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Foreign And Commonwealth Office Vote

Volume 79: debated on Friday 24 May 1985

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11.1 am

While I have neither eyes to see nor ears to hear what happens behind the Bar of the House or in the Box, I understand that a number of the Minister's advisers will be present today. As I shall be present for further Adjournment debates this morning in my capacity as parliamentary private secretary, when I shall have no voice to speak. I take this opportunity to thank the advisers for giving up this official public holiday for the Civil Service in honour of the Queen's birthday in order to assist the House in its proceedings.

In 1979 my right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Pym), the then shadow Foreign Secretary, declared that the underlying theme of Conservative foreign policy was the safeguading not only of our own freedom but that of the whole free world. Every free country has a shared interest in the freedom of every other country, and we in Britain should look forward from this island in that spirit and with that faith.

A remarkable series of events have witnessed the British Government speaking and acting clearly in favour of British and Western interests since then. There was a peaceful and democratic settlement on Zimbabwe after 15 years of deadlock and abortive negotiations. The rebuffed Argentine aggression reminded a doubting world of the conviction of a democratic country in safeguarding not only its own freedom but that of the whole free world. There has been a strengthening of our defences and a new emphasis on the protection of human rights during this year's visit to Poland by the Foreign Secretary and the negotiations about the future of Hong Kong — all of which are hallmarks in a period of our foreign policy that reflects an essential guarantee of a strong and decisive projection of Britain abroad.

Today I test the means by which such a projection is achieved—the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Vote, and the financing of the diplomatic service, the BBC overseas service and the British Council in particular. Of course, resources are scarce in any spending Department. Of course, politics is the business of organising priorities. Allocation must be achieved in the interest of the public good so that the broad policy that I have outlined can best be effected.

A classic vehicle through which that policy can be effected is a flourishing BBC overseas service. It is respected for its quality, accuracy and impartiality, and it enhances Britain's image abroad. We live in one of the few societies in the world where a genuine, accurate, impartial and truthful service is one of the best selling points for a country. Three words sum up a uniquely British idea—accurate, impartial and truthful. They are the best possible ambassadors for British diplomacy. That is a remarkable fact.

The unique world reputation held by the BBC external broadcasting service must be strongly supported. Ways and means are urgently needed to improve audibility and to bring about modernisation. The emphasis on audibility is all the more important when our competitors are boosting transmissions. Let us consider one example—the lifeline that the BBC external service is providing to the Afghan refugees. Between October and December 1984, a survey was conducted in the north-west frontier province of Pakistan where Pashto is the principal language spoken. Interviews were carried out among two separate samples of 600 adults each, one representing the adult urban population of the north-west frontier province, the other representing the Afghan refugees settled in the various camps of the province. According to latest population estimates, the total urban population of the north-west frontier province is close to 2 million, of whom about 1 million are adults. The Afghan refugee population of Pakistan is officially estimated at almost 3 million, and in the area covered by the survey there are 1·3 million refugees, of whom about half are adults.

The BBC Pashto service, which broadcasts for four hours a week, was inaugurated in August 1981. The survey provided the first opportunity to assess its impact among two distinct populations. Among Pakistanis, most people understand Urdu. Previous research in Pakistan, most recently in 1982, has shown a large, well-established audience for the BBC in Urdu in the north-west frontier province. In terms of their exposure to the BBC, the Pashto speakers of Pakistan are very different. Although many of them understand the Iranian Farsi language, the introduction of the Pashto service represented the first occasion on which the BBC had spoken to them in a language that the majority could understand.

It is interesting that both communities use radio as their main source of news. However, the resemblance stops there. Among Pakistanis, radio is closely challenged by television, with newspapers rather further behind. Among Afghans, television is almost wholly unavailable, and the low level of literacy results in little usage of newspapers. The radio is overwhelmingly dominant among the formal media and word of mouth is the only other news source, especially for women.

The regular radio audience figures are astonishingly high— 64 per cent. for Afghans and 61 per cent. for Pakistanis. Just over half the Afghan refugees listen to the BBC in Pashto. There are regular Pashto audiences among men of 88 per cent. for the BBC, 50 per cent. for Iranian radio and 40 per cent. for Voice of America.

Anyone who has visited the area will know that those transmissions are vital lifelines. It is for that reason that more Afghans listen to the BBC external service than to Voice of America, All-India Radio, Deutsche Welle and Radio Moscow combined. Yet, regrettably, that is all too uncommon a picture worldwide.

In the House on 22 November my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary said about external services:
"the BBC, too, has had to face some increase in costs. I do not believe that it would be right to meet that increase in full. As in the case of the British Council, I shall be looking for savings of about 1 per cent. in its total expenditure."—[Official Report, 22 November 1984; Vol. 68, c. 429.]
The reduction of £1 million to £2 million envisaged this. year will be the ninth cut in the working revenue of the external services for 10 years.

The cuts of 1982 ended the Spanish for Europe, the Italian and the Maltese services. French for Europe and the Brasilian service were halved. During the Falklands war that same year, the two nations in Europe least sympathetic to Britain because of their historical ties were Spain and Italy.

The grant to the transcription service that supplies recorded programmes for rebroadcasting to more than 100 countries was reduced by £300,000, and the number of programme hours from 500 to 350 per annum. The Government agreed, and this was welcomed, to fund the BBC programme of capital expenditure starting in 1981–82 of £102 million, to be spent during the following nine years. That included new transmitters in Hong Kong and the Seychelles and the replacement of United Kingdom transmitters, some of which were installed during the second world war. The willingness of the Government to build costly transmitters contrasts with the cutting of the number of services going out on them, which seems to lead to an inefficient use of capital.

It is true that in this year the BBC will receive an additional £700,000. That corresponds to the difference between the 3 per cent. cash limit for pay last year and the actual settlement of 4·8 per cent., similar to that of the Civil Service. The indicated cut of £1·2 million with which the external services will have to cope this year corresponds to improvements in conditions of employment that the corporation as a whole is having to make to remain competitive within its employment market.

Even if the present savings are found, they cause much greater problems in prospect for future years. In the next three years the external services could be facing a deficit of some 10 per cent. of its operating costs. That could be met only by a major reduction in broadcasting. A now crucial change in the way that the BBC's external services are funded was recommended at the end of last year. A plan was brought forward for money to be made available to the external services from the Government for exactly the same length of time, and at exactly the same point in time, as the licence fee settlement for the rest of the BBC. I support that plan.

Funds for the external services, which are part of the Foreign Office Vote, are currently granted for just one year, and that has led to a series of annual cost crises as successive Governments have tried to trim public expenditure. But the inquiry has accepted the BBC's contention that a move away from the one-year financial straitjacket for the external services' operating expenditure would facilitate more effective and efficient forward planning. The report also recommends that capital underspending of up to 10 per cent. — because of unforeseen delays in transmitter replacement projects, for example — can in future be carried over from one financial year to the next.

I hope that at this stage in the Public Expenditure Survey Committee round, my hon. Friend the Minister will press the Treasury to reflect on the increased costs and the effect of the depreciation of sterling. I also hope that he will consider how greatly the external services might benefit from the protection against depreciation that is customarily enjoyed by the Foreign Office. I further hope that he will agree that any further savings in total expenditure would militate against Britain's interests overseas and would be, to use Lord Carrington's words,
"totally counterproductive and the money saved trivial compared to the amount of damage done."
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will urge the Treasury to recognise that international broadcasting is a growth business. Voice of America has been given a $1·2 billion expansion plan. France has just had an austerity budget, and its foreign relations expenditure was reduced all round, with the exception of one item — external broadcasting. The money for that was increased from 296 million francs to 335 million francs.

The Japanese are expanding their overseas radio services as well, and the Soviet Union has expanded its output and dominates the airwaves in terms of hours broadcast: 2,200 hours a week as opposed to the BBC's 720 hours a week. But above all, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will see the strength of the moral argument that we have a duty to support the BBC's overseas service. It is a moral duty when something that is so small a burden on a rich country can provide such a massive service to the people of the world, and has substantial invisible exports. We need moral recognition that, despite the millions invested in Radio Moscow and Voice of America, the BBC has the most respected independent status, and its impartial voice is an essential means of sharing our interest in the freedom of every other country.

No one who has ever seen the extensive use made of British Council libraries around the world would hesitate to acknowledge that here is an institution central to Britain's role in overseas representation. The council has become a focus for a wide range of cultural activities. Meanwhile the council's emphasis on English language teaching is vital not just to thousands but millions worldwide.

In response to the Berrill report, The Times wrote:
"Britain's values have been formed by centuries of international traffic in culture and information. If Britain ceases to attach high importance to continuing participation in this traffic, loses faith in the contribution she makes to it, and fails to respond to the demand which her excellence generates abroad, her own cultural bloodstream will become that much poorer, her self-respect that much lower, and in the long run her international influence that much smaller."
That is why many of us regret that the opportunities will be missed now that the British Council has announced a programme of closures and cuts to meet the additional savings of £1·1 million required by the Government.

The opening of a new British Council office in Shanghai has been postponed. The Council's Oporto office will close, as will one English language teaching institute in Venezuela. A post will be withdrawn from Qatar. Funds to send books overseas and for academic and youth exchanges will be reduced. The balance will come from cuts in the council's computerisation and capital programmes.

The savings demanded by the Government are in addition to £800,000 already required for 1985–86 to meet the cash limit imposed on the council. The latest cuts bring the reduction in the British Council's budget to almost 22 per cent. in real terms since 1979, and many posts have been lost. Ten regional offices have been closed in Britain and representation has been withdrawn from Afghanistan, Argentina, Iran, Malta, Mauritius and Costa Rica. Although some of those withdrawals were involuntary, they contributed to the necessary savings, and prevented closure elsewhere. Further cuts will inevitably mean reducing activity and closing more overseas offices. Moreover, the British Council will find it more difficult to respond to the new opportunities for Britain overseas or to take advantage of any improvement in political relations with South America or the middle east. Equally, the council will not be able to open an office in Brunei where other countries have recognised the scope for educational consultancies.

I agree with those who argue that the council should constantly look to increase revenue. But that activity is not a substitute for regular Government income. It tends to increase activity in the country in which it is earned, but not to create a surplus for easy transfer elsewhere. Of £26·2 million earned in 1985–86 in teaching English, holding British examinations, and selling services, about £1·5 million is extra to the cost of doing the activity in the first place.

The council has found some venture capital — in addition to private sponsorship for the arts totalling £700,000—and has received income from the University of Cambridge local examinations syndicate for English language institutes in Malaysia and Japan. So far £25,000 firm has been raised and another £25,000 is hoped for towards the costs of opening an office in Brunei, which has regrettably had to be postponed. The council has also initiated a scheme for attracting and placing overseas students that is paid for by our universities and polytechnics. It obtains payment for services where possible.

All of that helps, but these are not sources or funds on which to plan a long-term strategy. Again, I hope that the Minister will urge the Treasury during this PESC round to recognise that the British Council is already lean and efficient. I have recently seen the vital role it plays in Ethiopia, where English is still a secondary teaching language. Britain has the sixth largest economy in the world, and arguably the five larger economies combined make less of a cultural impact than we do. English language, theatre, literature and poetry, joined now, not least, by British rock music, dominate the world.

Our cultural heritage is totally out of proportion to our economic power. Our publishing industry is totally out of proportion to the size of our population. The British Council is a crucial vehicle in promoting those strengths, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be party to building from strength in the coming years.

I have never doubted that within the diplomatic service there is room for innovation and change, and that such changes should be clearly reflected in any PESC round. That applies not least with regard to commercial representation. The old days, when the Foreign Office provided an essentially political service and when its role was to create an atmosphere or a climate of trade, have now passed. The weakness of the British marketing effort became all too apparent. Overkill set in. The Foreign Office looked at everything with a far stronger commercial perception until Iran. Now a middle course has been struck, yet it is still very hard to persuade the new intake that it is better to be first secretary (commercial) than first secretary (chancery) in a major city.

The strongly political work of our mandarins overrides any glory there may be in commercial success. The job now is to spot opportunities and open doors. But the quality and experience of those vested with this responsibility is mixed and, I believe, rightly subject to assessment. That is no less true of our system of Government support for our export interests.

Let hon. Members consider a cricketing analogy. Whereas the French Government regard commercial assistance as a method of winning the game, and the Japanese put in six sides to field to ensure that the odds are stacked in their favour, British commercial practice is for the private sector to sit down in its PEP, BOTB, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department of Trade and Industry pavilions arguing at length about the rules of the game. Then when all else fails, it is too often the case that it is the poor commercial attaché abroad, the proverbial twelfth man, who is blamed. The need for a review of commercial assistance is considerable

The Foreign Office will always embrace a web of international power threads, and spheres of influence. Nations will strive to safeguard their security and promote their interests. Those are the fundamental areas in which the diplomatic service must work. A delicate balance of power will be struck and the mandarins of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will continue to manoeuvre men of outstanding intellectual ability around a defined world of diplomatic posts while doggedly implementing the perceived wisdom of the day for what constitutes British interests.

Some might say that the FCO will remain the world's greatest expert on every political system bar its own. I dispute that view but there is room for greater integration with other Government Departments, not least with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Commensurate with this assessment is the need to sustain a Vote strong enough to support commercial and political roles abroad. Constant paring of the diplomatic service will do as much damage to the morale and effectiveness of its resilient and outstanding staff as anything else.

Today British interests are constantly changing. We seek to achieve a peaceful and stable world, enriched by the very fragile fruits of democracy in which free trade and commercial objectives can flourish. Our greatest tool is our influence — difficult to define and difficult to measure; the ideal target for the Treasury hatchetman. Yet if we as Conservatives are to promote not only our own freedom but that of the free world we must seek a financial provision that is strong enough to support the Foreign Office. I am strongly of the conviction that that view is widely shared on both sides of the House.

At this point I should like very much to give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Sir P. Blaker) who is the chairman of the Conservative foreign and commonwealth affairs back bench committee. My right hon. Friend hopes to speak for about 10 minutes and deal specifically with the diplomatic wing upon which I touched but upon which he will elaborate much more lucidly than I have been able to do in the short time available to me.

11.20 am

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moynihan) on having initiated this debate. I am extremely grateful to him for enabling me to say a few words specifically about the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as opposed to the important question that he has touched upon—the external services of the British Council.

We have one of the hardest working and most effective diplomatic services in the world. That is not simply my opinion. It is the opinion of other diplomatic services, of which I have seen a great deal, and of other Governments. As my hon. Friend has rightly pointed out, the continued effectiveness of the organs which fall under the responsibility of my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary is vital for freedom and prosperity.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has already been run down far enough. In the interests of the United Kingdom, that process should stop. The FCO accounts for 1·1 per cent. of the total number of civil servants and for 0·9 per cent. of the total cost of the Civil Service, so it cannot be said that the members of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are more expensive per head than other civil servants. In 1984 the total number of staff in the FCO both at home and overseas was 6,722. FCO staff in the United Kingdom who are responsible for liaison with all our posts overseas amount to just a little more than the headquarters staff of Marks and Spencer and to half the total staff of Brent borough council. The trends in the diplomatic service have been steadily downwards.

As my right hon. and learned Friend said on 22 May in answer to a question, since 1979 the number of diplomatic staff has declined by over 17 per cent. The overall reduction, not just of diplomatic staff, since 1979 has been more than 14 per cent.—a very big fall. The trend in the FCO compared with the Civil Service as a whole is different. In the 1970s, under the Labour Government, Civil Service numbers as a whole increased by more than 50,000, while the FCO numbers continued to fall, as they have fallen in almost every year since 1969.

In view of this fall in numbers one would expect to find that the workload had diminished, but the opposite has been the case. The workload has gone up, for reasons that are outside our control. In 1965, the number of independent countries in the world was 124. The number is now 164. In 1968 the number of British visitors abroad was about 5 million a year. In 1983 it was 20 million a year. When they travel, many British visitors meet problems and expect consular help. Hon. Members know that when British visitors do not get the consular help they expect they hear about it, sometimes in very indignant terms. That is a burden which cannot be diminished. Indeed, it will continue to increase.

What about the trends in cost? The total FCO vote is tiny — £583 million. It may sound a great deal, but compared with the costs of other Departments it is very small indeed. It includes the British Council, the BBC external services and subscriptions to international organisations from which we cannot escape if we are members of those organisations. Properly speaking, the cost of the diplomatic service is just over half that amount. In the five years after 1978 the cut in spending in constant prices, was 9·4 per cent. For decades the FCO has had a system of self-inspection, a quality of work control system which other Departments do not have.

Another important point in recent years has concerned overseas risen costs, a point mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East. The Government have given some assurances about overseas risen costs in relation to the FCO Vote in general, but I do not regard those assurances as having gone far enough. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will press for a better and more satisfactory arrangement about overseas risen costs. When he winds up the debate, I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will say something on that subject.

If one looks at the hours worked in the FCO, one finds a system which I regard as totally unsatisfactory. In the front line Departments it is perfectly routine for officers to be working from 8.30 in the morning to 8.30 in the evening. I wonder whether Ministers have had an assessment made of the hours worked by the ordinary desk officer. I am not referring to the head of department or to the assistant head of department, who would undoubtedly work longer hours. My information is that it is normal for the desk officer to work those hours, with perhaps an hour off for lunch. That is not good in the interests of the country, and it is not fair to the officers concerned. Furthermore, it is bad for the effectiveness of our diplomatic service if officers regularly work such hours. In a crisis they work much longer hours than that. They do not complain, because they are devoted public servants. They regard their work as important, as indeed it is. It is also very interesting work. However, they are working hours which I regard as greatly excessive.

Hon. Members may ask why something is not done to cut the workload. Why do we not cut out our activities abroad? Why do we not cut many of the overseas posts? There are a number of limiting factors. One is that we are a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. That position is in question in the United Nations. If we want to remain a permanent member of the Security Council, we must be careful about the extent to which our posts overseas should be reduced. If we cut our representation in whole areas of the world, our position as a permanent member of the Security Council will increasingly come into question. Membership of the European Community has imposed an enormous extra burden upon the personnel of the FCO. The newspapers are full of the stories of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and other Ministers working through the night for several days in succession to reach an agreement — or often not reaching an agreement. However, they do not mention that his staff are not working the same hours as he is. When the meeting is over and the Minister goes home, his staff sit at their desks and write up the minutes. They do not get any sleep, while the Minister gets only a few hours sleep.

My hon. Friend mentioned commercial work, which is extremely important for our business and exports, as is consular work. There is no scope sensibly to reduce the efforts that we are putting into them. Throughout the world other countries see us as fulfilling a much more important world role in defence of freedom than we see ourselves as fulfilling. The House does not understand how important our world role is seen to be by other countries. It would be a great mistake for freedom, prosperity and solidarity with our friends throughout the world if we were further to cut the FCO.

I hope that my hon. Friend can give us some assurance that there will be no further cuts in addition to those which have already been announced, and assurances about risen costs. I am sure that he understands that it is not only my hon. Friend and I who feel strongly about the matter, but Many Conservative Members.

11.30 am


I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moynihan) on his success in the ballot. He has chosen a most suitable subject for debate, especially after his recent visit to five African countries. I thank him for his remarks about the civil servants who have given up their official holiday today to be in the Box.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Sir P. Blaker) mentioned the long hours worked by civil servants in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The fact that they are present in the Box today is an instance of that. Last week, the administration in the FCO carried out a survey about long hours, and it is now examining the results. I thank my right hon. Friend for his remarks. My right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend both have a wealth of knowledge and experience of the FCO in particular, and foreign affairs in general. I share their view of the importance of all aspects of Britain's overseas policy.

I am interested in the tributes that my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend paid to various aspects of our overseas work and to the FCO. They will agree that it has long been the custom to knock the Foreign Office for extravagance. Queen Victoria said:
"Her Majesty is much opposed to any increase of Embassies, indeed her Majesty thinks that the time for Ambassadors and their pretensions is past."
Such a view existed not only in the 19th century. It was reflected more recently, if less succinctly, in the 1977 report of the think tank, and the book "With Respect, Ambassador" by Simon Jenkins and Ann Sloman, which was published earlier this year. There is a tide in the affairs of men, and from the speeches this morning it appears that the tide is turning. I note the view of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs in July 1984 that
"the squeeze on diplomatic service manpower has probably gone far enough and additional significant reductions would only be made at the cost of expecting a reduced level of quality of service."
There is a clear feeling that Britain needs a well executed international policy, that we should maintain our international profile, play our full part in the western Alliance, and continue to participate actively in international efforts to tackle world problems. I endorse what my hon. Friend said about the overall importance of our overseas effort, our diplomatic service, the British Broadcasting Corportion external services and the British Council in fulfilling that purpose. I remind my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend that the FCO's financial provision must be seen in the context of the Government's economic policy and the need to maintain tight control of Government expenditure. It must be in line with the Government's long-term endeavour to reduce public spending as a percentage of gross domestic product.

As my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend know, the British Council receives a basic contribution from the two wings of the FCO, which amounts to £72 million. The Overseas Development Agency contributes a further £12 million for special activities. I pay tribute to the British Council for the major role that it plays in promoting understanding and appreciation of Britain overseas through cultural educational and technical co-operation. I congratulate it on its 50th anniversary, which it celebrates this year. Its record on English language teaching overseas has been outstanding. Last year it amounted to 500,000 hours, which is a slight increase on previous years. In 1984–85, 23,400 people came to Britain with British Council help, and there were 6·3 million book issues.

The resources of the British Council have declined in real terms in recent years. However, in the present financial year the British Council will receive from grant-in-aid about £6 million more than the original figure for this year. Moreover, the council is able to offset the substantial part of that decline by raising more revenue overseas. Its overseas receipts, much of which come from English language teaching, have risen substantially in recent years. I wish the council well in that regard.

I was particularly impressed by the English language teaching programme when I visited Spain recently. Although my hon. Friend referred to the fact that some British Council posts have had to close recently, there has been a spread of British institutes — as it were, subordinate posts of the council — throughout Spain, which are dedicated to teaching English. That is a good and natural development, because as Spain gets ready to join the European Community, many Spaniards will hope to learn English as their second language for use within the Community. That is the other side of the coin.

It is true that staff in the United Kingdom have been reduced from 1,884 to 1,593 during the past seven years. However, since 1982–83 there has been a gradual increase in locally engaged staff overseas. Overall, the future of the British Council looks bright.

I note my hon. Friend's words about the unique world reputation of the external services. It is fair and right to say that a recent poll showed them to be the most popular of all international world broadcasting services. Their grants-in-aid under Vote 3 are £91 million for the current year. There is also £18 million for the 1985–86 in Vote 1 for relay stations run by the FCO.

My hon. Friend referred to various cuts in specific services, which have taken place in recent years. However, there are 727·5 broadcasting hours overall per week in 36 languages, compared with 716 in 1982. The prescription committee at the Foreign Office is charged with regularly looking at the division of these hours between countries where broadcasts are most needed. If a service is cut, it is generally because it has been replaced by a new service, or by more hours in another country where it is judged to be more needed.

My hon. Friend referred to the Pashto service, which was started in 1981 with one and three quarter hours per week. Since then it has been doubled to nearly four hours. Similarly, the services in Nepali, Tamil and Turkish have been substantially increased in recent years. During the six years up to 1985–86, the BBC external services received an increase in real terms in its grants in aid of about 33 per cent.

My hon. Friend referred to the Perry report, which looks to the future. It sees where some economies can be made in the administration of the BBC external services, and it recommends that grants for external services should be determined at the same time and for the same period as the BBC licence fee. That is being considered. and a decision will depend on an acceptable arrangement among the Treasury, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the BBC.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South played a major part in getting the audibility programme under way. In 1981, £100 million was agreed for the programme. Work on the new relay station in Hong Kong was started in 1984, a year earlier than planned. We hope that the planning process at Orfordness for the new United Kingdom relay station can be brought to a speedy and satisfactory conclusion, and that it will have an important effect on increasing audibility, especially to Russia and to Eastern Europe. It goes without saying that I hope that the BBC will continue to be a source of unbiased news arid comment, especially for those countries where freedom is denied. I am sure that the BBC is aware of its duty.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East about commercial work. The resources devoted to it amount to about 32 per cent. of our front line manpower deployed overseas. That is the largest slice of any of the diplomatic service functions, and the main effort is concentrated on export promotion. We work closely with the British Overseas Trade Board, and it has been estimated by independent consultants that the BOTB's export intelligence service leads to £1 billion worth of additional exports a year. About 80 per cent. of its market information and export intelligence is received from diplomatic service posts, and that service reaches more than 20,000 exporters.

I agree with my hon. Friend about the need for flexibility. We are aware that our commercial work overseas is never likely to be perfect. We try constantly to listen to criticism and constructive advice, and consider how, as overseas markets develop, we can improve our service within the restraints of the resources available.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South was generous in his tributes to the hard work done at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at home and abroad. I agree with some of the statistics that he produced. Since 1979, manpower in the diplomatic wing has been reduced by nearly 10 per cent. Yet the number of British business men visiting our posts abroad has increased by 20 per cent., the consular case load has increased by 40 per cent., and market information inquiries have also increased by 40 per cent. We maintain diplomatic and consular relations with 161 countries. My right hon. Friend said that we do so with one half of the staff of Brent council. My acquaintance with Brent council is not as great as his, but I am content to say that our total staff is about the same as the average British borough council.

Recently, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, due to the work of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State, has pulled off some remarkable achievements, especially in Hong Kong and Gibraltar.

My hon. Friend also mentioned overseas risen costs. He will be pleased to know that we have reached an agreement with the Treasury on the interpretation of the formula in Command 9367, which gives the Foreign and Commonwealth Office a reasonably secure basis for planning the use of the resources that Ministers allocate to it. As a recent memorandum sent to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs states, full account will be taken of movements in overseas prices when the FCO's expenditure provisions are set.

At the beginning of my speech, I said that the tide was turning in the affairs of the Foreign Office. I would not say, to complete the quotation, that, if taken at the flood, this will lead on to fortune. Given the necessary restraints on public expenditure, the favourable tide now running for the British Council and the diplomatic wing will not lead to fortune in the material sense. But these and other related activities will prosper by increasing interest at home and extending British influence abroad. Those who work for us abroad will have great pleasure in reading the comments of my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend, and I fully share their congratulations to members of the service on their hard work and achievements, often in difficult conditions.