Highly paid BBC stars could see their salaries capped at £150,000, the same level as the prime minister, new Culture Secretary Matt Hancock has suggested.
Hancock, who was promoted to the Cabinet by Theresa May in last week’s reshuffle, said on Sunday the broadcaster has “missed a chance” to cap salaries when a similar rule was introduced across the public sector.
His comments come in the midst of a row over Carrie Gracie, who has resigned as the BBC’s China editor in a row over unequal pay.
In a BBC pay disclosure last year, North America editor Jon Sopel was listed as having a salary of between £200,000 and £249,999, while Gracie revealed she had been earning £135,000 before the BBC offered her a £45,000 rise, which she rejected.
John Humphrys, who has been criticised after a leaked tape, obtained by BuzzFeed, showed him joking with Sopel about the matter, was listed as having a salary of between £600,000 and £649,999, making him the BBC’s highest-paid news presenter.
“Making sure we have equal pay isn’t just about levelling up women’s pay in the BBC, it’s about equal pay and a reasonable level,” Hancock told ITV’s Peston On Sunday.
“Across the rest of the public sector, we brought in rules to say that except in exceptional circumstances, people who are paid for by taxpayers’ money shouldn’t be paid more than the prime minister.
“The BBC, of course, are responsible for their own pay, and I think that they missed a chance to bring in that kind of rule when we brought it in for the rest of public sector a few years ago.
“So now it has to go through a special process to pay somebody more than the prime minister. Of course, there’s sometimes circumstances where that’s necessary, but if you think about it this way.
“In a country around the world where people are paid for by the taxpayer, who should we be paying the most to. Is it the BBC editor, or is it the ambassador?
“The generals have also made a very good point, that people in the armed services put their life on the line and yet they abide by the public sector pay norms, which is not to have excessive pay and where the Prime Minister’s pay is seen as a guide at the top.”
A spokesperson for the BBC told HuffPost UK: “We have reduced the amount we pay talent by a quarter over the past 5 years; however, we’re not competing in the same markets as politicians and other public sector jobs.
“We are competing against ITV, Sky, C4, and increasingly now the deep pockets of Netflix, Amazon and Apple. A number of presenters have left the BBC for considerably more money but we always look to negotiate deals at discount against the market. We have the highest respect for ambassadors, but these are entirely different jobs and in a different market.”
Hancock added that he would be discussing the issue with BBC director-general Lord Hall in the next few weeks.
“The BBC is funded by licence fee payers and the licence fee is effectively a tax,” Hancock said.
“And if you think about it, we’ve got to have equal pay for equal jobs, and I think the BBC has a special responsibility to lead and to be a beacon, because this issue is broader than the BBC.”
However Tory MP Simon Hart, a member of the digital, culture, media and sport committee, said making comparisons to the prime minister’s pay was “spurious”.
“Everyone knows they make a fortune once they leave office - a prospect not generally open to bbc presenters. Not to mention that there is a ‘market’ out there,” he said on Twitter.