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British Council

Volume 812: debated on Wednesday 9 June 2021

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 8 June.

“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.”

My Lords, Nigel Adams yesterday acknowledged that the Covid pandemic had hit the British Council’s commercial activities incredibly hard. He was very sympathetic but failed to respond to Tom Tugendhat’s hope that the closure of five sites be reversed soon. As the Government host the G7 summit, does the Minister accept that to allow the closure of British Council overseas offices will be further evidence that the Government are not prepared to put the words of the integrated review into action?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s substantive points, I assure him that we have demonstrated our integrated review priorities and our support for the British Council by the large-scale package of funding we have provided to the British Council during the pandemic. The formal announcement is yet to be made on the reversal of any office closures. We are working through the implications with the leadership of the British Council. If there was one silver lining to the terribly grey cloud that is the pandemic, it has been the ability to see how we can avail of technology delivery, including in the work the British Council does across the world.

The strategic review rightly extols the soft power of the British Council, but its finances have, as we have heard, been savaged by the pandemic. I fought hard to get the council back into Angola, for example. It is vital there and elsewhere for future trading relationships with the UK. It is vital also for our higher education system to have the British Council in country, training those who want to learn English. Will the Government think again about the council’s £10 million shortfall?

My Lords, I acknowledge the noble Baroness’s work in Angola. I know that she is involved with the British Council APPG. I have seen directly in my travels as a Foreign Office Minister, then as a joint Minister and now as a Minister at the merged FCDO the important work that the British Council does, including on English language training. I reassure the noble Baroness that we have provided support. The overall package is around £609 million over the past year, which includes emergency funding in March 2020 in line with the pandemic. We are working through the issue of any underlying shortfall with the British Council leadership. If the noble Baroness goes into the figures quite specifically, she will see that this is a very generous settlement for the British Council.

My Lords, I wonder whether my noble friend can say what has been accomplished over the last three years by the offices threatened with closure? Is it wise to close offices when the British Council is crucial to widen the influence of the United Kingdom in the world at this critical time in our national history?

My noble and learned friend again draws attention to the proposed closure of certain offices. I assure him that we are looking at and working through the implications for the services within each country but, equally, ensuring that we can plug the gap through an innovator model, including a hub-and-spoke model for a particular country, or through technology enablement.

My Lords, I declare my interest as co-chair of the APPG on Modern Languages. This is supported by the British Council, which last year used £30 million of its income from English language schools to supplement its grant in aid. Covid has wiped out this commercial income. Between five and 20 country programmes are at risk for the sake of £10 million, including the Five Eyes countries, risking trade and cultural benefits, and Afghanistan, which could see the end of valuable work with women and girls that would be hard to digitalise. How is this compatible with global Britain?

My Lords, I acknowledge the important work that the British Council does on the English language. I assure the noble Baroness that the Government recognise that the British Council is a leading provider of English language training and examinations and reaches more than 100 million learners across 100 countries. We will continue to remain focused, and in countries where we need to take a step back or there are office closures, we will look at how best we can provide such services there.

My Lords, the two things about Britain that radiate around the world are the World Service and the British Council. They are the main thrust of our soft power, as was represented in the integrated review. I urge the Minister that, far from cutting back, we should seek to expand the role of the British Council as well as the World Service, particularly into areas such as Russia where we have been forced to withdraw. We should back the British Council by expanding its budget, not cutting it as we are at the moment.

My Lords, I totally agree with my noble friend inasmuch as the British Council is an important part of the UK’s soft power. Indeed, I would argue with substance that the UK is a soft power superpower. I assure my noble friend that the FCDO is supporting specific programmes with the British Council through the package that I have already outlined, and indeed through the BBC’s World 2020 programme, and there are other examples of our soft power, including the Chevening, Marshall and Commonwealth scholarships, which provide further examples of our continued support, notwithstanding the pandemic.

My Lords, I declare an interest as an ex-chair of the British Council All-Party Parliamentary Group, and as someone whose father was a career senior officer in the council. As chair, I was privileged to work closely with the council at home, but I also visited Lebanon and Nigeria and saw the superb work being done on Britain’s behalf. Why on earth are Her Majesty’s Government effectively going to force the British Council out of a number of countries when they, the Government, constantly claim that they are in favour of a global Britain policy? The two concepts are surely in direct conflict with each other. As the Defence Secretary recently said,

“there is not enough of it”—

meaning the British Council—

“around the world”.—[Official Report, Commons, 1/2/2021; col. 674.]

He was correct, was he not?

I am sure that I will always agree with my right honourable friend the Defence Secretary, and I agree with him about the important role of the British Council. Where I disagree with the noble Lord is in his assessment. We are a major power when it comes to soft power, and the British Council is part and parcel of Britain’s continuing presence in that area across the world.

My Lords, following the theme of everyone else this afternoon, how can this country be a global Britain with an insular approach? How secure is the Minister that the Treasury fully understands the strategic contribution of the British Council in establishing networks and information gathering, the cultivation of future leaders around the world, and the creating of links for trade and export promotion, thus offsetting the demoralised Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office?

My Lords, again, I am a Minister in Her Majesty’s Government and I would argue that we remain very strong in the area of soft power, including through our work in the British Council. I would draw the noble Lord’s attention to the fact that the UK ranks consistently well ahead of many other leading countries when it comes to soft power assessments; indeed, we are second in the Portland Soft Power 30 index, second in the Anholt Ipsos Nation Brands Index and third in the Brand Finance Global Soft Power Index. These are assessments of our capacity in soft power around the world.

My Lords, I am sure the Minister understands that it is difficult to believe in the Government’s commitment to being a soft power superpower while we are committing these cuts to development aid and the British Council. He may have to write to me, and I accept that, but can he assure me that the unique work that the British Council is doing through the cultural protection fund to repair the heritage of countries that have been so devastated by war will be placed on a sustainable footing? Does he agree with me that this is an absolutely critical and highly innovative way in which to maintain soft power where it really counts?

The British Council’s specific budgets will be finalised, but of course I will write to the noble Baroness in that respect. It also plays an important role with other organisations, such as UNESCO, with regard to protecting world heritage sites, and it will continue to co-ordinate in that way.

My Lords, I should perhaps declare an interest as someone who once did an exam in the British Council office in Bangkok. That is of relevance to the question that I wish to ask the Minister. For the 5.5 million Britons who live abroad, in many ways British Council offices and services are for them a link back that they rely on. More than that, I did that exam as part of a master’s degree through the University of Leicester; this is a hugely valuable export for the UK, and many educational institutions, as well as other institutions and businesses, rely on that British Council link. Will we not damage all those links for Britons abroad and for British businesses making links abroad?

First, I hope that the noble Baroness passed her exam—as I am sure that she did, based on her very able and notable contributions in your Lordships’ House. On supporting the British Council, I share what she outlined: the importance of the relationships that the British Council has, and the nature of our partnerships with key universities. She mentioned the University of Leicester. I have already alluded to the scholarship programmes, in addition to the work that we do with the British Council, which underline our commitment to education.

Just for clarity, I mentioned the £609 million over the past year that we have secured to ensure the British Council’s future. We have provided £26 million of emergency funding and loan provision facilities to the British Council of another £145 million, and we are currently finalising another £100 million loan facility. So far, the British Council has, I believe, drawn down £50-odd million of that loan facility. Overall, in addition to those loans, we are providing £189 million of grant in aid funding to the council for 2021-22, of which £150 million is ODA.

I hope that that gives a degree of reassurance—although not to the total satisfaction of all noble Lords, I am sure—that we are committed to the British Council. We support it, notwithstanding challenging times and notwithstanding the pandemic. We have stood by the British Council and will continue to do so.

I am grateful to the Minister and Members that, through their being concise, all supplementary questions, of which there were nine, were able to be asked and answered.

Sitting suspended.