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16 Dec 2008 : Column 20WH—continued

10.47 am

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Bill Rammell): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble. Let me start by congratulating the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) on securing the debate. He spoke with passion and conviction, but, as will be clear when I comment on some of his points, I do not share all of his views. Nevertheless, his conviction, interest and detailed knowledge of this subject are clear.

Like every hon. Member present, I share the view that the World Service is an enormous cultural, political and diplomatic asset to this country, and is of immense value. It is important to clarify how the service operates vis- -vis Government. It is rightly editorially, operationally and managerially independent, and I caution against the argument that the Government should have a more hands-on role in managing it, as that would not be in any of our interests. Nevertheless, there is a relationship, and strategic plans are agreed between the World Service and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We discuss where and how the service operates, and then rightly leave it to get on with putting its strategic plans into action.

The service has recently come up with a renewed strategy based on four key decisions, the first of which is that it will increase its Arabic television output from 12 to 24 hours a day. Secondly, it is to launch a Persian TV service, and, thirdly, it is to close its Romanian service. Fourthly, it has decided to restructure its Spanish and Russian language services, including with new investment. I shall address each of those important proposals in turn and explain why the Foreign Office supports them.

First, Arabic television and the move to 24-hour broadcasting is strongly supported not only by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and by the relevant House of Lords Committee. Outside English, Arabic has historically been one of the BBC World Service’s highest-priority language services, and it remains so. The middle east and the Arabic-speaking world remains at the forefront of our diplomatic objectives and priorities, and it will do so for a long time. Therefore, the change to 24-hour broadcasting was important and, in order to achieve it, the World Service secured from the Treasury additional funding for the move—a decision that we very much welcomed.

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Secondly, Iran and Afghanistan are two further top priorities for the Foreign Office. Our analysis has shown significant demand in those two countries for a television service focusing on news, information and broader programming. Again, additional funding was forthcoming during the comprehensive spending review—a decision that we very much welcomed.

I shall now discuss the restructuring of the Russian language service, an area in which I take issue with some of the things that the hon. Gentleman said. Russia rightly remains the World Service’s second-largest language service in terms of budget and hours broadcast, and it is an important market for the World Service. Similarly, and rightly, Russia is for political, economic, social and cultural reasons a key priority for the Foreign Office, and I want to make it clear up front that neither the World Service nor the Foreign Office has ever had any intention of reducing the impact of the World Service’s Russian language service. In fact, the opposite is true. The intention has always been to increase the impact of the language service in Russia by ensuring that the service is relevant to its audiences and reaches them by the most effective means possible. The World Service rightly evaluated the Russian language service’s performance and, bluntly, thought that it could do better. We agreed with that assessment. Radio broadcasts were not meeting their full potential, and not enough was being made of the increasing online market. For example, during the recent Georgia crisis, online use increased from 1.3 million unique users to 3 million, and that included the accessing of a high number of video streams. It demonstrated that there is already an online market in Russia, and I believe that it will expand over time. So, the World Service rose to the challenge in the right way, and several changes have been made.

Mr. Hands: The Minister paints a very rosy picture and talks about new investment in the Russian service, but will he explain why the Russian service’s listenership has totally collapsed? According to the information that Nigel Chapman gave to me in July, I can report that it is down to 600,000. By way of comparison, in Nigeria, a country with a similar population size, there are about 25 million listeners. Will the Minister offer an explanation as to why listenership has totally collapsed in Russia?

Bill Rammell: I am not sure that those figures are wholly accurate, so I shall correspond with the hon. Gentleman afterwards. However, there are a number of factors, and the position of the Russian authorities vis- -vis the World Service will influence World Service listenership in Russia.

The key changes were an extension of high-quality news and current affairs at key times of the day; increased cultural output in extended editions of the World Service's peak-time flagship programmes; an increase in the current affairs reporting of British cultural and social affairs; and, crucially, greater investment in the BBC’s Russian service. All those measures represent moves in the right direction.

Moving on from that, I should like to respond to a number of points that were made during the debate. I began by saying that I respect the hon. Gentleman’s motivation, although I am concerned that several of his points imply far greater hands-on political control of the BBC World Service by the Government. I think that
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that would be wrong and, frankly, I believe that it would be deeply unhealthy for politicians to decide directly the editorial content of programmes throughout the world.

Dr. Julian Lewis: My hon. Friend never suggested that.

Bill Rammell: Let me—

Mr. Hands: Will the Minister give way?

Bill Rammell: Let me make some other comments.

Some of the other comments from the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham cause me concern. He mentioned the BBC Persian service and quoted a letter from—I believe—a constituent, who said that the service sounded like Iranian state radio. I must say that anyone who has seen BBC journalists in many different parts of the world will attest to their integrity, independence and robust challenging of authority.

Mr. Hands: Will the Minister give way?

Bill Rammell: I shall briefly give way on that point.

Mr. Hands: Let me begin by clearing up the first point. I did not in any way suggest that the Government intervene in editorial comment; it was more that they might intervene to secure the ability to broadcast, to help with infrastructure and to extend the BBC Russian service.

On the second point, the e-mail that I received was a way of illustrating the problems that one will have with the television service as opposed to the radio service if one is not able to gain access to the country. I was not in any way suggesting that the e-mail represented the sole view about the BBC Russian service[Official Report, 12 January 2009, Vol. 486, c. 2MC.].

Bill Rammell: We certainly take a keen interest in securing access for the BBC World Service, but I cannot quite see the purpose of a Member quoting in this Chamber a constituent who says that the BBC World Service is akin to Iranian state television, unless it is to suggest that there is a degree of truth in it. It is a view that I wholly reject.

The hon. Gentleman also said—I am paraphrasing—that, effectively, the BBC is holding its fire for fear of offending the Russian authorities, but I find no evidence for that statement whatever. It is not borne out by the evidence. He asked me several other detailed questions, including whether the advertising process for the director of the World Service will be open, and open to external candidates. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that, on both points, they will. He also suggested that there ought to a memorial to those who have served the World Service. I have not dealt with that issue, and it is not my direct responsibility in the Foreign Office, but I shall talk to colleagues, because it is an interesting suggestion and, if it finds support, we will put it forward to the BBC.

May I also clear up the financial issue? Part of the claim put forward was that the changes to the 24-hour Arabic service and the launch of Persian television were leading to reductions in the Russian service. That is most emphatically not true. Additional funds were brought forward through the CSR for those two initiatives, and the Russian service will remain the second-largest service in terms of broadcast news and budget spent.

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The hon. Gentleman also talked about the Persian service staff’s ease of access to Iran, and there have been problems in that regard. The Persian television service will face difficulties collating internal Iranian footage. Therefore it will use, first, Reuters and AFP pooled footage, secondly, footage from the mainstream BBC, such as from its “News at Ten” programme, and thirdly, video blogs from journalists and viewers. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) also put forward an interesting proposal, which I shall refer to the BBC.

I would describe the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis)—I do not believe that he will take offence at this—as an ideologue.

Dr. Lewis: indicated assent.

Bill Rammell: The hon. Gentleman nods. He put forward the view that the BBC’s purpose is objectivity, with a mission to promote British values, and I must say that one British value that I subscribe to is a free and independent media, whereby the state broadcasting corporation is able to challenge, to scrutinise and to say uncomfortable things that do not necessarily suit the views of the Government of the day or the prevailing ethos. Therefore, I would not be comfortable going down the road that he suggested.

Dr. Lewis: I am sorry but I was talking about western, liberal and democratic values, and I really wish that the Minister would stop setting up Aunt Sallies and misrepresenting the Opposition’s genuine concerns.

Bill Rammell: I do not believe that the purpose suggested by the hon. Gentleman is the purpose of the BBC. Its purpose is to put forward a variety of views, and the most effective way of challenging those views with which we fundamentally disagree is to scrutinise and oppose them through a free and independent media.

Finally, I respect the conviction of my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) in representing his constituents, and the BBC is working, and will work, with staff to achieve its objectives. As a part of that process, their interests very much need to be taken into account.

We have had an interesting debate, and several Members have referred to the fact that such debates about the role of the World Service and how it operates ought to take place regularly. That is a view with which I very much concur.

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Christians in Iraq

11 am

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): It is a great privilege to open what I believe will be a very important debate. I have tried to secure it in the ballot for some months, and I am delighted to have done so.

Why is this subject so important? It is important because we are talking about a massive humanitarian disaster and the fate of the Christian population in Iraq. It is one of the oldest Christian populations in the world, having been settled there for 2,000 years, and is descended in great measure from the ancient Assyrians, who had been there for thousands of years. It is an historic, settled population. Just five years ago there were 1.2 million Christians in Iraq, and now there are only 600,000 left. There has been a massive flight of Christians from Iraq and it is reckoned that although the Christian population is as low as 4 per cent., perhaps as many as 30 per cent. of the Iraqi refugees in Syria are Christians.

The terrible humanitarian disaster is continuing even as we speak. Even since September 2008, at least 14 Christians have been killed in Mosul and at least 2,000 Christian families have fled the city since 2003. It is not just about people leaving the country—at least 700 Christians have been murdered. The situation is very serious indeed.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this long-awaited and long-delayed debate. Does he agree that the half of Christians who have left Iraq have done so because of persecution, the abuse of human rights and so on? Yet when they apply for asylum in countries such as our own, they are far too often classified as economic migrants. They would love to go back to the jobs that they had and the businesses that they ran. Does he agree that something needs to happen in the upper echelons of our own Government so that people are classified correctly when they apply for asylum in this country from the awful conditions that they have had to endure in Iraq?

Mr. Leigh: Of course I agree with that. I was about to say that I have some personal experience of visiting Iraq and talking to such people. They are often targeted because they are perceived as having wealth, although they are not particularly wealthy. They want to go on living in Iraq, because they have businesses there and want to get on with their lives. They are not economic migrants, because they do not want to leave Iraq. From talking to them, I have no doubt that they are genuine refugees.

I visited Iraq in September as a guest of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, which is the main party representing Christians in Iraq with about 80 per cent. of their vote. I had an opportunity to visit northern Iraq; I think that I was probably one of the first British MPs to go around the villages of the Nineveh plain, just north of Mosul, and up into northern Kurdistan to visit villages close to the Turkish border. I had many packed meetings in villages in the Nineveh plains and in the mountains south of the border. I think that I am one of the few British MPs to have penetrated into that part of Iraq, so I have a story to tell.

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Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Leigh: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, as long as he guarantees to stay until the end of the debate. Does he guarantee that?

Bob Spink: Well, I do not normally—

Mr. Leigh: No, then I will not give way. The hon. Gentleman has a bit of a reputation for coming in, making interventions, getting his name on the record and leaving.

Bob Spink: I will stay to the end of the debate.

Mr. Leigh: Good. I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Bob Spink: I do not normally give such guarantees, and conditions are not normally placed on Members when they intervene.

The hon. Gentleman said that he was perhaps the first British MP to go to those areas. I went to Iraq just after the war and was there as it was being declared. I met members of the Christian community and their political and church leaders, so I, too, have had discussions with people in Iraq. I have seen what the Kurdistan Regional Government have been doing to discriminate positively in favour of the Christian communities and to try to help them. We all know that more can be done, but let us at least acknowledge that the British Government have a duty to try to make the situation better out there and to support the KRG in their positive efforts to help people.

Mr. Leigh: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. That is the purpose of the debate—we are sitting here in the presence of a British Minister, and there is no doubt that we have a responsibility in the matter. I shall not go over all the arguments about whether it was right to invade Iraq. Everybody knows my views, and we shall now look to the future. The British and American Governments have a responsibility, because there is no doubt that the position of Christians in Iraq has got immeasurably worse since the invasion in 2003.

I add straight away that I am no apologist for Saddam Hussein. I have talked to many Christians who were persecuted by him or conscripted into the terrible war with Iran. I went to their villages, and as the hon. Gentleman said that he has visited northern Kurdistan, he may well have visited them himself. I saw villages that had been bombed, and I say to him that I am not pro-Kurd or anti-Kurd. The Kurds suffered terribly under Saddam and fought side by side with the Christians. They were displaced and fled into Turkey. However, I have also talked to many Christians who are still suffering in Kurdistan, and I shall turn to that point later.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): My hon. Friend knows well that I supported the invasion of Iraq, which was done in order to bring about democracy. Does he not agree that democracy carries with it an absolute requirement of the protection of minority rights? It ought to carry with it the protection of the Christians, but it has been greatly abused. That seriously undermines
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a case that was made about the war. The authorities have an obligation to do more than just provide $900,000 to help Christian families.

Mr. Leigh: That is right, and we bear a responsibility. The Christians are a very small part of the total population of Iraq, and there is absolutely no danger to the Sunni, Kurd or Shi’a populations of Iraq. The Christians have a large stake in the political process, but at the moment the Assyrian Democratic Movement, which gets 80 per cent. of their vote, has only one MP to represent them because of a bit of fiddling around with the voting system. That is a worrying denial of democracy, and we have a responsibility.

Funnily enough, Christians in Iraq are persecuted because they are quite wrongly considered the agents of the west. They are simply ordinary business people who want to get on with their own way of life in a settled, secure environment. They are a very small part of the population and no threat to anybody. It was emotional and moving to go into the ancient villages in the Nineveh plains and visit ancient monasteries that have been there for the best part of 2,000 years. I saw the tomb of the Old Testament prophet Nahum and read what he wrote thousands of years ago:

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