HC Deb 13 November 1979 vol 973 cc1239-89 7.26 pm
Mr. Peter Shore (Stepney and Poplar)

I beg to move, That this House believes that there should be no cut in the spending of the External Services of the British Broadcasting Corporation. The motion will have a familiar ring to all hon. Members. It is the same as that put down some weeks ago in the name of the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) and supported by 134 right hon. and hon. Members. I do not believe that our motion will surprise the Government. I first wrote to the Foreign Secretary as long ago as 24 July protesting against the proposed cuts, and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition gave notice some two weeks ago that we should be seeking a debate. In my customarily helpful way, I intervened in the Adjournment debate on Friday 2 November, just before the Minister of State replied, to warn him, before he developed his remarks and overcommitted himself to a particular view, that I believed that there was a clear majority in the House against the Government's proposed cuts.

I attach great importance to the issue. This country has a major and continuing contribution to make to world affairs. What we have to say is relevant not only to the English speaking world, where political democracy in its various institutional forms is firmly entrenched, but more widely where far less attractive and basically more primitive political systems prevail. I refer to the Communist States in Europe and Asia, to the autocracies, lay and religious, which are so prevalent in the Middle East and Africa, and to the military Fascist regimes of South and Central America.

Political democracy should not be expounded as an ideology but should be reflected through its day-to-day practice in the presentation of news and programmes about ourselves. It should be reflected again in our comments upon news and international events. That is of the utmost value to mankind. Political democracy has a claim upon the future that is far stronger than that of the authoritarian and totalitarian regimes.

In Britain's communications with the world, radio services are of overriding importance. It is more difficult to censor or intercept the spoken word than the written. It is a plain fact that while probably half of mankind's 4,000 million people cannot read, yet all can speak and listen to the spoken word. About 800 million people can understand English, but over 3,000 million—some 80 per cent.—can be reached through their own language only. That is why it is not enough to preserve the English language world service of the BBC. We should turn our attention to the vernacular services as well. The whole context of the nation's external expenditure, embracing our diplomatic representation as it does, on overseas aid, defence and broadcasting, is seriously unbalanced. Greater priority should be given to communication in all its forms.

It has been said more than a thousand times that the pen is mightier than the sword. In the modern world of semi-literacy and the almost universal transistor set, it is not so much the pen as the spoken word which is mightier than the sword. I do not dismiss the regrettable necessity for the sword as well, but in today's world the will and ability to use it are remarkably vulnerable to the power of the word and the flow of ideas that reach Governments, generals and the men whom they command.

I remember vividly General de Gaulle's radio and television appeal at the height of the Algerian crisis. He appealed to the conscript soldiers of France to go against the rebellious French generals in Algiers, ending with the moving and memorable appeal "Français, aidezmoi!" It was a broadcast, worth several tank divisions and many paratroop brigades. Only last year, the largest Persian army since the days of Xerxes—as my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian. (Mr. Dalyell) once said—succumbed to the power of the word, far more rapidly and completely than if they had been assailed by a massive blitzkreig from a foreign foe.

It is against this background that we should be aware of the orders of magnitude of our expenditures. In 1979–80, we spent £7,824 million on defence; on overseas aid, £790 million; on our contribution to the EEC, £919 million; and on our overseas services, £426 million, of which the Foreign Office's payment to the BBC amounted to £43.5 million.

In moving the motion, I seek the minimum. Not only should there be no cuts in the external services of the BBC, but we should look again at our priorities. We should be embarking on an expansion programme that is considerably larger than anything we have hitherto contemplated. The BBC's external services enjoy worldwide renown. In 1978, Cmnd. 7308 stated: The nation benefits from the unique reputation of the BBC's external services as a well informed and unbiased source of world news and comments and from the attention which is therefore paid to the information they provide about Britain and British policies. Their complete independence from the Government in matters of programme content means that they can be more effective and influential than the Government's own information service. The BBC's external services are a proven success and represent a national asset that we should be careful to preserve". I am happy to pay that tribute. However, I do not believe that the BBC is always above criticism, not even in its external services. If any hon. Member has a bone to pick about a particular overseas programme, I would willingly join with him if that was my view. Not all the BBC's programmes are handled as I would wish. However, I speak fairly of the generality of the BBC's external programmes.

What are the Government proposing? Up to and including 2 November, they were apparently contemplating axing Britain's vernacular services almost throughout the Mediterranean area. They decided to discontinue programmes in French, Italian, Greek, Turkish, Spanish and Maltese and, for good measure, in Burmese as well, where, incidentally, the BBC's audiences outstrip those of such powerful broadcasters as Radio Peking, Radio Moscow and the Voice of America.

At the moment when we are entering into closer relationships with Spain and Greece through their applications for accession to the EEC and when we are in major dispute with France in particular over the whole range of EEC matters, disputes which in my view will continue for a considerable period ahead, the Government decide that they no longer need to speak to those countries. Incidentally, I believe that the disputes with France will continue for a considerable time. I recently said in a speech shortly afterwards that we may no longer have a Mediterranean fleet but we do have a strong Mediterranean voice, To silence that voice for a paltry £2.7 million per year and to surrender permanently our wavelengths to other nations is to signal to the world that, as far as this Government are concerned, Britain no longer believes that it has something distinctive and valuable to say and no longer has the will to persuade.

Nevertheless, that was the Government's policy on 2 November, when the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, said: the House will understand that the Government did not take these decisions lightly."—[Official Report, 2 November 1979; Vol. 972, c. 1729.] Now, 12 days later, what is the Government's policy? If newspaper reports are correct, they have decided that their recent and carefully considered policy was a mistake and that a new policy is required. Is that true? Is policy mark 2 also not seriously damaging to the external services of the BBC? What has been discussed between the Government and the BBC's is a running reduction in the planned expenditure for improving the audibility of the BBC's external services.

The Labour Government approved a capital programme of £20 million at 1977 prices over the period from 1979 to 1984. We described that programme as being technically essential. In many parts of the world the BBC can be heard only on weak signals. Rival voices with more powerful transmitters on adjacent wavelengths are every year further imperilling reception. That is why we need new transmitters here in Britain and additional transmitters on such well-placed island sites as Cyprus, the Seychelles and Ascension. This programme is a bare minimum. Relay stations in Hong Kong and Gibraltar were not included in the £20 million programme, yet they are certainly in need of improvement.

The programme got under way only this year. It was, I believe, designed to reach a planned expenditure total of £47.9 million per annm for 1981 and for the following years until the programme was completed. What I believe the Government have proposed is that the saving of £2.7 million should now be found not from the vernacular transmissions in the languages that I have listed but from this enhanced capital programme of the BBC, aimed at improving audibility. On a rough estimate, if this were to happen, only half of what was described as essential in 1978 in terms of capital expenditure would now be carried out in the period up to 1984.

Indeed, we shall have in the next few years the profound absurdity of the BBC broadcasting all over the world in vernacular languages, in the certain knowledge that in many important areas it will scarcely be heard. The Government's new motto for the BBC is apparently that nation shall murmur unto nation.

This is not a large exaggeration, although an element of hyperbole may be there. I had a letter, quite unsolicited, from a British academic who holds a post at the university of Zambia, and he had this to say about reception: In this part of the world the service is a sick joke. I do not refer to the content, programming or scheduling but to the quality of reception here. Despite transmissions on several frequencies it is an exercise in knob-twiddling expertise to find a place on the dial where broadcasts are audible and comprehensible. The whistles and crackles are all-pervading. That has the authentic note of truth. It was written from Zambia, an important country in Central Africa. But I am also told that serious audibility problems are already being experienced in a considerable part of East Africa as well, and certainly in a large part of northern China, including Peking. I am also told that there is a serious danger that problems will develop if capital expenditure does not take place affecting our Eastern European and our Middle Eastern services.

I have been surprised, in going into this matter in recent weeks, at what I have found. I do not blame any particular Government for it. We have really taken for granted the pre-eminent position in overseas broadcasting that we undoubtedly held in the early post-war years. We have failed, over the 25 years or so that followed, to do more than continue to use our wartime transmitters and simply repair them and occasionally supplement their strength. We are far behind others in the technical capacity and volume of our overseas broadcasting stations.

Mr. Julian Critchley (Aldershot)

Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves the question of audibility, I should like to mention that I have received a letter from an Englishman who was living in Moscow until recently. It appears that the audibility of our programmes as received in Moscow and other parts of the Soviet Union is extremely poor—almost to vanishing point.

Mr. Shore

I have a feeling that many hon. Members on each side of the House will have had similar approaches made to them. I am sure that these expressions of view are as genuine as the entirely unsolicited letter that I read to the House about reception in Zambia.

Mr. Terence Higgins (Worthing)

The right hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that the audibility in Sussex of broadcasts from Moscow has greatly increased recently.

Mr. Shore

That is a very fair point to make. I was about to deal with our competitors. It is difficult to be precise, because many of them guard the extent of their expenditure on overseas broadcasting. But I am informed that the USSR has recently introduced no fewer than 43 new 500-kilowatt transmitters in 23 separate locations. The United States, which is open in these matters, is planning 15 250-kilowatt transmitters for Europe. The Federal Republic of Germany is embarking on a £50 million modernisation programme, including a relay station in Sri Lanka. France has authorised an expenditure of £80 million. Even little Norway has recently authorised an expenditure of £18 million on external broadcasting.

The point made by the right hon. Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) about the comparative strength of the broadcasts of other nations, which are interested in making sure that the peoples of the world hear what they have to say, is a very valid one. I picked up, with my usual distaste, this volume from the Central Policy Review Staff dealing with its review of overseas representation—one of the least happy of its publications. Page 227 gives a table of the growth of services and the estimated total programme hours per week of the top 10 external broadcasters. I shall not weary the House with a mass of figures, except to point out that in 1950 the United States had 497 hours per week, the USSR 533, and Britain 643. That is an indication of the pre-eminence, which I mentioned earlier, achieved by Britain in the war and early post-war years. But by 1975, whereas Britain's figure had risen from 643 to 719 hours, the United States' figure had risen from 497 to 2,029 hours, and that of the Soviet Union from 533 to 2,001 hours.

We have been overtaken also by the Federal Republic of Germany and by China. We are now just above Egypt and waiting for Albania to challenge us for fifth or sixth place. We have here a pretty serious development by other countries, and we must certainly take account of what they are doing, as well as taking account of our own programme.

I do not want to add to the evident miseries of the Minister who is to reply to the debate, but he will recall the exchanges that he had with his hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot a week ago last Friday, when he was reminded of their joint authorship of the pamphlet "Coping with the Soviet Union", published by the Conservative Political Centre in 1977. I must tell the Minister that I have also now read it. I say to the Minister that his defence on 2 November simply will not do. He sought to escape the embarrassment of his situation by claiming that the words quoted in the pamphlet referred only to broadcasting to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and he said that those services were not to be cut. Not so! The exact words were: We should strengthen the external services of the BBC … The services provide a vital link with peoples in Russia and Eastern Europe; and in the developing world they effectively counteract Soviet propaganda. It is unthinkable that we should permit these services to be further run down. I can well understand why his hon. Friend, when informed of the Government's proposals—if proposals they be—to attack not the vernacular services but the capital programme, should describe them as a shoddy sort of compromise.

The Government should not be allowed to get away with it. To transfer the cut from current to capital expenditure, from language to audibility, is equally offensive and damaging and equally contrary to the words of the motion that there should be no cut in the spending of the External Services of the British Broadcasting Corporation. I shall not argue the point that it is of course a cut against a planned increase in expenditure. Given the long-denied needs of the BBC for improved audibility, it would be an unworthy argument, which I know the Minister would not stoop to use.

If the Government have, as I certainly hope they have, a serious concern for the maintenance of our influence in the world, they will cancel forthwith what are absurd and damaging cuts.

7.52 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Peter Blaker)

The right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore) described the BBC's external services as a national asset. I agree with that description. None of us doubts their value. Our overseas broadcasting is one of the things that we do well. The many tributes that my colleagues and I have received in the past few months from hon. Members on both sides of the House, and from many other people in public life, are eloquent of this. Generally, I believe that the reputation of the external services for impartiality is among the highest in the world.

Let me set the background to the way in which the Government have approached the problem. If economic circumstances were better, the arguments of the past few months might never have arisen and there might have been no need for this debate. But the facts are as they are. Under the Labour Government the growth of public expenditure was linked to economic growth. The economic growth did not take place. The result was that Labour's spending plans were wildly out of line with what the country could afford.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spelt out the seriousness of the present situation in her speech at the Guildhall last night. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has pointed out, Labour's spending plans for next year would have meant raising the basic rate of income tax to 40p in the pound or VAT to over 20 per cent.

The review of public expenditure which the Government set under way after taking office, and in which the BBC external services have been involved, with many other Government Departments and organisations which are financed by taxpayers' money, is an essential part of the Government's strategy to hold total public spending at its present level in volume terms for the time being.

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury in the previous Administration has acknowledged that even a Labour Government would have had to make cuts in their planned expenditure. He said in his article in The Guardian on 25 September that there are no miracles left. We have to face the unpalatable fact that with, at best, low rates of economic growth, and, at worst, nil or even negative growth, public expenditure cuts will be necessary … It would be as well to see some results before we once again start to spend money we have not yet earned. That is the background of the Government's approach.

The Government have given a great deal of thought to the implications of the public expenditure review for the BBC external services. They recognise that the BBC external services play an important role for this country and play it well, but such is the overriding need to control public expenditure that the Government decided, after taking everything into account, that they could not exempt the BBC external services from the review.

Mr. Shore

Although the Minister is bound to argue the case about the need for economies in overall Government expenditure, I spoke about a block of expenditure which relates to our overseas position generally, including defence but also including all the other programmes, which amount to £10,000 million a year. Surely it is possible within that great block of expenditure, some of which includes sharp increases in programmes, to find £2.7 million to increase and maintain our influence in the world.

Mr. Blaker

I understood the right hon. Gentleman, who, I think, was making the point that in his view the BBC external services should have been exempted altogether from the review. I am simply explaining that after careful consideration the Government took the view that they could not be exempted.

Discussions with the BBC have been taking place over recent months. The BBC, quite legitimately, took the view in the discussions that it was not for it to volunteer where economies could be found in its organisation, as the licence and agreement clearly place that onus upon the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The Government were, therefore, faced with some unpleasant choices.

There was no obvious candidate for economies. In the circumstances, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office proposed a list of seven foreign language services whose loss they considered to be the least damaging to the national interest. The right hon. Gentleman listed them. Lesser adjustments were also envisaged to the capital expenditure programme and to the transcription services.

In my speech in the debate on 2 November I made it perfectly clear that, as the BBC has known for many months, there will be no cuts in the BBC's World Service in English, none in the languages of the countries of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and none in the languages of the vast majority of the developing world. That is relevant to the extract that the right hon. Gentleman read.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Richard Crawshaw)

The hon. Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) must draw attention to himself if he wishes to intervene.

Mr. Blaker

I shall give way to the hon. and learned Gentleman in a moment.

The right hon. Gentleman was kind enough to read from the pamphlet that my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) and I wrote. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving extra publicity to it.

Mr. Janner

In his speech on 2 November the Minister gave the assurance that No existing transmitters will be lost, and, indeed, audibility will be steadily improved."—[Official Report, 2 November 1979; Vol. 972, c. 1730–31.] As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman is repeating that now, as it applies to the English language services of the World Service. Is that correct? Does it apply also to the transmitter which enables people in this country to hear the World Service?

Mr. Blaker

I shall come to the question of audibility in a moment.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the transcription services. Will he say, without going into the argument, by how much he thinks it is realistic to cut back those services?

Mr. Blaker

I think that the Government's proposals on that matter will become clear to the hon. Gentleman if he waits a little.

I regard the BBC, as I hope all hon. Members do, not as a political football to be kicked around for party advantage but as a national institution and a matter of national concern. Our proposal that the main economies should be made in some of the foreign language services was certainly not a partisan one but was consistent with the priorities set by the previous Administration in the White Paper on overseas representation, published in August 1978. It said: Cuts can, however, be made in some of the vernacular services"— meaning the foreign language services. The pattern of vernacular services should not be regarded as immutable. That was contained in a White Paper of the previous Government, of which the right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar was a member.

The House will note with interest that the amount by which we proposed to reduce spending on the foreign language services, £1.7 million, exactly coincided with the sum by which, according to the noble Lady Baroness Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, speaking from the Front Bench for the Opposition in another place on 26 July, the previous Administration were proposing to cut the foreign language services. This is not a matter on which the right hon. Gentleman can now speak without reversing the position of his Government.

Mr. Shore

I willingly intervene without any embarrassment whatever. What was stated at that time was not sacrosanct and was therefore subject to review. I can only say to the hon. Gentleman that if I had been in charge of that review it would have ended up being rejected.

Mr. Blaker

On the other hand, the noble Lady Baroness Llewelyn-Davies said in another place on 26 July: … since the noble Lord referred to the cuts which the previous Administration were said to be going to make, may I ask him whether he is aware that ours were in the nature of something like £1.7 million."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 26 July 1979; Vol. 401, c. 2039.] I ask the right hon. Gentleman to remember that that was apparently the policy of the Government of which he was a member.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

I am sorry that my hon. Friend has been so frequently interrupted, but since it is obvious that the previous Government made these egregious mistakes, as the right hon. Gentleman has fairly acknowledged, in not supporting the BBC's external services, why on earth did we make the same mistake after watching their example?

Mr. Blaker

My hon. Friend will no doubt have an opportunity, if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to expand on his point of view. If he will allow me to continue, I hope that the present position of the Government will become clear.

I remind hon. Members of the financial provision for the BBC's external services in 1980–81 which has been central to our discussions with the BBC over the past few months. The provision for 1980–81 involves a very large increase on the provision for this year. The provision for this year was £40.3 million. In 1980–81, it will be £45.2 million on the same basis. This is an increase in real terms of £4.9 million, or 12 per cent. This very large increase occurs after a reduction of £2.7 million on the plans that we inherited from the previous Government. No Department of the United Kingdom Government can claim to be doing as well in 1981 in percentage terms as the BBC external services. A 12 per cent. increase in real terms is four times the percentage increase in the provision for the Ministry of Defence. Roads, transport, housing and education have to face reductions. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office faces the closure and reduction of 23 overseas posts. The British Council has accepted economies in real terms of over £5 million in its planned expenditure for 1980–81. Further reductions in Civil Service manpower—

Mr. R. A. McCrindle (Brentwood and Ongar)

While one accepts what my hon. Friend says, he concentrates the £2.7 million in relation to the forthcoming year. Will he tell us whether the £2.7 million cutback is a once-and-for-all exercise or a perpetual exercise in future assessment of expenditure?

Mr. Blaker

That will become clear if my hon. Friend awaits my further remarks.

Further reductions of Civil Service manpower, including that of the Diplomatic Service, are being considered by Ministers in the context of the review put in hand by my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord President of the Council. The BBC external services are exempt from this review. The review will apply to all Government Departments. It will not apply to the BBC external services.

Against this background, the House will recall the feelings that hon. Members expressed in the debate on 2 November. There was clearly strong support at that time for retaining all the foreign language services. The Government took note of the feelings expressed in that debate and concluded, in consultation with the BBC, that it would be preferable to leave the foreign language services intact for 1980–81 and to look for economies in the capital programme to improve audibility. Under the plan inherited from the previous Government, the capital programme to improve audibility envisaged capital expenditure of £7.8 million in 1980–81.

Our revised plan envisages capital expenditure for that year of £5.1 million—still a very substantial sum by any yardstick. Any reduction is regrettable, as the BBC will be first to say. I emphasise that over £5 million will be available next year for projects to improve audibility.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for explaining the Government's view. What is the point of maintaining the content of programmes and their quality if their audibility in places like the Far East and Hong Kong steadily declines?

Mr. Blaker

I have said that over £5 million will be available in the next year for the capital programme, the main purpose of which is to improve audibility. We recognise that audibility is important. I know, as the right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar pointed out, that other countries are boosting the power of their transmitters and that this will increasingly become a problem for us. It is right to add that, judging from the audience figures now claimed for the BBC external services, which are very large, most of the services must still be pretty audible. But we will continue to bear in mind the importance of audibility.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Is my hon. Friend saying that the savings that were to be made on the vernacular services will now be made not on the vernacular services but on the audibility of services?

Mr. Blaker

For the year 1980–81, that will be so. The savings will be made on the capital expenditure programme. I am not saying anything about what will happen after 1980–81, to which the Government will give further consideration in discussions with the BBC.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Woolwich, West)

Judging by some of the smoke coming out of the discussions between the Government and the BBC, there has been the possibility of agreement over a four-year rolling programme. There is great suspicion that the Government are back-tracking from that agreed programme. When transmissions have to go into foreign lands, a programme must be fixed some time in advance. We are not far from 1981–82, but no programme appears to have been agreed.

Mr. Blaker

There have been exploratory discussions between my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), myself and the BBC. We are not back-tracking from any agreement that we have made.

To sum up, in 1980–81 there will be no cuts in the foreign language services or in the World Service in English. Audibility will be improved and overseas listeners will begin to reap the benefits. The BBC's external services are not going into decline; on the contrary, they will be improved. As I have said, the years beyond 1980–81 will be the subject of further discussions between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the BBC.

Mr. Dalyell


Mr. Blaker

Please—I am about to end my remarks.

Mr. Dalyell

Will the hon. Gentleman allow me?

Mrs. Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

Obviously not.

Mr. Dalyell

Earlier, the Minister promised to cast light on the question of cutbacks in the transcription services. During his speech he asked me to wait. If he is about to end his speech, perhaps we can now have an answer to that substantial point.

Mr. Blaker

Fair enough. I thought that it was clear from what I had said, but I shall now make it absolutely clear. It is not proposed that there will be any cuts in the transcription services in 1980–81.

Mr. Greville Janner

Will the Minister please answer my question as well? He assured the House that no existing transmitters would be lost and that audibility would be improved. Does that apply to those transmitters that ensure reception of this greatly appreciated service in London and many other parts of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Blaker

Exactly what transmitters will be improved in the next financial year is a matter to be further examined by the BBC in consultation with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Therefore, for 1980–81, far from there being a cut, there is to be an increase in real terms in the spending on the BBC's external services.

I recommend to my hon. Friends that they accept the motion.

8.12 pm
Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

Having listened to the Minister of State, I must say that I have never seen a Minister so defensive in all my time in Parliament, nor have I seen one so floored by questions and so unable to answer them satisfactorily. I was struck by the fact that although the Minister said that he deplored the fact that the BBC's ex- ternal services should be made a party political football, he then proceeded to attempt to make party political capital out of his speech. That was highly regrettable. The last thing that we want in this debate, during which critical questions have been asked from the Conservative Back Benches, is the scoring of party political points. The Minister used the tired old cliches about public expenditure. He expressed a great deal of sympathy for the BBC's external services, but he has done nothing about them. He was asked a number of questions to which he failed to respond, and I hope that whoever winds up the debate will do better than that.

The question about transcription was not satisfactorily answered, nor was the question about transmitters. There were also a number of invaluable questions from Conservative Back Benchers. For example, when an attack was made on the previous Labour Government, one of the Minister's hon. Friends asked "If they make so many mistakes, why are you following them? Why cannot you learn from their mistakes?" I am afraid that the Minister did not answer that question satisfactorily.

The Minister was asked a significant question about whether these cuts—and they are cuts—are to be once and for all. His response was that that would become clear. I listened carefully to his speech, but it did not become clear to me. That was a significant intervention, and the Minister's case stood or fell on his reply. He failed in that reply, I regret to say. I should have liked him to rise to the occasion and say "This is a once-and-for-all thing, and we promise to sustain the external services in future."

In fact, the situation is even worse than that, because later in his speech the Minister said "We do not really know about the future". If he does not know, he cannot give an assurance. I am not making a personal attack. I just regret that he was unable to answer satisfactorily. I think that the BBC's external services have grounds for profound concern following that speech. I should like to have praised it, because the hon. Gentleman is an enlightened Minister. However, tonight I am afraid that his brief did not allow him to sustain the reputation for enlightenment that he has built up in the House.

I should now like to refer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore), whose speech was so articulate. I fully agreed with it. One of his points was that we tend to take for granted the excellence of the BBC's external services. How true that is. In the taking for granted of that excellence we tend to fail to appreciate how important it is to defend the service. This is not a party political point, because I can tell the House, and especially new Members who have recently become interested in the subject, that for many years many Labour Members have argued with their own Government.

I have a thick and substantial file on this subject, including questions to my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) when he was Foreign Secretary. That file contains questions, letters and even reports of deputations. If my right hon. Friend were present, I am sure that he would recall the occasion when I led a deputation of Labour and Conservative Members from both the House of Commons and House of Lords to the Foreign Office. I thumped his table and demanded that there should be no cuts in the BBC's external services. He told me "Do not bang the table. Use persuasion, but do not threaten me, because I do not like to be threatened." I made the mistake of bulldozing. However, my right hon. Friend rose to the occasion and met that all-party deputation, and despite my wrong tactics he did help the BBC's external services. He did not give us all that we wanted, and the Labour Government were not blameless. I must acknowledge that fact. They imposed cuts. Therefore, this is not a party political point at all. Let us make that clear once and for all.

The point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Stepney and Poplar was not answered. That was that the necessary funds for improving the services would not be forthcoming. It is no answer to say that more money will be forthcoming. I am prepared to be interrupted if the Minister thinks that I have got it wrong.

Mr. Blaker

I wanted to make the point, in case there was any misunderstanding, that the figures that I quoted were in constant prices. In the next year there will be an increase in real terms, and a very substantial one.

Mr. Ashley

I appreciate that there will be an increase in real terms next year, but that is not the point. The point is how big the increase will be and whether it will meet the requirements of the BBC's external services next year and in the following years. The Minister knows quite well that the BBC's external services have been falling behind. Their equipment is becoming decrepit at a time when other nations of the world are increasing their expenditure, audibility and the quality of their broadcasts.

The voice of truth is not being gagged, but it is becoming very hoarse. That is deplorable. Instead of enthusiastically supporting the BBC's external services, we are chipping away at them. This country is going through a difficult period. That is not the fault of the Government or the Opposition; it is the fault of everyone in the country. We are doing badly as a country, and we have been doing so for a long time.

It is very rarely that we have something of outstanding value, and in the BBC's external services we have a priceless national asset. Far from cheering it on, giving it warm support and making an exception in the programme of expenditure cuts, we are failing that service and thereby failing the nation.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis (Rutland and Stamford)

Is not the right hon. Gentleman making the wrong speech in the wrong situation? He told us he did not get very far with his right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) when he was in Government Should not the right hon. Gentleman now be expressing pleasure—though he may not want to—that the Minister is doing something he did not want to do to help the external services of the BBC?

Mr. Ashley

It was the Minister who made the wrong speech at the wrong time, because hon. Members on both sides of the House were nodding in agreement as I attacked him. The point made by the hon. Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. Lewis) should have been addressed to his hon. Friend. I must have been misunderstood when I spoke of my right hon. Friend the former Foreign Secretary. He did not give us all that we wanted, but he did give us a great deal. He met us more than halfway, and any pleasure that I express is at the reception that I received on that occasion. It is not a party political point.

I have prepared a very long speech but I shall cut it down because I have spoken ad lib and many hon. Members wish to take part in the debate. The BBC is in danger of losing its audience if it cannot get the funds to improve audibility. Audiences will fall off and we shall all suffer. If the Government do not change their policy, the external services audience will be gone for ever. The external services also stand to lose frequencies and wavelengths which, once lost, cannot be recovered. I beg the Minister to think again. The external services will lose skilled staff unless more cash is received, and when skilled staff have gone they are not to be recovered.

The BBC will also lose its reputation, gained through broadcasting to millions of people all over the world, if its services are emasculated by the Government. I am not asking for many millions of pounds. All I ask is that the Government think again. We are arguing about a couple of million pounds, or precisely £2.7 million. I urge the Government to think of the national interest. Their policy here is misconceived. I beg the Minister to think of the value of the BBC's external services; to think of the national interest and change his mind.

8.24 p.m.

Mr. Julian Critchley (Aldershot)

We have received half a loaf. It may be sliced, white and waxy, but it is half a loaf none the less. In politics, half a loaf is better than none. If life is a series of defeats interspersed with small victories, the saving of the BBC's vernacular service is a small victory. It is a victory for the 100 Conservative Members of Parliament who signed early-day motion No. 135, which now, by some, quirk of fate, has fallen into the hands of the right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore).

Politics is like a game of snakes and ladders. The future of the BBC's external services, and its handling by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Government, has been a snake of no mean dimension. We have saved the vernacular services, including its wavelengths and the jobs of 150 experts. But at what cost? The answer is at a saving of £2.7 million a year from now on in the capital investment programme of the external services. The money for the capital investment programme is designed to improve audibility. The programme was agreed in 1978 and would have cost under £23.5 million over the next five years. The decision to improve audibility was based upon the urgent recommendation of the Rapp report of 1965, which at that time said that the improvement of the external services' transmitters was a most urgent priority.

It is strange that until a few days ago the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had never heard of that commitment. It was discovered by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. That discovery means that the Government can now claim to be spending both more and less on the external services at the same time. That is superb sleight of hand. However, the cuts mean that in an increasingly noisy world—other countries, especially the Soviet Union, are spending much more on their services—the voice of Britain will stay muted for at least two years longer than would otherwise be the case.

Mr. John Roper (Farnworth)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that these cuts are particularly serious for the Bulgarian service which was promised a new transmitter at a cost of £20 million? That service, which was promised a new transmitter that has been operating since 1943.

Mr. Critchley

I accept that. Most of the transmitters which the external services operate were constructed at the end of, or during, the Second World War. If they compete with international broadcasting services, they probably fail.

The external services are part of a shrinking number of our lines of defence. Like defence and some other Home Office spending, expenditure on the external services should have been strengthened, not weakened. Before the election my impression, as chairman of our media committee, was that three items of public spending would be increased if the Conservative Party were returned—defence, law and order and the BBC's external services.

An agreement between Foreign Office Ministers and executives of the external services was initialled last night. That agreement, in effect, was that the external services would receive all the moneys due over the five-year period but that it would be extended to six years. It now appears that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is unable to stand by the agreement and unable to deliver.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)

Where does my hon. Friend get his information from? I was at such a meeting and all those present gave their strongest word that they would not make any statement about the contents of the discussions at that meeting. How does my hon. Friend know anything about it?

Mr. Critchley

I have been listening to the world overseas service!

We must watch the negotiations with care. They are not yet complete. Upon the completion of those negotiations depends the ultimate shape of the package.

Mr. Ridley

This is a serious matter. My hon. Friend said that he heard broadcast on the overseas services part of the content of a highly confidential and private meeting when all those involved had given their word that it would remain confidential.

Mr. Critchley

My hon. Friend, who is having a bad time now and will have a worse time before the evening is over, is rapidly losing his sense of humour.

My hon. Friends and I will watch with care the way in which the problem is solved. We are anxious about the value of external services. We want to keep them, and in the medium term we want them to be improved.

8.33 pm
Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

I pay tribute to the BBC's external services, not on behalf of those whom we try to influence for political motives but for those who hear the BBC in times and places of persecution and harassment. Such people regard this service as essential for obtaining knowledge of the truth and, in some cases, for retaining their sanity.

People listen to the external services amid persecution and harassment and, in the case of some of my friends, in exile. The idea that the services should be cut and their audibility allowed to decline should not be contemplated. Those who need the services most have voices which they cannot raise. They have ears which can no longer hear the services which are becoming increasingly inaudible.

I pay tribute especially to the work of the East European service and the Russian service, which I know best. The House should understand how crucial these services are to people who rely upon them for the truth. It is sad that in the last six years, when there has been no deliberate jamming of or interference with the services, they have become increasingly inaudible, not only in Moscow but in other parts of the Soviet Union.

When the Government say that they will cut back the programme for increasing audibility, they mean that they intend to take no steps to improve the reception of the voice of truth which people have come to expect from Britain. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) said that the Minister of State was losing his sense of humour. Was he also referring to the Minister's earlier comment, which is a classic, that the Government recognise that the audibility of broadcasting is important? The idea that we should continue to broadcast in any language on the basis that it will not be heard is a stupidity of the highest and most incomprehensible kind.

On behalf of those who listen in desperate need to those broadcasts, I plead with the Government not to cut back their programme. Audibility should be increased, and the Government should increase the capital programme which is necessary even to retain audibility as it is at present.

Mr. Lawrence

Would the hon. and learned Gentleman rather cut the vernacular services or the audibility programme?

Mr. Janner

I would cut neither. Both sides of the House should agree that there should be no cuts in any circumstances in this sphere, particularly when the cuts are so petty and so inconsequential to us but so important to those who listen to the broadcasts, which are so vital to the prestige and influence of our country.

The Government speak about not cutting the cost of defence. We would not need to spend so much on defence if our voice were better heard. We would not need to pay so much for the Armed Forces if we retained the influence that we built up during the time of armed resistance to tyranny during the war—an influence that, happily, still remains—almost entirely as a result of the work of the BBC. We should not cut that service in any way.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore) remarked that he could find bones to pick with the BBC. I am sure all of us have gnawed such bones. I have written to a former Director-General and received some vituperative letters from him. It is precisely because the service is so excellent that bones stick in our throats, when the meal is generally so decent, so wholesome and so edible.

Having myself heard the service in English and in the vernacular in other parts of the world, I am convinced that we would be crazy to lose one iota of the strength that has been built up. It is the only area in which we retain strength and influence almost on the same scale as we had in the days of our empire.

We have been speaking about influence abroad. There is no reason why we should ignore the influence at home. For many the BBC World Service is a major source of information and pleasure. It is one of the few sources left in air bands filled with music that our children adore but which we find a cacophony. Whether we are returning home in the middle of the night with nothing to listen to except that music or the BBC World Service, or whether we get through to it during the day, we should treasure such a service.

I press the Minister again to tell us whether we are to lose that service at home. In a debate on 2 November he assured the House that no existing transmitters would be lost and that audibility would be improved. He did not deal with a matter that was discussed on a "Feed-Back" broadcast on Sunday 4 November when the distinguished and excellent acting Director-General of the BBC, Mr. Mansell, revealed that when a new transmitter currently being built at Orfordness on the Suffolk coast comes into action the existing broadcasts emanating from the Crowborough, Sussex transmitter will have an aerial system that will reduce audibility. We shall not then hear the World Service in London. He said that it will be heard only in a very small strip of land in East Anglia and south-east England". The service has value abroad at practically no cost. It provides honest information that is a blessing to those at home. I hope that the Minister will tell us more when he replies. Is it his intention that when the transmitter closes down we shall cease to have the benefit of the service? The House and the country would welcome an assurance that that is not the Government's intention. If it is the Government's intention they should say so, and we can campaign against it.

The last vestige of our vast national influence and prestige rests in the empire of the air. I submit that the Government should not preside over its dissolution.

8.40 pm
Mr. Geoffrey Johnson Smith (East Grinstead)

I hope that it will be possible to complete the speech that I have prepared. It will be a short speech. As the House may have gathered already, I am suffering from an attack of laaryngitis or something similar.

Mr. Ridley

Is my hon. Friend losing audibility?

Mr. Johnson Smith

Any lack of audibility is not self-inflicted. Nature has imposed it upon me and there is nothing that money can do about it.

My sympathies lie very much with the BBC. As the House will know, I have past associations with it. Some years ago I worked for the Foreign Office with the British Information Services. That is why I wrote to my noble Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs asking whether the Government could consider the matter again. I regret the way in which the issue has been handled. The whole affair has the smell of burnt candle ends about it. It has come to be presented as another example of a financially strickened BBC being refused a paltry sum by a parsimonious Government to maintain broadcasting services that are held in wide respect throughout the world.

As I support the Government's economic policy, it is only too easy for me to say "I support the philosophy of the Government's economic policy provided that they do not hurt my special interest". However, sacrifices have to[...]e made. When I first heard that there was a possibility of a real and continuing cut, and when I was asked to sign the motion tabled in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley), I asked myself why in these desperately serious times the external services of the BBC should be exempt whereas social services in my constituency, for example, affecting children and the elderly will not be expected to be outside the net of financial constraint.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot initiated an Adjournment debate to discuss the issue. The Minister said in that debate and again today that the proposition was not really a cut and that more would be spent. I am becoming fed up with trying to define a cut. Surely by no yardstick can we increase any expenditure in real terms and define that action as a cut. We have heard today from the Dispatch Box that we may expect a real increase in the capital programme of the BBC so that certain programmes may be more audible. It may be said that the increase is not enough. We have not had an assurance that the increase will extend into the years that follow. Clearly the BBC cannot plan on one year's expenditure increase. It must have something rather more certain from the Government than it has heard today.

We are moving into a new and better situation. I am grateful for that, but I hope that the Government will be able to go further. I have no doubt that in future we shall have similar wrangles about not only the level of support for the external services but BBC licence fees.

First, we must agree on the philosophy that we wish to adopt. Are we to continue with worldwide broadcasting and with a system that covers all parts of the globe but which has to be selective about the language in which it broadcasts because resources are limited? I do not agree with some hon. Members who have said "Is it not wonderful that we broadcast our wonderful political views and opinions to the French?" I do not think that the French listen very much to the BBC's reflection of British political opinion. The French are far too sophisticated to tune in solemnly to such broadcasts. They are far too arrogant or self-confident to take their views from the BBC's external services. We may think that the way in which they run their affairs and the extent to which their radio and television services come under too much Government pressure deserve criticism. However, we must remember that the French are open to different opinions and they do not need to turn to us.

It is arrogant of us to assume that the French people look to the BBC. We should not be spending the taxpayers' money on countries such as France. There are many other avenues of communication. Resources will always be limited. Communications worldwide present us with enormous problems. There are areas in which communication is vital. I refer to areas that do not have open access, where there is censorship and where there are no proper extensive broadcasting services. Those are areas that require first-hand reports. We must cut our cloth to ensure that the genuine interests of true objectivity and democracy are served.

We must bear in mind that resources are limited. Should broadcasting services concentrate, as the Central Policy Review Staff's review of overseas representation put it, on countries that do not have access to unbiased news and information"? As the right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore) said, the review staff's proposals were not received with enthusiasm. They were condemned out of hand by the previous Government and Opposition. I did not agree with many of the conclusions.

We must consider whether we have achieved the right balance in our overseas broadcasting. I am not as confident as some other hon. Members that we have.

First, I hope that the Government will consider their policy on the relationship between the external broadcasting services, their attitude to information work in general and export promotion, and the role of the Foreign Office in its posts abroad. All those organisations and groups have a part to play in the general scheme of communication with people abroad.

Second, we must consider how we should continue to finance the external services. The BBC has long rejected advertising as a source of revenue. In the context of our domestic services I support that view. There are two ways of financing broadcasting. It can be argued that the pressures on and motivation of the broadcasting organsations are different. We have a genuine alternative service as a consequence. There is a difference between the two rival systems. That makes for healthy rivalry and competition.

We face a different situation in external broadcasting. The Central Office of Information has been willing to accept and disseminate sponsored films and literature.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe)


Mr. Johnson Smith

The hon. Lady groans, but this is a horrid business of commercialism in a tough old world. However, might we not take a leaf out of the book of the COI? The Annan report suggested the introduction of sponsored programmes on the fourth television channel, by interesting some of the most prestigious firms and cultural organisations to help to supplement the grant-in-aid provided by the taxpayer to the BBC.

Mr. Gary Waller (Brighouse and Spenborough)

Is not the great prestige of the BBC external services due to their undoubted independence? However much one may proclaim that advertising makes no difference to the programmes, there would be doubt in certain quarters in some countries about the independence of the BBC if that were to be adopted. That being the case, it would be a great price to pay.

Mr. Johnson Smith

When I was at the BBC there were constant references to the fact that it was a Government broadcasting organisation. By that was meant that it was a Government broadcasting organisation in this country. Although people have more regard for the fact that it is not a totally independent organisation when it comes to its overseas broadcasts, its integrity is valued. They test it out with the information by which they are able to judge it. Over the years the BBC built up a reputation for professional efficiency and truthfulness, although it is well known that it is supported by a Government. Frankly, I am much more likely to trust an organisation that has the type of sponsorship about which I am speaking than one with taxpayers' money injected into it. As a rule Governments dictate the editorial policy far more severely and savagely, and in an unprincipled way, than they do the soft sponsorship which the COI carried out for many years by asking Dunlop or Shell to make nice moves about how wonderful things were, in Britain.

People are entitled to make a big issue of this matter if they wish. I ask the House to consider whether we should continue wrangling year after year about how we should support these services. Conditions abroad are different. Unless we look for additional sources of revenue, we shall find ourselves in trouble again. So far, the easy way out has been either to postpone much-needed capital programmes and cut out some services—all Governments are to blame in that respect—or pass the burden to the taxpayer. The time has come to think of something better.

8.49 pm
Mr. Bryan Magee (Leyton)

The proposed cut of £2.7 million in the capital expenditure programme of the external services of the BBC is a paradigm of how cuts should not be made. I am not one of those hon. Members on the Opposition Benches who is automatically against cuts of any kind in public expenditure. I acknowledge that if my party had won the general election, we, too, would have had to introduce public expenditure cuts. In our present economic circumstances, the point is, what should be cut? What then surfaces as the key differences between the parties is their order of priorities.

I will not go into those differences between the parties other than in relation to broadcasting—in fact, I do not think that this debate should be approached primarily from the point of view of a party political dispute at all. However, the cuts that are before us reflect a sad and bad order of priorities.

The Minister defended the Government's policy on the ground that these cuts were not in existing expenditure but in future programmes. But all the cuts that we have been arguing about for several weeks now are cuts in future expenditure programmes. The real point that the Minister never confronted is that the programme of investment expenditure agreed in 1978, costed originally at £20 million, was not a minimum preferred programme but a minimum programme, period. It was the least amount that we had to spend to get minimal acceptable results. Precisely for that reason, the Government's cuts in the proposed expenditure can have no other effect than positively to damage the BBC's forward activities.

There are not many areas where this country is internationally in the forefront, but one of the few is broadcasting. I do not think it is chauvinistic to say that we are internationally acknowledged as having the best broadcasting system in the world. As one travels round the world, one finds that the world community, and other Governments, are not inclined to take much notice of what the British Government say. That is true whether it is a Conservative or Labour Government. I am not making a party political point. But whereas the world community no longer listens to British Governments, or necessarily believes their protestations, it does still listen to, and believe, and respect, the BBC. There are few areas where we could spend public money today which could yield a better return than on its external broadcasts.

The proposed expenditure should be looked at alongside the defence programme, with which indeed it has some tenuous links. The dissemination of our views, policies, ways of life, intentions and approaches to foreign affairs is an absolutely essential part of the country's overall defences. The amount of money that is spent on it brings several times the return in security that the same amount spent on military hardware could possibly bring.

It is therefore ludicrous to have proposed military expenditure for next year of £7,824 million and at the same time propose to cut Government expenditure on the foreign affairs service of the BBC by the paltry—I almost used an unparliamentary term—sum of £2.7 million.

I hope that the Government will review their position and, in spite of their fiddling accommodations and the backhanded assurance they have given tonight, will in future years restore to the full these cuts made in the BBC's external services ex- penditure, and, indeed, spend more money to expand those services.

8.55 pm
Mr. David Mudd (Falmouth and Camborne)

Although I have listened with interest to the various speeches in this debate, I am appalled by the suggestion that the BBC's overseas services should be used as a propaganda medium for British interests and British influence. The moment one accepts that the BBC's external services should be used for propaganda purposes, one moves into the extremely dangerous ground of accepting that the domestic services should be used for political purposes.

Mr. Magee

Will the hon. Member accept that by far the most effective propaganda is the truth? It is the BBC's reputation for telling the truth that makes it an effective propaganda machine.

Mr. Mudd

I welcome the hon. Member's words. Certainly the reputation of the BBC of not being a propaganda machine gives it its worldwide value. My quarrel is not so much with what the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Magee) has said but rather with the strange opening remarks of the right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore). I have taken the liberty of telling him the various points that I wish to make in his absence. I found his argument based on a strange trilogy of jingoism, naivety and amnesia. I do not mind his jingoism, but in his naivety he suggested that BBC external services were useful because one cannot censor the spoken word. While one cannot censor it, one can certainly jam it. Then he went on to say that if people cannot read at least they can listen to their radios. My mind boggled at the thought of peasants in India trudging home from the paddy fields after 24 hours to tune in to "The Archers" and compare fraternal notes about British agriculture. It was a totally irrelevant argument.

Amnesia was the most fascinating dimension of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks. He was worried about the gentleman in Zambia twiddling the control knob of his radio 3,000 miles from the transmitter and getting only a weak signal. The right hon. Member should remember the approaches that were made by Conservative Members to his Government when the BBC was put on to a new system of frequencies for domestic services two years ago. People living in Cornwall within 300 yards of a transmitter were not able to hear the programmes they wanted to hear. Let the Opposition now remember the way in which they turned their backs on domestic listeners two years ago. They cannot now claim to represent the interests and wishes of those abroad.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Is it not true that a considerable amount of money has been spent in the South-West on transmitters and that this has made a noticeable change in the reception for most people?

Mr. Mudd

It is true that a large number of transmitters have been set up in the South-West, but the hon. Lady is incorrect in assuming that a large number of transmitters will do any more than pollute the skyline. They do not in any way increase the quality of reception.

The basis of this argument is the question of BBC spending. I should not quarrel with the extension of the BBC overseas services if they were self-financing. The BBC should look at this aspect—the effective use of its money.

I am delighted to have shared this debate with many hon. Members who, like myself, are no strangers to the use of the microphone. Their recollection will be similar to mine. I remember the happy days in the early 1960s when a reporter was sent out to do a story. He put his EMI L2TA on his back and went out to cover a story, ostensibly for the local regional station, but he also had instructions to bring back a piece for "Radio Newsree", "Eyewitness" the "Today" programme", "Woman's Hour", the overseas services and the Central Office of Information. One reporter covering one story on one tape recorder and one set of expenses provided all those pieces.

That is how it was when the BBC was cost-effective conscious. Today, if one reporter does a story on his own he feels that he is being sent into a monastic existence. Reporters have become gregarious in the massive expenditure of the BBC. Therefore, while it is perfectly justified to say that we should safeguard and extend the BBC's external services, it is right that the BBC itself, if it believes to its own spending and find a way to provide the necessary service.

9 pm

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

I pay tribute to those Conservative Members who signed the motion in defiance of the wishes of their Front Bench. However, perhaps it lies in my mouth to say that those who rebel against their Government—and I have had more experience of that recently than most—must be prepared, if it comes to the crunch, to follow the logical consequences of their actions and, if necessary, to vote against their Government. I hope that, if it were to come to the crunch, there would be no faintheartedness and that those Conservative Members would pursue the cause in which they believe to its logical conclusion, defying their Foreign Secretary, Prime Minister and all. That is the ultimate test of parliamentary action.

I would not want it to be thought that only Conservatives had interested themselves in this topic. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody) will remember very well, because she was on the Front Bench at the time, the ungodly hour of the night of 26 July at which I raised the question of the BBC's external services. The Minister of State who is here tonight had the courtesy to be on the Front Bench at that time and to reply. There is, therefore, an equality of concern on the subject on both sides of the House. I say not that I and my hon. Friends have taken a greater interest, although we initiated the first debate on the subject, but that we are no less interested in the BBC's overseas services than are Conservative Members.

I wish to pursue the military comparisons made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Magee). Just what sums are involved? If it is £2.7 million, we are talking about the training of three Tornado pilots or about less than one-third of the cost of one Tornado aircraft. When I challenged the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force during questions on 30 October to accept the figure of £600,000 for training a Tornado pilot, he said that that was an underestimate. I have since discovered that the official figure is £900,000.

How is it possible to plan a programme of development over six or seven years that the services are justified, should look when it is not known what the level of spending on broadcasting will be in 1981 and beyond? The BBC cannot be expected to do that because the planned investment in transmitters by the external services over the next five years is a large part of the BBC's local budget. There are about eight or nine major projects. Some of them will take several years to complete. They involve ordering expensive transmitters many years in advance. How can any organisation be expected to do that if it has no guidelines about how much it can spend? Without some commitment to complete projects in a given period of years once they are started how can the BBC run its broadcasting services? Once a project is started, surely it is madness for the BBC not to have the wherewithal and the plans to finish it.

I ask the Minister in what circumstances can the BBC external services be expected to start any major project? I shall happily give way if he will answer. The Foreign Office should have briefed the Minister on that. I am a courteous man and do not wish to score points. However, it is a substantial issue, and I give the Minister a further opportunity to answer.

Mr. Johnson Smith

We shall have a reply later about the future capital commitment of the Government.

Mr. Dalyell

I hope that the reply will be more pertinent than the comments on transcription and the answer to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner). We have the undertaking of a full reply about the development programme.

I have a further specific question about one of the projects. What are the proposals for setting up a modern transmitter in the Seychelles or on the island of Mahé? That is important for the Horn of Africa, the Arabic services and the entire capability. It is wholly unsatisfactory that these services are frequently run from Ascension Island.

What are the Government's views on further contraction of this minimum spread of services? Without a sufficient spread there can be no quality, and that was well put in an article in the Spectator by Mr. Tim Garton Ash, called "How many divisions has the BBC"? He said: any cuts must diminish the range and depth of the service's overall news-coverage. If the experts of the Arabic services are dismissed, the World Service's coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict will be impaired. Yet it is precisely for its treatment of such topics, about which their own media are particularly biased, that Soviet bloc listeners turn to the BBC". I cannot make the point more crisply than that. We must preserve that minimum spread. If we go below the critical level, the whole house of cards will collapse.

For some years the external service has postponed such activities as sending personnel to the countries to which it is broadcasting. That may be all right for one or possibly two years, but standards cannot be maintained if it becomes the norm and not just the exception in a time of financial crisis. Not only in the Rapp report, to which there has been reference, but also in the Beeley and Duncan reports it is suggested that more such activities and much more investment are needed.

We are damaging the seed corn. The external services must not be treated on a stop-go basis. We need a continual rolling programme in order to go forward. It is a question not just of improving the audibility of services but of maintaining those services.

What is the Government's general attitude to more powerful transmitters? Britain operates on rather ancient transmitters, where as Qatar has a 1,500-kilowatt transmitter and Iran has one of 1,000 kilowatts. In that context, we should bear in mind our overall strategy.

The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd) expressed concern about BBC external services being used as part of the propaganda process. Certainly my right hon and hon. Friends and I would not wish to see the services used as a tool for British interests. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton pointed out, the power of the services is that they give the truth and they are not seen as a propaganda weapon. It is because of their truthfulness that the services help Britain in a number of areas.

One service that I know something about, having had the good fortune to be in the country in the last 10 years, is the Burmese service. In 1976 our exports to Burma amounted to £7 million. In 1978, that figure had risen to £26 million. This is a time when Burma is opening up to the West and when British business men are showing enterprise in the country. The role of the BBC Burmese service is extremely important. Through the years of Burmese isolation regular programmes on British technology, business and industry kept the idea of Britain as a vital manufacturing nation and reliable trading partner alive. Is it now the time to put such a service at risk? Under the proposals, the BBC's Burmese language service could be abolished in the interest of financial economies.

Mr. Mudd

If the hon. Gentleman accepts that programmes on British industry and commerce are of such great interest to Burmese listeners, why would it not be possible for pre-recorded programmes to be sent to the Burmese radio service for domestic transmission on their own wavelengths?

Mr. Dalyell

That raises all sorts of other issues. Many other countries give free cassettes or recordings. The BBC external services ask for payment, being one of the few services in the world which do so. The reason is that their quality and truthfulness is considered to be a cut above that of most of those who give free recordings.

The Burmese service has a permanent staff of eight, a programme organiser, seven Burmese programme assistants and one secretary. The annual cost of running the service is about £117,000—oneseventh of the cost of training a Tornado pilot and about 2 per cent. of the cost of a modern fighter aircraft. The service transmits twice daily for a total of one hour. It is broadcast live from London on short wave and relayed through the BBC's transmitting station in Singapore. Incidentally, a good deal of capital has recently been invested in that station and it would be a pity to misuse it.

The BBC has been broadcasting programmes in Burmese for 39 years continuously. That period spans the wartime retreat from Burma in 1942, the reconquest of Burma in 1944 and 1945, Burma's independence in 1948 and ever since. In the early years after independence, direct transmissions from London could be heard by the few who had powerful radio sets. Today, it is estimated that there are more than 1 million radio sets in Burma. In a country of more than 30 million people, whose national language is Burmese, radio is the most effective means of communication.

Foreign radio stations are listened to widely in Burma and provide a major source of information for the population. Radio Peking broadcasts for two and a half hours a day in Burmese, and Radio Moscow for one and a half hours a day. But, according to the testimony of Burmese officials, the BBC is listened to more widely than either of these or the Voice of America, which also broadcasts for one hour a day in Burmese.

For many years, Britain's commercial links with Burma were very restricted, following widespread nationalisation of foreign and domestic businesses by the military Government of General—now President—Ne Win. But in recent years Burma has been much more willing to seek economic contacts with Western countries. The value of Britain's exports to Burma has gone up by more than three and a half times in three years—from £7 million in 1976 to over £26 million in 1978—and the trend is still rising. Britain is one of Burma's major trading partners in the West.

There is a substantial amount of technical and educational co-operation between Burma and Britain. Knowledge of the English language in Burma has declined in the past 30 years, but it is now official policy to give much greater encouragement to the teaching of English. The BBC Burmese service broadcasts a regular series of English by radio programmes with the special needs of a Burmese audience in mind.

The BBC Burmese service receives between 6,000 and 7,000 letters a year from listeners in all parts of the country. The President takes a personal interest in the BBC Burmese service. Listeners are known to include his Ministers and senior officials in the Burmese Government, and many others in a wide variety of occupations and of all ages. One correspondent, writing from Rangoon, gives this graphic picture of the sort of people whom the BBC Burmese service can count among its audience: Naga members of the Peoples Assembly, jade smugglers in Kachin State, disillusioned Socialists in Rangoon, people in Shan State, who believe that China is trying to win over the national minorities in Burma's eastern border regions, avant-garde writers dissatisfied with literary censorship, university professors … traders who regularly journey to Thailand, officials and non-officials, supporters as well as opponents of U Ne Win's regime. Many listeners have written commenting on the prospect of cuts in the Burmese service. For example, a farmer in Maubin writes: If the BBC were to cut the Burmese service my whole world would be darkness … the BBC news is our only link with the outside world. A retired civil servant writes from Magwe: We shall certainly miss all that you represent. Your accounts of the world situation reported freely in the news broadcasts with speed and accuracy without bias, together with your feature programmes, which have provided much entertainment, are invaluable to us. A Buddhist monk from Madaya has written offering to subscribe nearly £1 a year towards the cost of the BBC Burmese service.

I have gone into this matter in some detail, without apology, because it is a story which could be repeated in many parts of the world. It is an absolute tragedy that we should be cheeseparing the BBC service.

If Burma is a small country, the United States is not, and I refer to a leading article in the New York Times of 14 October, which quotes Senator Percy, among others, as having expressed the view that cuts in the BBC service would be serious to other countries as well as to Britain, because the United States would be affected.

The New York Times states: The BBC has also gained in credibility from the relative decline of Britain as a world power. 'It's not Communist propaganda and it's not American propaganda', a West African diplomat said. 'There's a feeling that the British don't have any big axe to grind any more, and that makes them considerably less suspect.' We are discussing something of vital importance not only to Britain but to the West. Of all activities in which we should cheesepare and cut back, this is the least sensible from an international point of view, especially—and I end where I began—when one contrasts what this debate in the House of Commons is about with some of the massive defence spending, which apparently could go up relatively and in real terms. What we are talking about in terms of cuts is the cost of the training of only three Tornado pilots.

9.20 pm
Mr. R. A. McCrindle (Brentwood and Ongar)

I did not intend to participate in the debate. I had hoped that my hon. Friend the Minister of State would reassure me, as one of the signatories of the motion to which reference has been made, that, in so far as a cut of any size was necessary in the next financial year, that would be the total measure of the cutback in the BBC external services. It is because, notwithstanding my earlier intervention, I am still not clear that that is the Government's position that I now make a short contribution.

Before I reach the crucial point of my remarks, I should like to say that I too welcome the maintenance of the vernacular services of the BBC. There is no doubt that the influence that we carry abroad by the wide dissemination of broadcasts in a variety of languages returns to us a dividend that almost no other action could.

I do not agree entirely with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Grinstead (Mr. Johnson Smith) that if we considered broadcasting in the vernacular we should feel that Western European languages were wasted. I believe that we British are often quite rightly criticised for the insular nature of our approach to international affairs, requiring that all transactions be undertaken in the English language. If, in this one field, we are prepared to broadcast in Western European languages, that can only be an advantage. While there is much more mileage to be gained for us in the United Kingdom from broadcasting in the vernacular in such languages as Burmese—to which the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) has just referred—and in Eastern European languages, I am happy that the vernacular broadcasting of the BBC external services is to be maintained in toto. I do not believe that we can quickly discard the broadcasting in French, German and Spanish to the European continent. Among other things, it marks out Britain as a good neighbour and a good member of the EEC. It is a good way to live down the justified image of the British as totally insular in the field of language spoken.

I am pleased that the English language services to the rest of the world are also to be maintained. I have travelled extensively over the past few years. There is no doubt that to the travelling Britisher, and more so to the British emigré in many parts of the world, this service is a continuing link with the United Kingdom. It also gives an opportunity to influence a wide audience in many parts of the world.

At a time when the regard in which the BBC is held at home is perhaps, if anything, receding, the regard by people in this country, never mind abroad, for the overseas service of the BBC is increasing. I am therefore delighted to note that the English language services of the BBC are to be maintained.

The crux of this debate is the question of audibility. It is a crucial point. Not only must broadcasts to the rest of the world be audible, but where they are not, and where they are not so by the deliberate action of a Government who would prefer the BBC broadcasts not to be heard, there is surely a strong case for improving the audibility of our broadcasts. That means that the programme on which the BBC has embarked to improve the audibility of our services to Eastern Europe is crucial.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State was at pains to say that hardly any of that was affected by the relatively minor cutback that he had to announce this evening. I am prepared to concede that, but what worries me, and the principal point on which I hope for a clearer answer, is this. If we are saying that the cutback in this programme is £2.7 million in the year immediately ahead, that is one thing. It can be absorbed and is a relatively small price to pay, especially when we recall the much larger figure that it was expected might be the measure of the cutback in the external services.

But, just as the improved audibility programme to Eastern Europe is intended to be extended over a considerable number of years, so the Government have a duty to give us a clearer outline this evening, so that we know precisely where we stand, whether it is a £2.7 million cutback for the year immediately ahead or whether, remembering that that programme extends for some years beyond that, we are to expect a similar cutback in the further implementation of this improved audibility programme.

My hon. Friend who replies may very well seek to take refuge in reminding me that no Government can effectively look forward to Government expenditure further than perhaps 12 months. When we recall Supplementary Estimates, we wonder whether they can effectively look forward that long. But my hon. Friend cannot escape answering my specific point, bearing in mind that he is proposing a cutback of £2.7 million in the programme next year in relation to a programme that goes on for a number of years beyond that.

If my hon. Friend can tell me that that is the beginning and the end of what he feels must be borne by the BBC external services, I shall be satisfied that my hon. Friends and I who were signatories of the motion referred to earlier have fought a battle and have come close to a reasonably significant victory. But if he tells me that it is £2.7 million in the forthcoming financial year and that he is unable to lift the veil to tell me what lies immediately ahead, I shall be inclined to deduce that the signatories are perhaps being bought off in this debate, and that will not satisfy me.

Having felt impelled to intervene on that specific point, I hope that my hon Friend will be able to tell me that it is a £2.7 million cutback on this occasion and on this occasion alone, and that we shall improve the audibility of our broadcasts to Eastern Europe with only a relatively small and temporary setback to the programme to which the BBC has turned its attention.

9.28 pm
Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

In the short time available, I want to stress my support for my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) and in particular my hon. Friend the Member for East Grinstead (Mr. Johnson Smith), whose audibility was not very good but the content of whose speech was very sound.

I tried to point out a little earlier in an intervention that it was no good having a first-class service if it could not be heard. A year ago I went to the Far East, taking with me a British-made Hacker short wave radio, one of the best radio sets available. During my stay in Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong I charted BBC reception. I have the record at home. On more than 10 of the 20 or so evenings that I had a chance to pick up the BBC, reception was impossible. On the other evenings one might have good reception for 10 minutes, with fading and crackling in between.

To imagine that any local person working in the factories or offices of Hong Kong, and with only a small radio set, will ever hear the BBC at present is completely to misunderstand the position. They want to hear the BBC. Hundreds of them told my friends and me how much they respected the BBC. What happens in Hong Kong and other parts of the Far East, whatever my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd) said, is equally applicable in Central Africa and India. The average worker does not go home at night and try to tune to the BBC. He knows that at the moment it would be a waste of time. But if BBC transmissions to India were even half as powerful as the present Russian and Chinese transmissions, the potential audience in that part of the world would be very great.

I wish to quote briefly from a letter written by Mr. Udell, head of the East European Services of the BBC. Hon. Members have provided excellent information that has been most meaningful for the House. They will be interested to know that the head of the East European services is most concerned about the Government's plans. In his letter, written yesterday, he says: For many years, the BBC has tried to get approval for a capital programme which would strengthen our signal, in particular our signal to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The last Government finally approved the spending of over £20 million on transmitters—though even these would not have become fully effective until 1984". I hope that my hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench are not only listening to but noting these comments. They come from the fountainhead. Mr. Udell goes on: If this programme is reduced or delayed—and there is no way in which it can survive intact if the Government continues to require savings of £2.7 million each year—the influence of the BBC in the very parts of the world where the Government has itself said that there should be no economies will be further damaged, perhaps irreparably. The House should know this information before we come to a decision tonight. I hope that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench will give some indication that they are aware of this factor. Mr. Udell concludes by saying that he received a telegram a few days ago from Alexander Solzhenitsyn and his wife, who said: The obstruction of the flow of free information will leave the peoples of these countries under the ideological bell-glass of their Governments. For this reason, the curtailment of such information is even more dangerous for the West itself. I could not put the issue so well. I felt that the House should have this information.

9.32 pm
Mr. Gary Waller (Brighouse and Spenborough)

I had not intended to intervene in the debate, but I was impressed by the argument of the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Magee) about the considerable benefit that we derive from the small cost of the BBC's external services.

Any company involved in expenditure looks at the market. Between 1955 and 1978, the number of radio sets in the world increased from 237 million to 1,100 million. In the developing world the increase in percentage terms was much greater. In Africa, over a similar period, the number of sets increased from 1 million to 26 million. Any company which was considering its capital investment programme and did not increase the investment that it put into its plant and equipment to take account of the enormous rise in the market would be considered to have made a serious mistake.

My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd) said that the BBC must reduce its costs. One has a certain sympathy with that view, but the BBC has done that very thing. In the decade since 1969, there has been a 5 per cent. drop in the cost of producing programmes per hour. The number employed in the external services has fallen by 8 per cent., and the cost of producing programmes is half that of producing equivalent radio programmes for domestic consumption. Indeed, had the BBC not been quite so efficient at looking at its methods of cutting costs, we might not have been in this position and the BBC might have been rather better placed with more money to spend.

I ask my hon. Friend to say something about how the BBC will deal with the problem of out-of-date equipment, some of which will probably stop working very soon. I understand that some of the transmitters are extremely ancient. Some of the parts are no longer made. It may well be that in a year or two the external services will have to embark on even greater capital expenditure if some of the services are to exist at all. This is very important. I agree with those hon. Members who have said that we must consider some long-term plan and that we cannot exist in a situation where the BBC has to live on a year-to-year basis.

9.36 pm
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe)

The deep sense of unease that has been generated by the behaviour of the Government has been noticeable throughout the debate. I have no wish to be unkind to the Minister of State, whom I know to be an honourable man, but it is embarrassing to see a Minister so obviously unable to answer quite straightforward questions. The truth is that, although we have had a number of debates on this subject, we are no nearer an explanation of the exact situation than we were when my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) raised the matter so many months ago.

After all, if the Government are insisting on the BBC's external services taking a swingeing cut in their 1980–81 budget, and if at the same time they are saying "Really, this is an increase", are they also saying that this will not damage the services? If they are, they are being a great deal less than honest. The truth is that for well over 30 years the BBC's external services have operated with equipment that would be the laughing stock of any other efficient radio organisation anywhere else in the world.

It is not an accident that countries such as Russia and China put so much money into their broadcasting. They do it deliberately, because they know that the benefits they receive are enormous. I am not very well up with the internal workings of the Politburo, but I am sure that it has a number of committees which decide what their money should be spent on. From what I know of the Russians, I imagine that they take a considerable amount of time to reach any kind of conclusion. I therefore ask myself why it is that a nation such as Russia can put vast amounts of effort and muscle into a broadcasting organisation whereas we cannot. In those circumstances, I believe that there is something wrong with our system of priorities.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore) posed a simple proposition: that if a large amount of money is to be spent on defence—after all, the Government came into office telling us proudly that they intended to increase the defence budget—but we are not able to find a tiny percentage for something as essential as the BBC's external services, there is something wrong with our housekeeping.

As we are frequently reminded, the previous Government asked the BBC to accept a certain number of cuts, but it became obvious that there had to be a rolling programme of investment which had to cover the creation of a number of new transmitters. We have heard about the tremendous increase in the number of transistors not only in the developed countries but in underdeveloped countries. Everybody has his own transistor so that he may have access to information. Such people have relied on the BBC, which has been operating with totally inadequate technical equipment. Nevertheless, those people have listened constantly to BBC programmes.

A rolling programme of investment—which takes a considerable amount of time to mount—was designed on a five-year basis because, after all, one cannot amble round to the local manufacturer and ask for a transmitter to be supplied the next day. The Government now insist that the BBC must take a share of public expenditure cuts.

If that were to happen in industry, right hon. and hon. Gentlemen on the Government Benches would be asking us how we could expect industry to operate a forward planning programme that could run for no longer than a year. The Government have given no answer to that. They have not answered the questions posed by their hon. Friends. They have been asked whether this is a one-off cut or whether, having started to hack the investment programme to pieces, they will continue in that way over the five-year period. If that happens, not only will the existing transmitters cease to operate but the few listening facilities available in certain areas of the world will be lost.

I was sorry to hear that the relay station in Hong Kong is not included in the investment programme. If the Prime Minister is so keen on developing her business contacts with China, I should have thought that she would be prepared to see a considerable amount of investment to assist in getting our views across to that expanding nation.

The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd) believes that the BBC puts out propaganda. He asserts that it would do far better to broadcast advertising. Britain is now having less and less impact on the sponsored film market, and that market represents but a tiny proportion of the film material broadcast all over the world. If the hon. Member seriously thinks that that is a good use for the BBC external services, I can assure him that it is nothing of the sort. If that were to happen, it would be greeted with considerable suspicion by the people on the receiving end.

Mr. Mudd

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. She is attributing to me remarks which did not come from me.

Mrs. Dunwoody

This is not the first time that the hon. Gentleman and I have disagreed about what he has said. I have no doubt that it will not be the last time.

Mr. Johnson Smith

Time is short and we do not have time to argue. I think that the hon. Lady was referring to me. I was suggesting that we should look at sponsorship. Annan thought so in respect of the fourth television channel. I think that there is scope for extra revenue here—that is all. It is a modest scheme, but I am pretty sure that we could develop it.

Mrs. Dunwoody

I am always happy to hear an interjection from the hon. Member for East Grinstead (Mr. Johnson Smith) in his "poor woman's Marlene Dietrich" voice, but I do not go along with the ideas expressed by that voice.

When the Minister of State replies, will he perhaps break a life-long habit and be terribly frank? Will he tell the House exactly what the Government intend to do about cuts in the BBC's external services budget? I use those words deliberately. With the greatest respect to him, we do not wish to hear ambivalent arguments about its being cut or not being cut. The House wants to know how, having accepted the motion, he can argue that the BBC will have to manage to absorb a cut of £2.7 million. He is misleading the House, his hon. Friends and the Opposition.

The whole House is deeply disturbed about the attack on the BBC external services. We have heard arguments from both sides about the importance of our cultural heritage, our ability to put forward democratic ideals, the views that we have about the world and the honesty and impartiality with which the BBC expresses those views.

For once the Government should support this public service of proven quality which has support throughout the world. Let the Government say that they are sorry and that they are wrong. Let them say that they can find the money elsewhere. Let them say that by accepting the motion they mean that they will not attack the BBC's external services, this year or next year. Let them say that they will help the services expand because they are proud of the job that they do for Britain.

9.46 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)

I need little time to repeat that there must be a total control of Government spending. My right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer could not have put it better than when he said last night: With every day that passes one realises more clearly the appalling constraints imposed upon the British economy by a combination of low growth and inbuilt public expenditure. If we are to hold public spending—not cut it—all spending programmes must be examined. Nearly every programme has suffered a cut. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Grinstead (Mr. Johnson Smith) said, we must cut our coat to suit the cloth. There must be a ceiling for the BBC's external services.

It is utter hypocrisy for the right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore) to pretend that he did not know that the possibility of cuts in the BBC's vernacular services was mentioned in his Government's White Paper. He glossed over that. Baroness Llewelyn-Davies said that cuts of £1.2 million would be made in the vernacular services. It is easy to change one's mind when one becomes a member of the Opposition. If that is the standard of opposition that we can expect from the right hon. Gentleman, some strange spending plans will be suggested.

Mr. Shore

The Minister is trying to escape a basic difficulty by having a bogus row with me. I am not in the least embarrassed about our White Paper. We said that there were possibilities of saving and that we would examine them and report. They were examined, but the report was not made to us. That does not worry me in the least. The Minister should return to the main argument and explain why he is cutting £2.7 million from the BBC's expenditure and why he is pretending that he is doing nothing of the kind by accepting the motion.

Mr. Ridley

The election came just in time for the right hon. Gentleman to use that lame excuse.

Mr. Farr

My hon. Friends and I have asked several specific questions. I hope that the Minister will deal with them rather than paint a general picture.

Mr. Ridley

I wish to answer my hon. Friends. I have lost a little time because of the intervention by the right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar.

I was asked about future years. The figures which I shall give apply to 1980–81 only. They are fixed for that year. No part of the Government's spending plans is fixed for any later year or made public. It is not the Government's intention to give figures for later years. They have not been agreed and it would be wrong to break the rule of giving figures for only one year ahead. To attempt to give figures that have not yet been set is obviously impossible.

Mr. McCrindle

My hon. Friend the Minister of State indicated earlier that as recently as yesterday evening discussions took place between the BBC and the two Ministers on the Front Bench. Can we take it from what my hon. Friend is now saying that the only understanding reached was that there should be a £2.7 million cutback in the year to which we are referring, and that neither side had the impression that there would be future cutbacks? Is it fair to say that the BBC does not yet know what its position will be in the year following the one that we are discussing?

Mr. Ridley

It would be fair to say that the BBC does not know. The discussions that took place with the BBC were subject, as always, to the agreement of my right hon. Friends. They were in no sense negotiations. The Government have made up their minds, as they must, about the finance to be made available.

I shall give accurate figures to the House so that it will realise the extent to which the services are being increased. Expenditure in the current year, at 1979 prices, is £33,943,000 rising next year to £34,640,000. Capital expenditure this year is £3,462,000 rising next year to £10,259,000. With the addition of the monitoring service, expenditure totals £40,320,000 in the current year and rises to £47,883,000 in 1980–81. It is from that rise of £7½ million that the £2.7 million cut has been made. That produces what is probably the largest rise in real terms that the BBC has ever received—a rise of £4.9 million or 12 per cent.

Against the background of what has happened to programmes more socially and politically sensitive, nobody can call that a cut, and nobody can say that that is not treatment that allows the BBC to expand and continue the service that on both sides of the House has been said to be a good service.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State came before the House on 2 November with proposals to cut the vernaculars to some Western European and Mediterranean countries. The right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar believes in that service and says that it is a contribution to defence, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley). The right hon. Gentleman said that the spoken word is mightier than the sword. He cited the battles of Algeria and Persia, and he almost mentioned the walls of Jericho. What wars does he wish to fight in France, Italy, Greece and Spain? What virtue does he see in carrying his defensive efforts into those European countries?

The right hon. Gentleman said that he rejected the cutting of the vernacular services because the countries concerned were either members of the Common Market or were about to be. What does he think the BBC should broadcast to them to promote our interests as a member of the Common Market? Does he wish the BBC to tell the French how they should view us? If that is his wish, why should not the French tell us how we should behave? The case on defence grounds for the services was not well made out.

In response to the pressures of my hon. Friends, to the views of the House and to the views of the BBC, the Government accepted that the House did not wish cuts to be made in the vernacular services. Therefore, the Government turned within the cash limit to the capital programme. There was no alternative. Hon. Members must decide which it is they wish to make economies in within the total that is available.

Mr. Dalyell


Mr. Ridley

I have little time left. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall not give way.

My hon. Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Baker) seems to prefer cuts in the capital services. He said: It is not like postponing the capital building of a project in Britain which can be resumed a year or so later. Once these wavelengths are gone they are gone for good."—[Official Report, 2 November 1979; Vol. 972, c. 1724.] My hon. Friend was in favour of postponing some of the capital spending.

There has been talk about postponing expenditure of £2.7 million, but capital expenditure next year will be £5.1 million. No one will be worse off. No area will suffer. The hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) will be pleased to know that the World Service will still be as audible in Britain as ever before. The decision to spend £5.1 million on capital account does not mean that there will be any deterioration. In many areas audibility will improve as the benefits of the expenditures come through.

Mr. Dalyell

In which specific areas will there be an improvement? Will the hon. Gentleman name one area where there will be an improvement?

Mr. Ridley

I am not responsible for the engineering of the BBC's external services. I am not responsible for saying which transmitter will be—

Mr. Dalyell

Answer the question.

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the Government do not decide on the exact nature of each engineering project and whether it will be entered into first, second or third.

Mr. Dalyell


Mr. Ridley

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that it is a matter for the BBC to decide.

The hon. Member for Farnworth (Mr. Roper) quoted some figures that appeared to be slightly awry. The hon. Gentleman suggested that £20 million was spent on a new transmitter for the service to Bulgaria. No transmitter costs more than £0.7 million.

There is doubt in the House about the priorities on which the BBC should concentrate in providing its external services. On one day it is said that the vernacular services should not be cut. The next day it is said that we should not postpone the capital programme.

In an excellent speech, if I may say so, my hon. Friend the Member for East Grinstead suggested that we should consider sponsorship. It is an idea that I believe the House should be prepared to examine and consider. There is room for much more clear thinking about what we are trying to do. Should we continue the vernacular services to Europe? Should we do more of this, that or the other?

Until the House is more at ease about what should be done with the limited amount of money available, I believe it is right that we should concentrate on the first year. However, for the reasons that I have given, the Government are greatly increasing the money that is made available to the BBC's external services. That is why we are prepared to accept the motion. We are sure that at a time of great financial stringency it is a generous amount for the BBC to receive for the year ahead.

Mr. Dalyell

Before the Minister concludes his reply, I repeat the question that I tried to put during his speech. The hon. Gentleman said in the hearing of us all that there are certain areas where the transmission will be improved. I asked him as courteously as I could in which areas there will be improvement. Will he name one area in which there will be an improvement? It is no good saying that engineers will think something up. I repeat my question. Will the hon. Gentleman name one area in which transmission will be improved? Part of the trouble is that Ministers get away with far too much. The hon. Gentleman's statement is factually without any basis. It is clearly untrue—everybody heard the Minister's statement—and the hon. Gentleman has no information about any area in which transmission will be improved. I can say why. No areas will be improved. No transmission will be improved.

We are concerned about the maintenance rather than the improvement of services. We have been given a lot of Foreign Office bunk. It is a disgrace to the House of Commons—

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.