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Huw Merriman Excerpts
Monday 15th July 2019

(12 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Jack Brereton Portrait Jack Brereton - Hansard

No, I have already given way to the hon. Lady.

I thank Channel 4 for taking on the BBC hit pottery programme, Stoke-on-Trent’s own “The Great Pottery Throw Down”, following the BBC’s unfortunate and, frankly, wrong decision not to commission a new series.

Huw Merriman Portrait Huw Merriman (Bexhill and Battle) (Con) - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 5:30 p.m.

Channel 4 is a public sector broadcaster and receives subsidies, as my hon. Friend mentioned, but Channel 4 outbid the BBC for one of its own programmes, “The Great British Bake Off”. Channel 4 behaves like a commercial organisation, whereas the BBC does not—it grows organically and then, unfortunately, gets taken advantage of.

Jack Brereton Portrait Jack Brereton - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 5:31 p.m.

I recognise my hon. Friend’s point, but I suggest that a number of the programmes on Channel 4 add a huge amount of good to the country and beyond, as do many commercial stations. Many of the programmes that I enjoy on Channel 4 are factual and not just entertainment.

For programmes in the arts, crafts and culture sphere, perhaps there could be Arts Council-style grants, particularly for the purest of public good, public service broadcasts, if appropriate safeguards against interest group capture can be devised. They would not necessarily have to be made by the BBC, but could be funded by competitive tender through the BBC as a grant-awarding body. There could be more collaborative work with educational institutions, such as the Open University or others, to finance certain programme output.

It is certainly worth looking at the potential for purchased ticketing for BBC recordings. BBC shows are free to attend, but BBC tours are paid ticketed. There is clearly sufficient demand for those tours to make charges sustainable and to raise revenue. I wonder, too, given the huge waiting list and interest in shows such as “Strictly Come Dancing”, whether the market mechanism of paid ticketing might be an option to manage that demand. I have heard it said that at one point the waiting list for audience tickets to “Top Gear” was measured in decades. What an incentive it would be for the BBC to keep producing compelling programmes if it made audience ticket revenue.

At the moment, tickets to BBC shows are available to anyone with a UK postcode. There is clearly some kind of ticket pricing to be explored, perhaps even differential ticket pricing where a tour is included, or hospitality and so on. There is certainly a chance for some entrepreneurialism. I do not pretend for a moment that ticket sales would ever raise the sums raised by the TV licence, but they could be one of a number of streams that the BBC could pursue for certain programmes.

Break in Debate

Karen Lee (Lincoln) (Lab) Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 5:29 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I will speak briefly on behalf of the 570 people in my constituency who signed the petition calling on the Government to continue funding free TV licences for the over-75s. I mentioned in my intervention that at the weekend we were out as a party collecting signatures, and I imagine we got at least another couple of hundred more.

I am proud that we were in the top 50 constituencies to oppose this unjust and mean-spirited policy. It is totally unacceptable that over 4,400 households in Lincoln could lose their free TV licence under the plans. A recent survey found that 40% of older people say the television is their main source of company, and the Government seem determined to means-test loneliness and isolation. Nationally, it is estimated that over 1.6 million pensioners living alone will lose their free licence in a means-tested system. That is symptomatic of the Government’s whole approach. They should not offload responsibility for funding free TV licences on to the BBC. In fact, it seems that whatever question we ask in the Chamber, the responsibility is always pushed to somebody else.

It is particularly worrying that a further 1.3 million poorer over-75s who are eligible for pension credit but do not claim it are projected to lose their TV licence. That is one reason I will launch a campaign in Lincoln to end the pension credit scandal. More than 1 million pensioners in the UK do not get the pension credit they are entitled to. Those people generally have worked all their lives—they should get those benefits. My campaign will seek to raise awareness and offer support to those who are missing out on that crucial support.

I am aware that many hon. Members still want to speak, and we are all speaking along the same lines, so let me end by saying that it is typical of this Government to choose to cut taxes for corporations and the highest earners, while targeting their spending cuts on vulnerable older people who are struggling to make ends meet. That is morally wrong.

Huw Merriman Portrait Huw Merriman (Bexhill and Battle) (Con) - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 5:37 p.m.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I congratulate all the petitioners who have made this debate happen. I declare an interest as the chair of the all-party parliamentary BBC group, which seeks to support the BBC but also to be a critical friend when required. I was going to speak about the real positives that the BBC delivers, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) did just that. I am reminded of Lord Patten, who said:

“No-one would invent the BBC today. But thank God our predecessors did.”

In many ways the BBC is an anomaly, but it is much loved. As my right hon. Friend made clear, in an era when we have much to be concerned about—bias, influence, commercialisation and exposure to young audience members—it is fantastic that the BBC still stands for independence, impartiality, entertainment, excellence and education. We would lose that at our peril. Indeed, one need only speak to friends and colleagues who have moved abroad, and they all say that the one thing they miss greatly is watching the BBC.

I want to pick up on a point raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) and for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) about the BBC’s ability to sell more of its content abroad. BritBox, which is being piloted by the BBC and ITV, is a good example of where the BBC does innovate. It will allow audiences from outside the UK to view its content, at a charge. That is a good example of where the BBC is trying to make money from its own content.

I want to focus my remarks on the decision that the BBC has been required to take. I say “required” because I do not care what anyone says; there is no way that the BBC will be able to use 20% of its budget to carry on with the current position. The BBC did consult widely—I remember back in February inviting all MPs to come and hear about the proposals and what they would mean, and to get involved and get their constituents involved. The options were as follows: it could copy the current scheme, which means that 4.64 million over-75s would continue as is, but that would cost £745 million, rising to £1 billion by the end of 2030 because we are all living longer—that is to be celebrated, but it pushes up the cost. That would be equivalent to the funding for BBC 2, BBC 3, BBC 4, BBC News and all the BBC’s output for children, so it is clearly not sustainable.

Those who say, “Well, what about Gary Lineker’s salary?” should bear in mind that if the BBC axed the pay for all the talent earning above £150,000 it would save £20 million, so there would still be a long way to go to reach the £745 million. By the way, I am a big fan of Gary Lineker and think he gives value for money. [Interruption.] I have lost some hon. Members on that point. I am surprised to hear that from my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire, with Gary Lineker being a great Leicester player. Brexit has obviously ended that relationship.

The second option was removing the benefit altogether, which would mean that the poorest over-75s would have no option at all. I know that the Government would say that they funded the BBC to some regard, but to a degree I am surprised that the BBC has not chosen that option. The third option was a 50% discount, so everyone over the age of 75 gets the benefit, but only 50% of it. That would still cost £415 million, which is equivalent to the entire BBC 2 budget. The other option was raising the threshold to the age of 80, which would cost £481 million and be equivalent to BBC 2’s budget or BBC 4.

Of all the options, the one that we have landed on was the one that found most favour. I will not say that it was liked, because I do not think that anyone liked it, but linking the benefit to pension credit means that 900,000 over-75s will still benefit. It will cost £209 million, which the BBC will still have to bear, and that is greater than the funding it was given to take it on. That amount is still the same as the cost of Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3, Radio 4 and Radio 5. That is where the BBC has found itself.

I believe in telling it as it is. The BBC has agreed to this, but I do not think it was given much option—it was either agree to this or to something else. The BBC was not funded for it. Probably due to a copy and paste mechanism, our last manifesto said that we would guarantee free TV licences for the over-75s for the term of this Parliament. I am not confident that that means 2022.

Helen Jones Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 5:42 p.m.

Does the hon. Gentleman know something we do not?

Huw Merriman Portrait Huw Merriman - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 5:42 p.m.

I certainly do not know something that the hon. Lady does not know.

We made a manifesto commitment that now puts us in a difficult position, if the BBC is going to take away the licence fee for those outside the means test from 2020 to 2022. It leads to an argument for the Government Benches that the Government would need to carry on funding it, at least for that two-year period.

I take issue with the petitions—like my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), I will now lose part of the room, or perhaps all of it. Although I understand the cost implication for those who cannot afford the licence fee—I absolutely recognise that pension credit is at its lowest level and that those just outside the pension credit boundary will struggle to meet this cost—I have a fundamental problem, which I am surprised that Opposition Members do not share. If a multi-millionaire happens to be over the age of 75, they receive a free universal benefit that is effectively being subsidised by someone in their early 20s who is renting and cannot afford to buy a property of their own.

I believe that there is a cost to everything and there are choices. The Government spend £800 billion each year on our public services. If we are spending money on people who can afford to pay, ultimately that means either that somebody else has got to pay for it or that somebody else will not receive the same benefit.

Clive Lewis Portrait Clive Lewis (Norwich South) (Lab) - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 5:44 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman has made some interesting points. Earlier in the debate reference was made to a public good. A public good is defined as a service, such as healthcare or education, that we feel is so important to us as a society that we collectively provide it. The BBC is a public good; it has a value for our democracy, for our community cohesion and for society generally. Therefore, we should pay for it collectively and not leave people who are over 75, and who cannot afford to pay for it themselves because they have no means, to pay for it. We should provide it collectively, as a public good.

Huw Merriman Portrait Huw Merriman - Hansard

The hon. Gentleman, who I know worked for the BBC, makes a good point. I agree that the BBC is a public good, but there are other public goods that one can think of where we require people to pay or we means-test them.

I have a fundamental issue with it. I am sorry to use these words, but I think it was an election bribe. Once something is given for free, it is difficult to ask people to start paying for it. I recognise that challenge. I ask all right hon. and hon. Members to consider this: if this is always going to be a cost, and we have to make decisions, then should the welfare state be providing something for people who can readily afford it, so that we are unable to spend more on those who really are at the borderline? I say that not to get electoral gain; I represent a constituency that has the second highest proportion of over-75s in the country, so I commit electoral suicide. It is important that we address this; if we do not, we will find that other decisions will be made or will not be reviewed. I am particularly worried about inter-generational fairness; people are missing out because we preserve benefits for people on the basis of age rather than means.

My last point is to the Minister. She is an excellent Minister and she has inherited this package, if I can call it that, from predecessors in the Treasury. I believe that we need to look at this again. It is a big challenge. We made a commitment in our manifesto that we should stick by it. As for the future—and that gives us time to think about the future—I would like us to address whether it is affordable to give people a benefit that they would be able to pay for themselves.

Jessica Morden Portrait Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab) - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 5:46 p.m.

I too will speak in support of the petition for the restoration of TV licences for the over-75s. Like many other hon. Members, I was deeply concerned by the announcement that the TV licence concessions for the over-75s would now be linked to pension credit. As many hon. Members have said, this is a problem of the Government’s own making. Ministers cannot hide behind the BBC, because it was their decision to outsource responsibility for TV licences, despite the manifesto pledge to maintain the benefit. As my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) said, they have been devolving the blame.

Some 3,770 households in Newport East are set to lose their licences under the changes, and across the wider Gwent region that rises to 23,450 households, with a total annual cost across all households of over £567,000. As other hon. Members have said, TV licences are an important benefit for older people, who suffer disproportionately from isolation and loneliness. As the excellent Age Cymru has said, for millions of over-75s the TV is not just the box in the corner; it is their constant companion, their window on the world and their main form of company.

TV is also an essential source of information for people who are not online, and it plays a crucial role in their ability to be an active citizen in our democracy. Research from Age Cymru shows that only 29% of over-75s in Wales use the internet. The shift to information being online has already made it more difficult for older people to keep informed and to access key services. Removing the entitlement to a free TV licence would add substantially to these difficulties.

Linking the concession to pension credit is also hugely problematic. Estimates by the Department for Work and Pensions suggest that two in every five people eligible for pension credit are not claiming the benefit. In Newport East alone that is almost £5 million of unclaimed pension credit that is not reaching the people who need it each year. Until the Government act to ensure that everyone who is entitled to pension credit receives it, a huge number of older people risk losing out on two benefits at once if the TV licence proposals go ahead. That is the problem with it not being universal.

As Age Cymru has highlighted, there are many reasons why older people do not claim pension credit: they may not know the benefit exists; they may feel they are not entitled to any help; they may be put off by the process of claiming; they may struggle on alone, assuming that others are worse off than them; or they be living with dementia, as other hon. Members have mentioned. In practical terms, there are serious questions to ask about how the BBC will ensure that people with dementia will be able to pay their licence fee and, if they do not, how non-payment will be enforced. It does not bear thinking about. Age Cymru has said that there may be 850,000 people affected by that.

I want to finish by citing an example from my constituency. In the week that the licence fee proposals were outlined, candidates in the Conservative leadership election began to outline their plans to cut taxes for the wealthiest in society. Days later I was contacted by the neighbour of an 86-year-old armed forces veteran in Newport who is set to lose his TV licence under the new proposal. I know that Defence Ministers are concerned about that. The contrast underlines and amplifies the fact that the Conservative party has a serious question to answer about where its priorities lie and the kind of country it wants us to live in. I echo the calls from campaigners and charities such as Age Cymru for the UK Government to take back the funding and administration fee for the free TV licence scheme and let the BBC focus on its job of being a brilliant national broadcaster. TV licences are a social benefit that should not have been outsourced.

Break in Debate

Graham Stringer - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 6:18 p.m.


David Plowright was one of the great leaders of commercial television. He was the chief executive of Granada Television for many years, where great documentaries and “World in Action” were produced, as well as groundbreaking drama and excellent regional news, and he went on to become the deputy chair of Channel 4. His criteria for the BBC—one of his main competitors—was that it was there to keep the commercial side of television honest. He wanted to support it, and he wanted it to be as good as it possibly could be. It is interesting that, all around this debate, people have to different degrees supported the BBC. Nobody would create it as it is today if we were starting afresh, but there is enormous support, respect and affection for it.

On bias and other aspects of the BBC, my worry is that there is a certain decadence within the organisation, by which I mean a decaying of standards in all sorts of areas of reporting, which, if it continues, might mean that if this debate took place in five or 10 years, there would not be as much support for what is in effect the state broadcaster, supported by a flat-rate tax. I agree partially with my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) that there is one obvious reason for that, although there may well be others: the people who run, report and work for the BBC are primarily drawn from London and Oxbridge, and they have a common view of the world that leads to certain conclusions.

Where I probably disagree with my hon. Friend is my guess that that gives them an almost coherent, homogenous view of the EU and what our relationship with the EU should be. Although this is more difficult to substantiate, I nevertheless think that it also means that, privately, they think they are right and that their view of the world is correct, and that the people who I represent—who are, by and large, not as well educated and do not have the same level of income or educational achievement—are probably wrong.

That is never stated publicly, and I have many friends who are BBC executives and reporters and who do their best. I would never question the integrity of individual BBC reporters. They are doing their best, but it is a fact that there will not be many people working in the BBC who are from the poorest parts of the United Kingdom and would give a different view on the matter. I think that is one reason why we see such high salaries. To someone in the organisation from the background that I have described, having a salary of nearly £2 million might not seem as obscene as it does to most of the people I represent. I do not believe that Gary Lineker was a great footballer; I do not believe that he is—whatever it is—20 or 15 times better at his job than Gabby Logan.

Huw Merriman Portrait Huw Merriman - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 6:21 p.m.

The point that I want to make is not so much about Gary Lineker; it is just the fact that the BBC operates in a commercial environment. If it does not pay its talent a commercial wage—many of them actually earn less than the commercial wage—it will lose that talent to other organisations, and then people will switch off the BBC and it will lose viewers.

Graham Stringer - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 6:22 p.m.

That is a reasonable point as far as it goes. The BBC has not only paid very high salaries in a discriminatory way over the last five years; when it was found to be discriminating, it increased those salaries. It is the case that there are places within the BBC that have to compete commercially, but the fact that it has increased the number of people presenting sports programmes surely shows that there is not a shortage. It could get very high-quality people at a lower rate. Let us say that Gary Lineker goes to BT or Sky; I think that the people at the BBC who are earning a lot less are as good. I understand the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), but I do not think that it stands up in that case or many others.

I think that John Humphrys is one of the best interviewers there has been on the BBC. He has dropped his salary, but I do not think that he was ever worth more than £600,000 or that the private sector was going to pay that amount of money for him. I have no idea what Andrew Neil gets paid at the moment, but it is a great pity that another great interviewer is leaving the BBC. I do not know whether that is down to commercial pressure or just because he is a bit cheeky and teases the BBC management, but it is a great pity. He gives politicians all round the clock a pretty tough and torrid time when he interviews them, and that is a great thing for democracy. But I think that, from that narrow base, we do get a distorted view.

Incidentally, I take the point made by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle that £20 million would not pay the licence fees for the over-75s. I accept that; it is just simple arithmetic. But—it is a big but—£20 million is still quite a lot of money, and one of the aspects of the BBC that I appreciate is the quality of regional radio, which is massively underfunded. In regional radio, £20 million would go a long way. Compared with when I started out in politics, which was a long time ago, what is put out by BBC Radio Manchester now—its political coverage and the rest of its coverage—on less resources is not as comprehensive. The quality of the people doing it is excellent, but there simply are not as many of them and there is not as much. That is because of underfunding.

I want to give three or four examples, if I may, of where I think this cohort of south-eastern, Oxbridge-educated people get it wrong. I will say, and the point has already been made, that any organisation with human beings in it is going to make mistakes. The mistakes themselves are mistakes, but they do indicate a larger problem with the BBC.

The BBC procured and presented on BBC Three, when it was a channel, a series of programmes called “People Like Us”. That was based in the ward that I used to represent as a councillor and that is still in the constituency I represent. Frankly, it was poverty porn. It gave the most distorted view of one of the poorest wards in the country. Depending on how we count these things—it is not a competition that any ward or constituency wants to win—Harpurhey is the poorest or the third poorest ward in the country. Cameras went along and the people making the programme pretended—it was a pretence—that they were following how people in Harpurhey lived. They were not; they were distorting it. They paid girls to fight each other. They opened a pub and created a most peculiar party of transvestites. I have nothing against transvestites, but that kind of situation had never happened in that particular public house, which was being closed for a couple of years. They got a pretend landlord in to talk about how he was very happy for his tenants to take drugs. It was clearly a put-up job. And some of the people who said outrageous things were taken on holiday by the company doing this. It was a shocking and terrible thing, and I do not believe that if people from that kind of background had been part of the BBC, that programme would ever have been made. Fortunately, there was not a second series. The head of BBC Three was good enough to see me and Councillor Karney, who represented the ward. I do not know whether it was down to our lobbying, but there was not a second series.

I want to talk about two other matters. One is bias on the EU. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South made a speech that I half completely agreed with and half completely disagreed with. There is quite a lot of evidence, in terms of the numbers of people interviewed about the European Union, that there are more pro-EU people. In the run-up to the referendum, virtually every business person who was interviewed on the “Today” programme was asked how Brexit was going to damage their business. In fact, it became a standard form of question or statement that “in spite of Brexit”, this benefit or that increase in jobs had happened.

A number of independent research groups have shown the bias in the run-up to the European elections. They have counted the number of people who were pro-EU compared with the number who were anti-EU, and the pros win by about three to one. In fact, one of the senior political journalists said, “We have no need to be balanced in this matter,” which I think is at odds with the BBC’s constitution.

The difference, during the run-up to the referendum campaign, was striking. The BBC did what it does in general elections: it was perfectly well balanced. That was in contrast with what happened afterwards and what happened before the period of the referendum. I think that that is partly because the people who run the BBC in London are essentially all pro-EU and think that there is something peculiar about people who are not.

My background is as a scientist. I believe in the scientific method and I practised for 10 years, running an analytical laboratory, so I am not, in the way some people mean it, a climate sceptic. However, some of the science from the likes of the University of East Anglia and in the leaked emails is a bit dodgy—very dodgy in that case. Some of the policies proposed to deal with climate change are expensive and one needs to be sceptical about the cost of those policies.

Not only is the cohort running the BBC from Oxbridge, but it is happier speaking about the subjunctive than the second law of thermodynamics. They have clear views on what the perception of science and climate change is. I will give an example, which I think is quite extraordinary. I appeared on a programme with Lord Lilley—with whom I disagree with about almost everything—about the Met Office, with Quentin Letts conducting the interview. Lord Lilley has a scientific background. He has a degree from Cambridge in physics. We agreed that climate change is happening and the planet is warming up a bit, but that the response is probably overblown. I said that the Met Office was very good at short-term forecasting, but hopeless at medium and long-term forecasts.

It is now impossible to get a recording of that programme, because it is banned, like the Catholic Church in the 16th century. We are on a banned list, because we agreed that the discussion was unbalanced. On the EU, there is no balance, but on a relatively trivial matter, the scientifically illiterate people at the BBC have decided to ban us. There will be real problems in the future if the BBC does not sort these things out.

I have spoken slightly longer than I intended. Finally, I will speak about the issue of free licences. It is not really worth a great deal of further thought. It is quite obvious that the Government—not the BBC—should be responsible for a benefit such as free television licences for the over-75s. The licence fee, however, is worth further consideration—not next week, but in the near future. I find it strange that on my side of the House there is enthusiasm and support for—I could name many such issues, but I will not—flat-rate taxes, which are regressive. If there is a public good and a public benefit from television, which I think there is, it should be funded by progressive taxation coming out of income tax.

The argument against that often put by BBC executives is that it damages the independence of the BBC. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) knocked that argument on the head on a very specific case. The people running the BBC are part of the informal ruling class in London, and they scratch each other’s backs, so there is not complete independence there. Further, Governments have always set the level of the licence fee, so every five years the Government have a say. I do not see why we should not have progressive rather than regressive taxation for what is undoubtedly a public good.

The BBC has had a lot of support, but it has to look at how it funds its regional organisations and how it stops being a cosmopolitan elite, with all the narrow views that that implies.