BBC World Service: Finances - Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:31 pm on 24 April 2024.

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Photo of Lord Liddle Lord Liddle Shadow Spokesperson (Transport) 3:31, 24 April 2024

To ask His Majesty’s Government, following the announcement of the resignation of the Director of the BBC World Service, what assessment they have made of the Service’s finances.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, our assessment of and formal agreement with the BBC guarantees the continued provision of all 42 World Service languages. We provide approximately a third of the funding for the World Service, with the remainder funded from the licence fee. Our funding totalled £305 million over the spending review period. The BBC is operationally independent and responsible for setting budgets. The DCMS is currently leading a review of BBC future funding, including that of the World Service, which it is expected to conclude by the autumn.

Photo of Lord Liddle Lord Liddle Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

My Lords, I put on record my admiration and respect for Liliane Landor, who has resigned from the job of her life as director of the World Service because she cannot defend the cuts that are now in prospect. Does the Minister agree with me that the World Service is one of our greatest soft power assets? Soft power is crucial to us and to the West, as Russia and China are spending billions and billions on deliberate misinformation. Does he also agree that, given that the value of the BBC licence fee has been cut in real terms by 30% since 2010, the only way to avert this situation is for the FCDO to give more money to the World Service in grant as a matter of urgency?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I agree with the noble Lord on the value not just of the BBC World Service but of the role that the BBC plays, particularly in the current challenging environments on the global stage. We have seen additional funding and support being provided. The noble Lord will recall that last year we announced an additional £20 million of funding specifically to support the World Service on language provision. I note what the noble Lord said about future funding, which is exactly why, in a strategic way, our colleagues at the DCMS are conducting the overall funding review that I alluded to in my original Answer.

Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench

My Lords, having agreed that the World Service is a fundamental part of our soft power, does the Minister also recognise that, if that is so, it ought to be funded on a progressive form of taxation by the taxpayer, and not a regressive form of taxation by the licence fee payer?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, in his previous field as a diplomat, the noble Lord obviously had direct experience of the importance and support that the World Service provides. As I have said, these views are important and will be reflected on as we take forward the overall review of the BBC and its funding. I repeat that the BBC World Service provides a valuable service—as I have seen directly in the field through various travels—in a range of languages. Many people rely on the World Service, particularly at times of conflict. In areas such as Ukraine, and in the current conflict in the Middle East, it continues to play a vital role.

Photo of Lord Dobbs Lord Dobbs Conservative

My Lords, I welcome my noble friend’s description of how vital the World Service is. In the past the Government have described it as essential, invaluable and playing a vital role, and surely its role could not be more vital given the way the world is turning right now. The Government spend almost £12 billion a year on foreign aid, and the Prime Minister yesterday announced many more billions to be spent on defence. Surely there must be a better way for this vital tool of soft power to be funded than relying on the licence fee, where inevitably it has to compete with the likes of Gary Lineker and Peppa Pig.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I am glad my noble friend did not ask me who I prefer watching out of Gary Lineker or Peppa Pig; it depends what mood I am in. On the point he raises, the integrated review in 2023 identified that the BBC World Service is vital. As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, it is a vital component of soft power and for countering disinformation, and it is important that it is properly funded. The majority of the World Service is funded by the TV licence fee, but we gave that extra uplift of £20 million last year as part of our review and commitment.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I hesitate to use the term soft power because, in a previous debate about the World Service, a Minister reminded us that data showed it was the

“top-rated international broadcaster for trustworthiness, reliability and depth of coverage

When Russia invaded Ukraine, the people of Russia turned to the BBC. Two years ago, the Government gave emergency funding of £4.1 million to support that extension of journalism. Why do we have to wait for a further two years? Why are the Government not responding to the urgent need for trustworthy news going to Russia?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I reiterate that I believe it is a vital service. When we use the term soft power, we are talking about different services that the United Kingdom offers to the world and the tools that are available. Of those, the BBC World Service provides exceptional news information. I know that in the case of the Hindi language, the World Service is one of the most effective and listened to channels in India. The noble Lord is right that the Government provided exceptional funding of £4.1 million, and my noble friend alluded earlier to the additional support we have provided to Ukraine in its fight against the illegal war Russia has waged on it. We will continue to see what tools are available to us, and we will work to ensure that the BBC World Service, along with a range of other soft power tools, is utilised effectively. I agree with the noble Lord that it is particularly effective in conflict situations.

Photo of The Bishop of Leeds The Bishop of Leeds Bishop

My Lords, I notice that the funding agreement with the FCDO runs only until April 2025, which is not very far ahead. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government are considering, at the very least, taking back full funding of the World Service in the longer term rather than leaving it to the licence fee?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I hear clearly the proposal from the right reverend Prelate, which has also been suggested by the director-general. I accept the premise of his question; that model existed until 2014. It is important that we make full leverage of funding. It is a challenging fiscal environment, but the Government have demonstrably shown that when we need to provide additional funding to the BBC World Service, we do so. The funding review being undertaken by the DCMS provides an opportunity to look specifically at the funding of the World Service.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Liberal Democrat

My Lords, this Question has a familiar ring to it. On 12 March, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, said the World Service was

“one of the most powerful soft-power tools that this country possesses

He was followed by a range of noble Lords, including the Foreign Secretary, agreeing with him, just as we do this afternoon. The problem is that, as the retiring director has pointed out—I associate myself with the words from the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, on her work—as things are, the World Service will not be able to deliver that soft power unless it is given proper long-term funding. Given the range of agreement across the House, surely there is the opportunity now for the Government to produce a long-term, well-funded financial plan for the World Service that can meet the desires of the country and this House.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, the noble Lord will know the deep affection I have for him and his views, to which I listen very carefully. He will accept that the DCMS review, as I said earlier, will be looking at the World Service specifically. Soft power around the world is needed at a time of conflict and need. I alluded earlier to the Gaza conflict. The BBC World Service provides important signposting at times of conflict, such as where to go and where to get information. That is a vital example of what it does. Of course, I acknowledge the opinions expressed in your Lordships’ House. As I said, the review of the whole BBC funding envelope will look at every element of BBC funding but also specifically at how we protect this valuable asset when it comes to our global power across the world.

Photo of Viscount Colville of Culross Viscount Colville of Culross Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former BBC producer. The Government’s grant in aid to the BBC World Service will now not be decided until some unspecified time after the election. The present grant runs out in March next year. Does the Minister realise the havoc this uncertainty is playing with the BBC’s planning for the future of its world and language services?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, for all funding, I accept the principle that we need to provide certainty and continuity. As we move towards an election, it is very clear that, irrespective of any result or outcome of a given election, we have seen successive Governments over many years show their commitment to the BBC and, importantly, to the World Service. Our commitment is that we will stand by the BBC World Service if we continue to be chosen as the Government of the day in the election later this year. I assure noble Lords that the review being undertaken by colleagues in the DCMS is very much focused on providing the very certainty to which the noble Viscount alludes.