Ballot threat to BBCT sell-off

Members affected by the privatisation of BBC Technology are to vote on industrial action.

BECTU has given formal notice to the BBC of its plan to run a ballot, and voting could begin early next week (June 21).

The ballot announcement came shortly after Computer Services Corporation, one of the three shortlisted bidders hoping to buy BBC Technology, pulled out of the contest.

This leaves the two remaining bidders - Siemens, and a consortium of Accenture and British Telecom - with one less competitor to worry about as they continue negotiations with the BBC over prices.

Prior to CSC's pull-out, rumours had circulated inside the BBC suggesting that managers had struggled to fill the target list of three final bidders from an earlier shortlist of eight.

Within hours of the announcement, all references to its BBC bid had been removed from CSC's website.

Although the union's plan for a ballot was not a factor in CSC's decision to drop out, a strong vote for action will demonstrate to the remaining bidders that staff inside BBC Technology are still resolutely opposed to the sell-off.

In addition to financial and operational arguments against BBCT's privatisation, BECTU has now learned that the sale could mean the break-up of the company.

At a meeting with BECTU on June 4, Accenture and BT revealed that all staff would be transferred out of BBCT to new employers when the sale was completed.

Based on BBC management assurances late last year, staff had been expecting to remain as employees of BBC Technology after the privatisation.

Union representatives were also told that the other remaining bidder, Siemens, had not yet determined which legal entity would employ staff if it succeeded in buying BBCT.

The industrial action ballot is being conducted after BECTU and BBC Technology management disagreed over several issues posed by the privatisation threat.

Among these is the compressed timetable the BBC plans to impose on detailed negotiations about the impact of the sell-off on staff. According to management's schedule, discussions about terms and conditions, job security, and pension rights, will not begin until the final bidder has been announced in early July.

Given the BBC's target date of September 1 for the sale to take place, and the need for staff to be receive adequate notice of any changes, the time left for negotiation could be as little as three weeks.

In previous BBC privatisation talks, staff issues have always taken several months to hammer out.

Separately from the plan for industrial action, BECTU is continuing its efforts to lobby against the privatisation of BBC Technology.

An open letter to Michael Grade was met with a reply in which the new BBC Chair promised that: "The sale will only go ahead once a stringent evaluation and approval process has been completed, which has value for money, service delivery, broadcast continuity, and innovative technology development at its heart".

As BECTU understands the progress of the privatisation exercise, many of the "value for money" arguments are beginning to disappear.

Significantly, senior managers involved in the sell-off have begun to dissociate themselves from the on-going savings that a privatised owner is supposed to deliver.

A figure of 20-30m has been widely quoted ever since the privatisation plan was announced, however the union has learned that a large proportion of this will be derived not from cuts in prices paid by the BBC for technology services, but through a reduction in volume - "changed customer behaviour" in the words of consultants advising the BBC.

BECTU believes that savings derived simply from spending less on Technology could be delivered just as well by an in-house BBCT as they may be by a privatised provider.

Another financial argument for the sell-off - easing a BBC cash crisis which prevents the Corporation from borrowing 200m to equip new buildings in Central London and Glasgow - has been undermined by the BBC itself.

According to managers who attended a meeting with BECTU on May 18, bidders for BBCT were not obliged to take responsibility for raising the BBC's expected capital requirements to fund technology investment.

Although the BBC said it would welcome any capital injection from BBCT's future owner, the provision of investment cash would not be a condition of the sale. If the privatisation plan failed to produce the 200m needed, funding could be found elsewhere, according to management.

The last remaining financial benefit from selling BBCT - the payment in excess of 100m which the new owner is expected to pay for the company - could easily be cancelled out by extra costs incurred over the life of the 10-year contract associated with the sell-off.

BBC management have admitted that the contract, which defines the myriad of services provided by BBCT, will not be fully watertight by the time it is signed on September 1. To deal with this the BBC intends to install a team of senior managers whose task for the first 18 months of the contract will be to negotiate variations - involving extra payments - with the new owner of BBCT.

Experience of previous out-sourcing contracts at the BBC suggests that the team will have its work cut out coping with omissions, and whoever takes over BBC Technology can expect comfortable takings from activities that were left out.

With growing doubts about the financial wisdom of selling BBCT, and the realisation that redundancies are almost certain once staff transfer to a new employer, BECTU is expecting a high turnout in the industrial action ballot, and a decisive vote in favour of fighting the privatisation.

14 June 2004