package, but is thought to be unwilling to accept liability for pensions and staff. Final bids are due in later this month.
Some staff say there are now caught in a "pension trap" and will lose some of their pension money if they are sold off.
In addition, BBC Resources staff have a long history in working on or building sets for some of the corporation's biggest hits, including Pride and Prejudice and Blackadder.
During that time, some may have come into contact with asbestos in buildings such as BBC Television Centre in London.
Therefore the BBC has given them signed assurances that they are covered by insurance if they die of an asbestos-related illness.
However, those affected cannot get an answer as to what will happen to those assurances if BBC Resources sold off and they no longer work for the BBC.
Some BBC Resources staff say they will in fact be worse off than those taking voluntary redundancy as part of the BBC's six-year cost-cutting exercise.
One BBC Resources worker claimed: "Our confidence and trust in this sale has been degraded. There are gross discrepancies between the pension rights of BBC staff.
"Any BBC member of staff currently leaving the organisation, many after a call for voluntary redundancy, will receive their full pension rights.
"The only people in the whole organisation who are discriminated against financially are BBC Resources staff."
According to the BBC's pensions handbook, a 49-year-old staff member taking voluntary redundancy - as is being offered in the BBC news and Vision departments - will lose just 2% of their pension entitlement.
A 49-year-old BBC Resources worker will lose 30% of their pension entitlement because they will be deemed to be "opting out and leaving" the corporation's scheme if the commercial subsidiary is sold off.
"The BBC is committed to seeking assurances from bidders that they treat the sale as if TUPE applies for existing staff at the point of sale," a BBC spokeswoman said.
"This means that we are asking bidders to protect contractual terms and conditions for staff for a period of three years, provide a defined benefit pension scheme with broadly comparable benefits for existing staff for the future, make no compulsory redundancies within 12 months and protect redundancy terms until 2012.
"The BBC recognises that pension arrangements are one of the key concerns for BBC Resources employees and future pension provision is a priority for the BBC in its commercial negotiations with potential owners."
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