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British Council and the Integrated Review

Volume 690: debated on Thursday 4 March 2021

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

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the British Council and the integrated review. I thank Mr Speaker for granting the debate and the Minister for responding. I should declare my interest as chairman of the British Council all-party group.

The UK is often termed a soft power superpower, with recent research showing that the UK is presently the most attractive country in the G20. 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—the Oxford-designed vaccine is saving lives in this country and worldwide—and our sporting prowess and ability to put on fine spectacles, such as the 2012 Olympics and, no doubt, the 2022 Commonwealth games, but it is also down to our respected national and international institutions.

I know that the Foreign Secretary and the Minister are aware that 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 building trust between the UK and other countries. Along with the BBC World Service, it is one of the jewels in the crown of British soft power, and few Departments do not directly benefit from its work. Indeed, research shows that participation in cultural relations activity with the British Council increases the proportion of people who say they trust the UK by more than a quarter—26%. Those who say they trust the UK are twice as likely to trade, visit, study or do business with our country than those who do not.

Soft power is usually defined as the art of persuading and attracting people to “want what you want”, but despite the consensual approach it requires, it is becoming an increasingly contested area. In order for the UK to retain its lead in this important arena, and in the competition for global influence, it is crucial that we act strategically and also strengthen our soft power assets and offering. The integrated review, which is due to report shortly, is considering all aspects of our international relations—foreign policy, defence, security and international development. As an ex-soldier with the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, a regiment that Mr Speaker knows well, I fully appreciate the need for strong defence. Despite the recent welcome increases in the defence budget, I believe we need to spend even more in this uncertain world and certainly not reduce our infantry numbers, but proper financial support for our soft power assets is also vital. The Ministry of Defence agrees. It understands that:

“The best way to not get into a conflict is to avoid one in the first place by understanding each other’s issues”.—[Official Report, 1 February 2021; Vol. 688, c. 674.]

Those were the words of the Defence Secretary when I raised the issue of the British Council with him recently during Defence questions. War should always be the measure of last resort.

In our report of October 2020, the all-party group made clear our recommendation that there should be a soft power strategy at the heart of the integrated review, providing our assets of influence parity with other hard power assets, so that they are able to complement one another. The report also recommended that our soft power assets should continue to operate independently, as assets of influence are most effective when the engagement they deliver has a value for its own sake. Allowing these assets to act independently and authentically boosts their effectiveness—their efficacy; everyone knows that Russia Today and the Confucius Institutes are instruments of Russian and Chinese state power, and they lack effectiveness, value and credibility as a consequence. While alignment with Britain’s foreign policy objectives is essential, operationally, soft power assets such as the British Council should be free to develop and implement their own strategies, drawing on their skills, insight and expertise derived from decades of experience.

Inevitably, there is also a need to sustain and enhance our international engagement with appropriate funding. In recent years, the British Council has ensured its grant-in-aid funding from the Government stretches far, and has used the surplus from its commercial activities to support and maintain its activities abroad. Members may not be aware that in normal times the British Council receives only 15% of its income from the state, whereas its French, German and Japanese equivalents receive 48%, 62% and 65% respectively.

The coronavirus pandemic has been hard for the British Council, as almost all of its commercial activity, and its associated income, has understandably come to a halt and will not restart substantially for some time. As in other areas, it must be said that the Government have been supportive, and my understanding is that the British Council is now on firmer footing than was feared even a few months ago when insolvency was a very real risk. Nevertheless, I also understand that discussions are ongoing and that many options are on the table. Therefore, as the Government consider our international engagement in the integrated review, I urge them to think strategically about our soft power and take the long view rather than short-term decisions, which, in coming years, we may regret. In particular, the Government and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office especially should reflect on the fact that if the British Council ceases to have a presence in a given country, it is not only unlikely that a presence would be easily re-established, but that such a move also leaves space for other countries which will be sure to notice and fill the vacuum, and not all those countries may be friendly to our own.

I am confident that Members across the House, especially those active in the all-party group that I chair, will be deeply concerned by a decision to reduce the British Council’s network, which is a vital part of building the close long-term relationships in which the organisation specialises and from which the whole UK profoundly benefits. Furthermore, a retreat on the global stage is difficult to square with the Government’s ambitions for global Britain, and quite rightly so. Overall, I agree with the Defence Secretary’s assessment that there is not enough of the British Council around the world. I am sure that the Foreign Secretary and the Minister will also share that opinion, and I look forward to hearing their confirmation of this when the Minister responds to this address and debate.

Once again, I urge the Minister to do all he can to ensure that soft power is at the heart of the integrated review. In this year of UK leadership of the G7 and the COP26 environmental talks, the Government should enhance and capitalise on our soft power strengths to preserve our role as a global leader and broker on the world stage and fully realise the ambitions of global Britain.

I am incredibly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for securing this debate on the British Council and the integrated review. May I use this opportunity to pay tribute to him for his work as chairman of the British Council all-party group, particularly as he referenced the recent report on influence and the integrated review?

For more than 85 years, the British Council has been the UK’s international organisation for education and cultural relations. It is a crucial part of the UK’s presence overseas and it is a key soft power asset. It has work in more than 100 countries, reaches 790 million people annually, promoting UK education, arts and culture and, as my hon. Friend referenced, the English language. He also referenced in his excellent speech that the United Kingdom is a soft power superpower. We have huge strengths from sport, culture and creative industries to our world-class higher education system, and the important role that we play internationally in addressing whatever the major issues of the day are. We rank consistently in the top three in leading soft power indices, and we ranked as the most attractive country for young people in the G20 in the British Council’s recent soft-power perception study.

The British Council promotes UK influence and attraction overseas by building long-lasting connections between people. It acts as a force for good—for example, through its work to empower young women in south Asia through English language teaching. It encourages cultural understanding through programmes such as its fantastic seasons of culture and through educational exchanges.

The British Council also fosters connections between higher education institutions and students in the UK and in other countries. I am pleased to note that the council will use the expertise it derived from delivering Erasmus+ to administer the new Turing scheme from September. This will enable a new generation of international students to benefit from the UK’s world-class education system.

I thank the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for his presentation. It is always a real nice pleasure to see him again; we look forward to renewing friendships shortly.

It has been said that a state’s credibility and capacity to effect change depends as much on diplomacy and the social and human capital of international networks as it does on gross domestic product or military might. Does the Minister agree that it is essential that our diplomacy should be used to make a difference—as I often ask for—to the lives of those who are oppressed throughout the world?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: it is important that, through our network and posts and through what we do in our embassies and high commissions around the world, as well as through our British Council offices, there is a huge diplomatic effort going on. I appreciate that that is not the principal object of the British Council, but it does add to the UK’s strength of diplomacy. If there are emergencies or crises around the world—sadly we have seen a number of them—the United Kingdom has a strong part to play, and he is absolutely right to raise that.

To continue the theme of that intervention, the council also contributes to our global prosperity and helps to develop favourable conditions for new trade and investment links. My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay rightly raised the integrated review. The Government want our foreign policy to deliver for the British people and to be rooted firmly in our national interests, which is why the commitment to deliver a review of foreign, defence, security and development policy was announced in the Queen’s Speech in December 2019.

The integrated review will define the Government’s ambition for the UK’s role in the world and the long-term strategic aims for our national security, foreign and development policy. It will outline the way in which the United Kingdom will be a problem-solving and burden-sharing country, and it will set a strong direction for recovery from covid-19, both here and overseas, so that together we can build back better.

The full conclusions of the integrated review will be published later this month. My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay will understand that I do not want to pre-empt the findings, nor how the British Council will feature in the final report, but I would be surprised if soft power does not play a part in it. It is absolutely certain that the FCDO will continue to value the British Council’s role as a contributor to our long-term foreign policy and our development ambitions.

As I set out, the integrated review will map out the UK’s direction for recovery from covid-19. It is important to acknowledge that the British Council has been acutely affected by the pandemic, as my hon. Friend said. At the pandemic’s peak—at its worst—more than 90% of the British Council’s teaching and exam centres were forced to shut, with a huge impact on the organisation.

We have worked hard to provide the British Council with additional support at a time of strain on public finances. Last March, the Department provided £26 million of emergency funding, as well as providing half of the council’s grant-in-aid funding up front. We will also provide up to £145 million in loans to ensure that the British Council is able to continue to operate through this exceptionally difficult time. We will provide further financial support for future restructuring plans to enable the British Council to rebuild its commercial surpluses.

I am extremely grateful to the Minister and am very encouraged by everything he has said so far. Does he agree that, despite the covid-19 pandemic forcing us all to move into the virtual world, the physical footprint of organisations such as the British Council must be maintained and restored, because in international competitive environments, where we leave a vacuum, other countries with less benign intentions will be all too ready to fill it?

My right hon. Friend is right to raise that issue. The footprint of the British Council is huge globally. If he is referring to potential office closures, no decisions have been taken. Clearly, the British Council is operationally independent in that regard. We will work and are working extremely closely with the council to ensure that any negative impact on its work is minimised as much as possible.

Despite the hardship endured throughout the pandemic, the British Council has continued to innovate and it has adapted to digital delivery. I understand the point of my right hon. Friend’s intervention. Previously, the digital footprint was nowhere near what it is now in terms of delivering the English language. Currently, more than 80,000 students are learning English online.

The British Council has also been able to deliver events online. An example of that is the UK-Italy season of culture, which was the first of its kind. Fifty virtual events have been held for hundreds of cultural professionals. I was delighted to take part in the UK in Japan season earlier this year, although very sadly I was unable to get to Japan for obvious reasons. I was able to visit digitally, and I had the pleasure of taking part in an online discussion with leading figures from the UK and Japanese cultural sectors. It is a credit to the British Council that it has been able to continue its vital work throughout this period. It demonstrates the resilience of our soft power institutions.

We have ensured that the British Council will be on a steady footing for the future, so that it can continue delivering core work across arts and culture, the English language and, importantly, education. As part of the spending review settlement for 2021-22, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will provide £189 million of grant-in- aid funding, of which £150 million is official development assistance.

The British Council delivers key soft power benefits for the UK, as I have said, through its networks and expertise. It ensures UK influence through its programming. It attracts students and visitors to the UK and, through its work on the ground with communities and young people, it helps to secure global co-operation, as referenced in the intervention by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).

The full conclusions of the integrated review will set out the UK’s vision for the next decade. It will be based on our values and grounded in the UK national interest. I have no doubt that the British Council will continue to play a vital role, and the FCDO will continue to support it as one of our most valuable soft power institutions.

I appreciate that the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) finds it difficult to be isolated behind his screen. I am afraid that it is just not possible for him to come back in or to intervene on the Minister as he normally would, were he here in the Chamber. As a consolation prize, I am going to give him the prize for the best background, because it is closest to the colour of the Chamber.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.