HL Deb 26 July 1979 vol 401 cc2035-40

3.6 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 propose to reduce the level of grants for the BBC's external services; and if so, which foreign language services will be withdrawn.


My Lords, the Government arc engaged in reviewing all aspects of future plans for public expenditure. The conclusions reached will be published, as usual, in the Public Expenditure White Paper.


My Lords, in thanking the Foreign Secretary for that reply, may I ask him whether he is aware that those of us who take the view that it is necessary to exercise restraint over public expenditure would be less than honest were we to say that any service in which we had a particular interest should be sacrosanct when it comes to a review? However, having said that, I should like to put two specific points to the noble Lord. First, is he aware that many of us would take the view that a withdrawal of the foreign language services to Eastern Europe would cause many of us the gravest anxiety? Secondly, is he aware that, following suggestions in the Press that there might be some withdrawal of foreign language services to South-West Europe, many of us would be concerned about—to take one obvious example—the withdrawal of the foreign language service to Portugal, whom we soon hope to welcome as a full member of the European Economic Community?

Lastly, is the noble Lord aware of the fact that the BBC's external services have won themselves a reputation for competence and integrity which is the envy not only of many of our friends but of many of our enemies as well? Will he recognise—as I am sure he will—that once one of these services is withdrawn, it will probably be withdrawn permanently?


My Lords, I do not think that I could honestly disagree with much of what the noble Lord has said. The difficulty is that, if the Government are seeking to restrain public expenditure, cuts will have to be made probably almost everywhere, and we must seek to minimise whatever damage might be done by the cuts. There will be cuts in plans for increased expenditure —not in the actuality—but any cuts in the BBC's external services will be very carefully negotiated, and discussions will take place with the BBC itself.


My Lords, will not any substantial reduction in the overseas services of the BBC amount in effect to telling large numbers of foreigners that we are so broke that we are contemplating suicide?


I think that that would be rather a drastic way of putting it, my Lords.


My Lords, will my noble friend recognise that, when on previous occasions there has been an attempt by Government to cut the BBC's overseas services, there has been very strong opposition on an all-party basis to that intention? Will my noble friend bear in mind that this is one of the least expensive methods of projecting the United Kingdom overseas, and that it is vitally important to the policies he is carrying out at present? Can we rely upon him to oppose such cuts, as did his predecessor at the Foreign Office—bearing in mind that, if it is a principle of the Treasury that cuts should be spread equally across the board, that is a most unintelligent policy indeed?


My Lords, of course I am well aware of the feeling that exists about the external services of the BBC, and my noble friend is quite right to remind me of it. But of course everybody can always make out a very good case as to why their particular areas of interest should not be cut or have proposed increases restrained, and the Government have to take an overall view of these matters.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that under present circumstances, which we totally appreciate, there is a great temptation for Governments to make a neat cut? In my view my own Government once made a great mistake about external students. I should like to ask the noble Lord whether he can resist the temptation to say, " Well, here's £4 million—thank goodness that we can get rid of that! That will help in our overall cuts ". Is the noble Lord aware that those of us who attend international conferences in many parts of the world have recently become aware of an enormous increase in the external broadcasts of other countries, which has partly been due to the success of our external broadcasts? The change in the past five years has been quite extraordinary. Will the noble Lord bear that in mind and perhaps try to prevent his axe from falling in this particular area?


My Lords, I will of course bear all these considerations in mind, and they will be the reasons for the discussions we shall have with the BBC. But I would remind the noble Baroness that, of course, the previous Government's plans were to cut the BBC external services. Yes; in the White Paper that they produced there were plans to cut the vernacular services of the BBC.


Not by £4 million, my Lords.

Viscount ST. DAVIDS

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, even taking into account the complaints that there will be in this country, the greatest complaints of all about these cuts will in fact come from many people overseas, who very much value these services?


Yes, my Lords; I am sure that is true.


My Lords, would the noble Lord bear in mind when considering the question of timing that it is only a few weeks since the Soviet Union instituted an English language broadcast service under the familiar name of The World Service, and that this would make it a particularly inopportune year to reduce our own, well-established World Service in English?


My Lords, I would hope that that would be the priority not to reduce.


My Lords, while the Minister will recall that one of the United Kingdom's most distinguished diplomatists —namely, the noble Lord, Lord Trevelyan —wrote in 1973 that, …the most effective British activity in the wide realm of information is the overseas service of the BBC, which is why the Russians dislike it ", and furthermore, while being aware that the cost of the overseas service must be less than guns, if not, indeed, of butter, may I ask whether he would seriously reconsider the pruning of this invaluable service to the nation?


My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for reminding me of that.


My Lords, would my noble friend not agree with the old saying that the pen is mightier than the sword? Therefore, although I agree with my noble friend that public expenditure cuts are absolutely essential, would he not agree that the external services of the BBC are perhaps one of the places where there should be no cuts?


My Lords, as an ex-Secretary of State for Defence I would hesitate to run down the sword.


My Lords, since the noble Lord referred to the cuts which the previous Administration were said to be going to make, may I ask him whether he is aware that ours were in the nature of something like £1.7 million, whereas the present Administration are proposing £4 million?


My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether he will consider very seriously the reports that these cuts may apply to Africa and Asia? Is he aware that many of us receive from different countries in Africa, from India and from Malaysia, letters paying tribute to the objectivity of the BBC's World Service? In view of the enormous importance of these areas in the future, and of British influence there, may I ask him whether he will be very careful not to cut off services to these territories?


We must be very careful, clearly, my Lords, where cuts are made.


My Lords, does my noble friend understand that we appreciate that he has to make cuts in the public service in order to get within the £8½ million public sector borrowing requirement instead of the £10 million legacy which he has inherited, but would he examine whether this is really the best way to cut expenditure within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office? This manner of propagating the British way of life is a very cheap and very effective way, and it may be that it ought to take priority over other ways.


My Lords, I think the truth of the matter is that there will have to be reductions in public expenditure everywhere.


My Lords, in reply to Lord Harris of Greenwich I think the noble Lord admitted that these particular cuts would be damaging—

Several noble Lords: Order, order!


My Lords, having admitted that these cuts will be damaging, would the noble Lord then explain to us why he is making them?


I did not say that, my Lords. I said we had to make sure that the cuts were not damaging.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that those of us who are involved in trade, particularly with East Europe—as I suppose I must declare an interest here—are constantly made aware in our discussions that the BBC broadcasts create an atmosphere of sympathy and understanding of Britain which is vital in our trade discussions, and that these cuts are liable to be very damaging to our trade prospects?


My Lords, I do not think the noble Lord knows what the cuts will be, so he is not in a position to say how damaging they would be or whether they would be damaging at all.


My Lords, will my noble friend give consideration to encouraging the BBC to reduce its budget in less necessary areas, areas of less consequence, and perhaps to retain this vital service, which I am sure he values as much as any other Member of this House?


My Lords, the difficulty of that, of course, is that this is a particular part of the BBC. The BBC external services are financed wholly by the Government, and I think it would be very difficult to do what my noble friend suggests.