BBC presenters say they contemplated suicide after being “bullied” into contracts that left them without employment rights and shouldering huge tax bills.
The government on Tuesday published accusations from BBC staff who said the broadcaster forced them into using Personal Service Companies (PSCs) – a system which workers said saw them lose out on “life-changing” sums of money.
Under employment law, workers who use PSCs are not eligible for employee protections such as sick pay or pension contributions, but are liable for tax and National Insurance bills that would otherwise be covered by an employer.
One BBC presenter – who claims they were told their employment would be terminated if they did not set up a PSC – said the stress from short-term contracts and incorrect pay played a role in their attempted suicide.
“My mental health deterioration is absolutely linked to the increased stress of working for the BBC,” they told the government’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (DCMS).
“I have always loved working for the BBC but they way they have behaved has reduced me to more than tears. It’s one of the factors that three days ago took me into my loft where I tried to hang myself.”
Newswatch presenter Samira Ahmed said she felt “hugely bullied” after being pressure into setting up a PSC, which saw her billed thousands of pounds for employer National Insurance contributions that would otherwise have been paid for by the BBC.
Another worker, who says they were told regular work with the BBC would disappear if they didn’t form a limited company, is facing a five-figure bill from HMRC after an investigation ruled they were in fact employed.
“I cannot sleep, experience constant anxiety, and now feel I was totally duped by the BBC, an organisation I had once trusted implicitly,” they said.
Others claimed the broadcaster withheld pay for up to three months at a time when they refused to create a PSC, leaving them overdrawn and missing mortgage payments.
“I have suffered life-altering levels of stress and worry which affect me daily and have had a deeply detrimental effect on my family, my children, my health and my wellbeing,” one worker recounted.
Ahmed, 49, claims she was pressured into a signing a contract that would have seen a considerable cut to her salary to cover these costs.
“It got to the stage that my boss was ringing me on the phone saying, ’If you don’t sign in the next few minutes I’m going to have to confirm another presenter for the show next week,” Ahmed said.
“After five years in the job, I want to have the option of a proper staff contract and to have my pay restored without cuts to cover the BBC’s own legal liabilities as an employer. I’m still waiting for this to be resolved.”
The DCMS Committee chair, MP Damian Collins, called the accounts “highly disturbing”, adding that they suggested the BBC is “falling well below the standards we would expect”.
“By allegedly being coerced into these contracts these individuals may have been denied employment rights, and some face liability for huge tax bills,” he said.
“The evidence presented gives a distressing insight into the effect the protracted discussions on pay have had on staff and their families.
“Some have faced working without contracts and pay for extended periods, causing untold stress and financial insecurity.”
Collins said he would be writing to the BBC’s Director General Lord Hall following an evidence hearing on Tuesday.
On Monday, the BBC launched a new independent process to try to resolve a row with high-profile stars who claim they were pressured into employment arrangements which left them with huge tax demands.
The move could lead to the corporation making a contribution towards historic bills which in some cases run into five or even six figures.
It comes after former BBC Look North presenter Christa Ackroyd last month lost a legal battle against a £420,000 HMRC demand for unpaid tax.
A tax tribunal said it did not criticise Ackroyd, saying she was “encouraged by the BBC to contract through a personal service company”.
“We’ve always tried to balance our responsibilities to presenters with our responsibility to spend the licence fee appropriately,” the BBC said in a statement.
“Our responsibility for the stewardship of public money means that we cannot assume the tax liability of others in the absence of a compelling justification for doing so.”
HuffPost UK has contacted the BBC for further comment.
What is a Personal Service Company?
A Personal Service Company (PSC) is a type of limited company established, owned and operated by self-employed workers that works between a contractor and a company – in this case, between presenters and the BBC.
According to tax lawyer Joylon Maugham, there are three key reasons PSCs are used.
“Firstly, it makes it much more difficult for the individual to assert that he or she is employed by the BBC and that employment status gives the individual all sorts of statutory protections only employees can get,” he told HuffPost UK.
This includes statutory protections such as maternity, sick and holiday pay, pension contributions and unfair dismissal protections.
Maugham continued: “The second reason is that the tax risk if the presenter is wrongly characterised as self-employed, where he or she should be employed, falls on the personal service company, not here upon the BBC.”
The final reason, according to the barrister, is that “the use of a Personal Service Company gives rise to certain tax advantages and opportunities for tax avoidance” not available to those engaged directly by companies.
Useful websites and helplines:
Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.
Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
Get Connected is a free advice service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
HopeLine runs a confidential advice helpline if you are a young person at risk of suicide or are worried about a young person at risk of suicide. Mon-Fri 10-5pm and 7pm-10pm. Weekends 2pm-5pm on 0800 068 41 41.