HC Deb 10 July 1996 vol 281 cc381-4
1. Sir Teddy Taylor

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the service provided to British interests abroad by the BBC World Service. [35150]

5. Mr. McKelvey

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what plans he has to ensure that the BBC World Service continues to provide a full range of language services. [35165]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Sir Nicholas Bonsor)

The World Service is an important national asset and makes a very valuable contribution to the promotion of the United Kingdom overseas.

The Government attach great importance to the maintenance of successful language services within the World Service.

Sir Teddy Taylor

As the World Service has been able to preserve standards of truthful news, decency and balanced discussion, which have made it our most effective foreign ambassador, is the Minister aware that the cuts in the capital and revenue programme, allied to fundamental reorganisation, will inevitably lead to the curbing of some language services? Why do the Government feel obliged to upset something that is working perfectly well in our interests when there are so many things that require urgent attention?

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

My hon. Friend, with the best of intentions, is getting two things muddled up. The Government are not cutting the financing of the World Service by anything like as much as the cuts to the diplomatic wing would have suggested. We have suffered a cut of 7 per cent. in the diplomatic wing and of only 4.7 per cent. in funding for the World Service. The reorganisation of the World Service within the BBC is a matter for the BBC governors, and we have sought—and received—assurances that those changes will not in any way diminish the value and quality of the services provided.

Mr. McKelvey

Hon. Members on both sides of the House are worried that the Minister seems to be accepting the situation and is not concerned about the continuation of the service. There is widespread concern that the service will be harmed in some way. Will the Minister seriously consider stopping the reorganisation now with a view to having proper consultation with the members of staff—they have never been consulted—Ministers and representatives of those millions of beneficiaries throughout the world who fear that some harm will be done to the service? Will the Minister give that assurance?

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are as concerned as any hon. Member that the quality of the World Service should be maintained. We are in close consultation with the BBC governors. We intend to ensure that the quality of the World Service is maintained, and we will do all we can to ensure that the governors stick to their promise to us that that will be the case.

Mr. Renton

My hon. Friend the Minister has just said that the reconstruction of the World Service is a matter for the BBC governors. Surely the essential difference is that the World Service is funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, whereas the rest of the BBC is financed by the licence fee. Is my hon. Friend aware there is very great worry on both sides of the House about how the separate ethos and identity of the World Service can be maintained if all news is to be covered by BBC Worldwide and all production is to be by BBC Features? Surely in those circumstances it will be extremely hard for BBC World Service to maintain that separate identity which is at the heart of its success.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

I can assure my right hon. Friend that the mood of the House is not lost upon me. I reiterate as firmly as I can that the Government are determined to ensure that the quality of the World Service will be maintained. He is right to say that, because it is funded by grant in aid from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, we have a certain leverage in that regard—and we shall most certainly use it.

Mr. Shore

The Minister's reply is not sufficient to satisfy the House. Of course the Government should be concerned about the future of the World Service, but the point has already been made that the World Service is financed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office through grant in aid, and a proposal to merge the World Service with, or to swallow it up in, the domestic-based BBC is a major step that nobody who studies these matters would welcome.

The matter does not concern only the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Ministers in that Department. Ultimately, the grant in aid is provided because the House approves it. I seek an assurance from the Minister that the proposal by the chairman and the director-general of the BBC will now be suspended until there has been proper, full consultation in which the House of Commons is able to take an active part.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

As I said earlier, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is in close consultation with the governors, Mr. Birt and the BBC to ensure that the quality of the World Service is not affected by the proposed changes—at present they are proposals, not a fait accompli. We shall look closely to ensure that their stated purposes—to make the World Service cost-efficient and good value for money and to adapt it to the new digital systems—are the outcome. There is no question of merging the World Service in such a way as to remove its particular character. We shall do everything we can to ensure that that is not the case. As it is a Foreign and Commonwealth Office grant in aid service, we have a considerable weight that we intend to use to the full.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Can my hon. Friend name one more cost-effective and successful service than the BBC World Service?

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

If my hon. Friend is referring to other broadcast services, the current World Service is absolutely at the top of its league. However, times change and new systems have to be introduced and a constant search for continuing cost-efficiency must be encouraged.

Mr. Menzies Campbell

The Minister will be aware of the well-known military adage that one should never reinforce failure, the corollary of which is to reinforce and exploit success—in this case, the acknowledged success of the World Service. If the World Service is so successful, why is it constantly engaged in a battle for funding? Can he think of any other activity funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that gives such good value, pound for pound, as the BBC World Service?

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

The hon. and learned Gentleman, who is a former colleague on the Defence Committee, does well to use a defence parallel. We have done a great deal for the World Service. Since the Government have been in office, direct expenditure on the World Service has increased by 50 per cent. in real terms. We are extremely conscious of the value of the World Service and we shall continue to do everything in our power to ensure its continued quality. It goes out over 900 re-broadcasting stations and it is heard all over the world. We are constantly introducing new languages—we recently introduced Uzbek and Macedonian, for example. It is expanding and doing well. It is no good Opposition Members attacking us. I should like to know what guarantees they can provide on Treasury funding for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or any other Government Department.

Mr. Batiste

Can my hon. Friend assure the House that those who, like Mohammed al-Masari, incite racial hatred will not be given the opportunity to peddle their evil propaganda on the World Service?

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

It would be absolutely outrageous if Mr. al-Masari were to use the World Service or any other British service to peddle incitement to dissent in the middle east.

Mr. Robin Cook

Why does the Minister not ask John Birt how costs can possibly be cut by merging the BBC World Service with the rest of the BBC? How can it be cheaper to buy in programmes from the rest of the BBC when BBC World Service production costs are already 36 per cent. cheaper than the BBC's and its overheads are 44 per cent. cheaper? Does he recall that President Mandela said of his years in prison: what we really wanted"— was— the BBC World Service". Would not the week of President Mandela's state visit be a good time to tell John Birt to drop the proposals that threaten the distinctive ethos of the BBC World Service that has given comfort to supporters of democracy around the world and brought respect for Britain from the world?

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

That is a typical example of the right hon. Gentleman peddling trouble before anything has happened. Of course we are going to ask Mr. Birt those questions. Of course we shall seek reassurances from him that the World Service will not be in any way worse as a result of the changes. The right hon. Gentleman is making assumptions about what is being proposed. He says that what is proposed will be less effective than the arrangements under which the World Service has been operating, but he has not seen the detailed proposals. We have only just seen them, and we are in close consultation with the BBC to ensure that they are effective. We will not tolerate Mr. Birt, the BBC or anybody else fiddling with the World Service in such a way that it gets worse rather than better.

Mr. Walden

Is my hon. Friend aware that this is the second time in several months that we have discussed the World Service? There must be something worse, which is performing rather less well, to which people could devote their attention. I understand that the Government have invested an awful lot of money in the World Service. Is it not time to come to a self-denying ordinance with Mr. John Birt and leave the World Service alone for a while?

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

I can only repeat to my hon. Friend that we are in detailed discussions with Mr. Birt and others at the BBC. We must look for continued efficiency and be prepared to change as BBC transmission techniques change. We cannot just stick our heads in the mud. We are determined that the World Service should continue to provide the marvellous representation of this nation that it always has.