HC Deb 12 June 1996 vol 279 cc303-4
15. Mr. Bill Michie

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what plans he has to enhance the work of the British Council. [30858]

Mr. Rifkind

The British Council's activities are at record levels. The council now has 228 offices in 109 countries, compared with 108 offices in 79 countries in 1980. The revision to the grant in aid that I announced on 21 May will enable the British Council to avoid closures of its overseas offices and help to sustain its programmes overseas.

Mr. Michie

The Secretary of State has been forced to back down from his barmy plans to cut the budget of the British Council. Will he admit that he was wrong in the first place? Will he accept that such a cut would have damaged an organisation that is vital if we are to promote British business and culture abroad? Will he behave himself in future?

Mr. Rifkind

I thank the hon. Member for his friendly advice. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the British Council did not, at first, appreciate the implications of the precise figures that were given to them. Further work was done by the British Council, and it alerted us to the implications for its overseas activities. I made it clear from the beginning that I was not prepared to see the closure of overseas offices of the British Council because we greatly value its work. It has greatly expanded under the Government and we have no desire for there to be a contraction in its overseas activities. On that basis, we reviewed its funding.

Mr. Forman

I warmly welcome the positive approach that my right hon. and learned Friend has taken towards the British Council and the way in which it has expanded overseas, but does he recognise that, from time to time, we should examine the internal workings of the British Council, particularly the structure of its regional offices? Will he assure hon. Members that that matter is being approached in as cost-effective a way as possible? There was a time when the British Council was over-manned and over-present in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Rifkind

As part of the British Council's examination of its domestic operations, it has concluded that it can carry out its tasks with fewer staff than it has traditionally employed. We expect there to be a significant contraction in the number of its domestic staff and its expenditure.

Forward to