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BBC World Service

Volume 518: debated on Tuesday 9 November 2010

2. What assessment he has made of the effect on the BBC World Service of the proposed transfer of its funding away from his Department; and if he will make a statement. (22525)

The transfer of the BBC World Service funding from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the licence fee from 2014-15 represents a £212 million reduction in public spending. I will continue to set the objectives, priorities and targets for the World Service with the BBC, and no language services will be opened or closed without my agreement.

Is it not the case that in parts of the world the World Service can be a better ambassador for Britain than any number of embassies and diplomats? But does not the change raise some serious questions about its long-term governance and funding? Why should the licence fee payer in Britain pay for programmes that they cannot receive and probably would not be interested in receiving, and why, therefore, should the BBC continue to fund them?

The BBC is very enthusiastic about the change. I have discussed it with Sir Michael Lyons and with Mark Thompson, the director-general of the BBC. They believe there is more that they can do, through bringing the BBC World Service and other BBC activities together, to develop the World Service in the future. Clearly, we would want them to do that, and I do not think that any future Foreign Secretary would allow them to run it down, given the powers that are reserved to the Foreign Secretary. So here we have an arrangement that can maintain or improve the World Service, has the necessary safeguards, and saves £200 million of public spending without increasing the licence fee. That is something that we should all be enthusiastic about.

The Foreign Secretary said that responsibility for the finance of the World Service is being transferred to the BBC, but can he say whether responsibility for the strategic direction of the World Service is also being transferred? In other words, who has the last word on editorial content?

The responsibility for the direction of the World Service will remain exactly as it is now. What I agreed with the BBC Trust and the director-general of the BBC is that the key parts of the governance arrangements previously agreed in 2006 will be replicated in a new agreement, so the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, with the BBC, will set the objectives and priorities and, as I mentioned earlier, the Foreign Secretary will retain a veto over the opening and closing of services. So those arrangements stay the same as now.