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BBC bans Champagne and cuts back on Xmas parties

Director-general Mark Thompson is clamping down on bubbly and lavish Christmas parties in a bid to vanquish the culture of excess

By Mark Hughes

The BBC has banned Champagne and is cutting back on its lavish Christmas parties after a string of highly embarrassing Freedom of Information (FoI) requests.

The corporation spends £60,000 of licence fee-payers' money on bubbly each year and at least £250,000 on Christmas parties. But last week, following a FoI request, the BBC circulated a memo to all staff saying it would no longer foot the bill for Champagne. The budget for this year's Christmas staff parties will also be cut by 50 per cent.

But in their rush to cut down on the luxuries, the Beeb has also made other, smaller, cutbacks. Free tea and coffee will now only be provided for staff at meetings which last more than two hours and there will be no complimentary biscuits. And, if the meeting is at lunchtime, staff will be asked to bring their own sandwiches.

The cuts are intended to bridge an £8m increase in the company's energy bills. But a senior source at the corporation says that another reason for the savings is public perception. The source said: "We can't be seen to be spending that kind of money on Champagne and parties and other non-essentials when the licence fee-payers are in the middle of a credit crunch."

Traditionally, the BBC has been viewed by its right-wing critics as the home of Champagne socialism where no excuse was needed to send for the drinks trolley. Staff who won awards; those who worked over Christmas and New Year, and those who were leaving the company were all rewarded with bottles of bubbly.

But, following an FoI request from The Independent, which revealed that the company was spending, on average, nearly £60,000 on bubbly every year, a memo was sent to staff telling them that Champagne on expenses was now banned.

A source at the BBC said: "What used to happen is that when people won awards, they would get a bottle of Champagne from Majestic Warehouse delivered to them to say 'well done'. When we got the FoI request and added up the figures, we realised just how much we were spending and decided to stop that practice. Now people will just get a note of thanks instead.

"In the current climate, it just doesn't feel right to spend licence payers' money on champagne. We had to take a view and ask ourselves whether we could defend this as a legitimate expense in the programme-making process and we decided we couldn't."

The corporation has also cut back on this year's Christmas party. Last year, the BBC held 13 parties for more than 6,000 members of staff at a cost of nearly £250,000. This year, the limit will be cut from a maximum of £50 per head to no more than £25. And that figure is based on the assumption that everyone who is invited turns up. The number of staff it sends to conferences, such as the International Television Festival in Edinburgh, will be halved.

The source continued: "At one point, we sent more than 400 people up there. This year we sent 200 but next year I'd be surprised if we send any more than 70. We have been told that we should be looking at cutting staff numbers being sent to conferences by about 50 per cent."

Employees at the BBC have also been asked to curb non-essential use of taxis. In the past financial year, the corporation spent almost £14m on cabs and private-hire cars.

But some bills will be more difficult to cut as they are deemed essential for programme-making. The BBC usually spends about £20m per annum on telephone bills; £16m on air travel; £4m on hotels, and £350,000 on bottled water. It also spends about £300,000 a year on the private education for children of members of staff based abroad. The source added: "Things like that will be almost impossible to cut back on."

Confirmation of the problematic financial situation facing the BBC was revealed earlier this week in an email from the corporation's director-general Mark Thompson, which was circulated to all members of staff.

In it he said that the current financial crisis was "dominating my thoughts" and added: "The reality is that we need to closely scrutinise everything we do to ensure that we are spending our public funds to the best effect."

A BBC spokesperson said: "No company or public organisation is immune from the current financial crisis and like everyone else we face real increases in costs from fuel, utilities and other areas. We need to scrutinise everything we do and consider very carefully whether expenditure is appropriate in light of the financial pressures we are facing."

Your money: How the BBC spends it

  • Champagne: £57,000 a year
  • Bottled water: £360,000 a year
  • Taxis: £13.8m a year
  • Christmas party: £250,000 a year
  • Telephone bills: £21m a year
  • Private school fees: £300,000 a year
  • Air travel: £16m a year
  • Hotels: £4m a year

All figures are from the most recent Freedom of Information requests on the BBC website

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