HC Deb 03 May 1955 vol 540 cc1645-56

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

9.58 p.m.

Sir Leslie Plummer (Deptford)

The issue I am bringing before the House tonight covers a much more narrow matter than that which we have been discussing this afternoon. Nevertheless it is of some importance. I understand that the Assistant Postmaster-General is going to reply on behalf of the Government. This is a retrograde step, because the Assistant Postmaster-General has no real knowledge of the subject. He is titularly responsible for the B.B.C., but the decisions which have been taken and which have led to my applying to you, Mr. Speaker, for the Adjournment tonight, did not come from his Department.

It is outrageous that neither the Foreign Office, which is intimately concerned with this subject, nor the Treasury, which has directed the cuts to be made, which I am tonight discussing, are to reply. It is not a good thing that merely because the Assistant Postmaster-General is proficient in making a very good argument out of a thoroughly bad case, as he has done for the last three and a half years, he should be here to deal with this situation tonight.

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Sir L. Plummer

Nevertheless, what I have to do is to accept the Assistant Postmaster-General as the replying authority.

Mr. Malcolm McCorquodale (Epsom)

On a point of order. I wonder if the House is aware that Mr. Deputy-Speaker has just been elected the Captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club. I am sure we would wish to join in congratulating him on this honour, because we are very pleased that it has been conferred upon him.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Charles MacAndrew)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman and the House very much. I am not sure whether that is a point of order, but it is a point of great pleasure to me, and I thank the right hon. Gentleman and the House very much.

Sir L. Plummer

As it is a point of great pleasure to you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I do not resent time being taken out of my speech to congratulate you.

A little while ago the Treasury decided, quite arbitrarily, that it would impose on the monitoring service of the Overseas Service of the B.B.C. a cut of £25,000 of its annual budget, reducing it from £450,000 to £425,000 a year, and the Treasury decided, after the cut had been imposed, that a working committee should be established to see how the cut could be best effected.

I ought to explain that the monitoring service of the Overseas Service of the B.B.C. consists of a vast network of listening posts which are, as it were, at once the eyes and the ears of this country, listening to radio all over the world. The constant and growing use of radio for political purposes internationally means that it is absolutely essential that we should know not only the words which are being uttered by foreign countries but the nuances they use in expressing their thoughts.

The necessity for such a monitoring service is well illustrated by a speech the late Herr Hitler once made, in which he used the German word "alsbald," which sent the chancelleries of the world into a flap to discover what on earth it meant, whether it meant that he was going to move immediately or whether he was going to move later, so that Foreign Secretaries throughout the world were unable to make a proper declaration of their views of the importance of Herr Hitler's speech. If they had had a good monitoring service, of competent people who understood what the word meant, they would not have been in that confusion.

Nor, indeed, had Mr. Neville Chamberlain had such a monitoring service, would there have been the confusion that was obvious in his mind when he announced in this House in 1940 that Herr Hitler had invaded Norway and that the German High Command had announced that the invasion had taken place at a place called Narvik, but that he was under the impression that that was a mistake and that the place was really Larvik. If the Foreign Office had had a competent monitoring system such as the B.B.C. has today, such an absurd mistake could not have been made.

The monitoring service is staffed by men who have an intimate knowledge of the languages to which they listen. Moreover, they have an understanding and appreciation of the political purposes behind the broadcasts, and they have an understanding of news values, and the ability to write proper reports. They are directed in their activities by the Service Departments and the Foreign Office, whose representatives sit with the Director of the Overseas Service of the B.B.C, and say exactly what is required. The monitors, as they are called, cannot be trained overnight. They have to be men who have been around, who understand that their job is not simply to be translators but to be interpreters in the most complex sense of the word.

The Treasury has decided that this staff is to be reduced, because when it imposed this £25,000 cut it imposed it on the number of men employed, for of the £450,000 that was to be spent more than £350,000 was for wages and salaries. And so some 15 monitors, highly trained men, devoted men, some of them naturalised British citizens, in whom the Overseas Service had invested a considerable sum of money, have been declared redundant and have had to leave the service of the B.B.C. It is an odd thing that the Government, who are giving £6 million today in Purchase Tax cuts and on behalf of their Election campaign, have imposed so paltry a cut on so important a service—and one which is shared with the United States.

The Americans pay equally as much attention to the importance of monitoring as we do. Indeed, they have set up a monitoring service in Cyprus. There is an arrangement which hitherto has worked extremely well. The United States listen to one part of the world and we listen to another part of the world. That part which is most easily listened to from here, we cover.

Up to now there has been a complete interchange of information. It was a part of our N.A.T.O. contribution, just as the armies, navies, air forces and anything else which we put into N.A.T.O. are. Now, without any discussion with the U.S.A., we have seen fit to impose this cut on the B.B.C. so that the service which it now supplies to the United States is an inferior one. Indeed, the situation today, with all the confusion, upsets and tensions which there are in Cyprus, is that we have now to rely on the Americans for information on broadcasts from some of the Iron Curtain countries and we have to do that through a monitoring station on British territory—in Cyprus.

The Americans are entitled to say on this, "Are you serious about your contribution to the cold war?" Are we really serious in our efforts to find out what is going on all over the world when, without any real reason and without any real necessity, we cut the service in the way I have described?

Under the Chairmanship of the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. N. Macpherson), I was a member of the Select Committee that investigated the Overseas Service of the B.B.C. The hon. Member whisked us down to Caversham, in Berkshire, where the monitoring service of the B.B.C. hangs out, and then dragged us to Bush House, where we investigated the headquarters organisation.

We produced for the Ninth Report of the Select Committee on Estimates for 1951–52 certain recommendations about the importance of monitoring. I think that the hon. Member himself was responsible for that part of that Report which recommended that there should be a long-term investment in this most essential service.

It is true that in that Report we argued that maybe there were possibilities of economy in the monitoring of services from friendly countries. I have no doubt? that the argument could be put by the Treasury that it is possible to cut some part of the service to those countries, but the situation has changed considerably since 1951–52 when that Report was issued.

We have had the turmoil of German rearmament, the tense situation in the Far East, the Indo-China war and periods when Anglo-American relations have not been as smooth and as happy as we would wish. We have had developments in N.A.T.O. All these things have also been in the picture since that Report was written, and they indicate the vital importance of maintaining this service.

The B.B.C. does not organise its monitoring service in a vacuum. It does not say, "We are now going to listen to various countries because we like doing so." It does so because the Service Departments want it to do so. We are told that a Departmental Committee meets—I think it is under a Foreign Office chairman—and decides what countries should be listened to. That committee's views are forcibly expressed by the Service Department's representatives. As a result of this decision, listening posts for Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Germany, Persia, Poland and Israel have been cut. It is unthinkable that at this stage, when the whole of international relations are going through a new phase, this country should be denied, for the sake of £25,000 a year, the facilities which it had before of listening to the views of the Iron Curtain countries.

I cannot think what the explanation is, unless it is that the Treasury does not understand what monitoring is about and has no sympathy with it, and that the Chancellor has been able to impose his will and determination to cut this service without the Assistant Postmaster-General and his colleagues being able to resist him. Just as those of us who were on the Select Committee were satisfied that the staff of the B.B.C. Overseas Service doing the monitoring work was doing a good job, and paid a tribute to it, I am satisfied that the staff has responded magnificently to the new burden put upon it as a result of this cut. They are devoted people and want to see that the monitoring service, hampered as it is by this cut, remains a great service.

The staff and the radio branch of the National Union of Journalists, which represents these men, have co-operated to a very considerable degree with the B.B.C. in trying to make the effects of the cuts as harmonious as possible. But let us not deny the fact that the service is not as good as it was. Trained monitors have now left the service of the B.B.C. and will not return to the B.B.C. We have robbed ourselves of this weapon in our armour, we have dispensed with people who had considerable sums of money invested in them, we have weakened the service which was the admiration of those countries receiving it, particularly the United States, and all for a saving of £25,000, which brings into contempt the arguments we put up that we will make our maximum contribution to the N.A.T.O. pool.

It is not too late, if the Assistant Postmaster-General has any influence left with his dying Government, to put up a protest and to argue that we should at least not give the impression to the United States that we are so poor that we cannot afford to do this job properly.

10.14 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. David Gammans)

The hon. Member for Deptford (Sir L. Plummer) has used two arguments in this Adjournment debate. He has suggested that the economies which have been made in the monitoring service are unreasonable economies which are doing harm to the general welfare of this country. Secondly, he suggested that, as a result of these economies, the Americans would doubt whether we were serious in our prosecution of the cold war. I hope to be able to reassure him on both points.

If I understood aright, the hon. Member said that monitoring service is part of the N.A.T.O. commitment of this country. I can assure him that it is nothing of the sort. We have an arrangement with the Americans, but it is not part of our N.A.T.O. commitment. As the hon. Member pointed out, whilst I have responsibility for this debate because the expenditure is carried on the broadcasting Vote, in fact other Government Departments come into the picture as well. The responsibility for operating the monitoring service rests on the B.B.C which acts with the advice of the Foreign Office and other Government Departments. The B.B.C. does this under Clause 15 (5) of the licence which calls on the Corporation to perform a monitoring service on lines prescribed by Government Departments after consultation with the Corporation itself.

The monitoring service is done for two quite specific purposes, which the hon. Gentleman did not differentiate between. The first is that the B.B.C. itself wants to get background information and news from foreign broadcasts to enable it to prepare its broadcasts both for home and overseas. The second reason for the monitoring service is to enable the B.B.C. to supply Departments of State and other organisations like the Press and the universities with a summary of what is being said over the air. It is inevitable, with the world in the condition in which it is today and when we have to face the rigours of a cold war, that it is right and reasonable that we should know what is being said over the air which may be of vital concern to us. We are also naturally interested in the general international relations in most parts of the world. To give a concrete example, there is the question of broadcasts to Cyprus from Greece, which was recently raised in this House.

The cost of the monitoring service is not borne by the B.B.C. from funds allocated by Parliament for broadcasts here at home, but there is a special grant-in-aid carried on the broadcasting vote for all the external services which the B.B.C. does, including monitoring, although from the Estimates point of view the cost of the monitoring is borne separately.

What we are discussing tonight is not the general overseas services of the B.B.C. but the monitoring service, and as the hon. Gentleman has said quite rightly, there has been a cut of £25,000 out of a total grant of £460,000 which will be made for that purpose to the B.B.C. in 1955–56. The hon. Gentleman feels that if that cut of £25,000 is made, two things may well happen. He fears that the B.B.C. will not be able to do all the monitoring which he would regard as necessary, and his second fear is that the arrangement which we have with the Americans for the exchange of information with them may suffer.

It is true that there has been this cut. It has meant a reduction of 26 monitors out of a total staff of 154. Incidentally, of the 26 people whose services have been terminated by the B.B.C, 11 have been found other jobs in the B.B.C. and the balance have been dismissed in accordance with the terms of their contracts.

I will try to explain how and why this cut has been made. But first of all, let me point out the way in which the cost of the monitoring service has gone up over recent years. In 1948–49, for example, the cost was only £281,000. In 1952 it had risen to £436,000, and last year it went up to £455,000. There is a small revenue on the other side of the balance sheet which comes to the B.B.C. from the sale of their broadcasts to the universities and to the Press, but it is infinitesimal. For some time past the Treasury has been concerned at these rising costs and, as the hon. Gentleman quite rightly said, in the Ninth Report of the Select Committee on Estimates in 1951–52, of which he was a member, it was suggested that there might be a possibility of making economies in the broadcasts to friendly countries. He is quite right about that.

In 1954, because of these rising costs, the Treasury arranged for the position to be further reviewed, and as a result a working party of officials was set up, consisting of members from the Treasury, the Foreign Office, the B.B.C, and the Ministry of Defence, with a Post Office official in the chair.

Sir L. Plummer

After the cuts had been made?

Mr. Gammans

No; I will come to that.

This working party examined the scope of monitoring in all its aspects, and it was suggested by the Treasury—and this is where I think the hon. Gentleman was slightly wrong—that the total amount for the service for 1955–56 might be cut by £25,000 out of the total estimate of £460,000. The working party satisfied itself that this cut could be made without impairing the service which the B.B.C. want for themselves or which the country generally needs in the international field.

They examined this matter very carefully, met on five occasions and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that they considered this question in all its aspects. For reasons which I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, I would prefer not to state publicly the countries whose monitoring has been curtailed. In fact, the whole operation is not so much a question of cutting out monitoring from certain countries, but one of restricting the amount of monitoring that is being done.

The hon. Gentleman gave certain information with regard to certain countries which he thought were affected. I do not know where he got his information from, but, whether it is correct or not, it is highly confidential, and I am not prepared either to agree or disagree with what he has to say. I am not prepared, for very obvious reasons, to say which countries are affected by this cut in monitoring, but, as I have already said, it is restricting the amount of monitoring rather than cutting out monitoring altogether.

Mr. George Darling (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

Can the hon. Gentleman tell us how we can restrict the amount of monitoring without interfering with the service? Obviously, one has to listen to a whole series of broadcasts in order to understand what they are about.

Mr. Gammans

That is another question which, again for obvious reasons, I prefer not to discuss. I think that those who wish us ill would be very interested in what we are doing, and the last thing which I ought to do is to inform the House how it is being done.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would be the very last to say that more money should be spent on a service of this kind than is really necessary. I am grateful to him for having brought up this question, and I am only sorry that, on one or two points, I cannot be more specific than I have been. I hope he will accept my assurance that there is nothing sinister in these cuts, and, what is more, that in these cuts we are working in the closest possible collaboration with our American allies.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government attach the greatest importance to the monitoring service, and that had it been merely a matter of cutting £25,000 and impairing the service to the extent which the hon. Gentleman led the House to believe it would, they certainly would not have done it, because they attach far too much importance to it. We are satisfied that this cut can be made and that this economy is justified, without in any way impairing the value and quality of the monitoring service.

10.24 p.m.

Mr. George Darling (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

This is a most unsatisfactory reply. I think I must follow the Assistant Postmaster-General in not naming the countries that have been cut off from the listening side of the monitoring service, although I thought they were more or less common knowledge. I will merely say that the alternative service coming from the American station in Cyprus is not only admitted by the Americans to be inferior, because they are not doing the monitoring in the same kind of way, but surely also involves us in expense. The information that is now needed by the monitoring service which comes through Cyprus has to be paid for in the form of cable charges, and the net saving to the Treasury is certainly not £25,000.

We are getting an inferior service, we are spending money in a way in which it ought not to be spent, and the Americans are certainly dissatisfied with this arrangement. Whether or not we have to keep the names of the countries concerned secret, there is no secrecy about that. At least, it is well known inside the Press and to broadcasting people concerned with this matter that the Americans are not satisfied with this arrangement. They would much have preferred the original arrangement to continue.

Mr. Gammans

Will the hon. Member give the source from which he got his information? How does he know that people are not satisfied? Is he talking from knowledge given to him inside the broadcasting service?

Mr. Darling

I would be willing to discuss where the information comes from if we could have a proper debate, name the countries concerned, and go through the whole thing in proper detail, but the embargo which is placed upon us in this matter makes it very difficult for me to give information, just as the Assistant Postmaster-General himself is refusing information.

A further point that I want to make in the two minutes that remain concerns the staff. Because of the countries which have been cut off and the language associations of these people, some of the best people employed in the monitoring service have had to be dispensed with, either from the monitoring service to some other part of the B.B.C. or dismissed altogether. It is difficult to replace them, and the countries with which they were concerned are vital countries in the matter of the cold war. It is essential that we should have the fullest information of what is going on in those countries. Now, as a result of the cuts, we do not have that information.

The remainder of the staff in the monitoring service are working under a sense of great insecurity. There is talk—everybody knows how these rumours spread— that further cuts are contemplated. If we are wrong in this, it would be desirable for the Assistant Postmaster-General to say that no further cuts are to be made. Because of the insecurity that exists, monitors who are engaged in listening to the countries which are not so far affected are already leaving.

If the hon. Gentleman could give an assurance that no cuts will be made, that would be most helpful, although we much regret, for quite a number of reasons which have not been fully developed in this short debate, the cuts that have been made and the economies that have resulted in staff dismissals.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.