§ 6.5 p.m.
§ Lord Byers rose to ask Her Majesty's Government why, in view of the opinions expressed in this House on 30th July, they decided to proceed with damaging cuts in the output of the BBC's External Services, including the complete abandonment of direct broadcasts in Italian and Spanish to Europe at a time when accurate reports of British policies and news to EEC members are vital importance.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to ask the Unstarred Question in my name, and I would remind the House that we last debated this question of the cuts in the External Services of the BBC on a Motion which I put down for 30th July, when we asked the Government to reconsider these proposed cuts. The House will remember that the Government were defeated on that occasion by a 2 to 1 vote—82 in favour of my Motion and 45 against.
§ The reason why I put down this Unstarred Question is that I consider the response to the advice tendered to the Government by this House on 30th July seems to be devoid of rhyme or reason, except in terms of horse trading or of window dressing. As I see it, they have decided to reduce these cuts from £3 million to £1½ million and they seem to think that honour will be satisfied. I do not think that that really makes sense.895
On 30th July we were told by the Foreign Secretary, first, that the External Services of the BBC were an important arm of Government foreign policy, that external broadcasting has a most important part to play in the influence that Britain can exert throughout the world, and then he said:
it is I think reasonable to suggest that the Foreign Office, the Government and Parliament—I repeat, and Parliament—should make decisions as to the priorities and importance of the various aspects of external broadcasting".—[official Report; col. 812.]
Now the decision has been made to reprieve the Burmese and Somali services, for which we are very grateful, to halve the output of the Brazilian and French for Europe services, to halve the subvention to the transcription service and to close on 31st December the direct services to Spain, Italy and Malta. I fail to see what part Parliament was allowed to play in these decisions. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, will inform us as to what part we really did play in this. I simply do not understand the thinking or the philosophy behind the decisions.
§ On 30th July, I was told by the Foreign Secretary that I was asking for more money for the External Services of the BBC, when it was quite clear—patently clear—that all of us in that debate were demanding not more money, but the maintenance of the services which it was proposed to cut. Now we are told that the Government do not need to save £3 million a year; they now need a saving of only £1½ million. I would ask: how has that come about? I believe that it is another of those conjuring tricks which are a speciality of the Treasury—
§ Lord Byers
My Lords, I think it is true. I hope that the noble Lord will explain. Let me put this to the noble Lord. In fact, the Government have cut operating expenditure on these programmes by £1½, million a year in the next three years, and they have decided to cut the capital expenditure programme by another £1½ million in 1983–84 and 1984–85. The reason why they have not cut the capital programme by £1½ million next year is that it has been cut so much already. There is nothing more to cut. I want to ask whether the noble Lord will confirm that this arithmetic is correct and answer the question: what happens from 1985 onwards? What is there in the long-term programme which will give reassurance to the BBC about its External Services?
On 30th July, the Foreign Secretary ignored the views expressed in the Fourth Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee in another place, when they said:Your Committee is of the opinion that influencing the population of countries and their leaders is very important for the United Kingdom. Diverting funds from other projects in the capital expenditure programme, all of which are essential, is not feasible and in any case would be self-defeatingThey went on:Nor is it realistic to suggest cuts in other activities of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or the BBC to find a sum of this magnitude. Accordingly, we have concluded that the money should rightly come from the contingency reserve".That is what I proposed to the Foreign Secretary in the last debate. The contingency reserve, I understand, now stands at £1.2 billion. I should have thought that 896 it could carry this particularly small sum. I do not believe the problem can be money. I think the truth is that the Foreign Office pays lip service to the importance of the external vernacular services but at the same time proceeds, perhaps unwittingly, to undermine them.
For these services to have maximum impact they must be credible. To be credible they must be consistent and must not be subject to contraction, expansion or extinction on short-term considerations. This is what in fact is at stake. That sort of action gives the impression abroad that these services are vehicles for propaganda whereas their proper reputation, earned over a long time, is that of vehicles for telling the truth to the world.
I believe that this displays a poverty of political judgment. Can you imagine the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office insisting on these cuts at a time when the Japanese have decided to make substantial increases in their overseas broadcasts? That must be the right answer: not to reduce but to maintain. or even to increase. I think that all this emphasises that the Foreign Office is unable to get this matter into perspective and is prepared to inflict damage on overseas broadcasting services out of all proportion to the savings which would be achieved: £1½ million savings out of a defence budget now running at £12 billion. The perspective must be wrong.
Moreover, just to lend point to the importance of the external services, I would remind the House that there is a standard clause in this excellent book, called Hints to Exporters, which is issued by the British Overseas Trade Board. Every one of these, for each country in which we are interested, has a particular standard clause which reads:The BBC External Services broadcast throughout the world in English and 39 other languages. An important part of their output deals with developments in British industry, science and technology. New products and processes developed by firms in this country are featured prominently in news and other programmes, with the name of the manufacturer mentioned, where appropriate. All inquiries reaching the BBC as a result of these broadcasts are passed on to the firms concerned. The BBC External Services welcome as much information as possible from industry. They are interested in new processes, new products, export successes, contracts and exhibits at trade fairs abroad. Information should be sent to the Export Liaison Unit at Bush House …".In my view, this is no time to diminish in any way a service which is part of our export trade promotion—part of the British way of life. We need to retain everything that can help trade overseas and jobs at home. I think we are entitled to ask the Government to think once again before it is too late and to reassure the House about the long-term future of these services.
§ 6.14 p.m.
§ Lord Strabolgi
My Lords, I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Byers, has tabled this Question for debate. In spite of the concessions announced by the Government in another place on 26th October, following their defeat by a substantial majority in your Lordships' House last July, the situation is still most unsatisfactory, as the noble Lord has said. I should like to support everything that he has said.
Operating expenditure is now to be cut by £1.5 million instead of the original sum of £3 million first planned by the Government. But the Government, 897 I understand, will still make up the £1.5 million that remains by cuts in capital expenditure. There will he cuts of £1.5 million in 1983–84 and in 1984–85.I am not clear whether these cuts are to be continued beyond 1984–85.
The Government have said that they still intend to spend the original total of £102 million within the next 10 years, but clearly more of it is now scheduled to be spent outside the period covered by current spending plans. I should therefore like to ask the Government whether they still intend to spend the original total of £102 million during the next 10 years, since much more of this capital expenditure will now lie beyond the lifetime of this Parliament.
Will the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, also confirm that there are to be no further cuts in this area and no further undermining of Britain's voice abroad for short-term financial considerations? The Government spokesman said during the debate in another place on 23rd July that he did not believe that the importance of these broadcasts to our overseas markets was a big consideration and that the Japanese, as the noble Lord, Lord Byers, has said, do not consider that their commercial interests would be served by a massive increase in external broadcasting. I am paraphrasing what the Government spokesman said in that debate. Fri actual fact, Japan, since that debate, is now planning a very large increase. The Japanese Broadcasting Corporation announced in September that they were planning increases from 21 to 40 languages, and a major expansion of ours. Perhaps the noble Lord when he comes to reply will say whether the Government are prepared to review their attitude in the light of the Japanese decision.
The journal The New Civil Engineer in its September issue commented that it is a great help to our overseas trade and industry for programmes to be transmitted in the language of the country concerned. I understand that the European Parliament are to examine the possibility of reforming the European Broadcasting Service which foundered in 1979. This service, known as Euro Radio, would include external broadcasting. Are the Government aware that without any direct Italian or Spanish services the British contribution to Euro Radio will be much limited?
I welcome the decision to retain half the French for Europe service and the Portuguese language broadcasts to Brazil. This at least is something to be thankful for. However, the BBC will have much difficulty in meeting the required operational saving, since reducing the hours of Brazilian and French broadcasts does not halve the cost of running these services.
Perhaps the noble Lord will tell the House what effect these cuts will have on the BBC's French language broadcasts to Francophone Africa'? Will the noble Lord also let the House know why the Spanish and Italian services to Europe are to be closed at the end of the year and replaced by what the Government described in another place as "a modest recorded tape service", financed of course by the BBC? Do they not think that this is rather a hasty decision? And what are the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to do if compelling reasons arise, when they wish to start up these direct broadcasts again? There could be a change of policy, as there was in the case of the 898 Turkish service which was to have been cut in 1979, if plans had gone ahead, and then was increased by half as much again as the political situation in Turkey changed.
Then there is the question of the transcription services, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Byers, where it is the Government's intention to halve the subsidy. The Government want the BBC in future to move towards becoming self-financing in this field. These again are words used by the Government spokesman in another place. This was made clear in the debate on 26th October by the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Are the Government aware that the BBC have asked their overseas customers whether they would be prepared to pay an increase that would be sufficient to remove the dependence on subsidy and that the overwhelming response from the corporation's customers, both large and small, has been, No? Why should it be otherwise, my Lords, when the BBC's competitors provide their products at prices below the market rate'? It is clear that the BBC's customers are not prepared to pay a price that would enable the corporation's transcription service to become self-financing. At present the BBC charge the maximum fee that the market can bear. There is a limit as to what the corporation can charge. What is to be the future of this service with a reduced subsidy—and one day presumably without a subsidy at all—acting in competition with a subsidised service provided by other nations'?
I must ask the Government whether they attach importance to Britain's transcription service. They say that they do, but by their actions it seems otherwise. If they do—as I hope they do—I must ask them whether they will reconsider their decision to halve the subsidy, because if the transcription service goes one day then all its marketing and distribution facilities will go too. That seems to be something that has not occurred to them. The overseas regional services, whose grant the Government are continuing, for example, depend on the transcription service for these facilities. This is just another example of the muddle into which the Government have got themselves by this hasty and ill-conceived decision in order to save the comparatively small annual sum of £1.5 million. It is a small budget saving but it is one that will be to the great detriment of Britain's voice and influence abroad.
§ 6.22 p.m.
§ Lord Ferrier
My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Byers, for raising this question again and I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply in the face of the facts which this debate is laying before him. I suggest that he will require all the ingenuity with which he is undoubtedly blessed to deal with it as he would wish.
I am surprised at the Government's rejection of the message which was clearly represented by the Division here in your Lordships' House on 30th July. I am slow to wrath but there is at least some measure of disillusionment in my mind at what has happened. Indeed, it could be said that it might be construed as a slap in the eye for this House, although it is fair to confess that the Tories who voted with the noble Lord, Lord Byers, on that occasion were outnumbered by the 899 Tories who voted with the Government, despite the tremendous figures. But what about the Cross-Benches? We shall hear from them, I suggest, and from the noble Lord, Lord Hill of Luton, for one, I am sure.
I have looked back at contributions that I have made on this subject in this House over a number of years, but they appear now as water under the bridge if the present programme is to continue. Even when I said:It is not that we cannot afford to; my Lords, we cannot afford not to, I said that on the occasion when I was urging the increase of—and I quote:the advantage which the BBC Service, thank goodness, still holds and has worked at for so long".That was in a debate in October 1979.
Of course, I have taken many soundings from friends and acquaintances, nearly all of whom support my view and the view expressed by the previous two speakers. One contary voice said that the BBC's present attitude is so biased against Government and so slanted to the Left that their overseas services consequently must be most misleading, and that the fewer of them there are, the better it would be. That was a new angle to me but it struck me as being worth recounting to your Lordships.
However, looking back at the debate on 30th July, I thought that, on the other hand, the content of the Overseas Services was accepted as being thoroughly reliable as they stand. Nevertheless, there is no doubt in my mind that in recent times the BBC has become increasingly anti-Government and anti-Tory and leans to the Left whenever possible, or at least conceals the Government party's achievements or damns them with faint praise.
Be that as it may, there is no need to emphasise the paeons of praise for the Overseas Service contributions from all over the world. Curiously enough, I had one from China only this morning when I met a cousin fresh back from that country. An old friend from India lunching with me here the other day said how in one of his undertakings in Saudi Arabia the premises are absolutely vacated on the dot of five o'clock because everybody rushes to their car radios to get the one o'clock news in Arabic from London, which comes through good and clear. I seem to recall that the Government's case was that it was more important to increase the strength, but there is one area in which it comes through good and clear. He said that the Iranian broadcasts are utterly unreliable and the beams from India are not powerful enough.
Other speakers will be more specific about the actual cuts which remain. I am speaking of the Spanish, Italian and Maltese ones in Spanish. I am not personally conversant with them but the broad principle seems to be perfectly clear, as I shall show in the next few words. I am one who agrees with what the chairman, Mr. Howard, said in his Wentworth lecture in June. He asked:Why do they listen so regularly? Because of the quality of our programmes and the accuracy of our news. Because they know that we broadcast without fear and without favour, and as professionally as possible. And yet we are crippled in the External Services for the lack of a paltry few million a year. 900 When a thousand million a year is poured into British Leyland, it seems pretty absurd not to put three or four million a year more into the External Services".That was in his lecture in June. As I said when I began my speech, I look forward to my noble friend's reply to the Question and if it is not to be a full restoration of the threatened cuts I trust that the Government will think yet again. I beg them to do so.
Before I sit down, the one question which crosses my mind is this: what did the Commons vote about this? Were they ever asked to vote? The Foreign Secretary spoke of the opinion of Parliament, but the only expression of the opinion of Parliament that was actually taken in the Division Lobby was in this House.
§ Lord Boothby
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I ask him one question? Does he realise that at the moment Italy is the main target of the Communist radio and that the dangers arising from that are very considerable for all of us, and does he not think it absolutely scandalous to withdraw our service to Italy?
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ Lord Hill of Luton
My Lords, as has been said already, the House is doubly indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Byers, first for raising the matter as he did at the end of July and, secondly, for convincing the House to pass his Motion with a two to one majority: and again today in trenchant terms he has dealt with the modified cuts that remain. I do not propose to follow him in that, for I think it was superbly done and does not need repetition or support.
I want, if I may, to raise three questions. The first is the reason behind this. Why, in heaven's name, for a paltry sum of £1½ million is damage risked to our External Services? I just do not understand it. Why? And associated with that is the other question: Why, over the years, have there been six re-examinations in eight years with a view to a reduction of expenditure? Why, to take other figures, have there been nine thorough-going reviews in 20 years, and in two years there have been nine cuts in individual services? Why? This is not a rhetorical question, for I just do not understand what has led the Foreign Office—to take one set of figures as an example—to make six cuts in eight years. Why?
Of course, I know that in general governments do not much like information services, apart from their own. This applies of course to all Governments. Ministers, when they listen to broadcasting or read newspapers, if they find something which is flattering to themselves, that is beautifully impartial; but if they find something which is genuinely impartial it is slanted against them. Do not let us be too superior about this. This is a failing of politicians of all parties generally. But surely that cannot of itself be the explanation.
Government nowadays, of course, seem to dislike the media generally. That is another story. But I find it really rather disturbing when criticism is made of news and pictures of what has actually taken place, suggesting that there is a form of prejudice, a sort of bias, that is embedded in the press and broadcasting. Prime Ministers—and this applies, I suppose, to most, 901 if not all, Prime Ministers—do not like broadcasting; indeed, they particularly dislike the BBC. They do not like information services over which they have no control. They do not like the autonomy of the BBC in programme content. I suspect that the Foreign Office, which has its own information services, resents the existence of an information service which it does not control, which is autonomous in its content. And yet none of these seems to be an adequate explanation for these repeated scrutinies of the Overseas Services of the BBC.
So what is the explanation? Frankly, I do not know, and I think we ought to be very suspicious of this technique over the years, of taking up the plants by the roots with a view to modifications, and in particular cuts. There seems to be an animus in the Foreign Office against the External Services. That has led in large part to a loss of morale, to bring me to my second point, in the External Services. You can understand the feeling of those who for years have been running a very important service, for example, the Italian service, to find that it disappears at the end of the year. They are bound to ask themselves: Why is it that this fine service, so valuable in war as well as in peace, so valuable yesterday and valuable today, will be of no value after 31st December? You can understand that question.
But there is another aspect, and it is this. These repeated re-examinations of the service have, of course, had an effect on those who have not suffered cuts. How must they feel, those who work in services which have escaped this phase? What must they feel about their prospects of escaping it next time, in a year or 18 months, judging by the experience of recent years? The morale of those in this well-nigh anonymous service is desperately important to its quality. If they are anxious, if they are looking over their shoulders, if they are thinking of other posts and other activities, one cannot wonder that in fact their work is in danger of suffering by that very anxiety.
So I am led to make one new suggestion. I hope in fact the Government will withdraw the lot. After all, they were compelled by the arguments put forward to make this change to half the cuts that they formerly proposed. I hope they will go the whole hog and withdraw them all, as the noble Lord, Lord Byers, so powerfully argued. But I would ask them, in respect of the frequency of examinations, to think of those who are still there, those who remain. They are bound to have doubts about their future. There is bound to be an unease. In other words, cuts may be defended as minor—and, goodness knows! it is the easiest thing in the world to defend these cuts as minor in terms of money saved—but if they are still insisting on these cuts, would ask for one other thing to happen: that we give up this six times in eight years review; that in fact when the pattern is laid down, as it is now or will be, we hope in its earlier form, there is a requirement that that pattern remains in existence for a period of years, say five years, subject of course to the Foreign Office being fully entitled to start new services, to require the BBC to start new services in the light of world conditions.
It would give a certain rigidity, it might be argued, but those who are devoting their lives to this specialist form of work are entitled to see some prospect ahead, and not the danger that every year or 18 months, for 902 some reasons they do not understand their jobs are destroyed and their services are destroyed. Why should they not have, why should the service not have, a certain sense of security for a few years, on the understanding that additions may be necessary as conditions change? I would put that suggestion to the Government, not because I believe it is the whole solution to the problem, but because I believe that whatever is done about this particular set of cuts it seems to me that this kind of change is necessary for the general good health of a service which, as we all freely admit, must be adjusted from time to time in relation to the world situation. It will give them a measure of security and so remove the very real danger of a loss of morale, loss of security, which I am certain is to be found now among those who work for services which have escaped this time.
So I would say to your Lordships that we really must get away from this almost annual examination of the services. But still we are left, as I am left, with a failure to understand what it is all about. I very nearly said that it is a "fiddling" sum of money, but perhaps I should say a trifling sum of money, in national terms, that has come forward—£1.5 million. We have had two debates in your Lordships' House with a great deal of anxiety aroused. Surely it is a nonsense that we have been going through in recent years. It is time there were some order, some stability and sense behind the Foreign Office as regards how it manages this service. In any case, let us get away from the assumption that the service is so trivial and so unimportant that every 18 months or so we can re-examine it, abolishing this and adding that. That is the wrong attitude towards this service. It has suffered as much from that loss of morale as it has from the loss of certain individual services.
Therefore, I would urge the Government to consider the suggestion of some period of stability of the kind I have put forward in order not to encourage, whether it wants to or not, the fall in morale that is necessarily associated with this method of regular, almost annual, re-examination of a service that needs to be left alone to get on with its work and not always be considering what the Foreign Office wants to do and is inclined to do by way of cutting the service.
§ 6.42 p.m.
§ Lord Kilmarnock
My Lords, I must apologise in advance for having to leave the Chamber temporarily when I sit down because we are discussing upstairs in your Lordships' unemployment committee some clauses to which I have proposed some amendments. I hope that I may crave your Lordships' indulgence for that. I come once again, quite openly and unashamedly, into the lists on behalf of the BBC's vernacular service in Spanish. I am not speaking simply because I have been briefed or lobbied but because of my personal knowledge of the country and what the BBC means to it.
The first matter that springs to my mind is the glaring discrepancy between the proposed cut and the whole thrust of British foreign policy which has been firmly and rightly in support of democracy in Spain and of that country's application to enter the European Community despite the still unresolved difficulties of the Gibraltar question. It might be argued: Why do 903 we need to spend money broadcasting to an ally? But Spain is not yet in the European Community or NATO and there are signs of very considerable unrest in the country, which make it highly questionable to assume that democracy is "in the bag" in Spain or that that country is firmly and finally a member of the Western Alliance.
In the debate on Lord Byers' last Motion in July I mentioned a possible parallel with Turkey. Eighteen months ago it was proposed to close the Turkish service. Who would contemplate such a thing now? There is also the case of Portugal where the service was closed in 1957 because it was felt superflous to broadcast to our "oldest ally". The service was re-opened in 1962 because it was recognised at official level that the shut-down had been short-sighted and a mistake. Spain is by no means an old ally. She is only precariously a new one.
In the last debate on this subject on 30th July the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, said at cols. 870 and 871 of the Official Report:Naturally, we should continue all services to Eastern Europe, where the media are not free".But they are not free in Spain either, in the sense that we understand freedom. In Italy I understand that there is some degree of pluralism with the different parties controlling different channels, but in Spain Radio Nacional de Espana is state controlled as is the television network. Obviously there are forces in Spain attempting to rectify this, but they have not been successful. And it is a curious fact that the BBC Spanish service's audience has not decreased—as might have been expected—with the coming of constitutional democracy. There is no evidence that the BBC broadcasts are now felt to be superflous in that country.
That brings me to consumer reaction which I spoke a little about last time. I cannot help reverting to it. cannot possibly, in the time which I have, quote from more than a tiny fraction of the hundreds of individual protest letters so far received. However, I shall give a very brief selection. A listener in Madrid wrote:From my earliest childhood the BBC has been my companion through those moments of an uncertain future (I am 52 years old). For the first time I did not want to believe the news I heard tonight. Impossible!".Again I quote from a listener in the troubled province of Vizcaya who says:Nobody can doubt that it has been a sentence of death. For me the BBC is like a human being because for 39 years … it has brought true and impartial information to us Spaniards who only with difficulty obtained news from other sources".Again a listener in, I think, Salamanca writes:The savings will be minimal compared with the enormous influence of these services, even in the aspect of economic propaganda, for instance in the news about the latest developments in British industry".And the same listener writes:I am not going to get used easily to this suppression. I think it has been a disgraceful decision by the British Government and Parliament".Finally, from a listener in Lerida:They leave us in a tunnel without light".I repeat, "a tunnel without light".
This decision was presented as a fait accompli to the managing director of the External Services at noon on 904 the day the announcement was to be made in the Commons. Given a freer hand the BBC could, I understand, have found other ways of making £1.5 million worth of savings on current expenditure without cutting any service. But they were not given the choice. This is surely against the Government's often stated principle of not interfering with the management, even of state-controlled corporations and letting them get on with the job within certain guidelines. Could the noble Lord explain why this principle does not apply in the case of the BBC's External Services? Will he not undertake to return at least this area of decision to the External Services management?
What is the extent of the savings in the Spanish case? The current annual cost is calculated at £190,000—less than the cost of a family house in Hampstead as I pointed out on the last occasion that we debated this matter in your Lordships' House. The residual line and tape service which is contemplated will cost £44,000, reducing the saving to approximately £146,000 without allowing for redundancies and, of course, whether a "line and tape" service would be taken up is entirely at the whim of the customer, in this case a state-controlled monopoly. I am told on good authority that it is most unlikely in the present climate that material either critical of the Spanish Government or supportive of British attitudes in areas such as the Common Market or Gibraltar would be acceptable.
I cannot believe that it is this minuscule financial saving that the Government are really after, although the noble Lord, Lord Byers, has already raised this point as well as the noble Lord, Lord Hill of Luton. So what are the Government trying to save? Is it just face? Is it the face of the Foreign Office with the Treasury? Of course I understand that there must be some give and take between the spending departments and the Treasury and that some thing; we should like to do may have to be sacrificed. But this is something we are already doing pretty well at very marginal cost, the suspension of which will make only a minuscule saving. And such inter-departmental manoeuvres will certainly be lost on the Spanish people who will see it—witness the letters I have quoted from, and there are many others—as a breach of faith.
I should like to end on a personal note. Some 15 or 16 years ago I was riding through the mountains north of Almeria in the South of Spain and I came to a decaying mining town, where all hope appeared to have been abandoned. It was a most God-forsaken place. In the evenings a few of the remaining inhabitants would cluster together to listen almost religiously to the BBC in their own language, from which they appeared to derive the necessary strength to continue the uphill struggle for the redress of their grievances. It was not that the BBC was inciting them to subversion; just that it gave them the smell of a country in which we ordered things better—or so they fondly believed. We must of course all hope that the present attempt at democracy in Spain survives. It will not be the King's fault if it does not. But we must also face the fact that it may fail. In that case by suppressing this service we should be depriving hundreds of thousands of Spaniards of the opportunity of listening to objective news and balanced views in their own language. If the people I mentioned are still alive, 905 they would think, not without some justification, that we had betrayed their faith. I wonder whether the Government have really taken this into account. I strongly urge them to think again.
§ 6.50 p.m.
§ Lord Crowther-Hunt
My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Byers, for putting down this Unstarred Question and, like him and other noble Lords, who have spoken in this debate so far, I am disappointed at the Government's response to the clear majority view expressed in your Lordships' House in that debate on 30th July. However, quickly and briefly, I want just to make two points. The first of these is about the Spanish service. It is at least something that the Government are ready to maintain a recorded tape service. But, of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, has pointed out, this does not get us very far. At most, as I understand it, this might produce some three hours of material a week. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, also pointed out, whether any of it ever gets broadcast in Spain will depend entirely on the decisions of the two main broadcasting services in Spain—the state-controlled radio service and Spain's main private commercial network.
As regards the state-controlled radio service, I understand that a recent purge in the management there has resulted in the reinstallation of Right-wing Government nominees and this, given the present political climate in Spain, makes it highly unlikely that any tape material supporting and explaining British views and attitudes on such matters as Gibraltar or even the Common Market, would be acceptable. So the tape service leaves us entirely at the mercy of Spanish broadcasting stations and the pressures that might be brought to bear on them.
It is in this general context that I would make one plea to the Government, and I make this against the background of last Sunday's demonstration in Madrid, where some quarter of a million people gathered to mark the sixth anniversary of General Franco's death—the biggest demonstration of disaffection with democracy yet mounted by Spain's extreme right.
Given that Spanish democracy is still in such a pre carious state, would the Government at least agree to consider reinstating the full Spanish service of the BBC should there be continuing evidence of a growing threat to Spanish democracy? I assume, of course, that should there by a successful Right-wing coup in Spain, the Government will wish to reinstate the full Spanish service forthwith, and, naturally, I would welcome an assurance on that particular point as well.
My second point is a more general one. When your Lordships' House debated the BBC's External Services on 30th July, the noble Lord the Foreign Secretary emphasised that the External Services of the BBC are financed entirely by the Government and that it was for the Government to decide:…how best the money we give them should be allocated between the different External Services and between current and capital expenditure".—[Official Report, 30/7/81; col. 812.]At the same time the noble Lord the Foreign Secretary made it clear that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office does not exercise any editorial authority over the content of the BBC's programmes. That the BBC has complete editorial freedom and independence is, 906 of course, undoubtedly so, and certainly the BBC would not operate on any other basis. That is why the BBC, operating with complete editorial independence, has established an unrivalled world reputation for the unbiased and independent reporting of world news and British news.
However, there will always be those who believe that he who pays the piper must inevitably have at least some influence on the piper's tune. It is to ensure that no such charges can ever be validly made that I put forward a modest little proposal which, if the Government will consider it, might well act as a sort of buffer to assure the continued independence of the BBC's External Services.
I start with the view that the Government of the day must, of course, have the final decision on the amount of money to be allocated to the BBC's External Services. But if the Government could create what I shall call a BBC External Services financial advisory board, it could act as a sort of buffer between the BBC and the Government. What I have in mind here is a board that might consist of, say, one or two Members of your Lordships' House, one or two Members of another place, one or two industrialists and one or two trade unionists, and perhaps even a couple of academics might be added to such a body. If such a body were set up, after appropriate consultations with the Foreign Office and with the BBC, and perhaps also after carrying out appropriate investigations into the efficiency of the BBC's External Services, in my view it would be its job to recommend an appropriate allocation of Government money to the External Services of the BBC. It could do this each year on a rolling five-year basis, taking into account each year—after consultations with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and also with the Treasury—the Government's overall economic strategy and also the financial requirements of the BBC's External Services.
If such a body were set up, in my view the Government would not be obliged to accept the recommendations of the sort of body I have in mind. Indeed, I do not think that any such imposition could ever he made on a Government. In the end the Government themselves must be able to decide what allocation of money to make to the External Services. The Government must always have the right to go against any recommendations that such a financial advisory board might make. But the existence of such a board would act as a sort of independent buffer between the Government and the BBC.
It would perhaps be a sort of University Grants Committee, though I am not sure that this is a particularly happy analogy in current circumstances. But the fact that the University Grants Committee might not be operating particularly happily at the moment is no reason for believing that this particular body would be struck, or might be struck, with the same sort of blight, because its composition would, of course, be very different.
Be that as it may, such a financial advisory board would, in my view, reinforce the editorial independence of the BBC, and on the world stage it would dispel any suspicion that he who pays the piper must have some influence on the tune. May I ask, therefore, that the Government should at least agree to consider this. It would obviously be wrong to expect a "Yes" or 907 "No" answer to the idea of such a board from the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, this evening because, in my view, it is too important a matter for an off-the-cuff reaction. But l hope that at least the noble Lord would agree to take away and consider this idea and perhaps, when he has considered it, come back and report to your Lordships' House.
§ 6.59 p.m.
My Lords, I know that this has been said before, but I believe not only that noble Lords should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Byers, for tabling this Unstarred Question; but that the whole nation should be grateful to him. As your Lordships are well aware, he does not speak often, but when he does and as the noble Leader of the Liberal Party in your Lordships' House, I believe that every word he says should be listened to with the greatest care. Indeed, that is very easy to do because he speaks so beautifully and argues so very cogently. I would never dream of even trying to compete with what he says. I think the mirth from my own Front Bench is totally and completely out of place, if I may say so.
There are points that I am going to repeat, but they desperately need stressing. The question of consultation, which I believe the noble Lord, Lord Hill of Luton, brought up, is very important. I would remind your Lordships that between 25th June, the date of the last round of Nanny's announcements from Whitehall, and 22nd October, when the decision to hold a debate was announced, during the four-month period when both Houses made their distaste of the proposed cuts quite clear by a fine debate in your Lordships' House and by a vote of a very large majority, and by no less than 160 at least, if my memory serves me correctly, of Members of the other place tabling their names to a Motion, the Government did not even discuss the proposals with the BBC in detail, and the BBC was given no opportunity to indicate other possible ways of saving the sums involved. I find that totally astonishing, and it is quite wrong that a Government should behave in this way. We are not talking about a narrow interest of Bush House. We can almost forget the qualitative arguments. What we are talking about is the national interest.
If one bothers to read foreign newspapers—and it is worth recalling that very few people in the world read newspapers, but a hell of a lot of people listen to the radio—the lineage that this country gets in French newspapers, German newspapers, Italian newspapers, in Belgian and Dutch newspapers, is minimal; only when there is bad news does it strike. But there is an enormous audience for the BBC.
What does Nanny, our unholy mother, the Treasury —I suspect they arc behind it—want to do? They want to cut out the voice of the United Kingdom. I know this is past history but I want to set the record straight. It remains important because it raises a vitally important point in the relationship between Government, Parliament and the BBC. It is this point which the noble Lord, Lord Byers, raised so importantly.
One should never forget that in the last nine years no less than seven cuts have been imposed on the External Services, almost invariably accompanied by references to a great national asset. When I say 908 "cuts", my noble friend keeps on looking at me and saying "not true". We are talking specifically about cuts in the services which the BBC can put out. This is where the Foreign Office have the whip hand. It is well known—my noble friend Lord Trefgarne knows—they have the right to say that you can broadcast to this country, or to that country, so many hours here and so many hours there, and it is the whittling away by virtue of that particular power by which they have the BBC by what are called in the vernacular, "the short and curlies"
The odd thing is that when they make these cuts they always refer to "this great national asset". It is an odd thing too, I have always believed, to say that it is a great national asset and then to pare it: and to pare it insidiously. Under the BBC's charter of licence, Parliament gives the Government of the day the right to prescribe the languages in which the BBC External Services shall broadcast and the duration of such broadcasts. The BBC External Services are enjoined by Parliament, I remind the Government, to broadcast in the national interest.
We then come to the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Byers: Why have Her Majesty's Government chosen to ignore the expressed will of Parliament? I completely fail to understand this. Are we just a rubber stamp? Are we nothing at all? If Her Majesty's Government seriously believe that the BBC External Services have not broadcast in the national interest, let me just serve this up to your Lordships: In 1982, the BBC World Services celebrate their 50th anniversary. They were celebrating the latest audience survey in which it was shown that world-wide 100 million people were listening regularly to the BBC. Of this 100 million, the highest in the BBC's history and the highest in the world, three-quarters listen to the various vernacular services rather than the English broadcasts of the World Service.
This, I believe, puts paid to the observations made by my noble friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, who suggested on an earlier occasion this year that everyone in the world really should learn English. He did this none too indirectly, and with the greatest respect to him—
§ Lord Trefgarne
My Lords, I said that I should be glad to know when my noble friend Lord Carrington made the observation which my noble friend Lord Morris has ascribed to him.
My Lords, I cannot recall that. I did not say that he made the observation. I suggested that that was the implication of his observation, which is not the same thing at all. It was quite clear from what he said, and I am not reading between the lines too deeply; I assure my noble friend on that point.
The point that the noble Lord, Lord Hill of Luton, made is absolutely fundamental: the continual paring at the BBC External Services has an appalling effect 909 on the services that are extant. It is not only in terms of staff morale but also in terms of the listeners. It gives a fragility, a feeling of fear, to all those who listen to this particular service: Are they a temporary thing? Are they going to be further eroded. But to tamper with the foundations of the External Services in this way cannot be in the national interest. The BBC, given a duty of broadcasting overseas in the national interest by Parliament, does not think so, and it is never given the chance to suggest alternative ways in which these damaging cuts might be less damaging.
The lack of consultation over the future of the External Services is in marked contrast to the close consultation which the BBC and the Government have over the licence fee which funds domestic BBC radio and television. If consultation is possible over the licence fee without threatening the Government's constitutional position, one wonders why it is not possible over the External Services. If Bush House is indeed a national asset, then the national interest demands some better way of securing for the External Services a secure financial position; an agreement on the need to preserve the vernacular services in the interests of Bush House and the nation as a whole.
§ 7.8 p.m.
§ Lord Ardwick
My Lords, I should like to follow the noble Lord, Lord Morris, when he calls attention to the gap between the Government's professed admiration for the External Services and their financial provisions. It is rather like a man who tells his wife how much he loves her every time he cuts the housekeeping allowance. I should also like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Byers, who gives us another opportunity of expressing our scorn at the Government's attitude in these matters.
I am not going to say very much tonight. All that could be said about the subject was said in the last debate. All the indignation that could be felt was expressed, and the Government at the end of it found themselves in a miserable minority. Of all the troubles that the Government have brought upon themselves by their cuts, there has been no trouble so large for a cut so small. But, of course, the Government as a result of the decision in this House, as a result of the universal displeasure that was felt at their action, had to do something, and so an act of parsimony has, thank heaven, been abandoned. But the amende we have is not an amende honorable; it is a grudging amende; an amende minimal and ungenerous. If it can be accepted, that is simply because half a loaf taken away is better than the whole loaf taken away.
If the saving had any real significance it could easily he accepted, but it seems to be a mere token cut in the name, one supposes, of equality of suffering, and when the noble Lord, Lord Hill, spoke of his suspicion, which I felt in the last debate, of the jealousy, envy, dislike perhaps, of the BBC by the Foreign Office, I must say that he is not the first eminent former high officer of the BBC to express that sentiment.
A few days before our last debate I asked the Government whether they would try to rescue the transcription services which were threatened with closure by the prescribed economies in the BBC's Overseas Services. I received a little encouragement from the Minister, the 910 noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale. They wanted the services to go on, he said. They just wanted to chop off the £1 million grant in aid. Then it was further explained that the services included cultural affairs, and of course the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has no truck with culture. Goering reached for his gun when the word "kultur" was mentioned. The Foreign Office reaches for its pruning knife.
§ Lord Trefgarne
My Lords, has the noble Lord heard of the British Council and is he aware what that costs the Foreign Office?
§ Lord Ardwick
My Lords, not only have I heard of the British Council but I have spoken in your Lordships' House of the struggles of the British Council, because of the meanness and parsimony of the British Government, to continue on course and of the terrible effect that has had on the morale of the employees of the British Council, just as it is having on the morale of the External Services.
I was told that the other part of the services, the Topical Tapes, would continue to receive £350,000 a year grant in aid, and the Minister—I have warned the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, that I would raise this matter—said the Government could see no reason why the really important part of the whole service should cease. But the subsidy to the transcription services, running at over £1 million, is to be halved, as announced by the Government in another place on 23rd October. The transcription services must apparently have its subsidy cut in two, yet the Government still hope that, within that very large cut, the Topical Tapes could be fully preserved. That does not make sense. The Topical Tapes cost £350,000 a year. That would leave only £150,000 for the rest of the services, which up to now have been absorbing £650,000. They would receive less than one-quarter of what they had been receiving.
I must therefore ask what is happening. What is happening to the Topical Tapes service which the Government hold in such high esteem and which they do not want cut? Is it true that one-third of the staff will have to be unloaded and that the output will be reduced by an even greater proportion? Have the Government really lived up to their promise and their professed hope that the Topical Tapes service will continue unimpaired? Is that realistic in view of the size of the cuts now imposed? I hope that in his reply the Minister will be able to give me a convincing reassurance.
§ 7.14 p.m.
§ Baroness Airey of Abingdon
My Lords, I apologise for not having added my name to the list of speakers, but I shall not speak for more than a minute or two. While sharing in the concern of so many noble Lords that the external broadcasts are to be discontinued to Spain, Italy and Malta, I congratulate Her Majesty's Government on keeping the external broadcasts to Somalia, particularly since the recent alliance between Libya, Ethiopia and the South Yemen. It has always been a dangerous part of the world, but I believe that that alliance has made it a very much more dangerous part. I am therefore particularly thankful that we shall continue our external broadcasts there. This 911 may serve as an example of how particularly thankful we should be that, when a danger like this appears on the horizon, we have the comfort of the external broadcasts there.
§ 7.15 p.m.
§ Lord Gladwyn
My Lords, during his speech the noble Lord, Lord Morris, who I am afraid is no longer in his place, made some reference to what he understood the Foreign Secretary had said regarding the great importance of broadcasting in the English language in the overseas programmes of the BBC. I understood the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, to say that he would like the passage verified, and I think I have found it. The Foreign Secretary said:First, we believe that the World Service of the BBC is by far and away the most important. The English language, despite the misgivings of the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, is a world-wide language. It is becoming almost the world-wide language. More and more people are speaking it every year. It is the World Service in English on which the reputation of the BBC largely depends".If the figures for the world audience for the overseas programmes given by the noble Lord, Lord Morris, are correct—was it three-quarters of 100 million who listen to the BBC in their vernacular languages?— then the observations of the Foreign Secretary read a little strangely; and, when he replies to the debate I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, will say whether that impression is in any way correct.
I also wish to refer to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, about the impression which I gather he said some people had that the BBC overseas programmes are largely dominated by what might be called Left-wing philosophies and ideas. I am a devoted listener to the overseas programmes in English on the BBC. I listen to them quite often, indeed usually in the mornings, in preference to Radio 4. I also listen to their programmes to a certain extent in French, and even in German, and over the years I have never myself derived the impression that those broadcasts are unduly influenced by the Left. I find them to be extremely impartial and I particularly enjoy the reports they have from their special correspondents throughout the world, which I have never found to be completely dominated by the Left-wing ideas. I do not know if any other noble Lords have discovered such tendencies, but I never have and I therefore believe, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, agrees, that such accusations are malicious and completely unfounded.
§ Lord Ferrier
My Lords, when I referred to bias to the Left I was not referring to the overseas services at all. I too listen to them in English. I was referring to the general trend in this country.
§ Lord Gladwyn
My Lords, I have not myself experienced such a tendency in the BBC's programmes, and in any event we are this evening talking about the overseas programmes. In respect of those, I have 912 heard people say they are unduly influenced by the Left. Perhaps it was not the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, who said that, but certainly other people have said it.
The Government's reason for cutting down, for the seventh time, on the overseas programmes of the BBC has always been that it is necessary to save money and that all Government agencies that spend money should bear their proportionate share of the general cuts, the only exception of course being, so far as I understand it, defence and, if I am not wrong, the police. There is no doubt that all departments and agencies, when faced with cuts, tend to make out that their own is a special case, and it is obviously far simpler for the Treasury to impose a uniform cut rather than have to argue with a large number of vested interests all intent on proving, for one reason or another, that they are special cases. I admit that.
Nevertheless, there are surely instances of cuts which really are self-defeating; that is by the infliction of which you patently lose more than you gain. So insisting on a strict, what might be called, "equality of misery"—which I think is the policy pursued by the Treasury—might occasionally land you in what is, frankly, an absurd situation, which is what has happened, as we think, in the overseas programme of the BBC. Besides, if you really are in a bad way financially, the last thing that you want to do is to give the impression to the outside world that you are broke. Nor, if defence is to be exempted, does it make much sense to undermine what in effect constitutes our first line of defence; namely, the impression that we create on the not always very sympathetic, to say nothing of the hostile, foreigner. All this has been said before, but I believe that it bears saying again, even though, as we all know, the dye has now been cast and the corporation has received its irrevocable marching orders —at least for the next year.
But in the remaining minutes at my disposal I should like for a moment to dwell on something which, to some small extent, might mitigate the effects of the latest cuts. I believe that even now we do not fully appreciate both the immense advantage which the English language confers on us and how important it is that students, for instance, should continue to communicate with each other in, so to speak, an English atmosphere, employing what has now become, as indeed the Foreign Secretary rightly said, a kind of world lingua franca.
Happily, my old department, the Foreign Office—in the ability of which I have great faith, and which, I need hardly say, I do not myself blame for what are obviously the follies of the Treasury—is, so the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, tells me, now taking the lead in promoting that student mobility, as it is called, which in a free world it is so important to maintain. I think that the audio-visual methods of teaching, such as the transcription of the External Services undoubtedly offers, will be seen as one of the main instruments in furthering the recommendations of the Commonwealth Consultative Group (I think it is called) which were endorsed in paragraph 84 of the communiqué of the recent Melbourne Conference.
I refer more particularly to the conception of what are called regional "centres of excellence", which might be established throughout the Commonwealth as a long overdue decentralisation of the present one 913 way system whereby nearly all Commonwealth overseas students, when they go abroad, come to this country. What is called "distance teaching" (broadcasts and cassettes) is now a recognised means of education and is something that has come to stay, as witness the very considerable adoption of such methods in the United States, and indeed in the Soviet Union, where it has been adopted with the greatest success. It could certainly also be adopted with profit in the British Commonwealth.
I sincerely trust, therefore, that the powers-that-be will keep our existing expertise, and in particular our excellent BBC library of programmes, up to strength and continue to exploit all the opportunities which these offer for the spread of British techniques, British trade, and British interests generally. I need hardly add that I also sincerely trust, together with other noble Lords, that in a year's time the Treasury, having arrived at the conclusion that we no longer have any money to spend on anything, will not insist on yet further cuts, which would no doubt result in a real crippling of the entire overseas programme structure.
§ Lord Ferrier
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I wonder whether, with his wide knowledge of Europe and his multilingual gifts, he can tell us to what extent an audience such as that referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, listening to a vernacular programme, are capable also of listening to the same thing in English and comprehending it—either in Spain or in Italy.
§ Lord Gladwyn
My Lords, I should say that the majority of those who listen in the vernacular are not capable of listening to and understanding it in English, more particularly in Spain, where there is very little English spoken, and likewise in Italy, which I know very well. I think that the great majority of those listening, while they might be able to speak a little English, would not be able to follow the details and implications of an argument conducted very quickly in English. Yes, I should say that the immense majority of those who listen in the vernacular would not be able to understand the World Service in English.
§ 7.26 p.m.
§ Lord Trefgarne
My Lords, at the outset I wish to apologise for the inadequacy of my vocal chords this evening. I recall once before, a year or so ago, when in a similar predicament saying to your Lordships that if I "conked out", my noble friend Lord Long, sitting beside me, would jump up and continue with the speech that I had prepared, and I hope that my noble friend will feel able to do that again this evening should the need arise.
I well recall the very useful debate about the BBC External Services in your Lordships' House on 30th July. In winding up that debate I tried to answer many of the points that had been made. Although some noble Lords welcomed the Government's emphasis on a capital programme to improve the BBC's audibility, a majority laid greater stress on current services. On that same day in July my noble friend the then Lord President of the Council, I think, said that the Government would take into account the views expressed, as well as those expressed in a debate in another 914 place on 23rd July. I think, on reflection, that it was my right honourable friend Mr. Francis Pym, who was then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, not the Lord President of the Council, as he now is. We have indeed taken into account most fully all those views, and as a result we put forward fresh proposals which were endorsed in another place on 26th October.
The question before us is based on what I think is the false impression that we are making what are called "damaging cuts". We are in fact substantially increasing expenditure on the External Services. There is thus no net cut. Our aim is to finance a major and sorely needed capital programme to improve audibility. The Government have all along been prepared to contribute the lion's share towards the audibility programme. But we believe that it is right that the BBC should make some contribution by switching resources from current operations to investment. We are now asking the BBC to switch only half the amount that we originally proposed in June.
The only services to be ended will be Maltese, Spanish to Spain, and Italian. In the case of Spanish to Spain and Italian, I am happy to announce that new services of recorded programmes for rebroadcasting by radio stations in those countries will begin on 1st January 1982. The BBC will thus continue to have audiences in both Italy and Spain, albeit indirectly. As regards direct broadcasts from London, Italians and Spaniards will of course still receive the World Service in English, and the growing interest in the English language—whatever some noble Lords might have said—combined with better audibility, suggests that listenership will increase. Thus the only service that will end completely is the one to Malta. That service is for only 35 minutes a week, to a population of 320,000, who mainly speak English.
I greatly regret the ending of direct broadcasts in the vernacular, but it is essential to draw up priorities on foreign policy grounds. At a time when economies have to be made it is reasonable to reduce services to friendly neighbouring countries where the media are free and where we have other opportunities to make our voice heard. We reluctantly chose the services to Spain and Italy because each goes to one country only, by contrast with the French service to Europe, which goes to four countries.
We have many contacts with Spain and Italy through our embassies and consulates general, the constant interchange of businessmen, journalists, tourists and students, and, of course, the BBC's World Service in English, which broadcasts for 24 hours a day compared to the one hour a day in Spanish and Italian. The United States, for example, does not broadcast in the vernacular to Spain or Italy. In spite of one petition from journalists in Spain, which may not have been entirely spontaneous, reactions in the printed press to our proposals have been negligible in that country. A BBC press conference in Italy was reported only on the inside pages.
As regards the services we are reducing as opposed to ending, we have agreed with the BBC that rather than mathematically halving the hours of the French service to Europe and the Portuguese service to Brazil, as we originally requested, they should continue to broadcast 12¼ and 8¾ hours a week respectively, which makes a combined total of nearly three hours 915 a week more than we initially proposed. Both these services will still be much larger than several other BBC services, but the savings achieved will enable the BBC to devote more funds towards the capital programme. Perhaps I could add in parenthesis here that the French service to West Africa will in fact continue untouched.
Turning to the transcription service—
My Lords, would my noble friend allow me to interrupt him before he leaves entirely the Spanish services? May I ask him what effect he thinks this increased expenditure on the capital programme, on audibility, is going to have on the Spanish and Italian services? He has referred particularly to the free media in Spain. My understanding is that the strongest objection that came out of Spain as to the excising of the Spanish service was from the Spanish broadcasters themselves, and, indeed, from journalists. Could my noble friend expand on his implication that the journalistic response to the Spanish cuts was not entirely of their own volition, or was not entirely free?
§ Lord Trefgarne
My Lords, on the latter point that the noble Lord has made on the petition which was presented to the embassy in Madrid, I am not certain how far some of the people who subscribed to that petition had in fact been asked to do so by sources outside Spain. Turning now to the transcription service, our intention was to halve the subsidy, which at current prices is running at well over £1 million per annum. This is a matter which greatly worried the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, and I think, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi. In fact, thanks to the BBC finding savings from overheads we have been able to agree that the subsidy need not be reduced by as much as a half. I was happy to see that the managing director of the External Services was reported in the BBC house journal Ariel as saying that, despite the reduction of the grant-in-aid subsidy, it may only be necessary to reduce the transcription services' output, at present about 500 hours a year, to around 350; that is, by about 30 per cent.
§ Lord Ardwick
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord but could he particularise between the tapes service and the general transcription service? As I understand it, about seven of the 22 members of the tapes service are having to be unloaded, and their output is being reduced by almost 50 per cent.
§ Lord Trefgarne
My Lords, I am coming to that now, and I think that in a moment I will cover the point that the noble Lord has raised. We are confident that a respectable service will continue based on an existing library of 30,000 hours of recorded material and continuing current production made in the ordinary course of events for both the domestic and overseas programmes of the BBC from which it should be possible to make sales. Again, this is a question of priorities, and we consider that some of the money previously available to the transcription services would be better employed in the capital programme. Within the remaining half of the transcription services 916 subsidy we hope that the excellent topical tapes services can be fully preserved. I hope that meets the point raised by the noble Lord.
§ Lord Ardwick
It does not, my Lords, if the noble Lord will forgive me. If the staff is being cut by about seven of the 22 members of the operational staff, and if the output is reduced by almost a half—if those figures are correct figures—how can one say that the service is being fully maintained?
§ Lord Trefgarne
My Lords, I am talking about the topical tapes service within the transcsription service. The total output of the transcription service, including the topical tapes services, is to be reduced by about 30 per cent., as I said —not 50 per cent. Naturally, there will be some reduction in staff following the reduction in subsidy, but we are satisfied that the output which I have described will be possible with the remaining staff having regard to some productivity and other considerations which can be brought to bear.
§ Lord Strabolgi
My Lords, before the noble Lord leaves the transcription service, in view of what he said would he confirm that it is now no longer the Government's policy that this transcription service should move towards becoming self-financing? Because as I explained in my speech, this is just not on, and they are having to compete with the subsidised services provided by other countries.
§ Lord Trefgarne
My Lords, as I said, we are proposing to reduce the subsidy by about 50 per cent. That is not the same as was originally proposed. As for the service moving to a self-financing position, we certainly hope that the service will in certain instances be able to increase the revenue it earns; perhaps in some cases, though doubtless not in all, by, for example, raising the charges they make for their services. But I do not think that I can go further than say what I have already said, which is that we are reducing the subsidy by half, and from that it must follow that we are not for the moment proposing that it should proceed to a totally self-financing basis.
Our top priority remains the capital programme. The Government have approved the programme as a whole and intend that it shall be implemented as planned within the decade. It is our firm intention to complete all the projects, valued at £102 million at 1981 prices, which have already been announced in Parliament. There will have to be some slowing down in the years of the present PESC period up to 1984–85, but much of this would have been inevitable anyway because of planning permission delays for the main transmitter projects in the United Kingdom. We are still providing £13 million new money in the next three years, and broadly similar amounts in future.
It has been said that the proposed new money merely restores cuts announced in 1979 and that the External Services have been subject to a series of cuts in recent years. This was the theme of, particularly, the noble Lord, Lord Hill of Luton. But the reductions we announced in 1979 were only reductions in planned increases. The other so-called "cuts" were mainly 917 small ones, and there have also been at least two increases in the grant-in-aid. The latest plans include far greater expenditure on Bush House modernisation, for example, than previously foreshadowed, as well as a completely new relay station for the Far East. Our proposals are not dissimilar from those which were under consideration by the previous Administration. In their White Paper on Overseas Representation, published in August 1978, they said:Cuts can however be made in some of the vernacular services. The pattern of vernacular services should not be regarded as immutable".We agree with these sentiments. For too long current services have benefited at the expense of the audibility programme. In every organisation it is necessary to decide how much within a finite total of resources should be spent on investment and how much on current operations. I would suggest to those who may still harbour the impression that the External Services have suffered "cuts" that they should rather see the reductions which we have asked the BBC to make as judicious pruning to concentrate resources where they are most needed to promote the healthy growth of a sturdy tree. I am confident that now that the protracted doubts over our proposals have at last been resolved the tree will grow from strength to strength. Over the past two years we have regularly consulted with the top management of the External Services to keep them abreast of our thinking. Detailed consultations are now taking place at working levels to obtain the optimum and earliest realisation of our plans.
My Lords, perhaps I could now deal with some of the other points that were made, and possibly in slightly greater detail with one or two of those to which I have already referred, in particular the points made by both the noble Lord, Lord Byers, and the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, about the details of the new money which the Government will contribute. The figures have been discussed in general terms with the BBC, but I cannot go into details because public expenditure figures are not normally made available until the publication of the White Paper at the time of the Budget. The Government will contribute over £13 million of new money in 1983–84 and 1984–85 combined and broadly similar amounts in future years. Also I would refer in a little more detail to the costs of the capital programme which will amount to about £102 million in the decade. New transmitter facilities will account for £54 million of that; Bush House modernisation for £17 million, replacements and minor works, £31 million—all at 1981 survey prices.
The noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, also referred to the position of the Turkish service and drew comparisons between the circumstances which surrounded the cuts to that service in 1979 which have now been reversed; but we must be flexible in our priorities. The international situation has changed in that part of the world and, in particular, with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Following the invasion of Afghanistan we increased the vernacular services to countries on the USSR's southern border. Had Turkish been cut, we are confident that the BBC's ingenuity would have been able to restore it, just as they are now restoring the Pushtu service to Afghanistan.
918 The noble Lord also referred to the Japanese external broadcasting service. I understand that they are actively considering expansion of their present 259 hours a week in 29 languages to roughly the same level as the BBC; namely, about 700 hours in 40 languages. But contrary to what the noble Lord has said—but I would not want to be dogmatic about this—no final decision has been taken. Japan has a much higher gross national product than the United Kingdom and perhaps is more in need of disseminating its image.
The noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, and my noble friend Lord Morris, referred to the Spanish service to Spain. It was said—not tonight, and not in these terms; but it was the tenor of what the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, was saying—that during the attempted coup in Spain in February many Spaniards were only able to rely upon the BBC Spanish service for their news. That is a flattering view since the state radio went off the air for about two hours—
§ Lord Trefgarne
My Lords, the points made by the noble Lord were on the same theme but I accept that that was not the precise point he made on this occasion. But it was the theme of my noble friend Lord Morris and at least one other noble Lord; so that I thought that an answer would satisfy three noble Lords rather than delay each of them with separate replies. Since the BBC Spanish service broadcasts for only one hour a day, it is just as likely that the Spaniards turned to the BBC 24-hour world service in English when their own service was off the air at that time.
The noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, and others referred to the criteria for choosing vernaculars to be cut. This is a general point which ran through the speeches of almost every noble Lord. We have to draw up our priorities for these services on foreign policy grounds. In 1980 and 1981 we prescribed 17 hours a week of increases in Russian, Parsee, Turkish and the new Pushtu service to Afghanistan. The last decrease which we prescribed, the service to Sri Lanka in 1976, was under the previous Administration. We base ourselves on several criteria, in particular whether there are other channels of getting across the British point of view. We have not thought it necessary to have vernacular language services to the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway or Sweden.
My noble friend Lord Morris also raised the question of consultation with the BBC. Foreign Office Ministers have held regular discussions with the BBC management since the 1979 reductions were announced. The general outline of our thinking, including the stress on audibility, was made clear in January 1981 when a table of further expenditure plans was drawn up as a basis for discussion. The BBC were informally warned then of all the services to be reduced, except for the one to Brazil, about which they were told two days before the announcement. The Government had only two working days' notice of the Opposition Motion in another place on 26th October, which meant that it was only possible to inform the BBC of our revised plans on the morning of the debate. We would have wished then to have consulted the BBC more fully and to have informed your Lordships in parallel. It 919 was a Supply day debate in the other place initiated by the Opposition and the Government have no control over that.
My Lords, I referred specifically in my speech to the period between June and 22nd October. Were the whole Government and Whitehall on holiday then?
§ Lord Trefgarne
No, my Lords, but we had not finally reached our conclusions and thus it was premature to offer a new plan to the BBC while still considering what that plan should be. Our consideration had to be accelerated when the Opposition in another place put down a Supply Day Motion for debate. I am the junior Minister in the Foreign Office responsible for the External Services and I was informed of the upcoming debate in the other place on the Friday; and I was in New York at the time. The noble Lord will not be surprised to know that it was difficult for me to reach an immediate conclusion in conjunction with my colleagues on the new plan until my return from the USA.
§ Lord Strabolgi
My Lords, would it not be true to say that the Government made their concessions because they knew that they were facing a defeat in another place?
§ Lord Trefgarne
My Lords, that is not the correct interpretation of our actions. As my right honourable friend the then-Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said, we took into consideration the views of both Houses of Parliament.
§ Lord Ferrier
My Lords, I hesitate to interrupt the noble Lord on this, but I asked whether there was a vote in another place and what the figures were. gather there was no vote.
§ Lord Trefgarne
There was a vote in another place on 26th October. I have not got the figures. The Government won easily.
§ Lord Trefgarne
My noble friend asks what happened on the 23rd July. I have not got those figures. I will find out and convey them to him.
My Lords, now that the Government have given a clear directive for the future financing of the External Services, I hope that we can all concentrate our minds on carrying out our plans to the best advantage of this country in the spirit of co-operation which, I know, exists with the BBC. As I said in the debate on 30th July:The External Services are a national asset of the highest importance".Their staff, who will number some 2,750, provide a high quality product universally admired throughout the world. They will still be broadcasting over 700 hours a week of direct broadcasts in 37 different language services and will still be in fifth place in the world league. With the increased financial resources which the Government are providing to improve audibility, 920 involving the construction of 16 new transmitters in the United Kingdom and 10 overseas, their regular audience of 100 million may well double by the end of the decade. I hope your Lordships will be inclined to agree now that the Government have fully and properly taken account of your Lordships' views and the views of the other place in this matter.
§ Lord Trefgarne
My Lords, I think it is permissible—and the Clerk will no doubt gesticulate if I am wrong—for noble Lords to intervene just as the Minister sits down, claiming that he has not yet done so.
§ Lord Byers
My Lords, I think it has been explained by the Procedure or another Committee that it is undesirable, when a Minister has sat down after answering an Unstarred Question, for the debate to be continued by a series of noble Lords asking him questions.
§ Lord Trefgarne
My Lords, I accept the guidance of the noble Lord on this matter, who I think sits on that committee. I will therefore sit down.
§ Lord Boothby
My Lords, I hesitate to interrupt the Minister, but perhaps I might just ask before he sits down—
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, if the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, will forgive me, I think that the House, by general consent, has come to a conclusion on this matter on the advice of the noble Lord, Lord Byers.
I therefore beg to move that this House do now adjourn.
§ Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.