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BBC: Unfair Pay

Volume 788: debated on Tuesday 9 January 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to an Urgent Question in another place. The Statement is as follows:

“Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. Like most Members of the House, I strongly support the BBC, and like most of the licence fee payers who fund it, I would go so far as to say that I love it. Now in this digital age, perhaps more than ever, if the BBC did not exist, we would need to invent it. But as a treasured national institution, the BBC must not only uphold, but be a beacon for, the British values of fairness that this nation holds dear. That includes fair pay and equal pay for equal jobs. By introducing reforms in the BBC charter, this Government, under the leadership of my two predecessors, have vastly improved BBC transparency and shone a light on gender and pay issues at the BBC. This new transparency includes requiring the BBC annually to publish the salary details of all BBC staff paid more than £150,000. Publishing these details for the first time in July resulted in much-needed public scrutiny of pay at the BBC. The BBC’s overall gender pay gap stands at around 9%. But the figures also show that two-thirds of those earning over £150,000 were men, and reveal a lack of staff from BAME backgrounds among top earners.

At the time of publication, some male presenters were understandably uncomfortable with the results. John Humphrys even acknowledged that he would not necessarily be able to explain his salary of £600,000. This is a matter not just of levelling women’s pay up: it is a matter of pay equality. Working for the BBC is public service and a great privilege, yet some men at the BBC are paid far more than other equivalent public servants. The BBC has now begun to act, and I welcome that. But more action—much more action—is needed, especially when BBC foreign editors can earn more than Her Majesty’s ambassadors in the same jurisdiction. In the specific case of Carrie Gracie, I welcome the EHRC’s decision to look into the issues she has raised. The EHRC is the regulatory body responsible for policing equal pay and it is for it, not the Government, to investigate this matter further and take further action if necessary.

Of course, the BBC is operationally and editorially independent of government—rightly so. The director-general has, commendably, committed to sorting out this issue by 2020 and we will hold him to that. I understand that its report on on-air presenter salaries will be published in the next few weeks. But we expect the BBC to observe pay restraint and deliver value for money for licence fee payers. We will watch closely. The BBC must act. The brilliant women working at all levels of the BBC deserve better”.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating that Answer to an Urgent Question given in another place. I must say, as I take part in this exercise for the first time, that I had expected in an Urgent Question to hear a note of urgency. While I sense a little self-congratulation about measures that have been brought in and reforms that have been introduced, as regards the BBC I do not sense that deep desire to achieve objectives that are in line with public expectations at large, deeply held and urgently sought. Of course, the measures that are mentioned must continue, but 2020 seems a long way away. We understand that the BBC must look after its own internal affairs, but can the Government assure us that, with some urgency, all appropriate measures will be applied to encourage, goad and pressurise it to come forward with a solution to these questions, so that the beacon referred to can serve as a benchmark against which to measure progress in other sectors of our public life?

I stress that the Government absolutely support urgent action on this. Of course, it was this Government who brought in the requirement for the BBC to publish salaries over £150,000, which is one of the reasons why we are talking about this issue today. The Statement makes it quite clear that the Government expect the BBC to act in accordance with what we have expected it to do as regards the gender pay gap. We understand that when you have a deep-seated and probably long-established problem, it takes some time to deal with and it is a difficult management issue. But let us be under no illusions—the Government expect the director-general and the new unitary board to deal with that. They are the people who have responsibility for that. We are pleased that the EHRC will look at this. For individuals, it has been illegal to pay people unequally because of their gender for over 40 years, and we expect all companies—not only the BBC but especially the BBC, which is a public institution —to obey the law.

My Lords, the Minister says that it has been illegal to pay women less than men for 40years. However, is not the crux of the matter that many employers, even those as publicly exposed as the BBC, will pay as little as they think they can get away with, and they think they can get away with paying women less than men? The BBC is in a pickle and it needs to sort itself out, otherwise it will be sorted out by the EHRC. Any employer worth his or her salt appreciates that women are often more hard-working and conscientious—indeed, better employees —than men. However, men know how to demand, and we are conditioned to believe that demanding things, especially money, is strident and inappropriate. But when men do it, that is assertive and appropriate. Enough already—let us have full transparency over pay for everyone. What can the Minister do to ensure that that happens at the BBC and other public bodies?

I agree with some of what the noble Baroness has said but I do not agree with the general statement that sometimes women work harder or are better at their jobs than men. We are talking about equality here. People should be paid the same for doing the same job and should be treated equally and given the same opportunities. As far as the BBC is concerned, this Government have made transparency available—both by introducing transparency regulations on the gender pay gap for all organisations with more than 250 employees and by making the BBC publish the details of employees earning over £150,000—so that we can look at this situation. We can get all organisations to do what they should be doing, which we all support, by making it transparent when they do not do so, so that their customers, employees and all the stakeholders that deal with them know the sort of organisations they are.

Does my noble friend not agree that it is unacceptable for this situation to continue so many months after the initial transparency regulations were introduced, with the exposure of the differences in salaries? Had this particular female employee of the BBC not resigned on a matter of principle, it would have been swept under the carpet. How can this situation, where she is so well qualified as a Mandarin speaker and outperforms her two male colleagues, persist?

I am certainly not going to get into the details of whether she outperformed her male colleagues. People should be paid equally for doing the same jobs, but that does not mean that two people, be they men or women, will be paid exactly the same at different levels, as there are different levels of experience. The fact is that, if somebody does not believe that they are receiving equal pay for gender reasons, under the Equality Act they can go to an employment tribunal.

My Lords, I speak as a long-term employee of the BBC, which, I have to say, has taken a long time to obey this law. The BBC is not above the law. It is good at arguing a very complicated case, which in fact is very simple: people should be given equal pay for doing an equal job. The BBC will say, “Ah, yes, we need until 2020 to sort it out. It is very difficult”, but it is not very difficult. The BBC tries to feed off the difference between information and entertainment. Different entertainers receive entirely different fees. Graham Norton is not paid the same as Jonathan Ross, and Sandi Toksvig is not paid the same as Sue Perkins. They are entertainers, but journalists are something else. An absolute condition of their job is that they are efficient and able in the same sort of way. Four people called foreign editors in different zones of the globe are not identical. Who could claim that the reporter, Jon Sopel, who works out of Washington, has a more difficult job than Carrie Gracie, who works out of China? It may well be said that she has a tougher job trying to penetrate the news situation there than he has in Washington, which is abundant with news, leads, leaks and so on. Therefore, I invite the Minister not to be confused by the BBC’s strategy of, and skill in, confusing the issue, which is very straightforward: women want equal pay for equal work, and they have waited too long to get it.

I am very grateful for that instruction. I have listened to everything that the noble Baroness has said, particularly with reference to her experience of being paid by the BBC. Of course, the BBC has not totally disregarded the situation—it knows that we take it seriously. I remember that we spent a long time discussing pay transparency during the charter renewal process. The compromise position that was reached—that we should make the BBC publish all salaries above £150,000—was not straightforward, and I cannot say that the BBC particularly wanted to do it. However, we made it do that and, as a result, we are talking about these issues today, whereas it is unlikely that we would be doing so had we not done that. As a result, the BBC committed to publish its gender pay gap data earlier than was required under the law, it carried out an independent audit of pay for the majority of its staff, and it is undertaking a separate review of on-air presenters, editors and correspondents, which will come out soon.

My Lords, I very much support the stance that the women at the BBC are taking in demanding equal pay. I support also the fact that they have made it clear that they are not seeking pay increases, and are raising awareness of and concerns about high pay for some of the top presenters. Has my noble friend had the opportunity to reflect on the allegation in Carrie Gracie’s public letter at the weekend that the BBC often settles cases out of court—these are disputes about pay—and demands non-disclosure agreements? What is the Government’s view of the BBC, a public organisation, using NDAs?

That is a genuine issue to consider. These things have to be taken on a case-by-case basis, and there are times when non-disclosure agreements are right. However, the BBC has to remember that it is a mainly publicly funded organisation and has to set an example of how to treat male and female employees and all questions of diversity. We expect the BBC to do that and to be an example, and we will continue to make sure that it is.