HC Deb 12 May 1993 vol 224 cc799-800
14. Mr. Bates

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the BBC World Service.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

The World Service is an institution of great influence and prestige throughout the world. The substantial real increase in resources that we have provided, and are providing again this financial year, has enabled it to improve audibility, expand output and enhance programme quality.

Mr. Bates

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer, and for reaffirming the Government's priority in maintaining the strength and position of the BBC World Service as the leading international broadcaster. Does my hon. Friend agree that in times of international conflict and uncertainty the need for an independent and unbiased news service around the world is greater than ever? Does he further agree that this can sometimes be best achieved by placing special emphasis on developing new language services so that the programmes broadcast become more widely accessible to the people whom they seek to serve?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

I am happy to agree with my hon. Friend about the leading role that the World Service plays in the world of international broadcasting and its tremendous achievements. It is due to Foreign and Commonwealth Office recognition of those achievements, which have been followed by substantial assistance and funding that the World Service has been able to do so well in recent years. In the past three year funding period, for example, broadcasts were increased by more than 10 per cent. and two new languages in areas of tension—Ukrainian and Albanian—were introduced.

Mr. George Robertson

Is the Minister aware that his views on the World Service, and those of the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Bates), are shared throughout the House? The service is held in the highest esteem throughout the globe, not just in terms of the quality of its broadcasting but in terms of its reliability. It is widely regarded as the most reliable broadcasting service on the planet. Does the Minister recognise that there is genuine concern about the future funding of the World Service, given that it has been warned that it may well face substantial cuts in the Treasury spending blitz that is ahead of us? If it were to share in those cuts and its service were cut back, that would be not just a disgrace but hugely counterproductive to Britain's national interest.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

I am fully aware of the widespread acclaim for the World Service in all parts of the House and I emphasise that the funding increase for the World Service from the Foreign Office budget over the past 10 years or so has been 40 per cent. in real terms. This year, the increase has been £10 million, which is way above the rate of inflation. What has happened—this is what the hon. Gentleman is referring to—is that the Foreign Office has been in touch with the World Service and said that, depending on the outcome of the public expenditure survey, we shall have to have discussions and if the Foreign Office is unable to meet the aspirations of the World Service, its funding will be put on the same footing as the rest of the Foreign Office budget when it comes to reviewing expenditure.

Sir Peter Tapsell

Does my right hon. Friend recall that, on a previous occasion when the Treasury required economies to be made in the foreign service budget, one of the economies made was to close down Spanish broadcasts to Latin America a few weeks before the Argentines invaded the Falkland Islands? Will he make absolutely certain that this immensely valuable institution, which does more for British influence and prestige throughout the world than probably any other activity of the Foreign Office, is protected from the next round of economy cuts?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

I am grateful to receive the message of my hon. Friend in the spirit of support for the World Service. I do not believe that there are any cuts in prospect in terms of languages from the World Service. My hon. Friend has referred to an earlier occasion when there were threats; it is since then that the World Service has expanded in such a tremendous way.

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