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British Council: Global Britain

Volume 703: debated on Thursday 18 November 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)

First, may I thank the Speaker and indeed you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for choosing and allowing this debate to take place? I also thank the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), for fielding the debate on a Thursday afternoon. While I am in this mode, I should also like to thank the all-party group on the British Council for its support, guidance, diligence and expertise when it comes to trying to ensure that there is no disconnect between government and the British Council, and for playing its part. Above all, I wish to thank the staff and the teams at the British Council itself, and I know that my right hon. Friend will concur with that, because they have done a tremendous amount over the past few years in flying the flag for the cause of better understanding between this country and others. They have been flying the flag in such an astounding manner, given the challenges they have faced.

My right hon. Friend will know that the British Council has huge cross-party support in both Houses. Some Members in this place have worked for the British Council prior to being elected as an MP, and others have worked closely, as I have done on occasion, with the British Council in the past in trying to ensure that there are no misunderstandings and in furthering the good work of the British Council. There is huge affection for the organisation across Parliament.

The UK is often termed a “soft power superpower”—that phrase is reasonably well known. We rank very highly indeed and we usually top that table. That is down to our country’s extensive and impressive assets of attraction and influence, which include world-renowned arts and cultural bodies, world-class universities and research, and our sporting prowess, along with our respected national and international institutions. The British Council is one of those great institutions. Since the 1930s, it has been promoting British culture and the English language abroad, as well as facilitating cultural exchanges and, crucially, building trust between the UK and other countries. There are few Government Departments that do not directly benefit from its work.

The British Council also represents excellent value for money. In normal times, it receives only 15% of its income from the state, whereas many of its international counterparts receive much more. For example, its French, German and Japanese equivalents receive 48%, 62% and 65% respectively. That is in large part because the British Council has a commercial element, in the teaching of English abroad. It is tremendous value for money given the influence it exerts and the trust it builds between us and other nations.

As the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on the British Council, it was my pleasure to oversee the production and publication last July of our report on opportunities for global Britain. I thank all those who contributed to the report, including the officers of the all-party parliamentary group, who contributed to such effect. The report highlights the importance of showing not telling and of persuading rather than being more forceful, thereby ensuring that our values of openness and tolerance are there for all to see around the world, and the important fact that soft-power institutions such as the British Council and the BBC World Service are at their most effective, innovative and entrepreneurial when they have operational independence from the Government. I have no doubt that the Government get that, but it is important to reiterate that there must be an element of operational independence.

Our report also highlighted the Government’s short-sighted decision to curtail British Council activity in 20 countries because of its failure to close the £10 million shortfall between the amount of pandemic support given to the organisation and the costs of maintaining its international network. The 20 closures are already in train—the decision was largely taken last July—and represent the largest single set of closures in the British Council’s history. Our report particularly recommended that there should be no further closures among the British Council’s overseas network, and we received an assurance on that from the Minister in charge at the time.

The APPG is concerned that the British Council faces the closure of a further 20 country operations, which would result in 40 closures in total. This idea stems from discussion between the British Council and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on cutting the British Council’s funding allocation still further over the coming three-year spending review period, despite the FCDO’s budget increasing by 21% over the same three-year timeframe.

I thank my good and hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene. I am a huge fan of the British Council and have seen it operating abroad. Does my hon. Friend agree that when we withdraw something like the British Council from a country, the image given is that Britain does not care about that country? The soft power that we gain from having the British Council firmly in place in a capital or major city is a huge influence on how a country looks at the United Kingdom.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: when the Government are quite rightly talking about the importance of global Britain, it sends completely the wrong message to the world to close, in many countries, an organisation that represents the very best of British.

The irony of the situation is that the additional closures can easily be prevented, without any new money from the FCDO, by allowing the British Council to retain a share of the savings that it is currently making through cuts that are already in train. That is something to reflect on. As my right hon. Friend said, once the British Council ceases to have an office in a given country, it is unlikely that a presence will be easily re-established. It also leaves the way clear for others to fill the vacuum. The closure of 40 offices worldwide will not go unnoticed. Will the Government urgently review the situation and provide clarity?

Is it the Government’s intention, at a time when the FCDO’s expenditure is, courtesy of a very generous Budget, going up by more than 20% over the comprehensive spending review period, that the British Council’s funding should be cut? Is that the Government’s intention, or is there simply a disconnect? Is this cock-up, frankly, rather than conspiracy? Clarity is needed; uncertainty helps no one, not least the British Council, when it comes to planning. If that is the Government’s intention, I urge them to rethink their decision to require the additional 20 closures and ideally, if I am being somewhat presumptuous—and why not?—rethink their decision to close the 20 offices as announced in July. These mass closures will do enormous damage to our soft power, as my right hon. Friend has alluded to. They will be viewed as an unwelcome retreat from the international stage and will leave the door open to our competitors. This simply does not fit with the concept of global Britain.

I make no excuse for raising this issue now given what happened last time when the first set of 20 closures were announced. As soon as we got wind of it, being a proactive all-party group, we made every effort to communicate with Government through the normal channels. I had meaningful conversations with the then Foreign Secretary, a meaningful conversation with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and two decent conversations with the Prime Minister. They all got it. They all accepted that the British Council was a valued organisation, helping to build trust. They got its worth; there was no need to persuade them. So what happened? There seemed to be a disconnect in Government. The clunky levers of the bureaucracy still manufactured a £10 million shortfall that was desperately required. It was desperately required because, over the past 18 months, the British Council has been unable to be proactive in commercialising its operation—its teaching of the English language—simply because the pandemic closed down its major markets in the far east, but still there was a £10 million shortfall, and still to this day, they are in the process of closing 20 country operations at a time when we are espousing the principles of global Britain. It simply does not make sense. There is a disconnect.

The reason for holding this Adjournment debate—I ask the forgiveness of the House because I am keeping it here late on a Thursday, at the end of the business day—is that if we do not make noises now, given what happened last time, we will get a repeat, and 40 closures—the 20 in train and the 20 now being rumoured—would be a disaster not just for the British Council, but for the country as well.

I could go on, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I know that perhaps I should not. In summing up, I want to raise very briefly something that is connected to the British Council, and I know that the Minister also takes it to heart. I reiterate the all-party group’s urgent concern for those 200 Afghans who worked for the British Council and who are still in Afghanistan, fearing for their lives and unable to leave. I had a heartrending email from a former British Council employee—I will not read it again because I have already paraphrased it in Defence questions—who literally said that they were in fear of their lives. They were in hiding from the Taliban. They had run out of money, but for some reason the bureaucracy was getting in the way. It seems that slow-moving bureaucracy in Britain is preventing them from receiving the documents they urgently require. We owe these people a debt of gratitude.

As I said, I raised this issue at the last Defence questions. The Secretary of State agreed with the need for urgency, but suggested that this was more of a responsibility for the FCDO. He did, however, suggest a meeting for MPs involving all relevant Departments. In addition to the questions that I have already posed my right hon. Friend, I ask him to ensure that the FCDO, once it is invited, participates in this meeting fully. If it is not invited, it should ask questions why it is not. My understanding is that the Ministry of Defence is co-ordinating this. We, as Members of Parliament, need better sight of the system in order to play our part in ensuring that there is clarity, less bureaucracy and more action when it comes to helping these people. I look forward to hearing the answers to my questions from my right hon. Friend.

I am genuinely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for securing this debate. It gives me great pleasure to see that Essex Members of Parliament now represent the majority of those in the House this afternoon. I thank my hon. Friend for the hard work that he puts in as the chair of the British Council all-party parliamentary group, and the hard work that the other members of the APPG put in, particularly on the group’s recent report on opportunities for global Britain. I also pay tribute to my good, right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who I am willing to make an honorary member of the Essex mafia this afternoon for his thoughtful contribution.

I want to correct the Minister. I do not need to be an honorary member of the Essex mafia, as I am a member of the Essex mafia; I spent 10 years at Chigwell School.

That makes you the odd one out, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I am sure that we will forgive you.

The Government are determined that Britain will remain an outward-looking nation that is positive and patriotic, and demonstrates leadership and innovation, and I assure the House that the British Council is a key part of that. Its mission is to teach English, and to promote UK education, arts and culture across the globe. In doing so, as my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay said, it showcases our strength and values, but it also builds trust and opportunities between nations. The APPG report rightly identifies the British Council as one of the UK’s real assets, and that position is reflected in our own integrated review, which was published earlier this year. The review recognises the British Council as a key aspect of our global influence.

For 85 years, the British Council has boosted Britain’s status as a cultural superpower. Its programmes reach 790 million people in more than 100 countries every year, and it plays a vital role in enhancing our standing in the world. It forges connections, understanding and trust between the UK and other countries. That trust is already strong, and the council’s recent report on soft power noted that the UK is ranked first among G20 nations for overall attractiveness and second in the G20 for trust. The British Council adds significant value in this respect. When the council is involved in cultural and educational exchanges, trust in the UK increases by 16% on average. I am sure that the House will agree that it is more vital now than ever—as we work with our allies to promote democracy and collaborate on the very biggest challenge that the world faces— that we enhance this global trust.

My hon. Friend highlighted in his speech further opportunities to promote global Britain through the British Council. The APPG report identified potential key partners in the Indo-Pacific and sub-Saharan Africa, among others. The council has ambitious targets designed to take advantage of these opportunities. By 2025, it plans to reach 140 million English language learners and attract 600,000 international students here to the UK. It also hopes to connect to 30 million people with UK arts and culture, either in person or remotely—for example, by visiting our world-beating film and arts festivals in cinemas and galleries, or indeed online.

Next year, as we host the Commonwealth games and mark the Queen’s platinum jubilee, the British Council will lead international partnerships in education and the arts, including work to connect young people across the whole Commonwealth. School twinning schemes and cross-curricular programmes will boost understanding of our values and aspirations, including the education of women and girls, which remains a core Government priority. Her Majesty the Queen’s 70 years of service and leadership have also inspired the British Council. From its alumni the council will build a network of young, inspiring women leaders across the Commonwealth, who will develop projects to address the global challenges still faced, sadly, by many women and girls.

Meanwhile, advisory committees for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland support the British Council as an institution for the whole of the United Kingdom. They help to shape programmes and priorities and ensure there is a clear focus on all aspects of the UK’s rich culture. For example, the British Council’s Go Digital programme includes collaboration between artists and art organisations in Wales and sub-Saharan Africa. Go Digital aims to develop and showcase the arts, which have suffered so much during the pandemic. The council also works to forge connections between Northern Ireland and other societies emerging from conflict—for example, offering insights into the issues that fuelled conflicts in Northern Ireland, India, Lebanon, Sierra Leone and South Africa. Students are encouraged to turn these lessons into creative expression.

I thank the Minister for allowing me to intervene a second time. What he has said is really grist to the mill, because the British Council is a huge success, as he would accept. The British Council has actually survived, somehow, during the pandemic. Goodness knows how country directors are able to budget during the pandemonium that has been the past two years, but somehow they have. So it does seem strange that with the success that the British Council has had in soft power terms and in floating what a great place the United Kingdom is, we are prepared to scrap 10 locations—actually, a total of 20. May I plead with the Minister to get Government to make a decision to rescind the orders so that those 20 centres remain in being, if that is possible now?

I will address the situation with regard to funding and our footprint shortly.

Together with the University of Edinburgh, the council is developing an online course, open to all, on sustainable living. This touches on key issues that connect us, from climate change to gender equality, health and inclusion, encouraging informed personal responses.

With regard to the funding situation, sadly, like so many organisations, as my hon. and gallant Friend mentioned, the British Council has been acutely affected by the impact of covid-19. More than 90% of its teaching and exam centres were shut at the height of the pandemic. It has done a genuinely exceptional job of rapidly expanding its digital services, including online teaching platforms, in response to this crisis. We continue to work closely with the council as it builds back from the pandemic. We share its ambition to innovate and to increase its digital capacity even further. I was very pleased recently to meet the British Council’s new CEO, Scott McDonald, who brings a genuine wealth of commercial experience from his previous roles. In partnership with the council’s chairman, Stevie Spring, I have no doubt that Scott will bring the strong leadership needed to drive forward the council’s transformation and put it on a sustainable future-facing footing.

Sadly, as with so many organisations, the pandemic also had a devastating impact on the British Council’s commercial activities and therefore its finances. The Government remain committed to the council’s future success, and I am confident that it will emerge stronger than ever. The funding we secured through the 2021-22 spending review demonstrates that commitment. Since the start of the pandemic we have allocated more than £600 million to ensure that the British Council can continue to deliver on our priorities during this uniquely challenging time. Earlier this year, the council, as has been said, announced that it will stop spending grant in aid funding in 11 countries. In a further nine, it will deliver grant in aid programmes remotely from other countries. These decisions were taken in partnership with the council, focusing on where it can achieve the biggest impact.

First, I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments about those at the British Council, who will be heartened to hear what he says. I know it will not be strange to them, but it is nice to hear it from the Dispatch Box all the same. I concur with his comments about the new chief executive Scott McDonald and Stevie Spring, too. They will bring a lot to the British Council at this important time. I hear what he says about the figures, and one does not dispute the moneys put into the British Council as its commercial activities collapsed, but the Government were still £10 million short of what was required to keep those 20 country operations fully operational, and that was the crime there. When one spoke with Ministers, there was no problem at all—they got it—but it still translated into a £10 million cut. The fear is that something similar will happen now going forward.

My hon. Friend raises the prospect of additional closures, and I understand his concern about that. The simple truth is that we continue to operate, notwithstanding the spending review allocation, in a challenging financial context. We continue to work closely with the British Council on the implications of the 2022 to 2025 spending review. I assure him that the funding settlement has not yet been finalised, and any decisions that we make will be in close consultation with the British Council. We will continue to work with the British Council on its future strategy to ensure that it continues to deliver not only excellence but maximum value and maximum impact.

I appreciate my right hon. Friend’s generosity in giving way again, but we have a little bit of time, without wishing to detain the House for too long. I accept what he has just said, because I know he is a decent fellow, but my worry is that this message, despite his exalted position in the FCDO, does not translate, frankly, because it did not translate last time. May I tease him a little to see whether he can go further? Would he wish to see further closures in the British Council, as we have seen in the past?

Mr Deputy Speaker, you can see the political chess moves, the political judo and the political jujitsu that my hon. and gallant Friend is performing. I know he would want me to provide assurances in strict financial terms. Sadly I am not able to do that at the Dispatch Box at this moment, but the assurance that I can give him is that the hugely positive impact that the British Council has on the lives of people around the world, as well as the hugely positive impact it has on the UK’s standing around the world, are not lost on anyone. I enjoyed a very good conversation with the new CEO. I can assure my hon. Friend that I will continue to work with the new CEO and the rest of the leadership team at the British Council to ensure we protect the excellence that this organisation delivers. I would wish, were budgets infinite, to have a British Council presence everywhere—I know that is a cheeky response to a bit of a cheeky question—but sadly we do not live in an environment of infinite resource.

My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point about Afghanistan and our commitment to helping those Afghans who helped us, including through their employment or work with the British Council. The FCDO remains in close and regular contact with the British Council’s management about the cases of eligible staff and contractors and their dependants in Afghanistan. Applications from British Council contractors for resettlement will of course have to be considered on a case-by-case basis. We will work across Government to find a way of expediting any decisions made, so that we can provide assistance as quickly as possible.

I thank my right hon. Friend for being generous in giving way. Of course I do not doubt his words, but what seems to be happening is a disconnect between Departments. This week in the House the Defence Secretary, who is a good man, said he thought it was more a responsibility for the FCDO. This situation needs gripping, because the sense is that bureaucracy is getting in the way. There are 200 level 1 and level 2 applicants for the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme, and the paperwork is simply not being produced.

I completely understand my hon. Friend’s point. The repatriation work through Afghanistan has proved to be one of the most difficult and technically complicated, and in many instances very sensitive operations we have had to work. It is inevitable that we have to work across and exchange information between Departments.

Ensuring that individuals who worked for organisations that came under the remit of the FCDO, but whose resettlement cases might be facilitated through the Ministry of Defence, will of course mean that we will continue to need to work cross-departmentally, as we have done. I pay genuine tribute to my colleagues in the Home Office, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and, of course, the Ministry of Defence, who I know are passionate about this and work tirelessly, often with incomplete information. We will continue working with them on that.

To conclude, as we all work tirelessly to promote global Britain, our partnership with the British Council remains vital. We will continue to support it as it brings people together across nations, through arts, culture, education and, perhaps most importantly, the English language. In this way, by showcasing our values and delivering opportunities, we will build connections, understanding and trust.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.