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BBC World Service

Volume 522: debated on Wednesday 26 January 2011

The House will agree that the BBC World Service performs an invaluable role, reflecting British democratic values overseas and supporting British influence in the world, and that the services it provides are a beacon to many in some of the poorest and most insecure countries in the world. We announced in October that from 2014 responsibility for the BBC World Service will be transferred to the BBC itself and funded from the licence fee, a move that has been welcomed by the World Service and the BBC Trust as providing new opportunities for the World Service to develop in the future. In the meantime, the World Service, like any other taxpayer-funded body, must ensure that it is working on the right priorities and as efficiently as possible. I announced in October that its expenditure limits would be reduced by 16% in real terms over the next three years.

As I set out in a written statement earlier today, we are providing £13 million per annum to help with the deficit in BBC pension funds and £10 million per annum for new services in markets that we and the World Service have identified as priorities. Those include TV programming in Urdu, in sub-Saharan Africa and in Hindi to be provided to local partners. We have also guaranteed the capital for the move of the World Service to its new offices in W1. That is proper provision for the future of the World Service and will make up for inherited deficits.

The other services provided by the World Service cannot stand still, and those that have become less well used because of the rise of local broadcasters or falling shortwave audiences sometimes have to close. It is the World Service’s responsibility to be as efficient as possible while maintaining as many services as possible, something the previous Government recognised when in 2006 they closed 10 separate language services of the World Service. The World Service initially suggested to the Foreign Office the closure of up to 13 language services, but I refused to give permission for that. I have agreed to the closure of five language services, accounting for 3.5 million listeners out of the total audience of 180 million. Withdrawal from shortwave and other services will have a bigger effect, but they will rightly allow for concentration on online and mobile services for the future.

The BBC World Service has a viable and promising future, but it is not immune from public spending constraints or the reassessment of its priorities. While any closures might be regretted, they would not be necessary at all were it not for the inherited BBC pension deficit and the vast public deficit inherited from the previous Government.

May I remind the right hon. Gentleman that he is Her Majesty’s principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, not a pensions actuary at KPMG? In every year of the previous Labour Government, the grant in aid to the foreign service went up, but under him it has gone down. He is doing in part what no dictator has ever achieved: silencing the voice of the BBC, the voice of Britain, the voice of democracy, and the voice of balanced journalism at a time when it is needed more than ever.

I have an interest to declare. It was the World Service that broadcast my arrest and imprisonment 30 years ago in communist Poland, thus helping to secure my fairly swift release. This week there is turmoil in the Balkans, where people were killed and injured in Tirana last Friday and where Serbia and Macedonia remain without a European future. There is turmoil in Russia, where no one trusts the Putin-controlled media. There is turmoil in Africa, from Egypt and Tunisia down to Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe. What are the Government doing? They are axing the voice of the BBC—the voice of Britain and our values—in Albanian, Serbian and Macedonian. They are cutting services to Angola, Mozambique, Russia and China. They are taking the BBC off the air as other non or semi-democracies replace BBC truth with their propaganda.

The Foreign Secretary secured a flat cash settlement for his own Foreign and Commonwealth Office diplomats, but he has made the World Service the main victim of his cuts with a 20% real-terms reduction. That will cost the jobs of hundreds of journalists who come from every corner of the world to offer their linguistic and political expertise to our nation.

Finally, does the Foreign Secretary accept that just 0.5% of the UK’s total spend on international work goes to the World Service? I urge him to look across the range of UK overseas spending, including some sacred cows, and reverse the World Service cuts before irreparable damage is done to our country. If he cannot do that, he should let us have a Foreign Secretary who will allow Britain to maintain its voice in the world.

When the right hon. Gentleman talks about Poland, one would never imagine that the World Service’s Polish service was closed by the Government of whom he was a member. When he talks about the Balkans, one would never imagine that the Bulgarian, Croatian and Slovene services were also closed by the Government of whom he was a member. It was apparently fine under the previous Government sometimes to have to change priorities, but it is not fine now.

The right hon. Gentleman asks about the Russian services. In Russia, online audiences have increased by 120% in the past 12 months, while radio audiences have declined by 85% since 2001. That is why it is absolutely right for the World Service to move more of its services to online and mobile services; that is the way the world is going, even though he might not have noticed it.

Of course the World Service has to move with the future, and of course occasionally some services have to close. The right hon. Gentleman recognised that when he was a Minister. It is a pity he does not recognise it now.

The World Service together with the British Council are hugely valued services and probably the most effective way of advancing Britain’s perceptions of the world. What we have here is an inevitable consequence of restoring stability to the economy. As my right hon. Friend says, funding for the World Service will transfer to the BBC from 2014. Will he confirm that, with the savings that the transfer will make and the move to Broadcasting house that is going on at the moment, it is open to the BBC to increase funding after 2014?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Indeed, there is some degree of excitement in the BBC Trust about that—about the potential in being able to bring together more easily the resources of the BBC and the experience of the BBC World Service. For instance, it might be able to develop BBC World television more successfully, so there is a positive side to look forward to, and that is what the House should concentrate on.

I should be interested if the Foreign Secretary could, for the sake of the House, adduce the evidence whereby the BBC Trust is excited at the prospect of the cuts that have been announced today. The director-general of the BBC has made it clear that the cuts are a direct consequence of last autumn’s spending review. Of course, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office should not be exempt from the need to reduce the deficit, but in making cuts in the FCO, especially to a relatively small budget that has a global impact, there is surely a need for particular care and concern.

Will the right hon. Gentleman explain what proportion of the cuts to the FCO under the spending review settlement will be absorbed by the core FCO budget as distinct from the World Service and, indeed, the British Council? Will he set out his explanation of why the BBC World Service will absorb 16% to 20% real-terms cuts as against 10% real-terms cuts for the FCO? Will he explain how his often-stated ambition to strengthen bilateral relations with the BRIC countries—Brazil, Russia, India and China—is advanced by the end of radio programming in Mandarin Chinese? The reach and respect of the BBC World Service is a huge asset for Britain, and the Government should not put that at risk.

May I first of all welcome the right hon. Gentleman to the Dispatch Box? I look forward to working with him and to many exchanges with him, although we will always remember that he was Minister for Europe when £7 billion of our rebate was given away, which would of course have paid for the World Service 30 times over. We may have to remind him of that on future occasions as well.

I did not say that the BBC was excited about the reductions in the budget, but, considering the meeting that I had with the corporation about the issue in October, I can say that it is certainly excited about the potential in bringing together the work of the BBC and the World Service, so my evidence is the meeting that I had with Sir Michael Lyons and his colleagues.

It is true that in this spending round the real-terms cut in the Foreign Office budget is 10% and in the World Service budget 16%, but it is true also that in the previous three years the cut in the core Foreign Office budget was much greater. On the effect of all that, by 2013-14 the proportion of the Foreign Office budget accounted for by the World Service will be pretty much exactly the same as it was when the right hon. Gentleman was a Minister in the Foreign Office, five years ago. We ask the World Service only to bear its fair share of the public expenditure reductions, which are obviously necessary in this country. That is the right and fair thing to do, and now we have to work with the World Service and support it in making the best possible job of that.

The Chinese service reaches a very small number of people compared with the size of the Chinese population, and it needs refocusing. The new, enriched online service will aim to reach not only people in China, but 67 million Chinese people who live outside China, and it is designed to be more appealing to younger audiences. Again, there is a rationale for many of the changes that the World Service proposes, albeit within financial constraints.

Given the huge influence of Islamist television channels such as Hezbollah and al-Jazeera, will my right hon. Friend confirm that resources will continue to be spent on BBC World Service TV and radio services in the middle east, and on the Arabic service?

Absolutely. That is, of course, a major area of the World Service’s broadcasting. None of the language service closures that are envisaged or agreed to will affect the middle east. Those closures are of services in Albanian, Macedonian, Serbian, Portuguese for Africa and English for the Caribbean. The work of the BBC World Service in the middle east will continue at its current strength.

These cuts are a direct result of the Foreign Secretary’s decision to allow the funding of the World Service to pass from his Department to the licence fee payer. Many of us warned that that would happen at the time. The countries where language services have been closed that he listed in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) were all European democracies within the European Union; that is not the case with the language services the Foreign Secretary is closing. Why should the BBC spend any more money on language services that the licence fee payer has no interest in and, in many cases, cannot listen to?

In case there is any confusion, there is no connection between these reductions and the transfer of the BBC World Service to licence fee funding, which will take place in four years’ time. For the next three years, the BBC World Service will continue to be funded directly out of public expenditure. Just to make it clear for the right hon. Gentleman, the reductions are therefore not the direct consequence of that decision. The services that closed under the previous Government were not just European democracies in the European Union; they also closed the Kazakh and Thai services. The closures were much more widespread. As I said, the previous Government recognised that closures sometimes had to take place. Labour Members must recognise that unless they oppose all reductions in Government expenditure, sometimes these things have to happen.

Cuts in the jewel in the crown of this country are clearly disappointing. Does the Foreign Secretary accept that the World Service makes a huge contribution to our international development agenda? Is he willing at least to discuss with the Secretary of State for International Development whether his Department, which currently makes no contribution, could make a small contribution? For example, £3 million a year would save the Russian and Mandarin Chinese services.

I point out to my right hon. Friend that there are merits in the changes to the Russian and Chinese services, for the reasons that I have given about changing patterns of usage. It is not clear that if the BBC World Service had a few million pounds extra, keeping those services exactly as they are would be the best use of that money. However, that would be for the World Service to decide. I am looking at whether additional funding can be provided in this financial year to help with the restructuring costs. It is not impossible that we will find some additional money for the World Service. A good part of the public money that is spent on the World Service is ODA-able—official development assistance—expenditure, so it falls within that category. I think that my colleagues in the Department for International Development and all other Departments would agree with my assessment that public spending discipline has to apply to all parts of the public sector, including the BBC World Service.

Is it not a fact that the BBC World Service is the most trusted voice in the world—more trusted than any Government, and more trusted than any other broadcaster in English or any other language? Therefore, to undermine the BBC World Service is to undermine truth. Is it not essential for the right hon. Gentleman to accept that it is about time that this Government dedicated themselves to truth and trust, and not to spin?

These are the straightforward facts of the matter. The fact that the previous Government closed 10 services in 2006 is nothing to do with spin; it is the sheer truth of the matter. One point I would make to the right hon. Gentleman is that one of the advantages—although not a decisive advantage on its own—of transferring the BBC World Service into the BBC is that it will no longer be possible to make the argument, which is sometimes made around the world, that the BBC World Service is an arm of the British Government and is funded directly from the Foreign Office, and that therefore some suspicion should be cast on it. By showing the world that the BBC World Service, which is known for its impartiality and independence, will be part of the BBC, rather than funded by the Foreign Office, we are underlining, rather than undermining, its independence.

Given the inevitable reordering of the finances of the World Service, does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is none the less essential, in a world in which the media move at an extraordinarily fast pace and the world itself is changing so rapidly, that it has the capacity to change if it needs to do so, and that its capabilities should not be set in stone?

Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. That was why I emphasised the changing nature of the demand for World Service broadcasting and the rapidly increasing online demand, particularly for its Russian services. Such things do not stand still, which of course means that the skills and personnel required sometimes change. There should be wider recognition of that.

The Foreign Secretary has referred several times to what happened under the previous Government. Will he confirm that the World Service established television in Arabic and Persian and new online services, and that the previous Government did not preside over a cut of 650 staff or make it face 16% cuts, which it now faces when the Foreign Office is suffering only 10% cuts? Is that not a direct consequence of his agreement to the budget cuts and his choices?

The previous Government doubled the national debt in four years and ran up a budget deficit of 11% of our gross domestic product. That is why we are now in a period of public spending restraint, whether in the World Service or any other area.

In response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr Foster), the Foreign Secretary acknowledged that World Service funding was ODA-able in some cases. Does he envisage having discussions with DFID, given the increased commitment to operating in fragile and post-conflict states and the consequences of withdrawing the Portuguese for Africa, Nepali, Swahili and great lakes services? There could be scope for an agreement between the two Departments to reinstate or maintain those services.

As I said, a good deal of the expenditure is already ODA-able. I do not know what scope that leaves for additional ODA-able funding, but DFID is already in the process of setting its own priorities, which do not normally include supporting the operations of the BBC World Service. Overall, these changes are necessary. I said that I am considering whether additional money can be provided to help the World Service through the restructuring—I am talking about only up to a few million pounds, but it may be of assistance. I cannot promise a large part of the DFID budget for this cause.

I used to be accused of having a typical foreigner’s emotional attachment to the World Service, and I plead guilty to that. The Foreign Secretary has a sense of history and knows that the World Service’s reputation is based on not just its independence but its exceptional quality. The latest round of more than 600 redundancies will cut into its core and undermine it, because it will not have enough journalists. As a historian, he cannot be proud to be the Foreign Secretary who will oversee the final death of the World Service.

None of us who are conscious of history can preside over a Government heading towards the bankruptcy of this country, and that is why we have to have spending restraint across the public sector. I stress that, as I said in my initial answer to the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane), there is a viable and strong future for the BBC World Service. The right place for it is with the BBC itself, which has taken it on with enthusiasm. It is wrong to pretend that there should never be any changes or reductions, and of course we have to ensure that we live within our means in this country. These changes are part of doing that.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the BBC World Service, along with the British Council, has a huge world reputation in exchanging views and knowledge from the western world? Does he accept also that it is not just the number of people who receive a service that counts? It is precisely the minorities in difficult parts of the world who need truth and independent advice.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that was one reason why I was anxious to avoid a larger scale of language service closures than those to which I have agreed. We have limited them to five language services, along with other changes to the BBC World Service, partly because of the reason he gives.

Will the Foreign Secretary join me in paying tribute to all the staff of the BBC World Service working both in this country and abroad? Is he giving any consideration to helping the BBC with the redundancies that will occur as a result of his decision, many of them affecting people in specialist positions?

I have paid tribute on many occasions to the staff involved and to the BBC for the service that it provides around the world, and I do so again. I said that we might be able to find some additional help with the restructuring costs, and I mentioned in my initial answer the money that we have included in the settlement to underwrite the World Service’s move to new headquarters and to ensure that some new services can be developed. There is a strong commitment to the future of the World Service.

In his correspondence with Sir Michael Lyons, which has been placed in the Library today, the Foreign Secretary states that he will

“seek to find ways to make some additional funding available this year, providing those funds can be used to generate savings in future years.”

What conversations has he had with the BBC Trust about that, and can he confirm whether he has met Sir Michael Lyons in person during his negotiations?

Yes, I have met Sir Michael in person a couple of times. On the subject of what discussions are taking place, I am awaiting further details from the World Service of how it would use any additional money this year to help make the savings and rationalisations that we have discussed.

The BBC World Service provides a vital link to the outside world for oppressed countries and isolated countries such as Burma. The Foreign Secretary will remember the important role that the Burmese service played during the demonstrations back in 2007. Will he assure the House that those considerations will be taken into account in the future, to ensure that we do not pull such important services away from those countries?

Yes, the hon. Lady is absolutely right, and I certainly would not agree to the closure of services for Burma, even if it were proposed. The considerations that she underlines, such as the help that the World Service provides to people in oppressed countries, must always be important in the decisions that we make about its services.

There is very deep concern in the House about this decision, and I hope that the Foreign Secretary will reconsider it with Cabinet colleagues. In particular, I hope that he will take a look at the overseas aid budget, which is increasing by 37% in real terms at a time when he intends to implement 16% cuts to the World Service. I hope that he will hear the message from the House that if there is a choice between the two, we want to put the World Service first.

I stress to my hon. Friend that a good deal of the World Service’s budget already counts as ODA-able expenditure, so he should not think that turning to DFID for the money is an easy answer. I reiterate my view that all parts of the public sector must join in in becoming more efficient, and the BBC World Service will be part of the public sector for the next three years.

Given the scale of the Foreign Secretary’s announcement, what guarantee can he give that the BBC’s non-partisanship and impartiality in reporting, which has always been a hallmark of its broadcasting capabilities, will be maintained in future?

I do not anticipate that anything that we are announcing today will have any impact on that important part of the character of the BBC. As other hon. Members have underlined, that is part of the reason for the respect for the World Service, and it is committed to continuing that character.

The BBC Monitoring service is recognised globally as being of the highest quality, and it is essential to a number of our allies. Given the inevitable cost savings that have to be found, can the Foreign Secretary confirm that he is not looking to cut back the monitoring service?

The monitoring service is not part of today’s announcement, but it will of course have to make savings, because it, too, is funded from Government expenditure. Further details of that will follow.

The Foreign Secretary will know that there used to be a consensus throughout the House for supporting the BBC World Service—we saw off the Thatcher Government together when they attacked it. Should he not hang his head in shame today? These are cuts of a scale beyond anything that went on under previous Governments, to a service that is cherished by the British people, who will punish him. They are part of his overall plan to please Rupert Murdoch and denigrate the BBC.

There is a sort of ridiculous air to that question, if I may say so. Clearly, my announcement was nothing to do with the last matter to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It is necessary to make savings in Government expenditure because of the performance of the Government whom he supported.

What analysis has the Foreign Secretary made of the benefits to Britain’s foreign, development and even domestic policy objectives of spending on the World Service versus spending on Trident?

This is a black day for more than 650 people who will lose their jobs. Among those will be foreign journalists who came to this country on work visas at great risk to themselves. What will the Secretary of State do to ensure that those people are not sent back to danger in their original countries?

There should be no question of that happening. We have well established procedures, over which the Home Secretary presides, to ensure that people do not go back to danger in their home countries. That is a separate issue, but if it comes up at all, and if there is any danger of those things happening, Ministers will want to make sure that they do not.

To follow up on that point, the BBC is very concerned about the plight of the foreign-born journalists who work in this country who will now be made unemployed. Can the Foreign Secretary promise to work with the BBC and look sympathetically on those journalists who might have to return to countries on which they have reported critically?

Yes, absolutely. To reiterate the answer I just gave to the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr Roy), we will look very sympathetically on that situation.

At the moment, the audience for the BBC World Service is more than 240 million people around the world. After these cuts, will the BBC still be the pre-eminent world broadcaster, putting forward our democratic values in a way that other international broadcasters fail to do?

Yes. Not only will the BBC be that, but it will have great potential for the future in working with other BBC services and in developing some of the new services that I have outlined today.

The Foreign Secretary has often spoken of the importance of soft power in diplomacy, particularly with reference to the BBC World Service. Although I regret the loss of services in the western Balkans, can he explain how we can better deploy our soft power resources in that very vulnerable region to try to secure its peace in future?

My hon. Friend’s question raises a wider discussion about the western Balkans. We give a great deal of diplomatic and ministerial attention to that region. We have been highly active in ensuring that dialogue rather than confrontation has taken place between Serbia and Kosovo over recent months, and we are now doing a great deal of work on the future of Bosnia. That is done by British diplomats, supported by the work of British non-governmental organisations, and British Ministers, working cohesively.

I am absolutely certain that the World Service cannot be preserved in aspic, and that if Labour had been in power, there would have been cuts in its budget. However, every single foreign politician whom I have met in my time in this House told me that one of Britain’s greatest assets is the BBC World Service. For many of them, it was the symbol of freedom. My big anxiety is that cuts in the World Service are so much heavier than cuts in other parts of the Foreign Office that they will leave a very depleted organisation, and that uniting the World Service with the rest of the BBC will hit rather than improve its impartiality. Will the Foreign Secretary therefore reconsider?

The hon. Gentleman’s question is a good deal more realistic than some that I have been asked in the past half an hour, because he recognises that whatever Government were in power, there would have to be reductions in the World Service. He can gather from what I outlined earlier that we have sought to limit the impact on the number of countries involved. That is why only five separate language services are being closed. We have taken all the factors he outlined into consideration, limited those closures and provided for the future development of the World Service, so that it continues to be the respected service of which he rightly speaks.

The Foreign Secretary seems not to understand that his decisions will topple the BBC from its position as the No. 1 in the world, or that the loss of critical mass is significant. Surely he will accept that we cannot simply restart a service in a particular country or part of the world when problems emerge, yet the World Service is so important in such countries, and to their diaspora in this country, at such times, as I have seen in respect of Somalis in the UK. Will he reconsider the damage that he is doing with those decisions?

I pointed out how the growth of some services is taking place—I mentioned earlier how the use of the online service in Russia has grown by 121% in the last 12 months. As the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) was saying a moment ago, the services of the BBC World Service cannot be preserved in aspic—they must change—and Opposition Members must understand that.

Given that two of the greatest strengths of the World Service were to speak truth to the powerful and to broadcast hope to the poor and downtrodden, does the Foreign Secretary not see even the slightest irony in the fact that in the week when he introduces swingeing cuts to the World Service, the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, who is sitting next to him, has given a second chance to Rupert Murdoch?

They are two entirely unrelated issues. Does the hon. Gentleman not see the slightest irony in the fact that having left this country on the brink of bankruptcy, Opposition Members now complain that we are doing something about it?

Everyone in the House recognises very clearly the uniqueness and importance of the BBC World Service. The Foreign Secretary mentioned in his presentation today that one reason for the cuts is that the numbers of those who listen to radio are down, but what consideration has he given to countries where the only media method is radio? Has consideration been given to what the uniquely British World Service gives to the democratic process in countries such as China, and will he ensure that people in such countries have an opportunity to continue to listen?

Yes, of course the Government considered that, as did the BBC World Service in drawing up the list of what it thinks it is necessary to do. The predominant availability of the service only on radio is one of the factors that the BBC has borne in mind. Burma, which was mentioned earlier, is a case in point. That has been one of the factors in drawing up the list. Of course, in those areas where the service is to close, countries are generally provided with a vast range of different media outlets, including a much more thriving local media than was the case only a decade ago.