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British Council

Volume 700: debated on Wednesday 8 September 2021

Before we begin, I encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. Please give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room. Members should send their speaking notes by email to Similarly, officials should communicate electronically with Ministers.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered British Council closures.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. The British Council is the oldest and, for a long time, one of the most important cultural institutions in the world. It has had and continues to have enormous influence. I am sure the Minister knows this, and I do not want to use my time to give him a history lesson. However, we are having this debate because the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office seems to have forgotten about the British Council’s value with its refusal to provide financial support, so I will briefly remind him of the British Council’s initial purpose.

Founded in 1934, the British Council was created in response to a changing global stage: the United Kingdom was losing its traditional forms of influence, extreme ideologies were on the rise around the world and there was a global economic crisis. Those problems may not sound unfamiliar to the Minister and others here today as he and his Cabinet colleagues seek to re-establish the UK as a global power outside the EU, respond to extreme ideologies at home and abroad, as we have devastatingly seen over the last few weeks, and tackle the economic and social implications of the pandemic and the climate crisis. Clearly, the British Council remains as relevant today as it has ever been. If the Minister disagrees, I will be interested in hearing him explain that later.

This Government like to talk about us being a global Britain. In fact, the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy earlier this year was named “Global Britain in a Competitive Age”. In the review, we were told the UK would become one of the most influential countries in the world, and a key aspect of this is our role as a soft superpower. The review explicitly highlighted the important work of none other than the British Council, noting that it

“operates in over 100 countries”.

The problem is that the British Council does not. It just cannot. Why? Because, frankly, the Government have prevented it from doing so.

Like many organisations, the British Council has suffered during the pandemic as its commercial operations, which usually provide most of its income, have been severely hit. As of July, teaching revenues were back to only about 50% of pre-pandemic levels, representing a loss of hundreds of millions of pounds over the course of the year. It is predicted that income from commercial operations will not be back to pre-pandemic levels until 2023. That is absolutely devastating.

In a usual year, the British Council can provide an income of several million pounds more than it needs to run its commercial activities, and that surplus is effectively used to subsidise its other work, which is otherwise funded by Government grants. Have the Government tried to help? Yes and no. An immediate shortfall in funding was met through an additional non-official development assistance grant of £26 million, which was very welcome. What was less welcome for the British Council was that most of the additional grant was counterbalanced by a cut in ODA grant funds of £80 million. It is quite literally giving with one hand and taking away with the other.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Would she agree that, especially since the broken manifesto pledge on 0.7%, we are beginning to see that this Government’s actions do not match their words? When the Government say they want to be a world superpower, this example of the British Council funding is yet another proof point that what they say and mean is not what they do?

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. Yes, I agree. I would argue that the integrated review was published at the start of the year and that work was ongoing, but the decision on the Department for International Development was taken before that review was published. That, alongside the cuts to the British Council, demonstrates that the Government are not aligned with the view of global Britain seen by my hon Friend, myself and others.

A series of loans has also been agreed, but on commercial terms, requiring the British Council to submit business plans to be agreed by the FCDO. Ordinarily, as we know, the British Council is incredibly economically successful, but the reality is that the loans have been needed to fill a hole made by the pandemic. Business operations are not currently normal. None the less, business plans were submitted and in effect the loans became contingent on cost-saving measures that needed to be put in place. What do cost savings and less income mean? That does not promise a strong British Council presence in 100 countries. It is not a bolstering of our soft power presence. It means cuts to services and staffing—I met some staff online earlier this week—and cuts to Britain’s presence around the world.

Already we have seen office closures, with more to follow in coming years. Closures span the world from Belgium to the United States and from Australia to South Sudan. They include all the Five Eyes countries. In other countries, cuts mean there will be no staff, with operations happening remotely.

I thank the hon. Member for securing this crucial debate. I chair the all-party parliamentary groups on Kosovo, North Macedonia and Montenegro. All those countries face British Council closures. The programmes that they run are vital to those countries. The Prime Minister of Montenegro came here in July and met me in Parliament. We talked about the importance of the British Council in development work in Montenegro and about the bilateral exchange. Without that, and with the office moving to Belgrade, development and our work in vital Balkan countries that are in that phase of development will be severely impacted on. Britain will lose out in our relationship with them.

I thank the hon. Member for his contribution and for his work with the all-party groups, which are important as they are cross-party. Criticisms of the Government’s British Council closures come not only from the Opposition Benches, but from across Parliament. In relation to the Balkans, the British Council is a part of how we demonstrate to our European friends and neighbours that we want to continue in a close partnership despite having left the EU, which I and many other Members disagree with.

Devastating cuts have already been made. The choices have been made by the Minister and his staff. The cuts are the result of cutting ODA spending, a policy hated across the country that my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) referred to, and hated across this House, as I mentioned, including in the Minister’s own party. Perhaps, this is the inevitable outcome of merging the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which is something we warned about last year. That was also done in the name of cost savings, but it is as yet unclear whether any savings have been made from that decision. Perhaps the Minister will let us know when information on the merger will be made available.

I understand there is also an expectation at the Treasury that all Departments will have to reduce their spending by 5% at the next review. The British Council has already gone through so much hardship, has already had to agree to a reduction in spending of more than £185 million over the next five years, and is already looking at making 20% of its staff redundant here in the UK and across the world. Further cuts will put pressure on the future of the British Council itself. Will the Minister provide reassurance that he will fight to maintain his Department’s budget, and will he consider ring-fencing the current level of grant funding that the British Council receives?

Our soft power is rooted in who we are as a country. It is central to our international identity, and its strength cannot be taken for granted. Those are not my words, but those of the Government’s own integrated review, published just months ago. It is absolutely remarkable that the Government pay lip service to the importance of the British Council while simultaneously undermining it. I urge the Minister to address that in his speech.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this debate. She was in a meeting online this week with me and members of the Public and Commercial Services Union. I should refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Is she as concerned as I am that the business plan is going forward and the whole redundancy exercise is being done in secret? We really need a bit more disclosure, and we need more parliamentary scrutiny as to how the restructuring is being carried out.

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. I was pleased to join him earlier this week. One thing that struck me from the meeting was the longevity of some of the staff there, how long they had worked for the British Council, their passion and dedication and how the current actions and what was happening were undermining how they felt about their organisation. I agree that it is very important that we have a degree of transparency, particularly for a non-departmental public body such as the British Council.

Soft power is important. My colleagues and I see the benefits of the UK’s being trusted and respected around the world. Our education system is outstanding, and we want international students to come and benefit from it. I want students from around the world to come to the University of St Andrews in my North East Fife constituency. The British Council helps to support that aim, engaging with the Turing and Erasmus programmes, science, technology, engineering and mathematics scholarships, technical placements and assistance with applications.

Those students bring countless benefits to us at a local level, not only to our local economic circumstances, but with their experiences and knowledge. Speaking as a member of the Scottish Affairs Committee, we should remember the importance that international students have in Scotland in particular, which we picked up in our inquiry. Their fees are no doubt part of that.

Tourism contributes £106 billion to the British economy and supports 2.6 million jobs. We cannot recover without it, particularly in North East Fife, so we need to encourage visitors to our shores. Despite current temperatures, I am yet to meet a tourist who says they came to the UK for the good weather. People come for our history and to experience our culture. They go to Stratford to learn about Shakespeare, they go to the pub just about anywhere, they want to experience our vibrant arts and theatres and, at least in North East Fife, they definitely want to have a round of golf. Of course, all those good things exist independently of the British Council, but its presence around the world, teaching English, sharing our culture and demonstrating that we are an open and welcoming nation, plays a significant role.

We also need trade deals. We need to export our goods and services, be it Scotch whisky or cutting-edge science, technology, engineering and maths knowledge, but what country is going to make a trade deal with a country it does not trust? What does it say to the countries we want to work and trade with if we turn our backs on them and withdraw our institutional presence? What does it say about our commitment to tackling climate change if, as reported today, this Government are considering doing away with agreements around climate change when they look at trade deals, such as that with Australia?

The biggest challenges we face today do not affect us alone and cannot be solved by us alone. We face a climate crisis; we face a growth in extreme ideologies around the world. The world is a less safe, less stable and less prosperous place, and retreating solves nothing. For better or worse, we have already retreated from the European Union—I firmly believe it is for the worse—but we still need to work together to respond to global health crises, to house and support refugees coming from Syria, Afghanistan and other places, to tackle cross-border crime and terrorism, and to make the shifts required to respond to the climate crisis.

I was approached by constituents concerned about the lack of clarity on plans for the evacuation of British Council employees from Afghanistan, and I wrote to the Home Office, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence. I received responses from the Home Office and the MOD but, despite the Foreign Office’s being the sponsoring Department for the British Council, I did not receive a response from it; I still have not. The clear advice from the MOD, however, was that British Council staff were not eligible for the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme. In the main Chamber on Monday, the Foreign Secretary questioned whether that was really the case. Nobody has a clue what is going on. Does the hon. Lady agree that that is shoddy treatment of British Council employees in Afghanistan, and that the Government need to think again—and quickly?

I absolutely agree. To hear that British Council employees are not considered eligible for the ARAP programme is devastating. Not only that, but I understand that the MOD and Government guidance to those nationals who could not be evacuated from Kabul airport has been that they should make their way to third countries. We know that in Iran, for example, the British Council is a proscribed organisation. I am sure there will be contractors who have worked for the British Council making their way there who have no knowledge of that proscribed status and who could find themselves in very difficult circumstances, were they to make it across the border.

We need to restore our ties with countries in the EU, both for relations between ourselves and to act together elsewhere. Rebuilding trust, using our soft power and, in fact, doing all those things that the British Council does are key to that. It is staggering to hear the Prime Minister talk as he does of his “global Britain” ambitions. I am not sure whether he has read his own review, because again and again, be it on girls’ education, which has seen cuts of up to 40%, the BBC, which is continually undermined, or the British Council, it seems this Government are more concerned with eroding the sources of our soft power than with strengthening them. Global Britain needs the British Council. It is extremely short-sighted to require such drastic cuts to be made to it now, in response to an extreme event, when its long-term presence is so valuable to our standing in the world.

I would be remiss—I thank the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald)—if I did not use this opportunity to acknowledge the work done by British Council staff in response to the situation in Afghanistan. I understand that all directly employed staff and contractors are now out of the country—that might be news to the hon. Member—but that a decision will shortly be made about previous contractors. I know that staff at the British Council have been working around the clock to provide assistance, and I thank them for that. Can the Minister, as previously requested, provide an update about the status of this group, their eligibility for ARAP—because if our understanding is correct, and they are not eligible, that is very concerning—and what assistance will be provided to them and others in reaching the UK via third countries?

I thank the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) for securing this important debate on the British Council’s global presence. I will take my mask off; that would probably help. I am grateful for the interventions of other hon. Members. I am also conscious that I need to give the hon. Lady a couple of minutes, if she would like that, to sum up.

The hon. Lady has already said that the British Council plays an absolutely crucial role as one of the UK’s international organisations for cultural and educational opportunities and cultural relationships. It is an arm’s length body of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. It has a core mission to promote English-language education, arts and culture across the globe, and it does a fantastic job of that. It delivers key soft-power benefits to the United Kingdom, and it is a crucial part of our overseas presence, operating in over 100 countries. The British Council’s own figures show that, in 2019-20, it reached 983 million people.

We recognise the British Council’s considerable contribution to promoting our influence and values overseas. It is important to acknowledge, however, the devastating impact of the covid pandemic on British Council operations. As the chairman has said a number of times, the organisation went from producing almost £1 billion of revenue to producing virtually zero overnight. It takes a lot to recover from that.

At the peak of the pandemic, over 90% of the British Council’s teaching and exam centres were forced to close. The hon. Lady referred to the fact that we have provided the council with additional financial support in an extremely challenging fiscal climate. We are facing the worst economic contraction in over 300 years and a budget deficit of close to £400 billion. However, to depart slightly from the bonhomie, I politely suggest that the hon. Lady’s remark that we were refusing to provide financial support to the British Council is frankly, on every level, inaccurate. Despite these unprecedented economic circumstances, we have allocated over £600 million to the council since the pandemic hit. The hon. Lady may not be aware of that figure.

I thank the Minister for giving way. Can he tell us today what the conditions are for that £600 million in terms of loans?

I can certainly go into some more detail on the financial settlement. It included a 2021-22 spending review settlement, in 2020, that totalled £189 million. That is a 27% increase. Furthermore, £150 million of the settlement is composed of ODA, while the non-ODA allocation of £39 million is triple that of the 2020-21 baseline. In addition to the settlement, we are providing loan support, which the hon. Member for North East Fife referenced. That is up to £245 million and includes a £100 million loan to support restructuring efforts and to rebuild commercial surpluses.

I will come on to the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens). The hon. Member for North East Fife suggested that the British Council had to provide a business plan to secure a loan. I am not entirely sure that a business plan requirement is a particularly heinous thing to ask of the British Council. I would be grateful if any hon. Members could point me to a bank or any lender that would provide a loan without at least politely asking what that money would be used for. We worked very closely with the management and board of the British Council to come to this arrangement on the loans. We have worked very hard with them; they have done an incredible amount of work, and I pay tribute to Stevie Spring, the leadership and the interim chief executive.

I thank the Minister; he is being very generous. There are problems with the restructuring, and the outcome is that some of the industrial relations from the British Council need to be improved. Is the Minister’s Department scrutinising how the British Council is carrying out the restructuring? Would he be prepared to meet me and PCS representatives to hear our concerns?

I am more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman or any hon. Member here today to discuss the British Council. We discussed it in the main Chamber quite recently, and I am more than happy to do so again. Members are very welcome to come into the FCDO and meet me and our soft-power team, who work incredibly closely with the British Council. Clearly, changes such as staffing are operational matters for the council itself. We understand that it is working incredibly hard to restore its commercial operations and to maximise its revenues. It is a particularly difficult time.

While we have had to make difficult decisions across all Departments and in other areas, we are increasing the money we are providing to the British Council. Never has there been a clearer endorsement by the Government of the British Council and the important soft-power role it plays. However, the unprecedented impact of the pandemic has forced the Government to take tough but necessary decisions about the British Council’s global presence. It has reinforced the need for the council to do more to adapt to a changing world. As the interim chief executive of the British Council said at the time, the British Council will stop spending grant-in-aid funding in 11 countries and will deliver grant-in-aid programming through offices for a further nine countries.

Let me re-emphasise that decisions on presence were taken only after a thorough assessment alongside the British Council of how the council’s priorities link with the Government’s foreign policy objective, as set out in the IR, as well as how the British Council can achieve the greatest impact.

In the debate in the main Chamber, some said that the British Council can make a meaningful impact only with an office in-country. That, frankly, is incorrect. I said in June that it would be a strategic mistake to judge the impact of the British Council in a digital world by its physical presence. This crisis—the pandemic—has changed the way we all operate, and the British Council has done an excellent job.

We returned to Westminster this week and to business as usual—in 2019, when I was elected as an MP, I did not really know what normal was—and I am sure everybody here has really benefitted from a physical presence. I absolutely understand that the British Council needs to look at different ways of delivering its services, but does the Minister agree that sometimes you absolutely cannot beat face-to-face contact and being there physically?

I do. In an ideal world, that is the case, but there are services that can be delivered digitally. Since the pandemic, the British Council has done a brilliant job of turning around its business model. It is rapidly expanding its digital services in response to the covid crisis. As an example, a year after the pandemic forced us into lockdown last March, there were over 80,000 students learning English online with the British Council. There were nearly 10 million visitors recorded across its online English language platforms, which is an incredibly impressive transformation in a short time.

The British Council has also continued to deliver its excellent cultural programmes and events digitally during the pandemic. It launched its Culture Connects Us programme—a digital online campaign about the value of culture for international connections and exchange. I personally had the pleasure of taking part in an online session with leading figures from the UK and Japanese cultural sectors as part of the UK and Japan season that the British Council headed up.

There is no doubt that the British Council can maintain impact through digital delivery. I understand what the hon. Member for North East Fife says, but we will continue to support the council to invest in this area. It has a proven track record now of maintaining impact through digital delivery. We are confident that investing further in that will serve to enhance its offer.

The changes to its presence are necessarily accompanied by further measures to streamline and enhance the council’s governance structures. We have agreed with the council a new set of key performance indicators and targets, and measures to update the council’s charitable objectives to focus on its core mission. I am delighted that Scott McDonald, who I met online prior to appointment and have since met physically, has now taken up his role as chief executive of the British Council. I have no doubt that he, alongside the exceptional chairman, Stevie Spring, will provide the strong leadership needed to put the British Council on a steady footing for the future.

I am conscious that we are nearly at the two-minute stage, Ms Rees. To summarise, we are absolutely committed to ensuring the future success of the British Council. We have provided a strong rescue and reform package to support it through the pandemic and to enhance its governance structure. It is important that the British Council can make the most impact in a changing world. It will continue to operate in over 100 countries and the FCDO will ensure that it can continue to play a leading role in promoting UK soft power and all our integrated objectives.

Unfortunately, in 30-minute debates the Member in charge does not have two minutes at the end to respond. I am sorry for the disappointment.