A human rights watchdog has launched an investigation into the BBC over suspected pay discrimination against women.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said it had responded to complaints from female workers who believe they were not paid the same as men in equivalent positions. Investigators will look at sample salaries dating back to 1 January, 2016 to assess whether the pay differences at the BBC are “because of sex, whether it is direct sex discrimination or indirect sex discrimination”.
The BBC could be taken to court if the investigation finds it has breached equal pay legislation and it fails to obey the action required by the EHRC.
An EHRC spokesperson said: “Having reviewed all of the information received to date, the EHRC suspects that some women at the organisation have not received equal pay for equal work. It has therefore used its powers under the Equality Act to open an investigation which will relate to the BBC’s historic policy and pay practices.”
The EHRC, who hopes to complete its investigation by the end of the year, said it “suspects that there has been unlawful pay discrimination by the BBC”.
A report by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (DCMS) in January 2019 warned the BBC over failure to act over alleged pay discrimination. It stated: “We reiterate the conclusion of our inquiry: that our evidence suggests women within the BBC are working in comparable jobs to men but earning far less.”
Damian Collins, chair of the committee, said he was pleased the EHRC will be investigating the BBC over the issue of equal pay. “The select committee set out its concerns in our recent report on the BBC that they had failed in their obligations to ensure that men and women were being paid equally for work of equal value,” he said.
“Having taken evidence from many women at the BBC, the committee is also concerned that there remain a number of outstanding grievance cases with no clear end date in sight for their resolution. It is right that the EHRC will not just be reviewing whether there were discriminatory pay policies at the BBC, but also the effectiveness of the system for grievances to be heard fairly.”
This has clearly been a “very distressing time” for many BBC employees, he added, saying he was keen to see the issues brought to a successful conclusion.
Sam Smethers, chief executive for women’s rights charity the Fawcett Society: said: “We welcome this investigation. Pay discrimination should have no place in modern workplaces, yet we know from our Equal Pay Advice Service that it is all too common. We hope this results in lasting change at the BBC and acts as a warning to other employers too.”
In a statement, the BBC said: “The EHRC’s terms of reference acknowledge the programme of reforms the BBC has been undertaking. If they had worked with us prior to our reforms, they would have found a very different organisation. Some of the criticism levelled at us over this period was very fair as change was overdue. We believe our pay structures are now fair, transparent to staff and stand very positive comparison with other organisations.”
The corporation said it had spent the last two years actively encouraging people to come forward with questions over their pay – adding that many of these had been routine queries and it had now resolved more than 85 per cent of them.
The BBC said it had also commissioned independent reviews which did not find systemic issues of pay discrimination but identified improvements pay structures, which it has been making.
“As we have already acknowledged, we have some historic equal pay cases,” the BBC added. “We are profoundly sorry for this. We regret the time it has taken to resolve all of the questions, but some of these are complex and have not been straightforward to resolve. We are determined to make progress on the remaining ones.”
The BBC apologised to Carrie Gracie, its former China editor, last year after acknowledging she had been underpaid for years in comparison to male colleagues and agreeing a financial settlement with her. Ms Gracie had accused the broadcaster of discrimination and breaking equality law when she resigned from her role last year. She was offered the job on the basis she would receive the same as her fellow international editors – but later discovered the men received at least 50 per cent more.