§ 6.2 p.m.
§ Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws rose to call attention to the role and future of the British Council; and to move for Papers.
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in opening, I should declare an interest. In August 1998 I took over the chairmanship of the British Council. I am of course mindful of the Addison Rules, with which I shall dutifully comply.
§ Since becoming the chair of the British Council I have discovered that the role involves at least one occupational hazard. Sure as fate, when I sit down at a dinner or attend a reception someone will inevitably ask me: "So what does the British Council do?"1066
§ My normal reaction is to ask the questioner how much time they have. To cram the activities of the Council into a mere soundbite would do it a disservice. But in this debate I am lucky to have slightly more time. Many noble Lords know a great amount about the Council in general. Some will be familiar with the detail of particular areas of the Council's work. But I am sure that many of your Lordships will feel, as I do, that there is always more to be discovered about the activities of what Chris Patten described as a "disgracefully unsung and under-utilised national asset." My intention is to outline for your Lordships the role of the Council, and the many activities it is involved in now, and, secondly, to open the continuing debate on the future of the organisation—a future which, at present, is far from certain.
§ Any organisation is more than the sum of its parts. Each successful organisation is founded on an ethos, a set of values which provide the cement that holds its disparate parts together. The British Council is no exception. It is founded and maintained on a belief system that invisibly operates as the guiding hand within the organisation itself. It is never easy to dissect such values, the straplines of consultants rarely do justice to the simple yet subtle principles on which the British Council is based. But there is one aspect that acts as a uniting force for the Council in all its activities.
§ It is summed up for me in the words of the late Professor Jack Lively, the husband of that wonderful writer, Penelope Lively, who serves on the British Council board. The professor had a long association with the Council and used to speak of his life's work as participating in the "great conversation of mankind." That is what the British Council does. It is in the front-line of that great conversation. All its activities from education and good governance to arts promotion and publishing go towards improving the quality and verve of that world-wide conversation.
§ Nowadays, the academics and commentators speak of "people to people diplomacy". Unless you know the jargon such a concept can seem puzzling. Archbishop Tutu has a different word from his own language; it is "Ubuntu". That can be quickly translated as "people richness", but it contains all the shades of meaning around the concept that all of us grow through our contact with others.
§ At the heart of the mission of the British Council is a belief in the vitality of meaningful human contact. That means treating people with decency; it means mutual respect; it means fairness in all our dealings; it means the celebration of our differences from which grows the virtue of tolerance. The values we treasure in Britain are, thankfully, no longer exported at the point of a bayonet. Instead, they are shared in that great conversation.
§ It would be a mistake if anyone thought that Britain's role in that conversation was of marginal value. While it is true that there are few votes in cultural diplomacy, the advantages to our country of an organisation like the British Council are immense. And it is viewed jealously by other nations, as I found only last week, when the 1067 American Ambassador and the former French Minister for Culture, Jack Lang, both expressed their admiration for the Council.
§ The skills for participating in the world conversation come in many ways, particularly through education. Education changed my life and I believe that we should be providing that opportunity for more people. The British Council is Britain's major agency for promoting education throughout the world. In partnership with others it works to bring students to Britain; that role alone contributes some £2.5 billion to our economy and it is a growing market. Overseas, the Council is a major player in the teaching of English and it is the body which manages examinations in English for students around the world. Increasingly the Council is also involved in further education and training in the developing world.
§ The British Council's cultural relations work goes hand in hand with its educational effort, all of which corrects wrong or outmoded perceptions of Britain overseas—a modern Britain which is diverse and multicultural and full of vitality. The brilliance of our arts exhibitions, the challenge of our conferences, the tours by amazing writers, the magic of our theatre, the academic exchanges, the scientific and technical co-operation all provide a positive environment in which our trade and investment interests can flourish. And through the Council's work, its cultural and academic links, we also export British values to the world. An old-fashioned idea? I do not think so.
§ I am by profession a lawyer who specialises in human rights. I do so because my own educational, family and cultural background emphasised to me the importance of respecting the dignity of each person and of being true to oneself. Many of the rights we claim as human beings, many of the principles enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights owe their birth and development to Britain. Even though we ourselves have only recently enacted human rights legislation, we have been at the heart of the great human rights debate since its inception.
§ When we talk of freedom of speech, a freely elected Parliament, a media free of censorship, the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and the concept of public service, we are speaking of things that we in Britain see as fundamental, even if we do have occasional falls from grace. Around the world there is massive demand for insights into our government, our democracy and our legal system. Through its programmes in good governance, civil administration, law, gender and human rights the British Council provides in large part the ethical dimension in foreign policy. In 230 offices and 109 countries around the world this work is being undertaken with great sensitivity and subtlety. Moreover, because the Council is a trusted partner, and seen as an organisation with integrity, it often has a unique access on which to base these programmes.
§ The scope of the programmes is impressive, ranging from work with the Palestinian legislative assembly on the troubled West Bank, to helping women in Nigeria play their part in their country's politics. Globally, 1068 women's aspirations are changing: women want educational opportunities, they want to participate in decision making, they want an end to domestic violence. The sharing of expertise and national experiences is invaluable, and the British Council has been playing a considerable part.
§ In Brazil and Russia we have been involved in penal reform projects, bringing together prison governors, police officers and experts from our different countries. In China the Council recently arranged an example of a British trial but with a Chinese jury. Questions about why we had such a high standard of proof and about the presumption of innocence are essentially questions of human rights; that experience has led to a whole programme of further legal links.
§ Conflict resolution is of growing importance as we find new ways of resolving our disputes without recourse to bloodshed and as an increasingly important way of ending violence in productive dialogue. The Council is present here as well, whether teaching "peace-keeping English" to the military who must often maintain a fragile peace in the flash points of the world or working with young people in strife torn areas.
§ Many people suspect that the British Council works only in far away countries, remote from the everyday concerns of the British voter, but I have just returned from Belfast where the Council has organised a very impressive youth programme. Working across the divide in the community with initiatives such as the "Spirit of Enniskillen" and "Speak your Peace" the Council has brought together youngsters from Cyprus and Northern Ireland, brought together teachers from the West Bank to share their experiences with teachers in Belfast and Derry. Seeing the bigger picture brings insights. Difference melts when people discover new ways of seeing.
§ Fostering academic, scientific and technical co-operation is a major part of the Council's work. We do that in exchanges, shared research and international conferences. Again, some of the manifestations of this work can be surprising. I saw its stunning impact in China, bringing together astronomers from both our cultures, and the collaboration there of young Chinese and British townplanners to restore the heart of Beijing.
§ Many of your Lordships will know that the British Library is the largest in the world but it came as news to me when I visited Paris recently that the British Council acts as a conduit between the Library and international scholarship. We manage 98 per cent. of the Library's French market alone, while facilitating research and making the riches of our collection available to a wider world.
§ Of course any conversation presumes an exchange of views, an appreciation of what the other person says, and the benefits of our "people to people" dialogue are far from one way. British students, academics, scientists and even politicians gain immeasurably from their contact with a wider world which is often facilitated by Council sponsored or managed programmes. Britain benefits from the perspective of other countries expressed in the many conferences and opportunities the conversation of mankind offers for real and constructive 1069 dialogue. As many noble Lords know, we are never too old or too brilliant not to learn from others. Sometimes in the very challenge of explaining our own attempts to solve problems, whether legal, scientific or whatever, we discover new solutions for ourselves.
§ Throughout that world the Council works closely with our sponsors, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The link with the Foreign Office is a productive alliance in Britain's interest, and I am delighted that my noble friend Lady Symons, one of our great supporters, is here to reply for the Government.
§ But here comes the sad part of the story. It is not a secret that the core funding, the Government grant to the British Council, has had a chequered past. Due to reductions the Council has suffered a 13.6 per cent fall in the real value of the grant and lost 26 per cent. of its UK based staff over the last five years. Uncertain funding, stretched finances—and that over a period of the last two decades—carry a price for the work of the Council and the dedicated staff who carry out that work overseas and at home. While the funds decrease so the demands for the Council's services increase, and not only from our partners around the world. The Government have continually stressed the importance they place on the Council maintaining and even expanding its overseas network. There are always discussions taking place on proposals to open new offices in new countries, but the funds rarely follow the wish.
§ As a result, in trying to meet government expectations the Council has been cutting its own budgets in one region to meet a geographical priority in another. This is often robbing Peter to pay Paul and it cannot go on forever. Over the last 20 years the Council's activities have expanded by 40 per cent. while the grant languishes behind with a mere 10 per cent. rise over the same period. In many countries there is now a real danger that consistent underfunding will endanger the quality of the work the Council does. Falling investment and low levels of IT capacity are some of the other consequences of underfunding. Onerous demands on staff and an endless atmosphere of mending and patching permeates the Council. So far, in true British tradition the Council always manages, but this cannot go on forever. Like metal fatigue which eventually will snap the toughest iron bar, the Council is heading for a crisis if this starvation of resources continues.
§ The Council is very grateful to the Government for the recent comprehensive spending review allocation of £6 million over three years. But the CSR settlement roughly equates only with level funding over the short term; there is insufficient for the Council to embark on a new programme of work for the millennium with the confidence and security it needs. The Council is in good heart because it is full of committed staff who are mindful of the Government's pledge of support before the last election, a pledge which I hope the noble Baroness will be able to reiterate this evening.
§ The British Council provides the people of the world with a key to Britain. It introduces people to who we are. It creates the subsoil in which our commercial interests can bloom. It is about forging the links and 1070 creating the many different interfaces between peoples. It is not about Britain telling the world how it is done but about Britain as the convenor of opportunities for the movement of ideas. Noble Lords know that the benefits of participating in that "conversation of mankind" are considerable, but I also believe that the work of the British Council contributes to making the world a better place. A college in South London has as its guiding principle the statement "Students fit for the world; a world fit for students". I think that sums up the British Council and it is why the human rights work links with the education work which in turn links with our arts work which links with the information work and which connects to the Council's development work. It is all of a piece.
§ Noble Lords know that I am proud and privileged to be the chair of the British Council. I look forward to this debate as an opportunity to hear your Lordships' advice and views on the Council's role and future. I am grateful that so many of your Lordships have demonstrated your interest and support by putting your names down to speak. A debate in your Lordships' House is yet another vibrant part of that "conversation of mankind". My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.
§ 6.19 p.m.
§ Lord Renton of Mount Harry
My Lords, I am sure that noble Lords on all sides of the House will wish to join me in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, not only on the elegant, emphatic and determined manner in which she has just spoken about the British Council, but also on obtaining the debate today. Above all, I congratulate her on becoming our new chair of the British Council. I know that we all wish to congratulate her and wish her the best of luck and success in that important job.
I said "our" on purpose because I have been privileged for the past six years to have been, first, a vice-chairman of the British Council and now I have been asked to stay on the Council's board for another year which ends in a few months' time. Therefore, I served under the chairmanship of Sir Martin Jacomb who led the Council with strength in difficult times and, more recently, under the chair of the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy.
Tonight I do not wish to spend my few minutes delivering tributes and compliments to the British Council. I am sure others will do that. I wish to develop the theme about which the noble Baroness spoke in her concluding few minutes. During the six years I have found that the Council has constantly been pulled in two different directions. We have been encouraged to expand in our English language teaching and training, to work for new development and training contracts, to open new offices in different and difficult parts of the world. We have been patted on the back by successive Prime Ministers and Foreign Secretaries. Yet at the same time we have always been constrained by reductions in our grant-in-aid. As the noble Baroness said, our home-based staff has been cut back by the remarkable figure of over 25 per cent. at a time when we are expanding in different parts of the world.
1071 However, we now have three years' assured funding with minimal increases in grant-in-aid year by year. But the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, for whom I have great respect—I was a Minister in that department for four years—is now our only paymaster. That means that if subsequently there is a reduction in the grant-in-aid in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office almost certainly it will pass on a proportionate reduction to the British Council. As to objectives, I believe it is very important that the British Council should not become, with one paymaster, just an elegant tail to be wagged by the handsome Foreign Office dog.
We now have a new chair and are looking for a new director general. It is very important that those two leaders of the Council should sit down with the Secretaries of State for Education, Foreign Affairs, Culture and International Development and think very hard about where the British Council is to go to over the next 10 years. For example, I am astonished that the British Council contracts signed with the Department for International Development in 1997–98 were 71 per cent. lower than for the previous year. So far I have not heard an explanation for that fall that I find very satisfactory.
My Lords, think of the possibilities ahead, for example the growth of the Internet where English is the common language and the British Council is the past master in teaching and training in that language. Think also of the growth in postgraduate students who attend our universities, many of them brought here, advised to come here or assisted to get here by the British Council. For the first time last year there were more than 200,000 overseas students in further education in this country.
Faced with these tremendous possibilities, the Government cannot let the British Council continue on a strategic timescale tied to a string of uncertainties, with the marketing director of the Government encouraging the Council with one hand but, at the same time, the finance director pulling back with the other. That is grossly unfair, not only to the dedicated management of the Council but to the 4,000 people overseas who work so loyally for the Council and who are encouraged to believe that there is huge growth ahead.
I hope therefore that the Government, with the new chair and director general, will decide shortly and make quite clear whether this is to be a static organisation that lives within its present means or one that can expand rapidly in both revenue-producing activities, where it badly needs to build up reserves, and in grant-in-aid to spread the message about contemporary Britain round the world.
Perhaps noble Lords will permit me to have just one more minute. In the past I have had the privilege of visiting St. Petersburg, Leipzig, Shanghai and Tashkent to look at new, rebuilt or redeveloped British Council offices. I remember particularly my last visit just a few months ago to open a new information centre in Sarajevo. It was nothing grand. It comprised four rooms in a battered building two or three blocks away from where Franz Ferdinand was shot and killed, an event 1072 which started the First World War. It had some books, not many, and just a few PCs which told people about the opportunities in Britain today. The startling aspect of that opening was the number of people who came: the deputy foreign minister, ambassadors and university professors who, for the first time for years, were re-establishing contact with Britain. To me that was very symptomatic of what the British Council stands for. We were lighting one candle in the darkness of Bosnia—a first sign of renaissance of hope and spirit. I believe that that is why the British Council is so important, not just to Britain but—dare I say—to the world.
§ 6.24 p.m.
My Lords, I associate myself with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Renton. I very much enjoyed the speech of the noble Baroness. In the short time that is allowed to me I shall speak about audio-visual communication—television, film and radio—as it relates to the British Council. Using terms usually adopted in film criticism, I believe that the speech of the noble Baroness balanced admirably style and content. I very much liked her remark about the great conversation of mankind. In this century the great conversation of mankind has included more and more communication through radio, film and television.
We know that in the great battle over GATT audio-visual products were of extreme importance to the United States and France in particular. Both countries support their audio-visual products through agencies to an extent that is not possible here. They have very good reasons for doing so. In the case of the United States, that industry is, next to its great aviation and agricultural industries, probably the most important one in terms of exports. When its films go out into the world with their great economies of scale behind them they have already made or lost the money in the US, but it is important that they are launched in a way that is consistent with what the United States wants to show the rest of the world about its society and country. It does that very effectively. There is probably not one American embassy in the world where the release of a new American film is not accompanied by a great deal of effort and expertise, perhaps even with the involvement of the ambassador and his staff. In France, Alliance Francaise has backed French audio-visual culture in a way that is impossible for us because of the importance of that activity to France and the amount of government subsidy available.
In this country I am full of admiration for the way in which the Council has, within the constraints of its very limited budget, tried to support British film, television and radio. When I first spoke about film in this House in 1984 it was at a very low ebb. Attendances were low and very few films were being made. Today the picture is entirely reversed. Annual audiences are now up to 140 million from a low of 60 million in the 1980s. Thanks to lottery funding and the interest and support that the Government now give the industry, a great number of films are being made. Many of them represent important aspects of British life which are important in the context of the great conversation of mankind.
1073 I have seen a good deal of what goes on in France. My good friend Barbara Dent in Paris has done a great deal in France. Noble Lords may not be aware that in France there is a British film festival every year in Dinard. That has taken place for the past 10 years and each year it increases in importance. The festival has both British and French jury members. British films are shown there. It has become a very important event.
Initially the festival was supported by the British Council in conjunction with the town of Dinard and the Ministry of Culture in France. That has been enormously successful. I am full of admiration for the Paris staff in getting it off to such a good start and for the state in which it is now. I hope to see that repeated in other parts of the world if possible. What is required is money. In no way can the British Council cover everything.
Perhaps the noble Baroness could step in and stop some of the bleating about how little the British Council does for the film industry by people who are ill-informed and ungracious. If she can encourage greater dialogue between the British Council and the film industry within the limited budget, it would be enormously important.
I was told recently by a leading film producer—perhaps the godfather of all film producers—Anthony Havelock-Allan—that he saw a film which is now on show in cinemas called "Shakespeare in Love". He said that it will be a watershed. It will have the same effect that "The Private Lives of Henry VIII" had in the 1930s. It shows what Britain can do at its best, what it should be doing and what the world should see that it is doing. The Council must have a role in that. But beware! The Americans will be watching. They did so in the 1930s and saw that there was a danger to their own business. Let us hope that the British Council can help to push forward the endeavour of the film industry. It is so important to us.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ The Earl of Clancarty
My Lords, I, too, would like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, for initiating the debate. I wish to draw attention to one aspect of the British Council's work, but one which highlights the question of what the British Council is for. I believe that my noble friend Lord Freyberg will outline the significance of the work of the visual arts department in a little more detail, but I wish to draw attention to the cuts that have been made, and suggest an idea to the Government.
In 1990, an artist friend of mine visited what was then East Germany on a British Council grant. He tells me that that visit changed his whole outlook, not only in relation to his work as a painter but in terms of his relationship to where he lives in a particular region in Britain, South Yorkshire. He went on subsequently to work with artists from various countries in central and eastern Europe in the organisation of exhibitions and exchanges between his region and theirs. But now the visual arts department has no money for grants for artists. From funding of £100,000 a year—it has to be said not a great deal of money—for 100 grants drawn from 600 applicants, it is down now to zero funding.
1074 The visual arts department's present remit of expanding appreciation of the so-called best of British art should be changed. We should be ditching the one-sided flag waving. Perhaps the noble Baroness implies such a change with her use of the term "conversation". The stated aim, I believe, should be to encourage the interchange of ideas between Britain and other countries, between artists, cities and regions. What would such an interchange entail? In practice, there should be the possibility for artists, most of whom are poor, from all age ranges and living in every region throughout Britain, to have the chance to travel abroad and engage in that form of exchange, to absorb ideas from abroad and to use that experience to bring back possibilities. In practice, once contacts are made it then becomes much easier for exhibitions, for example, to follow; and the aim should not just be about the funding of one-off events but also about maintaining a continuity of such a dialogue. That inter-regional engagement is not something tagged on after the individual work of art is made—what is normally considered to be the exhibition stage—but is part and parcel of the artist's work. And because of that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport should be desperately interested and involved in that practice. I direct my remarks as much to it as to the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, who will reply.
The British Council, with its network of offices—there are over 100 in more than 80 countries—should be in a perfect position to facilitate such an exchange. Otherwise it is a tremendous waste of what should be culturally an extraordinarily important resource—and with IT even more so. I refer not just to the physical presence of those offices in particular countries, but to the expertise for providing an introduction to the culture of a region—contacts, translators, knowledge of possible venues for exhibitions, and so on.
Because I am an artist and because of the current atrocious funding of the visual arts department I have concentrated on this aspect of culture. But we could as easily be talking about poetry and writing, music, film making, and so on. We are told that the Government intend to work more between departments. Here is a chance for them to do just that. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the British Council and NESTA should join together in what could be an immensely exciting and creative cross-departmental project.
§ 6.34 p.m.
§ Baroness Smith of Gilmorehill
My Lords, it is with particular pleasure that I speak in this debate. I passionately believe in everything that the British Council stands for and I welcome the opportunity to pay tribute to its achievement.
In the early 1960s I had the opportunity to study and to travel in Russia, Hungary and Czechoslovakia through British Council scholarships. This was at a time when travel to that part of the world was not so easy and it gave me a unique insight to those countries in a way that would not otherwise have been possible. It is entirely fitting that more than three decades later I find myself working with the British Council on a project 1075 which brings young people from eastern European countries to Britain to study our democratic institutions and the practice of good government. I cannot help but think that there is a kind of symmetry at work here.
The Council is developing an expertise in the field of human rights, the rule of law, and democracy, and the project is the John Smith Fellowship Programme which is my own personal memorial to my late husband's political life. The British Council is acting as manager of the programme and I have been deeply impressed by its professionalism and expertise. The programme aims to strengthen and deepen democracy through study and placements for young people around the world who have committed themselves to a career in the public service.
I cannot stress enough how important this programme is for ensuring that democratic values which we in Britain take for granted are shared with young people who may be the future leaders of their countries. Fellows who have benefited from this programme include young men and women from Russia, Georgia, India, South Africa and Uganda.
As with all good programmes, the benefits are far from one-sided. We learn from each other and I am sure that the senior politicians and civil servants who meet the fellows benefit from their youth and enthusiasm; and the young people benefit from seeing the inner workings of our democracy.
The values of the John Smith Fellowship Programme run parallel to those of the British Council. The Council worked in particular among the young, or, as they call them, the successor generation. The Council is committed to promoting the best elements of our democracy: respect for human rights; public service; and the rule of law.
I hope your Lordships will forgive the rather personal nature of this contribution, but I am sure that other noble Lords will speak of the Council's excellent work in other fields. I wanted particularly to pay tribute to the individuals with whom I have been so fortunate to work in recent months. It is a collaboration which my husband would have found entirely appropriate as he, too, was a great advocate of the work of the British Council. I hope that the Government will ensure that the British Council has all the support and funding it needs to continue this vital work.
§ 6.38 p.m.
§ Lord Chorley
My Lords, as her deputy, it is a real pleasure for me to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy—I prefer on this occasion to call her "my noble friend"—on her important and inspiring speech. Clearly the council will have an exciting time under her leadership.
When considering my speech today, and with my time with the Council drawing to a close, I thought that I would reflect a little on the huge changes that I have seen over the almost 20 years in which I have been involved with this great and uniquely British institution. My remarks are of course entirely personal.
1076 I think without any doubt that the most important change in those years has been the collapse of the Soviet empire and the huge opportunities that opened up for the work of the Council. The Council reacted speedily, imaginatively and comprehensively, and I am glad to say that this was one occasion when the government of the day were supportive and we all sang from the same hymn-sheet. This is a story of which we can all be really proud.
A major change of a rather different sort has been in the whole field of development aid. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s in this and in most western countries, bilateral aid has been steadily cut. Nevertheless, in those years the Council managed to build up a considerable capacity in the field of education. That became a major activity and was, I believe, a considerable force in fostering development. Nowadays there have been changes, and the demand for the Council's services is now severely reduced. The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, referred to this, and I think I should leave it there, but I am afraid the outlook on that front is rather bleak.
My third example is again completely different, and it concerns the information technology explosion which has taken place and which has widespread significance for the nature of the services that we deliver. I will limit myself to one example, which is rather like that of the noble Lord, Lord Renton. In my case it concerns our overseas libraries, arguably the best-known activity of the British Council. Nowadays, if you go into a library of the British Council, what will chiefly strike you will be the computer screens rather than the books. This was certainly my impression when I reopened the Islamabad Library a couple of years ago. It is in this field, I suspect, that the real cultural revolution has yet to come, and I am sure that the Council will be ready, as it always has been, to embrace it.
Looking back, what impresses me is the almost Darwinian capacity of the British Council to adapt to changing circumstances, and in particular to adapt to the almost continuous barrage of cuts and investigations. I came in immediately after the 1979 Berrill Report cuts and I nearly went out after the 1995 cuts, such was my dismay. The noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Renton, have, not unnaturally, also referred to them. The fact is that no organisation can cut its headquarters staff by 25 per cent. and its activities by 26 per cent.—incidentally already having cut its overheads by a further 25 per cent. in the two preceding years—without having considerable morale and managerial problems, from which I think we are still suffering.
Overseas, the British Council, particularly in Africa, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, said, is now very thinly spread indeed and this is unhealthy for everyone. More worrying to me is the huge change in the balance between our grant-funded services and what I would loosely call our commercial activities, English language teaching being a major component. Five years ago our grant was 55 per cent. of our operating income: last year it was 35 per cent. This is giving rise to all sorts of risks and management tensions, which I have not time to go 1077 into: nor do I think it would be appropriate to do so. However, the big question is: is not the tail beginning to wag the dog?
In conclusion, what do I see as the lessons from all these years? I have referred to the Darwinian capacity of the Council to adapt, Equally, following on from that, what the Council really does need is a period of government policy stability and, in real terms, funding stability. I gladly acknowledge that we now have three-year funding, but it is at rather a low level. Let us not forget that our competitors, France and Germany—and, believe me, they are competitors—spend nearly twice as much as we do on cultural activities and cultural relations, and 90 per cent. of their funding comes from government. We do things on a shoe-string and yet our effectiveness is much envied throughout the world. Just think, my Lords, what we could do with their budgets!
§ 6.44 p.m.
The Earl of Glasgow
My Lords, I wanted to take part in this debate because I believe passionately in the value and work of the British Council. At the same time, I am aware that its importance is greatly under-valued by almost everyone.
In the last few years, I have visited some outposts of the British Council—Beirut and Damascus, for example. I have been impressed not only by the work done but also by the quality of the people who do the work, in particular the country directors, who are often Scots incidentally, and a large proportion of them women.
As we know, and as the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, has pointed out, the remit is very broad and individual country directors have considerable discretion as to how they spend their limited budgets. But whatever projects are taken on, they will all be helping to give the citizens of those countries a better understanding of Britain, its culture, its language, its opportunities and its values.
Many supporters of the British Council feel that they can best justify its importance in terms of the number of export orders, foreign investment or extra numbers of visitors or students to Britain. These are indeed important and impressive, but I personally feel that its most valuable role is far less measurable. It is to build bridges over the cultural gaps that divide us from many countries in the world. So often cultural differences and cultural misunderstandings are responsible for the fear, the suspicion and, in extreme cases, the hostility that exists between nations. This creates the "them and us" syndrome, particularly apparent in respect of some of the Moslem countries.
Why do we in the West know so little about Islam and its culture? Why do Moslems know so little about our culture? I was impressed by the British Council's attempt to address the problem when I was in Syria. The country director there had organised a British production of Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" in the Roman amphitheatre in Palmyra. After that it continued on tour and was attended by more than 30,000 people. The arts, and particularly the performing arts, are one of the 1078 most effective vehicles for establishing cultural understanding; and this is something that the British Council actively pursues all over the world.
However, it is not just engaged in selling Purcell, Shakespeare or the revitalised British cinema, as so eloquently explained by my noble friend Lord Falkland, to other nations. It is also engaged in the reciprocal role of encouraging and facilitating artists from other countries to perform over here. For instance, in April this year it is laying on a major conference to explore the relationships between Britain and Islam to coincide with a major nationwide festival of Islamic art which runs until the end of July.
It is most effective when there is a cross-fertilisation of British and foreign performers working together—for instance, the National Theatre of Uganda working with the Royal Court, or a Scottish jazz group performing with African musicians in South African townships. Of course, our embassies around the world have the job of promoting the best of British art and British culture within a particular host nation, but by necessity they are seeking to impress the heads of state, the politicians, the princes of industry and the top educated people. The British Council can do something more valuable. It can reach the hearts of ordinary people and sometimes, maybe, the country's leaders of tomorrow. The more foreign people who can enjoy and feel comfortable with our culture, the better.
The importance of the British Council's work cannot be under-estimated. I do not believe that any government can spend too much on promoting cultural exchange and understanding between ourselves and the people of other nations. Just because the value of the Council's work is little known in Britain and has few votes attached to it, I would like the Government's assurance that they intend to fund the British Council generously in the future.
§ 6.50 p.m.
§ Lord Wilson of Tillyorn
My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest; namely, the privilege of serving under the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, as a member of the board of the British Council, a non-pecuniary interest, and also being chairman of the Council's Scottish Committee.
There is a nice Chinese political slogan, "walking on two legs". It can cover many different policies. Broadly, it means trying to do two things more or less at the same time; two things which do not look as though they are the same but which you are trying to argue are nevertheless going broadly in the same direction. I would argue that the British Council is a classic example of walking on two legs and doing it successfully, both internationally and domestically.
Internationally, all Members of your Lordships' House will have had experience of the British Council around the world. So have I over many years. I have been tremendously impressed and have met so many people who have been touched by the Council. Sometimes the influence has gone subterranean only to emerge 30 years later, but it is invaluable.
1079 One of the great virtues of the British political system when it is operating well is that the Government are capable of funding and supporting an organisation which they do not seem to run. The British Council is a classic example of that. That is its virtue; it is walking on two legs. When the dialogue on the official leg becomes blocked and political relationships turn sour, there is still the cultural leg on which you can rely. "Walking on two legs" is something which the Council does superbly. It is enlightened self-interest from the British Government and long may and should that continue.
I argue also that the British Council helps us as a nation to walk on two legs. As was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, there is a great movement of cultural diversity within the United Kingdom. Perhaps I may take Scotland as an example. The British Council in Scotland, under its energetic and hard-working director and staff—incidentally, the director is a Scots woman and one of those who stayed at home—does a tremendous job in promoting two aspects. The first is Scotland's excellence in broad-stream British culture. The second, which is particularly apparent at present, is the Scottish aspect of culture, law and education which is in a process of dynamic growth. The British Council in Scotland can promote those aspects to the benefit of both Scotland and the United Kingdom. It is diversity within a broader unity.
Perhaps I may give two examples of what is undertaken by the British Council in Scotland. First, Scottish education and training was set up by the Scottish Office, Scottish Trade International and the British Council. It sent a mission to South Africa in August last year in order to promote Scottish higher and further education. It was led by the principal of Glasgow University. There were a large number of people on the delegation from Scottish universities and colleges of further education. It also took with it the Strathclyde Youth Jazz Orchestra under its ebullient musical director, Bobby Wishart.
The South Africa Daily News carried the splendid headline,Och aye, what a breath of fresh air".Allowing for exporting the vernacular, the message was clear: here was something young and dynamic which went with the promotion of Scottish education. That programme is planned to bring in approximately £15 million in overseas earnings by next year.
Another organisation set up in Scotland is the Scottish International Resource Project. It takes people who have come to Scotland and have undergone post-graduate training and attaches them to a Scottish business or organisation in order to show them how it works in practice and to give them a friend for life. Recently, a young Vietnamese who came from the Ministry of Science and Technology, Mr. Tran Ngoc Ca, gained a PhD at Edinburgh University and was then attached to Scottish Enterprise's oil and gas team in Aberdeen for 18 months. He worked with a consortium of oil companies to help them to break into the Vietnamese market. They did so successfully and he remains in touch. He is a tremendous asset.
1080 I conclude with one thought; that all this is produced on a very small budget. I will not quote the budget for Scotland but it is very small. Another slogan which operates closer to home is, "you can't get owt for nowt". We have a wonderful organisation which if we did not have it we ought to be inventing. It is very successful and deserves support. I hope that through this debate and a wider understanding of what the British Council does it will be appreciated in the community and we will have support from the Government.
§ 6.55 p.m.
§ Baroness Hooper
My Lords, it is clear that all noble Lords believe that the British Council is a good thing. If all the plans outlined by the noble Baroness are fulfilled, that will be even more true. I thank her for introducing the debate and congratulate her on all that she has achieved.
My first memory of the British Council was going as a family with my mother a long time ago to a house in Southampton. It was owned by the British Council and there we helped to entertain overseas visitors and students, many of whom were connected to Southampton University. Things have changed since then and there are no branches left.
Long after that experience, and as a member of the Council of Europe's parliamentary delegation, I was able to see at first hand the benefits brought by the British Council opening up in Budapest, Bucharest, Prague, Warsaw and other cities which emerged from behind the Iron Curtain. However, today I wish to focus my few minutes on Latin America since, as president of Canning House, I am aware of what is being done there and of its importance and relevance to our effort to improve and increase the trade, commercial, education and cultural links between this country and Latin America.
Latin America's share of the British Council funding is 9 per cent. of the global overseas spend. In terms of size, the Council's biggest operation is in Brazil, followed by Mexico, Argentina and Colombia. These countries are major economies and vital markets for us. Although economic and political circumstances in the region have improved in the past few years and modest expansion has been possible in the four main countries, in Bolivia and Cuba the current financial year has been particularly difficult. However, I appreciate from a recent visit to Cuba that it is now delighted to have a British Council representative in the embassy there.
The British Council has done much to raise money for itself, particularly through English teaching for which there is great demand. It has also succeeded in focusing on the three high priority areas, all of which support the Government's agenda: export promotion, which includes cultural industry exports and education and training export promotion; the promotion of modern Britain; and good governance and human rights.
Cultural industry exports are worth at least £7 billion a year to the United Kingdom. I know that the Council, working closely with the DTI and the Foreign Office, has selected five countries globally and five sectors for special promotion. In Latin America, the country is 1081 Brazil and the sector is design. The project kicked off with a London seminar at the DTI on exporting design to Brazil for 50 design companies. In November 1997 there was a three-day design seminar and exhibition in Sao Paolo with themed sessions on privatisation, retail banking, "own brand" retailing, transport infrastructure and design education. Ten UK companies took part with the aim of doing real business as well as developing partnerships. That tied in with the Council's agenda of promoting modern Britain in a way which complements the more traditional elements of the United Kingdom which attract the tourists.
In opening, the noble Baroness emphasised the importance of education. I know that the promotion of education and training partnerships, including studying in the UK and encouraging distance learning partnerships between UK universities and overseas institutions, has also been an important focus. During 1997 the Council produced and launched seminars in the UK, education and training market opportunity plans for Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Colombia. In Brazil there has been dramatic growth in this area. From nothing, the Council's educational web pages now receive 14,000 hits a month and its educational promotion service there had 25,000 inquiries last year, 1,000 student counselling interviews and 150 direct placements. The Council organised British university fairs in four major Brazilian cities which took place in October with 58 British universities present. Exchange student numbers have been increasing rapidly with a 70 per cent. increase in three years to 13,200.
Another example is Mexico. There are currently 600 Mexican postgraduate students in the UK. They come; they study; and they go. They frequently rise to influential positions in government and industry and yet, until recently, there had been no serious attempt to introduce those young people to the private sector in this country before they returned so that advantage could be taken of their goodwill and country knowledge. That has now been done.
I have so many examples of wonderful things which have been done by the British Council in Latin America in the cultural field with exchanges of musicians, orchestras and so on and also in the area of governance, administrative reform and human rights, to which the noble Baroness referred in opening. I applaud all that has been done and I applaud the dedicated staff who make it possible. I hope that it will continue, increase and improve. In a spend of £28 million in this financial year, £9.5 million came as government grant. Much has been achieved in Latin America. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, I hope the Minister will be able to reassure us about future funding in order to ensure that the excellent work continues and goes from strength to strength.
§ 7.1 p.m.
§ Lord Birkett
My Lords, I join with all noble Lords in congratulating the noble Baroness on this timely debate. I have a special interest in it because I am the chairman of the British Council's music advisory panel.
1082 I believe that music is the best of all ambassadors and not only because it is quite obviously a universal language. I can think of no country more fortunate than we are in the sheer breadth, diversity and richness of our musical life. I do not just mean in performance; I mean in creativity as well. I do not just mean in classical music; I mean in jazz, folk, rock and all forms and all ethnic backgrounds of music.
The days when we used to send our best music and musicians abroad simply to show how wonderful we British are are over. As the noble Baroness said, the educational aspect, especially in music, is all important. By education, I do not just mean the giving of lectures or the rather grand and Olympian master classes. I mean real collaboration with the musicians of the country in question.
The best example I can give is a body of musicians who are great favourites of mine. They rejoice in the name of "Ensemble Bash". They are a group of blindingly talented percussion players and every time they go abroad, they invariably return with a wonderful stock of new and exotic percussion instruments. Last time they went on a tour of Africa for us, they came back not merely with lots of new and interesting instruments but with a complete troupe of African drummers, and they proceeded to give concerts with them all over the country. It is that sort of collaboration which is really important these days in our cultural diplomacy.
It is not only in performance, in music itself, that we can be helpful to other countries. We can be helpful also in relation to the background and infrastructure of music. So many countries have lately been liberated from oppressive regimes that the demand for the British Council's advice and, indeed, its presence in many countries grows all the time.
For example, in Russia all those years of tyranny were also fairly tyrannical in the musical world. There was no such thing as an impresario. The concert agency was just called Gosconcert, a fairly grisly organisation. The idea that there should be a musical impresario in Russia is simply unthinkable. The people there are starting from scratch and we can help in the whole sphere of marketing, promotion, how to put concerts together and how to spread music throughout the land. That is badly needed.
The musical world in which we live is now not only very broad and varied but it is also extremely helpful to the countries which we visit. And yet all that is against a background where finance is never quite adequate; never adequate at all, in my view. The noble Baroness mentioned that we now have a presence in 109 countries. Ten years ago we had a presence in 89 countries. So that is 20 new countries in the past 10 years. And yet there has been a cut of something like 14 per cent. in our funding over the past five years alone.
I suggest that for once, the Government should not do the obvious thing. They should not look at the budget of the British Council and add a percentage point or two for the sake of generosity. I suggest that the Government should look at the work of the British Council—the 1083 sheer width, variety and value of it—and ask themselves whether the whole funding package is remotely adequate for that job. Is it remotely commensurate with the effort which the British Council puts in and the absolute devotion of people to it all over the world? I suspect that, if the Government do that, they will find that that budget does not bear any real relation to the importance of the work of the British Council. It would be a novel and timely exercise for the Government to undertake.
§ 7.5 p.m.
§ Baroness Rendell of Babergh
My Lords, bearing in mind that what I have to say is almost entirely unstinted praise of the British Council, in particular its literature department, I must declare an interest. My work and my career have benefited greatly from the attention that I have received from the British Council and I am sure that I shall do so in the future. On the many occasions that I have been on reading and speaking tours in European countries, one of its representatives has always been present to give me help and support.
The main aim of the literature department, which is part of the Council's arts group, is to advance the appreciation of British and Commonwealth literature; in particular, the poetry, fiction, biography and other work of contemporary writers.
The British Council works in partnership with a wide range of organisations to support literature events overseas—reading tours, lecture tours, festivals, conferences, seminars, workshops and writers-in-residence schemes. Those may be organised in partnership with a local institution such as a university or school.
"Eye on Books" was a successful festival which took place in Hong Kong last September. A novelist undertook a two-week residency at Hong Kong University and creative writing workshops for children were held during the festival. An exhibition, "The Writer's Eye", was produced for the festival featuring more than 50 writers and including such established figures as Fay Weldon and Salman Rushdie. Two months later, a tour across Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands featured some of our best-known writers giving readings and talks about their work.
The African Literature Association conference was held at the University of Texas in the previous July in conjunction with the British Council, at which three writers visited schools and colleges and talked about their experiences as black writers living in Britain. The Cambridge seminar on contemporary literature, to which I contributed in 1997, is a regular event and attended by publishers, academics and festival organisers.
The work done by the British Council to promote the Booker Prize internationally may not be known to your Lordships. Last year's event at the British Library to celebrate 30 years of the prize was organised by the Council.
As to the future, the way in which writers use conflict in fiction will be discussed at the Belgrade seminar in March 1999. A seminar on writing from Britain will be 1084 arranged in the coming April in New Zealand, where authors from this country will participate in panel discussions with those from Australia and New Zealand. The regular annual seminars will be held in Brussels, Walberberg and, of course, here in Cambridge. There will be a poetry tour in India and several British writers will undertake residencies abroad.
The literature department provides support to the teaching of literature overseas, arranging for writers, critics and educationists to visit universities and other teaching institutions to advise on curriculum development and to conduct lectures, seminars and workshops. It produces a wide range of publications as a means of promoting British literature, including Literature Matters and, in association with a publisher, the anthology New Writing, featuring contemporary British poetry, fiction, drama and criticism, as well as a series of books entitled Writers and Their Work. The department distributes the highly successful and popular Poems on the Underground overseas.
Encouragement of translation is becoming an important aspect of literature policy. The department is in the process of putting together an exhibition on the Internet which will focus on translation and will aim to promote literary translation as an art form and encourage people to read more books in translation. Much British writing is, of course, regularly translated into foreign languages. Young writers appreciate how their visits, arranged by the British Council to bring their work before an interested audience, may well lead to translation into, for instance, French, German, Spanish, Swedish and many other languages. However, only a small percentage of overseas writing is translated into English, despite the fact that many people on the continent of Europe and more distant parts of the world will very likely read English. Fewer people here are able to read a foreign language with ease.
The British Council already makes a small cash contribution (which I am sure it can ill afford, considering what we heard here this evening) to the Arts Council's translation department, whose purpose is to aid the translation into English of more foreign language writing, and a British Council representative sits on its committee. While that and the idea of the exhibition are encouraging, it is to be hoped that one project for the British Council in the future and in conjunction with publishers will be the translation into our own language of more literature from our fellow Europeans and from Asia and South America. The literary department's attention to young writers is laudable. May it have the funding to continue.
§ 7.12 p.m.
§ The Earl of Sandwich
My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, pointed out, the British Council is a key player in international development and that can only reinforce the public's support for it. I believe that the Council has adapted well to the changes forced on it by the last government and it should now be granted all the resources it needs to continue its work both abroad and in education here.
1085 After all, those are only a proportion of the funds it manages on behalf of DfID and others and which in turn add value across the spectrum of development.
That is the whole point about the British Council. It has moved beyond the normal perception which is rightly characterised by solid educational work in its promotion of the English language and culture into a less advertised, sophisticated management and contracting role which is often right in the front line of poverty alleviation.
I have some knowledge of work with NGOs in India, Kenya and Ethiopia. I know the Council developed techniques in strengthening local NGOs in countries like Ghana. Its record in sensitive countries like Burma, Iran and Nigeria is to be applauded. It is involved in human rights and peacekeeping. Half of its work is in countries on the Development Assistance Committee list. It has embarked on new IT programmes like the Global Knowledge network, which are designed to benefit countries like India and South Africa. That is perhaps as near as we get to that conversation with mankind.
The Council tackles some of the structural causes of poverty such as the position of women in society. It does pioneering work in the former Soviet Union which, incidentally, is referred to in some detail in the latest House of Lords Select Committee report on the TACIS programme. All that work is central to the underlying purpose of the Government's White Paper—Sustainable International Development. It is called "capacity building", finding new ways of reviving civil society in post-conflict countries and emerging democracies where critical engagement and the discreet support of NGOs in the right place—provided they are not over managed as can happen—can make a significant difference and speed up the process of education and training.
That is not an easy task and I should like to ask the Minister a question arising out of the International Development Select Committee's report on the department in which the Permanent Secretary, Mr. John Vereker, refers to,The excessive use … of western-northern NGOs which could inhibit the development of local civil society. … We are only beginning to scratch the surface of understanding these dynamics within developing countries".In the same evidence he acknowledges the difficulties faced by the Council while operating in those remote areas and in a fragile institutional environment. Is the Minister concerned that the Council may not yet have proved itself in that environment or acquired enough experience in contracting out projects in such conditions? It increasingly has to do that in the open market in competition with other agencies. Or does she believe, as I hope she does, that this is a process in which only a flexible, strong, internationally recognised agency like the British Council can engage?
Exactly three years ago, led by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, we were debating the drastic cuts threatening the Council—28 per cent. in its ODA grant in real terms over three years and 16 per cent. overall. That could have meant up to 25 per cent. staff redundancies. That policy was being defended—I felt rather unwillingly—by the former Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker. The result of that debate and 1086 other representations to the FCO led us to believe that the crisis was avoided. We now know that the cuts have come down to only 13.4 per cent. over five years which has been barely manageable. We are now in a new era with a White Paper saying we need precisely the kind of thing the British Council is doing, yet we still expect it to operate in a chilly economic environment and increasingly in the free market.
That again raises the question of overall funding. Are we still on course to reach the 0.37 per cent.? I do not mean the 0.3 per cent. mentioned in the Government's latest response to the IDC report and about to be flagged in the DAC report next month, but the 0.37 per cent. European average for last year. Or are we already falling short of that target? I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Renton, that the Council should be able to look forward to a secure future and should not be in constant fear of uncertainties in the corridors and boardrooms of Whitehall which undermine the loyalty and activities of so many thousands around the world.
§ 7.17 p.m.
The Earl of Carlisle
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, for introducing this debate and wish her well in her appointment as chairman of the British Council.
The noble Baroness and myself share a distinction. We are perhaps the only Members of your Lordships' House—and certainly of those taking part in this debate—who have worked for the British Council teaching the English language abroad, the noble Baroness in Germany at the outset of her career and myself at the end of my military career. I was selected as one of a team of six to go to the Baltic states in September 1994 and led a small team that taught 38 officers and NCOs of the Estonian army for six months. They needed the English language because at the end of six months they were to be trained by the Royal Marines training team for a further six months, after which they would then return to their countries, raise companies of 120 men and be deployed on operations in the former Yugoslavia and later in the Lebanon.
We worked for six months. There were two in my team, two in Latvia and two in Lithuania. At the end of the six months the President of Estonia, Mr. Lennart Meri, came to see us. He thanked me and my assistant for teaching his officers not so much the English language, but democracy. Since then, the Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians have decided to raise not just a company, but a battalion to serve as peacekeepers in Europe and outside. From small acorns large oak trees grow.
My noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby told me before this debate that she regretted very much that she could not be here. But she pointed out to me a similar situation. The British Council arranged at the last election for journalists from the Russian Federation and from central and eastern Europe to come and monitor individual candidates in the election process in Great Britain. At the end of the election they went to Paris where there was a conference. Members of Parliament 1087 and failed candidates who had taken part in the election went over for a debriefing. Those are but two examples of the work of the British Council.
I fully understand that many British Council education training projects fail. Ours succeeded by the skin of its teeth. I shall suggest reasons why such projects fail: poor selection of teachers, lack of funds, very small salaries, and often poor working conditions. Nobody goes to teach in the British Council for money, and if they have a family back home—which I did not—there are problems.
Does the British Council have a satisfactory recruitment policy? I was given just one week to prepare to leave for Estonia. That suited me, but it would not suit everybody. The reason for those failures comes down to lack of funding. Our project was but one of 15 running at the time in central Europe with only one project manager, in Manchester. The poor British Council has been cut to the bone. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, that the Government must look again at how they fund the Council.
I pay tribute to the offices of the British Council in central Europe, especially in the Baltic States. In Riga, for instance, one has to walk up 80 stairs to the third floor before one reaches the British Council office. If it were a museum in Britain, it would be closed down for allowing the old, infirm and the young to walk up 80 stairs. Can the Minister look, through the embassies, at ways in which we might improve the offices of the British Council in central and Eastern Europe?
Ten million British citizens live and work abroad. Five thousand of those work for the British Council. We are enormously proud of them. Will the Minister give credit to those 5,000 people and their marvellous assistants, such as Mrs. Imbis Karsis in the British Council office in Tallinn? She often controls that office because the Council is so short staffed that it cannot fill vacancies immediately and therefore locals must direct its activities abroad.
If I were given the choice between the British Embassy in Tallinn and the British Council, at present, I would sack the ambassador and keep the director of the British Council. I have nothing against the British Ambassador or his embassy, but I suggest that at present the cultural arm of the Foreign Office does more for our relations than our diplomatic service.
I wish the noble Baroness enormous success in her job. I thank the parliamentary liaison team of the British Council who are establishing very strong contacts with Members of your Lordships' House and, indeed, the other place, so that we can continue to press Her Majesty's Government to support the British Council with all the might and money they can supply.
§ 7.23 p.m.
§ Baroness Strange
My Lords, I must apologise deeply to your Lordships that I may not be able to attend the end of this debate—something which has never happened to me before—as I have a previous engagement and had expected the debate to end at 8 p.m.
1088 I should like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, both on initiating this debate so excellently, and on becoming the new Chairman of the British Council, to which I am sure she will add much lustre. I hope she will also be able to relieve the ever-tightening financial margins under which the British Council works, having increased its return by 40 per cent. over the past 20 years, whereas the government grant which represents nearly a third of its income has increased by only 13.7 per cent.
In fact, from a healthy overall profit of around £10 million in 1997, there was in 1998 a total loss of over £1 million, which has meant dipping into reserves; not a healthy situation. As far as one can see from the summarised results, that appears to have resulted from considerably less income in grants, contracts and agency receipts—around £17 million—and around £3 million less in fees and income. At the same time, running expenses and costs do not appear to have increased very much. Bearing in mind the important promotion of Britain which is undertaken by the British Council, I feel confident that the noble Baroness, the new chairman, will be able to sort out this situation.
I have two interests to declare. The first is that my aunt worked for many years for the British Council at its headquarters in London, after running the Queen Victoria Club for Girls in Lambeth from 1922 until its close during the war. She was very proud of her involvement with the British Council, and of the great good it did in spreading the British way of life round the world. From Albania to Zambia, from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe, the British Council is actively promoting the image of Britain throughout the globe.
Not only does the British Council promote the learning of the English language, one of our greatest gifts to the world—the other was our constitution, which we appear to be trying to demolish—it also promotes education, helps with development in poorer countries, and promotes the spread of science, information technology and the arts. I was delighted to read, which seems to have escaped my noble friend Lord Wilson of Tillyorn, that a Scottish musical group called Shooglynifty has been touring India with great success.
Last year, when I visited Bulgaria in an Inter-Parliamentary Union group, we insisted on visiting the British Council in Sofia, and were immensely impressed by the warm reception we received—tea, of course—and much enthusiasm, and we learnt how popular were the English library, and above all the television videos for the learning of English, particularly "Pride and Prejudice". That brings me to my second interest to declare. As I was the only Conservative, the only hereditary Peer (indeed the only Member of your Lordships' House) and the only woman, I was in a slight minority. However, perhaps as a result, I was the lucky person selected to receive a lovely bunch of flowers from the British Council, which I treasured throughout my visit. I now thank them for their bouquet. This short speech is my small bouquet for them.
§ 7.27 p.m.
§ Lord Freyberg
My Lords, I should like to talk about the Council's visual arts programme, which is impressive. Current British Council exhibitions include New British Art on show in Japan, Francis Bacon in the United States, A Century of British Silver and Metalwork in Prague—soon to travel to Berlin; a show of paintings by Aubrey Williams in Barbados, along with various other exhibitions in such countries as Australia, Austria, Finland, Germany and Mexico.
It is unlikely that most members of the general public will have heard of any of these shows, but they are nonetheless drawing large audiences and successfully promoting British culture past and present. Indeed, at a time when British art enjoys an enviably high profile and prestige, it is perhaps surprising and certainly praiseworthy that the British Council has managed to keep up to date and to reflect the exciting contemporary arts scene as well as continuing to present interesting historical aspects.
It is, however, debatable as to whether the Council will be able to maintain such a wide-ranging and exciting programme for much longer. In the first place, the Council's visual arts programme is due to have its internal funding cut by around 20 to 25 per cent. Furthermore, as has already been mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, the longstanding grants scheme which has, until this year, helped overseas museums and galleries to mount exhibitions of British art has been suspended until the next financial year—a suspension that will probably be permanent because of recent cuts. Equally unsatisfactory, the mounting of exhibitions of work by British architects cannot even he entertained because it would stretch a budget that is already under pressure.
The British Council is responsible for curating and overseeing 40 major exhibitions a year, involving loans from national, regional and private collections. In addition, there are a number of touring exhibitions of works drawn largely from the British Council collection, which was started in 1938 and consists of over 6,000 art works and is growing. Priority is given to countries which have little direct access to British art, from Korea and Vietnam to large areas of South America and central and eastern Europe. The total number of exhibitions a year in which the British Council has direct input usually amounts to around 100, with dozens more in which it has a minor participation.
The visual arts department's brief is to develop and expand overseas knowledge and appreciation of the best of British painting, sculpture, printmaking, design, photography, crafts and architecture, working closely with the Council's 109 overseas offices. The department is also responsible for British participation in regular international events such as the Venice Biennale, the Sao Paulo Bienal, the Johannesburg Biennale and the Indian Triennale.
The arts division of the British Council is in a difficult position. No matter how successful its programmes—whether in visual arts, theatre, music or literature—it will never receive much recognition at home because so much of its work is overseas and many of its activities 1090 are unknown here and receive virtually no publicity. This does not, however, negate its continuing striving for excellence. Indeed, the promotion of Britain as a culturally alive and vibrant place is of ever more importance in terms of trade, tourism and cultural recognition, competing as it must against other countries promoting their own interests.
As Britain's principal agency for cultural relations overseas, the British Council plays a valuable part in our foreign policy, encouraging a wider knowledge of the UK and of its desirability, both for trade and culture. At a time when our painters, sculptors, designers and architects have never been in such demand worldwide, it seems bizarre that the British Council's visual arts programme should be under threat from its other wings. The Arts Council's visual arts programme, by contrast, has just received a 15 per cent. increase in funding.
The projects that are most likely to be axed are those in the developing world. Opportunities for British involvement in the heritage trade—sending restorers and conservators to countries without equivalent skills; to provide valued expertise in areas such as building conservation, as the British Council has done to Bosnia—are likely to suffer. Areas of the world such as the Caribbean and Lisbon are likely to see the withdrawal of the British presence. The British presence in many smaller international manifestations such as the Perth Festival, the Ljubljana, Kwangju, and Cairo Biennales will also be withdrawn. What this will mean is that Britain will no longer be seen as an international partner. I find it hard to believe that that is something this Government would willingly participate in.
§ 7.32 p.m.
§ Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws for initiating this important debate. The breadth of the contributions we have heard goes some way to reflecting the breadth of the work of the British Council. I want to focus my comments on a sister organisation to the British Council, the British Youth Council, which is not connected to it although it is a related organisation.
What is the British Youth Council? It is a representative forum of young people aged between 16 and 25 in the United Kingdom. It is run by young people to make their views known in international forums and to governments and decision-makers. Membership consists of about 100 national organisations and about 400 local youth councils across the United Kingdom. They range from political parties, trades unions, church organisations, environmental organisations, and even the Scouts.
What is the relationship between the British Council and the British Youth Council? As I said, the two bodies are in no way formally related, but the British Council funds much of the work of the British Youth Council through its youth exchange centre. In particular, it has funded the development of the Youth Council of the Isles in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Ireland. The chair of the British Youth Council told me last week that the best way to help its work was to 1091 strengthen the funding of the British Council as much of its funding comes from there. He spoke particularly about the international role of the British Youth Council.
What is the history of that very small organisation? The British Youth Council was founded in 1948 by the Foreign Office. It was called the British National Committee of the World Assembly of Youth. It existed to promote global co-operation against communism in the wake of the Second World War. That arrangement continued quite happily for many years but, unfortunately, in 1994 the Foreign Office substantially withdrew its funding from the British Youth Council, which severely hampered its work. The British Youth Council has gone from being the leading youth council in the world to having only the scantiest profile at, and participation in, international forums. That is a terrible shame. The few staff that the British Youth Council does have are restricted by the nature of their funding to work on other projects, so the international work suffers even further.
Sadly, it is not only the British Youth Council's international profile which has been limited by the cut in funding. It is Britain itself, which is simply not represented in many forums which are extremely important and which are attended by many of the world's most senior politicians and political leaders, including Kofi Annan. That absence is noticed—and is only to the detriment of Britain as a whole.
In spite of that, the British Youth Council managed to attend various events in 1998 such as the World Festival of Youth, the United Nations Youth Forum and the Commonwealth Youth Ministers meetings. However, that represents very much less participation than previously, which is to be regretted.
The British Youth Council is regularly called upon by the Foreign Office and the Council of Europe to try to arrange meetings with international groups and influential visitors to the United Kingdom. All that is done on a very ad hoc basis. The British Youth Council is very much looking forward to having an international officer so that such work can be far better co-ordinated.
In 1994 this House debated the future of the British Council. At that stage, all sides made very clear how much they valued the work of the British Youth Council. That was said even by those on the Government Front Bench but, despite commenting on its usefulness, they still cut its funds.
I echo the words of all who have spoken, but particularly those of the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, who said that the British Council needs to be judged on its achievements and not against overall spending limits within a much larger government review. That is exactly the right approach.
In conclusion, one of the briefs that I received directly from the British Council described it as the "Heineken Beer" of British diplomacy—presumably because it reaches the parts that other organisations fail to reach. That puts it well. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Kennedy on her appointment.
§ 7.38 p.m.
§ Baroness Fookes
My Lords, it is clear from the debate that many of your Lordships have had long and distinguished links with the British Council. I wish that I could claim the same, but I fear that, say, 20 years ago, I would have been in much the same position as those who collar the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, and ask, "What does the British Council do?". Twenty years ago I would have said simply that it helped to spread the English language and English literature. I know better now.
Perhaps I may pick up one point made by the noble Baroness in her opening speech. She referred to promoting women in public life and mentioned workshops in Nigeria. This is a matter close to my heart as I certainly wish to promote women going into public life. They need much help and encouragement, particularly in many countries where there is little democratic tradition.
I believe that in Nigeria, following the workshops that have been mentioned, local groups were set up which I believe are called the 100 groups. They have gradually expanded and provide a marvellous network for women who probably would not have known each other prior to that. Therefore the work goes on far beyond the staging of a workshop at a given point in time. In 1997 there was a successful series of training workshops provided by the British Council in Egypt for those women who wished to stand for election at local or perhaps even national level. That was crowned by a conference addressed by women MPs from other countries. There was a wonderful interchange of views and opinions.
Even where the British Council has not been able to fund such arrangements itself, it has provided help and some funding for other organisations. I refer to an example from my own direct experience. For several years now I have worked with an organisation called Project Parity, the objective of which is to help in practical ways women who wish to enter public life. The organisation has worked particularly in the former communist countries of eastern Europe where there is a tremendous amount of work to be done. I attended one such workshop in Bratislava as a trainer in December 1997. The help of the British Council was invaluable. It provided many contacts when setting up the workshop. It was able, out of its meagre funds, to provide funding so that the women attending the workshop could do so on a residential basis. They could not have afforded to do that without help. Anyone who has attended a conference will be aware that much help is provided by means of chatting with people and establishing contacts when the formal sessions have ended. That was a valuable and helpful workshop.
That workshop—I imagine this applies also to British Council workshops—was immensely practical. It is not a question of giving lectures on this and that to passive participants. The intention is to get the women concerned involved in a practical way. A distinguished election agent gave much information about running a campaign and then the women participants were asked to explain how they would run an election campaign 1093 and what difficulties they would experience. They learnt about election literature but they were also asked to compile such literature, working in groups of three. I gave them some tips on public speaking and on running meetings. I also explained what it was like to he a political candidate. For such women, who have few role models, it is useful to hear someone who has experience of being a political candidate. I hesitate to say whether I have performed that role well or badly. Nevertheless my experience was useful for those women.
There have been subsequent contacts with the women who participated in the workshop. I have given them information on other subjects and one or two attended a seminar in Oxford last year. We were able to make contact. That was extremely valuable. My only regret is that I wish the British Council was in a position to fund more such workshops itself. I worry about what the British Council cannot do because it does not have the funding. I hope I have given some indication of the kind of work that is carried out and the tremendous value of the British Council in this field as in so many others.
§ 7.44 p.m.
§ Lord Dearing
My Lords, I am one of those who had much to learn from this debate. I am grateful to noble Lords who have spoken. I have concluded from listening that our purpose should be not only to help the Minister in the development of her policies but also to persuade those who guard the ledgers in Her Majesty's Treasury that judicious, additional investment in the British Council would improve the contents of those ledgers. As a former guardian of the ledgers I wish to develop that theme in terms that may be understood in those quarters.
Higher education is one of the great growth industries of our times. It has become a major, tradeable international service in which institutions and governments compete with vigour to acquire market share. It is a market in which, through the reputation and quality of the research and teaching in British universities, this country has a competitive advantage. It is very much in the interests of the United Kingdom to have the assistance of the British Council. It would be the economics of madness for 100 or 150 institutions of higher education to maintain a full-time capability in 10 to 20 countries. It is essential that they have the underpinning support of the British Council in their marketing activities. We are talking of an income to the United Kingdom measured in terms of hundreds of millions of pounds a year.
This market has become highly competitive. I shall give some illustrations of that. Australia, of which I have some direct knowledge as a member of the council of the University of Melbourne, sees itself, with justification, as a country which in relation to its population has the largest market share of overseas students of any country. It has developed that market share through a strong partnership with the Government of Australia who have done the market research both on outlet opportunities and on competitors and have given 1094 financial support to the universities in developing markets, particularly in south-east Asia. It is a strong and effective competitor to British institutions.
I turn to Japan which has plans to double the numbers of overseas students. France and Germany were referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Chorley. They, too, are concerned about the number of overseas students they attract. Germany is concerned not to become an insular community but an outward looking one. It is appreciative of the long-term influence that would be gained for Germany from having students who gain an empathy from studying in Germany. France is naturally concerned about the growing influence of the Anglo-Saxon community. I have seen figures which reveal such ambition to increase the number of overseas students attracted to France that I forbear to quote them. To say that France speaks of doubling that figure would be a modest statement with regard to the figures I have seen.
I have had the opportunity to experience the work of the British Council during visits I have made at the request of overseas universities. I have been impressed by its knowledge, influence and the quality of the service it offers to British institutions, and not only to those involved in higher education. I was astonished to find when I visited Athens recently that the British Council there organises, on behalf of University of Cambridge local examination syndicates, examinations in the English language for 160,000 candidates a year in 1,000 centres that have to be identified. That is some service. I have seen in Japan how the British Council has assisted in securing a 50 to 60 per cent. increase in students from that country over the past three years.
As a public servant I was involved on behalf of various governments in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s in moderating the decline of once great industries. In that cause billions of pounds have been spent. The future of this country lies in exploiting markets that are growth markets where we have real competitive advantage. Higher and further education are such markets. I urge the Government not to miss the opportunity while we have that advantage. I hope the Minister will take back to the Treasury the arguments that have been advanced in this House and that the ledgers will be improved by additional, judicious investment in the British Council.
§ 7.50 p.m.
§ Lord Holme of Cheltenham
My Lords, like other noble Lords who have spoken, I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, for initiating this debate. I should also like to congratulate her on her assumption of the chairmanship. I was delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, also mentioned the work of her distinguished predecessor, Sir Martin Jacomb, who took the Council through some very difficult years.
There have been two sorts of speaker this evening. All of us have spoken so far as friends of the British Council, but there have been knowledgeable and closely involved friends and slightly more detached friends and admirers, among whom I count myself.
I should like to make three very straightforward points. First, there is the work of the British Council in Northern Ireland, to which the noble Baroness, 1095 Lady Kennedy, referred in her introductory remarks. It is an extraordinary achievement in Northern Ireland—which is, for those who know it, a very special place but, in some ways, quite inward looking and, at times, almost claustrophobic—to have the virtues of the British Council active there. It acts as a window on the wider world and helps people around the world to understand the very particular strengths of Northern Ireland at time when Northern Ireland is so easily represented around the world simply in terms of the troubles.
My second point relates to Eastern Europe. I have an interest as chairman of the English College in Prague, to which the British Council has consistently been extremely helpful in a practical way. This is exceptionally important. Several noble Lords have referred to the end of the Cold War and the removal of the Iron Curtain. One of the things that that has left behind in Eastern and Central Europe is almost a vacuum of values. We have been extremely good at arguing against communism during the years of the Cold War, and we were extremely effective at getting in there very quickly—with merchant banks and other people—and telling them about the virtues of capitalism. What we have not been sufficiently good at is helping to fill the civic vacuum which exists in Eastern Europe.
To my personal observation and knowledge, as someone who goes often to Prague and sometimes to Warsaw and Budapest, the British Council has done extraordinary work in communicating the full values of a civic culture, including the issue of human rights, in which the noble Baroness and I share such a close interest. When we think of the work of the British Council on the English language, English culture and the legal and political system of which we are rightly proud, there is also the question of British values. Of course, being British, we do not like to talk about them too much, but it is in the communication and articulation of those values that the work of the Council is most important. I have seen it work and work well in Eastern Europe.
One noble Lord spoke about our competitors, France and Germany. It is certainly a great reproach to the Treasury and the British Government as a whole that the French and Germans spend at a much higher level than we do. They recognise the importance of this sort of work. We live in a modern world where competition and co-operation also go together. You only have to look at industry; there is both competition and co-operation there. Perhaps we live in a competitive/co-operative world.
I ask this question as much of the noble Baroness as of the Minister: is there scope for some co-operation with the Goethe Institut and the Alliance Francaise? Perhaps it is happening already, but, as well as the central role of putting forward British values and culture, there must be some real scope for advancing in a very small world the enduring values of European civilisation.
Finally, we do have to think of value for money. The noble Lord, Lord Renton, spoke about the British Council being part of our marketing effort. One could almost think of the FCO, the World Service and the British Council together as the external affairs department of UK plc. If they are, I should like to see a more concerted and coherent effort by the three of them working together. As we have seen in your Lordships' House, the FCO has its 1096 friends, the World Service certainly has its friends and, as we have heard tonight, the British Council has a very great body of support. Together they could probably make the sort of impact on the Treasury which the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, has just referred to. He is quite right too.
The Treasury needs to be beaten up. Those who represent the interests that your Lordships have spoken about tonight ought to get their act together and then perhaps we shall have some effect on the Treasury.
§ 7.55 p.m.
§ The Earl of Drogheda
My Lords, I too am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, for initiating this debate. I would like to add my voice to the chorus of support that we have heard this evening for the British Council, which is, above all, a force for civilisation. As the noble Earl, Lord Glasgow, has said, much of its work cannot really be quantified. It happens between individuals and therefore the Government must resist the temptation of seeing it as an extension of the British tourist office.
I also feel sympathy for what the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, said. Individual artists should be supported whether or not they are well known, or will necessarily become well known; some probably will. In either event, it is the experience that they will gain abroad and bring back to this country, as well as the message that they will take to people in other countries, that is important.
I feel very strongly that, when funding for the Council is considered, it cannot be looked at as some sort of business. I very much like the idea of the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, of having a totally new approach to funding. Whether the Government will do that, I imagine is very doubtful. But one thing is certain—the level of funding at the moment is far too low for what the Council does, and should not remain static.
§ 7.57 p.m.
§ Lord McNair
My Lords, I shall speak about the work of the British Council in Sudan and its future. The British Council has now been in Sudan for 50 years and has enhanced the sense of partnership and the historic relationship between our two countries. The celebrations of this half century included debates, discussions, arts events and so on. They were to have culminated last December in a seminar on Sudanese-British relations. Unfortunately the seminar did not take place because of the political fall-out following the events of 20th August and the subsequent withdrawal of British Council staff. I very much hope that the seminar, which was attracting so much interest in Britain and Sudan, can be reinstated once our relations with Sudan are normalised and the British Council staff are back at post.
The British Council has continued to make a strong impact in Sudan over recent years through its library and information services. The Council was the first to make the Internet available to the public in Sudan through library membership, providing an important window on Britain, Europe and the West. BBC world television has also been available through the British Council library in Khartoum for several years. Now, of course, British newspapers are available on the Internet.
1097 Work in the fields of English language, environmental awareness, governance—including women's issues—and the arts have been much appreciated by the Sudanese. Links in education, medicine and other subjects continue to be supported to some degree, despite the cuts to the British Council's budget over the years, which all noble Lords have mentioned tonight.
There is one problem which British Council staff find in Sudan. It is difficult to get people with a commitment to the future of the country because there is a tradition in Sudan of professionals going abroad, to the Gulf and so on. So the Council staff find it difficult to maintain a continuing relationship with people.
Ever since I became interested in the Sudan in 1994 I have stressed the importance to the UK of close links with Sudan, whether under the present or a future government. We are talking about the largest country in Africa, with nine neighbours and oil reserves which are believed to equate with those in Saudi Arabia before extraction commenced. I am sorry if that sounds mercenary but it is an important aspect of the effect of the work of the British Council.
I should like to mention two English language initiatives which have the support of the British Council and which may help to mitigate the expected reduction in British Council funding. The first is the Sudan Volunteer Programme, initiated by Mr. David Wolton. Last year, 20 volunteers from Britain, twice the number in 1997, were distributed among five universities and three schools. They provide exposure to English as used by native speakers and take part in other activities, mainly the English Club established in most recipient institutes by the volunteers themselves.
The second initiative is the setting up in the Sudan of the English Language Foundation. The British Ambassador to Sudan, Alan Goulty, who I hope and anticipate will soon be back at post in Khartoum, has been a leading light in this. Others involved are prominent members of the Sudanese British community. The English Language Foundation will be funded entirely by public subscription and will do a number of things. It will help students prepare to take the internationally recognised British language examinations, it will operate a mobile library to provide access to material written in English, it will organise courses for Sudanese teachers of English and it will help to recruit volunteer teachers for the Sudan Volunteer Programme.
I am sure that the British Council will continue, whatever its level of funding to Sudan, to provide excellent service and excellent value for money to those Sudanese who want to find out about British culture or learn the English language. I am particularly pleased that the British Council has offered to run seminars to boost the work already being done in the country itself to improve human rights education and observance in the Sudan. This implements the United Nations' requirement for technical assistance to Sudan in this field.
§ 8.2 p.m.
§ Viscount Waverley
My Lords, little can be added to this debate. However, I wish to make two points, but most importantly to wish the best of luck to the chairman, the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws. I hope that she is heartened by the broad support received this evening.
When I see the efforts that particularly France makes to ensure that its culture and language are protected, a key point made by my noble friend Lord Dearing, and when, as I travel around emerging markets—most latterly, for example, in Central Asia—I am struck when meeting the Ministers by the importance they place on cultural awareness; and for good reason. Relevant to Britain, for example, is that, as the European Union inevitably deepens, there will be additional pressures on language protection. We cannot afford to be smug about such matters and take it as given that English has won the day.
Secondly, perhaps I may say a word about the situation in Tehran. As will be known to all, rapprochement was effected at the latter end of last year, with a number of initiatives ensuing, not least the upgrading to ambassador level. That said, there is a lot of work still to be done. The Iranian President has called for a dialogue of civilisations. We in this country must rise to his challenge while remaining sensitive to the internal political circumstances of that country. I understand that a strategic decision has been made to kick-start British Council activities there, but without necessarily in the early stages opening a dedicated office. I would have no doubt that activities could be self-financing.
It should be recognised that, while the overall objectives are worthy, there possibly remains the need for a certain amount of official wooing in Tehran. I must tell the noble Baroness, however, of the added complication of diplomatic staffing levels, which must be addressed for other reasons as well. Will the Minister kindly have her office keep a watching brief on this matter, because I believe we need to react positively as bilaterals improve?
In conclusion, British Council operations must be strengthened generally—indeed seen as an imperative—in order to help to achieve our foreign policy objectives.
§ 8.5 p.m.
§ Lord Redesdale
My Lords, the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, has caught me out yet again by making a very concise speech. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, for initiating this debate. I have visited many British Council offices around the world, from Pakistan to Yemen and from Estonia to Tanzania, and have always found them to be amazing places of calm tranquillity and learning.
One strand that has come through in every speech in the debate will come as no surprise to the Minister. I refer to the issue of funding. I initiated a debate on the British Council in 1996 to call attention to the cuts that the Council was facing at that time. It did not know how to deal with those cuts because they were coming from two angles. First, they came from the cut in the 1099 grant by the FCO and, secondly, they came from a cut in the grant from the ODA. That was an unfortunate position. The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, mentioned that the British Council now finds itself being the tail on the rather handsome FCO dog. However, in that position there were two dogs and only one tail, which was being docked. The British Council found itself in a difficult position because, as Sir Martin Jacomb himself said at the time, the British Council is not a Whitehall warrior. Judging by what has been said by its friends around this House, to a degree it does not need to be because it has so much support in the Government and from all Benches.
The problem facing the British Council at the moment is that its funding comes directly from the FCO. The direct grant to the British Council will be increased only if the FCO sees the British Council as a priority in its spending requirements. I believe that the present Government see the British Council as more of a priority. The only way to avoid the problem of being within the FCO budget would be by being directly funded from the Treasury, although I do not believe that such a suggestion would meet with much joy in the Treasury itself.
The position has changed since that debate in 1996 was answered by the noble Lord, Lord Chesham. The question that we pressed was how the British Council would fund the redundancy packages when it had no reserves to meet such a crisis. Luckily, in this debate we are not considering such dire proposals.
The British Council has faced a 13.6 per cent. fall in budget over the past five years. However, the level of funding that is predicted for the next three years indicates that the Government are looking at more support for the Council's work. The major difficulty, however, is that, while there has been only a 10 per cent. increase in funding over the past five years, there has been a 40 per cent. increase in activities.
In addition, the British Council, like any successful organisation, has been faced with expansion into new areas of operation—for example, in the Caspian Basin and in China. That means that budgets in close geographical locations are under pressure. I refer to the budgets for Russia and other countries in the Far East. Lack of funding and pressure to reallocate resources has placed existing offices under pressure; British Council offices are having to fund other offices. On a decreasing budget, that means that the Council's activities have to be curtailed.
One question that must be asked is: at what point is a British Council office effective in what it sets out to do? If no new funding is found, will the prospect of office closures have to be faced? One solution to the funding crisis in 1996 was a cut in the domestic staff of the British Council. Clearly, that cannot happen again. Without real increases in funding, it is possible that there may be office closures overseas.
An area in which the British Council has been very successful is IT. It seems that almost every British Council library is now linked up to the Internet. I wish to ask the Minister whether a one-off funding package 1100 can be found to standardise the Council's IT network. One problem faced by the Council is the diversity in its computer systems. It would be difficult for the Council to find a significant amount of money in order to upgrade all its systems together.
The backbone of the British Council is the teaching of English. The point was mentioned by a number of speakers. The noble Lord, Lord Dearing, spoke eloquently on the subject. It should be strongly emphasised that overseas students who come to this country inject £2.5 billion into the British economy. That is an amazingly large figure compared with the small amount of money that is invested through direct grant in the British Council. Although we have a natural advantage as regards instruction in English, there is not a vacuum in English teaching in the international community. The Americans are first in the field; followed closely by the Australians, who have increased their market share dramatically.
The British Council faces the problem that, if America and Australia pump in far more resources and their teaching capacity is more attractive, this could have a harsh direct impact on one of the largest sources of finance that the Council has. The French and German initiatives through the Alliance Francaise and the Goethe Institut were mentioned by my noble friend Lord Holme of Cheltenham. However, having seen some of the activities of the French Institute, it seems that it is acting not so much in the teaching of English as in support of the French language.
Over a number of years the British Council has faced the problem of "death by a thousand cuts". Structural cuts over the long term have depleted its resources. That could have a direct effect on the standard and morale of the Council. However, as I, like other noble Lords, have complained about funding, perhaps I may end on the point that the British Council is an expanding institution. There are significant positive areas that should be looked at. On the issue of development, I commend the work that the British Council has undertaken in conferences on human rights and good government. I pay tribute to the Government for increasing funding to the Council. At a recent meeting held at the British Council there was a new atmosphere of optimism. The feeling was that the worst has now been faced and that, under the leadership of Tom Buchanan, the British Council has a bright future.
§ 8.15 p.m.
§ Lord Moynihan
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, is to be congratulated on her success in securing this debate on the role and future of the British Council. It is a subject which, as today's eloquent contributions have confirmed, is of great interest to this House. Perhaps I may take this opportunity to congratulate the noble Baroness on her unanimously supported appointment as Chair of the British Council, a role which I have no doubt she will perform with a distinction equal to that of her predecessor, Sir Martin Jacomb. I join other noble Lords in paying tribute to him, together with the director-general, Sir John Hanson, both of whom retired 1101 last year. This country owes a great debt to them for their distinguished stewardship of the British Council over the past six years.
The British Council and the BBC World Service have long been acknowledged, and indeed envied, across the world as two of Britain's longest serving and most successful ambassadors. Both are national institutions of which we can be proud and, in the armoury of international diplomacy, they are two of the most potent resources upon which this country is able to draw.
The British Council plays an essential role in promoting Britain's influence and interests around the world. As we have heard, it is often described as our main instrument of cultural diplomacy. While it is unparalleled in that respect, the Council's work in complementing our diplomatic effort, in enhancing our prestige and in supporting our exports, secures a return for us far in excess of the traditional notions of cultural diplomacy, bringing inestimable benefits to Britain in terms both of goodwill and of economic gain. The promotion of people-to-people contacts has provided an equally effective counterweight to the formal channels of government-to-government diplomacy.
The Council draws on Britain's enormous wealth of resources, expertise, creativity, innovative capacity and intellectual capital to work with partners here and overseas to build long-term relations with people and institutions in the A-Z of the globe, from Albania to Zimbabwe. From workshops in India on HIV and AIDS, to international seminars on renewable energy, through to the staging of Shakespeare in Japan, the British Council has been effective in promoting this country and our interests across the world.
At the click of a mouse it is possible to demonstrate the impressive scope and variety of the Council's work by accessing the Council's website. This excellent information resource provides a virtual gateway to Britain and the work of the Council.
One of the tasks in shaping the future role of the Council will undoubtedly be the need to find a harmonious balance between those activities that are undeniably marketable and bring tangible economic benefits, and those activities whose benefits are less tangible but without which the Council would come adrift from its anchoring founding principles.
To take a good example of striking that right balance, the British Council has contributed enormously to an increase in our invisible exports in one of its original objectives; namely, the teaching of English. The English language is a major cultural and economic asset. In today's world it is truly a global language. It is the language of the Internet, the language of science, the language of business, and the language of diplomacy. Three hundred and fifty million people speak English as a first language, 350 million more use it regularly as a second language and over 100 million people speak it fluently as a foreign language. By the year 2000, an estimated 1 billion people will be learning English worldwide. Last year, the Council taught 1.1 million class hours in its 127 teaching centres worldwide. At any one time, more than 130,000 students are learning English in those self-supporting centres.
1102 So it is important to ask the Government what importance they attach to the British Council's work in diversifying into teaching skills through English, including management studies and British studies and in forming new strategic partnerships, which have been alluded to this evening, to take forward the areas of distance learning, open learning and new technologies, as well as developing projects such as English 2000, which seeks to forecast future uses of English worldwide in order to inform the development of language policies.
Education and training are another example. The global education and training market is estimated to be worth £7 billion a year and rising fast. The Council, with its English language centres, the central bureau and its huge network of 209 libraries and computer centres, is well placed to access this market and to capitalise on Britain's international reputation for the quality and diversity of its education services.
The education of today's foreign students lays down the foundations for tomorrow's trading relationships. Many overseas students who study in Britain, some of whom are the recipients of Council-supported Chevening scholarships or British Marshal scholarships, will become the leaders and opinion formers of tomorrow in their countries. That was pointed out and reinforced by my noble friend Lady Hooper. She was right. When Britain is the educating country, that frequently brings us future tangible benefits of trade and intangible benefits of friendship, understanding and co-operation. I ask the Minister what role she envisages for the Council in continuing to secure for Britain a sizeable market share in the global education and training export business.
Science is another example of the Council's successful marriage of pragmatism and principle. The collaborative nature of scientific research easily lends itself to the partnerships pioneered by the British Council. Indeed, the Council's work in science, research, technical training and engineering and technology exchanges accounts for more than a quarter of its total activity, with over 9,000 scientific visits a year and more than 1,300 research links. Will the Minister assure the House that, through dialogue on the official leg, if I may quote the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Tillyorn, it will work with the British Council to further those partnerships in scientific and cultural research?
Funding has inevitably been touched on. Coming as it does in advance of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee inquiry into the funding of the British Council, it is not surprising that much of the debate has concerned funding arrangements for the Council. As someone whose early career in another place was slowed down—as was made clear to me—by not supporting a vote of my own party when in government on the FCO budget, I suggest to the House that what I am about to say is said both personally and I hope now by my party, with commitment. I hope that a regular addition of £25 million in grant in aid, 5 per cent. of the total income or 10 per cent. of the grant in aid, will be considered favourably by the Government.
1103 I shall use the last two minutes to look to the future. The British Council is faced with a number of key questions to which answers must be found; namely, how to maximise the impact of available funding and to develop the most appropriate mix of activities for a range of contexts, while at the same time developing and stimulating the local market's desire for British Council goods and services.
No institution, no matter how successful, can afford to stand still while the world around it changes. A rolling assessment and evaluation of the British Council's mission and long-term strategy should not therefore carry negative connotations. Indeed, in response to the demands and the issues of today's world, the Council has already increased its focus on science, human rights, governance and gender issues, including the empowerment of women. That was alluded to brilliantly by my noble friend Lady Fookes.
For the British Council to be equipped to meet the needs and challenges of the 21st century it must find the right balance: a balance between keeping faith with its founding principles, while responding to the realities of the changing environment in which it operates; a balance between the tangible benefits of exports and the intangible benefits of goodwill and friendship. The best of British tradition, culture and history must be married with aspirations and values of the modern successful Britain within the realities set by the income and funding which the Council is able to generate.
On all those points, I look forward with interest to hearing the Minister's response and the assistance that the Government intend to offer to ensure that those objectives are accomplished.
§ 8.25 p.m.
§ Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean
My Lords, I am delighted to reply to the debate calling attention to the work and the future of the British Council. It is an organisation which enjoys the wholehearted support of both the Government and, as this evening's debate demonstrates, of noble Lords who have spoken. I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lady Kennedy for initiating the debate.
As the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, said, the British Council is a distinctive but integral part of Britain's international effort, supporting and complementing our diplomatic, commercial and developmental agendas. It is a dynamic organisation, skilled at responding to new challenges and opportunities, as has been demonstrated by the speed with which it has adapted to this Government's foreign policy priorities, particularly with respect to human rights and the projection of a modern and dynamic Britain.
It has developed and is delivering programmes which specifically underpin our policies, which spread our values and enrich our lives through partnerships and collaboration with those who share our interests overseas.
Much has been said this evening on funding. Last year saw a number of significant events affecting the British Council. The comprehensive spending review 1104 resulted in the amalgamation of the FCO and DfID grants-in-aid to the Council into one, administered by the FCO. The change will reduce the administrative load on the Council and enable it to carry out its activities as a seamless whole. In addition, the Government were able to secure for the Council an uplift for inflation on the grant-in-aid for the three-year CSR period from 1999 to 2000, plus a further real increase of £2 million a year. That is in line with the Foreign Office's own settlements.
Given the heavy pressure on all aspects of our diplomatic effort and the difficult choices that had to be made, I believe that the final distribution of resources was the best available in the circumstances. More importantly, the CSR settlement reverses the fall in the real value of the grant-in-aid over the last four years, amounting to an 8.9 per cent. cut since 1994–95. The three-year settlement also allows the Council to plan ahead on a more stable and secure basis. The noble Lords, Lord Renton, Lord Chorley, Lord Redesdale and the noble Earls, Lord Glasgow and Lord Drogheda, all made those points forcefully.
§ Lord Renton of Mount Harry
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. She made the point that the settlement received reverses the fall of 8.5 per cent. over the three previous years. It does not. It accepts the fall but then starts to build back again at a rate of approximately 1 per cent. a year. That fall, which I regret, is now a fact and that must be understood. It is not reversed. One of the difficulties is that one is building now on a smaller financial base in grant in aid.
§ Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean
My Lords, the fact is that the process is being reversed. This Government demonstrate their real commitment to the British Council not only by meeting inflation, but by building upon that in real terms. We were very pleased to be able to give a real increase of some 1.5 per cent. I say gently to the noble Lord opposite and to the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, that they failed lamentably to do the right thing on funding when their party was in office. They now demonstrate an enthusiasm for funding that they did not demonstrate when their party was in office. This party is doing the right thing.
In July of last year my noble friend Lady Kennedy took over the chair of the British Council. Under her energetic direction the British Council completed a fundamental review of its purpose under which a revised strategy was adopted aimed at focusing the Council's work on a single clear purpose, that purpose being to enhance the reputation of the UK in the world as a valued partner. The results of the review have been endorsed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and we welcome the new drive and momentum that my noble friend has brought to the Council. We warmly welcome her to her new role as many other noble Lords have done. It is important however to note that although the Council's core funding comes from government, the proportion of total income from government grant has declined steadily. Under one third of the Council's income now comes from government. The rest comes from English teaching, running British examinations, 1105 administering training programmes and managing development contracts. All of these activities enhance Britain's presence overseas at no cost to the British taxpayer.
Many noble Lords have referred to a wide range of activities in which the Council is involved. I should like to deal with some of them. I begin with human rights to which I referred a moment or two ago. In the promotion of human rights, civil liberties and democracy the Council has responded through a number of innovative programmes, some funded through the FCO's Human Rights Project Fund. The Council is involved in managing over half of the projects under this fund. One of the most notable is the Palestinian Rights Programme which includes a project on the development of a children's charter of rights. The noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, raised the question of women. The British Council has been involved in work to support the status of women and their participation in the political, social and economic life of their society as instanced by the four-year project on political skills for women running for local government in Nigeria; in judicial and legal training through its Indian young lawyers scheme and practical training schemes for young Chinese lawyers; and in ethnicity where it is publishing a magazine in Zimbabwe with accounts by visiting professionals about being black in Britain. Those are just a few examples of the work of the Council in the important areas of equality and human rights.
Several noble Lords, particularly the noble Lords, Lord Dearing and Lord Moynihan, made reference to the very important role played by the British Council in overseas student recruitment. Over 200,000 students are currently enrolled in British higher education. Of those, approximately half come from the 14 countries where the Council operates its education counselling service. Independent estimates of the value of overseas student business to our economy are put at £1.5 billion. The education counselling service co-financed by the Council and British academic institutions is an excellent example of partnership in action. Partnership and collaboration are the basis of the Council's work in this and many other areas of work.
The British Council in 1998 helpfully agreed to administer our new, one-year scholarship scheme, designed to help students from Indonesia, Korea Malaysia and Thailand studying, or planning to study, in the United Kingdom in 1998 and to overcome the financial problems they face as a result of the significant currency fluctuations in their countries. Principally financed by the FCO, the private sector and British universities and colleges, but with contributions also from the British Council and the DTI, the British scholarship scheme has generated much goodwill towards the United Kingdom in the countries concerned. Some 2,800 students have benefited from the scheme and it has received particularly warm support from business co-sponsors.
The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, reminded us that the Council also manages on a long-term basis the prestigious Chevening Scholarships funded by the Foreign Office and the DfID. These scholarships enable future leaders, decision-makers and opinion formers 1106 from around the world to study in the United Kingdom at a formative stage in their careers. In doing so, they develop an understanding of British values, institutions and our way of life. On returning home they make important contributions to the development of their own societies. For ourselves, having friends of Britain in high places overseas helps to further our long-term political, commercial and developmental interests.
The Council also helps with the administration of a range of co-sponsored schemes including the very successful John Smith Fellowship Programme initiated by my noble friend Baroness Smith in honour of the late leader of the Labour Party. I am grateful to my noble friend, as I am sure is my noble friend Lady Kennedy, for her very appreciative words this evening. I entirely agree with noble Lords that the importance of attracting more foreign students to the United Kingdom cannot be too strongly emphasised. I believe that that point was made very well by the noble Lord, Lord Dearing. A cross-Whitehall study has just been undertaken on exactly how we should do this. Its genesis was a visit from the Prime Minister to China where he was struck by the value and effectiveness of British scholarship schemes. The British Council will be a natural partner in the implementation of any recommendations that result from that study.
Many noble Lords, but particularly the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, drew our attention to English language training. Undoubtedly the English language is one of our major assets. The UK is the leading international provider of English language teaching and services. The Council's own teaching network of 127 centres in 54 countries stands as a bench-mark of quality and best practice, with over 1.1 million class hours taught worldwide every year. But the Council is equally concerned to help other countries develop English teaching in their schools and other institutions. Ideally we should like all those who need or want it to have access to English, the language which best opens windows in the modern world. It also opens windows to our traditional and contemporary literature so vividly described by my noble friend Lady Rendell.
Several noble Lords referred to the work and expertise of the British Council in promoting Britain's achievements in the arts, literature and design which attract plaudits from all over the world. Over the past year it has provided a major input to a number of events organised by FCO missions overseas to promote the UK, such as Festival UK98 in Japan and UKaccents, a year-long festival in Ottawa aimed exclusively at young people which includes leading examples of British youth culture, with DJs, fashion designers, performance artists and film-makers. Rarely can a Council venture have had such a spectacular outcome as David Hare's brilliant play "Via Dolorosa" written after a Council-sponsored visit to Israel and the occupied territories.
The Council also helps to promote British exports in the fields of education and training and the creative industries through overseas missions, seminars, fairs and showcases, together with exhibitions of visual work as the noble Lord, Freyberg, reminded us. Together these sectors account for some £15 billion of exports. The Council has been actively involved in the recent drive 1107 to develop and promote our booming creative industries where it is working with the FCO. DCMS, DTI and some 40 trade associations in the sector to develop fresh export promotion initiatives. The Council's renowned skills and expertise as Britain's principal agency for cultural affairs makes it the natural choice to organise events in this very important field.
Perhaps I may refer to the Council's work in developing countries. The fact that the British Council now receives a single grant-in-aid from the Foreign Office does not mean that it has given up its long-standing interest in working in and with developing countries. It will continue to run substantial programmes in developing countries, in particular in the field of libraries and information, education and the English language and the encouragement of better practice in the field of governance and human rights. The Council's approach, based on partnership and mutual interest, helps to further the values which we believe support fruitful co-operation with developing countries. I took very much to heart the points made by the noble Earl on the way in which the Council should be working on the ground with NGOs.
Some attention has been focused on the recent downturn in the value of DfID contracts awarded to the British Council. Both the DfID and the British Council have undertaken statistical analysis of the downturn. The DfID analysis shows clearly that there has been a substantial reduction in the overall value of contracts. But not all British Council business obtained from the DfID is in the education sector. The picture is complex. There are variations from one overseas country to another reflecting different factors.
The Council is understandably concerned to build up a picture of future prospects as soon as possible. The DfID is very ready to provide information on its planned approaches under individual bilateral country programmes and to talk through the likely opportunities with the British Council and others. Like others, the Council will no doubt want to keep in contact with the DfID. I understand that the British Council had a helpful meeting with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the DfID yesterday. I hope that by those kinds of contact we shall be able to inform the Council of the way in which matters are developing.
I wish to comment on some of the specific industries in particular countries which have been referred to by noble Lords. The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, raised the question of film making. The Council has contributed significantly to the setting up of a British film office in Los Angeles; and it has also embarked on a series of activities to help develop the fledgeling film industries in a number of other countries, in particular South Africa.
The noble Lord, Lord Birkett, spoke of the important work done by the Council in the field of music. Noble Lords may be interested to know that when the Prince of Wales visited South Africa in 1997, an important element of his visit was the youth exchanges between the young people of Britain and South Africa who worked together to produce a concert in South Africa. And the British Council sponsored the Women in Africa 1108 concert which brought together a number of different museums which performed in the Festival Hall. It was a unique experiment at that time.
Perhaps I may say this to the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg. I understand that the Council's grant-to-artists scheme was suspended due to internal budgetary constraints during the course of last year. But from the next financial year it will be restored. It is a worthwhile scheme, and the Council is now free to decide the priorities it wants in that sort of expenditure.
I turn to the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, in relation to Latin America. The Council's representation in Latin America enables it to support the Government's agenda in three priority areas: the promotion of modern Britain; good governance in human rights; and of course export promotion, in particular in cultural matters. As the noble Baroness said, much work has been going on in Brazil, focusing on the design sector in particular. But the Council also supports the network of culturas, the locally based anglophile English teaching centres which exist in many Latin American countries. Some of those are very big. They are of very high quality and a considerable asset to British interests. When I visited Cuba in the autumn of last year, I was delighted to be able to tell our friends in Cuba of the appointment of the British Council representative there.
In response to the noble Earl, Lord Carlisle, the British Council is also active in all three of the Baltic States. The noble Earl talked in particular about his experiences in Estonia. But the British Council is focusing resources now on the challenges of the EU accession process where, in conjunction with our Ministers, the Council can deliver high profile programmes across a number of different relevant subjects. The Council has assisted the Ministry of Education in Estonia to establish 40 regional teachers' centres and has set up eight outreach centres in Latvia and five in Lithuania, each of which has a collection of English language teaching texts and general information about the United Kingdom.
Perhaps I may say this to the noble Lord, Lord McNair. We hope that the Council will be able to plan to extend some work in the Sudan through the resource centres, perhaps to other cities and towns.
I turn now to Iran in response to the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley. The Council has looked at a range of options for resuming activity in Iran. Any decision to resume British Council activity there will have to take account of Iranian sensitivities, as the noble Viscount acknowledges. Agreement would need to be reached with the Iranian authorities further to raise the ceiling of staff allowed in our embassies—a matter we have discussed on previous occasions.
I congratulate my noble friend Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede on the sheer ingenuity of his contribution in bringing in the British Youth Council. My noble friend can rest assured that the Government wholeheartedly support the work being done by the British Youth Council.
1109 The noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, raised interesting points in relation to co-operation with our counterparts in France and Germany. There is co-operation, for example, in the Ukraine, Venezuela and Namibia. I shall be happy to send examples of that to the noble Lord if he would like me to pursue those matters with him in correspondence. There are some worthwhile examples of co-operation.
I thank all noble Lords who have participated in the debate. When I go abroad I am always impressed by my visits to the British Council. It is often the most visible part of the British presence in any one country—although I am sure that some of my colleagues in the Foreign Office will read the remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Carlisle, about the relative value of the Foreign Office and the British Council with considerable interest. The specialist talents in the British Council—the programmes and the contacts it makes—are invaluable contributions to our international relationships. Of course there will always be periods of difficulty. Of course there are times when it is difficult to adapt. But we know that the Council is keen to ensure that noble Lords are fully briefed on its activities. To that end, it is proposing to form a parliamentary association group. I think that that is a terrific idea and I encourage noble Lords with an interest in the British Council to join that group.
On a previous debate on this matter, one noble Lord described the Council as a priceless asset. It is. The Government recognise the valuable role which the Council plays in enhancing Britain's reputation and prestige abroad. The Government are determined to see the Council continue and develop, and to develop the reputation of this country in the world as a valuable partner in that great conversation of mankind.
§ 8.47 p.m.
§ Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws
My Lords, I thank everyone for participating in this interesting debate. It has been truly heartening to hear your Lordships speak with such warmth for, and admiration of, the work of the British Council. It is a special organisation, as all noble Lords have said. It always seems a shame that not enough people in Britain know of its contribution, not just to our nation but to the world.
Coming into the British Council, I have said that I see my role as an advocate on its behalf. The truth is that the Council has many advocates, as we have seen here tonight. We have to sing its song loudly and to a wider public, and perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, could wave his conductor's baton and have us singing in harmony.
One of the great achievements of the British Council is its ability to meet the challenges of the modern world. Your Lordships will be delighted to know that around the world, probably tomorrow morning, conscious of this debate, Council staff will be getting on line to read all that noble Lords have said. They, I am sure, will be inspired and cheered on by your enthusiasm and high regard. I thank all noble Lords for making time to participate in the debate. In particular I thank my noble 1110 friend the Minister for her generous words, reassurance and support. Of course the issue of funding will remain thorny.
I think it will come as no surprise to the noble Baroness when I say that I intend to be a warrior in Whitehall on the British Council's behalf. I can be quite doughty when I set my mind to it! Perhaps together she and I can make that assault on the Treasury which was suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Holme. It is certainly my intention.
I wish finally to express my gratitude to noble Lords who organise the business in this House. They succumbed to my blandishments and made space for the debate. They know who they are, and I am truly indebted to them. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.