HC Deb 24 September 1948 vol 456 cc1293-308

2.5 p.m.

Mrs. Ayrton Gould (Hendon, North)

I am very glad to have this opportunity of raising the question of the British Council, which is doing extremely valuable work on behalf of Britain and which is very often little understood partly from lack of information and partly from the direct misrepresentation which occurs in the Press. The British Council is not a party concern, and I think that hon. Members opposite will a little later on bear me out in showing their interest in the work of the Council.

However, there are one or two specific matters with which I wish to deal. Firstly the comments which are continually appearing, in one section of the Press. These comments deliberately misrepresent and falsify the Council's activities. I want to give just one instance of these though I could quote a hundred. The "Evening Standard" of 10th September published this statement in the Londoner's Diary: One of the activities of the British Council (financed by the joyful taxpayer) is the publication of the monthly entitled 'Britain Today' now seeking circulation in the U.S.A at 1s. 3d. a copy. For their money such Americans as send dollar subscriptions receive a magazine of 50-odd pages. This magazine, I now learn, is refusing to lighten the drain on the taxpayer by accepting advertising from the United States paid for in advance in dollars. That is completely inaccurate. What is more, a correction was sent—I can say officially that it was sent because I happen to be one of the vice-chairmen of the British Council—pointing out that there was a full-page advertisement in the September "Britain Today"—if hon. Members want visual evidence, here is the advertisement—called "British Gifts in America this Christmas." That will bring in dollars not only by reason of the payment for the advertisement but also through the dollar earnings of the gifts which are bought in America. The "Evening Standard" went on to say that a similar advertisement had been offered for a year. I can only say that no one in the British Council had any cognisance of this matter. I bring this up merely because it is an indication of the sort of deliberate misrepresentation which goes on week in and week out in the Beaverbrook Press and misleads Members of Parliament and members of the public as to what the British Council is doing and can do.

I want to bring up two other matters also where there really is inefficiency and unnecessary cost to the taxpayer on account of the British Council but not through any action or fault of the Council. The Government have laid down that British Council publications shall be dealt with by the Central Office of Information. They have also laid down that books and publications bought by the British Council either for this country or overseas shall be purchased through His Majesty's Stationery Office.

I want to show that both these things are inefficient because long delay loses sales and costs the taxpayer money unnecessarily in the name of uniformity. I have no doubt it is an excellent thing that Government Departments should have their publications issued through the Central Office of Information, but the British Council is not a Government Department and it is run on entirely different lines. Most Government Departments have sporadic publishing, which is possibly better carried out by a central office, but the British Council has to have a permanent publications department because some two-thirds of its publishing work is overseas. Therefore the Central Office has nothing whatever to do with it. So the Council must keep this department going with its salaried experts. The result is that publications in this country are produced under the dual responsibility of Council experts and officers of the Central Office of Information who have no expert knowledge of the Councils' productions.

I should like to give the House a picture of one publication to indicate what I mean. There is a publication coming out called "The Year's Work in Music." It is particularly welcome in many countries and is very necessary from the point of view of the Council. Instead of the Council being able to publish that, what happened was this. Two experts in the Council—the expert on publishing and the expert on music—got together to discuss who would be the most suitable person to edit the work, and came to a decision. Instead of being able to submit to the editor a proposition, all they could do was to ask him to come and discuss the matter with them. He decided that he would like to do it and instead of getting on with the publication the author then was obliged to go to the Central Office of Information and discuss the whole thing all over again thus wasting a great deal of time.

It happens with all publications but in this case there were nine stages, taking from August to November 1947 when the Director of Publications first started sending forward the idea. First the music committee approved it. Then it went forward to the publications department of the C.O.I. and finally, on 24th November, the Central Office of Information asked for copies of other minutes dealing with the matter, and correspondence. On the next day the information was sent. Now in 1948 the Central Office of Information are presumably still getting on with the issue of that work. There has been endless delay and, by the time the work comes out it will be 18 months to two years after the year described in "The Year's Work in Music." So that the whole thing will be quite out of date.

I suggest to the House that this delay costs money. It obviously costs sales, because many people overseas who wanted the publication to time have not been able to get it. To show what happens when the Central Office of Information is not brought in, there was a demand for a brochure which had a pretty big sales demand to be reprinted quickly. That brochure was issued in the numbers required by the litho-photography process quite cheaply in six weeks by the British Council and sent out to the places where it was wanted. The other method leads to many difficulties. In the first place the authors do not like it, the British Council does not like it and, with all respect to the Central Office of Information, their man obviously cannot be anything like as expert on the point of what the British Council needs as its own experts who are doing the work all the time.

There is another aspect of the same matter, the question of British Council book buying having to be done through the Stationery Office. There is no saving in staff, there is no financial saving; indeed, I think there must be a definite financial loss, because the Stationery Office service charges are 12½ per cent. That money is not paid by the British Council. Somebody has to pay it, and therefore I presume that the British taxpayer is paying it. Meanwhile, there is delay and loss of goodwill between the publishers and the expert publisher in the British Council. I submit it is important for the British Council that these things should be done much more directly.

The third Report of the Select Committee on Estimates dealt with the British Council. Everybody will agree that it is a high-powered Committee of this House. It sat a long time, it took a great deal of evidence, and obviously its members drew up their report and recommendations with the greatest care. After going into details, they stated specifically that: They see no justification for abandoning, in favour of the Central Office of Information, the former system whereby the Council were entirely responsible for publishing their own brochures. They went on to say, on the question of buying: Unless some substantial financial saving can be attained, they deprecate the decision of the Treasury, that, after 1st April, 1948, the Council must buy most of the books they need through H.M. Stationery Office and not direct from the publishers. Obviously there could be no better or more impartial Committee to make valuable recommendations on the work of the British Council, and some six months ago they reported on important matters concerning it. As far as the British Council know, as far as I know, and as far as the public know, no attention has been paid by the Government to those recommendations. Since, in the interests of the efficiency and economy of the working of the British Council, these things are vital, I ask the Government to take note of those recommendations and to act on them immediately.

2.15 p.m.

Mr. Howard (Westminster, St. Georges)

In these days of tension and anxiety it might at first seem almost irrelevant to raise a matter such as the British Council, but for my part I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Hendon (Mrs. Ayrton Gold) for having done so. I am grateful for two reasons. The first is the domestic aspect. It seems to me a matter of great importance that when a Select Committee appointed by this House, composed of hon. Members of all parties, reports to this House, prompt and proper attention should be paid to that Report by the Minister or Departments concerned. Further, unless that Department can give a very convincing reason why some other course should be taken, the House should strongly support the recommendations of its own Select Committee. It is one of the traditions, and not the least important functions of this House, to exercise a vigilant and continuous check on the natural proclivity of any and every executive to neglect, and possibly even to usurp, the responsibilities of the Legislature, and unless we support our Select Committee who deal with these matters, that dangerous proclivity may go too far. I think it true of Governments, as of lesser mortals, that, having been a little chastised, they may be greatly rewarded. I hope therefore we shall support our Select Committee.

My second reason for being grateful to the hon. Member for raising the matter is quite different. As means of composing international differences, economic, political and military considerations are certainly important, but there are other factors of almost equal importance—religion and ethics. They are not matters I can discuss today. There is, however, another factor which, under the perhaps clumsy, but none the less convenient, term of cultural activities, can perform a really valuable function in promoting mutual understanding, common interest and, I believe, joint endeavour amongst peoples of wholly diverse languages and traditions. It is because, not always successfully, but on the whole successfully, the British Council performs that function, that I hope and believe it will receive certainly the watchful, but also the continuous support of this House.

My personal connection with the Council is of much too short duration for me to pontificate in any way on its activities, but there are two points I wish to make. I believe the abiding effect of the activities in which the Council engages is in inverse ratio to the publicity appeal of those particular activities. Perhaps it is an insular view, but one which I hope and believe many hon. Members will share, that it is a work of real value to promote a wider knowledge of the English language throughout the world. That is a work which, quietly and unostentatiously, is carried out by the British Council in many lands. I cannot help thinking that there will be no divergence of view on the value of making British books available throughout the world. The Council not only maintain many libraries, but also try to get into the hands of professors and students alike books on different subjects—they may be artistic or scientific—which are difficult to obtain. They also succeed in arranging a dissemination of scientific journals, which enables those engaged to keep abreast of current activities.

Those are not in the least works which appeal to the publicity hound, if I may use that term. The work they do in connection with smoothing the way for visitors and serious students to this country is also not in the least glamorous, but has effects of untold value. Naturally, the work the Council are seeking to achieve cannot produce obvious and immediate results, but it will have long-term results and anyone who has planned long-term activities knows the need for long-term finance to carry them out.

Under Treasury control, the British Council never know from year to year how much money they are to have to spend in the following year. They begin every year with a large portion of their budget committed and earmarked to activities which have been started in the previous year. It should be possible, if the Government believe that its work is useful, for the British Council to know in advance, within a small margin, the sums which will be available for a period of two, three or possibly five years. If that could be done, the work of the Director-General and the staff would be immensely eased.

This work is carried out by large numbers of anonymous individuals, male and female. I do not think they have quite the security of tenure in their jobs which the importance of their work justifies. Efforts have been made by the British Council to secure the support of successive Governments to improving the position of those employed by the Council. They have not got very far yet. I hope the effort of the hon. Member for North Hendon, who raised this matter, will do something to speed up the process of securing the tenure of people who do this valuable but unpublicised work.

2.27 p.m.

Mr. Hopkin Morris (Carmarthen)

The British Council has now been in existence in one form or another for 14 years. I believe it is the general testimony of all who have seen its work, whether at home or abroad, that during those 14 years it has performed a very important and useful service. One need not go so far as a Colonial witness who appeared before the Select Committee and expressed the view that it was an instrument almost justified by Providence. I do not know whether that is intended to be idolatry of the Council, or a reflection on Providence. I much prefer the more modest view of the Foreign Office that it performs a useful function.

There is no doubt that it has a very important function of bringing people from distant parts of the world to this country and enabling them to see, in different forms, the way in which we live. They are able to undertake a task which the Government, in a more direct form, could not possibly undertake. They are free, or should be entirely free, from the direct policy of the Government of the day, and the object of the Council is to bring the peoples of the world to an understanding of different levels and different classes and people with different interests to see how the people of this country live and to give them a direct knowledge of our form of civilisation. That is a very important thing. It is all the more important because we believe in a free society and the people of the world should see how a free society lives.

The set-up of this instrument is a matter of some importance and I wish to ask a few questions about it. The Select Committee inquired into the financing of the Council and made some recommendations. Apparently, at the moment, the British Council draws its finances from separate Government Departments. That has its difficulties, and important difficulties, which have been experienced this year when the British Council was instructed to cut down expenditure by 10 per cent. In cutting down the expenditure by 10 per cent. it did so uniformly, dividing the cut between two Government Departments.

It may very well be more important to spend money in one specific direction than in another. For example, the bringing of people from the Dominions and Colonies here can be done in some years more effectively than the bringing of people from say countries in Eastern Europe. That it should not be subject to uniform Departmental cuts is very important when money might be more adequately and efficiently spent in some Departmental spheres rather than others. The making of a uniform cut is a very unfortunate method to adopt. The Select Committee has made a recommendation that that should no longer happen, and I should like to know from my hon. Friend who is to reply, what the Government propose to do about the recommendation of the Select Committee in that matter.

A recommendation was made by the Select Committee that the executive body of the Council should not be composed merely of distinguished people representing different interests and walks of life in this country, but should also have upon it members from our Dominions and Colonies abroad to give it assistance and advice. What is the Government's position in regard to that? I wish to draw specific attention to the regional panels in that respect. There is a good strong regional panel in Wales which is presided over by the noble Lady the Member for Anglesey (Lady Megan Lloyd George). It would be helpful to have upon that panel also people in the Dominions or Colonies who have Welsh interests and who know Wales, to join their advice to that of the present members. The recommendation of the Select Committee should apply not only to the general executive but also to the regional panels. Contrary to the evidence of the Colonial Office witness, the instrument is far from perfect, but that does not mean that it should be scrapped. What is important is that the work of the British Council should be developed and that the nations of the world should be brought to closer understanding of one another.

2.33 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton (Brixton)

I am sorry that I feel compelled to strike a discordant note in this discussion on the work of the British Council. The facts that have been referred to and the com- ments made by the Select Committee on the work of the British Council have tended to confirm in my mind the impression that has been there for some time, namely, that a lot of time and money are being wasted to no purpose. I hope that as a result of the comments of the Select Committee steps will be taken to ensure that at least we get value for the money that is being spent in connection with the activities of the British Council. I do not happen to have with me the last report of the work of the Council, which I believe was circulated to all Members of this House. It is unfortunate that there does not appear to be a copy of that Report in the Library of this House.

It has been mentioned that one of the objects of the British Council is to bring people to this country and thus enable them to understand our way of life. Another form of the Council's activities is to spread English culture overseas. When I reflect upon the time and money that have been spent on the dissemination of British culture in Egypt, the Argentine and one or two other countries which it is needless to mention, I begin to ask myself what result if any has been achieved. I know and I am fully prepared to admit that it is difficult if not impossible to measure scientifically the cultural impact upon the mind of the student in Cairo or in the Argentine of what it is we are trying to do but I should like my hon. Friend who is replying to the Debate very seriously to consider whether we are really getting value for money, whether it is not possible, if we are to indulge in some kind of political or cultural warfare throughout the world, to ensure that whatever it is we are trying to do through the British Council does make some impression which can be measured and appreciated by the people of this country who have to find the money.

2.36 p.m.

Mr. Martin Lindsay (Solihull)

I too am grateful to the hon. Member for North Hendon (Mrs. Ayrton Gould) for having raised this matter before the House today. In spite of what the hon. and gallant Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton) has said, I am convinced that the British Council is doing an extremely good job of work and that, generally speaking, the British taxpayer gets full value for the large expenditure which is incurred. If anybody doubts that, the best way to judge is to go overseas to a country in which the British Council is operating and see for one's self, as I had the opportunity of doing in China nearly twelve months ago.

I agree with the hon. Lady in deploring the rather vindictive criticism of the British Council which is the policy of a certain group of newspapers. Just over two years ago, when General Sir Ronald Adam was appointed as Chairman of the British Council, I was exceedingly sarcastic in this House about that appointment, basing that, in my opinion, quite justifiable criticism upon his branch in the Army in the Great War. I should like to take this opportunity of saying that from my information, he has done extremely well in his appointment in the last two years, and I should therefore be ungenerous if I did not take this opportunity of saying that I am prepared to withdraw the criticism I made of that appointment two years ago.

There is one point about the organisation and administration of the British Council which I feel should be considered. I refer to the lack of security given to the home establishment of the Council. As this House knows, members who are on the foreign establishment of the Council have security of tenure and pension rights, but those who administer the Council at home have no such security. Although I do not propose to criticise the membership of the home establishment of the Council it is perfectly clear and obvious to everybody that one gets a much wider pick for one's personnel if one gives them some security instead of just taking them on a short-term contract.

There is a second point which results from that, namely, the lack of integration between the members of the Council who serve abroad and never serve at home and the members of the Council at home who administer those who are abroad but never themselves serve abroad. In the old days members of the Diplomatic Service had from time to time to take a tour of duty at home in the Foreign Office. I do not doubt that it is the same now, although I have no recent information. Members of the Colonial Service abroad have from time to time to do a tour of duty at the Colonial Office. It is perfectly obvious that it does not make for the best efficiency if members who serve abroad are administered by entirely different establishments of personnel, who, themselves, have not had the experience of serving overseas in the conditions of the people whom they administer. I hope that that also will be looked into.

2.40 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir Thomas Moore (Ayr Burghs)

I am much obliged to the Under-Secretary of State for Common-wealth Relations for giving me the opportunity of saying what I think about the British Council. It is just exactly 10 years ago to this month since I made my first speech in support of the aims and objects and achievements of the British Council. Although we were then voting only £200,000 or £300,000 for the Council, and today it is some millions, at the same time I think that the requirements of the British Council are more than ever necessary.

We emerged from this war materially strong, the leaders of the world with the world gratefully rejoicing in our leadership. Then, due to circumstances into which I do not propose to enter, we have lost that tremendous material prosperity and leadership which we then had. Today, I believe that we have a cultural leadership. At any rate, we have the opportunity. The British Council is an instrument by which that cultural leadership can be maintained. I believe, therefore, that if we give our wholehearted support to the widespread activities by which this British Council are endeavouring to teach the world our British way of life, we shall do something to balance out the loss of material leadership. Therefore, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel, at any rate, that he has some very substantial support from this side of the House for his prospects.

2.43 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Commonweath Relations (Mr. Gordon-Walker)

I should like to thank the hon. and gallant Member for Ayr Burghs (Sir 'T. Moore) for his support and good wishes. I wish to make one point clear, namely, why I am replying to this Debate, because the British Council normally comes within the sphere of the Foreign Office. It is only because my hon. Friend the Member for North Hendon (Mrs. Ayrton Gould) was good enough to intimate that she was going to raise a question about the C.O.I and the Stationery Office. Therefore, being a question of the administration of the Information Services it falls in the province of the Lord President, and he asked me to speak. If anything else should arise the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs will deal with it.

I would associate myself wholeheartedly with the speakers who—with one exception have praised the work of the Council. It is unquestionably of great value to this country although in reply to the hon. and gallant Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton) I would say that it is hard to measure it scientifically. I think there is no doubt whatever that great and important effects are achieved both in the struggle for world peace and international understanding and also in our direct national interests. One particular advantage which I hope will appeal to my hon. Friend is that by helping to finance the visits of students to this country, people of an economic class are enabled to come to this country who, otherwise, would not be able so to do. There are many other great advantages and benefits of the British Council, but I do not think that I need to traverse the same ground, except to echo what was said by a number of speakers.

The first part of the speech of my hon. Friend and in part of the speech of the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. M. Lindsay) was not directed against the Government but against the Press. With that part of those speeches I should like to associate myself. I think that parts of the Press are quite unscrupulous in the way they deride and make a mock of this thing, which is of great importance and which they make no effort whatever to understand. When I come to the point of British Council brochures and the publication of books through His Majesty's Stationery Office, I am afraid I cannot altogether go all the way with my hon. Friend the Member for North Hendon. I do not think that she expected me to do so. The Select Committee on Estimates did report on 24th March, 1948, very clearly on the side of the British Council. A report of a Committee like that has to be given great weight and it has been very carefully considered.

The intentions of the Government were re-examined in the light of this Report. I do not think that the British Council is unaware of the really close attention which has been given in the last month or so to this matter. They may not have told one of their vice-chairmen, but a great many inquiries have gone on with them and other people concerned, and we have given very close attention and great weight to the views of the Select Committee, as is only right and proper. But the Government have to fit this problem of the British Council publishing its own brochures into the complete information policy for which they are responsible—

Mr. K. Lindsay


Mr. Gordon-Walker

—because they are responsible for the information policy of the country. I do not mean by that that they have dragooned it but when thinking about the matter the Government have to consider the repercussions of anything done in this field.

Mr. M. Lindsay

That is quite sensible.

Mr. Gordon-Walker

It has to integrate all organisations. It has nothing to do with what is said, or who shall publish a book, for example, or censorship at all. These are the major considerations which the Government have to bear in mind in trying to come to a decision on this difficult problem of organisation. There are certain inconveniences of centralised production of books and brochures but there are certain great advantages in it. One is the unquestionable economy in overheads when applied to the whole field. Secondly, it provides a means of sorting out priorities to some extent and, with private publishing concerns trying to get scarce materials, it is very important to have these things sorted out. The alternative is that every single Department would have to get its own material and scramble in the market.

Mr. Wilson Harris (Cambridge University)

When the hon. Member speaks of sorting out priorities, suppose the Central Office of Information gave an extremely low priority to British Council publications, would not that involve censorship?

Mr. Gordon-Walker

I do not think it would, because the Central Office would have to be doing what it is always doing—trying to cope with more demands than can be met. The alternative is not having centralisation in that way and many of the Departments, including the British Council, would have a greatly increased expenditure on information, and that is a thing we cannot allow to happen.

Mrs. Ayrton Gould

Is it not a fact that all the British Council publications have to be accounted for to the Treasury and is it not a question of a general overall cost to all Departments including the British Council? In any case, they have a subvention to which they have to keep their publications and everything else, because that has to be certified.

Mr. Gordon-Walker

I quite agree, but it is not only a question of money; it is also a question of the use of scarce materials and making use of these things and balancing, for example, the advantages of say, a booklet about the Health Service with something which is going to do great good when it goes overseas.

Mr. Wilson Harris

And disadvantages and delays.

Mr. Gordon-Walker

There are disadvantages certainly, but we are not absolutely rigid in planning this. All we say is that if there is a deviation the onus should be laid on those who want the deviation.

There has been an attempt to present what has happened to the British Council as a great invasion of principle. What the British Council is, in fact, asking is a deviation from a principle and it is very important that the onus of proof should lie on them. I am sorry that this Debate came just before we were complete in our views. We have not completely made up our minds on this matter, but it would be wrong of me to conceal that our views are not moving in the same way as those of my hon. Friend the Member for North Hendon. We feel that the case is not really strong enough to justify deviation from this principle although it is possible that some adjustment of detail can be made in the working of it. That is now being carefully looked into.

I have been talking about the principle. I will now say a few words about the brochures of the British Council. I think that some improvement can be made in the way in which this work is divided between the Council and the C.O.I. I think that the present system is bad. It involves a division of responsibility. One cannot publish, or for that matter do anything else, when there is a division of responsibility. The question is where we should put the responsibility. The British Council advances some very powerful arguments on its side, but there is a Cabinet decision taken in February, 1946, that these things should be done through common service agencies.

On the whole, I do not think that a strong enough case has been made out for departing from that decision. I consider that the editorial and publishing part of this work should be laid firmly on the C.O.I. and that they should have the responsibility for it. In other words, it should work in connection with the British Council as it works with other Departments. The point about the Stationery Office must be taken as settled. There is no question but that it is better to do bulk purchase through the Stationery Office in this matter. This system has been carefully thought out. I cannot hold out any hope of that part of the decision being reversed.

I will now deal with one or two special points. The hon. Member for St. George's (Mr. Howard) and the hon. Member for Solihull raised the question of security of tenure. On the whole, I agree with that. We have looked into the matter and we shall consider it again. I cannot undertake that the whole of the people can be established or anything like that. Though there are some financial difficulties, there are merits in a long-term budget. We shall look with sympathy into the question.

The expenditure in the three Departments which was mentioned by the hon. and learned Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Hopkin Morris) is very important. I agree that the cut worked somewhat hardly by being imposed on all three Departments simultaneously. There are now better means than there were for the Departments to co-ordinate their activities in this field. If one looks at the question from the point of view of the British Council, one sees a failure to integrate, but each of these Departments regards the Council as part of its general information service. There can be coordination either way, but, whichever way it is done, there will be some difficulty.

I hope that the three Departments are now better co-ordinated and that there will not be another cut, so that this problem will not arise again. The question of a Commonwealth representative on the British Council is most difficult. This is a United Kingdom instrument. We cooperate very closely with the Commonwealth, but I am not at all sure that it would be possible to have a representative of a Dominion Government on the British Council. Finally, I should like to endorse all the kind things which have been said about the British Council. It is certainly the intention of the Government to give the work every support. The Government regard this as an extremely important part of our information work overseas.