HL Deb 02 February 1989 vol 503 cc1212-4

3.21 p.m.

Lord Gridley asked Her Majesty's Government:

How funding for the BBC Overseas Service has altered in real terms since 1979.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, including this financial year, the annual funding of the BBC World Service has increased by some 46 per cent. in real terms since 1979.

Lord Gridley

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer, which might be considered fairly reasonable as far as it goes. But does it really cover a huge concern like the Overseas Service of the BBC? In particular, has he seen the comments made by the director general, Michael Checkland, in the BBC annual report for 1987-–88 in which he states that in order to bolster the power and safety of the BBC in the coming decade it will be necessary to establish a TV world service, as well as providing the ordinary BBC broadcasting service that goes out! Those remarks were echoed—

Noble Lords


Lord Gridley

—by some of his directors. If this service is unable to be funded, can my noble friend say what is to be done? I understand that funds have been created but the Government are unable to use them.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, the Government considered very carefully the BBC request for public funds in order to start up a world television news service. We noted that a commercial world television news service started without public funds and we concluded that the provision of public funds to the BBC for this purpose was not justified.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, will the Government confirm that the foreign language services of the BBC will not be reduced, as these services are broadcast in 36 languages to over 100 million people?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, there are no plans to reduce them. The output in terms of hours has increased from 711 to 768 a week.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that though the funding of the overseas service has been more stable in recent years, nevertheless the increases that he has just mentioned have mainly gone into capital expenditure and that it needs a considerable amount of operating expenditure to work the new transmitters? Does he agree that, if one considers the general level of inflation over the next two years, there is going to be a decrease in the amount of money available for the BBC to operate these services in real terms?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, that will be looked at when we come to consider the next triennia. These matters are fixed three years at a time, so that will be decided in the 1990 public expenditure round.

Lord Chelwood

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the money actually available for the making of programmes and their broadcasting looks like falling by as much as 2.5 per cent. in real terms in two years' time, assuming inflation at 6 per cent? If that is the case—and I shall be glad to be told that is wrong because it is very disappointing—can my noble friend say whether the Government will consider topping up the grant-in-aid for current expenditure as opposed to capital expenditure, between which he made no distinction in reply to the main Question?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I cannot confirm that the figure of 2.5 per cent. which my noble friend quotes is correct. It is worth putting this matter in context. The total of £89.4 million for current expenditure in 1988–89 amounts to roughly what it costs to run all British embassies and consulates in Eastern and Western Europe and the Middle East. It is also 50 per cent. more than the Foreign and Commonwealth Office spends worldwide on export promotion. It is also over 50 per cent. more than the British Council diplomatic wing fundings. So in total it is a very significant amount.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, despite what the noble Lord has just said, is it not the fact that the money for actual programmes is being squeezed for reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, has given and for other reasons as well? For example, has not the BBC taken over three relay stations owned by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office? Will the noble Lord be good enough to convey these facts to his right honourable and learned friend so that this remarkable service can be treated fairly?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, while it is understandable that the service should be worried that its recurrent expenditure might be diminished to some extent because of the importance of carrying out the capital works, that work is the most important part of the operation. If the programmes cannot be heard, it is not going to do anyone any good at all. As regards the three transmitters, the grant-in-aid was topped up to take account of the cost of running those three transmitters.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, can the Minister say on what basis a new service in Korea was turned down by the Government and whether it was a decision reached purely on a financial basis? Can he also say whether there were any other reasons and whether the industrial importance of the area was borne in mind?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, all these matters are carefully considered. There have to be priorities. The current priorities are to improve audibility in the subcontinent and in southern Africa.

Lord Morris

My Lords, we all enjoy playing these creative accounting games, but will my noble friend ensure that Her Majesty's Government restate their full support for the programme-making and the ability to transmit programmes from Bush House, as they have done in the past? Can he also say that the Government will try hard to support the revenue cost of Bush House?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I can certainly confirm to my noble friend that the standard of broadcasts from Bush House is universally respected wherever one goes in the world.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, can the noble Lord tell the House where the British Overseas Service stands now in the league table of output per hours compared to where it stood in relation to such services as "The Voice of America" in 1979?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I cannot give comparative figures with "The Voice of America" in output per hours. The BBC is estimated to have 120 million regular listeners abroad, excluding China, which is the largest of any external broadcaster. The figure is roughly divided into 20 million listeners in English and 100 million in vernacular languages.