HL Deb 07 December 1993 vol 550 cc809-12

Lord Thomson of Monifieth asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their policy towards the future funding of the BBC World Service.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Employment (Lord Henley)

My Lords, we will continue our support and funding for the World Service to help it to maintain its position as the leading international broadcaster.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in the post-Cold War world, with all its chaos and confusion, the role of the BBC World Service is more important than it has ever been? It is one of the best ways in which British reputation and influence are registered around the world. Against that background, is the Minister aware that the £5 million baseline cut in the funding of the BBC World Service earlier this year, which was set for a three-year period, is a short sighted economic policy? If the British economy improves in prosperity, as the Government hope, will they return to a larger funding figure to allow the BBC World Service to do its job properly?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I agree wholeheartedly with what the noble Lord says about the World Service. The Government believe that it performs a valuable role. That is why we have continued to fund the service at the very high levels of past years. That is why funding since 1980 has increased by some 40 per cent. Since 1978–79 the figure has increased by about 60 per cent. Obviously I can give no long-term guarantees for the future. However, the noble Lord will be aware that funding for the next three years is due to increase. Over the past few years we have increased the number of hours broadcast and the number of language services covered.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, will the Government confirm that the grant-in-aid to the BBC's French African service will be continued? Are they aware that the service has over a million listeners? In several of the Francophone countries it is the only British presence since the Government closed so many embassies and British Council offices in those countries.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I would rather not go into details of specific language coverage in different parts of the world. I can confirm that we now cover about 38 different languages, plus English. We are due to increase that figure to 40 over the next couple of years. We shall certainly try to improve coverage so far as possible. That is why we have increased expenditure on the World Service over the past 10 or 15 years by some 40 per cent., as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth.

Lord Morris

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the current method of funding the external services of the BBC is wholly unsatisfactory? There resides therein a fundamental conflict of interests. Will my noble friend consider funding the external service of the BBC in a materially different way?

Lord Henley

My Lords, my noble friend makes an interesting suggestion. However, he does not suggest what the different manner for the funding of the BBC World Service should be. The relationship between the FCO and the World Service is under review. The new relationship between the two is still under discussion and subject to final decisions. We should like to allow the World Service to decide for itself how to deploy its resources to achieve levels of performance and targets agreed annually with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that direct funding has worked surprisingly well so far as concerns the World Service. As noble Lords will be aware, that funding is entirely different from that of the remainder of the BBC. However, the BBC World Service misses that £5 million. If the service falls behind the present pre-eminent position which it occupies in world broadcasting, will the Government consider the possibility of coming to its assistance?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that in the 1993 survey no cuts have been made from previously agreed plans. In the present financial year, the World Service is receiving every penny of its planned increase over 1992–93. The outcome of the 1992 public expenditure survey involved the reduction of £5 million in planning figures for World Service grant-in-aid for 1994–95 and 1995–96. Those have been taken into account in the funding levels agreed for the next three years.

Viscount Torrington

My Lords, given the fact that television is considered to be a far more powerful medium than radio, have the Government considered funding the BBC World Service Television or assisting its penetration round the world?

Lord Henley

My Lords, we decided in 1988 that it would not be right to fund the BBC to start an international television news service when there was an existing British service—that is ITN's—operating without official subvention. We applaud the success which World Service Television has achieved as a commercial operation since its launch in 1991. It receives full co-operation in overseas markets from our official information and commercial services.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, first, is the noble Lord aware that what puzzles me about the Government's attitude is that we all say nice, pleasant things about the BBC World Service, a great symbol of all that is fine and good in Britain yet the Government are genuinely cutting its income by £5 million? There is no doubt whatever about that. Will the Minister please reconsider his approach and not just speak kind words? Will he avoid cutting the amount by £5 million?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I thought that I made it clear to all Members of the House, and if I did not then I make it clear now to the noble Lord, that we are not talking about cuts of £5 million. What we are talking about is steadily increasing funding of the World Service over the years. We have seen it increase, as I said earlier, by some 60 per cent. since 1978–79. That was following years when it actually fell in real terms under the Labour Government. We will continue to fund the World Service to achieve the best possible service that we can. I should also like to repeat what I made quite clear in one of my earlier answers, that we have seen the number of hours broadcast increase dramatically over the 1980s and early 1990s and an increase in the number of language services covered.

Lord Gridley

My Lords, would it not be better to try to bring the whole issue up to a considerably higher plane and admit that our experience across the world with the overseas service of the BBC and the BBC in general is that it is accepted everywhere in most dire circumstances? We are now moving into a new era in the world, with Russia having some responsibility for our affairs and, in addition, other countries. Would it not be better, therefore, to accept the fact that we should plan something greater in the future than we have had in the past, to carry on some of the things that have been done so well and which we are capable of doing?

Lord Henley

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right to praise the services that the World Service provides. That is why the Government are committed to the World Service and why the Government fund the World Service in the manner they do and to the extent they do. That is why the funding has increased quite as much as it has since 1979.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House why the Government have announced that they will review the capital programme of the BBC World Service, given that there is already a rolling capital programme agreed between the Government and the BBC?

Further, given the importance of audibility and continuing improvements in audibility, can the Minister assure the House that there will be no cuts in the agreed programme and that it will not be altered?

Lord Henley

My Lords, there has been considerable capital expenditure over the past few years, as the noble Baroness will be the first to know. We believe—and this is the reason why we believe the matter should be reviewed—that in the light of the evolution of broadcasting technology this would be an appropriate moment to review, with the World Service, its capital expenditure plans for the triennium which will start in April 1994. The exact pattern of capital expenditure will obviously follow that review. Before that review between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the BBC I cannot give the noble Baroness the guarantees or assurances that she desires.

Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister realises that what matters to the World Service is that it has had an agreed and accepted figure for the next three years. It is vitally important that the World Service realises that those figures will not be tampered with.

Lord Henley

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right, the figures for the next three years have been announced. Perhaps I may quote from the managing director of the BBC World Service, commenting on the figures for the next three years. He described them as, the best outcome we could have expected, given the current economic climate".

Lord Ezra

My Lords, the noble Lord must be aware, as a result of this exchange, that there is considerable unease in the House about the real or apparent cutting back in the budget of the World Service. In view of the massive political changes going on in the world, with the need to increase competitiveness and attractiveness of British goods and services abroad, is it not now a time when, far from cutting back, the Government should increase the potential of the World Service?

Lord Henley

My Lords, we are increasing it. If there is unease about the cutting back in the past I can only say that our record should speak for itself. Since 1979 we have seen what I have described as quite a dramatic increase. Between 1974 and 1979 we saw no increase at all.

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