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British Council

Volume 696: debated on Tuesday 8 June 2021

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, if he will make a statement on British Council closures.

The British Council is a crucial part of the UK’s presence overseas and a key soft power asset. It works in more than 100 countries to promote UK education, arts and culture, and the English language. The Government remain committed to the British Council. As the integrated review made clear, we value the influence of the British Council. We agreed a 2021-22 spending review settlement totalling £189 million, which is a 26% increase in funding from 2020-21. The British Council has not been cut. Although we have had to make difficult decisions to cut in other areas, we have increased the money we are providing to the British Council. Not only have we increased funding; we have provided a rescue package during the covid-19 pandemic. This includes a loan facility of up to £145 million, with a further £100 million loan being finalised to support restructuring. We have also provided a letter of comfort to ensure that the council can meet its financial obligations.

We found this funding for the council in the context of an extremely challenging financial environment. As a result of the pandemic, the UK is facing the worst economic contraction in over 300 years and a budget deficit of close to £400 billion. This package is necessarily accompanied by changes to the council’s governance essential to modernise the council. These include measures to update the British Council’s charitable objects, to focus the council on its core pillars, to streamline its governance structures and to agree new key performance indicators and targets to monitor council performance in key areas. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and British Council officials have worked together to ensure that the council will align even more closely with the Government’s strategic priorities and can focus on doing what it does best.

Having worked closely with the British Council, we are reviewing physical council presence in-country as part of this modernisation process. These changes will be minimal, but it is a strategic mistake to judge the impact of the council in a digital age solely by the physical office in-country. Rather, it should be judged by its operational presence, by the digital services we are investing in and which have expanded rapidly as a result of covid, and by its ability to operate through regional hubs and third parties. The covid crisis has changed the way we all have to operate. We have also implemented a new evaluation mechanism, so that when Ministers travel, they can assess the value for money and the impact provided by the British Council on soft power. This is a strong rescue and reform package. The council will also shortly have a new chief executive officer, so it will have strong leadership and a governance structure to make it viable and to reinforce its role as a force for good.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I also thank colleagues from all parties who are supporting our campaign and who signed the letter to the Prime Minister, and I thank the Minister for responding to the urgent question. Speaking as chair of the British Council all-party parliamentary group, I know that our own dealings with the Government and the letter published between the FCDO and the Foreign Affairs Committee confirm that office closures are about to take place overseas. This is about to be announced by the Government. The number varies from five to 20, but even five would represent the largest set of closures in the British Council’s history, and all for the sake of a £10 million shortfall in funding.

The Minister is right when he says that funding has been supplied to the British Council. We all know that the British Council does an excellent job, and I will not waste colleagues’ time by extolling its virtues. It is a key reason that the UK is considered a soft power superpower. Its high-quality, dedicated staff do an excellent job in promoting British culture, education and the English language overseas, facilitating cultural exchanges and building trust between other countries and the UK. In any normal year, it derives only 15% of its funding from the Government because of its commercial activities, but those commercial activities have been savaged by the pandemic. The Government have stepped forward, but their funding is still £10 million short of what the British Council needs to maintain its international network —its footprint of offices overseas—and its programming. The Government have gone so far, but they are falling at the final fence.

The Minister may say that the British Council needs to move into the technological age—he talks of a digital age—but there can be no substitute for a presence on the ground. The litmus test when it comes to the site closures is not only the Government’s talk of hub and spoke arrangements in certain regions; it is whether the country directors themselves are in situ, and country directors are going to be made redundant.

Let us remember that these closures are happening only because of the £10 million in cuts. They are not of the British Council’s choosing, so talk by Ministers that such decisions are for the British Council rings somewhat hollow. There has been strong ministerial involvement in these decisions, as confirmed by the letter to me from the Prime Minister, and it is Ministers who have instigated these cuts.

Very briefly, the closures are wrong because they are not in keeping with the concept of global Britain—the Defence Secretary has said that there is not enough British Council in the world—but they are also wrong strategically. It is a bad decision—

Order. We have to go to the Minister. I warned the hon. Gentleman that he had two minutes, and he has now taken three minutes-plus.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I have a great deal of time for my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), who does a great job chairing the all-party group. I am sure he is fully aware that, given the challenging position in which we find ourselves, many arm’s length bodies would be thrilled with a 26% increase in funding for next year.

Obviously, plans for the British Council’s global presence are still being finalised. It is a matter for the British Council to comment on the plans, and if they involve changes in country, I think my hon. Friend would appreciate that it is only right that the British Council is given the opportunity to consult its employees, trade unions and so on. Of course, any final decisions will be communicated in due course.

We will continue to support the council to ensure that it plays a leading role in enhancing UK soft power. My hon. Friend briefly mentioned global Britain before he was chopped off at the knees, and our commitment to it is clear. It is clear in the fact that we are hosting the G7 this week, as well as securing a deal on global tax reform. We also rank exceedingly well in the leading soft power indices and rankings. I, too, am getting the stare from Mr Speaker, so I shall sit down.

I would first like to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for his tireless work as chair of the APPG. Secondly, I declare an interest: I worked for the British Council from 1996 until 2008, during which time I was posted to Brussels, St Petersburg and Sierra Leone.

The council’s core purpose is to build long-term, trust-based relationships between the UK and other countries—and my goodness, it delivers. From its global network of world-leading English language teaching centres, to its outstanding arts and culture programmes, its work on democracy and good governance, its education reform and media freedom projects, and its scientific exchange and promotion of the UK’s higher education sector, the British Council provides us with an object lesson in how to win friends and influence people.

The council also provides excellent value for money for the British taxpayer, with the success of its commercial operations gradually reducing reliance on Government financing, but those operations have of course been hit hard by the pandemic, meaning that the council requires UK Government support to weather the storm. It is therefore deeply disappointing that the Government are refusing to make good the shortfall, which in turn is forcing the council to look at closing down offices in up to 20 countries. The Government’s position represents the very definition of a false economy. It is short-sighted and would inflict profound damage on Britain’s status as a soft power superpower.

On the eve of the G7 summit, I urge the Minister to think again. Will he please tell me how he intends to support the British Council to fulfil its integral role in making Britain a force for good in the world—an ambition set by the Government in their integrated review? Does he understand fears that the Government’s abandonment of their 0.7% manifesto commitment on foreign aid, combined with their ambivalence towards the council, sends a signal that Britain is withdrawing from the world stage, rather than offering leadership? Will he therefore return to this House before the summer recess with a plan that secures the British Council’s entire global network?

May I praise the hon. Gentleman for the work he has done with the British Council— 12 years is a very long stint working for a fantastic organisation—but also prod him gently for talking about our “ambivalence” towards the British Council? I politely remind him that we will be providing £149 million in grant in aid this year and £189 million in grant in aid next year. That is an increase of 26%. We have provided the British Council with a £145 million covid loan and are providing a £100 million loan to help it to restructure. In March 2020, we provided £26 million. Madam Deputy Speaker, £609 million of British taxpayers’ money since the pandemic hit does not sound like ambivalence to me. The hon. Gentleman is right: the integrated review made it clear that we value the influence of the council—of course we do—and we will continue to support the British Council in playing its leading role in enhancing the UK’s soft power throughout its work overseas.

It was very welcome to hear the Minister’s defence of the spending going towards the British Council and the way in which the Department and the Government have supported this essential service of Britain’s presence overseas. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister would also like to set out not just how we defend such a fantastic institution, but how we improve it and increase its reach. The closure of these five sites will, one must only hope, be reversed soon—perhaps not in exactly the same place, but in other buildings. What plans does he, the Department and the Foreign Secretary have to make sure that the British Council fulfils the opportunity that is before it and does not simply become a backwater?

I thank the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee for his remarks. We will be supporting the British Council going forward. It has undoubtedly gone through a torrid time: the covid pandemic has hit the British Council’s commercial activities incredibly hard. May I also use this opportunity to pay tribute to the staff of the British Council, as well as the leadership? They have had a torrid time, as has all the FCDO network, working under such difficult circumstances during the pandemic.

To answer the Chairman’s questions, we are revising the charitable objects of the British Council to focus on arts and culture, English language and education. There will be some key performance indicators coming forward. I work very closely with the chairman and the acting chief executive of the British Council and have met them on many occasions since taking up this position. We will continue to work with them closely. I think that the future for the British Council is very bright going forward, and we intend to continue to ensure that global Britain is a world leader for soft power.

The decision by the UK Government to refuse to support the British Council in its hour of need is further evidence of the “little Britain” attitude at the heart of this Government. Indeed, this new little Britain approach is so small that the Scottish Tory party wrote to the UK Tory party to question why the Scottish Government have the temerity to pursue links abroad. Yet we learn only a fortnight later that the Government are happy to slash the British Council’s international outposts. So, is the Prime Minister’s “global Britain” pledge as hollow as these moves suggest?

Furthermore, the Government previously described the British Council as a

“key driver of UK soft power overseas.”

If it is integral to the UK’s global outlook, why have this Government decided to withdraw their support? Lastly, once again we see the Government renege on their word. The last Conservative manifesto stated:

“We will work with our cultural institutions like the BBC and British Council to expand our influence and project our values.”

Just like cuts to life-saving support for the world’s most vulnerable, is this yet another broken promise for this Government?

I have a lot of time for the hon. Gentleman, but references to little Britain are frankly nonsensical. I am not entirely sure whether he listened to my statement, but we are increasing funding to the British Council next year by 26%. That is not abandoning the British Council. We value the work of the British Council. We will be supporting it, we have stuck up for it and we have got it a good settlement going forward. We have helped to bail out the British Council when times have got tough, and we will continue to work with it to ensure that it continues the fantastic work it does around the globe.

The British Council gives extraordinarily good value for money, as the Minister knows. He will also be aware that taxpayer support for the British Council is significantly less than that provided by their counterparts—and, dare I say it, our commercial competitors?—in France, Germany and Japan. Research by the British Council demonstrates that its building of trust and connections generates greater economic activity. Will he bear in mind the importance of not spoiling the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar? In promoting our values, will he pick up on research showing that our commitment to the rule of law, our free judicial system and the quality of our legal system are also strongly recognised as being critical great British global values?

My hon. Friend is spot on, and that is exactly where we are on this. As the integrated review made clear, we value the influence of the British Council globally, and we will continue to support it in playing a leading role. In his foreword the Prime Minister reiterated our commitment to soft power and, indeed, recognised the contribution of the British Council, writing that it is one of the

“vital instruments of our influence overseas”.

That is why we are providing support and continue to work very closely with the British Council.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his encouraging remarks, because as the former chair of the British Council all-party parliamentary group I saw at first hand just how the council works across the globe as the engine room of UK soft power. In the face of the budget short- fall, however, offices will close, programmes will be cut and jobs will be lost. Does he agree that the promotion of British culture and language is key to the UK thriving post Brexit, and vital in building a truly global Britain?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is the first time I have seen him in a very long time; may I congratulate him on how magnificent a specimen he looks these days? He raises an important point: it is absolutely essential that we continue to promote the United Kingdom, and the British Council does exactly that. Research has shown that students, for example, are 15% more likely to choose the UK as their study destination after using British Council services. I also thank my hon. Friend for his work as a former chair of the all-party parliamentary group.

It is clear from Members’ contributions that there is absolute unanimity about the importance of the British Council in promoting Britain’s interests and soft power across the globe. Indeed, the Minister himself has emphasised that. However, there seems to be contradiction between the commitment he expresses and the funding gap that is being allowed to develop. Will he tell us how the Government propose to close that funding gap in future years to ensure that the British Council does not move into some sort of managed decline as a result of a lack of funding?

I assure the hon. Lady that it is absolutely our intent to support the British Council—that is why we have increased its funding. As I have said, since the pandemic hit, this Government have committed to providing £609 million, which is a considerable increase. We want to ensure that the council remains on a stable financial footing. I can also tell her that the recently announced new CEO of the British Council is a formidable figure, and I am sure that he will do a fantastic job alongside the chairman, Stevie Spring. I think it has exciting times ahead under such formidable leadership.

In 2019-20, there were six schools in my constituency that benefited from excellent British Council programmes. Five were twinned with schools elsewhere in the world, and one—Ysgol Llywelyn in Rhyl—received an international school award. Will my hon. Friend confirm that opportunities such as these will not be impacted by covid-induced financial pressures?

I think my hon. Friend is referring to the Connecting Classrooms through Global Learning schools programme, which builds long-term relationships between schools, communities in the UK and developing countries. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will continue to fund that programme for 2021-22.

There is unanimity across the House on the values of the British Council going way beyond narrow commercial ones. This is about the values that we have as a nation, and the kind of world in which we want to live. Even in hard commercial terms, the British Council pays back to this nation what it costs, and in considerable excess of that. What consultation is there with other Government Departments, such as Education, International Trade, and Business, Enterprise and Industrial Strategy, for example? All those Departments and others would have an interest in making sure that we do not lose up to 20 British Council posts worldwide. That kind of information would allow us to assess whether the Government’s credibility is real on this issue.

May I just correct the record? I may have said Stewart McDonald was the incoming CEO. I was confusing him with one of our colleagues; it is Scott McDonald who will be the new chief executive. [Interruption.] Two of our colleagues! Crikey. I am sorry to disappoint the two in question. Anyway, Scott will do a fantastic job leading the British Council.

The hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) makes a good point. Of course we talk across Government—across all our network. We have BEIS employees in posts where there are British Council employees around the country, and we will continue to do that. We want to support the Council in continuing its brilliant role in ensuring that our United Kingdom soft power is enhanced through its work overseas.

Will the Minister identify which other body promotes the British language, the arts, the global economy, Climate Connection and so many other sectors which are so competently handled within the existing structure? Does he acknowledge the tremendous work that has been done by the British Council so far?

Absolutely; we hugely value the influence of the British Council. We will continue to support it in the leading role that it plays, enhancing the United Kingdom through its work overseas. As I mentioned previously, the Integrated Review reiterated our commitment to soft power. It recognised the contribution of the British Council. The Prime Minister’s foreword to the Integrated Review policy paper referred to the British Council as one of the “vital instruments” of our influence overseas.

My right hon. Friend the Minister will shortly be able to travel the world, and when he does so he will find that the presence of the British Council on site is the best embodiment of global soft power that this country has. The British Council has a funding shortfall because it cannot operate commercially. Can my right hon. Friend please find it in him to give that additional support to make sure that that on-site presence is there for when he makes those ministerial visits?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. May I correct the record—with apologies, because she is a very good friend of mine—as I am an hon. Member rather than a right hon. Member? Either way, she will appreciate that plans for the global presence of the British Council are still being finalised. We have provided a package of support and an increase in funding of which, as I said, many arm’s length bodies would be extremely envious. It is, of course, for the British Council to comment on its plans for the overseas network, but I assure my right hon. Friend that those final decisions will be communicated shortly.

Does the Minister not understand that funding for next year is no remedy for cuts, decisions and closures that will take place now? There will be long-term consequences as a result of what he is trying to describe as short-term funding shortfalls. Is that not the problem with the likes of the Prime Minister viewing aid as a giant cash machine in the sky? The Government are losing sight of the long- term consequences of their short-term decisions.

I am afraid I disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s assumptions. The impact of the pandemic has forced the Government to take incredibly tough but necessary decisions in many areas. Despite that economic climate, we have managed not just to protect the grant in aid funding that the British Council received this year, but to increase it. As I said, we are also providing a loan to help it get through the impact of the covid pandemic. Last March, when the pandemic first hit, there was immediate assistance of £26 million, plus another £100 million restructuring facility that we are working with the British Council on, so I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s assertions whatsoever.

The French and the Germans are steadily increasing their efforts through the Goethe-Institut and the French Institute, where I spent many happy hours trying to bone up on my inadequate French. Meanwhile, for decades we have been closing British Council libraries, which are often the only places where people can get free access to English literature. Will the Minister go back to his officials and insist that English literature is our greatest cultural export, and that there must be no diminution in our efforts to expand and promote it worldwide?

My right hon. Friend is correct. The British Council is a world-leading provider of language teaching, teacher training and examinations on behalf of the UK Government. It reaches 100 million learners and teachers of English annually across more than 100 countries, and it has been shown that increased levels of English language speaking benefits the United Kingdom.

The Minister has heard from colleagues across the House of the great support for the British Council, the recognition of its incredible work and the great value it gives. In 2018-19 the British Council estimated that German funding for their soft power agencies was three times that of the UK, and that in France it was twice the UK level. Is the Minister not concerned that the cuts the British Council now has to make will further undermine and reduce our influence compared with our major European neighbours?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Other countries have various programmes, and the Goethe-Institut and the Institut Français have different models. The British Council operates slightly differently with more commercial operations, and it is reliant on less Government funding than the others. Our determination to work as a force for good in the world is an important part of our soft power. The British Council is the key driver in that and will continue to act as a force for good for the United Kingdom, for example by teaching English to young women in south Asia. The education that the British Council provides is outstanding and will continue to be, and we will continue to support it.

I share the concern about the British Council’s funding settlement and the potential office closures, not least because of the understated role that the British Council plays in helping to boost trade. Will the Minister in particular assure me that there will be no cuts to the council’s presence in India, Pakistan and the other counties of the Indian subcontinent, where we have both strong historical links and the need to boost trade?

The hon. Gentleman will understand that I am not in a position to announce any of those arrangements at this point. The plans for the British Council’s global presence are still being finalised, and it is for the British Council to comment on its global network. However, I can assure him that decisions will be communicated very shortly.

While it is generally agreed across the House that the soft power applied on behalf of the UK by the British Council has been enormous, surely we must take account of the fact that thousands—in fact, tens of thousands—of businesses across this country have had to adjust to the financial disaster that covid has applied to them. The British Council should do no other than that, despite having hundreds of millions of pounds support from this Government.

My hon. Friend makes a fair point. These are extraordinary times and the impact that the pandemic has had on world economies—not just on the UK economy—has sent out a shock wave. We have backed the British Council, we have supported it and we are ensuring that it has an increase in its funding for next year. He is right to point out how important a role the British Council plays in soft power through its work overseas. I am told that one in five world leaders was educated at a UK university, which is more than any other country except the US. Given the fact that 15% of foreign students are influenced by the work of the British Council in determining where they have their education, that is testament to the brilliant work that it does.

I remember, while going on British Council activities in the Balkans after the Kosovo war, the importance of having local offices in Pristina and Belgrade that connected with people. It was the same when I visited the British Council in Mexico; we could report the same across the whole world: the individual importance of having a base. The young people in those programmes were already using online activities. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that online does not replicate person-to-person contact in building trust and culture. If this were a reduction in UK export support for manufacturing, the Government would be outraged and reversing any of the cuts. Will the Minister look again, in particular at the in-person support, to ensure that there are offices in every location where needed and that the support during the pandemic allows the British Council to grow and not just to survive?

It is good to hear the hon. Gentleman’s experience of benefiting from the work that the British Council does overseas. I am absolutely confident in the British Council’s ability to grow, not just survive. As I said, the individuals who will be leading this organisation—Scott McDonald and Stevie Spring—are formidable people with huge commercial experience, and that is exactly what the British Council needs. Any organisation would be proud to have these individuals leading from the front, so I have full confidence in the British Council’s ability, under this leadership, to take this fantastic organisation forward.

Sitting suspended.