HL Deb 06 May 1993 vol 545 cc801-6

3.15 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to make any cut in the budget made available for the BBC World Service.

Lord Henley

My Lords, under the provisions for the current three-year funding period for the World Service ending in March 1994, its budget increases in the present financial year from £166 million to £176 million. Future funding proposals reflect reductions in overall Foreign and Commonwealth Office budgets. The final decision will depend on the outcome of this year's public expenditure survey, as for other items of government spending.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, will the Minister agree that it would be very unfortunate indeed if anyone were to use that Answer to disguise the fact that severe three-year cuts have been proposed to the BBC World Service? Will he further agree that the BBC World Service is our finest ambassador across the world? It reaches over 120 million people, many of whom would not be contacted by embassies or consulates. To most of those people it is a lifeline to the truth. In some cases it is the only lifeline to the truth. In an age of censorship and propaganda, the need for this universally admired beacon of integrity and excellence is growing rather than diminishing. Any cut will damage the World Service, perhaps permanently. The Government should keep off.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I echo the noble Lord's words in praise of the World Service. I should like to give an assurance of the importance that we see of the role of the World Service and the importance it plays in our international relations. Again I should like to stress what the noble Lord said about the need and the importance of the objectivity of the World Service.

However, I must stress that there are no cuts that are being made from previously agreed amounts. No amounts have yet been agreed for the World Service after March 1994. But I have to say that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is faced with very substantial budgetary restraints in the next few years. We have informed the World Service that it is quite likely to have to face a proportionate share of those after 1993–94.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that this House has a proud record in defence of the external services of the BBC? The last time that the Government were so foolish as to try to reduce the funding of the external services this House rose up in its wrath on a Motion proposed by the late Lord Byers and the Government had to change their mind. Can we persuade the Government to change their mind before we reach that situation, bearing in mind that one of the people who supported us on that occasion was the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I could stress also that the Government themselves have a proud record of support for the World Service. Funding has increased in real terms since the early 1980s by some 40 per cent. As I made quite clear in my original Answer, it has gone up by more or less double the rate of inflation for this current year. Over the three-year period that comes to an end next March the service will have expanded the hours broadcast per week from 780 hours to 860 hours.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, are the Government aware that not only is the BBC World Service the largest and most successful external affairs broadcasting system in the world, it is universally the most trusted for its impartiality and accuracy? It not only gives the bad news about our trade and business, it also gives the good news—unlike the BBC home service in this country. It is a mighty promoter of our exports. Those who wish to cut its funding must be off their rockers. The amount that we spend on the service should be increased, not reduced, in particular now that we are cutting most of our Armed Forces.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I shall not follow the noble Lord in his remarks on the BBC home service. May I repeat that, as I said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, I agree with the noble Lord in wishing to stress the need for the objectivity, in these troubled times, of a service like the BBC World Service? What I am trying to say is that we shall ensure that the BBC World Service is adequately funded to perform the role that we see it performing and performing that role adequately. But that does not mean, and never should mean, that there should be a total exemption for the BBC World Service from any of the general budgetary constraints that face the Government.

Lord Acton

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in Zimbabwe, where I lived during the 1980s, masses of people turned to the BBC Overseas Service for trustworthy news? Is he further aware that in my American wife's home state of Iowa so highly is the BBC World Service respected that a local public radio station relays its flagship report "News Hour" every night? Will the Government bear those examples in mind when considering any cuts which I believe would be disastrous?

Lord Henley

My Lords, again I think it shows the excellence of the service that the BBC World Service provides. Perhaps I may again repeat our record over the past 10 or so years: we have increased funding for the BBC World Service by some 40 per cent. in real terms.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, is it not a fact that most of the increase to which the Minister has just referred was used on capital expenditure to improve the equipment and also audibility? Any further cut must now affect the range, quality and extent of programming. There is still time for the Foreign Office either to find the money itself in other ways or, even better, to press the Treasury hard not to make the cuts. May I receive some assurance that consultation is going on and that it is not all cut and dried? The effect of the additional cuts which are now being talked of will be absolutely catastrophic.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I do not think that a 40 per cent. increase over the past 10 years amounts to a cut. Nor do I think it is wrong to spend large sums of capital money on improving the audibility of the service. If the service is not audible, there is very little point in having a service at all.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that over the past 10 years there has been a steady reduction in the percentage of funds taken by the BBC and its associated overseas services from the Foreign Office? I do not always agree, particularly with the salary increases, but there is one area where we get incredibly good value for money—that is, the overseas service. Why is it that, when the Treasury consider any economies, it thinks about two things: first, the Gurkhas and, secondly, the BBC World Service?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I think that my noble friend would accept that the Gurkhas are slightly beyond the subject of the Question on the Order Paper. Can I stress that we are not talking about cuts? I have given the House precise details of the increases over the past 10 years. We are, as a result, providing a very good service indeed. What I am trying to make clear is that no branch of government, no body funded by the Government, can be totally exempt from the budgetary constraints that face the Government over the next few years.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, is the Minister aware that when I made a recent visit to Thailand several people implored my noble kinsman and myself to bring to the notice of the Government how very important the BBC World Service is and how much better it is than the American service? Will he let those countries know that the BBC World Service will be continued to them?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I take note of what the noble Baroness said and will bring it to the attention of my noble friend and my right honourable friend. But we are not in the business of talking about cuts. I must again repeat that we have seen a dramatic growth in the budget of the World Service over the past few years.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, may I tell the Minister that the replies he has given are encouraging? However, at the same time does he acknowledge that it is recognised throughout our country that this remarkable service serves Great Britain, Europe, the British Commonwealth and the Americas? That is no mean achievement. If anything is to be done which involves the overseas service, will the Minister say that it will even seek to improve the service, to give us all an even better one than the remarkably excellent service that is provided at the moment?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am most grateful for the support of the noble Lord. It is not often that he supports the Government.

Lord Elton

My Lords, if my noble friend is still in need of assurance of the excellence of the service, is he aware that it is only necessary to go to China to be accosted in the streets by people speaking English, wishing to practise the language they have learnt from listening to the BBC World Service?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I take note of my noble friend's remarks and shall certainly pass them on to my right honourable friend.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, may I make it clear that when my noble friend Lady Birk spoke of the disposal of previous sums she was not complaining about that? She was pointing out that the money had been spent for a certain purpose and had not been found in order to improve the service. What she seeks now is an assurance from the noble Lord that money will be granted so that the service can be maintained and improved.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I have to say again that I think that spending money on audibility is improving the service. Audibility is really rather important.

Lord Aberdare

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the impression given to me is that if reductions are required from the Foreign Office they will be spread equally among the Foreign Office services? Should there not be a value judgment? Certainly from what we have heard this afternoon the overseas broadcasting services should be encouraged, increased, and nurtured. Perhaps the reductions should fall on other services provided by the Foreign Office.

Lord Henley

My Lords, that will be a matter for my right honourable friend and for the Public Expenditure Survey. What I am trying to make clear is that obviously difficult decisions will have to be taken. We believe that the BBC World Service is very valuable and the views of this House will certainly be taken note of. But there can be no automatic exemption for the service as such; every part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will have to take its fair share of any budget restraint that there should be.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, is the Minister aware that he is being a little inconsistent in his answers to the questions? He keeps telling us that we are not talking about cuts and then goes on to tell the House that no government service can be totally exempt from cuts. Moreover, he also said that the BBC World Service must bear a proportionate share of the cuts that the Foreign Office would have to make. Those were his very words. I am sure that when we check in Hansard, he will see that.

I agree with the Minister that audibility is a very high priority. In the light of our agreement on that, can he tell the House that there will be no cuts in the BBC World Service's capital programme so that it will continue its audibility around the world since in many regions, notably East Asia, it is still poor?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I can give no cast iron guarantee of the sort that the noble Baroness asks for. What I have been trying to make clear to the House is that there has been very real growth in the amount of money available to the BBC World Service over the past 10 years. What I was further trying to make clear is that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is obviously faced with substantial budgetary restraints—I do not think I used the word "cuts"—over the next few years. The FCO has informed the BBC World Service that it will possibly have to bear a proportionate share of that restraint. But no cuts have been announced and the amounts after the current triennium, which ends next March, have not yet been agreed. Those are still to be negotiated between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the BBC World Service.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for the way in which he has dealt with the Question. He is obviously concerned for the BBC World Service and I appreciate that. Will he take on board the fact that the phrase "no automatic exemption" really means cuts? Will he please convey to the Foreign Secretary the very strong views of this House? While he is at it, will he have a private word with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and suggest that he cannot sell the country the emerging recovery and at the same time cut the BBC's World Service?

Lord Henley

My Lords, one very often finds that everyone is in favour of restraint in government expenditure but not on the particular individual hobby horse of their own. I noted the particular concerns of the noble Lord. I also note the concerns of the House itself in relation to the BBC World Service. I repeat what I said earlier. There has been a substantial increase over the past few years in the growth of money available to the BBC World Service but there can be no guarantee that that increase will continue indefinitely.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, does the Minister realise that by now a wise Minister would be changing his tune?

The Earl of Perth

My Lords, we have heard noble Lords on all sides of the House express their anxiety that the service should not be in any way cut or damaged. At the same time the Minister keeps on saying the service must bear its fair share of cuts. I hope that in this case that remark will not be given due weight. The fact is that noble Lords on all sides of the House have asked for the service to be continued. Under those circumstances, why should the service have to bear its fair share of cuts? I believe those were the words the Minister used.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I note the concerns of the House in this particular matter but I think it is a myth to say that the BBC World Service has in any way been meanly treated or under-funded. I think it is quite right that I should stress and repeat, and repeat again, that there has been a dramatic increase in the funding available to the BBC World Service over the past 10 years. That increase amounts to some 40 per cent. That is a very large sum of money indeed.

Earl Russell

My Lords, when the Minister speaks of increases in real terms, can he say whether those terms are real in relation to historic inflation or to Treasury forecasts of inflation?

Lord Henley

My Lords, increases over the past 10 years are in relation to the retail prices index.

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