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Soft Power

Volume 827: debated on Thursday 9 February 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they remain committed to maintaining the quality of the components of the United Kingdom’s soft power, as listed in chapter 2 of the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (CP 403), published on 16 March 2021.

My Lords, the Government remain absolutely committed to harnessing the range of UK influence to advance our interests overseas. The FCDO has demonstrated this through our continued support for the British Council and the BBC World Service, our flagship scholarship programmes engaging future generations of global leaders, our world-class diplomatic network and our role in supporting the international elements of major UK cultural events, such as Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee and the upcoming coronation of Their Majesties the King and Queen Consort.

My Lords, the previous Prime Minister but one used to talk about the UK as a soft power superpower. The integrated review listed: the BBC World Service in particular with its global reputation; UK universities and their immense attraction for overseas students; our strong and flourishing cultural sector; the British Council, as the Minister has mentioned; and our record as one of the world’s major and most skilled providers of overseas aid and development assistance. Which of those are the Government still as committed to as they were when the integrated review was agreed?

My Lords, we are committed to all of the above. The BBC World Service currently provides services in 42 languages to 365 million people. We have committed £94.4 million annually to the BBC through the spending review, an additional £4.1 million to the World Service to support Ukrainian and Russian language services in the light of Russia’s illegal war on Ukraine, and a further £1.44 million from the FCDO to support countering disinformation.

I use that as a specific example, but the noble Lord talked about all the areas. He will know from his involvement in education that the United Kingdom remains second only to the United States in terms of numbers of overseas students. That service has improved. My colleagues at the Home Office have extended someone’s ability to come to the UK not only to study but to work, which enhances both the reputation of the UK’s education offer and the abilities and skills of the individual coming. I would be happy to discuss that with the noble Lord.

Of course I accept that ODA has been cut from 0.7% to 0.5%; I hope we can return to 0.7% as soon as possible. Working within those parameters, we continue to prioritise important issues such as humanitarian support, as we have done recently in Turkey, to ensure that the agility and flexibility needed to respond to natural disasters is also met.

My Lords, in the light of the Minister’s very wise words on higher education, can he explain the constant briefings from Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch that we really do not want higher education international students to come to the United Kingdom and be welcomed in the way that they have been over so many years?

My Lords, as the Minister for South Asia, among other areas, I am directly involved in some of the important work we are doing to strengthen our partnership with India, for example, as well as other south Asian countries, and education is a key component of that. I assure the noble Lord that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is very proud of our educational offer to international students and equally proud of the programmes we run, such as the Chevening scholarships and the Commonwealth scholarships, which are part and parcel of our overall educational offer. I stand by the fact that the UK has been, continues to be and should remain a key place for any student wishing to come to the UK, because our educational institutions, with which many noble Lords are involved, are second to none.

My Lords, the world has changed rather dramatically in the two years since the publication of this review. I know that the Minister is not directly responsible, but could he go back and ask the Foreign Secretary to lobby for an immediate review of the review, because we must spend more on defence? Funnily enough, I think that is what President Zelensky said yesterday, and everybody said, “Hear, hear”. Well, I say “Hear, hear” to that. We need to have hard power as well as soft power.

And I say to my noble friend that I hear him, and I hear him again. I assure him that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary is seized of the very points he has just made.

My Lords, yesterday some of us from this House attended a meeting on the BBC World Service in Iran. That programme is now severely threatened due to various expenditure cuts and the flat licence fee, yet the BBC World Service is the only voice of democracy and values that Iranians have access to at the moment. Can the Minister guarantee that this programme has special consideration by the FCDO to preserve it and allow it to have sufficient funding?

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness’s work in this area. I assure her that we are very much—again—seized of the evolving and changing situation in Iran. We have seen the most appalling and abhorrent suppression of human rights by Iran on its own communities, particularly women and girls. As I understand it, under the current BBC proposals no services will be closed. The issue is one of broadcast services and radio. According to the figures I have, about 1% of the BBC’s total weekly audience of 13.8 million in Iran get BBC news solely by radio. The other 99% use BBC Persian on TV and online. However, I hear what the noble Baroness says. Although the BBC has an independent mandate to work in this respect, the importance of BBC Persian services in Iran is very much a key priority for us as well.

My Lords, the Minister cannot have it both ways. He talks about grants to the BBC, but it is suffering precisely because of what the noble Baroness asked about in terms of licence fee constraints. Tim Davie has been saying that that it is for the Government to determine strategic decisions on funding the World Service. It is one of the most important elements of our soft power. I hear from Tim Davie that the BBC is making a strong case for the Government to look at taking back responsibility for funding the World Service, taking it away from the licence fee. He has said that he is engaging constructively with the FCDO on future funding. Can the Minister tell us what that means and what sorts of discussions have been taking place?

Well, we are engaging constructively with the BBC, as the noble Lord has heard from the BBC directly. To put this into context, since about 2016 the FCDO, notwithstanding quite a number of challenges that we have faced, has provided more than £468 million to the World Service via the World2020 programme, which funds 12 language services. I also accept that 2016 was the last time a review of those services was carried out. Some of the discussions we are having in the FCDO are about reviewing those services to ensure, as noble Lords often highlight and have done today, that, in an ever-changing world, we prioritise the services that are funded. That said, over 42 languages are funded overall, including through the licence fee. They reach a sizeable part of the world’s population—365 million people. However, I accept the premise of the noble Lord’s question that we need to ensure that the BBC is fit for purpose, particularly in the important service it provides to many communities around the world that are under severe suppression and targeted by their own Governments.

My Lords, the Government have reaffirmed the importance of soft power to the UK. I agree with them. Three or four years ago, the then Minister for Soft Power met this House’s International Relations and Defence Committee to consult on a soft power strategy that he said was imminent. Who currently is the Minister for Soft Power? Is there a strategy? If there is, where is it?

My Lords, I assure your Lordships that the care and compassion shown by all Ministers, including those in the FCDO, are very empowering. We are all responsible for the delivery of the influence that we can extend through our soft power, as it is termed, around the world. The noble Lord will also be aware that that strategy was integrated into the integrated review as part of the influence we have around the world. We have one of the best diplomatic networks, which I know the noble Lord himself has experienced, and the best diplomats around the world. Those networks, working with the likes of the British Council and other key bodies at arm’s length from the UK Government, are part and parcel of the UK offer. The soft power and influence we have around the world, whether through our world-class universities, our diplomats or, indeed, the caring and compassionate words of Ministers who travel around the world, as well as parliamentarians, are all part of that UK offer. It is actually a key part, particularly in the world we live in today.

My Lords, the UK without doubt has some of the strongest elements of soft power, including the Royal Family, the BBC, Premier League football or our universities. Can the Minister reassure us that, having hit the 600,000 target for international students, there will be no reduction—in fact, we should increase it to 1 million—and that the two-year post-graduation work visa will not be reduced but retained? Why do the Government continue to include international students in net migration figures? They should be excluded, as our competitor countries do.

My Lords, I first pay tribute to the noble Lord as an example of our soft power around the world. I hear what he said. Of course, it is not within the remit of the department that I speak for, but I will certainly relay the strength of feeling in your Lordships’ House to colleagues in the Home Office. Again, I accept the principle he relates: if we have a world-class offer for students, from which we, they and the world gain, we should ensure that it is available in the maximum way it can be, while accepting the domestic challenges we face.