HL Deb 27 June 2001 vol 626 cc354-7

2.54 p.m.

Lord Quirk

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether access to the BBC World Service will remain truly global after the changes announced for 30th June.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Amos)

My Lords, the BBC World Service is withdrawing short wave broadcasts to North America and Australasia from 1st July. These audiences listen largely on FM and the Internet. The World Service will redirect funding to improve FM and Internet services worldwide, and short wave where there is less privileged access to democratic media, thus improving global coverage. The World Service will monitor developments and report on any loss of listeners in North America and Australasia next year.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Of course, I acknowledge the steps that are being taken to offset the cuts that she mentioned. However, given that the noble Baroness will be fully aware of the value of the World Service not only to its listeners but also to the reputation of the UK, is she also aware that in the eastern states of the US alone there are many, many thousands of devoted BBC fans for whom the Internet is not a viable option and for whom—even if they live in cosmopolitan cities—there is no guarantee that local stations will be willing to carry the World Service of the BBC?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, perhaps I may first assure the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, that we are not talking about cuts. I endorse entirely the view that the noble Lord has expressed about the value of the World Service both to its listeners and in terms of maintaining the reputation of the United Kingdom abroad. However, I must point out to the noble Lord that World Service coverage has increased since last year by 2 million listeners per week. Moreover, in the United States, where there are 2.6 million listeners, only 300,000 of those listeners tune in solely on short wave. This is very much about looking at global coverage and ensuring that we invest in those parts of the world where audiences can listen only on short wave.

Baroness Whitaker

My Lords, my burning concern is to ask my noble friend the Minister whether the World Service is sufficiently funded to enable it to carry out its important task?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I believe that those involved in the World Service would agree that the extra funding of £64 million made available for the three years between 2001 and 2004 has been most welcome. That money will be used to increase investment in new technologies, including new Internet services. It will also be used for the modernisation of short wave transmitters and to expand FM rebroadcasting to the major cities worldwide.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, by concentrating on expanding short wave transmissions in the developing world and on the new technologies of FM and the Internet in the developed countries of America, Australia and New Zealand, the BBC World Service has got its priorities absolutely right? Is the noble Baroness further aware that nowhere does the Government achieve better value for money than in the Foreign Office grant to the World Service?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, it gives me great pleasure heartily to endorse the noble Lord's comments.

Lord Tanlaw

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that there have been cutbacks in this respect? Can she reconcile the following example with her report that the short wave service is being expanded? The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, which has a very long history in short wave research, has had its grant cut and has made an appeal for those funds to be reinstated. Can the noble Baroness reconcile that cut in provision for the laboratory's research into short wave and atmospheric conditions with the fact that her department intends to promote short wave transmission in those other areas that fall outside the cuts she mentioned?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I repeat, once again, that we are not talking about cuts. The BBC World Service grant in aid has increased by £64 million. We are talking about the BBC World Service making decisions about the nature of its business, and the importance of it being a dynamic organisation that remains flexible and responsive to the changing needs in society. It is about the World Service meeting the needs of a digital age.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, given the acknowledged value of the World Service, will the Minister assure us that there is no threat to, or likely diminution of, the service, in particular to Latin America?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I am not aware of any proposals to diminish transmission to Latin America.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, while recognising that no government have had a completely marvellous record in funding the World Service—and I hear what the Minister says—is this really the right time to cut 1.2 million listeners out of the short wave system? I refer not just to North America but also to Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific and developing countries. I know that the Minister realises that this is now the cutting edge of cultural diplomacy. Does she recall that on the previous occasion the cost cutters and the budget squeezers were let loose on the World Service the government of the day—I believe that this was in the early 1990s—held a rigorous inquiry to find out what the BBC was up to? Will Ministers in the Foreign Office keep a close eye on the matter this time?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the World Service and FCO Ministers hold an annual meeting. That meeting took place yesterday. It was agreed that as a result of the initiative we are discussing there would be a review to consider the number of listeners in North America and Australasia. I believe that the noble Lord said that 1.2 million listeners would no longer receive the service. In Australia the number of short wave listeners has dropped from 1.6 million eight years ago to about 100,000 now. That is the number of people who listen only to short wave. In the United States the figure has dropped to 300,000. Therefore, we are not talking about the kind of numbers that the noble Lord mentioned.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, will the noble Baroness confirm that in countries suffering from extreme poverty and conflict, such as Afghanistan, the World Service is not only maintaining its programme but is supporting it with educational work which has been so valuable to the people there?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I confirm that in addition to its broadcasting activities the World Service also engages in training to enable the media in certain parts of the world to pursue democratic means in those countries.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, in the Minister's initial Answer she partially relied on the fact that the Internet is now being used to deliver the service. Will the Minister put that in context and tell the House how many people, as a percentage of the total listener base of the World Service, now access it through the Internet?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I shall write to the noble Lord on that point. However, in the United States, for example, 168 million people have access to the Internet. The majority of World Service listeners in the United States access it through the Internet. I remind the noble Lord that FM rebroadcasting services are also being actively pursued by the BBC World Service with the aim of ensuring that the world's major cities have coverage through that route.