With your permission, Mr. Speaker and that of the House, I should like to give the reply to Question No. 77.
The House will remember that on 2nd April, when announcing the Government's decision to hold this inquiry, I said that the Departments concerned, together with the B.B.C. and the British Council, were being invited to consider the whole range of our overseas information services from the political and strategic aspects. Later in the debate my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury added that this discussion would, in the first instance, take place at the official level with a view to further stages being considered by Ministers.
The officials in question have now presented Ministers with a full statement of the problem. It is, however, no easy matter to decide exactly the relative emphasis that should be placed upon each of the varied and world-wide activities which are grouped under the name of overseas information services. The political and strategic value of these services is undoubted. But at the same time the Government attach very great importance to finding a means of determining the right scale and emphasis for their activities.
Her Majesty's Government have, therefore, decided to appoint a small expert advisory committee who will have full access to all the facts, and who will be invited to furnish Ministers as soon as possible with their considered views. Meanwhile the present level of activity of the overseas information services will be maintained.
While thanking the hon. Gentleman for that reply, and expressing the hope that this is a rather belated repentance about the drastic cuts which took place in the overseas services, may I ask him whether the expert advisory committee which it is proposed to appoint will consist of independent and impartial persons—that they will be outside the Departments concerned—that they will not be Ministers but will be independent and impartial?
Could I also ask him whether, when he stated that the cost would be at the present level, he meant that the services will be maintained at their present level and will, therefore, be protected against any increase in cost which takes place before the report is published?
The reply to the first part of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question is that the committee of inquiry will be drawn from people outside the Government service—genuinely independent and impartial people.
As for the other part of the hon. Member's supplementary question, I have said that meanwhile, while this report is being drawn up—while this committee are inquiring into the matter—the present level of activity of the overseas services will be maintained.
Could the hon. Gentleman give any indication of how long he anticipates this committee will take in view of the fact that the Estimates will shortly be prepared for next year? Is it possible for the hon. Member to state whether their report will be published and laid before the House?
I cannot give an undertaking that the report of this committee will be published and laid before the House. As I am sure the hon. Member appreciates, much of the information which will be put at their disposal, and many of their recommendations, will be secret.
On the question of time, I cannot of course anticipate how long they will take over this matter. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will realise and agree that they should take as much time as they feel inclined to do because this is a very large subject—a very broad subject—which they have to go into, and I should not wish them to make a hurried and ill-considered recommendation for lack of time.
The hon. Gentleman used the phrase "expert and independent." Does he embody in it those people who have some knowledge and experience of the value of the broad propaganda overseas services run by the B.B.C.; and by the word "independent" does he simply mean those who have no political contacts or does he mean those who, as in the case of a previous appointment on which we have cross-examined the Prime Minister, have no knowledge whatever of the subject they are discussing?
I said that we are appointing a small expert advisory committee of independent people outside the Government service. I should have thought that that was clear enough for the hon. Gentleman.