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British Council: Funding

Volume 739: debated on Thursday 19 July 2012

Question for Short Debate

Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their policy towards the future funding and future expansion of the British Council.

My Lords, it is an honour to be opening this debate today. I am delighted that, after not a little difficulty and with the gratefully received help of the government Chief Whip, we have managed to secure this debate before the long Recess. I only hope that all the other noble Lords who are to speak in this debate agree with that. I am delighted at the quality of the speakers who have been good enough to stay late on a Thursday evening to speak in this debate, particularly the Minister, to whom I am grateful for answering this Question.

I declare my interest as chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the British Council, a position that I am delighted to hold, not just because in my view the British Council is one of our country’s greatest institutions, a jewel in our crown, but also because many years ago I grew up as a British Council child. My father, having left the Army at the end of the war, joined up and had a distinguished and happy career with the council both at home and abroad, working with such council legends as Dame Nancy Parkinson and Sir Paul Sinker. Abroad he served in Madras, now Chennai, and Tehran, and at home in Glasgow, Oxford and, as a senior officer, in the famous Home Division. I was proud of him then, and I am proud of him now, in the same way as I am proud of the 7,000 people in 191 offices in 100 countries around the world who do such extraordinary things for our country, and who, in order to do that job, sometimes have to put themselves in physical danger. All noble Lords will remember the incident in Kabul last August, when lives were lost. Thankfully, no British Council lives were lost, but lives were lost, and these were people who had put themselves in harm’s way for our sake. Public service is not always properly respected in this country, particularly at the present time. I hope that this debate will reinforce this House’s high regard for those who serve in public service.

It is worth reminding ourselves of the mission set out in the British Council’s royal charter, first to,

“promote cultural relationships and the understanding of different cultures between people and peoples of the United Kingdom and other countries”;

secondly to,

“promote a wider knowledge of the United Kingdom”;

thirdly to,

“develop a wider knowledge of the English language”;

fourthly to,

“encourage cultural, scientific, technological and other educational cooperation between the United Kingdom and other countries”;

and fifthly to,

“otherwise promote the advancement of education”.

It is not as though life has ever been easy for the British Council. Anyone who has read about the long, drawn out beginning of the council itself, way back in 1934, will know that, if it had not been for the persistence and will power shown by some, particularly Sir Reginald Leeper and Lord Lloyd, the council might never have come into existence. The French and the Germans in particular had years of experience of cultural diplomacy, stretching back to the second half of the 19th century. Now, nearly 80 years after the British Council’s foundation, I believe that those great countries sometimes envy its success and influence in performing its soft power role of cultural diplomacy.

Having survived the enmity over many years of Lord Beaverbrook and other powerful forces, the constant internal departmental battles within Whitehall and innumerable reviews and reports, some of them recommending summary execution, the British Council has emerged alive and flourishing as it nears its 80th anniversary. Of course, other obstacles have emerged, some of them serious, but the British Council has learnt to adapt. It was born in an age of empire and has successfully moved into an age of proudly independent countries, many in the Commonwealth, many outside. For example, it has learnt to engage well with the development agenda, which it does to great effect. By way of brief example, the programme run for DfID to strengthen civil society in Burma—a crucial programme —was evaluated as “outstanding”, and the British Council has won a £12.8 million contract to deliver the second phase of that project.

However, the British Council remains true to its core purposes: the English language, education and the arts. The main obstacle, as I rather feebly described it, is the question of money, or rather, the lack of it. The 2010 spending review settlement—often described by that rather overused word, “challenging”—entailed a 26% real-terms reduction in the British Council’s grant in aid from £185 million to £154 million by 2014-15. As the Foreign Affairs Committee of another place has said, that has put the British Council’s budget under “great strain”, and,

“may well trigger some fundamental rethinking of the role and work of the Council”.

The settlement was indeed severe, and it is much to the credit of both the chief executive, Martin Davidson, and—if I may say so without unduly embarrassing him—the previous chairman of the British Council, my noble friend Lord Kinnock, that difficult economic times were anticipated, and a decision made to expand greatly the amount of what is described as earned income in relation to grant in aid.

This has been done successfully so that, by 2015, only one pound in five that the council receives will be from grant in aid. We should commend this achievement but, at the same time, it is vital to sound a warning voice. The British Council is a public body; it belongs to all of us; it represents our country very successfully around the world. In my view, therefore, the present chairman, Sir Vernon Ellis, is surely right when he says in his introduction to the annual report for 2011-12, published earlier this week, that,

“the grant element in our funding remains vital … Further cuts in our core grant would make it more difficult to align our priorities with the interests of the UK”.

Without that grant in aid, how will it be possible for the British Council to do its vital work in countries where there is very little or no earned income to be had?

I hope that the message will come loud and clear from this debate that enough is enough. All Governments —and this Government, I am afraid, in particular—are guilty of not always seeing the treasures before their very eyes. There is an official blindness to what is palpably obvious to everyone else. There are some services and institutions that make Britain a more civilised and more respected country. A failure to support those services and institutions sufficiently by government demeans us both in our own eyes and in those of the world beyond. This Government have had to face issues of this kind a number of times. On one, the forests of this country, they backed away; on another, to which I am almost embarrassed to draw reference, legal aid, they did not and they took it on. That is an excellent example of how short-sighted Governments can be. I urge the Minister and the Government not to make the same mistake that they made in abolishing legal aid for social welfare law, in a very different context.

The British Council is a great institution and, as I have said, a jewel in our crown. It is incumbent on any Government, and this one at the present time, to protect it, to cherish it and to ensure that it continues to serve our country well.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bach, not only for introducing this debate so comprehensively but for his work as chair of the British Council All-Party Parliamentary Group, of which I am a vice-chair. The all-party group has an important task in bringing to the attention of Members of Parliament the role played by the British Council in extending its brand of soft diplomacy throughout the world. In the past year, we have heard from Martin Davidson, the chief executive, as well as from directors and regional directors in Afghanistan, the Middle East, Russia and sub-Saharan Africa, who brought fresh, informative and inspiring accounts of their activities in the field.

Apart from its job in educating Members of Parliament, the work of the British Council in the area of education exchanges at university and other levels, in the dissemination of British arts and culture and in the teaching of English is an invaluable asset to this country. It increases knowledge and know-how, and helps to develop trade and investment links and opportunities. Certainly, whenever I travel abroad with parliamentary delegations, it is good to know that we can visit not just the British embassy but the offices of the British Council to get its particular slant on the country that we are visiting.

The Cultural Olympiad and the World Shakespeare Festival are also vehicles for important British Council input. Most recently, the visit of Aung San Suu Kyi underlined the part that the British Council can play in a country such as Burma, which is emerging from the shadows. I fully support the noble Lord, Lord Bach, in what he said about future funding and, while recognising the need to find savings and efficiencies in all areas of government policy, I hope that the future activities and expansion of the British Council will not be unnecessarily curtailed.

In an earlier debate this afternoon on the role and performance of the UK Border Agency, I was able to refer to the British Council and its campaign to improve and make more flexible the visa application system for overseas students coming to this country. I cited Mexico as a prime example, since every year more than 3,000 students come to our prestigious UK universities. They are paid for by the Mexican Government and, in some cases, by their own families, who are then faced with all the hurdles and costs of the visa application procedure. It is not exactly a welcoming way for these young people to start the education experience, and they are likely to be the future movers and shakers in their own country once they have finished their studies here.

I take advantage of this debate to raise a pet theme of mine, about the welcome and hospitality that is extended to overseas students coming to this country, because the British Council has a special role in this respect. In the old days, the British Council had houses throughout the United Kingdom, usually in university cities, that provided centres for overseas students to gather and meet local British people interested in things international. I remember going along to some of these occasions as a child with my mother, brother and sister, and forming lasting friendships with students from all over the world. Nowadays, a lot of overseas students, particularly at postgraduate level, find themselves surrounded by other international students and with very little opportunity to meet British people, learn about the British way of life and practise their English with people who speak it as their mother tongue. I know about this from a young Swedish family friend, as well as from a young lawyer from Chile doing a postgraduate course at the LSE. Both are delighted by their courses and the international friends they have made, but they wish to meet more British people.

There are ways in which this issue could be tackled with the British Council in a co-ordinating and leading role. There are organisations, such as the English-Speaking Union and Rotary International to name but two, that have a network of branches and clubs throughout the country and already take an interest in educational exchanges and in giving hospitality and a welcome to overseas visitors. I believe that something useful and beneficial could be done with these organisations and, indeed, the universities themselves. The British Council could have the pivotal role of co-ordinating something, which hopefully would not tax future budgets too heavily. I look forward to my noble friend’s reply.

My Lords, I join the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, in warmly thanking my noble friend Lord Bach for securing this timely but unfortunately short debate. I thank him too for his very kind remarks.

As a former chairman, I say with pride that the British Council has brilliantly undertaken its public diplomacy mission of international cultural and educational relations for 78 years. It continues to do so with unmatched innovation and skill in an age in which change in the world has greater breadth, depth, penetration and velocity than ever before. The chief executive, Martin Davidson, and the people who work for the council would never, of course, claim perfection. But I have to say that, if there was ever a league table of international public diplomacy institutions, the council would, as the late Mr Brian Clough might put it, be “among the top one”. The history proves that, but I have time only to refer to recent years.

By 2004, when I succeeded my noble friend Lady Kennedy in the chair, British Council turnover was £482 million, grant in aid was 36%, 4,800 overseas staff and 1,800 teachers were active in 110 countries, and the audience reach was 35 million people. In 2008, as my noble friend indicated, after several years in which the council had consistently met the Gershon efficiency target of 3% per annum, we designed and began to implement a strategic change programme for maintaining excellence in tumultuously changing global conditions. Our aim, among other things, was to double turnover, reduce grant in aid as a proportion of that rising income to 20%, significantly extend face-to-face contact with users of council provision and hugely expand audience reach, all, of course, without losing quality or compromising values. That “scale of ambition” programme is working. This year, turnover is £740 million, the world audience, through IT and the massive diversity of educational and cultural activities, is over 500 million people and about 12.5 million people have direct physical contact with the council. By 2015, the British Council will have a turnover of about £1 billion with commensurate increases in reach and contact.

The advance has been made possible by winning international competitive contracts, making partnerships with global giants such as HSBC, Microsoft and the Premier League, raising productivity through growth and often painful staff and cost reduction and reconfigurations, all increasing value for taxpayers’ money. It is all being achieved despite cuts in public provision, referred to already in this debate, of no less than 24% in the current spending round which mean that, in 2014-15, grant in aid will provide just 16% of income.

That could have been a £50 million hammer blow to the work of the council had it not been for the changes already under way. As it was, the council and its people did not engage in public protest; they simply got on with their task. I emphasise heavily to the Minister, however, that their creditable ability to sustain success in spite of sudden and profound losses does not signify an infinite capacity to withstand further grievous bodily harm. The grim reality is that any more cuts would be seriously disabling. Because such funding is spent in areas and on activities which have no foreseeable prospect of generating revenues, the vital breadth of the council would be severely curtailed. That would gravely injure the council’s ability to serve Britain by attracting positive perceptions and, crucially, earning trust. In a world in which communication has never been easier but understanding has never been more fragile, that would directly contradict our country’s strategic need to foster security and stability.

To underline that: a weakened British Council would not have been in Tunisia or Libya at the coming of the Arab spring or in Syria now. In Afghanistan, Iraq, Zimbabwe, South Sudan, Burma and many other places, the council would be confined, at best, to formalities of provision. The massive potential of growth in China, India and Brazil would be stunted.

The council has invested in what I call digital public diplomacy and that could continue in just about all conditions, but durable influence and opportunity often require presence. Building trust needs people-to-people contact. Since further shortage of non-earning resources would unavoidably mean contraction and withdrawal, the consequences would be deeply negative.

In recent years lessons have been arduously learnt about the necessity of developing convincing and effective public diplomacy—so-called soft power. In the wise words of a US general, international strategy which neglects that is,

“trying to put out a fire with a hammer”.

But soft power is not a soft option. It requires investment, long-term patience and consistency, candour and transparency in relationships. It must have esoteric and practical usefulness to those who are the objects of soft power. It must manifest mutuality in the development of understanding—the ability to be good listeners as well as trustworthy communicators.

The British Council, with its enlightened and emancipating values, its professionalism and its independence, has those qualities in abundance. They are now irreplaceable and literally priceless. If they were jeopardised or diminished by cuts, it would betray the national interest. That cannot be allowed.

My Lords, earlier today, like my noble friend Lady Hooper, I participated in the debate on the UK Border Agency secured by my noble friend Lord Avebury. Much of what I want to say is simply an extension of this subject, but within the context of the important work of the British Council.

I first thank the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for securing this debate. The noble Lord and I have co-operated on many criminal justice matters, particularly when he served as the Minister in the previous Administration. He is absolutely right that the British Council is the acceptable face of the British Government abroad. Few countries across the world command the respect that the British Council enjoys. It is an international organisation that promotes our cultural and educational values. These values are essential in building trust and confidence worldwide, as the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, mentioned.

Some time ago, I promoted a debate in your Lordships’ House about the migrant integration policy index. This research, produced by the British Council, was designed to compare legal provision across Europe on the integration of non-EU migrants. I was delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, contributed to that debate. It was a remarkable piece of work at a time when there was an often confused debate about a cohesive society in which issues of multi-ethnicity and multiculturalism surfaced. There is a kind of schizophrenia on matters of immigration on one hand, and community cohesion and the pluralist society on the other. This is often backed up by the perception of the majority population that, despite all our history and all our pride in our tolerance, the majority are somehow not able to live as part of a community of communities.

It is here that MIPEX provides consistent and reliable stock-taking, with the ability to track policy advances and reversals. Over the years, commentators, both politicians and press, have pointed to the impact of globalisation and devolution as relevant to the process of migration. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the matter of education. I commend the excellent report on the global skills gap produced by the British Council. A survey of senior business leaders conducted by ICM Research gauged the extent to which business leaders see global thinking as an important skill among employees and potential recruits to their companies. The key finding, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, is that the UK is in danger of being left behind by fast-growing emerging countries such as China, India and Brazil, unless young people start to think globally.

We should be proud that the British Council has a presence in 110 countries and has maintained its global reach. No delegation of British parliamentarians is complete without briefings and visits to the British Council’s offices abroad. I know of no other organisation that engages over 30 million people worldwide—the figure mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock—and reaches over 600 million through digital media, radio and television. Britain, the world’s oldest democracy, can be proud that freedom, fairness and tolerance are at the heart of what the British Council promotes.

In this context, I note with increasing concern the control on admissions of overseas students to British universities. I have seen students from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and a number of countries in that part of the world opting to go to Australia, the USA and Germany because of the severe restrictions on their entry to Britain. In the context of globalisation, this will be our loss. Britain’s economy is shrinking by at least 11% and deficit reduction is the top priority of the coalition Government. However, the impact of cuts weighs heavily against the service provided by the British Council. We are talking of a 26% cut in real terms to the government grant for the British Council. It is often forgotten that the British Council generates its own income, and the FCO contribution is just about 16% of the total turnover. I am seriously concerned about the impact of cuts on staffing and on the structure of the British Council.

I am also concerned that this may affect some of its key activities, for example teaching English and administering examinations. This would be a retrograde step at a time when we need international partners in building a strong economy. English is an international language and the language of the digital age. The council has set out some very good plans for the future. The objective is to expand in key emerging markets in Asia and Latin America. This is in our economic interest. The British Council is well placed to meet this objective, which should help and not hinder its progress.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for securing the debate this afternoon. It is very apt, considering the area that I wish to cover: the British Council’s contribution to the International Inspiration programme, which arose out of a promise in the Olympic Games bid. This was to reach out to young people around the world through sport and to connect them to the inspirational power of the Games. Well, the Games start in just seven days and 29 minutes and the success of the International Inspiration programme is considerable and we should celebrate it. I declare an interest as a member of the All-Party Group on the British Council; I have taken part in a See Britain Through My Eyes campaign; and I am also an ambassador for International Inspiration. The British Council is one of its partners, alongside UK Sport and UNICEF. All are experts in their respective fields.

I feel privileged to have seen the Council’s work at first hand on many occasions. Its success in soft politics should not be underestimated. On a visit to one country with my daughter, it helped me to meet local decision-makers, and I was able to challenge their views on disability, motherhood and girls in lifelong physical activity. The council’s knowledge of the local landscape, customs, and language has contributed to its success and, we should also not forget, to the world’s understanding of the UK. The British Council is involved in many projects, such as rebuilding education in Iraq, English teaching in Sudan and south Sudan, science without borders and now, I am glad to say, in sport and physical activity.

The International Inspiration programme enriches the lives of young people in 20 countries, from Azerbaijan to Zambia, plus the UK. It also links 272 British schools to 292 schools outside the UK. It helps to broaden the aspirations of British children, their parents and their teachers by encouraging them and the wider community to look beyond our shores, learn from people around the globe and share knowledge and experiences. Let me give an example of this: the programme recently brought to the UK a young man from Brazil who was part of the leadership programme. He took part in the Olympic torch relay. All 20 countries who were involved in the programme were able to select a young person to come and also take part in the Olympic torch relay. This is probably not widely known. It also brought over leaders to the UK School Games, which is an important part of the Government’s sports strategy. These young people worked at the games with teams from all over the UK, learning about our food, our culture, and unfortunately also about our weather.

The International Inspiration programme has reached many more people than that: 12.9 million children, far above the original expectation. Young people have actively participated in sport, physical education and play, many for the first time in their lives. The project in Pakistan, where monsoons claim tens of thousands of lives every year, has taught survival techniques to 80,000 young people. They have been taught to swim and how to save other young people’s lives. More than 113,000 teachers, coaches and young leaders have been trained to lead in sport, physical activity and play in their schools. It is also important that we have learnt from them. I have a great interest in the inclusion of disabled children in PE in schools. Some of the best inclusion I have seen was not in this country, but in Jordan.

I went to a school where two young men, both of whom were wheelchair users, were completely integrated into their school programme, both in academic lessons and physical education. The International Inspiration programme made this happen; it had created it. One young man had a wheelchair, the other, whose family could not afford to buy him one, used to be pushed around in an old pram. However, the lives of these two boys had changed because they were accepted in school. Because of that, they were then accepted in their local community and the lives of their families changed. I spoke to the mum of the young boy with a wheelchair, who told me that people had stopped avoiding her in the street. They had been ostracised in the community, but had been brought back because of their acceptance in school. These are the things that the British Council and the partners have achieved. Also, 36 policies, strategies or legislative changes have been influenced or implemented because of the work of the British Council with this programme.

One of the reasons for its success is having that knowledge on the ground. I recently went to Egypt to speak at a conference where International Inspiration is in its early stages. Again, through local knowledge and the work of the programme, we were able to talk very openly about how disabled people and girls—two groups who are more traditionally excluded from sport and physical activity—can be included in lifelong physical activity and learning. That will not only benefit their health but give them an increased opportunity to contribute to their society.

The work that has been achieved by the programme with its partners is substantial. However, it is essential to ensure that we leave a lasting legacy beyond its final year in 2014. To make that happen, we need to ensure that partners such as the British Council are able to function in the environment that they work in and that they have the resources to do this.

In conclusion, and bearing in mind recent cuts, I ask the Minister how the council will be able to carry on its work. The work of the British Council has contributed to Britain’s standing in the world. We should not forget this important work or allow it to slip away.

My Lords, I declare a specific interest: I chair DIPEx, an Oxford-based charity. We are currently internationalising ourselves, and this is my theme.

Last month, in a debate on the voluntary sector, I proposed to Her Majesty’s Government that they may wish to create a hub in the United Kingdom that would encourage and support other established British charities and social enterprises to internationalise themselves. The Government have not yet responded. In that debate, I mentioned the British Council, which has for decades promoted our language, education, arts and culture. I said that this was good for Britain and good for the world. Perhaps I was addressing the Government too vaguely and this debate is a more appropriate forum for my suggestion.

What I suggest is a way of expanding and infusing new activities and eventually more funding into the British Council. Here is the suggestion: across the UK many excellent charities and voluntary organisations have already successfully internationalised themselves, but others are struggling to create organisations that spread worldwide with the right disciplines and standards, and many as yet have not realised the vast potential and advantages of becoming international. Imagine if we were to encourage British charities and social enterprises—large, medium-sized and small—to consider researching the issues that they address here in other countries and linking with groups in those other countries to form international organisations.

Were the British Council to decide that it might be a good thing to add the voluntary sector of the United Kingdom to its remit, it might start with a trial of, say, 10 charities, then 100 and then 1,000. There are 162,000 charities registered in the UK and thousands of social enterprises. If 2.5% of them—that is, 5,000 charities with an average income of around £250,000 a year—were to internationalise over time, we would have created in the UK an enlightened centre, spreading good works around the world, with a turnover of more than £1 billion.

To start, perhaps 100 charities could be encouraged to come forward over the first year to internationalise themselves. The British Council hub would then give them access to international legal structures and the ability to set global standards and resources for branding, marketing and website publishing. Even if it cost an average of £50,000 for each of those organisations, the total cost of helping 100 of them would be £5 million. The charities could raise some of this, sponsorship would be forthcoming and, in time, the whole thing would become self-funding. In addition, providing the service worldwide would become a source of funding for the British Council.

Let me cite DIPEx as an example. I am not asking for help here: we will internationalise ourselves with our own resources. This is what we decided to do. DIPEx is a charity that has worked closely with the University of Oxford. With the support of the Department of Health, it has raised £10 million and created www.healthtalkonline.org. We publish people’s personal experience of health conditions online so that other patients can learn from them. So far, over 10 years, we have covered 70 health conditions, including cancers, heart diseases and neurological conditions, and life issues such as bereavement, pregnancy, menopause and the like. This year, our website will receive 1 million hits a week and 3 million unique visitors.

Now, based on training and support from DIPEx UK, organisations in other countries are setting up parallel projects in universities and hospitals in Spain, Germany, Holland, Japan, South Korea, China, Israel and Palestine, Canada and Australia. Together, we will establish DIPEx International to co-ordinate the activities of the group, to collect and publish health experiences worldwide and, combinedly, to help with fundraising.

We have decided to use £50,000 of our DIPEx charitable reserves to do this. Oxford would then become the international centre for the highest quality worldwide health charity. As a result of our activity, Green Templeton College, where we are based in Oxford, plans to create a health experiences institute, a centre for research into patients’ experiences worldwide. DIPEx is just one example of a charity doing this. I am suggesting that a conversation may be arranged by the British Council with people involved in this sector to see whether this programme to help the charity and social enterprise field from Britain should be added to its mission, and to see if we could make connections and create new ways to spread aid and services to countries with which we wish to have relations.

Perhaps a conference could be held, to which we would invite 30 or 40 people from this field who would be interested in helping to take the idea forward. The participants might include five charities, five social enterprises, small, medium and large, the Social Enterprise coalition, the Social Investment Consultancy, Prism, the gift fund with which I am involved, Global Philanthropic, Global Tolerance, some experienced lawyers in the field, some big UK-based international businesses to help with advice on internationalisation and perhaps funding, and the Charity Commission.

I am sorry that I do not have the resources to research this more deeply. It is merely a suggestion, but perhaps noble Lords feel that it merits further research, discussion and action.

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for securing this debate. He is a very distinguished chair of the APPG and I am happy to be a member of that group. Like him I have a family connection with the British Council. My cousin David has served in it for a lifetime in many different parts of the world, including Baghdad after the war, which is not the most comfortable of places. He is finishing his career back home in Northern Ireland.

That is where I would like to start. There has been a lot of discussion about how the British Council’s activities display our culture in other parts of the world and how beneficial that is outside the United Kingdom. It became clear to me as the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly that it was easy to involve nationalist people and politicians in the work of the British Council despite people’s fears sometimes that it might be otherwise. The British Council is not the English Council. It presents all the cultures, Welsh, Scottish, English, Northern Irish—and not just pro-British Northern Irish, but Irish culture of all kinds. People from the nationalist community, including politicians, were happy to become involved in the British Council’s work. It was a helpful facility in binding people together.

There is a great deal that we have to give. Culture—I do not use the word lightly—is not just music, art, drama and literature. There are important aspects of our culture in the way that we conduct parliamentary democracy: that is part of our culture. Our adherence to human rights and the way that we implement them, policing and the administration of justice are also aspects of our culture. That is why I am proud that the British Council takes up those things too. It involves all sorts of people projecting important elements of British culture of all kinds and making a profound contribution to the rest of the world as well as to ourselves.

It has always astonished me that this remarkable organisation is so little known at home and so widely respected abroad. If it has one flaw it is perhaps a classic British flaw. It does not tend to blow its own trumpet at home, even though it is so well known abroad. My advice to it is to recognise that at home it is important that people understand more of its work. Like my noble friends Lord Dholakia and Lady Hooper I participated earlier today in the debate on the UK Border Agency. In a sense the two organisations are at opposite extremes. One sullies the reputation of the United Kingdom in the way it functions. It costs us a huge amount of money to annoy almost everyone who comes in contact with it and brings us no benefits to our reputation, whatever other good things it might do. The other, the British Council, is a remarkable organisation, which improves the reputation of the United Kingdom. Quite extraordinarily, we can get other people in the rest of the world to pay us to develop the British Council and to teach them our language, which benefits us and is absolutely remarkable.

It is a very long time since a rather dismissive military leader questioned how many legions the Vatican had—how many legions the Pope had. In doing that, he was dismissing the lack of power of the Vatican. That military leader is now dead, gone and largely forgotten, and the power of the Vatican continues. Increasingly one might ask how many legions we have in the United Kingdom. The answer is less and less. But there is no reason why we cannot have more and more influence and power through spreading our culture in all its different ways, and having the rest of the world coming to us and asking us to do this.

What is the hindrance? The hindrance is any lack of vision and appreciation that we might have at government level and, to some extent, a sense that promoting ourselves, our language and our culture is something we are a little less happy to do than our American cousins. We should be proud of it and we should promote it. It is not just in our interests. If we really believe in it, our culture has a contribution to make to the rest of the world and no one does it better than the British Council.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bach, on securing this debate, and I agree with every word that the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, said. I must declare an interest: as Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office, I was a trustee of the British Council, serving on the board under—I often used to think that that was the right word exactly—the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock. I also worked closely with the British Council as ambassador in France, where I saw clearly the contribution that the council can and does make even in an advanced, developed country. It contributed to English language teaching, to handling subjects such as racism in sport, which are more easily handled at arm’s length, and to sponsoring avant-garde British culture. I well remember at least one play the title of which I do not think that I can decently mention in your Lordships’ House.

I am therefore very glad that, despite its funding problems, the British Council is determined to maintain its global reach. As other noble Lords said, the role of the council in establishing and developing links between peoples, between cultural, educational and social institutions, and between different religions and languages, particularly in a complex, unpredictable and changing world, really is important. That is not something which you can just turn on and off at will.

That the British Council was in Burma in the difficult days will give it real strength when things get better. The same is true of Russia where, of course, things are still difficult. It is also true of China, where the desire to learn English is huge and the role of the council is equally important. I stress that it is equally important that the British learn Mandarin and other foreign languages. It is something at which we as a nation are not good. We tend to think of the council’s role as spreading English and English culture abroad. But its role in encouraging, through its language assistance schemes, for example, in British schools, the teaching of foreign languages here, is just as important in my view as the work it does in getting others to speak our language.

However, the expansion and spread of the council’s activities comes at a cost, and, as we know, funds are scarce. As I understand it, the FCO grant to the council is to be more than halved in the 10 years between 2004 and 2014. That is pretty brutal even by today’s standards. I commend the way in which the council has responded by taking tough and radical reforming measures, by cutting UK staff, by outsourcing to India and by developing partnerships with others. However, these planned reductions—for example, of staff in London—must surely be reaching their limit. Can the Minister assure us in his response to the debate that the Government will not cut the council’s grant so far that it cannot perform its vital functions?

Furthermore—this is, perhaps, in parentheses—I note that whereas in 2008, 22% of the Government’s grant was classified as overseas development assistance, and therefore, presumably, came from DfID’s budget rather than that of the Foreign Office, the figure rises to 66% in 2014-15. I congratulate the Foreign Office on this rather clever wheeze, and I rather wish I had thought of it myself when I was responsible for the Foreign Office budget. However, could the Minister assure us that this shift from the FCO’s budget to DfID’s is a consequence of decisions taken by the British Council to focus more on the developing world—which is indeed a sensible thing to do—and is not a desire to shift funding from the Foreign Office budget to the DfID budget, which is distorting the allocation of British Council funds?

Finally, the maintenance of the British Council’s charitable status is key to its financial well-being. Could the Minister assure us, too, that the increase in revenue-earning activities and partnerships with private companies does not in any way jeopardise the continuation of that charitable status?

To conclude, the role of the British Council really is crucial, and as the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, said, not at all well enough understood in this country. It would be a huge mistake if that role were to be jeopardised by funding cuts.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Bach is certainly to be congratulated on having initiated this debate. Furthermore, it was very interesting to hear about his background in the British Council. It must have been a very special experience.

We live, as I said in an earlier debate, in a totally interdependent world. That is the first reality of life for all of us. We will be judged, as a generation, and certainly as politicians, by the success we make of belonging to that world, and of finding a positive role for Britain within it. What are the things that are at our disposal in finding that role? We have the British Council, with its unrivalled reputation. I have done international work all my life and I have travelled all over the world. I know the esteem in which it is held across quite a wide spectrum of people right across the world. That is important. We also have the BBC overseas service. I am still fearful of what is happening to the BBC in that area. We must resist any further cuts, because that is one of our richest assets.

It also seems to me that we have the English language. I endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Jay, said about the importance of the work of the council on languages in both directions. However, in this interdependent world, English is a predominant language. Therefore, to allow people across the world to play their part in that world, having the English language in their hands and within their power is also crucial. We are making a great contribution there.

I have also worked most of my life on issues relating to development. The thing that is often underestimated in sustaining development is the quality of leadership that is available to a country. That involves learning, scholarship, wisdom, enhanced judgment and the rest. In that, cultural exchange is incalculably important. In Britain, we are particularly good at universities and higher education. We are particularly good in our cultural and creative activities. We are the envy of the world in theatre, film and the rest. I believe the council has done terribly important work in making our cultural richness available to the world.

It is also important to remember that if we want a secure world in which to live, we want to enable the poorest countries of the world to have the kind of leadership and experience that are necessary to make a success of their place in the world. They are far less likely to be prone to extremism and terrorism if they have good, effective leadership. The council is making a crucial contribution there. What seems to be absolutely self-evident is that if we make cuts, we are undermining the work in some of the most important parts of the world where the council cannot possibly expect to win back the cost of its operations from the services it is able to sell.

This debate seems rightly to involve a fan club of the council, and it is a real delight for me to sit next to my noble friend Lord Kinnock, who, as its chair, led the council with much enthusiasm and commitment. However, I have one cautionary remark that I would want to make. My reservation is that in an anxiety to pay its way, the British Council must not lose its vision. It must not lose its commitment to the creative arts—the cultural dimension that is so important. It must not forgo its work in the most challenging and demanding parts of the world, where perhaps the input is disproportionately good, as compared with other parts of the world where it is easier to operate.

My Lords, this short debate has involved many excellent speeches and I only wish that the whole Cabinet and the mandarins of the Treasury were here to listen to it. It was opened by my noble friend Lord Bach with the unique moral authority that he conveys in this House. Personally, I am proud of the fact that in happier economic times the previous Government were able to expand the work of the British Council because it is vital as a jewel of British influence, as many have said, an instrument of soft power, a celebration of British diversity and a multiplier of the creative strengths that are so important to our economic future.

However, we all accept that we live in difficult economic times, and the British Council has responded with boldness that is typical of the kind of leadership that my noble friend Lord Kinnock has offered—boldness in terms of facing adversity. The only point that I would make relates to the fear that my noble friend Lord Judd expressed. Yes, a mixed-economy model is a very good thing for the British Council, but it must never become a privatised model. If there is a privatised model, the British Council will not be, as my noble friend Lord Judd said, where it needs to be. It will not be offering opportunities to the people who need them.

It is said that we face a period of prolonged austerity, and that may be the case. The assurance that I seek from the noble Lord, Lord Howell, is this simple one: that the present Government do not see the British Council as a frill that can be cut in the future but as an essential investment in our future. That is what it has been and that is how it should be. I hope that the noble Lord will be able to assure us on that.

My Lords, I join in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for introducing this important topic. Like others, I am only sorry that the debate has come at the end of the day and that we have not had greater opportunities, which we may have in the future, for discussing the whole broad canvas of soft power and smart power, and the new techniques in this internet age for developing the promotion of our interests, cultures and values, of which the British Council is a central part.

In fact, I will begin at the end and say simply to the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, that I can certainly give that assurance. Certainly we see the British Council, as many of us have done for decades, as a central part of the promotion of the interests of this nation and, indeed, the promotion of all that we can contribute to world peace and stability. I totally agree with much of what the noble Lord, Lord Bach, said. In fact, a good deal of it was in the speech I was thinking of making, so I do not need to repeat it. I balk only at his point about blindness. That hurts a little, because some of us have for decades been pointing this out, from the days of the famous House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee report of the 1980s, when I think the phrase “cultural diplomacy” first began to circulate.

As a result of that report, which I had the honour of participating in—although not as chairman of the committee—we have increasingly been pointing out that in the world we are moving into, cultural diplomacy, the promotion of values and attitudes, will be as powerful if not more powerful than ranges of carrier fleets, rockets and heavy military equipment—as the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, rightly reminded us. This is the pattern for the future, where hard and soft power must be brought together in an agile use of smart power within our resources and in a highly effective way. I agree with much of that.

I pay tribute to the work of the council and its staff, operating sometimes in extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances. This especially applies to its work in recent years in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq.

I agree with those of your Lordships who said that the council has a global reputation. It has, as the noble Lord, Lord Bach, reminded us, 191 offices in 110 countries, and many millions of people have passed through the doors of the British Council to learn English or to make use of the other services that are offered. It is therefore a key opinion former and shaper. When people think of the United Kingdom, of Great Britain—of what it stands for and what it seeks to do—the picture the British Council paints is part of the important work that we all seek to do. The council is the cultural relations arm of the United Kingdom—of our country. It is aligned to the priorities of the Government of the day, but importantly, it is not part of the Government of the day. Its status—not least its operational status—sets it apart not only from other institutions of ours, but also from its international peers such as the Goethe Institute, the Institut Francais, the Instituto Cervantes, and now, interestingly, the growing number of Confucius Institutes, of which there are now 324 in 94 countries. I think that figure is two years out of date; it is probably more than that now. The Chinese model is very different from our own, I suspect, in its relationship with its government. It is spreading all the time, and in all corners of the earth.

The UK has a remarkable set of soft-power assets. Years ago, in the report I mentioned, we looked particularly at the BBC World Service and the British Council, but of course the whole range of soft-power instruments is far greater. Its central purpose, or aim, or set of tools, is the ability to influence the actions of others through attraction rather than coercion. It is working to exert this influence in order to achieve our national interests in an interdependent world, and to maximise our contribution to the stability, balance and prosperity of that world. In one of his first speeches when he took office, my right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary talked of a networked world where connections between groups and individuals across the globe are a key part of the relations between nations. It is not just a matter of government to government, diplomat to diplomat, but of engaging fully with all sectors of society on a basis of mutual respect.

In the United Kingdom we seek to foster and strengthen these connections, and it is in this that the British Council can play such a key role. The message of the debate this evening has been perfectly clear; it is certainly one that I am well aware of and will carry back to all my colleagues in the Government. We see the immense value of the British Council, and obviously there is a wish that its funding and support is not attenuated.

People know that talking to the British Council is not the same as talking to the British Government, and that this opens up new avenues for engagement. Some who engage with the council will obviously be less willing to engage with the British Government; that is inevitable. So I will highlight that essential role and, incidentally, highlight one particular aspect of it, and that is the role of the Commonwealth network and how the British Council interrelates with it.

We have talked about linkages and common values, and of course the Commonwealth is an exemplar par excellence of that. It gives this country a unique advantage which many other countries envy. The British Council works in the majority of Commonwealth countries to reinforce the bond of trust through education, the arts, English language programmes and many other aspects. In fact, the British Council ran the Connecting Classrooms programme which led up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth last autumn. It works closely all the time with Commonwealth institutions and expects to be active in the UK in the build-up to the Commonwealth Games to be held in Glasgow in 2014.

There is no question but that this Government, like the previous Government, see the British Council’s main objective as building trust between countries and peoples and cultural relations between countries, and to improve the level of understanding between their peoples as well as provide a common space in which to meet and engage with each other. This in turn increases the level of trust between them. As the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, pointed out in his eloquent intervention, the council states in its annual report that it has worked face to face with 12.5 million people in the calendar year up to 2011-12, which is an increase of 2 million compared with the year before. Overall, as the noble Lord again pointed out, the council has engaged with 35 million people world-wide. These are achievements that it can be proud of and they go hand in hand with a tribute that I am glad to pay to the noble Lord and to the previous chairmen of the British Council, and of course to those who are now operating with it. I concur with the remarks made about Mr Davidson, who has been extremely effective. I have more than once had the privilege of meeting him and discussing the council’s work.

The council’s work in promoting Britain has brought more and more visitors to these shores. They come to study here, to invest here, and to understand and embrace our culture. It has also helped countless others to build enduring links with this country. Something which I do not think is always understood outside—the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, was right to say that its work and its nature are not as widely understood as they should be—is that, unlike many of its international counterparts, the British Council has two sections: there is the work that is funded by the FCO through the grant in aid, about which I shall say more in a moment, and there is the work which is directly tied to cultural relations. By far the lion’s share of the council’s present income comes from its commercial work. The noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, and others have described how that has been built up with immense success. Its English language teaching, its examination services and, increasingly, its work in managing contracts have all been areas of growth. However, I should emphasise that there is a firm division between the two sorts of work, and each year the council’s auditors certify that their full cost recovery work is not subsidised by the Government.

Like all publicly funded bodies, the council has had to play its part in helping achieve the Government’s fiscal consolidation plans. I know that there is endless debate and challenge about the nature of those plans. I have to say that when the council’s grant in aid was cut under the 2010 spending review, that was not done with enthusiasm by someone wishing to make cuts, but under the dictate of the grim necessity of sharing the burden and making proportionate cuts. We accept fully that this has presented the council with a serious challenge. It is clear that it has risen to that challenge. It has restructured its operations and reduced staff numbers. It has found new ways of working efficiently and effectively.

The British Council has committed itself to ambitious expansion plans, increasing the turnover from £707 million in 2009-10 to £969 million by 2014-15. That naturally means that the grant in aid will fall as a percentage of the total from 26% to 16%. That sounds dramatic, but overall this is the language not of contraction but of expansion. The budget is set until the end of 2014-15.

We have not started on the process of discussing the next spending review, but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will ensure that the British Council is kept engaged throughout the process. As your Lordships will recognise, it is impossible to say what any new budget levels will be. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Jay, that designating part of the FCO expenditure as ODA-able does not make any difference to the size of the expenditure or where the money comes from; it merely, as I say, designates part of our expenditure on the grant in aid as contributing towards the total overseas development assistance of the nation. We believe that the current restructuring of the British Council will provide a firm basis for its future expanding operations. We are confident that the council is maintaining the right balance between its work in English, arts and education and society, and that all of its activities contribute to its charitable purposes.

I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, after her very moving speech, that the British Council will not merely carry on but can be a more dynamic and effective partner in our national endeavour—as it has already been over the past 78 years. Its first charitable objective states, as the noble Lord, Lord Bach, reminded us, that it shall,

“promote cultural relationships and the understanding of different cultures between people and peoples of the United Kingdom and other countries”.

Therefore, I congratulate the British Council on the immense success it has had so far. We believe that this success can be built upon despite the economic difficulties that we face at the moment as a nation. We believe that its work can adapt to the changing world in which we live. I am confident that the council will continue to spread through the world the values that we hold so dear. I once again reassure your Lordships that the Government are fully apprised of the value of this spearhead of our reputation, our soft power, in a dangerous and difficult world.

House adjourned at 8.12 pm.