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Raid of BBC Offices in India

Volume 827: debated on Tuesday 21 February 2023

Commons Urgent Question

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my honourable friend the Minister for the Americas and Caribbean to an Urgent Question in another place on the raids of BBC offices in India. The Answer is as follows:

“Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am grateful to the honourable Member for Strangford, Jim Shannon, for raising this Urgent Question. I appreciate his interest in recent news that India’s income tax department has conducted what is described as a ‘survey’ on the BBC’s offices in New Delhi and Mumbai. This began on 14 February and finished after three days, on 16 February.

As everyone in this House will be aware, the BBC is, quite rightly, operationally and editorially independent of His Majesty’s Government. While I cannot comment on the allegations made by India’s income tax department, the BBC has said that it is supporting its staff in its Indian offices and co-operating with the Indian authorities to resolve this matter as soon as possible.

Respect for the rule of law is an essential element of an effective democracy; so too are an independent media and freedom of speech. They make countries stronger and more resilient, and that is why we regularly engage with different parts of India’s media and support it, for example through the annual South Asia Journalism Fellowship programme and our flagship Chevening brand, which includes over 60 Indian alumni.

As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has previously said, the UK regards India as an important partner and His Majesty’s Government are investing heavily in strengthening our ties. Our broad and deep relationship, guided by our comprehensive strategic partnership and the 2030 roadmap for India-UK future relations allows us to discuss a wide range of issues in a constructive manner with the Government of India. We will continue to follow this matter closely.”

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer. India, of course, has a unique status as the world’s largest democracy but as the Minister said, in any democracy media freedoms are vital and freedom of expression must be protected. Earlier today, when the Question was asked in the House of Commons, my honourable friend Fabian Hamilton asked the Minister if the FCDO is directly engaging with the BBC World Service to offer support and protection following these events, particularly for the BBC staff in India. Obviously, linked to the previous Statement, it is really important that the Government offer that additional support. Given that the Minister in the House of Commons was unable to confirm that, I hope that the Minister can do so tonight.

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that, yes, we are of course engaging with the BBC directly at FCDO. Indeed, as he will know, I have been involved in the important issue of the safety and protection of journalists for a number of years. As I said in the original Statement, the protection of journalists around the world, but also media freedom, are essential parts of any progressive, inclusive democracy.

My Lords, the rule of law and freedom of speech are vital for a thriving democracy, as the noble Lord has said. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that support for the BBC needs to be clear. Will the Government now pause any discussions on services and data in the free trade talks until and unless urgent and satisfactory clarification is given regarding the potential use of laws in this area for political retribution? Does he also recognise—we have discussed this before—the impact that India’s law on foreign contributions has had on a number of NGOs, including Oxfam, and which is considered to have raised human rights issues?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is, of course, correct in her second question. I continue to engage directly with various organisations, and I meet with their representatives regularly. The strength of our relationship allows us to raise these important issues directly with India and to make progress on them. On the first issue the noble Baroness raised, it is important that we continue to engage directly with India. Our talks and discussions are multi-faceted. We are very conscious that the current investigation is ongoing, so I will not comment on any specifics. However, having engaged directly with the Indian authorities and met with the Indian High Commissioner only yesterday to discuss this matter, I understand that the BBC and the Indian authorities are working very closely and looking to resolve the issues as soon as possible.

My Lords, I know the Minister is very alert to the particular problems journalists experience when Governments do not like the criticisms they face, particularly of human rights abuses. However, this is not the first time India has displayed a sort of retribution policy towards journalists and journalistic entities that are critical of what is happening under the Modi Administration. The Minister talks about our close relationship with India and its enabling frank discussions, but can we genuinely discuss the hostility that those who criticise human rights abuses are experiencing? A young woman journalist, Rana Ayyub, was refused exit to travel to Britain to take part in seminars and a conference about the way in which the Muslim community in India were suffering at the hands of the Government. Just how frank can the Government be with our great friend India?

My Lords, I recognise equally the important work the noble Baroness continues to champion on media freedom around the world and the protection of journalists. I assure her that the strength of our relationship with India is such that, in my various hats, including as Human Rights Minister, there is a regular dialogue on particular issues and cases. We have constructive exchanges. As I have experienced during my time as Minister responsible, the level and nature of our engagement, and our ability to engage—at times not in a public manner but privately—has unlocked and seen progress. Equally, we expect that kind of scrutiny of ourselves as well. I assure the noble Baroness of my good offices in ensuring that, when issues arise, we raise them directly and constructively with the Indian authorities. At times we will do this in significant private engagements, but those also unlock constructive outcomes.

My Lords, can the Minister give an insight into what advice, if any, has been given by the BBC India legal and accounting team on what might be the best moves in this regard? Is the FCDO connecting directly with these professional services to be assured that everything is being done in the way which we know that it will be being done, and that we have the good advice of professional services within India?

My Lords, I cannot comment too much on this ongoing investigation by the Indian authorities, but the BBC is engaging very constructively. We all know that the BBC is a professional organisation, independent editorially and in its governance and structures. It is important that we look to resolve these particular issues. The BBC is a valued asset of the United Kingdom around the world. As we saw in the earlier Statement, it provides valuable sources of information as well. It is important for us to seek, through our relationship with India, to resolve in a constructive way any issues that arise across the piece on human rights or any other matters. Both countries are absolutely committed to strengthening our relationship bilaterally.

I think I heard the Minister say that he met the high commissioner in London on this specific issue. For the sake of clarity, could he confirm whether that is the case? If so, does the Minister have plans to meet the high commissioner or for the Government to engage with the Indian authorities as this investigation is concluded, because obviously follow-up is extremely important in this matter?

My Lords, the short answer to my noble friend’s first question is yes. As I said, it is the nature of that engagement and our investment in that relationship which allows us to engage in such a direct way. Our high commissioner and his team on the ground in Delhi are engaging and have raised these issues with the Indian authorities. The important thing is that the BBC is engaging constructively with the Indian authorities. We all hope that there will be a progressive resolution to these issues and that the BBC will continue to operate as it does elsewhere. I am refraining from commenting too much because this is ongoing, but the important thing in all this is that the BBC and the authorities are engaging constructively—and it is clear to me that they are.

I want to come back to the first question I asked the Minister, which I do not think he fully answered. Will the Government look at pausing discussions on services and data in the free trade talks in the light of what is happening?

My Lords, I believe I have already answered the question. The importance of the FTA is such that, if and when certain issues arise, we will aim to address them constructively. The important thing is that both countries are absolutely committed to delivering an inclusive, multifaceted FTA, and our progress will continue on all fronts in that regard.

Sitting suspended.