BBC World Service

Prayers – in the House of Commons at 2:22 pm on 25th June 1993.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wood.]

Photo of Mr Cyril Townsend Mr Cyril Townsend , Bexleyheath 2:30 pm, 25th June 1993

I am delighted to have this opportunity to debate the future of the BBC World Service. You will know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that there is great interest in the House on this subject. My case is succinctly put in early-day motion 1780, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris), and it has attracted so far the support of 362 hon. and right hon. Members. It emphasises the great concern about current proposals to reduce the grant-in-aid which will diminish Britain's capacity to capitalise on the considerable credibility built up by the BBC World Service over many years. Few early-day motions have attracted more names, or more senior names.

On 30 July 1981, Lord Carrington, when he was Foreign Secretary, in another place, said: Let me begin on a note upon which there will be no disagreement in any quarter of the House: that is, the support and admiration of all of us—and of course I include Her Majesty's Government—for the work of the External Services of the BBC. There is nobody who does not recognise the excellence of what they do. Certainly so far as I am concerned, I believe them to be an important arm of Government foreign policy. Indeed, I think we have got to look at the whole of our defence and foreign policy as one, and external broadcasting has a most important part to play in the influence that Britain can exert throughout the world."—[ Official Report, House of Lords, 30 July 1981; Vol. 423, c. 811]

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant , Staffordshire Mid

Is my hon. Friend aware that surveys conducted by the BBC World Service, and indeed by other international broadcasters, clearly demonstrate that the BBC World Service has more listeners than The Voice of America, Radio Beijing, Radio Moscow and Deutsche Welle combined?

Photo of Mr Cyril Townsend Mr Cyril Townsend , Bexleyheath

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. I shall refer to that point later.

Two years later, on a Channel 4 television interview, the same noble Lord made these rather revealing remarks: When I was Foreign Secretary, I was told I had to save money on the overseas service of the BBC. I think that was really totally counter-productive and the money saved was trivial compared to the amount of damage done. I think that the time has now come, really, when the Treasury and the Government ought to look at the cutting out of a function in Government rather than cheese-paring on the things that are essential and have to be done. In both Houses of Parliament, there is a vast reservoir of good will towards the BBC World Service. We have had many debates on its funding over the years. I previously took part in one in July 1987. I find that many of the comments that I made then still apply today.

We have been here before, many times. For Conservative Members, there. is annoyance that this old and deep wound for our party has been opened up again. In a debate in July 1981, a former Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, Sir Anthony Kershaw, with whom I used to share an office, was speaking for many when he said: We have two assets in the BBC—the English language and its high reputation, based on its activities during the Second World War, which it has managed to maintain.We are to be asked to approve reductions in expenditure on the overseas services at a time when our country has reduced political power and when there is an increase beyond our imagination of the power of the spoken word that reaches out beyond frontiers and speaks to each man in his own tongue."—[ Official Report, 23 July 1981; Vol. 9, C. 579.] Perhaps I can quote two other witnesses of the high standing of the World Service abroad. In the New York Times, Malcolm W. Browne once wrote: The BBC is, for the free mind, what OXFAM is for the hungry". I like best a remark made by, of all people, Colonel Gaddafi: All the Arab radios rave from dawn 'till noon nobody listens to them because everyone switches on London. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant) said, the World Service has many competitors in both television—its new and successful service—and on radio, especially in 'the United States, Germany, France and Canada. But they lack the essential history of the BBC—they lack its integrity. That is why viewers and listeners do not put those services in the same category. The World Service has been shrewd to resist so-called crusader broadcasting.

The Foreign Secretary has described Britain as punching above its weight. The World Service is part of the answer, together with our Rolls-Royce diplomacy and the British Council. The central feature of our debates over the years has been that Ministers praised the World Service while cutting its funding in reality. During one period since I have been in the House, it was cut nine times in 10 years. That is a disgraceful record, but explains why it is a sensitive subject today.

In 1982, the cuts ended Spanish for Europe and the Italian and the Maltese services, and French for Europe and the Brazilian service were halved. I came across this extract in the BBC handbook from 1984: The role played by the External Services in coverage of last year's events in the South Atlantic is generally accepted to have been a vital one. The Argentina invasion of the Falklands came at a time when the External Services had just suffered the most wide-spread operational cuts for many years. Morale amongst highly motivated staff had been considerably shaken and many talented broadcasters had been lost. Today, the World Service—the world's most successful broadcaster, reaching a regular audience of 124 million people, plus unknown millions in China—once again is braced to face severe financial cuts. I emphasise to the Minister—I am delighted that he is here today—that Bush house fully understands the Government's need to reduce its public sector borrowing requirement of £50 billion—about £1 billion a week. It accepts that every major organisation, public and private, has scope to reduce waste and improve efficiency. It appreciates that each and every spender of limited public funds is bound to be scrutinised closely at this time.

But the World Service offers good value for taxpayers' money. The United States spends considerably more on international radio than the United Kingdom, but achieves considerably less. The World Service is more cost-effective than The Voice of America.

It is not always easy to please the National Audit Office. Its June 1992 report said: World Service has a generally satisfactory system of resource planning, financial management and control, including internal value for money reviews, and has developed comprehensive procedures with which to assess the effectiveness of its output. That is an A-plus report. No wonder. In the past seven years, there have been 23 reviews of different World Service departments, all but three by outside consultants. The hours of broadcasting per employee have risen from 14.1 in 1989–90 to 14.8 in 1992–93. Each World Service department has set its own performance indicators. This is a tight ship.

On its 60th anniversary, in December last year, Prince Charles described the World Service as the model of public service broadcasting. At much the same time, the model was told by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that its budget would be cut by £5 million in each of the next three financial years. It was also asked to prepare potential cuts of 2·5 per cent. and 5 per cent. of its total budget.

If the maximum cut is imposed, the World Service will have to find up £13 million next year, with similar reductions in subsequent years. My hon. Friends will appreciate that that is serious. I give two yardsticks. I checked this morning and was told that the Arabic service cost £4.3 million and the Chinese service £1.8 million. Commenting on the £5 million a year cut, Mr. John Tusa, the former superb managing director of the World Service said: If this cut goes ahead, it will go straight to programmes. It will be very, very damaging. I suggest that he ought to know.

I expect the Minister to say in his reply that the World Service has had a 40 per cent. increase in budget in real terms in the past decade. That sounds good, but the figure has to be carefully examined, as always in government. I am told that total BBC grant in aid increased from £71 million in 1981–82 to £166 million in 1992–93. Using the Treasury measure of United Kingdom inflation, that was an increase of 36 per cent. in real terms. Between 1986–87 and 1989–90, the BBC took over responsibility for certain relay stations from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Taking that into account, the increase over the 10-year period reduces to 29 per cent.

Over many years, I have found the system of funding the services to be unsatisfactory. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been responsible for accounting for grants in aid only since the financial year 1977–78. The responsibility rested formerly with the Home Office.

The World Service has an excellent and happy relationship with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I welcome that, and do not wish to damage it. However, as the Minister knows, since 1977, Foreign Secretaries, including our present distinguished one, have resorted in desperation to that old and trusted policy of equal misery all round within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office vote. The thinking is, "If diplomatic and information office posts are to go, those chaps in Bush house should not expect to escape scot free."

But is it equal misery all round? I would welcome the Minister's comments on that point, because I am not so sure.

Over the 10-year period that I mentioned earlier, the BBC's share of the total Foreign and Commonwealth Office vote, which includes the diplomatic wing, the British Council plus the BBC—decreased from 16·5 to 13·7 per cent. It will decrease further in 1993–94 to 12·9 per cent. Is that fair? Is equal misery all round the only possible approach?. Why not have greater discretion? Why not attempt to have some priorities: after all, what are Ministers there for? Should not a medium in which Britain is regarded as the world leader be regarded as one such priority?

The manner in which successive Governments—certainly not just this one—have handled the service would be laughable had it not damaged our reputation abroad, as, no doubt, our ambassadors and high commissioners have mentioned to the Foreign Office in their dispatches.

Some years ago, in an attempt to make savings, a Conservative Government suggested to Bush house that the number of broadcasts to friendly nations should be reduced. That was wondrously short-sighted. In 1979, it was proposed that Turkey should be cut off from the service, but Parliament objected. The very next year, the Foreign Office came back with a request that broadcasts to Turkey should be increased.

I note that Mr. Tusa believes that the independence of the World Service would be enhanced if the FCO renounced its say in the services that it provides. He believes that that would result in a better and speedier editorial response. Could the Minister support some moves in that direction? Perceived independence from Government is important, and the World Service would like closer integration with a strong, independent BBC.

I understand that some press reports and comments have exaggerated the new crisis, but it is a crisis. What assurance can the Minister give us about the exact level of future funding for the World Service? Are the most serious options for savings—common, I agree, to all spending Departments—still under consideration?

Where information is in the hands of Governments—sadly, a growing trend—and where there is no permitted outlet for the voice of dissent, people turn to a respected and honest broadcasting service not only for coverage of events in other countries, but for news of their own country. In countries where there are multiple sources of information, the World Service's ability to become the preferred source of information—perhaps India is a good example—has tremendous importance now, and far-reaching implications for the United Kingdom in the future.

I want the BBC's past successes in overseas broadcasting to be built on, not pulled down. I want them to be expanded, not contracted. A traditional Conservative role, and one too often neglected since 1979, has been to support our great national institutions.

Are there those in high places who can see not only what the World Service has achieved in 60 years, but what it could achieve for our country and for our turbulent and largely undemocratic world in the 21st century?

Photo of Mr Mark Lennox-Boyd Mr Mark Lennox-Boyd , Morecambe and Lunesdale 2:47 pm, 25th June 1993

The Government entirely share the views that my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) has expressed on the high quality and value to Britain of the BBC World Service. We are well aware of its unrivalled reputation around the world and the important role that it plays in our international relations.

I know that my hon. Friend has taken an interest in the World Service throughout his parliamentary career. I hope that I can reassure him that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office shares his views. I hope that I can reassure him by showing that its past conduct towards the World Service and its funding for it is evidence of that affirmation.

I recognise the concern, widely shared in the House and outside, that the World Service should have the resources it needs to do its job adequately. The Government have absolutely no reason to be apologetic or defensive about it. We have seen to it that the World Service has the resources. During the past decade, the funding has been put on a more stable three-yearly basis, and has been given a substantial boost—of about 40 per cent.—in real terms. Those figures are accepted by the World Service, which is where I take issue with my hon. Friend. When he says that Ministers praise the World Service while cutting its budget, I cannot possibly agree with him.

The grants in aid to the World Service in the present triennium funding period from 1991 to 1994—which my hon. Friend knows well—continues to provide for real growth in each of the three years. The amount increases from £163 milion in the last financial year to £172 million this year. The World Service is benefiting from a substantial rise, well above inflation. For some reason, that fact often seems to be overlooked amid all the talk of cuts and threats.

I know that my hon. Friend is a fair man, and I hope that he will take the opportunity, when discussing the subject with the World Service, to agree with what its current staff will say: that we have looked after them well. I hope that he will also take the opportunity to explain to his other colleagues and friends that we have, without fail, looked after the World Service well over the past 10 years.

In the past decade, the increased resources have enabled the World Service to undertake an extensive programme to improve audibility in most parts of the world. A large number of old transmitters have been replaced, and overall power output has increased by more than 70 per cent. At the same time, the World Service has been able to expand its broadcast output substantially—there has been expansion, not cuts. The World Service has been able to make significant improvements in programme quality.

An audibility improvement programme has taken place during the past 10 years. It included the construction of new relay stations in the Seychelles and Hong Kong. Some 20 new, higher-powered, transmitters have been installed in Caversham, Skelton and Cyprus to replace older equipment. An additional five transmitters have been installed at Ascension Island, Singapore and Lesotho.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant) that, as a result of the improvement programme, the BBC's market share of world audiences for major international broadcasters has been even greater during the past decade. It has increased from about 50 per cent. to an estimated 80 per cent. today. The World Service now holds an unchallenged position as the leader in its field—a great achievement, and a great asset to Britain.

The expansion and improvements continue. So far in the current triennium, the World Service has been able to increase the number of hours broadcast weekly from 784 to more than 870—a substantial increase. It has also introduced two new language services, Ukrainian and Albanian—another increase, not a cut.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath mentioned prescription, which is the way in which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office maintains its interest in the World Service. It is a long-established custom, which was endorsed by the Public Accounts Committee only last December. That Committee concluded that it must be for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to prescribe the levels of World Service output in the countries to which it broadcasts.

Last year, the Foreign Office gave the World Service discretion to vary the number of hours broadcast by up to 5 per cent. in the current triennium without the need for prior authority. That flexibility was welcomed by the World Service, and we are more than happy to have discussions on that subject, as we recognise that flexibility is a valuable instrument for the service.

I have no hesitation in saying that the success of the World Service is due, in significant part, to the World Service itself, but it is also the result of a joint effort based on our close and friendly relations with the World Service. I am very glad to have the chance to pay tribute to the effectiveness with which the World Service has used the resources with which it has been provided, and to the considerable internal efficiency gains that it has achieved, to make each pound that it receives go even futher.

I hope that I have dispelled any impression left by some recent press comments that the FCO keeps the World Service in a chronically underfunded state. It is just not so, and the World Service makes no such claim itself. It has enjoyed more than a decade of solid and steady expansion. In this financial year, it is receiving every penny of its promised increase, in spite of cuts elsewhere in the public sector, including cuts in the overall Foreign Office budget.

That is the context in which future plans for the World Service must be seen. Following usual practice, we recently held discussions with the World Service on its development programme and the allocation of resources in the next triennium, 1994 to 1997, based on proposals submitted by the BBC. The House will understand that I cannot at this stage make any commitment or give precise figures on future levels of grant in aid. Final decisions on the overall FCO and World Service funding depend on the outcome of this year's public expenditure survey. I do not know what that will be. No budget has yet been set for the World Service in the new triennium, so it is wrong to speak of cuts in the sense of cuts from previously agreed amounts.

Our recent discussions with the World Service show that current funding projections, published in the latest FCO departmental report, will be enough to enable the World Service to maintain present levels and standards of service. There will also be room for some new activity in response to the changing world situation, including even the introduction of new language services.

That is possibly partly because of the increased revenue that the World Service is expecting to raise. Continuing efficiency savings and cost savings in less important services will also be needed, but we have no reason to think that any service or language need be discontinued. The most important elements of capital spending will also be safeguarded.

I hope that I have reassured my hon. Friends that many of the recent reports about the damage supposedly being done to the World Service have been misleading and much exaggerated.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath referred to an immediate cut of £5 million. In the discussions that I have outlined, there was a cut of about £5 million in the funding baselines for World Service grant in aid in the years in question. It has been publicised and reported as a £5 million cut in the budget, but in practice the new amount represents a small, 6 per cent. increase in cash terms over the whole triennium—£530 million against £500 million—when other factors are taken into account.

Final decisions on overall FCO and World Service funding will in any event depend on the outcome of the public expenditure survey. A cut in the baseline is not a cut in cash—indeed, it can result in an overall increase in the cash.

As for the 2·5 per cent. and 5 per cent. illustrative cuts to which my hon. Friend referred, all spending Departments are having to prepare on a contingency basis of that sort in line with this year's PES. It is a general exercise, not one specially imposed on the poor World Service. Judging by the nod from my hon. Friend, he agrees with that.

Continued Government support and funding for the World Service is assured. It is, however, unrealistic to expect that the World Service can be insulated from the general financial situation and public expenditure policy. But the Government will continue to give it a high priority and to respect the World Service's position as the world's most listened to, most reliable, most effective and most respected international broadcaster. They will provide the World Service with the resources to do the job and to keep it at number one.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Three o'clock.