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BBC World Service

Volume 528: debated on Thursday 19 May 2011

[Relevant documents: The Second Special Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, The Implications of Cuts to the BBC World Service, Responses from the Government and the BBC to the Committee’s Sixth Report of Session 2010-12, HC 1058; The Fourth Report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, on the BBC Licence Fee Settlement and Annual Report, HC 454.]

I beg to move,

That this House notes the Sixth Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, The Implications of Cuts to the BBC World Service, HC 849; endorses the Committee’s support for the World Service’s invaluable work in providing a widely respected and trusted news service in combination with high-quality journalism to many countries; considers that the unfolding events in North Africa and the Middle East demonstrate the continuing importance of the soft power wielded through the World Service; believes that the value of the World Service far outweighs its relatively small cost; and invites the Government to review its decision to cut spending on the World Service by 16 per cent.

This is an historic moment for the House of Commons, because this is the first debate in the House by a departmental Select Committee on a substantive motion relating to a major issue of public concern since the introduction of the new arrangements for Back-Bench business. This is good for democracy and good for the reputation of Parliament.

Power falls into three categories: military power, economic power and soft power. It is the view of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that the BBC World Service is a key component of Britain’s soft power. We recognise the economic constraints and the background to our report, but we believe that it is a mistake to implement the proposed heavy cuts to the World Service’s budget. This is a question of priorities. We live in a fast-moving world where the internet and the media have grown in reach, influence, power and authority faster than anyone could have dreamed. It might seem odd to quote no less a person than Osama bin Laden on the importance of soft power, but, talking about jihad, he said:

“The media war in this century is one of the strongest methods. It’s…90% of the total preparation for battles”.

He was talking about the power and influence of media communications—soft power.

Soft power is a rapidly growing way of achieving desired outcomes. In the cold war era, power was expressed in terms of nuclear missiles, industrial capacity, numbers of men under arms, and tanks lined up across the central plains of eastern Europe. Today, none of those factors confers power in quite the same way. The old structures are moving on. Cyber-attacks and the more subtle methods of the information age are the norm. Soft power—the power of Governments to influence behaviour through attraction rather than coercion—dominates. That point is not lost on the Foreign Office, high up on whose list of structural reform priorities—the reforms that it believes should have priority—is the

“use of ‘soft power’ to promote British values, advance development and prevent conflict”.

I can think of no better definition or illustration of the need for the World Service, and it is the opinion of our Committee that the cuts to its output are a false economy. If anything, it should be expanded to address the concerns of a changing world, just as the security services and the number of diplomats to key sensitive postings have been expanded.

The BBC World Service is a priceless institution. Its value dramatically exceeds its costs. It is a key national and global institution at the forefront of international broadcasting, operating to the highest standards. In evidence to the Select Committee, BECTU—the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union—said:

“The World Service is the world’s most recognised news service.”

The National Union of Journalists described it as a “force for good”. A Chinese journalist told us that it was the most “trusted and respected” news service. The Financial Times described it as

“one of Britain’s principal sources of soft power”.

Mark Thompson, the director-general of the BBC, described it as

“one of the most precious things the BBC does and a lifeline to many tens of millions of people around the world who don’t enjoy proper access to accurate, impartial, open media”.

A listener said that it

“punches far above its weight and brings a disproportionate amount of prestige and soft power to the United Kingdom”.

Another wrote to me saying that it would be

“better to cut the increase to the aid budget and bolster the World Service”.

First, may I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee for the leadership that he has shown during the preparation of the report? I believe that we have managed to produce an enormously influential report under his chairmanship. He was talking about the value of the World Service, but I know he recognises that that is changing. Others are investing in this area. For example, at this time of the Arab spring, we are seeing al-Jazeera becoming increasingly powerful in the influence that it brings to bear. Our influence is in great danger of being completely eclipsed.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that, and for the support that he gives me on the Committee. I also thank him for his contributions to the Committee, and the expertise that he brings from his previous career. He is absolutely right about the changing world that we live in. I think that the Foreign Office gets that point. I do not wish to be critical of it, and I think that it does understand this, but we are trying to emphasise that the World Service represents one of the best ways of communicating with this changing world. The right hon. Gentleman makes his point well.

The World Service enhances Britain’s credibility. I have heard a story that President Kikwete of Tanzania starts his day by rising at dawn and listening to the BBC World Service rather than the local Tanzanian media. Others record that Mikhail Gorbachev turned to the World Service for real information during the coup against him in 1991. It is no wonder that the Foreign Secretary said that

“the BBC World Service will remain of fundamental importance to this country’s presence in the world”.

The strategic defence review singled out the World Service, saying that it

“plays unique roles in promoting our values, culture and commitment to human rights and democracy”.

In the interest of balance, however, I should report to the House that one listener wrote to me to say that it was a complete waste of money for the World Service to be broadcasting cricket to northern Europe. I had to point out that that was on long wave, and not the World Service and, unfortunately for him, he would have to continue to listen to ball-by-ball commentary and detailed analysis of the LBW rule.

The Select Committee believes that the World Service is a jewel in the crown which promotes British values of truth and democracy across the globe. In our motion, we say that its value “far outweighs its relatively small cost”. As yet another Minister defects from Libya, the dramatic events in north Africa and the middle east show that soft power, properly deployed, is likely to bring even more benefit to the UK. In the fog of war and media spin, people everywhere trust the World Service to be fair, honest, courageous and decent. And so, by association, Britain is endowed with those same qualities. This is soft diplomacy, and it is valuable.

Does my hon. Friend agree that a key element in this is that the Government’s contribution to the World Service does not have to be a permanent one? The licence payer is going to take over the cost of the World Service in three years’ time. Were the Government to cut the World Service by the same amount as the rest of the Foreign Office, there would be a temporary imposition on the taxpayer, not a permanent one.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I shall come to that point in a moment. It is the disproportionate nature of the cuts that is of concern to so many people.

On behalf of the Committee, may I thank my hon. Friend for so eloquently putting the case set out in our report? A moment ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) mentioned the question of governance. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) share the anxiety felt by many of us that the financial responsibility for the World Service will be transferred to the BBC budget, which is subject to a six-year moratorium with regard to any increase in the licence fee? Is there not a risk that the World Service will find itself competing with other parts of the BBC family—entertainment, for example—so that the admirable Mr Robin Lustig might find himself competing for funds with the equally admirable Mr Bruce Forsyth?

My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. It is a key recommendation of our report that the future governance relationship between the BBC World Service and the Foreign Office is not defined clearly enough in the concordat. Our concern is that we might be told, “You want an Arabic service and you want a Mandarin service, but we don’t have enough funds for both, so you need to decide which one”. To be fair to the Foreign Office, it has taken that point into account in its reply. I am pleased that it is still looking at the issue.

The central recommendation of the report was that the decision to reduce spending on the World Service by 16% should be reversed, but that if the funding has to be reduced, it should be done in such a way as to minimise the damage. A wide range of services will either be closed altogether or have a reduced output. I have no quarrel with some of the planned changes. For example, radio audiences in Vietnam have fallen to 1% and it has only about 110,000 listeners. In the meantime, Vietnam is seeing an internet boom with some 400,000 users now accessing the World Service online. The decision to focus on online services is obvious and sensible. None the less, we highlight plans to cut three services, which we think should be reviewed: the Mandarin, the Hindi and the Arabic services. It is doubtful whether their reduced output is in the nation’s interest.

I join others in congratulating the hon. Gentleman on his leadership role and his Select Committee on its excellent report. On the Hindi service, does he share my concern to the extent that the Government have made it clear, from last year’s Queen’s Speech to this week’s statement by the Foreign Secretary, that India is a priority? We are sending more diplomats to India in order to improve our relationship with that very important country, so will cutting the Hindi service not send out the wrong message to a country with which we really want to do business?

The right hon. Gentleman is right that India is of huge strategic importance to the United Kingdom. It is a rising power and a stated foreign policy priority. The World Service audience in India is some 11 million, which beats “EastEnders” any day. The estimated cost of reaching that audience is only £680,000 a year, which the producer of “EastEnders” would probably die for. I am not convinced, and I hope the House is not convinced, that losing that huge audience to save a bit over £0.5 million is worth it—and I am pleased that the Government agree in their reply to our report.

I accept that the Government say they are prepared to bring in some temporary measures whereby the World Service will provide limited hours in the Hindi service for a temporary period, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that the real solution is not temporary measures, but recognition that losing an audience of 10 million in India and a total loss of nearly 20 million to the World Service audience will reduce its share of the global audience so that it will no longer be the premier broadcaster internationally?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his work in the Select Committee in preparing the report. He makes exactly the point I am about to make. I hope that the Government will accept the motion—I have reason to believe that they may well do—and when they conduct the review, the hon. Gentleman’s point is exactly the one they should be looking at.

I shall move on from India to China. BBC China has been struggling with the jamming of shortwave radio signals by the Chinese authorities for more than a decade. As a result, its impact has been lost. Despite that, witnesses told us that they continued to hold the service in high regard. Sometimes it may be jammed in cities, but not in rural areas. After the Szechuan earthquake of 2008, the local community tuned in to BBC shortwave so that they could find out what was happening with the relief efforts. Chinese listeners tuned in to the Nobel peace prize ceremony, which the media was banned from reporting.

In response, the World Service is refocusing its online provision to China. However, let me express a word of caution about the move to online services. Internet services can be turned off at any time by totalitarian regimes. A good example was seen in Egypt during the Arab uprising when some 80 internet providers were cut off overnight. The Chinese Government have published a strategy paper asserting their rights to censor the internet inside their own borders.

It is the cuts to the Arabic services that have caused the greatest concern. No embarrassment should attach to the World Service or the Government over this decision, which was made last December before the Arab uprisings in January of this year. The value of BBC Arabic services is highlighted by photographs—colleagues may have seen them—of protesters on the streets of Syria carrying placards saying “Thank you, BBC”. Across north Africa, only two radio stations are listened to: al-Jazeera and the World Service. I mean no disrespect to al-Jazeera, but in my judgement, the far more independent and therefore respected service is the World Service.

This is a region that requires quality journalism and news coverage. The Foreign Office has responded to recent events in the Arab world by diverting considerable resources to the region. It has expressed its surprise over the reduction in World Service output—I hope that surprise will work its way into its review—and I welcome the fact that the Foreign Office is in discussion with the World Service to review the situation. What is needed, however, is a full reversal of the proposed cuts.

Let me deal with funding. Since its inauguration, the World Service has been funded by the Foreign Office. This will end in 2014 when responsibility will be transferred to the BBC. During the intervening four years, the budget is to be reduced from £241 million to £212 million a year. Taking into account inflation, that is a 16% real- terms cut. Last autumn’s spending review announced that the overall FCO budget would fall by 24%. However, a closer look shows that, once the World Service and the British Council are taken out of the equation, the actual cut in the Foreign Office budget is a shade under 10%.

In my judgement and in the opinion of the Select Committee, a 16% cut in the World Service budget, compared with 10% in the Foreign Office budget, is disproportionate. I sympathise with the director of the World Service who argued that the service had to some extent been singled out. In his defence, the Foreign Secretary told us that he did not regard the cuts to the World Service as being disproportionate. He argues that the World Service proportion of the FCO overall budget had been kept at its 2007-08 level through to 2013-14.

There seems to be some disagreement over the figures. The World Service tells us that, using the FCO’s baseline of 2007-08, when the World Service had 16% of the budget, it does not keep the same proportion, but declines to 15.6% in 2013-14. That 0.4% difference might not sound much, but it amounts to £6.6 million a year of the World Service budget, which would be enough to save a number of services.

In response, the Government say that they “do not recognise” the World Service calculations. So, in an effort to explain the difference and resolve the dispute between the World Service and the Foreign Office, I dug into the figures. I discovered that they were produced by the House of Commons Library. On digging a bit further, I found that the Library stands by the figures as they are based on the FCO’s own resource accounts and letters to the Committee from the Foreign Secretary and the permanent secretary. Quite how the FCO can say that it does not recognise the World Service figures is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps the Minister will explain the figures further in his reply.

Those are the problems. What are the solutions? I am advised that the additional funds required to retain the Mandarin, Hindi and Arabic services, about which the Foreign Affairs Committee expressed concern, amount to between £3 million and £4 million per annum, which is less than the discrepancy between the World Service figures and those of the Foreign Office. The Committee does not believe that there should be any cuts at all, but believes that if there are to be some cuts it would not be a stupid decision to focus on a small number of priority services, to allocate a relative pinprick in terms of public expenditure, and to reverse the decisions on Mandarin, Hindi and Arabic using the unallocated £6.6 million.

Many Members, and witnesses from outside the House, have suggested that the huge and growing DFID budget could be used to make up the shortfall in the World Service budget. That course is subject to two constraints. First, although it might have been permissible before the International Development Act 2002 came into effect, the Act states that any funding by DFID should be used for the reduction of poverty. Secondly, DFID funding must comply with OECD guidelines to become official development assistance. Therein lies the problem. There is a limit to exactly how much a broadcaster’s output can be described as official development assistance or as reducing poverty, and I understand that that limit has been reached.

Others have suggested that a way around the problem would be to slice a few million quid off the DFID budget and give the money to the Foreign Office for onward transmission to the World Service. That suggestion runs into the difficulty of meeting the United Nations target that 0.7% of GDP should be spent on international development. However, the House will welcome an announcement by the Secretary of State for International Development, who, following discussions between us, wrote to me on 13 May stating that he intended to make a grant to the World Service Trust and put his Department’s relationship with the trust on a more strategic basis. The trust is the charitable arm of the World Service, focusing on development. He believes that he can significantly expand its operations, increasing development outcomes and poverty reduction. That is an extremely helpful development. I congratulate the Secretary of State and his colleagues in the Department and thank him for his personal involvement, and I hope that the Foreign Office will be equally responsive.

Following the tabling and publishing of the motion last week the Government published a fairly emphatic rejection of our report, and it is with some surprise that I now learn that they intend to accept the motion, which calls on them to review the decision to cut the service by 16%. Several key Select Committee Chairmen, a former Foreign Secretary and other senior Members of Parliament support the motion because of the widespread concerns that I have raised.

In its report on the BBC, which was published today, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee strongly endorses the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report, which means that two Select Committee reports have unanimously expressed concern. I must tell the Minister that it would be a mistake to undertake a review and then to take no further action. If that does happen, the FAC will return to the subject.

The World Service is important. It is a national asset and a jewel in the crown, and it has an unrivalled reputation throughout the world. It is no surprise that Kofi Annan described it as

“perhaps Britain’s greatest gift to the world”.

In those circumstances, I urge the House to support the motion.

Order. I must be honest with Members. We have very little time. I am sorry, but I must introduce a speaking time limit of eight minutes.

I will try to be brief, Mr Deputy Speaker.

It is a pleasure to follow the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway), who introduced our report so ably. Let me underline what he said at the end of his speech. If the Government allow the motion to be passed this afternoon but prove to have had no intention of taking its wording seriously, the House will definitely revisit the issue—and in a different mood from the one it has adopted today.

I believe that there is virtual unanimity in this country about the importance of the BBC World Service. Where do people who live in totalitarian and authoritarian regimes and have no access to free media obtain the truth? If they mentioned two or three sources, one of them would be the BBC. The BBC provides the best possible image for this country, and I think it was very foolish of the Government to present proposals that would lead to reductions in the services of the World Service and in its audience share.

Reference has already been made to cuts in language services. Perhaps the Minister will clarify something that is puzzling me. The tone of the response to our report from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office implies some lack of convergence and consensus with the BBC World Service and its management in regard to facts and interpretation. It appears from the wording of the report and the responses to it that there is some tension and frustration within the FCO about some of the things that we have said and been told.

Let me ask a specific question. When the World Service was told that it must reduce its budget significantly—I understand that at one point it proposed to close up to 13 language services—what was the Government’s response? Is it true that they said that that was far too large a number and that a smaller number must be reduced, but with disproportionate cuts in those services? We now have the absurd situation of a 10 million loss of audience in India. We also have the absurd difficulties with BBC Arabic to which the Chairman of the Committee referred.

In recent years the World Service has introduced an Arabic television service, which is very popular, and a Persian television service, which is extremely popular and very important in a country that is as important to us as Iran. It has also developed a number of digital and online services, which cost much more than the radio services that are being slashed as a result of these disproportionate cuts. Both the present Government and their predecessor are committed to recognising the importance of those Arabic and Persian television services and the potential establishment of an Urdu television service, which we have discussed with Ministers in this and the last Government, and which might have a significant impact on a country as important to us as Pakistan. Is it not part of the wielding of our “soft power” and our promotion of this country’s values—is it not in our national interests?—not to cut the World Service’s radio services in order to finance that expansion, but to recognise that the World Service is a vital priority for British policy projection?

I am not arguing that the World Service should simply do what the Government want; one of its great benefits is its independence. However, I fear that we have created what is potentially the worst of both worlds. We are drastically reducing the World Service’s footprint globally. As the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) made clear in his intervention, in three or four years’ time one tabloid newspaper or another will ask why, for instance, we should be financing languages in Africa that no one in this country understands, rather than paying to have the best “X Factor”-style television programme—or some other style of programme—that is under threat.

In one of our Committee’s final recommendations, we expressed deep concern about whether the BBC World Service could rely on the BBC as a whole to protect it under the new arrangements. One of the consequences of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s relationship with the World Service is that there has been parliamentary accountability and scrutiny of the World Service. I was serving on the Foreign Affairs Committee in the 1990s when attempts were made under the John Birt regime to get the World Service under the control of the BBC. Those proposals were dropped because Parliament was not happy about the possibility of the values and ethos of the World Service being undermined, and I do not believe that we have the necessary assurances in place now on preserving the ethos and values of the World Service under the future arrangements.

I hope the House resoundingly supports this very important motion. The fact that it has broad support is a great tribute to the Chairman of our Committee—and to the other Select Committee Chairs who have put their names to it, as well as the rest of us who are signatories. The Government must listen and introduce a speedy review—not a review that will take a long time so that the cuts the World Service will have to introduce are irreversible. We must have a swift review with fast results, and we must assert that the World Service is the jewel in the crown and will remain so.

I support the motion. The Foreign Affairs Committee has produced a good report. The Chairman’s arguments were right and were pitched extremely well. It is clear from all the information produced, especially the written documentation the Committee received, that many people hold the World Service in very high esteem, and I therefore think we would be foolish hastily to proceed in the direction in which we seem to be going. Even if we accept that there might be a degree of bleeding stumps in some of the worst case scenarios, it is time for the Government to reconsider this issue before any lasting damage is done.

Consideration of the comprehensive spending review and the licence fee negotiations were concluded fairly quickly and without a vast amount of consultation, yet the implications for the World Service are very substantial indeed. Therefore, if there is a right time to pause so that we can carefully consider how to proceed, that time is now.

The issue of soft power and the flow of information around the world has already been mentioned, and it is of great importance for this country’s influence globally. Any of us who travel abroad appreciate that there is a great appetite for information from the BBC, as well as enthusiasm for British Council centres, and even British newspapers and the rest of our media. It is important that information flows, but the specialised analysis of that information by British journalists and foreign journalists working for the World Service is also important. We have witnessed upheaval, revolution and the fog of war, and reference has been made to the Facebook revolution. Often the analysis of experienced journalists is needed to decipher what is actually happening and to impart an accurate view to the world.

I heard a discussion on, I think, Radio 4 between two history professors, one of whom said, “If we look back into history and substitute the word “crowd” for “mob”, we can totally change the way in which people view events.” Journalists who work for the World Service must be allowed to get on with the job and give their best analysis of what is happening so that people who do not share our privilege of living in a free society can receive that information.

My hon. Friend rightly talks about the importance of such experienced journalists, and another advantage of the World Service is its independence and impartiality, which is crucial for empowering people to seek democracy in highly regulated states.

Yes, and we could not buy that. As the Chairman of the Select Committee has said, where the BBC withdraws a service another organisation will fill that vacuum, perhaps with a less good service, and probably with a less accurate one.

Looking back at the events in my lifetime, it is clear that the flow of information and the use of technology can change worldwide events. One factor in the overthrow of the Shah of Iran was the fact that he modernised his telephone system so that plugs could not be pulled out, which allowed the Ayatollah to phone through the digital system and give instructions to his followers. The flow of information from western television channels telling people in East Germany that they could get out to the west through a neighbouring country led to the great events that resulted in the Berlin wall being torn down. It is also clear from what is happening in parts of north Africa and the rest of the world now that information is a vital commodity.

The investment over decades in the Reithian tradition of striving for truth is very important, and we should bear in mind the sums involved here. I think the figure for the Hindi service is £680,000, and that is very small in the grand scale of things. We therefore must pause to reflect, and it would be a good idea if thought was given to addressing the issue of the Department for International Development budget. Aid is one answer to the world’s problems, but good governance and truth is another. We can greatly improve the manner in which the developing and third world is governed by getting more truth and information into countries and getting much more openness, transparency and democracy. The World Service can, of course, play a role in that.

I therefore hope the Government will listen. I hope they reflect on this excellent Select Committee report, and that we do not, as it were, throw the baby out with the bath water and for the sake of a small sum of money lose the ability to project truth, honesty and transparency to the world, which is so valued by people who live abroad and do not share our advantages.

The Liberal Democrats welcome the debate and strongly support the motion. The Select Committee Chairman set out very well the terms of the debate and the contrast between soft and hard power. Hard power in military terms is certainly often appropriate, as in the cases of Libya and Afghanistan, but it is an expression of British power overseas that is often fraught with military, political and financial difficulties. Even in the gentler realm of diplomacy, we are rightly reviewing our diplomatic presence around the world—and, it is to be hoped, expanding it in many cases in light of a changing world—while also having to pay attention to the financial context at home.

Soft power and expressions such as “the BBC World Service” are extraordinarily cost-effective. They reach billions of people and are enormously positive with very few complications, including many of the negative complications of other expressions of British interest around the world. The World Service in particular has attracted extraordinary plaudits from the likes of Kofi Annan and even Nelson Mandela. It has been refreshing in recent months to see placards on the streets of Muslim countries calling not for death to Britain or anything like that but thanking the BBC. They are talking about the BBC World Service, of course. In that context, it is extraordinary that we are facing the prospect of cuts to the Arabic service in particular. So, it is right that Ministers should be reconsidering the matter.

The current funding relationship is somewhat uncomfortable. The Select Committee is cautious about the eventual transfer of World Service funding to the BBC and rightly says that safeguards should be

“put in place to prevent any risk of long-term erosion of the World Service’s funding and of Parliament’s right to oversee its work.”

The intervention by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) was also well made. Provided that those safeguards can be put in place—the Select Committee suggested a formal concordat with the BBC Trust—there is one advantage to the transfer of funding, which is that it underlines the independence of the BBC World Service from political decisions about both funding and editorial content. That is an important reassurance for World Service listeners worldwide.

In the meantime, we have something of a problem in the period leading up to 2014. I welcome the Committee’s call for funding arrangements to be re-examined. We are happy to support it and I am glad that the Government are accepting the motion. I appreciate, however, that this is not as easy as it first looks. I understand, like others, that Ministers have thought about this very carefully and are aware of the issues involved. I am certainly very grateful for the time that Ministers and their advisers from both DFID and the FCO have spent answering my questions on this subject, as well as those of my right hon. and hon. Friends in this Chamber and in another place.

I particularly welcome the Secretary of State for International Development’s announcement about the prospect of a significant grant to the BBC World Service Trust. Many development issues can be addressed in World Service programming, from gender awareness, to global responsibilities for climate change, adaptation to it and how people can prepare for it, to health awareness, particularly about matters such as the HIV epidemic.

There are limitations, however. It is right that DFID’s funding should be restricted to matters that qualify as official development assistance and not all broadcasting can come within that remit. It would set a bad precedent if DFID was asked to fund areas that did not qualify as ODA under OECD rules and we would not want that precedent to be set. Nor would we want World Service programming to be skewed completely in the direction of development programming. The provision of information and a British perspective on world events is very important in many countries. The Hindi and Mandarin services spring to mind and the priority in those cases is not development but our economic, diplomatic, political and cultural presence, which is vital.

The BBC should have to examine its costs, its overheads and its back-up costs just like any other public spending. It is quite right that it should try to do that and if the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) is correct, there has clearly already been an iterative process between Ministers and the BBC on the exact nature and extent of these cuts and their impact on particular broadcast services. Even if that is true, following that iterative process we are still facing cuts in such vital services as Arabic, Hindi and Mandarin, so it is clear that we must reconsider the transitional arrangements between now and 2014. We should consider how we can protect those key services.

In the great scheme of things, the amounts of money involved are not huge. As has been pointed out by the Select Committee, they are a relatively small proportion of the increases in DFID’s budget. Even within wider Government and FCO spending, we are not talking about large amounts of money. As I said at the outset, the cost-effectiveness of the programming and influence of the World Service and the respect that it earns this country are of almost incalculable value. I urge Ministers enthusiastically to accept the motion and do whatever they can to protect this jewel in the crown of British broadcasting.

I congratulate the Foreign Affairs Committee on its excellent report and I rise to speak in favour of the motion. I pay tribute to the excellent speeches of the Chairman of the Committee and other Members.

For 11 years, when I lived in Tanzania, the World Service was my main source of news. I learned of progress in the first Gulf war, the Bosnian conflict, the Rwandan genocide and two general elections from the BBC World Service. I valued its impartial, measured news and comment as a service for expatriates such as me, but more importantly it was the main source of information for many of my Tanzanian colleagues. I remember meeting one of them the day after the 1997 general election, which he had been following very closely on the BBC. He was amazed and impressed at how quickly we had changed our Government in this country, and he was even more impressed that the outgoing Prime Minister went to watch a game of cricket rather than finding himself on the wrong side of a jail door, having been locked up by the new Government. It is at such times that we realise that the World Service is indeed a gift to the world, as has been said. However, it is more than that. It is also important in presenting Britain and British values to the world. At a time when our political and economic future is bound up ever more closely with the developing world, where much of the World Service output is broadcast, its importance is growing, but it is also at this time that we are proposing to make cuts to that valuable service.

I want to distinguish between the financial cuts and the cuts to the service itself. I understand that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office cannot be exempt from the cuts being made elsewhere in government, and I understand that the World Service has to be part of that, but I believe that the cuts to the grant could be mitigated, if not entirely made up, in four ways. First, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office could revisit the cuts it is making. As has been said, we are talking about cuts of 16% compared with cuts of 10% across the rest of the FCO. Secondly, commercial activity could be expanded. World News TV is funded commercially; indeed, I understand that it made a profit last year.

Thirdly, as has been touched on, there could be greater use of development funding. As has been pointed out, if spending is to qualify, it must be undertaken by the official sector and it must have as its main objective the promotion of economic development and welfare and be made at concessional financial terms. Those are the rules that the OECD insists on for something to qualify as official development assistance. In this country, we go further because we make it quite clear that such spending must also be for the reduction of poverty. I still think, however, that we could look further at that approach. The media, and particularly the World Service, play a vital role in development in three ways—as a watchdog, in setting the agenda and by providing information that is necessary for development.

The BBC World Service helps Governments to develop policies that benefit the majority of their population and it is not driven by sectional or ethnic interest. There has been analysis of how World Service spending might be classified as ODA, and I accept that this is one of those issues that one might say is about as long as a piece of string, but I have seen analysis showing that up to 40% of spending—something like £100 million out of the total spending of £250 million, including capital—could be classified as ODA. I therefore welcome the Secretary of State’s letter to the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in which he stated that he would be prepared to support the relationship between the Department for International Development and the World Service Trust and that he would, in principle, be prepared to support it with an accountable grant.

Finally, the cuts could be mitigated through better use of BBC World’s own resources, perhaps by looking at some of the salaries at the higher end of the organisation.

On the cuts to the service itself, the Foreign Affairs Committee has rightly spoken about the Hindi service, BBC China and BBC Arabic, but I would like to draw attention to the Kiswahili, Kinyarwanda and Kirundi services, in which I have a special interest from my time in east Africa. Those short-‘wave and medium-wave services are accessible to people who cannot access pretty much any other services save those provided by their own broadcasting corporations. Those people are in remote areas, whereas internet and FM services tend to be available to people in urban areas. It is part of this Government’s policy to reach people, such as those in smallholder agriculture, for whom a service provided on short wave by the BBC might be the only such service that they can receive at certain times that is relevant to them. I therefore urge the Foreign Office to look in particular at such services.

In conclusion, the BBC World Service is a huge asset to the United Kingdom, but it is also of tremendous importance to tens of millions across the world. Where the BBC withdraws, as has been said, other less independent organisations will step in. Therefore, I support the motion.

We have had a short but truly excellent debate this afternoon. The hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) began the debate by speaking powerfully as Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. He reinforced and explained extremely well the main conclusions of his Committee’s report, which is first rate. He summarised the main concerns that Members have expressed today and in previous discussions and interventions in the House. He has put a significant question mark over the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s financial calculations regarding the World Service.

We then heard a contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), who reiterated what the Chair of his Committee had said and stressed the fact that the World Service is seen as a jewel in the crown. We heard from the hon. Member for Poole (Mr Syms), who gave a number of practical examples of how the dissemination of objective information can help the development of democracy in a truly practical way. Similarly, we heard from the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), who reinforced the case put by other Members and made it clear where his party stood on the matter. Finally, we heard from the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), who spoke with great insight about the importance of the World Service and referred to his experience in east Africa. It is only by understanding such concrete examples that we can really appreciate the value of the World Service.

As well as expressing concern about the short wave BBC China Mandarin service, which broadcasts in a country where democracy is in short supply, I would like to focus briefly on two areas. First, it was initially announced that the BBC Hindi short wave service was to close in March 2011. However, the Government announced a partial reprieve in March with the continuation of an hour of current affairs broadcasting, pending commercial funding being found. This concerns me greatly. We all know that India has enormous economic potential, and the Government are rightly strengthening their bilateral relations with that country. It is all the more worrying, I suggest, that the sword of Damocles still hangs over the BBC Hindi short wave service. That should not be the case.

The other huge concern I have relates to BBC Arabic. The events in north Africa and the middle east over the past few months have been truly momentous, and the process of change continues apace. It is therefore extremely worrying that the World Service has announced 60 job losses in its Arabic service. Surely the World Service should, if anything, be providing more resources to BBC Arabic, rather than less. I fully appreciate that many of the plans were drawn up before the incredible events of the past few months, but that is all the more reason for the Government to accept that reality and revisit the whole programme.

In addition to these concerns, I would like to give an example of how the World Service impacts in a positive way on one country in particular. Earlier this week I was in Serbia. I was there with the Labour party and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. I undertook the political reconnaissance as part of an ongoing assessment of how democratic debate in that country can best be assisted. Serbia has made good progress over the past few years, but there is still much to be done. One of the crucial elements that has helped Serbia’s march to democracy, as a number of people made very clear to me, is the BBC World Service. It is no exaggeration to say that there is not a single democrat in Serbia who does not acknowledge the important role of the World Service. Equally, there is universal disappointment that Serbia is one of those countries that will lose World Service coverage.

One of the people I spoke to earlier this week was Sasa Mirkovic, the managing director of the radio and television company B92. He explained to me how the World Service has been a source of objective information, inspiration and hope to a whole generation in Serbia, and he deeply regretted the end of its broadcasting in Serbia, because, as he said to me, democracy in that country needs to be encouraged and continually reinforced.

What is true of Serbia is true of many other parts of the world. The Opposition have very real concerns about the Government’s plans, and this afternoon Members have underlined the conclusions of the Foreign Affairs Committee’s excellent report. As well as the loss of crucial influence in key countries and regions throughout the world, the cuts will mean a diminution in Britain’s global influence. There will be a drop of 30 million people—from 180 million to 150 million—in the service’s global audience, and such a cut is quite unprecedented.

There has to be an ongoing assessment of how finite resources can be best used, but such a reduction in grant-in-aid will greatly undermine the service and send a negative message around the globe—that Britain no longer sees high quality, objective and honest reporting as being particularly important. I hope that nothing is further from the truth.

In the order of things, the BBC World Service is a mere drop in the ocean of public expenditure, but the money invested in the service is a sound investment—an investment that effectively promotes the universal values of which all Members are justifiably proud.

I therefore ask the Government to think again, to take heed of what our friends throughout the world are saying to us, to recognise the worth of the World Service and not to engage in this false economy. I urge the Government to accept the motion before us, and, if they are inclined to accept it and agree to a review, I suggest that that review takes place as quickly as possible, and as a matter of urgency.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) for introducing the debate, and for doing so in a characteristically courteous and thoughtful fashion; and I pay tribute to all members of the Foreign Affairs Committee for a comprehensive report on what all Members, whether in government or not, agree is a matter of great public significance and of significance to how we advance the interests of the United Kingdom.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has said frequently in opposition and in government that he sees the World Service as, to use the words of my hon. Friend, a key element of British soft power. My right hon. Friend has also underlined frequently the central importance of the World Service and the British Council in giving this country an unrivalled platform from which to project our culture and to share our values.

The Government and, in particular, my right hon. Friend will clearly want to reflect carefully on what has been said during this debate, but I make it clear that there cannot be any avoidance of difficult financial decisions and hard choices for the Foreign Office or for the World Service, as for any part of the public sector. I hope that when I have concluded my speech hon. Members will recognise that the Government are committed to finding ways—within the terms of the existing settlement announced in October last year, and in discussions about possible additional sources of World Service revenue—in which the current and potential resources available to the World Service can be used to the greatest possible advantage. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), in particular, listed a number ways in which that might be possible.

Can the Minister confirm that in 2010 the chief executive of the BBC World Service earned £215,000 and five of his colleagues earned more than £200,000? Does he agree that chief executives and other senior officials should have had their salaries frozen or taken a reduction instead of cutting front-line services?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am not somebody who usually harps on about high salaries for people who hold important positions of responsibility, but it is fair to acknowledge that the BBC World Service board is responsible for a significantly smaller operation with a smaller budget than the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and yet the World Service’s board is more numerous and significantly more expensive than the board that runs the FCO. I do not want to make too much of that, but my hon. Friend makes an emblematic point that I will come to later.

I am not trying to deny that hard choices are having to be made, but there is a need to say to the World Service, as to every other part of the public sector, that it needs to look rigorously at how to make finite budgets go further and try to reduce all unnecessary costs.

Does my right hon. Friend believe that the BBC World Service is doing enough to amortise the costs of news gathering and production among other services, including within the BBC family, before looking at a reduction in language services?

One of the challenges that the World Service management faces is to draw up what I hope will be very ambitious and detailed plans to deliver a reduction in administrative and other inessential costs that match commitments of the sort that Government Departments throughout Whitehall, including the FCO, are already having to make. The BBC World Service has announced that it is committed to a significant reduction. We have not seen details of that, nor are we entitled to do so. It is an independent organisation, quite properly so, although the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee are of course free to investigate further.

I hope that the World Service will choose to make those plans public and will look to take advantage of the opportunities that will arise from the new arrangements for the relationship between the World Service and the BBC as a whole to merge and share costs where possible. For example, arrangements to combine studios for the World Service and other parts of the BBC would seem to be a sensible way forward. Indeed, the BBC has indicated that it is considering that in the context of the new arrangements.

Is the Minister aware that the BBC World Service spends proportionately less on human resources, finance and IT than the FCO? Is he also aware that there has been a reduction of about 32% in the management costs of the World Service since 2009?

The hon. Gentleman, perhaps uncharacteristically, is choosing to overlook the fact that the FCO is responsible for well over 100 operations in different countries overseas and that in those circumstances the requirements of currency operations and IT add up to quite a considerable overhead. I welcome the public commitment of the World Service to a significant reduction in its administrative costs, and I am sure that the House looks forward to seeing how it proposes to deliver that.

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, and then I will make progress, because I want to be fair to the many hon. Members who want to take part in the next debate.

I hear what the Minister says, and of course we all want to see efficiency savings and economies. However, it is important to bear in mind that the cost of producing a message or sending out a programme is lower in the BBC World Service than in any other international broadcaster.

It is certainly important to bear such things in mind, but many parts of the public sector in this country can point to how their best practice matches that in other parts of the world. Nevertheless, the financial state in which this country finds itself as a consequence of the inheritance bequeathed to us by the Government of whom the hon. Gentleman was a member is so grave that we have no alternative but to ask every part of our public services, no matter how well and efficiently they perform, to drive those efficiencies further.

My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South, and indeed the report, criticised the Government’s decision to reduce the budget of the World Service by 16% and argued that it was disproportionate. To set the matter in context, as the House knows the Government inherited a massive fiscal deficit when they came to power. We made it clear from the start that it would be the Government’s overriding priority to take swift and effective action to reduce that deficit. Every member of the Government has always made it clear that rebalancing the nation’s finances will not be without pain and that every taxpayer-funded organisations will have to play its part, as will the private sector. Frankly, if as a country we fail to deal with the overriding challenge of our deficit, all our hopes, whether for prosperity, improved public services or enhanced international influence for the United Kingdom, will come to naught.

The World Service was asked to reduce its budget by 16%. The Foreign Affairs Committee has argued that that is disproportionate. I say candidly, but politely, to my hon. Friend that I disagree with that verdict. At the beginning of the previous comprehensive spending round in 2007-08, the World Service budget was 13% of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office budget. By the end of 2014-15, its budget will be 14.4% of the FCO budget. The proportion of its budget at the end of this Government’s tenure will therefore be slightly higher than it was before. To respond to the particular case put to me by my hon. Friend, in 2007-08 the World Service received £222 million, and in 2013-14 it will again receive £222 million. However, the FCO budget will fall from £1.7 billion in 2007-08 to £1.55 billion in 2013-14. It is those figures that lie behind the percentages that I quoted.

I will take advice on that point and come back to my hon. Friend either later in the debate or in writing.

It is also fair to point out that the FCO has been more severely affected by the impact of foreign exchange losses than has the World Service. From 2007 to 2011, the loss of the mechanism that protected the FCO against foreign exchange risk accounted for a 17% loss to the FCO core budget, but only a 2% loss to the BBC World Service core budget. That discrepancy is explained by the fact that a much greater proportion of the FCO’s diplomatic effort is located overseas than is the case with the BBC World Service.

The Foreign Affairs Committee has made its case, and I hope that I have provided figures that back up the evidence my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave and that support our contention that although the settlement is indeed tough, it is fair when set alongside what has happened to the core FCO budget over the past few years.

The World Service undoubtedly provides a valuable service, but that is true of many other public bodies. The police, the military and the education system have all had to make savings, and so have the British Council and UK Trade & Investment. Some of those organisations have suffered cuts considerably larger than 16%. I am happy to stand at the Dispatch Box and say that all those institutions are vital assets of the UK. We do not take pleasure in what we have had to do, but the measures that we have taken are essential for the future well-being of our country. Much as I dislike having to support cuts to the budget of the BBC World Service, we cannot in good conscience say that we support cuts in general but resist all of them in particular.

Members will have heard the announcement by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on 11 May, in which he set out plans for the future of the Foreign Office’s diplomatic network. We will find £100 million a year in savings from our administration budgets, yet at the same time we are both widening and deepening our diplomatic network. We are opening more posts and strengthening existing ones in emerging economies of key importance to this country. The savings that we are having to find to finance that expansion are not easy, but they are essential if we are to develop within tough financial constraints.

When I go to British embassies overseas, I am left in no doubt about the seriousness of the choices that Ministers have to make. I regularly have meetings with our staff at our posts throughout Europe and the former Soviet Union, and at practically every meeting I meet staff who are worried about their jobs, some of whom have worked loyally for the FCO for a large number of years. The FCO is not immune from difficult decisions, and there is no pain-free way to make the choices necessary to provide a strong voice for Britain in the world. I do not think the World Service can be exempt from the need to make difficult choices.

The World Service originally approached the Foreign Secretary for authority to close 13 of its 31 language services—even more closures than were authorised by the Government of whom the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David) was a member. When I heard him denounce the policies of the current Government, I worried about the selective amnesia that had come over him about his Government’s record on the World Service.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary was not prepared to support those suggested closures, and after frank discussion with the World Service and the BBC Trust he reluctantly agreed to the closure of five services. That was after he had received clear assurances that the closures would not cause major damage to the World Service’s overall services and audience share. The World Service also assured us that it would make strenuous efforts to find efficiency savings and drive down non-editorial costs to protect its front line. It has said that it will find savings of up to a third in finance, human resources, business development, strategy, marketing and other administrative operations.

I hope that the World Service will match that commitment with detailed plans, and that it will match the greater transparency of financial arrangements that the Government have undertaken to provide. The BBC is not obliged to do that under the current arrangements, but it would add to public confidence in the organisation, including the World Service, if it endorsed greater transparency so that taxpayers and licence fee payers could see where their money was being spent.

There are other changes in how World Service output is delivered, such as the closure of radio transmissions in Mandarin or the cessation of the Hindi shortwave service. Ministers have no power to veto such decisions. Some access to the World Service in those languages will remain, whether online or through FM or television, but those choices fall squarely within the responsibility of the World Service—the Government were not consulted in detail on those changes and we had no locus to intervene. The BBC believes that those decisions were soundly based, and we have seen its justification for those changes.

As a number of hon. Members mentioned, given recent events in the middle east and north Africa, the FCO chose to reprioritise in order to bolster our effort there. It is entirely sensible for the World Service to do likewise. However, even before the Arab spring, the decision to curtail Arabic broadcasting was somewhat surprising.

On potential sources of additional money for the World Service, first, there is the prospect of commercial income. We agreed with the World Service that it would increase its sources of commercial income, with an initial target of £3 million. It is important for it to adopt an entrepreneurial approach to developing that source of income.

Secondly, on funding from the Department for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South quite fairly pointed out that there are two genuine hurdles to be surmounted, the first of which is meeting the OECD kitemark for measures that count as official development assistance. The OECD requires that any activity that qualifies as ODA must have the

“promotion of the economic development and welfare of developing countries as its main objective”.

However, even if activity qualifies under OECD rules as ODA, it does not necessarily meet the second, stricter test, which is embodied in the International Development Act 2002. The Act gives the Secretary of State statutory authority to spend money when that allows for the relief of poverty—that is the prime measure. As my hon. Friend mentioned, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is looking at a new relationship with the World Service trust. In addition, the Government are approaching the OECD with a view to getting its agreement to classify a proportion of World Service spending as subject to ODA rules.

It is worth noting that the settlement included money to be used as the contribution of the World Service to the overall BBC pension deficit. The BBC says that its original estimate of that deficit has been revised down by about one third. We do not yet know the detailed figures for the World Service, but if, pro rata, it no longer needs a third of the money it has allocated for pensions—that would amount to about £4 million a year—it could choose to restore the five cut services and the Hindi service, or to restore the cuts to the Arabic, Hindi and Mandarin services that it previously announced.

Those choices are for the BBC. In a recent article in Ariel, the World Service controller of languages said that even if funding were reinstated, it would not necessarily restart services that it had stopped, but would instead look at new investment. Global shortwave audiences are falling dramatically—20 million listeners were lost from 2009-10 alone.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) asked about the place of the World Service in the proposed new arrangements with the BBC, which will take effect from 2014-15. As I have already said, these provide opportunities for things such as the combination of news rooms and studios, and for different arms of the BBC to share costs, which might help World Service funds to go further. But it is also true that the BBC, through its new chairman and director-general, has made it clear that it places a high value on the World Service and sees it continuing as a key element of BBC output. The new governance arrangements will be guaranteed by an amendment to the BBC agreement between the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport and the BBC. We are discussing with the BBC Trust a formal exchange of letters to confirm this. The BBC Trust is also considering an international trustee to represent the interests of the World Service.

Even after the cuts, the World Service will still receive funding from the British taxpayer of £733 million over the next three years. The settlement that we came to with the World Service was challenging, and we take seriously the points that have been made by the Select Committee and in the Chamber today and will reflect further on them. We will work with the World Service to find ways in which it can continue to fulfil its mission as an independent broadcasting voice that is at the same time a key element in the promotion of British culture and values.

Time does not permit me to acknowledge in detail the speeches that have been made today. It has been a great debate, but the Minister must have felt a bit lonely. We have heard seven speeches today, six of which supported the thrust of the motion and the desperate need for a review of the service, and his own which was more defensive of the Government’s position. The Minister is a good friend of mine, in both the personal and political senses, but he has not quite got the point that everyone has made today.

We all recognise the economic pressures on the Government—indeed, everyone who spoke is a member of a party that supports the need to address the desperate financial situation the country is in. However, it is a question of priorities. When the facts change, so must the policies. The circumstances in Libya have meant that more resources have been diverted to that country. The international tensions of worldwide terrorism have meant that more money has been put into the security services. The extra need for diplomacy around the world was behind the statement last week about extra funding for diplomacy. What colleagues are saying today is that, with the changing world we live in and the desperate need for more soft power—

I am afraid you would never forgive me if I gave way, Mr Deputy Speaker.

There is a desperate need to address the changing world and to take soft power more seriously. I appreciate the fact that my right hon. Friend has agreed to a review. I hope that it will be a constructive review and that this is not brushed under the table saying, “That’s the House of Commons dealt with.” The House is serious about this and I hope the Foreign Office will be as well.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House notes the Sixth Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, The Implications of Cuts to the BBC World Service, HC 849; endorses the Committee’s support for the World Service’s invaluable work in providing a widely respected and trusted news service in combination with high-quality journalism to many countries; considers that the unfolding events in North Africa and the Middle East demonstrate the continuing importance of the soft power wielded through the World Service; believes that the value of the World Service far outweighs its relatively small cost; and invites the Government to review its decision to cut spending on the World Service by 16 per cent.