§ Mr. Dorrell
asked the Lord Privy Seal what plans the Government have to improve the audibility of the BBC external services.
§ Mr. Ridley
The BBC's external services are a valuable national asset but they are often not easy to hear.
The Government are now determined that a major effort should be made to improve audibility. In consultation with the BBC they have drawn up a long-term programme. Some progress has already been made, notably two medium wave transmitters now in Cyprus and four short wave ones due next year. A medium wave transmitter will also come on stream then at Orfordness.
The new programme envisages existing relay stations being fed by satellite by 1985, eight modern short wave transmitters operational in the United Kingdom by 1985, and six more by 1987 and new relay stations being established to cover East Africa and the Far East. There will also be substantial plant replacement and a thorough modernisation of Bush House.
Putting this capital programme into effect at the optimum speed would require an increase in the present PESC provision for expenditure by the external services from 1983–84 onwards. The Government would be prepared to make a substantial increase in the grant-in-aid to help meet this. However, in these days of financial 137W stringency we must look for a proportion of the extra costs to be met from the external services' current operations. The reductions in planned expenditure decided in 1979 were met entirely from the capital provision in both 1980–81 and 1981–82. The Government have accordingly requested the BBC to make net savings in current services of about £3 million per annum—in forecast cash prices—from 1982–83 onwards.
The savings will involve a reduction of 58 hours per week out of a total of 726 hours of broadcasts in all languages, or about 8 per cent. The 24 hours a day of the BBC's World Service in English will not be cut and will be heard more clearly, as will the remaining vernacular services.
Under the BBC's licence and agreement which this House has recently reviewed, the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary is empowered to prescribe the languages and hours of external services programmes. He does so after taking into account the national interests and available funds. Funds are very limited and the External Services have already been exempted from the cuts on most Government spending plans announced last November.
In the difficult task of deciding which services to end we have looked first to the transcription services which are a net charge of nearly £1 million on the grant-in-aid. We recognise the value of providing to overseas broadcasting stations recordings in such fields as music, drama and entertainment, but we do not consider them essential. We have looked next to broadcasts to friendly neighbouring countries where Britain's voice is already well heard, namely French to France, and Spanish to Spain, Italian and Maltese. It was particularly hard to choose services to the Third world. We have chosen from each continent a service directed to one country or confined area only, namely Portuguese to Brazil, Burmese and Somali. In no case does the ending of the vernacular service imply any diminution of the excellent relations we enjoy with the country concerned. In all cases not only will the World Service in English continue—it will be heard more clearly as a result of the steps we plan to take to improve audibility.
The Government believe that the first priority must be to ensure that the BBC can be heard. If audibility is to be improved there must be a switch in resources from current to capital expenditure. In being asked to re-order its priorities, the BBC is being treated no differently from other publicly funded bodies which are currently facing the decisions required to manage within limited funds.
Assuming the required savings of some £3 million per annum are achieved by 1982–83 the Government would be prepared to contribute a substantially larger amount from 1983–84 onwards to meet the balance needed to implement the capital programme as planned.