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House of Lords

Wednesday, 24th July 1996.

The House met at half-past two of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Coventry.): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

The Duke of Manchester

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern): My Lords, I have to acquaint the House that the Clerk of the Parliaments has received notification from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office informing him that the Duke of Manchester has been convicted at the United States District Court, Middle District of Florida, of one count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud and wire fraud and three counts of wire fraud and was sentenced, on 6th June 1996, to 33 months' imprisonment on each count, to run concurrently, followed by three years supervised release.

BBC World Service: Restructuring

Lord Orr-Ewing asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether the BBC's World Service is in jeopardy as a result of the BBC Director General's current restructuring proposals.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey): My Lords, no. Sir Christopher Bland, Chairman of the BBC, repeated the assurances on quality and financial arrangements given to us earlier when he met my right honourable friend Malcolm Rifkind this morning. It has been agreed that a joint Foreign and Commonwealth Office/World Service working group, with access to independent advice, will be set up to address the concerns expressed in many quarters. The group will report its conclusions to the Foreign Secretary and the Chairman of the BBC, who will meet again in October.

Lord Orr-Ewing: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that information, but is she prepared to delay any action that may affect the extent and integrity of the news service provided by the BBC World Service from Bush House until the governors and management have had sufficient time to reconsider the implications? Perhaps both Houses of Parliament can debate what emerges when they reassemble in October. Can my noble friend find the time for perhaps a one-and-a-half hour debate in each House?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, my noble friend is aware that I am extremely sympathetic to what he has said. However, it is not for me to decide what debates are held in this House. The decision taken this morning by my right honourable friend to set up a working group comprising experts from the field of

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journalism and public life, which will report to the Foreign Secretary and Chairman of the BBC, who in turn will meet in October, is an indication that there will be no sudden changes and that the governors and the management will have a chance to consider what the working group has put to the Foreign Secretary and the Chairman of the BBC.

Lord Annan: My Lords, will the Minister ask the working group to reconsider the fact that, whereas now the head of the World Service is a member of the board of management, which is the supreme body of management in the BBC under the Director General, under the present plans he will no longer be a member of the board of management? That causes concern to some noble Lords who have knowledge of the bureaucratic workings of the BBC.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I under- stand very well what the noble Lord, Lord Annan, has said. As a former member of the BBC General Advisory Council, he will not be surprised to know that I have a good deal of sympathy with the view he has just expressed. If I may, I shall refer the matter to the Foreign Secretary, because the discussion that is to take place, and the fact that we are going to involve independent experts from journalism and public life, should ensure that the real value of the World Service--which I am privileged to experience as well as anyone--will be understood a good deal better by October than it seems to have been up to now.

Lord Clark of Kempston: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, in view of the popularity of the BBC World Service not only among foreigners but expatriates and British nationals who travel abroad, it would be sheer folly to interrupt the service? It has a worldwide reputation and consequently any alteration of the service, whether by bureaucracy or whatever, would be detrimental.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I well understand my noble friend's great affection for the BBC World Service. It is the service that I tune into most mornings, like many of your Lordships. But it is right that an organisation like the BBC should look at its management, and that includes the World Service. I am not against having management reviews. I could not be against it having carried out some myself. But I should like my noble friend and all noble Lords to understand that the BBC World Service now broadcasts in 43 foreign languages--many more than 17 years ago, and more than any other major international broadcaster. There is a constant process of commencing new language services. Sometimes it means that alterations are made as priorities change. Since 1990 there have been six new services. The Macedonian Service was launched in January of this year. Our language services are re-broadcast by over 900 local stations around the world. This is not in any sense the end of the World Service, but we must use all of the resources that we have to provide the best possible service that we can across the world, and even for those who may listen to it here.

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Lord Wright of Richmond: My Lords, as a former accounting officer of the Diplomatic Service, does the Minister share my hope that the outcome of the working party's deliberations will ensure that the quality, viability, audibility and spread of the BBC World Service are maintained and improved, and that the working relationship between the Foreign Office and the World Service--which I always found extremely satisfactory--is in no way impaired by these management changes?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond. It is of interest that the World Service has benefited from investment, even when the noble Lord was our Permanent Secretary. There has been an investment of £166 million which has greatly improved the audibility and efficiency of the World Service. We did not stop at that investment programme. A new £29 million relay station is nearing completion in Thailand, and there is to be another station in Oman funded through PFI which is worth about £30 million. The annual support to the BBC World Service runs at about £169 million. These are big sums of money. We must get value for money, but we must have a good World Service.

Viscount Caldecote: My Lords, can my noble friend give an assurance that no irrevocable change in the organisation of the World Service will be carried out before the working group has reported?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, that has been the intention of my right honourable friend in calling for the setting up of the working group with independent advice. I am quite certain that that is the intended outcome.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I accept what the Minister has said about the need for management reviews from time to time. Indeed, I was once involved in a management review of the BBC World Service. It was a review which recommended an increase in spending to improve audibility. Does the Minister agree that management reviews require proper consultation after they have taken place? While I welcome the decision to set up a working group, will that working group examine the question of how the Government will ensure that, under the proposals made by the Director General and Chairman of the BBC, grant-in-aid funding will be spent efficiently and transparently on the World Service without subsidising domestic news and current affairs? I believe that that is a very important question.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, indeed, it is an important question. Although I was not present at the meeting this morning, I am certain that it is one that my right honourable friend asked of the Chairman of the BBC. We have received assurances about quality because of the very special nature of the World Service, and that it will be unaffected by the new arrangements. There is to be a clear separation between grant-in-aid funded and other activities, and that will be maintained.

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We want to be totally satisfied that in practice that is what happens and will continue to happen. I think I can give the noble Baroness the assurance she seeks.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, does my noble friend share the regret that I and some of my colleagues feel that that task should have been done by the Governors of the BBC and that the Secretary of State should not have had to appoint a special committee to replace a body whose responsibility it is to deal with these matters?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, there are many lessons to be learned from all of this with the benefit of hindsight, which sadly none of us has. We have now to ensure that the World Service will get on with doing its marvellous job, and that it is enabled to do so by the right sort of management on the part of those who are employed and those who act as governors.

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