HL Deb 07 July 1981 vol 422 cc577-80

2.59 p.m.

Lord Strabolgi

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 will reconsider their decision to require the BBC to cut seven language services from the BBC external services in view of the damage that will be caused to the worldwide standing and effectiveness of the external services.

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Lord Carrington)

No, my Lords. As I made clear in my written reply to the noble Lord on 29th June, the Government are determined to improve the audibility of the BBC's external services. To this end we would be prepared to make a substantial increase in the grant-in-aid for the BBC's external services. Within this new, increased total I am certain it is right to concentrate the money on a proper modernisation and expansion of the transmitting facilities, even if, sadly, it means a small reduction in some vernacular broadcasts.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, while thanking the noble Lord the Foreign Secretary for answering my Question, I should like to ask him whether it is not a fact that the new capital expenditure programme only restores the cuts made by the present Government in 1979. Furthermore, are the Government aware that the European services alone have 5 million listeners? Will the noble Lord the Foreign Secretary reconsider this decision, which has been almost universally deplored, in view of the importance of these foreign language broadcasts and the small expenditure involved?

Lord Carrington

No, my Lords, the noble Lord opposite is really wrong about this. In 1979 the Government announced cuts in the BBC external services amounting to about £2.7 million annually, to be carried on over the years. Those cuts were taken on the capital improvement programme. Since then, in the two years which have intervened the income of the BBC external services has risen from £42.8 million in 1979–80 to £64.5 million in this current year. If the suggestions which we are making to the BBC are accepted, it will mean that there will be a capital expenditure of the BBC external services in the next nine years of well over £100 million.

This is really a question of priorities—what one ought to do first. I think that the most important thing that the BBC external services do is to broadcast in English around the world. That is what is really important. Secondly, it is quite useless broadcasting in English all around the world if you cannot hear it. As I happen to travel about a great deal and try to get the BBC, I know that you cannot hear it. Therefore, in my judgment and in the judgment of the Government, the right priority is to spend the money on audibility and capital programmes. If that means a small loss of the vernacular I believe that that is the right priority.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, would the noble Lord the Foreign Secretary not agree that it is quite useless broadcasting in English to a country like Brazil where hardly any of the population understand the language?

Lord Carrington

My Lords, it is, as I say, a question of priorities: you have to choose to make some savings. I should not have thought myself that cutting off the broadcasts in Maltese, which happen for five minutes every day, to an island in which almost everybody speaks English, would be an unparalleled loss to the BBC.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, are the Government aware that these programmes, once they are discontinued, will be very difficult, if not impossible, to restore, the audience having been lost? Are they also aware that the Soviet Government will be overjoyed by the news that these programmes are being discontinued; that they will have the field to themselves and that they spend two or three times as much money on this kind of thing as we do?

Lord Carrington

My Lords, I would rather doubt that and I do not agree with the first part of the noble Lord's question. One only hears about cuts, but it so happens that last year we increased broadcasting in Russian by a considerable amount, broadcasting in Turkish by a considerable amount, and introduced a new service in Pushtu to Afghanistan. So it is not all that difficult.

Lord Crowther-Hunt

My Lords, on the question of priorities, I should like to ask the noble Lord the Foreign Secretary how seriously he considered as an alternative priority cutting the costs in our diplomatic service overseas. As I understand it—and is this a fact?—the savings, for example, by cutting the Spanish service of the BBC will amount to £180,000 a year, whereas the staff costs of the British Embassy in Madrid—I am referring to pay and allowances—amount to between £1.25 million and £1.5 million a year. So a 2 per cent. saving there would make it unnecessary to cut the Spanish service at all. I should like to ask the noble Lord perhaps to be kind enough to look at this question of priorities on a cost-effective basis.

Lord Carrington

My Lords, of course we have done that and I think the noble Lord should perhaps have given us the credit for having done it. May I give him a few figures—because I am well armed. Since 1st April 1979 the number of diplomatic service staff has declined by 7.3 per cent.; 15 posts have been closed, eight reduced in staff and the 10 largest posts have been reduced by 10 per cent. Since 1969 over 50 per cent. of the consulates which we have had abroad have been closed. Remembering, as I do, the outcry that there was in this House about the closure of subordinate posts some years ago, I think that your Lordships would be wary to suppose that any further closures would be a very good idea.

Lord Hill of Luton

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that although it makes sense from time to time to review the overseas broadcasting services in the light of the current situation, to look at it and to make proposals almost every year, as has been done in the last few years, is a dangerous folly? An illustration of that dangerous folly is that it was proposed a year or 18 months ago to abolish the Turkish service, but now, because of world events, the Turkish service has had to be strengthened. Does that not make nonsense of this penny-pinching economy in a service that is of unusual value in presenting this country to the world at a time that it needs it greatly?

Lord Carrington

My Lords, I have a certain sympathy with what the noble Lord says. The last thing that in normal circumstances one would want to do would be to cut the BBC external services at all. But the fact remains that we are committed to spend a very large sum of money extra on the BBC external services. It is a question of trying to discover how we can live within our budget, although it is a lot more money, and make a decision as to which are the priorities and which are not. I daresay that sometimes one gets it wrong, but it is a genuine effort to try to decide which is the more important of the activities of the BBC external services. These decisions do mean that there are certain cuts in the vernaculars, but I think that the really important things are retained—and, what is more, we shall be able to hear them.

Lord Morris

My Lords, can it be possible that Her Majesty's Government are unaware of the will of Parliament as expressed in July and November 1979 in your Lordships' House and in another place? Would not my noble friend have been the first to deplore the cavalier attitude which disregards the will of Parliament if the party of noble Lords opposite had been in power? Furthermore, for Her Majesty's Government to take credit for an increase in the budget which they themselves cut in November 1979, is nothing if not misleading.

Lord Carrington

My Lords, I do not think that my noble friend—if he still is!—can have listened to the answer to the first supplementary. Perhaps he would be kind enough to study it. As for the will of Parliament, the will of Parliament is renewable.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, would the noble Lord the Foreign Secretary not agree that there is consternation in the House this afternoon apropos this matter? Despite the figures that he has read out and his reference to a matter of principles and priorities, is there not a danger that whoever provided him with those figures may have fallen into the trap of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing?

Lord Carrington

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord also should beware of some of the figures with which he is provided, because I do not know whether they take account of all the things which the Government have to take account of. I assure the noble Lord that the figures which I have given are absolutely right. I would agree with the noble Lord that nobody likes these decisions, but if one is faced with a decision to have to make rearrangements within the BBC external services it is really up to the Government to make a decision as to how it is done. Could I just give the noble Lord one figure which is, broadly speaking, right? As regards this very large capital programme, about two-thirds of the increase will, in essence, be paid for by the Government and about one third by these comparatively small savings in the BBC.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, as regards value for money in diplomatic initiatives, the savings that may be brought about in the BBC budget will be more than compensated for by his own, personal, presence in Moscow with a new peace initiative which might bring the Soviets to the conference table in a way in which they have never been seen before? In this context, actions sometimes speak louder than words.

Lord Carrington

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. I do not think that we can go on too long about this. It may be that your Lordships will want to put down a Motion; I do not know. I would simply point out to your Lordships that the decisions taken by the Government will mean that very many millions more people will hear the BBC than can hear it now.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, is it not rather odd that some of the people who bemoan Britain's declining influence in the world seem to be the same people who are prepared to acquiesce in dismantling the machinery whereby we exert any influence?

Lord Carrington

My Lords, I do not think that the noble Lord can have heard any one of my answers.