HC Deb 02 November 1979 vol 972 cc1722-34

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

4.1 p.m.

Mr. Julian Critchley (Aldershot)

It might be convenient for Members to refer to early-day motion 135. They will see that it says that there should be no reduction in expenditure for the external services of the BBC. To mark the importance of the fact that 90 Conservative Members signed this motion, I have decided to share my time equally with my hon. Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Baker) and the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang), giving them slots of five minutes each.

I am glad to see the Minister of State here, although in unhappy circumstances. He is more than an old friend; he is in fact a fellow author. In 1977 we produced a pamphlet. It had only minor success, it is true, but it was written up in the leader column of The Times. I should like to quote from page 15 of this document, where my hon. Friend the Minister of State and I decided that We should strengthen the external services of the BBC and encourage our allies to do the same with their own broadcasting services. Those were the days—happy, without care, and eminently sensible.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State speaks this afternoon less for himself and more for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. To put it another way, he is speaking less for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and more for its masters elsewhere, because the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is the reluctant victim of a strategy of equal misery, the authors of which are not simply marble-hearted but marble-headed in this instance. We are, after all, spending more money on defence, and the external services form one of the shrinking number of our lines of defence. In a rational world they should be strengthened, not cut.

It was announced yesterday that we are to cut the language services to France, Italy, Spain and other countries in southern Europe, and to Burma. Let me reexamine, briefly, one of these—the effect upon France of the ending of the French service of the BBC. At present 26½ hours a week are broadcast in French to Africa, 19¼ hours to metropolitan France, and three and half hours are common to both Africa and metropolitan France. I state these figures accurately because they were not stated accurately by the Foreign Office spokesman in the briefing he held yesterday to explain his policy.

The population of French Africa is 100 million. The audience of the BBC service runs into hundreds of thousands. In metropolitan France the audience is 1,900,000 or more. It is crazy that we should no longer wish to speak to France when all our problems—economic, military and political—are problems that we must solve in the context of Western Europe, and France in particular. Should the French service of the BBC be another sacrificial lamb to French policy?

The rest of the world is prepared to listen to us—that is, within Europe— because we understand what is happening in Europe, yet if we are prepared to close down the services to free Europe, not only shall we lose 150 experts, who will have to find jobs elsewhere; we shall lose the wavelengths as well, and other people will use them. If we go on with this policy at this time, we are out of our minds.

4.5 p.m.

Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

I am grateful to the Minister and to the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) for allowing me to make this short intervention. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this important Adjournment debate. I should like to make two points to the Government. First, they should be increasing rather than decreasing the scope of our external services at the present time. Secondly, in view of our long and proud history of parliamentary democracy and Spain's recent history of Fascism, how can the Government possibly justify axing the Spanish service?

4.6 p.m.

Mr. Kenneth Baker (St. Marylebone)

I am pleased to support the case that has been so ably put by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley). I rise to speak more in sorrow than in anger. I very much regret that the Foreign Office is asking that the BBC should curtail its external services.

Because of the transistor revolution throughout the world, many millions of people in the developing world as well as in Eastern and Western Europe now tune in and listen to the BBC, because they know that by listening to that, rather than to the propaganda which Radio Moscow calls news, they are listening to the truth. The BBC overseas network is a network of truth. That network is a national asset.

One of the things that particularly concerns me is that once these wavelengths are surrendered they will be surrendered for ever. It is not like postponing the capital building of a project in Britain which can be resumed a year or so later. Once these wavelengths are gone, they are gone for good.

I have heard it said that it is only central London Members who seem to be concerned about this. I refute that very strongly indeed. During the summer I had many letters which alerted me to the fact that this was happening. I received a letter only yesterday from Wales, from a Mr. Darlington in Dyfed, who read an article in the magazine Now. I am sure that Sir James Goldsmith will be pleased to know that he has a reader in Dyfed. Mr. Darlington says: Please keep up the fight for BBC external services. My 18-year-old son says he is shocked at the extent that Russia and her satellites are dominating the radio waves. He adds that the power of Russia's transmissions compared with the BBC's overseas broadcasts is much stronger. He ends by saying: millions around the world, starved of truth by their own governments, claim that truth does come from the BBC overseas broadcasting services. Truth propagation is the best defence investment we can make". I draw the Minister's attention to the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Gardiner) to the early-day motion. My hon. Friend thinks that this should be considered as part of our defence expenditure.

I find it surprising that, in the very months when we are considering cutting the overseas services of the BBC, the Home Service of the BBC has just opened a radio station for Shetland. I am not against that—good luck. But this is an example in miniature which demonstrates that we as a country are tending more and more to turn in upon ourselves and on our own problems and to disregard the wider problems of the wider world. I very much hope that the Government will be able to think about these cuts again.

4.9 p.m.

Mr. David Ginsburg (Dewsbury)

With the agreement of the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) and the Minister, I wish to intervene briefly. Perhaps I should also declare an interest as a frequent broadcaster on the French service.

There are five major reasons, certainly in respect of the French service, why one hopes that the Government will think again. There is, of course, the traditional fact that the French service was born during the war. General de Gaulle broadcast frequently on it.

French is the official language of the Common Market. That is not an unimportant consideration. As the hon. Member for Aldershot has said, French is a key language in Africa. I would mention Zaire and also North Africa, where there is a growing political problem. One should not forget French Canada in this context. The hon. Member for Aldershot mentioned an audience in France of 1,900,000. In a sense, that is an underestimate. During the three political crises in France in 1958, 1962 and 1968, I believe that the audience was more like 10 million. One can never be certain that crises of this sort will not arise again.

I fear that this decision smacks of dangerous insularity. It is damaging to our alliance and relations with France, and also to the common interest with our American allies in the defence of the West.

4.11 p.m.

Mr. Nicholas Scott (Chelsea)

One of my earliest memories was being taken as a boy during the war to a substantial and well-protected building in Oxford Street and listening to an uncle of mine, who had the skill of speaking in Maltese, broadcast to the beleaguered people of Malta during the time that the island was under siege. It is not surprising that I should feel strongly about the announcement that the Government have made about cuts not only for Malta but also to other parts of southern Europe, as well as to Burma.

The BBC, feeling itself to be under threat, has been assembling a collection of letters from people who listen to its broadcasts in different parts of the world. I commend them to the Minister and to those Treasury Ministers who may have forced this cut upon the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Many of those letters are not simply convincing. They are very moving. From Lons in France a listener writes: Such a decision would be harmful to the prestige of the English language and to the efforts of Western liberal diplomacy which has striven to counter the anti-Western propaganda broadcast by the powerful transmitters of totalitarian States in Eastern Europe. A listener in Serres writes of the Greek service: I heard in your programme that they are planning to abolish your external services. Why? Don't they know you are doing an excellent job? From La Coruna in Spain, a listener writes: The BBC has been like a window, opened to the free world. It is still the most trustworthy and complete information medium that we have. Those are letters expressing widely held sentiments from three countries which in future will be denied the opportunity of listening to the BBC in their own language. We know that, overwhelmingly, people who listen to the external services listen in their own languages. Lord Trevelyan, a distinguished diplomat of this country, in his witty book "Diplomatic Channels, 1973" wrote: …the most effective British activity in the wide realm of information is the overseas service of the BBC, which is why the Russians dislike it. Apart from the fact of the decision to make the cuts, surely the timing could not have been worse, or the choice of the area in which these cuts will be made. We are cutting these key areas at a time when the European Community is enlarging and when we are experiencing political difficulties with France.

I want to mention Greece and Spain. The decision to cut the broadcasts to Greece in Greek seems literally crazy. I do not know whether the Minister heard of the BBC week that was held in Athens recently. People came together from the political, social, diplomatic and academic world to pay tribute to the service that the BBC had given to Greece during the time of the authoritarian regime. Now, when good will is flowering in Greece towards the service of the BBC, that service is being cut. The affection with which the BBC is looked upon in Greece can hardly be overstated.

In Spain, where more than 500,000 people listen to the BBC in Spanish and which is an applicant for membership of the EEC, where we have and are likely to continue to have a problem over Gibraltar, where the explanation of our case in Spanish to the Spanish people seems to be of pre-eminent importance, we are going to cut our voice off from those Spaniards who might be influenced by it.

An international broadcasting authority which does not broadcast in French cannot claim to be a serious international broadcasting authority. Apart from the immediate audience in metropolitan France and in French Africa, the very fact that one is not covering French in one's services is an abdication of the role of a serious and important broadcasting authority.

In almost every one of the countries where the services in the vernacular are being cut, we have been through difficult years, when our broadcasts were often unwelcome. Suddenly, the barriers have begun to come down. The broadcasts are more welcome and the investment might be about to pay off substantially—yet now is the time that we intend to cut it.

On 23 November 1977, Lord Home of the Hirsel said in the House of Lords that the Overseas Service of the BBC was accepted far and wide as the most objective presentation of world events. He said that it was a British asset which should not be put at risk by paring and pinching. He said, indeed, that an increase in its budget would be a good investment. Many hon. Members echo those sentiments.

4.16 p.m.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Peter Blaker)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) on initiating this debate. I have also listened attentively to the other hon. Members who have taken part. My hon. Friend quoted from the pamphlet which we both wrote. I think that he will concede that the words he quoted were written in the context of broadcasting to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and those services are not to be cut, as I think he knows.

Details of the effects of the Government's public expenditure review as it concerns the BBC external services were announced yesterday as follows: The grant in aid paid by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the BBC for the operation of the External Services will be reduced by £2.7 million in 1980–81 and subsequent years. The World Service will continue unchanged; and, subject to some economies, a plan to improve audibility will go ahead without delay. Vernacular services to the developing world and to those countries which do not enjoy free and open access to information will also be largely unaffected. The following vernacular services, however, will be discontinued: French, Italian, Greek, Turkish, Spanish (but not including Spanish to Latin America), Burmese and Maltese. There will be some reductions in transcription services and some adjustments to the capital expenditure programme to improve audibility.

Mr. Peter Shore (Stepney and Poplar)

Before the Minister proceeds to commit himself—as I fear he is about to commit himself—too deeply in this matter, may I remind him that there is almost certainly a majority in the House against the preliminary decision announced in the White Paper? I ask him to reflect upon that.

Mr. Blaker

I take note of what the right hon. Gentleman says. I have a lot to say, because there is a lot of explaining to be done—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—explaining which I think will clear up some points which are not at the moment clear to hon. Members.

The cut of £2.7 million is a cut for 1980–81 and subsequent years on a figure of £47.9 million, which had been the planned expenditure for 1980–81, at 1979 survey prices. The grant-in-aid for the current financial year is £43.5 million, at 1979 survey prices. Provision had been made for an increase in real terms in the grant in aid in 1980–81 to meet additional capital expenditure.

The House will wish to note that even after the cuts the BBC's grant-in-aid will be larger, in real terms, in 1980–81 than in the current financial year. The reason for this is that substantial extra sums are provided for 1980–81 for capital spending to improve audibility. The Government have thought it right to maintain most of this capital spending programme, and that more than half of the £2.7 million cut should fall on some of the vernacular services.

I am sure that the House will understand that the Government did not take these decisions lightly. We have been impressed by the intensity and depth of feeling expressed in Parliament, in the media, and by correspondence from many parts of the world in support of the BBC's external services, but the context in which this decision has been made is the overriding need to reduce Government expenditure. After taking everything into account, the Government decided that the BBC should not be exempted from making its contribution.

But, unlike almost everyone else, for the BBC external services economies will end with this contribution. As the House knows, Government Departments, including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, are being reviewed by my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord President, with the prospect that they will be obliged to suffer further staff cuts. The BBC external services will be exempt from that.

The contribution that the external services are asked to make is much less serious than many people seem to have feared.

Mr. Percy Grieve (Solihull)


Mr. Blaker

I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will not interrupt me. I have a lot to say that is of great interest, and hon. Members can study my remarks in Hansard.

For months we have seen forecasts that either the whole Arabic service would be cut or that virtually all services to Africa might be cut, or those to Latin America or to Asia, or a combination of these. These were combined with predictions that in any event at least one relay station would have to go. None of these things will happen. As a result of careful discussion and examination between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the BBC over recent months, the Government have been able to produce proposals that involve very much more modest reductions than the BBC had feared a few months ago. I pay tribute to those who have worked so hard on the problem.

One national newspaper reported this week that the reduction would wipe out Britain as an external broadcaster to be taken seriously. That is certainly not true. The World Service in English—for the information of the vast majority of people who have made representations to us, that is the BBC external services—remains untouched. I ask hon. Members to take account of the fact that when people write in about the dangers of cuts they are, in most cases, referring to the BBC World Service.

Mr. Scott


Mr. Blaker

No, I will not give way.

No existing transmitters will be lost, and, indeed, audibility will be steadily improved. The vernacular services to countries that have closed societies, and to the developing world, with very few exceptions, are preserved, and will also benefit from improvements in audibility.

A total of £1.7 million of the reductions will come from the vernacular services. This is exactly the same sum as the previous Administration were planning to save on these services. Of the vernacular services that will be discontinued, French represents more than half of the programme hours being cut and costs more than £650,000. Any cut is, of course, regrettable, but I wonder how much damage this cut will do. The French do not broadcast to us in English; nor do the Italians. I wonder how many people there are in France who regularly listen to the BBC in French. I know that my hon. Friend quoted a figure of 1.9 million people as regular listeners. That figure was based on a poll taken by a reputable organisation. However, I do not think that people in France talk in the same way about the BBC external services as they do in Asia and Africa.

If people in France have a particular interest in Britain, or in the BBC external services, most of them are likely to be able to understand English. If so, they can listen to the World Service, which broadcasts round the clock and will continue to do so.

Much the same applies to the other European languages in the list, only one of which—Greek—broadcasts for more than one hour per day, at a cost, incidentally, of approximately £200,000 per year. None of the countries concerned broadcasts to us in English. Anyone in any of those countries who understands English can listen to the BBC World Service.

It has been suggested, since the proposed economies were first announced, that the BBC will lose wavelengths which it could subsequently never hope to regain. I can assure the House that it does not automatically follow that cutting a vernacular service means the loss of its frequency. The BBC World Service in English and vernacular services already share some wavelengths. I would like to assure the House that every effort will be made to ensure that existing frequencies are retained.

Mr. Grieve

I declare an interest, because I broadcast frequently to France. Does my hon. Friend not consider that at this time there has never been a greater need for us to get our policies, and our understanding of Europe, across to the French people? This is done very successfully by the BBC European and French services.

Mr. Blaker

Certainly it is important that we should get our policies across to the French people, but there are many ways of doing that. As for the reduction in transcription services and adjustments to the capital expenditure programme which together will provide savings of approximately £1 million, we expect that up to half of this sum will come from transcription services, which are concerned with the recording and distribution to foreign radio stations of BBC programmes mainly of a cultural kind. The remainder will come from adjustments to the capital expenditure programme to improve audibility. Provision has already been made over the next five years to the value of £25 million for this programme.

The latest technical information, however, suggests that it may not be possible to carry out some part of this programme in any case, for reasons entirely unconnected with the British Government, but what is certain is that by far the major part of this programme will now go ahead with all speed, resulting in substantial improvements in audibility.

Mr. Neville Sandelson (Hayes and Harlington)

Greece, about which the hon. Member for Chelsea (Mr. Scott) spoke so eloquently, is imminently joining the Western Community. The Minister told us that there will be a saving of what I consider to be the paltry sum of £200,000 as a result of cutting out the Greek service. Is he aware of the economic consequences for this country of what might be taken as a calculated insult by the people of Greece at this time—a time when so many British industrialists are trying to get into the Greek market with orders which could be worth millions of pounds to this country?

Mr. Blaker

All the relevant consequences have been considered in what has obviously been a very difficult process of decision making.

I believe that all of us agree that the BBC's external services fulfil an important role and fulfil it well. All of us must regret the need for these economies. If our national output had grown as much as that of other countries over the last five years, if the previous Government had not so disastrously mismanaged our economy over the last five years and if they had not behaved in such a profligate manner in the last five years, things would have been different. The Government have had to find savings of £3½ billion in order to give our economy once again the chance to return to health.

The result is that there are many reductions in spending plans, which, individually, hon. Members will regret. Every hon. Member has his own priorities, but I believe that my hon. Friends will all agree that the broad thrust of the Government's decisions announced yesterday is necessary and right.

In that situation, I hope that my hon. Friends who have spoken in this debate will understand why the Government decided that the BBC external services should play their part and will agree with me that the reductions that the BBC has been called on to make will leave the external services as services of which Britain can still be proud and which will still exert a powerful influence for good.

Question put and agreed to.

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