Foreign Office to review World Service cuts

The Foreign Office hsa said it will review its decision to slash funding for the BBC World Service after coming under heavy pressure from MPs in the Commons.

Foreign Office Minister David Lidington stopped short of saying ministers would reverse their decision following the review, telling MPs he wanted to help the BBC find other ways of funding the service.

The World Service had initially been set a target of raising £3m of commercial income while the International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell was looking at a “new relationship” with its trust.

Lidington also criticised the pay of senior executives at the service, adding it was now looking at sharing some of its resources with other departments at the BBC.

He told the Commons that some cuts – such as the Hindi shortwave service – was a BBC decision which could not be vetoed by the Government.

Cutting funding to Arab services was “surprising” even before the events in the Middle East and North Africa, he added.

Lidington said: “Even after the cuts the World Service will still receive funding by the British taxpayer of GBP733 million over the next three years. The settlement we came to with the World Service is challenging.

“Yes, we take seriously the points that were made by the select committee and the House today and will reflect further upon those arguments.

“And we will work with the World Service to find ways in which they can continue to fulfil their mission as an independent broadcasting voice, which at the same time is a key element in the promotion of British values.”

Lidington’s comments came as MPs voted through unopposed a backbench motion calling on the Foreign Office to review its decision.

The motion, supported by former Lord Chancellor Jack Straw and Liberal Democrat former leader Sir Menzies Campbell, was put forward by Tory chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee Richard Ottaway.

It stated the Commons “believes that the value of the World Service far outweighs its relatively small cost”.

Ottaway said he hoped the review would not be “swept under the table”.

He saidLidington had not “quite got the point” made by MPs in the debate, as the World Service’s future was a “question of priorities” and there was now a need to “take soft power more seriously”.

He told the minister: “I appreciate the fact that you are agreeing to a review of this. I hope it is a constructive review and it is not brushed under the table saying ‘that’s the House of Commons dealt with’.

“The House of Commons is serious about this and I hope the Foreign Office will be as well.”

Earlier, Labour former defence secretary Bob Ainsworth warned the World Service risked being “completely eclipsed” by competing sources of information, reducing the UK’s influence.

“Others are investing in this area and at the time of the Arab Spring we are seeing al Jazeera becoming increasingly powerful in terms of the influence it brings to bear,” he said.

The World Service has always been funded by the Foreign Office, but from 2014 responsibility will transfer to the BBC from licence fee funds.

Ottaway said in the intervening four years, funding was being reduced from £241m to £212 million, “a 16 per cent real terms cut”.

The Foreign Office budget, excluding cuts to the World Service and British Council, was facing a 10 per cent reduction, he said.

“In my judgment and the opinion of the committee, a 16 per cent cut in the World Service budget compared with 10 per cent in the Foreign Office budget is disproportionate,” he told MPs.

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