HL Deb 27 January 1976 vol 367 cc730-3

2.53 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are proposing to cut by £600,000 the provision for the BBC external services, and, if so, whether this is in the long-term interests of Britain.


My Lords, Her Majesty's Government believe that the long-term interests of Britain are served by maintaining the BBC External Services at a high level. The Government have, however, had to undertake a general review of planned public expenditure, the results of which will be published in a White Paper next month. The External Services will have to bear a share of the reductions to be made, as will other parts of the Overseas Information Programme and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office itself.


My Lords, while thanking the Minister for his reply, may I ask whether he is aware that last week I received from the Middle East a letter on behalf of local people and Britons overseas, expressing grave concern at the proposal for these cuts of some £600,000 in the BBC External Services? Is the noble Lord further aware that the letter I received was completely unsolicited and that I have not entered into any correspondence on this subject with anybody in that area? Is the noble Lord further aware that a cheque for £100 was sent to me with a request that I should publish these fears, and that that letter, again, was unsolicited? May I ask the noble Lord whether he has seen the article in the Daily Telegraph of 26th January which stated that these cuts would isolate those living under tyranny, would weaken political influence, destroy known audience habits and damage British trade? Apart from the remarkable credit which is due to the BBC for the confidence they have established by their external broadcasts, may I ask whether the noble Lord believes that this is really the time to consider any cut in these Services?


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for the information he has given and I am impressed by the example of concern, which we all share, about any undue or dangerous cuts in this excellent Service. The noble Lord and the House may be assured that after the White Paper is published we shall, as always, closely consult the BBC itself to find out where and how the necessary cuts may best be made.


My Lords, while recognising, as one must, that whenever anybody tries to save any money there is always a good excuse for not doing so, may I ask the noble Lord and the Government to have another look at this particular issue? It seems at the present moment that there is increased propaganda from the Communist countries and indeed increased trouble around the world. Would the noble Lord not agree that it is very important that the British point of view, and the truth, should be known to everybody?


My Lords, that is certainly a fair view and one which the noble Lord and the House have the right to expect that Her Majesty's Government will take fully into account in considering this matter.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in many respects the External Services of the BBC are much more important than the internal service and that many of us who occassionally broadcast—and here I declare an interest in the matter—on the External Services receive many letters which are unsolicited, as in the case of the noble Lord opposite? They appreciate this service and it is a form of propaganda which at this time is most essential. Would my noble friend be kind enough to make representations to his right honourable friend for this matter to be reconsidered?


My Lords, in so far as my noble friend needs anybody to help him in putting forward his representations, I gladly undertake to do so.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether the Government, when considering how the information services should be cut, will take into account the fact that these Services represent probably the most efficient part of our information work abroad?


My Lords, could the noble Lord tell us whether there is to be a flat percentage cut on everybody? Could he say whether, for instance, the BBC and the British Council are being submitted to a similar cut?—because I think that many of us would feel that the BBC services are of far greater benefit.


My Lords, the aim is to get an equitable norm of cuts, of course, and not to stick too rigidly to a flat rate. I note with interest and some sympathy what the noble Lord said in the latter part of his supplementary.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that it helps to put this matter into perspective if one realises that, to take two sample services—that in Hindi and that in Bulgarian—the total annual cost of them is approximately equal to the sum that has just been expended on the purchase of a second residence for our Ambassador to Brazil? Secondly, is the noble Lord not aware that during times of difficulty for our country it is more, and not less, import ant that the world should learn of world news through British eyes, that it should hear the virtues of an open and tolerant society, and that this country's successes as well as its failures should be recorded? Would the noble Lord also agree that it is not an economy to cut this service and to damage this asset, but that it is essentially wasteful so to do?


My Lords, I am sure that every part of the House will strongly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hill, on the need for such a service to announce the successes as well as the difficulties of this country when broadcasting to other countries. One hopes that the balance of presentation will be maintained and, indeed, improved in some respects in the future, as it has been in the past. As to the first part of his supplementary question, he is too old a Ministerial hand to think that he can get away with the law of comparative costs. He must know that the purchase of a building for diplomatic purposes in another country is probably counter-balanced by the sale of another building with great profit to this country. It is a little adventurous of the noble Lord, with his great experience, to tease me into what I call the dubious law of comparative costs.


My Lords, perhaps the profit on this building, if it were sold, could go towards improving the External Services of the BBC.

The LORD PRIVY SEAL (Lord Shepherd)

My Lords, may I reprove the noble Lord the Leader of the Liberal Party for going beyond the Question on the Order Paper? This is a matter of interest, but there are some 35 speakers on the next business, so may I suggest that we move to the debate?