Skip to main content

Commonwealth Youth Exchange

Volume 975: debated on Monday 10 December 1979

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Le Marchant.]

9.11 pm

The occasion for this debate about Commonwealth youth exchange is the decision of the British Council to decline to make any grant to the Commonwealth Youth Exchange Council in 1980–81. That will bring all exchanges between young people from Britain and Commonwealth countries to an end.

The Commonwealth Youth Exchange Council, of which I have the honour to be chairman, was formed in 1970 as an educational charity. Its aims are to promote among young people a wider knowledge and understanding of the Commonwealth, to provide information and advice on contacts and exchanges between Britain and other Commonwealth countries, and to grant aid for such projects. The CYEC constantly stresses the need for young people to be fully briefed about the countries that they will visit and about the Commonwealth in general.

The activities of the council during the last nine years have led to firm contact being established with the youth ministries and other key agencies in nearly all Commonwealth countries with which one has to deal in order to arrange effective youth exchanges. The CYEC also liaises closely with Commonwealth high commissioners in London and British high commissioners overseas. The status of the CYEC as a "Government supported body" is very important, as it gives that body weight and helps it effectively to maintain its contacts.

In the current year we have supported 2,158 young people on 96 exchange projects. An increasing number of those exchanges involve developing countries. Those countries are now given priority at the expense of previous substantial support for exchanges with Canada. The grants are merely a topping up, representing perhaps up to one-third of the total cost involved in an exchange. The amount is determined according to need.

We also try to ensure that any exchange that is grant-aided carries a substantial educational content. In 1970 it was felt right to set up a separate body to deal with youth exchange with the Commonwealth, in order to identify the special characteristics of the Commonwealth and implant them in the minds of Britain's young people. It was felt that a body dedicated to this task alone was essential if we were to encourage an idea of the developing Commonwealth in young people in Britain.

We believe that in nine years we have performed reasonably well, and we are anxious at present to pursue what I call the developmental role in Britain—the projectional role of getting across the idea of the Commonwealth to young people, encouraging them to get involved in exchanges with young people in Commonwealth countries. I believe that this is an extremely worthwhile exercise which should be expanded rather than be faced with contraction.

The substantial bulk of the funds for the Commonwealth Youth Exchange Council is provided from the Exchequer through the medium of the British Council. In the current year the level of funding was £79,080. In addition to that we receive approximately £5,500 from voluntary sources, and perhaps some additional small amounts from local authorities and other supportive agencies. I have probably said sufficient on the financial side to make it clear that the activities of the CYEC depend almost wholly on the grant that has been received through the British Council.

Early in October this year, in response to cuts that had to be made in public expenditure as a whole, the British Council found that it had to save some £5 million out of a budget of £46·6 million. Its response to this in part was to axe in total its grant to the CYEC.

I have the strongest possible objection to the manner in which the British Council conducted its operation. I thought that we were living in a society in which consultation and participation were becoming more the orders of the day. But this was a peremptory decision conveyed in an almost brutal fashion by the British Council to the CYEC, and it has been received with shock and dismay not merely by those dedicated people who have given their time to the CYEC but also by the many agencies around the Commonwealth and by other voluntary agencies in this country.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way to me because it gives me an opportunity to stress to the Minister the widespread support that is felt amongst youth organisations for what my hon. Friend is saying. The British Youth Council, of which I have the honour to be president, deplores very strongly the British Council's decision and regards the work of the CYEC as being extremely important, if not vital. It should continue, and I hope that my hon. Friend will be successful in persuading the Minister to intervene and ensure that this work can go on.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral (Mr. Hunt) for drawing attention to the support that there is from the British Youth Council and many other quarters, for which the CYEC is most grateful in these difficult days.

I find it extraordinary to see how the British Council has gone about this extremely difficult business. I have a great deal of sympathy for the Council and those who work for it, not only in this country but around the world. But I cannot help feeling that it was a somewhat easier decision for the Council to make to axe services in which it was not so much directly involved rather than those services in which it had its own employees. That may be a harsh judgment, but I am afraid that it shines through the manner in which the British Council dealt with this affair.

In response to my protests, I must acknowledge that the British Council has said that it could find for 1980–81, without any hope of repetition for the future, the sum of £15,000, which might help the CYEC to survive and try to re-establish itself with voluntary support. However, I question the defence that the British Council has put forward to the manner of the cuts that it has made.

In a written answer on 22 November my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs replied to my hon. Friend the Member for Leek (Mr. Knox) with figures in respect of British Council grants for youth exchanges in 1980–81. It appears that a total sum of £341,500 is to be expended through the medium of the British Council on exchanges: to Eastern Europe £50,000; to France £77,590; to Germany £114,800; to Western Europe £99,110, and to the Commonwealth nil. That was prior to the decision to allow £15,000 as a once-and-for-all gesture to CYEC in 1980–81. I find that order of priorities staggering. I do not understand on what possible rational basis that allocation could have been made.

I am told by the British Council in defence of its actions that exchanges to Europe, East or West, are more cost-effective. That is because exchanges to Eastern and Western Europe are cheaper. Thus, more people can go for a given sum. That I understand, but that does not mean that it should be the basis upon which priorities for youth exchange should be assessed.

I argue that it is relatively easy—I did it in my student days—to cross the Channel to the Continent of Europe. It needs less expertise and less finance—I am not saying that it needs none of those commodities—to establish an effective exchange. However, if there is to be an exchange of young people with the Commonwealth, especially with developing countries, to which I think it is right to give emphasis, there needs to be careful organisation and contact. In other words, those who make the arrangements have to be experts. The aim of CYEC is to provide expertise and to help young people, whose horizons stretch rather further than Western or Eastern Europe, to participate in effective exchange. I find the British Council's answer extraordinary.

The Council also claims that by reducing the grant to CYEC virtually to nil it can save extra costs within its organisation. I am curious to know how those savings may be achieved. I shall explain the system. The vast proportion of the grant that is now made to CYEC is used for exchanges. In addition, there is an administration grant, which is paid directly to CYEC. The rest of the money is held by the British Council. The CYEC determines which applicants shall receive support. The names are sent to the British Council and processed through the computer. Cheques are received by CYEC. All the paper work for the participants is processed by CYEC.

The staff of CYEC consists of one executive secretary full time and a full-time assistant who works in a secretarial capacity. It could perfectly well take on the work which the British Council has been undertaking. I see no reason why the grant for exchanges should not be paid directly to CYEC and handled by it without any increase in its staff, and presumably with some saving to the British Council. That would overcome one of the difficulties that the British Council has raised. If all that the Council is trying to do is save money, I can save money for it, because the devoted and loyal staff of CYEC will undertake all the work and will do so extremely efficiently. If that were allowed to take place, the operation could continue.

I have three points to make. First, if we are to spend £341,500 on youth exchanges, it cannot accord with the priorities of Her Majesty's Government, or Britain generally, to spend nil on Commonwealth youth exchanges.

Secondly, I am prepared to be open-minded about the need for some rationalisation of youth exchanges. It may be that we need a new form of organisation exclusively to handle youth exchanges involving Britain's interests. If we had an organisation that was exclusively concerned with exchanges involving young people, I am sure that we could introduce an order of priorities different from that which the British Council has achieved, which seems scandalously to neglect our traditional interests in Commonwealth countries.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider the fact that various moneys are expended by Government Departments—not only his own—which go through various channels into the business of youth exchange. Perhaps there is a better way in which we could handle these in the interests of the country, of efficiency and of having the widest possible spread.

Thirdly, looking at these figures, if we are to save something for the Commonwealth Youth Exchange Council, is it all that unreasonable to ask that £5,000 might be shaded off exchanges with Eastern Europe? Are exchanges with Eastern Europe more important to us than exchanges with the Commonwealth—more important to the tune that there should be no money for the Commonwealth yet £50,000 should be spent on Eastern Europe? Might not £5,000 be shaded off the figure for exchanges with France, which, in any case, in money terms, is scheduled to rise between 1979–80 and 1980–81? Might not £5,000 be shaded off the amount for Germany, which is scheduled to rise from £104,600 to £114,800? Might not £5,000 be shaded off the total for Western Europe, which is scheduled to rise in money terms from £90,410 to £99,110? Would not that £20,000, together with the £15,000 that has been offered by the British Council as a latter-day gesture, together make up at least a kernel of an amount upon which the CYEC could survive in future? Even that would represent a 50 per cent. cut.

I accept that even in these difficult times we must all accept cuts. However, it is a question whether these cuts are reasonable and whether they are fairly distributed in the particular environment in which they are being considered. As it is, the CYEC must take the begging bowl around private industry. It will do its best. It will redouble its efforts to raise money to continue work which we believe to be important and valuable. But it will be a sad day indeed if the Government put their imprimatur of approval on the work done by the British Council, which will effectively reduce the CYEC to a shell and ensure that the very minimum is done in the future to develop the contacts of young people in this country with young people in the Commonwealth. I think that such an answer will be widely regretted not only in the House, not only in the country, but throughout the Commonwealth.

9.28 pm

In raising this Adjournment debate my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) has brought to the attention of the House two important areas that are of concern to the Govern- ment—the Commonwealth, and youth exchanges.

I must make clear from the start that neither the Foreign and Commonwealth Office nor, I believe, the British Council wishes to see the demise of the Commonwealth Youth Exchange Council. The CYEC has performed a valuable task over the years in promoting and fostering exchanges between the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries. I note the support that my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral (Mr. Hunt) also gave to what it has done.

The British Council's decision to end the grant was taken because of the overriding need to reduce Government expenditure. My hon. Friend will know that for 1980–81 the British Council is having to reduce its spending by about £5 million. This is a regrettable necessity. My hon. Friend also knows that the Council is not alone in having to accept a cut of that severity. Because of the spending plans that the Government inherited, and because those spending plans were based on assumptions about economic growth that have proved wholly unrealistic, some very painful decisions have had to be taken in a number of fields. The Government decided—and, I am sure, rightly decided—that the British Council could not be exempt from making its contribution.

Though the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is answerable for the British Council in the House, it does not dictate to the Council how it should run its day-to-day activities. The Council is an independent body, incorporated by Royal charter. The rule of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is to give it broad guidelines on geographic priorities. In connection with the cuts for 1980–81, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office advised the Council that it should, where possible, try to avoid closing down its posts abroad. That being so, home-based activities have had to bear a proportionately higher share of the cuts than overseas activities. One of the home-based activities, according to the British Council's organisation, is youth exchanges.

The responsibility for deciding originally to cut the Commonwealth youth exchange programme completely, to reduce the East European programme and to maintain spending on the programmes to Western Europe, was that of the British Council. Perhaps it will help my hon. Friend if I explain its reasoning as it has explained it to me.

If staff savings were to be made and other programmes maintained at a viable level, the British Council considered it necessary to cut out an entire programme and drastically to reduce another, thereby trimming its administrative costs.

The Council looked at the economics of the different programmes. France, Germany and Western Europe as a whole were the least expensive programmes run by the Council in terms of the numbers exchanged. In 1978–79 the average grant per head to France was £13, to Germany £12 and to Western Europe generally £16. For the Commonwealth and Eastern Europe the figures were £43 and £82 respectively.

For £80,000 the Commonwealth programme grant-aided 1,700 young people, whilst for about £120,000 some 10,000 young people were assisted in exchanges with Germany. The Eastern European programme is also less cost-effective than those to Western Europe in these terms, but we have cultural agreements with many Eastern European countries where specific references to youth exchanges are made. The British Council, in reducing its Eastern European programme, will fund the less expensive exchanges, and it may be that future cultural agreements can have less emphasis placed on these exchanges. We shall be examining this point, subject to our commitments, bearing in mind the Helsinki agreement.

In addition, successive Governments have concluded a number of cultural agreements with Western European countries, including France and Germany. These countries attach great importance to official support for youth exchanges—an interest to which Her Majesty's Government respond.

We have an official special committee on youth exchanges with Germany. The committee meets annually to discuss the programme for the following year and looks at ways in which we can improve on the exchanges. A further group meets regularly with the French. There are less frequent but important contacts with the Netherlands, Italy, Belgium and Spain.

These were the reasons why the British Council decided that the Commonwealth youth exchange programme should be dropped and the money for exchanges with Eastern Europe substantially reduced. They were the most expensive per head to finance. In addition, the Council calculated that by this course it could economise to the extent of one member of its staff.

I should be interested to know who that member of staff is. I have attempted to work it out on the basis of the relationship between the CYEC and the British Council, but what that saving will be defeats me.

I cannot identify the individual at the moment, but I am giving the House the explanation that was given to me in my discussion with the British Council.

The Council also took account of the fact that there were other funds and organisations that encouraged exchanges and other forms of co-operation with the Commonwealth. For example, under the Commonwealth youth programme, assistance is provided to regional centres in India, Africa and Caribbean countries to assist in the training of youth leaders and to set up workshops to consider other youth problems in the Commonwealth.

Her Majesty's Government meet 30 per cent. of the cost of the youth programme. We also provide broad assistance to the Commonwealth through the aid programme in education and give help to a large programme for Commonwealth scholars, since it is in the educational and developmental areas that the needs of the Commonwealth are best served. The Council also took account of the fact that exchange is a two-way process and that there are many difficulties in establishing truly reciprocal contacts with developing Commonwealth countries. Very often those countries do not have the machinery to support exchanges at their end.

The CYEC has for many years concentrated at least 50 per cent. of its efforts on Canada. There are, of course, obvious reasons for this. Canada is a good friend, it has a strong administrative structure for its youth movements, and it can provide many contacts for identifiable British youth groups—for example, young farmers and the boy scouts. But the CYEC has, so far, not been able to develop exchanges with Commonwealth countries to anything like the same extent as it has with Canada.

I have listened carefully to the points made by my hon. Friend in the House today and previously in the discussions I have had with him. I have been impressed by his arguments on behalf of continued Commonwealth youth exchanges. I am particularly impressed by the argument that Europe is nearby and that exchanges with it are relatively cheap and easy to arrange. Commonwealth countries, on the other hand, are mostly far away and more expertise and effort are needed to develop exchanges with them.

As a result of my discussions with my hon. Friend, I have asked the British Council to review its decision in the hope that it can continue making a grant to the CYEC for the coming year. My hon. Friend knows—indeed, he told the House this evening—that a little while ago the Council indicated that it could find £15,000. However, I understand that this would have done little more than allow the CYEC to keep its own machinery ticking over and would not have allowed it to make any grants. As a result of a conversation I have had with the British Council more recently, I can now tell my hon. Friend that the Council informs me that it will reconsider the position and hopes to be able to do a good deal better than the £15,000 I have just mentioned and provide a sum which will enable the CYEC to give grants in the coming year, though not up to the level of the recent past. The Council will, of course, need time to work out the details.

I feel sure my hon. Friend will welcome this news. I hope that he and the CYEC will bear in mind the comments on their programme that I have just mentioned. I hope also that the CYEC will pursue energetically the search for non-governmental funds. The Council had planned, as a consequence of cutting the CYEC grant, to save one member of its exchanges department staff from its total of seven. Now that the British Council is prepared to offer further assistance, I hope that the CYEC can take all possible steps, in co-operation with the British Council, to reduce the adminis- trative burden on the Council so that such a saving can still be effected. I should add that the arrangements that I have mentioned will apply only for 1980–81. What happens after that will be considered later.

I recognise that there will still be a shortfall in the CYEC's budget for 1980–81 compared with this year. Nevertheless, our youth exchange assistance is only a "topping-up" process, as my hon. Friend said. The young people must pay a proportion of the cost themselves. Other money is already contributed by private sources, through fund raising, and some is provided by local authorities. If other sources of funds can be identified, and the expertise of CYEC in advice and development can be enlarged upon, I am confident that many of the exchanges mentioned by my hon. Friend can be continued.

My hon. Friend called for a rationalisation of youth exchanges. We know that many organisations exist to foster and encourage these exchanges, but many of them are independent bodies with their own constitutions and they reflect the United Kingdom's pluralistic approach to youth exchanges. We do not wish to impose programmes from the top but prefer to respond to identifiable needs. The British Council supervises its exchange activities through a consultative committee based on youth workers, voluntary bodies, local authorities and representatives of central Government.

That committee, although invited recently to comment on the future of youth exchanges, did not recommend that any rationalisation was required. We would, however, be pleased to respond to my hon. Friend's proposal, and I shall instruct my officials to arrange a meeting with the Department of Education and Science and to explore the possibilities. I hope that my hon. Friend can take comfort from the offers that I have made and that the CYEC can continue and expand its role as an adviser and organiser to help young people and their organisations to find contacts and increase their knowledge of the Commonwealth.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Ten o'clock.