Rifkind promises to keep `beacon of freedom' alight

Inside Parliament: Foreign Secretary heads off Labour attack over World Service t MPs back private Bill to restrict tobacco adverts
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Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, yesterday bought his way out of trouble in the Commons over cuts in the BBC World Service with an announcement that private sector money could be used to fund running costs. Faced with the prospect of a rebellion by Tory backbenchers, Mr Rifkind said the Government did not want to do anything that would damage the World Service.

Executives of the Foreign Office-funded service met at the weekend to consider cuts in its 42-language broadcasts in order to accommodate cuts of pounds 4.5m in its 1997-98 operating costs and a pounds 22m cut in capital spending over the three years 1996-99.

Opening the debate, Robin Cook, shadow Foreign Secretary, described the World Service as a "beacon of freedom" and said cuts would damage Britain's influence and trade. But, following Mr Rifkind's concession, the Labour motion expressing alarm, at the "likely reduction" in the range of foreign language broadcasts was rejected by 310 to 291.

Speaking after the vote, Mr Cook said he was pleased the Government had changed its mind and decided to be more flexible over funding. "This would have been a shoddy way to have treated one of this country's greatest assets."

Emma Nicholson, in her first speech from the Liberal Democrat benches since quitting the Tory ranks, said the value of the World Service was incalculable. "I fear that where dictators and oppressors have failed, our own Treasury book-keepers, aided by weak-willed, blinkered, ostrich- minded ministers, will succeed, weakening, or eventually silencing altogether, a powerful voice for Britain."

But Mr Rifkind said the Government had a duty to discuss with the BBC whether their concerns were justified and see if it could make do with slightly reduced resources. "We have no intention of seeing the removal of successful language services," the Foreign Secretary said. And, paving the way for his offer to Tory critics, he said there was evidence that "life is going to be considerably easier for the World Service than they fear".

The biggest change asked of the BBC is to raise private finance to replace the pounds 22m cut from capital spending - mainly to pay for a new transmitter in Oman for the Arabic service and requirements at its Bush House headquarters.

"On the evidence that is now accumulating it would appear that there is scope for around pounds 30m of private funding," - more than meeting the needs of the capital programme.

Mr Rifkind told MPs that both he and the Chief Secretary, William Waldegrave, would "look sympathetically" at providing the flexibility to allow resources to be moved into the operating account.

While the concession was accepted with cautious relief by some backbenchers, the former prime minister Sir Edward Heath remained hostile to the introduction of private finance into the service, claiming it threatened the BBC's reputation for independence.

"Privatisation can go too far. This is a sphere which ought to remain entirely under BBC control."

Sir Patrick Cormack, Tory MP for South Staffordshire, said he did not for one half- second question Mr Rifkind's commitment, still less his integrity. "But I am troubled about the injection and still more the potential reliance on private finance for the BBC.

"It is almost a contradiction in terms. There are some things which quite rightly and properly should be funded from the public purse."

MPs voted by 158 to 39 in support of a move to ban advertising and sports sponsorship by tobacco companies. Though Simon Hughes's Tobacco (Protection of Children and Restriction of Promotion) Bill has no chance of becoming law because of the tight timetable for backbench legislation, its introduction was a significant expression of MPs' opinion.

Mr Hughes, Liberal Democrat MP for Southwark and Bermondsey, said he wanted to protect young people from the "insidious" effects of tobacco advertising. It had been banned from television and radio and it was now time to ban it from billboards and sports events.

The Empire talks back,

Section Two