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Foreign Languages: European Institutions

Volume 748: debated on Tuesday 22 October 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to encourage the study of modern foreign languages to maximise the United Kingdom’s influence in the European institutions.

My Lords, the Government recognise that a lack of modern language skills is a barrier to anyone who wishes to work for the EU institutions. We are addressing this at two critical points, by encouraging school pupils to study languages and providing intensive, targeted training for those applying for an EU career. We have also prioritised higher education funding for modern language courses to ensure the continued availability of language study in higher education institutions.

My Lords, given the British brain drain from Brussels in European Union institutions, which has seen a drop of some 24% of British people working within the European Commission, and given that no fewer than two out of three jobs notionally available to the United Kingdom are left idle by this Government or filled by others, what more can be done on the language front? Will the Minister please study the report of the British Academy, and can she, within her own party, douse the Tea Party Tories, whose constant Europhobia inhibits young people, diplomats and British people from taking the opportunities to be found within the single European market and the wider European Union?

The noble Lord makes the important point that the number of Brits in the European Union institutions is low. It is right that it has been falling over a number of years, from long before 2010—and I am sure that the noble Lord would accept that. The UK represents 12% of the EU population but we have only about 5% of EU staff. Not having a second or a third language, which was also required for some of these jobs, has been the largest barrier. We are putting in place a number of things. I hope that the noble Lord will join me in congratulating my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary on reopening the language school at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in September this year, which was sadly closed in 2007. I am sure that he will also join me in congratulating the Secretary of State for Education on putting an emphasis on languages in schools and making them one of the performance indicators for the EBacc.

Is the Minister aware that only 2.6% of the total of last year’s applicants to the European Civil Service were from the UK? Does the Minister agree that our Civil Service recruitment process should collect information on the language skills of new recruits and that an audit should be carried out across the whole of the current Civil Service to establish the extent of the language skills that we do or do not have? If she agrees that that might help to target the individuals best placed to boost our numbers in Europe, will she see that it gets done?

There are a number of reasons why we have problems in relation to that kind of recruitment. One is availability; graduates here are just not as aware, as they are in other European countries, that there are these great opportunities in the EU institutions. Therefore, we have spent a huge amount of resource and energy in 2011 and 2012 in having a road show at graduate fairs to encourage people to apply for these jobs. That has included ministerial involvement. We are investing in language schools, as I have said, and we have also set up an EU staffing unit, which specifically brings together civil servants from across Whitehall, not just the FCO—the FCO hosts this—who can be trained to fit into these institutions. When people get beyond the first stage, we provide some intensive training to get them through to the second stage.

Does my noble friend agree that it would be helpful if, in the course of speeches made by Ministers on European issues, the availability of such positions in the European Commission and other institutions was mentioned, as a ministerial reference would carry much more weight than just making it available on paper?

I will certainly make sure that we try to incorporate the opportunities which exist for civil servants in the European Union institutions as part of the reform of the European Union because the more Brits that we have fighting for British interests within the European Union, the better it is for the country as a whole.

Does not the Minister think that this will be an increasing problem, particularly with the growth of free schools, approved by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, where staff do not need any qualifications and we cannot be guaranteed that they are proficient in English, let alone any other language?

I am not sure that I can answer education questions as well. However, what I can say from this Dispatch Box is that I am a huge supporter of free schools and the opportunities that they present to some of the most marginalised. I can give examples of communities that I work incredibly with where children who have been let down by much of what was available to them in the education system previously are now being offered the best education—the kind of education which some parents can pay for but which is now being offered to these children and is paid for by the state.

My Lords, my noble friend may be pleased to hear that my 16 year-old daughter is being taught German by a teacher who is not a qualified teacher but is a German national and mother-tongue speaker. The emphasis must be on having a good teacher rather than on whether the teacher has formal qualifications. My daughter is on course to get a very fine grade indeed. As regards the re-established language school that my noble friend mentioned, what level of interest has there been from across Whitehall departments in taking up the opportunity offered by that language school?

My Lords, 80 languages, 70,000 hours of training and 1,000 full and part-time students—that is the language school.

Does the noble Baroness agree that we face an extremely serious situation in relation to British influence in the European Union given that the number of British staff working there has declined by a quarter in the past seven years? Are the Government serious about doing something about that as I see no mention of it in the Foreign Office report or in its statement of priorities yet it should be a top national priority? Are they just sleepwalking out of the European Union?

I think the noble Lord will take great comfort from the fact that since 2010 the number of British applicants has increased by 50%.

My Lords, did I hear my noble friend say that British civil servants going to the Commission lobby for British interests? Surely, that is contrary to Community law. Surely, my noble friend would agree that those who serve the Commission are required to serve its interests even after they are retired as a condition of continuing to get their pension.

Those who serve the Commission, whatever their nationality, bring to the table their expertise and their experience from within the British Civil Service. Any civil servants who bring their experience of the British Civil Service to European institutions bring something additional and special which is good for the British Isles.