HC Deb 04 February 1985 vol 72 cc722-8

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

11.41 pm
Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)

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.] Those are not my words, but the words of Lord Carrington, when he was Foreign Secretary, in opening his speech on this subject in another place in July 1981. But, of course, I agree with him completely.

Three years later in a television interview Lord Carrington said: 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 the time has now come, really, when the Treasury and the Government ought to look at cutting out a function in Government rather than cheeseparing on the things that are essential and have to be done. I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss in the House the future of the BBC external services and to draw attention to the appalling way in which those services have been treated by Governments of both parties in recent years. Those two quotes that I read admirably outline my case, and I hope that the second will at least prevent my hon. Friend the Minister from suggesting in his reply that no damage has been done.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Sir A. Kershaw), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, rightly pointed out during a debate in the House in July 1981; 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 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.] Exactly so, and the position has become worse since 1981.

The Government have put a thick smokescreen over the figures. I could devote my speech to debating with my hon. Friend, whose difficult task it is tonight to defend a bad record and a worse case, the detailed statistics, but the heart of the matter is that the reduction of £1.2 million envisaged for 1985–86 will be the ninth cut in the working revenue of the external services in 10 years. I have the size of the reduction in the working revenue for each of those 10 years in front of me. Incidentally, £1.2 million is roughly what the National Coal Board pays out by lunch time.

The cuts of 1982 ended Spanish for Europe, the Italian and the Maltese services. French for Europe and the Brazilian service were halved. In the Falklands war, the two nations in Europe least sympathetic to us because of their historical ties were Spain and Italy, with France not far behind. In the BBC handbook for 1984, I find these words: 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 Argentine invasion of the Falklands came at a tame when the External Services had just suffered the most wide-spread operational cut for many years. Morale amongst highly-motivated staff had been considerably shaken and many talented broadcasters had been lost. I am told that morale is still shaky, and talented broadcasters are still being lost.

The grant to the vital transcription service, which supplies recorded programmes for re-broadcasting to over 100 countries, has been reduced by £300,000 and the number of programme hours reduced from 500 per annum to 350. I am well aware of the admirable capital expenditure programme that the Government are funding over nine years, to replace transmitters—some of which were installed during the second world war—at home and abroad. However, our praise for that costly programme must not prevent us from appreciating the crisis that is approaching. On present projections, and if the Foreign Office is not able to make up the loss resulting from a falling pound, which has already added well over £1 million per annum to costs, in the next three years services could be faced with cuts of about 10 per cent.

On the Order Paper is an early-day motion put down by six of my hon. Friends and signed by some 70 hon. Friends, calling for an increase in resources for the services. The recently published Public Expenditure White Paper suggests that an increase in resources is unlikely. Without an increase, half a dozen language services could be faced with the axe. What I find so depressing and deplorable is that above the Whitehall table there are golden words of praise for these services, while below the table the knife is cutting deeper into the bones, the flesh having been removed years ago.

The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has strongly reiterated its view that funds should be found to enable the BBC to resume the Caribbean service, which was cut in 1974. This would cost approximately £250,000 per annum. Post the invasion of Grenada, this would appear to be an obvious move, but I learn that the service is not to be resumed. There is an overwhelming case to broadcast to Afghanistan for more than a miserable half an hour a day.

I must warn my hon. Friend that unless there is a change of heart by the Government, the row that has been going on between Front and Back Benches since 1979 over the future of these services will reach a crescendo. I do not believe that the Conservative parliamentary party will sit idly by between now and the general election, and watch the life blood of a fine organisation dribble away.

Over many years, I have found the whole system of funding to be wholly unsatisfactory. The Foreign Office has been responsible for accounting for grants in aid only since 1977–78. For the three years before that, the responsibility rested with the Home Office, and before that with the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications. Since 1979 there has been equal misery all round within the Foreign Office Vote. It is essential, as any of the great commercial organisations could explain to the Government, that Bush house should be funded for at least three years at a time. I note that the review, which I praise for its detailed scrutiny, is at least moving in that direction. There is bound to be inefficient use of capital at present.

In theory the head of the external services should be responsible to the BBC board of governors but, like the review, I accept that close links with the Foreign Office are desirable. The present position would be laughable if it did not damage our reputation abroad, as I am sure our ambassadors, high commissioners and representatives are confirming in their dispatches.

The House will know that international broadcasting is a growth business. I am told that in 1955 there were thought to be 237 million radio sets in the world; today there are 1,600 million. The Voice of America has been given $1.2 billion dollars for its expansion plan. The intention is to increase the number of languages in which it broadcasts from 42 to 60. It is worth noting what has happened recently in France. As part of an austerity budget its foreign relations expenditure was reduced all round except for one item, which was external broadcasting. This has increased by the equivalent of about £3 million. The Japanese are expanding their overseas radio as well. The Soviet Union has expanded its output and dominates the airwaves in terms of hours broadcast. It broadcasts for 2,200 hours per week compared with the BBC's 727. There are 98 other international broadcasters, many of whom are anxious to obtain unused frequencies.

In 1987 the World Administrative Radio Conference meets in Geneva to discuss the allocation of frequencies and hard bargaining is expected. If the Government are to force Bush house to cut further language services, skilled operators and audiences will be lost. There is a real possibility also that frequencies will be lost as well.

In 1979 it was proposed that Turkey should be cut out, but Parliament prevented that. The following year the Foreign Office came back with a request that broadcasts to Turkey should be increased. It is a schoolboy howler to put it about that Britain does not need to speak to her friends. Our relationships with our European Community partners have been damaged by both ignorance and misunderstanding of our position on a range of sensitive issues.

The Government sometimes behave like a small boy who is given a gold watch and is quite unaware of its worth. Britain has the largest overseas audience——100 million—and the best overseas broadcasting services, and we treat them shamefully.

Like most of my hon. Friends, I want our past successes in overseas broadcasting to be built on and not pulled down. I want them expanded and I should like to see the Government supporting the BBC's plans for an international television service with an investment of about £5 million over two years. Without such a service I fear that Britain might be beaten by other countries or commercial operators in world television broadcasting.

Finally, I draw to the attention of my colleagues a remark by, of all people, Colonel Gaddafi. He said: All the Arab radios rave from dawn 'till noon but nobody listens to them because everyone switches on London. Are there those in high places in the Government who can see not only what the BBC external services have achieved in 53 years but what they could achieve for our country and for our dangerously divided and turbulent world in the 21st century? Without vision the people perish.

11.53 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Tim Renton)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) for raising the future of the BBC's external services on the Adjournment. I welcome the debate and my hon. Friend's comments about the high regard in which the House holds the BBC's external services. I do not agree with his remark that we have treated these services shamefully. I hope to show him why I disagree.

The future of so valuable an asset as the BBC external services is naturally a matter of interest and concern to us all. It was precisely with this in mind that, following discussions between the Foreign Office and the external services' management, the BBC board of governors invited a review of the external services in July last year —the first of its kind for 10 years. The team appointed to carry out the review submitted its report simultaneously to my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary and to the chairman of the board of governors.

We have now heard from the board that it, like us, welcomes this thorough and thoughtful examination of the activities of the external services and has agreed to publish the main report. I have therefore arranged for copies to be placed in the Library.

Hon. Members will not yet have had a chance to study the report in full detail, but it is lengthy and contains numerous recommendations. We are still considering our response to it, but I should like to take this opportunity to underline some of the main points in it.

I am happy to say that the review team confirmed the external services' reputation for the quality, accuracy and impartiality of its output, which serves to enhance Britain's image abroad. It was impressed by the dedication, professional skills and motivation of the external services' staff.

There were some criticisms, though. The review team emphasised, for example, that, for the external services to maintain their position in the world, the resources available must be used in the most efficient and sensible ways. It recommended some changes to Foreign Office procedures, and an increased flow of information between the BBC external services and the Foreign Office, to enable the Foreign Office to carry out more effectively its responsibilities for the prescription of the services and for the control of the grant-in-aid to the external services.

The team recommended improved systems and organisation within the external services to achieve more effective use of resources. In addition, following a detailed study of some activities, some changes were recommended, which are estimated to result in annual savings of up to £1.6 million during the next few years.

The team recommended that consideration should be given to fixing the grant-in-aid at the same time as the BBC licence fee—and for the same period—to improve the management and efficiency of the external services. This is a crucial recommendation, which we are naturally studying with special care.

On the future of high frequency transmission and the possible impact of new technology on external broadcasting, the team concluded that the situation should be kept under regular and systematic review. Clearly, new technology in communications is developing quickly and we must examine the opportunities carefully. Detailed discussions will now begin between the Foreign Office and the external services on the follow-up to these recommendations.

We welcome this report and the contribution it will make to improving the effectiveness and economy with which the external services are run. The relationship between the Government and the BBC in respect of the external services, including the Government's responsibilities for prescription and funding and the management responsibilities of the BBC board of governors, are clearly laid down in the royal charter and the licence and agreement. Nothing in the report implies any change in that relationship and those responsibilities, or in the traditional editorial independence of the external services.

We hope that the report will provide a firm foundation for the future development of the external services and that it will lead to improvements in the efficiency, effectiveness and economy with which they are run.

My hon. Friend referred to the capital programme. It is clear that many people have been misled by unfounded speculation about cuts. They have perhaps lost sight of the first objective — the improvement of the external services' worldwide audibility.

As my hon. Friend said, the Government are devoting over £100 million in 1981 prices to a 10-year development programme which is now almost half-way through. As a result of new medium wave transmitters at Ofordness and short wave transmitters at Rampisham, audibility has already been improved in many parts of Europe, including Eastern Europe, and new aerials in Cyprus have improved the quality of broadcasts to the Soviet Union and the Middle East. We had hoped to be well advanced at this stage in the construction of a short wave transmitting station in the United Kingdom at Bearley in order to make further essential improvements in audibility in Eastern Europe. However, after a lengthy public inquiry it was found, as my hon. Friend will know, that the site was unsuitable on environmental and technical grounds. We accepted this decision, of course, but it means a considerable setback to this very important part of the audibility programme. We are giving consideration to finding a solution to this problem and I am hopeful we shall overcome it.

On the other hand, work on the construction of a relay station in Hong Kong has been accelerated so that a start was made last year and, with an extra £2 million which we are pumping in in 1985–86, the project will now be completed in 1987–88, a year ahead of schedule, bringing significant improvements in audibility in the Far East, particularly in China and Japan. Plans are also far advanced to build another relay station to improve audibility in East Afica and I hope it may be possible to accelerate the present schedule so as to build that station over the next three years.

On cuts, my hon. Friend referred in astringent terms to the damage that, in his judgment, has been done, I appreciate that his main concern is about the alleged cuts in the currents expenditure of the external services, but in fact the grant-in-aid to the external services over the past five years has shown a real increase above inflation of some 18 per cent. At the same time the BBC has maintained broadcasting levels of between 716 and 725 hours a week in English and some 36 other languages.

My hon. Friend referred specifically to the cuts in services in 1982, but I should like to point out to him that in 1982 only the half-hour Maltese service was cut completely. The Spanish to Europe service, to which he referred, and the Italian direct services were replaced by recorded services for rebroadcasting locally, and the French to Europe, Portuguese to Brazil and transciption services were each reduced by rather less than one-half. In return, these reductions were offset by increases in other services. For example, the Latin-American Spanish service was increased by 8 hours 45 minutes a week, following the Falklands invasion, and the Pushtu service to Afghanistan was doubled to 3½ hours a week. Therefore in 1985–86, contrary to popular belief, the grant-in-aid will not be cut but will be maintained at its 1984 level, uplifted by the factors applicable to all public expenditure.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend

The BBC external services are very sensitive to the falling pound and the increased costs and are hoping that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will have some happy news. Would my hon. Friend like to be in the happy position of being able to give them happy news tonight?

Mr. Renton

No, I am not in the position of being able to give new happy news to the external services, but I should like to repeat to my hon. Friend something that my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary has said before: that, in addition to the factors applicable to all public expenditure that I have just mentioned, the external services will receive an extra £700,000 towards BBC pay increases above the civil service norm.

My hon. Friend talked of the £l.2 million that the external services will not receive. I appreciate that they requested that sum for disbursement mainly on increased pay-related allowances in 1985–86. As a result of the severe pressure on all Government spending, it was not possible to exempt the external services completely from the economies that have affected the whole range of our representation overseas. We therefore asked them to find this sum from their own resources. My hon. Friend talked of life blood being drained away, but I must point out to him, and I am pleased to say this, that the external services have informed us that, despite difficulties, they will indeed be able to make the necessary savings without cutting any of their broadcasting services.

In the few months during which I have been a Minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office I have been struck that so many people that I have met, from Norway to the sub-continent, have paid great compliments to the external services of the BBC. Those remarks were echoed in the opening sentences of my hon. Friend's speech tonight.

I recently visited Pakistan and Bangladesh, two important countries, where I found a large number of people who told me of the pleasure with which they listened to the BBC. At any given time many millions of people throughout the world are listening to the external services of the BBC. The House will appreciate that it is that fact that makes it so important that their transmission of British news should be accurate and impartial. A major responsibility lies on their shoulders to convey a fair picture free from bias at all times and I have no doubt that they are well aware of that.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes past Twelve o' clock.