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.
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Gerry Morrissey, general secretary of the broadcasting workers’ union Bectu, told the Press Association that the improved offer will now be put to a ballot of members.
Despite next week’s strike being called off the threat of industrial action later in the month still exists.
Morrissey said a strike planned for October 19 and 20 would remain and unions had decided to add another possible strike date on October 25 and 26.
The move to call off the strike comes after Labour Party leader Ed Miliband earlier today called on BBC staff not to black out Cameron’s party conference speech.
He said in the “interests of impartiality and fairness” the Prime Minister’s speech should be broadcast on television and radio.
His plea followed warnings on Thursday from BBC director general Mark Thompson that staff risk giving the “misleading impression” that they are not impartial if they strike during the Conservative Party conference.
Thompson also referred to a letter signed by some of the BBC’s most prominent presenters and others working in its political journalism unit warning against the timing of the strikes.
The letter, signed by Jeremy Paxman and Nick Robinson among others, said the move “risks looking unduly partisan”.
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 one per cent 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.
Unions said talks with management today led to “key improvements”, including reducing employee contributions in a proposed new career average pension scheme from seven per cent to six per cent, as well as other changes and revisiting elements of the pension reforms.
The new proposals also included 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.
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.”
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.