By Jonathan Isaby
"The House will agree that the BBC World Service performs an invaluable role, reflecting British democratic values overseas and supporting British influence in the world, and that the services it provides are a beacon to many in some of the poorest and most insecure countries in the world. We announced in October that from 2014 responsibility for the BBC World Service will be transferred to the BBC itself and funded from the licence fee, a move that has been welcomed by the World Service and the BBC Trust as providing new opportunities for the World Service to develop in the future. In the meantime, the World Service, like any other taxpayer-funded body, must ensure that it is working on the right priorities and as efficiently as possible. I announced in October that its expenditure limits would be reduced by 16% in real terms over the next three years.
"As I set out in a written statement earlier today, we are providing £13 million per annum to help with the deficit in BBC pension funds and £10 million per annum for new services in markets that we and the World Service have identified as priorities. Those include TV programming in Urdu, in sub-Saharan Africa and in Hindi to be provided to local partners. We have also guaranteed the capital for the move of the World Service to its new offices in W1. That is proper provision for the future of the World Service and will make up for inherited deficits.
"The other services provided by the World Service cannot stand still, and those that have become less well used because of the rise of local broadcasters or falling shortwave audiences sometimes have to close. It is the World Service's responsibility to be as efficient as possible while maintaining as many services as possible, something the previous Government recognised when in 2006 they closed 10 separate language services of the World Service. The World Service initially suggested to the Foreign Office the closure of up to 13 language services, but I refused to give permission for that. I have agreed to the closure of five language services, accounting for 3.5 million listeners out of the total audience of 180 million. Withdrawal from shortwave and other services will have a bigger effect, but they will rightly allow for concentration on online and mobile services for the future.
"The BBC World Service has a viable and promising future, but it is not immune from public spending constraints or the reassessment of its priorities. While any closures might be regretted, they would not be necessary at all were it not for the inherited BBC pension deficit and the vast public deficit inherited from the previous Government."
"There is very deep concern in the House about this decision, and I hope that the Foreign Secretary will reconsider it with Cabinet colleagues. In particular, I hope that he will take a look at the overseas aid budget, which is increasing by 37% in real terms at a time when he intends to implement 16% cuts to the World Service. I hope that he will hear the message from the House that if there is a choice between the two, we want to put the World Service first."
The Foreign Secretary replied:
"I stress to my hon. Friend that a good deal of the World Service's budget already counts as ODA-able expenditure, so he should not think that turning to DFID for the money is an easy answer. I reiterate my view that all parts of the public sector must join in in becoming more efficient, and the BBC World Service will be part of the public sector for the next three years."
Incidentally, I imagine many readers will share my sadness that one of the victims of these cuts will be the excellent weekly programme, Politics UK, which has always given the world an insightful take on British politics.