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House of Lords

Monday, 19th October 1998.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Blackburn.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

The Right Honourable Norman Stewart Hughson Lamont, having been created Baron Lamont of Lerwick, of Lerwick in the Shetland Islands, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord St. John of Fawsley and the Lord Lawson of Blaby.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

Mrs. Margaret Lucy Sharp, having been created Baroness Sharp of Guildford, of Guildford in the County of Surrey, for life--Was, in her robes, introduced between the Baroness Thomas of Walliswood and the Lord Goodhart.

BBC World Service

2.47 p.m.

Lord Judd asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What discussions they have had in the past two months with the BBC on the future of its Overseas Service.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, the BBC World Service makes an invaluable contribution to promoting respect and goodwill for Britain. We want it to continue to flourish and to build on its outstanding reputation for objective news and comment. We have been in regular discussion with the World Service over recent months, in particular on implementation of the results of the comprehensive spending review announced in July under which the World Service will receive an extra £44 million over the course of the next three years.

Lord Judd: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Would she not agree that there has inevitably been some anxiety about the circumstances surrounding the departure of a former managing director, Sam Younger? Can my noble friend assure the House that in her discussions with the BBC she is emphasising that, in so far as Foreign Office money is supporting the Overseas Service, the overriding priority is to maintain the objectivity to which she referred so that it can truly be a reliable source of reference for the world and that gravitas and dependability are other essential qualities in all that the BBC does?

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Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the Government are committed to the success of the World Service. We are committed to the maintenance of the high quality of its output and to its continuing pre-eminence among international broadcasters. My noble friend referred to the departure of Mr. Younger. The BBC's Board of Governors recently appointed Mr. Mark Byford as the new World Service chief executive. He appointed Mr. Younger. We look forward to working with him. I have already had a brief meeting with Mr. Byford. I look forward to further fruitful meetings with him in the next few weeks and months.

Baroness Ludford: My Lords, what assessment have the Government made of the impact and value of the BBC World Service in areas of conflict, given the way in which the World Service adapts its language services according to international developments? I refer, for instance, to its increase in Serbian and Albanian broadcasting hours and to the deal whereby the World Service will be broadcast on FM in Jakarta. Does the Minister agree that the value and flexibility of those language services are extremely important?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: Yes, my Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness. She focuses particularly on the Balkans. I understand her reasons for doing so. It is a strategically important area for both the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the World Service. The Macedonian service opened in 1996, joining the existing Albanian, Croat and Serbian services--the noble Baroness referred to the latter--and now operates for an extra 15 minutes a day. We understand that the World Service is also contemplating opening a Bosnian service. We welcome that.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, given that the World Service's internet service in Mandarin and Cantonese is now being blocked by the Chinese authorities, how do the Government plan to help the World Service to use the on-line effectively?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, we are aware that students and young professionals in China are particularly keen to use internet services. The World Service's Mandarin and Cantonese internet language services are very important and we shall continue to do what we can to ensure that they reach those for whom they are destined. It is important to realise that the BBC's internet pages are extensively used, with over 20 million hits a month. We shall be doing all we can, both bilaterally in discussions and with the World Service, to ensure that that figure continues to rise as fast as at present.

The Earl of Lauderdale: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how the BBC's Bosnian service will differ from any other service broadcast to Yugoslavia?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the point I was endeavouring to make is that the BBC World Service looks to its resources and tries to match those to the needs that it must meet in terms of its language services. The BBC is currently considering providing a

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service in Bosnian, which does not exist at the moment. We hope to help the situation in the Balkans by being able to broadcast in the languages needed.

The Earl of Lauderdale: My Lords, "Bosnian" is not a distinct or separate language.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, will the Minister remind the BBC that in English language broadcasts on the Overseas Service it is even more important than on our domestic broadcasts that the announcers speak in accents as clear as those of the noble Baroness and that the BBC should guard against either incomprehensible dialects from the outer edges of the United Kingdom or the sloppy estuary English used by some of us nearer to home?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, in all broadcasting, as in your Lordships' House, it is the clarity of communication that matters. However, that is not to say that accents different from mine are not clearly understood in many different parts of the world whether they are regional accents from this country or the accents of people from other parts of the world who speak English.

Lord Newby: My Lords, if I may address this House in a Yorkshire accent, may I ask whether the Minister agrees that one of the great strengths of the World Service is that by embracing the new technologies, and particularly the internet, it is able to reach a number of countries, including, I believe, Malaysia, where it was impossible for the BBC to have wide radio broadcast facilities, and that by using those new technologies to good effect, the range of people with access to the World Service can be extended?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord about the use of the new technologies. However, we should not overlook the fact that the "older technologies", if I may put it that way, also widen the range of the BBC World Service. We can all take satisfaction from the figures and from the fact that the World Service audience is almost twice the size of that of its nearest competitor, "Voice of America", and is well ahead of "Deutsche Welt" and "Radio France International". In that respect, the World Service is a market leader. Another important factor is that not only does it broadcast in 44 languages at the moment but also its English output is re-broadcast by 1,000 local radio stations around the world. That is a significant contribution.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford: My Lords, following the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, and in relation to the people of Scotland, does my noble friend accept that one of the English expressions that the Scots clearly understood came from the noble Lord when he was Secretary of State for Employment and said, "Get on yer bike", and that that is why there are no Tory MPs left in Scotland?

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Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, is braver than I to take on my noble friend in that regard.

NATO: "Open-Door" Policy

2.56 p.m.

The Earl of Carlisle asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will define the phrase "Open Door" policy in relation to the nations of Central Europe which have applied to join NATO.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the phrase "Open Door" policy is shorthand for NATO's enlargement policy. As the Prime Minister said in another place on 9th July 1997 following the NATO summit in Madrid,

    "NATO leaders agreed that they expected in the years ahead to extend further invitations to nations willing to take on the responsibilities of membership, whose inclusion would serve the interests of the Alliance and enhance overall European security".--[Official Report, Commons, 9/7/97; col. 938.]
That remains our policy and applies to applicants from central Europe.

The Earl of Carlisle: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that positive Answer which will give great encouragement to the nations of central Europe, not least, the Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Will the noble Baroness assure the House that Her Majesty's Government will give urgent consideration to the views of Mr. Brzezinski, who in a recent article suggested that at the Washington summit in April 1999 one nation from the north of central Europe and one from the south of central Europe--Lithuania and Slovenia, respectively, which are the nations that have most readily matched the criteria for entry--should be admitted as soon as possible?

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