HL Deb 26 July 1999 vol 604 cc1283-6

2.54 p.m.

The Earl of Carlisle asked Her Majesty's Government:

What resources they intend to provide for the British Council and the BBC World Service over the next three years.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, under the Comprehensive Spending Review settlement announced in July 1998 the British Council received, or will receive, £133.1 million, £136.1 million and £138.9 million for the three years from April 1999 to March 2002, representing a real increase of some 2 per cent in the period over the 1998–99 level. This was in line with the real increase for the FCO as a whole. The BBC World Service received, or will receive, £175.5 million, £174 million and £177.7 million in the same three-year period, a real increase of nearly 3.9 per cent on average on the 1998–99 level.

The Earl of Carlisle

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer, to which I can only respond with the dying words of the first Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, Charles James Fox. On his deathbed he turned to his wife (named Elizabeth) and said: That does not signify, my dear Liz". Does the Minister agree with me that in the fifth report of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons concerned with resources every single witness lamented the fact that the shortfall of funding for the British Council and BBC World Service meant that they would not be able to do their important jobs with as great effect as they should? Does she also agree that next year's CSR bids should put the British Council and World Service to the top of the agenda, and that if the British Council is called upon to assist with reconstruction in the Balkans the extra money that it requires should come from the Treasury, not the Foreign Office or the grant-in-aid fund, which is lower now than it was at any time during the previous government?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for his sterling advertisement on behalf of the FCO. However, I did not believe that his initial quote was particularly appropriate. These sums of money signify very much indeed. I am the Minister for BBC World Service, and my noble friend Lady Kennedy chairs the British Council. Everyone always wants more money for their particular parts of government, but the fact is that the money allocated is sufficient for the purposes of both organisations. For example, the British Council is active in new areas, such as the promotion of creative industries, design, film and the spread of good governance and human rights. The World Service is forging ahead with its plans for languages in real audio on the Internet within five years and the introduction of two continuous streams of English programming, one general and one news. I believe that both organisations are able to proceed with their plans and are properly funded.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that both the British Council and the BBC World Service provide unrivalled, honourable and honoured service at minimum cost and maximum effect? In those circumstances, can she assure the House that the welcome news that a real increase is to be provided in the next three years is one that will be built upon and there is no need to worry about diminishing payments for such tremendous services?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I can point only to what has happened in the CSR. On this occasion actions speak louder than words. I echo what my noble friend said. The British Council is of enormous benefit to Britain in the public diplomacy field as our principal agency for cultural relations abroad; and the BBC World Service is an excellent organisation, keeping some 42 foreign languages in service and broadcasting in English as well.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, will the Minister repeat the sums of money for the BBC World Service? Unless my hearing has gone, I believe she said that the figures were £175 million for the first year, then £174 million, and then £177 million. If so, do those figures give comfort to the BBC World Service in planning ahead? I do not have a calculator with me but it does not seem to be a real increase.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, perhaps I may explain. The noble Baroness is right. The figures I gave were £175.5 million; £174 million; and then £177.7 million. The increase is somewhat lumpy—if I may put it that way—because we are investing in a new transmitter in Oman. It is important to have that capital investment up front. As the noble Baroness may know from the articles written by the chief executive, Mark Byford, the BBC World Service is well satisfied with the outcome of the CSR.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, I warmly endorse the praise expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Janner, of the British Council and the BBC World Service. However, can the Minister assure the House that any increase in the grant in aid for either the British Council or the World Service will not be at the expense of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's activities in what I believe is now known as the field of public diplomacy?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord, Lord Wright, that his successor in the Foreign Office, Sir John Kerr, is as assiduous an accounting officer as the noble Lord was in his day. If I know Sir John at all, I assure the noble Lord that he will be very active in ensuring that money is not siphoned out of other parts of the FCO budget either into the BBC World Service or the British Council.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I praise the BBC World Service for the marvellous way in which it is bringing on online services and training journalists, for example in the Indonesian elections. Can any additional training which may fall either to the British Council or the BBC World Service in relation to the Balkans and Kosovo be considered as falling under the proposed reconstruction funds rather than the moneys currently available to those two outstanding services?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises an apposite point. The BBC World Service has expanded its services into the Balkans, as I am sure the noble Baroness knows, especially in its Albanian and Serbian services.

The matter is under review. As the noble Baroness will appreciate, a number of parties are extremely interested in how it is to be financed. I assure the noble Baroness that all care will be taken on the matter.

Lord Puttnam

My Lords, the Minister will remember that about five years ago the then Prime Minister, John Major, called a three-day conference in London entitled Britain and the World at which a number of eminent people, including most members of the Cabinet, spoke. The clear outcome of the conference was that the BBC World Service and the British Council represented the greatest value for money in the area of British diplomacy. Three months later both budgets were cut.

Will the Minister confirm that instead of considering increases of 1, 2 or 3 per cent over the next five years in the budgets for the BBC World Service and the British Council, the Government will look at the priorities of foreign policy and consider a double digit increase?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Lord raises an interesting point about the previous administration. It was in order to bring some certainty to the budgetary planning of the BBC World Service and the British Council that the Government ensured that the money available over the next three years is clearly indicated.

The money available for the British Council appears in percentage terms to be less than that for the World Service because the British Council is able to raise money from a variety of other sources. However, it is important to ensure that while the aspirations of many may not be met, the functioning of both organisations is properly secured. The Government believe that to be the case.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, pursuant to the important point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, and my noble friend, what specific action do the Government intend to take in view of the strongly worded conclusions of the Foreign Affairs Committee in its report, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Resources that, the British Council is seriously underfunded", and that on its present and projected budgets the BBC World Service will not be able to face increasing competition or keep pace with new technology?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, in that case I expect that the FAC is glad that it is dealing with this Government and not the previous government because we have put in a great deal more money. I know that the noble Lord has great difficulty with the maths. We have had many discussions on the figures in the past. I can again go over the figures with him quietly later. I am sure that we shall have the opportunity again of convincing him, as I believe it is easy to do, that his sums are wrong.

We shall keep all these points under review, as would any responsible government. I believe that our record is considerably better than that of the party he supports.