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‘Sharp rise’ expected in legal queries over unequal pay in wake of BBC row

10 Jan 2018 By Marianne Calnan

International editor declined new pay offer that fell below male colleagues’ remuneration

Discrimination lawyers are anticipating a “very large” increase in queries about gender pay, after BBC presenter Carrie Gracie resigned her position in a row over equal pay, and ahead of the government’s April deadline for reporting on the topic.

Gracie, the BBC’s former China editor, quit her post and on Monday (8 January) published an open letter on her website citing the BBC’s “secretive and illegal” pay culture as the reason for her exit after 30 years’ service.

She said that although the public broadcaster had later offered to increase her pay from £135,000 to £180,000 a year, this failed to guarantee her equality with its other male international editors – Jon Sopel, North America editor, earned between £200,000 and £249,999. Accusing the BBC of breaking pay laws, she said she did not trust management to deal with gender inequality effectively.

Nick Elwell-Sutton, employment partner at Clyde and Co, told People Management that he believed Gracie’s actions “will impact the number of queries about gender pay gap reporting and equal pay” the firm receives.

“The effect of Gracie’s resignation and the gender pay reporting regulations is that more employees will be likely to come forward to enquire about pay discrepancies in their organisation,” he said.

“We have already seen more queries over the last nine months or so, but I do have some sympathy for the BBC because it is the nature of its business that it has to pay what it believes it appropriate for the talent it hires. Gracie’s role as China editor may not be entirely equal to her colleagues who are North American or political editors, for example, because of the interest and air time they warrant.”

A spokesperson for Acas, which deals with all legal claims initially through conciliation, said it could not yet comment on its data in relation to gender pay but had yet to see any spike in queries about sex discrimination specifically.

However, as the gender pay gap reporting deadline of 4 April 2017 fast approaches, Elwell-Sutton anticipates that interest in the issue will only grow.

The gender pay reporting regulations require organisations with 250 or more employees to publish the difference between the mean and median hourly pay and bonus payments rate for their full-time male and female employees.

Organisations are also required to report the proportion of male and female employees awarded bonus pay, and the proportion of male and female full-time employees in the lower, lower middle, upper middle and upper quartile pay bands.

Just a few months ahead of the deadline for reporting data for private sector employers on organisations’ websites and the government’s gender pay gap service website, only 550 of an estimated 9,000 employers have published their figures to date.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has said it will write to the BBC to investigate Gracie’s allegations. It told the media it would consider whether further action was required based on the BBC’s response.

An EHRC spokesperson said that women have a legal right to equal pay with men for equal work, and added that it would ask the BBC to provide it with information on its pay policy and the facts in this individual case.

The BBC said it had conducted a pay audit of most of its staff, which it claimed showed no systemic discrimination, and has commissioned accountancy firm PwC to carry out a separate review of on-air staff, which, it said, will be published shortly.

Up to 200 women at various levels of the BBC have made complaints about pay, according to BBC Women, a campaign group of around 150 broadcasters and producers.

Scores of Gracie’s former colleagues have shown solidarity with her on social media, made up of around 150 tweets, many using #istandwithcarrie, and more than 130 female employees at the corporation signed a statement expressing support for Gracie and calling for action to ensure equal pay for equal jobs.

Winifred Robinson, a Radio 4 presenter, was taken off air on 9 January after showing solidarity with Gracie, apparently in conflict with the BBC’s impartiality rules.

This is not the first time the BBC has come under fire for equal pay issues. Its 2017 annual report revealed that about two-thirds of stars earning more than £150,000 are male, compared to one-third female, and that its top male earner, presenter Chris Evans, made between £2.2m and £2.25m in 2016-17, while top female earner, Claudia Winkleman, was paid between £450,000 and £500,000.

The BBC’s own 2017 gender pay report found that there was an average pay gap of 9.3 per cent between male and female employees in the organisation.

The starting point for a female employee who wants to bring a claim based on the gender pay gap revealed by their employer’s audit is to find out whether there are any issues about pay parity, as equal pay claims “are notoriously complex and expensive to bring”, according to Sheila Fahy, professional support lawyer counsel at Allen & Overy.

“There are numerous options for employees to gather this information. They can start with an informal chat with HR to establish whether an equal pay audit has been conducted, as this is the only sure way of knowing whether there is pay parity.”

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