HC Deb 14 July 1998 vol 316 cc173-4
3. Mr. Donald Gorrie (Edinburgh, West)

If he will make a statement on future funding for the BBC World Service. [48703]

7. Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

What recent representations he has received about the funding of the BBC World Service. [48707]

15. Mr. Ross Cranston (Dudley, North)

What steps he is taking through the grant-in-aid to enable the BBC World Service to provide a multimedia service. [48715]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook)

Future funding of the World Service has been considered as part of the recent comprehensive review of public sector expenditure. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be making a statement to the House shortly.

Mr. Gorrie

I understand what the Foreign Secretary says, but we should compare financial support from Governments for international broadcasting in the current year. The United States spends 70 per cent. more than the United Kingdom, and Germany spends 40 per cent. more. In the light of that, will the Foreign Secretary ask the Chancellor to find a bit more money to help the World Service to produce the more modern services that it wants to provide, and to keep it in its well deserved position as the leading international broadcaster in the world?

Mr. Cook

I fear that, were I to do so, I should be a little bit late in the day, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I have been having words in my right hon. Friend's ear for some time. Although the hon. Gentleman rightly produced the relative spending figures, we should take pride in the fact that, despite the United States spending much more, the audience of the BBC World Service is double that of Voice of America—it is by far the most successful of the examples that he listed.

Mrs. Fyfe

As one of many British insomniacs who listen to the World Service every night, may I say how much I appreciate its independence of mind and the unique quality of the service? Long may it continue, but does my right hon. Friend agree that there must be the necessary financial provision to achieve that and to keep the World Service apart from commercial pressures? Does he remember that the World Service faced a cut of £20 million under the previous Conservative Government, which only sustained pressure from the Labour party managed to avert?

Mr. Cook

Regrettably, we did not save the World Service from a 5 per cent. cut during the last Parliament. I think that the House will wait with interest to see what contrast is revealed this afternoon.

Mr. Cranston

I know from his earlier answers that my right hon. Friend considers the BBC World Service to be one of the country's most important resources, and that he will not allow the damage to be repeated.

May I ask a specific question about television services? As my right hon. Friend may know, Voice of America offers some six foreign language services, and Deutsche Welle some three. Will my right hon. Friend seriously consider varying the terms and conditions of grant-in-aid to allow the World Service to offer vernacular television language services?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend has raised a serious issue—the importance, in the modern media world, of the World Service moving with the times. Because of that, we have listened carefully to its proposals for increased digital transmission, and for the provision of an on-line service on the internet. It is important for the World Service to be available on the most modern outlets.

We are willing to look sympathetically at an amendment to the Vote to allow the provision of a television service, but the primary interest of both the Foreign Office and, hitherto, hon. Members has been in ensuring that vernacular radio transmissions continue. I do not think that any hon. Member would want the World Service to provide television at the expense of the current vernacular radio service.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that one of the legacies of the last Government is that the BBC World Service now has more listeners than not only Voice of America, but of Deutsche Welle and Radio Moscow's world service combined? Will he confirm that the current number of vernacular services will continue, and—just for the record—will he tell us exactly how many foreign languages are broadcast on the BBC World Service?

Mr. Cook

More than 40 vernacular services are provided.

Mr. Fabricant


Mr. Cook

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's congratulations; but his preening would be more justified if we had not inherited a World Service that had been cut throughout the last Parliament, and if I had not inherited from the last Administration a public spending plan that did not contain one penny for the Oman transmitter, which is the World Service's largest single capital project.