HL Deb 19 December 1979 vol 403 cc1743-85

6.26 p.m.

Lord HATCH of LUSBY rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is their future policy in regard to the functions and responsibilities of the British Council in view of the cuts in public expenditure. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper. We are meeting tonight and discussing this question under a cloud of sadness. I am sure that all Members of the House will join me in expressing our deep shock at the disaster which has befallen the noble Lord, Lord Ballantrae, a former chairman of the British Council, and in hoping that in the expressed affection of his colleagues here he will find some little comfort in his great loss.

In discussing the future of the British Council and asking the Government to state their plans I intend to begin by reverting to a theme which is now almost hackneyed, at least from these Benches, when asking the Government about their future plans. We understand that the Government's central policy is to increase trade, particularly overseas trade, and thereby to inspire an industrial revival. But, my Lords, there are times when it appears as though the Government, in their determination, and obsession regarding cutting public expenditure, are throwing away the seed with the chaff. I believe that one of these instances is to be found in the subject that we are discussing tonight.

After all, overseas trade depends essentially upon communication—communication in all its aspects—and British trade depends upon British communication with overseas peoples. In this respect surely the British Council has played an outstanding part, and should have a crucial role to play in the industrial and economic plans of the Government; and at this stage I am speaking specifically on the industrial, economic and trading aspects of the council.

The British Council is today represented in 82 countries. It is a specialist in the teaching of the English language. It engages in and facilitates the interchange of personnel; it organises training programmes; it recruits teachers from overseas; it is responsible for the organisation of advisory visits; and, not least, it takes throughout the world the drama, the music and the exhibitions of the people of this country. This is communication, and it is communication in all its aspects—a vital foundation on which to build our overseas trading programme. It creates a climate for the sale of British goods and for the sale of British services abroad; and, incidentally, it is specifically engaged in exporting educational materials, not least books from our publishers, as all the educational publishers will assure the Government if they are asked.

Now we are told that in the next financial year, 1980–81, the budget of the British Council is to be cut by 11.5 per cent.; but because of redundancies in addition, this means that in effect the real cut next year will be in the order of 14 per cent. What does this mean? It means that the services of the British Council will be reduced, that our educational exports will be reduced—and I understand it is estimated that, in the case of books, this means a reduction in book exports by the British Council of 15 per cent.—and that in the case of books supplied to British Council libraries overseas the cut will be as much as 48 per cent. It means that the advisory tours, which can so oil the wheels of communication in the industrial world, arc to be cut by 15 per cent.; and that British Council scholarships may very well be harmed. It means, at the same time, that the felowships provided by the British Council will be terminated; and, surely, fellowships, with all the resources of research and knowledge which they both bring to this country and take abroad from this country, are one of the foundations of our cultural exchange overseas. It also means that the Council of Europe scholarships will come to an end, that the Commonwealth university interchanges will have to be brought to an end, and that the academic interchange between this country and Europe will be terminated. I understand that three specific schemes for scientific and university interchange with the sub-continent of India are already marked down for termination.

In this country, the United Kingdom regional network is to be reduced; and that most important institution, the London Students' Centre, will have its services reduced and possibly will have finally to close. The promotion of arts will have to be cut by 25 per cent. I know it is fashionable in certain circles to decry the British Council's support of the export of arts overseas. I repudiate that charge entirely; but I would say to the Government—because I usually find it is better to talk to the Government in business terms—that the idea that the export of arts costs this country something is really quite untrue. To give your Lordships just one instance, in the last financial year for which we have figures, 1977–78, the British Council spent £650,000 on music, drama and exhibitions overseas. The actual cost of those performances was something over £2 million; and that brought back to this country and added to our balance of payments £l¼ million. So even applying a business test the export of arts was profitable. But, of course, it means a great deal more than this, and I have no doubt that when I have sat down other noble Lords will expand on the value of taking the art of Britain to the rest of the world.

I am particularly concerned about the effect within the Commonwealth of the cuts on the British Council, because it seems to me that at this time, when the Commonwealth has played such a vital part in our political history and when it has such potential for increased influence in the world and for an increase in British influence in the world, this is a particular disaster. There are planned withdrawals in a whole range of Commonwealth countries, from Australia to Bangladesh, from Nigeria to India, from Sri Lanka to Malaysia, and elsewhere. I particularly deplore the need to cut down the activities of the British Council within the Commonwealth.

Then there is its special role in the teaching and promotion of the English language, about which the noble Lord, Lord Home of the Hirsel, spoke so eloquently in the debate on the report that we had two years ago, in November 1977. Surely the teaching of the English language —an international language, the language of technology and of science, the language of the future—is in itself an investment for the British Isles. I have listed some of the effects that have already been foreseen of the cuts which the Government have imposed upon the British Council, but there is a further danger. We know that there is an inter-departmental review. There are fears that this inter-departmental review will increase, exacerbate and deepen those cuts. If it does, then they will have (as indeed the present cuts will have on an organisation like the British Council, as I am sure the noble Lord the Minister will recognise) and exponential effect; and further cuts can quite seriously endanger the future of the British Council itself as the kind of organisation we have known.

So much, then, for the business, economic, materialistic effects of the cuts on the British Council. But before I sit down there is an aspect of this subject which, to me, is of even more profound importance. We are, after all, in this rapidly shrinking world, seeking a world culture, and we believe that we have a part to play in that world culture. It will not be one culture; it will be a complex within one unit. We have every reason to be proud of the contribution we have made, but we have no reason to bring that contribution to an end.

I am not one of those who chauvinistically considers British culture as the finest culture the world has ever known, but we have a contribution to make to the present and the future of international cultural contacts. I believe that the British Council is one of the principal agencies capable of doing so. We have seen many previous cultures reduced to the dead, archeological tourist spectacle. There is a danger that if we allow the present-day inward-looking trends in this country to overcome what has been for the past three centuries an outward-looking concept, the British culture itself will follow along those lines.

But modern technology has given us much greater opportunity than in the past. Modern technology makes communication swifter, information better known and wider known. We have this opportunity. We have no longer the opportunity of sending our gunboats to enforce our will in other parts of the world; but our ideas are wanted; knowledge of our institutions is valuable and our language is international. If we are concerned about the heritage which we pass on to our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, surely it must be a heritage which is based upon our self-confidence that we have a part—only a part, but an important, crucial part—to play in the development of the international community of the 21st century.

So I ask this of the Government tonight. What are their plans as far as the British Council is concerned in the functions which I have outlined? Not, let me add, what can we afford? As I pointed out, what I am asking is this. What are the Government sowing for the future, and how do they see the British Council within their plans for expansion in the future; expansion in the field of trade, of economic activity and of the exchange of goods? Above all, what are their plans for the contribution which Britain can make, through the British Council, to the development of a British aspect of a world culture?

6.42 p.m.


My Lords, I must first apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Hatch of Lusby, and to the House for not having been in my place for the first minute or two of the noble Lord's speech. I am afraid that I did not realise that the previous debate was to be over so soon. I had been assured that it would go on longer. I am sorry. I hasten to thank the noble Lord, Lord Hatch of Lusby, for drawing attention to the very substantial cuts which the Government are making in the budget of the British Council. Unlike other organisations, the British Council is not in itself, as we know, presided over by some powerful Minister and it has no lobby which can be easily mobilised on its behalf. Nor has it gone out of its way to publicise itself. Perhaps, for that very reason, its superb work all over the world, though much envied by our rivals, is largely unappreciated by the British public.

It has, however, one great friend who has always stood up for it, the noble Lord, Lord Ballantrae. I join with the noble Lord in saying that we must share the grief of one of our most lovable Members at the tragic accident which resulted in the death of his wife. Had it not been for his sudden bereavement, he would have been here this evening pleading, at least, for a stay of execution, as it were—as he did with marked success two years ago when the House debated the famous Bell Report.

Your Lordships will remember that that report recommended for consideration two options. Option "A" involved the complete abolition of the Council and the taking over of some of its duties by Government departments and agencies, notably the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the ODM. But the report itself recognised—and I refresh my memory on this—that there were, to say the least, considerable disadvantages in following the course of total abolition. Option" B" involved the retention of a separate Council of the United Kingdom undertaking all educational recruitment and placement for the ODM and the Crown Agents. However, the Council's representation overseas under this scheme would, for the most part have been, incorporated in diplomatic posts. In any case, there would have been a considerable reduction in the staff employed overseas and in London.

Your Lordships, or such as those who took part in the debate on the "Think Tank "report, rejected with horror Option " A " and did not approve either of Option " B ". Nevertheless, I think that it is rather in this direction—or perhaps in the direction of something even more undesirable than Option " B " —that the Government seem to be tending at the moment, if rumours which reach us are reliable. They may not be envisaging the actual winding up of the Council; they are rather preferring to apply over the next two or three years the old Chinese torture of the thousand cuts. If the noble Lord, Lord Ballantrae, were present today he would be pointing out that, at the least, such a policy would be counter-productive. It may be necessary to save money and make economies in every Budget; I do not deny that. When arguing against the policy of the Government on overseas students, it is true, I rejected the whole proposal for what the Government called economies because they simply were not economies and could be shown to the contrary (even from the strictly financial point of view) to be simply suggestions for cutting off our collective nose to spite our collective face.

In the case of the British Council, it is different. If you are going to reduce their budget by the equivalent of, as I believe the noble Lord, Lord Hatch of Lusby, said, 11.5 per cent.—for that is what it apparently in reality would amount to—it would save the taxpayer only £10 million. But the consequences of such an economy would be very severe, as the noble Lord has said, resulting, for various reasons, in a reduction of some 14 per cent. of the general activities of the Council everywhere. Already the Council has had to trim its expenditure on books. I do not remember the percentage; but it has had to trim already £600,000 off that part of its budget. This means that all over the world, the thousands who flock into the libraries of the Council to find out what is happening in Britain, from the scientific, literary, technological and political point of view, will be disappointed and, no doubt, will drift elsewhere to find out what is happening in Paris, Moscow or Bonn. The sale of British educational goods will suffer a heavy blow, particularly in the Gulf States, which is a very good market; and the teaching of English, one of the chief functions of the British Council, will be very severely affected. Most damaging of all, I believe, is the effect on the amount of scholarships financed by the Council. These will drop—I do not know how much; but I believe about a half—to the disadvantage, above all, of the poorer countries which I believe it is our bounden duty to support.

Is it really necessary for us to undergo as a nation such deprivations? Is it not thought that the more money we can spend for propagating the English language and British political conceptions is money well spent, however broke we find ourselves to be? Do we not recognise that before the present cuts—and if I am wrong perhaps the Government spokesman will correct me—the French were spending on educational and cultural projects over three times as much as we are, or were spending? In the case of the Germans it is no fewer than four times what we spent. We may take the view that the rich Germans can afford to do this; but the French are, like ourselves, in financial difficulties. Yet the last thing they will cut will be funds devoted to the spread of French culture and the use of the French language.

More generally, it should be noted that the Council has been "reviewed" no fewer than 12 times since the war. No organisation can stand being perpetually torn up by the roots in order to see how it is getting on. All sense of purpose will be lost if this process continues. Though battered, it may yet, I suppose, survive the existing cuts of 11 per cent, or whatever they are. It can hardly survive if it is proposed to subject it to further cuts of unknown size year after year. If that happens, we shall wilfully destroy the best instrument we have—apart from the Overseas Services of the BBC—of getting, as it were, into intimate touch with those nations which we must, if we can, keep in the democratic fold in the company of those who appreciate the Western way of life in some association of the free.

As the slump continues, the clouds of totalitarian philosophies are gathering fast over many countries in Africa, South America, the Caribbean, South East Asia and the Middle East. Now is emphatically not the time to weaken our efforts to counter such tendencies by demonstrating that freedom is still preferable to dictatorship, that Communism simply does not pay. It is for these broader reasons that I beg the Government at least to stay their hand and in the forthcoming departmental review not insist on any further cuts in the Council's budget other than those already in application.

6.52 p.m.

Lord HOME of the HIRSEL

My Lords, I should like to associate myself with the words spoken by the noble Lords, Lord Hatch of Lusby and Lord Gladwyn, in the message of sympathy they sent from this House to the noble Lord, Lord Ballantrae. Lady Ballantrae was a person who was very talented, a personality in her own right. Many in this country and in New Zealand will remember her with respect, admiration and affection. Our thoughts go out to the noble Lord very much this evening.

Some two years ago in a debate in this House, as the noble Lord, Lord Hatch of Lusby, recalled, we talked about the British Council and the Overseas Services of the BBC. The value to this country of both of these was strongly underlined. I was one of those, together with the noble Lord, Lord Ballantrae, who asked the Government of the day to avoid cutting their budgets. I had not anticipated then—no one could have done who had not seen the national books—the extent of our over-commitment of expenditure in the public service sector which was in fact later revealed. That entailed an outlay far in excess of anything that Britain could earn at the present day at the present rate of productivity.

In these circumstances, I cannot see how any responsible Government could have avoided the cuts across the board which they have asked of all Government departments. When such an operation is conducted—and we have seen these operations before—no Government activity can claim an alibi. Anybody—civil servants or Ministers—is very good at pleading his own special case; but it is impossible in a cut across the board to allow any of those claims in whole. Therefore some services, in themselves desirable and meritorious, have to be curtailed and clipped. It is very unwelcome.

This matter is not for debate today, but one must say that the remedy for this situation is in our own hands. More and more it is seen to concentrate in the word "productivity" which I have mentioned. If we increase productivity, then we can spread our wings again, but not until then. So I conclude as a matter of hard realism in the present circumstances that the defeat of inflation has to take priority and that the British Council will have to acquiesce in the reduction of its budget in phase 1 in the programme of economy. I hope, however, that the Council, together with my noble friend the Foreign Secretary, will have another look at phases 2 and 3.

No one at the moment can foresee with any certainty the economic prospects ahead. We trust they will improve. Even if they did not, and the economy was to remain tight, I have no doubt which of the services of the British Council I would strain every nerve to keep intact. It is the teaching of English. English is destined to be the language of science, technology and business. The more people who speak English, the more people who think in English; and when they begin to speak in English the spin-off—if I may use one of the modern technical phrases—in terms of banking, insurance, trade and commerce is of course very great and very profitable. The common language of English, by and large, is better taught by Englishmen, and it is good business when English is taught overseas in our Commonwealth and other countries.

We might mark, because it is rather satisfying, that English is becoming the second language in a lot of countries where it was not so before. Therefore, I hope that the Council and my noble friend will be able to consult and find ways and means so that the British Council can fulfil its purposes overseas. I believe they pay to this country a handsome dividend. They should be preserved in future years. I hope, therefore, that in due course—and one cannot expect an answer from the Government today about phrases 2 and 3—some modifications in these stringent requirements will be made so that we can have the benefit of these services in future years.

6.58 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to join noble Lords who have spoken in their sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Ballantrae, in the loss of his wife—a very distinguished woman in her own right. I want to follow the noble Lord, Lord Home, regarding how far by dedication to the English language we can maintain the principles of the British Council. One can teach people the English language and still miss the whole meaning of English culture. We had the great battle—some here are old enough to remember it—at the end of the war when there was again an assault on the British Council. We managed, in the terms of Lord Home's contention, at least to demonstrate that in fact we were replacing with English what was then the vacuum in the scientific, academic and other fields of the German language. At the moment we must persist in the British Council activities. The Germans are moving in in great force all over the world. As has been said, the French will never give up their claim to promote French as the cultural language of the world. Also, if I may say so—nobody has mentioned it, thank goodness! because we are not looking for "Reds under the beds in this debate—the Russian language can assert itself by our default. We are talking now about scientific and cultural inputs into the Third World, and that vacuum will be filled by others.

I want to say categorically, and I am sure that every one of your Lordships will agree with me, that you cannot "moth ball "culture; you cannot wrap up culture and put it away for another day. It is a continuous and living thing and the goodwill we have established through the British Council in all these countries has been to the envy of other governments all over the world. The Americans have never succeeded, even with the English language, in establishing the objective authority of the British Council.

I say this with some feeling. The point is that the British Council is a presence. It is an identification with everything we are supposed to stand for; but it is not an aggressive presence. It is not trying to promote or over-sell Britain. It is demonstrating what Britain really is and not just boasting about what we think we are. This is tremendously important. I speak as one who has seen in situ a good deal of the British Council, and in most cases the British Council's activities, centres, institutions an so on, are a rendezvous for people who are Anglophiles. Not only that, but they are a rendezvous, as for example in Warsaw, of people who identify with and believe in the kind of things Britain stands for. This is not a question of going in as a "Trojan horse" to promote British interests. We are there to promote the ideals for which Britain stands and we can demonstrate what they are. This is something we cannot afford to neglect: we certainly cannot afford to lose it. If the Government cut even 11½ per cent.—and we could go into all the details, as my noble friend Lord Hatch has done—we must ask: what is the effect of those cuts on the activities of the British Council? As I have said on a previous occasion, we are not now cutting branches but we are cutting the roots of our influence.

This is a fatal thing for Britain to do. As has been demonstrated by my noble friend Lord Hatch, commercially, economically and in every other way the British Council works to our advantage. It is even more important, as he pointed out, that we arc there demonstrating our real, genuine contribution to world culture. We cannot allow that to be taken away. So we are here in a very contradictory position, if I may say so, where my noble friend Lord Hatch and I, who have been talking all these years about colonial freedom, and so on, are now standing here and saying: "If we withdraw the British Council and what it stands for from our old colonies and dominions, we are betraying our subjects (because that is what they were) because we are suggesting that somehow the culture we represented is demoded and no longer worth while. In fact we have lost our self-confidence as a country and as a nation ".

The British Council demonstrates our self confidence, our confidence in our arts, our science, our ways of living and our attitudes to life. This is something of which we arc now going to say: "Take it away: let it go. It is cheaper not to have it ". It is the most expensive sacrifice to make and I commiserate once again with noble Lords sitting opposite. This is the fourth time we have been round this course. We have fought the Government about the world services of the BBC; we have fought them over the Ministry for Overseas Development, we have fought them over students' fees and we are now fighting them on the British Council. This is really a shameful thing: that—no matter how desperate our situation is—we have lost not just the money values but the real values of what we stand for and what we represent, which no money can replace.

We are talking about something which countries in the rest of the world are trying to buy, to build on and to find the accesses to: we have got them. The British Council is in living terms within the communities where it works with its identification with people; face to face with the people; and in terms of the people they bring to Britain, in terms of the students they educate, the science that is transmitted to them and the books we sell to them by creating a demand—these are the things which the British Council represents. It is not something which is a cost to this country; it is an actual, genuine asset. It has great returns which we are ignoring. My Lords, we cannot afford to do it.

7.7 p.m.

Viscount ECCLES

My Lords, I should also like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Hatch, for having introduced what has been already a very interesting debate and one which I am sure will continue to be interesting. I should like also to associate myself with the messages of sympathy that have been extended to the noble Lord, Lord Ballantrae. I had the great pleasure of staying with him in New Zealand and I think it is true, without question, that he and his wife were more loved by the New Zealanders than any other Governor General and his wife since the war.

I agree completely with Her Majesty's Government that public expenditure has to be cut again, and cut severely. A family with an income of £100 a week and which is spending £120 a week must economise or get into debt and finally go bust. The question, therefore, is: what share, if any, of the cuts in Government expenditure should be borne by the British Council? No family that I know would reduce its spending evenly over its whole budget. Some items they would preserve and others they would slash or even cut out altogether. The Government are in that position, with due respect to my noble friend Lord Home; otherwise we should not have spent more on the police and on defence. We are not spreading the cuts exactly evenly even now.

Therefore, what is the standing of the British Council as a candidate for the "chopper"? I think that to answer the question one has to ask a prior one, namely: are we in a period of major and irreversible decline, with no hope of recovering our manufacturing strength and our influence overseas? If that were true, there would be some sense in reducing our overseas information and cultural services, because we should have less reason to talk about ourselves to foreigners. However, I am quite sure that your Lordships will not accept that we are in a period of permanent decline. The Prime Minister's speech last night in New York completely refutes such an idea. If, then, our difficulties are only temporary, it must be wise to show the maximum confidence in our recovery. Therefore, how do we do that in our Overseas Services? Should we mute our voices at this point in time, or speak out even louder and clearer?

I think that I could take an example from private life. Some of your Lordships may have had occasion to negotiate an overdraft, and in preparing for the visit to your banker did you discard your best clothes and put on your oldest suit, reach for your battered hat and shuffle out in shoes which anyone could see required mending? Of course not. You took care to look prosperous, even if for the moment you were not making both ends meet. The common sense decision when in temporary trouble is to keep up appearances, and that holds good for a country just as much as it does for an individual. It is the role of the BBC and the British Council to reflect our long-term confidence in our future, and how can they do this if their budgets are cut?

Some rearrangements of where and how the Council spends its money is always worthwhile thinking about, and I should like to remind your Lordships that in the promotion of our culture, which is a kind of fairy godmother to our trade, we have this enormous asset, which has been mentioned by several noble Lords, in the English language. I certainly agree with my noble friend Lord Home, that more of the Council's resources should be given to this side of its work.

We recognise that it is the power and pre-eminence of the United States that have consolidated English as the world language. But a great part of the world wants to learn English English, rather than American English. Not that we find anything objectionable in the American accent. From personal experience, your Lordships will no doubt agree that the Americans pronounce the word "darling" in a totally beguiling manner. To express a dramatic situation, they also choose words more economically and often with much more bite than we do ourselves. Nevertheless, there are countless people in the developed and developing countries who instinctively prefer not to be too closely identified with the most powerful nation in the world, and they are asking to be taught English English.

In spreading the knowledge of our language, the Council has the great advantage that in most countries-I wish I could say in all—it is not looked upon as a branch of the British Embassy or the British Government. It is seen to represent our culture, free of pressure to put across this or that political doctrine and. like the BBC, the British Council is often a lighthouse in conditions dark with local censorship and restrictions upon personal freedom. In such circumstances, the political independence of the Council is of the greatest value, and not long ago I saw it for myself in Poland.

In this field, it seems to me that the Council could do more to cover part of its expenditure with earnings. For too long, it has fought shy of engaging in the direct teaching of English—that is, inviting pupils to come to classes and charging them fees—and to meet the ever-increasing demand for this kind of English teaching private agencies have taken on the work. I suggest—and I should be glad if my noble friend would give us his opinion on the suggestion—that the Council should either itself engage more widely in the direct teaching of English, or go into partnership with the private agencies such as International House. I am envious when I see packaged courses in English—almost all American sponsored —making profits running into millions of dollars, while our chosen instrument stays outside this lucrative market.

The Council's business is to make known the treasures of our heritage, our language and our contemporary culture. Because of our temporary difficulties in this country, I consider it more than ever important that it should do this and do it with ample resources. But there is another reason that is beginning to make itself known, why this is so much more important than in the past. As secondary and university education begins to spread among the people of the developing countries, they need more than ever to hear what are the values by which the Western democracies stand.

Look, my Lords, at what is happening in Teheran. The Americans did more than any other country could conceivably have done to build up Iran's industry and defence, but they failed to make the Iranian people, especially those who are newly educated, understand what are the values which they, the Americans, and we hold, and by which they and we stand or fall. There is a lesson to be learned from what has been happening in Iran. It is that as education spreads across the world we have to do more, not less, to make our values open to those people who are so easily influenced by other trains of thought and doctrine. Therefore, I ask the Government to reassure us this evening that whatever cuts they have decided to make —I do not know what they are—will be extremely short-lived, because this is an instrument which they simply cannot afford to cut down.

7.18 p.m.


My Lords, may I join with other noble Lords in expressing sympathy to the noble Lord, Lord Ballantrae, on the sudden and tragic event which is responsible for his not being here tonight. The noble Lord, Lord Hatch, to whom we are indebted for this debate, described in considerable detail the effect of the cut of rather more than 11 per cent. which the Government have decided upon. It really is a substantial cut, as noble Lords will recall, in the teaching of English, trade promotion activities, the supply of books to Council libraries—there is a cut of 48 per cent., incidentally—professional and academic exchanges and the promotion of the arts. That 11 per cent. cut has already involved a reduction in the London-based staff of 368 persons and in the locally-engaged staff of 179.

I suppose that that cut of 11 per cent. must, in the circumstances, be reluctantly accepted. If that be so—and I assume it with reluctance—the consideration is: what more will there be? I understand that a departmental committee has completed its study and reported to Ministers, but as yet Ministers have not decided on what action should he taken. It seems to me that the crucial question is this: Should there be a cut greater than the 11 or 11½per cent. already determined? I wonder whether the departments represented on that inter-departmental committee have agreed to cuts of 11½per cent. in their expenditure?

The item upon which I want to concentrate, because I have some experience of it, is the work of the British Council relating to books. For four years I was responsible for the co-ordination of overseas information. During those four years, I saw British Council activity in at least 20 countries, as well as in Europe, and I recall that in India and Pakistan two important problems stood out regarding the availability of books. The first stemmed from the fact that the Russians and the Chinese were pouring into India and Pakistan books in English, beautifully got up, at subsidised prices. I recall that they began with Dickens, no doubt to develop the theme of poverty in capitalist countries, and with Gals-worthy, no doubt because of the property association with his name and work. But they were beginning to pour in technical books of all kinds, and we were not competing.

The Americans, it is true, were providing at subsidised rates some books in English but, naturally enough, they were concerned with the interests of America. I remember going into the American Library in Mogadishu and a young, shining American asking me to name a book; he was sure he could find it. I asked for the works of William Skakespeare. His reply was prompt. William Shakespeare was not an American. They were concerned, naturally enough, with their own products in the English language.

The second problem was that students were able to borrow books from British Council libraries and other libraries, but only for a relatively short time. You could borrow a book for a fortnight or a month, but what you needed to do was to be able to borrow a textbook for a term, or even for a year. Because technical books were not available, the result was that tatty lecture notes were being sold at high prices. The second of those two problems was not difficult to solve, provided additional money was made available for a greater number of books in British libraries. Then books could be loaned to university students and others with a limitation on the number of hooks borrowed but not on the time during which borrowing was permitted. That was relatively easy.

The other problem was that of competing with the Russians and the Chinese. We had opened the door with the teaching of English and they were going through it for propaganda purposes. The larger problem was how we were to compete. It seemed obvious that we should need the co-operation of the publishers and of the Government in making available subsidies and that a great effort would be needed to introduce a low-priced book scheme. I recall that the publishers were most co-operative in the negotiations. An advisory committee was set up. Government resources were made available and the Govermnent of the day approved the scheme. It was successful. If I may give the figure, over 21 million textbooks have been sold under the cheap book scheme since its inception and they have been sold, in the main, to university students. We now supply under that scheme the bulk of the textbooks used by students in many countries.

The effects, whether they be cultural, commercial or technical, must be enormous. Is this scheme—for it is now funded by the ODA—to be preserved from future cuts? I shall be grateful if the noble Lord who is to reply will answer that question. Quite apart from the returns to this country, it seems to me that the scheme has been of immense value when we consider the contribution it has made to education, particularly in India and Pakistan but also in a large number of other countries.

If I may turn to the libraries, in 1978–79 there were 6.7 million book issues from 2.3 million books. Over a third of a million people are members of and borrowers from British Council libraries. May I ask the Minister whether there are to be cuts in British Council libraries—or, to he more accurate, may I ask him whether there are to be further cuts in British Council libraries? It would be tragic if the provision of more books to solve problem 2 and the low priced book scheme, which has made such an enormous contribution, were in any way to be affected by Part 2. They have been affected enough by Part 1. I hope that we shall be reassured that there is no question of any further cuts being made under that particular heading.

Other noble Lords have referred to the teaching of English and to the advantages, both to those who learn English as a second language and to ourselves from that teaching. The question which naturally arises is whether it would matter if there were to be fewer English textbooks and if the number of students of English were to fall. In my view, that would be a disaster, too. The trouble with the British Council is that it is impossible precisely to calculate the results of so much of what it does. Indeed, many people cannot, in the nature of things, know about the work of the British Council, as seen from overseas. When I first took on the co-ordination of information services I knew nothing about the British Council. Indeed, I suspect that I had been contaminated by the Beaverbrook Press of the day who wrote about Morris dancing in Madagascar, and so on. I came to be immensely impressed, and that was expressed by the fact that during my four years Government provision for the British Council was doubled. I have no doubt whatever that, however intangible and incalculable the effects are, they are very real indeed.

Other noble Lords have spoken of the general doctrine which lies behind this work, and I should like to emphasise a point that was made by the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder. Despite our capacity for criticising ourselves, if we go abroad we realise the esteem in which this country is held. We need a little more pride. The fact is that we are no longer a military power of much consequence. Indeed, we are no longer an economic power, compared with what we were. But there are very many things in this country which the world envies. Whether it be a capacity to make democracy work, of serenity and respect for the law—call it what you will—it is this kind of attitude of mind to this country which has been so brilliantly developed by the activities of the British Council.

I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, for heaven's sake tell us that enough is enough, at 11½per cent., with the consequences of which we have heard. It really is a nonsense further to cut this maybe invisible but immensely important work to this country. Let us have a bit of pride and at least continue substantially to support a body which is concerned with presenting this country to the world, not through propaganda but through creating a picture of what it really is. I hope the noble Lord who is to reply will tell us that there will be no phase two or phase three: phase one of 11½per cent. has been enough, and more than enough, and I hope we can be reassured that there will be nothing else to come.

7.32 p.m.


My Lords, I, too, would like to associate myself with the words of sympathy to the noble Lord, Lord Ballantrae. I, like many others, have always regarded him as one of the most endearing and gallant men in this House.

The very drastic cuts which the Government intend to impose on the British Council are perhaps being imposed because they are the kind of cuts which will be received with the least public indignation. For a long time the Council has had a poor image in Britain—but only in Britain, not elsewhere. For a long time it has been the butt of the cheap satirist and the intellectual snob, and of the little Englander who fears that his patriotism would be diluted if he allowed it out of this country. Of course the most powerful enemy, as the noble Lord said a moment ago, was Lord Beaverbrook. One side of him was a shrewd, sophisticated politician; the other side, a small-town Canadian of the last century. When I worked for him I never knew whether he hated the British Council because it was led by Lord Lloyd, or whether he hated Lord Lloyd because he was then the head of the British Council!

At this moment I should like to say how glad I am that this debate has been started from this side of the House by the noble Lord, Lord Hatch of Lusby, because my party, too, for many years was sceptical about the British Council and that scepticism had a great deal to do with Lord Lloyd, whose concept of imperialism was too high even for the Conservative Government of his day. One of the results of the Express campaign has been that journalists on other newspapers, always looking for some kind of worthy cause to knock, have taken their cue and have attacked the British Council.

I wonder whether the Government looked at this cut in the Council in isolation or in conjunction with the cuts in the BBC Overseas Service and the fees charged to students from overseas. All three are concerned with one thing; namely, the sharing of our British culture. By that I mean our high culture and also our social culture, our technological culture—our sharing of all that culture with people of other lands. All three of these bodies are concerned mostly with the young, with tomorrow's men and women of power and influence. Whatever stream of culture these younger people pursue, they do it through the English language. This, as we know, the Council teaches in a style that is known to be admirable, and the BBC teaching of English in the World Service fortifies rather than supplants what the British Council does.

One question that I should like to ask the Government is: What are their proposals for the British Council in countries like Greece, where they earn money by the teaching of English? As the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, suggested, we are behaving not just as if we were caught in a lean year, but as if we, in this country, were permanently impoverished. If we take our propaganda for an excellent cause, for the unfair size of our net contribution to the European Community, nevertheless there is a danger that we shall take too seriously the propaganda side of it and this will mean that we may finish up with a miser's mentality. We may seem poor in comparision with Western Germany, but to many of the people who are the recipients of the good works of the British Council we look to be a very prosperous country indeed and our pose as ragged trouser philanthropists is not very convincing. Again, as the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, said, why do we not have the confidence that the French have—and always have had—in their own culture, and indeed that the Germans are developing? In this House we have benefited from the good work of the Goethe Institute.

From time to time statesmen of both parties think that it might be necessary to emulate General de Gaulle. But if they must do this, let it not be his petty side, not his selfish, narrow, nationalist aims which he had from time to time, but his European pride and his grander vision—the de Gaulle who, among other things, appointed that fine man André Malraux to be his Minister of Culture. We tend to shrink from the word "culture ". We did it in this Chamber in a debate only a few weeks ago, either because we are philistines or because there is a kind of snobbish Oxford pose based on a dread of appearing to be earnest or too zealous.

The British Council has had a lot to put up with, including the Think Tank report, which I am glad to hear has been repudiated tonight. It reminds me of the homespun wisdom of the wayside pulpit—the people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Of course the Government have put themselves into a difficult situation. I do not want to be political in any way whatsoever, but when the Government impose cuts, such as on children's meals, which excite maximum indignation, it is very difficult to defend other cuts on something which arouses less indignation. That is the situation which I think we are in. One of the arguments which is being made is that if we cut all these things every other cut can be justified, even if it is not a very wise or prudent cut.

Finally, I should like to say that I sympathise with the staff of the British Council in all the investigations which they have had and in facing now a dark, uncertain future. I hope the Government will say something definite and that they will really see a future—and a considerable future—for the British Council and give this reassurance, because this kind of work can only be done if the staff are full of enthusiasm and if the whole of the Council has a high morale.

7.39 p.m.


My Lords, I wish to join all other noble Lords in saying how my heart went out to the noble Lord, Lord Ballantrae, when I learned of his bitter tragedy. It was especially poignant for me as a pupil Member of your Lordships' House because I recall so vividly the way in which he opened the debate on the Berrill Report, so brilliantly, so wittily and with such laudable passion. That such a tragedy should befall the great and the good makes it no easier to bear.

I believe it would be difficult, if not impossible, to put the underlying point behind the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Hatch of Lusby, any better than did the noble Lord, Lord Saint Brides, in his memorable maiden speech on the Berrill Report. I make no apologies for quoting his wise words, for I believe that one should never tire of quoting the classics. He stated: To my mind, a country which can no longer achieve all its ends by sheer weight of military and economic power needs to put more, not less, into the protection of its interests by other means. Britain's position in the international community has certainly changed since 1945. But the means of maintaining and developing influence in the world have changed, too. They have become less palpable. They require more intellectual and imaginative effort and less brute force. In the new, much more open, situation which has resulted, we can more than hold our own if we wish, and provided that we continue to manifest a will to excellence and the desire to compete, and if possible to lead, which goes with it. Given the wealth of human talent and originality that exists in this country, we have much still to do in the world, and it is not least with the help of such proven instruments of communication and dissemination as the BBC, the British Council and the Diplomatic Service, as they now stand, that we can do it, provided that as a country we have the vision and good sense to use them as we could, and to give them the backing which they need ".—[Official Report, 23/11/77; cols. 885–6.] With your Lordships' permission, I wish to broaden the Question a little in order to illustrate the pitiable support and backing which this country gives to these essential services, of which the British Council is only one. Using the figures of the Government's Expenditire Plans for 1980, our overseas expenditure, other than direct aid and other than our contribution to the EEC Budget, will amount to a miserable 0.6 per cent. of the total public expenditure. Putting it another way, in 1974–75 our overseas expenditure, as above defined, amounted to 1 per cent. of the total. By 1980–81 it will have been nearly halved to 0.6 per cent. In 1974–75 the outturn was, to the nearest, £700 million; currently it runs at £400 million only. It is a sobering thought that we spend more on the London Borough of Wandsworth than we do on the whole of our diplomatic and consular services.

I keep asking myself, does this state of affairs really reflect Conservative stated policy and thinking? Has this Administration got the national priorities right? I believe most strongly that in this respect it has not. What I find most difficult to reconcile is a policy to increase expenditure on defence and yet decrease expenditure on foreign relations, for foreign relations are nothing other than the peaceful demonstration of a national defence strategy.

Referring specifically to the British Council, it is interesting to note that every single one of the front-line Presidents, excepting the Portuguese front-line President, and including Messrs. Mugabe, Sithole and Nkomo, owe some of their education to the efforts of the British Council. One can but wonder whether our noble friend the Foreign Secretary would have enjoyed the remarkable success he has were it not for the influence of the British Council, however small it may appear to have been. My Lords, I beseech the Government, not to spend more, but solely to get their priorities in order. I fear that otherwise our country's influence, and thus its power and authority, will be eroded, permanently.

7.46 p.m.


My Lords, may I at the outset declare an interest. I have been on the executive of the British Council since 1966 and I have for some years been deputy chairman. I am not here to speak formally on their behalf, but I have been asked to speak and I do so with great willingness, because if there is one thing which is very necessary it is that some words should be spoken by someone officially associated with the Council to improve the morale, to which these proposed cuts have obviously done damage, as far as the staff is concerned.

May I first say how much we feel for Lord Ballantrae on this occasion. I have been supplied with the text of the speech that he would have made, and with your Lordships' permission I would venture to make a short quotation from it, because it illustrates that exceptional colloquial elegance of which he is such a master and of which he has such an exceptional command. The opening paragraph of the speech which he would have delivered but for the tragic circumstance which prevented him reads as follows: I realise the danger of banging on … —a characteristic phrase, if I may say so— …too long and too often about the British Council and its future, with the consequent risk of alienating your Lordships' collective sympathy. At one time in the war in Burma veterinary surgeons removed the vocal chords of mules to stop them braying. I do not want to tempt anybody to cite that as a precedent in my own case. But at least this time the Council is actually the subject of the debate, whereas the last time I referred to it a month ago we were supposed to be discussing something quite different, the abuse of the English language, mixed metaphors and so on. Since then I have spotted a beauty: a headline in a Scots newspaper which read 'Cuts beginning to Bite'. That was the opening, and with your Lordships' permission I should like to quote the final words: My last word is to implore your Lordships to toss your weight into that scale, which will reprieve the British Council, free it from all sense of doom, and enable it to carry on with its work all over the world". If I may venture to say so, that encapsulates precisely what everyone who supports the Council wanted to say this evening.

I think I might be permitted to make a general observation about cuts. We have been invited to say that it is a sensible and heroic attitude to accept cuts across the board, and the noble Lord, Lord Home, whose authority is immensely high in this House, made that suggestion. I venture, with great trepidation, to disagree. I think that cuts across the board imply that one would have confidence in the people making them that would invest them with an absolutely phenomenal infallibility. If they were superhuman beings it might be possible to say that they could determine cuts of this character without any attempt at a scientific assessment. I should be much more confident of cuts which suggested five per cent. in one direction, three per cent. in another, no cuts in another and some minute increase in another. This would show at least that a very relevant attention had been given to the matter, which seems otherwise to be dealt with in a very haphazard and slapdash fashion.

So far as the British Council is concerned, it will continue to operate—I think I can say this, and I have heard it said within the Council by more informed and authoritative voices—whatever cuts may be administered. But that any institution can survive the treatment that the Council has received is almost miraculous. It is to he remembered that the staff of the Council are enlisted over the years by suggestions that they have a long time and a safe and secure career. They enlist in the Council largely people with very few materialistic aspirations. They are people who join because they want to do a job of public service divorced from the general rat race, because they think they have something to bring to the national interest, which makes it possible to carry on life on reduced returns and rewards so far as material considerations are concerned. This is an exceptional feature of the Council.

I have not travelled so extensively that I am familiar with every Council station, but I have visited a good few. I have always noticed that the people serving in those stations are people of very high human quality, and often people of quite exceptional intellectual and academic distinction. I remember when arriving in Australia I discovered the Council representative in Australia had recently written a book about Holbein, establishing, I am sure to the satisfaction of few, that most Holbeins were in fact forgeries. But, however authentic his view may be, it indicates the sort of person who serves and the sort of interest he has, and why the Council is, on the whole, able to compete with the similar institutions established by the French and the Americans, which are much more lavishly endowed. We may not have the money but we have people of such moral and intellectual qualities and such transparent integrity that they more than compensate for the money which is lacking.

I would cordially invite the Government spokesman here tonight to say something generous and kindly to the Council that can be conveyed to the staff. I think it is very important that they should realise that, whatever these cuts may be and however arbitrary, this is an organisation which is wanted, in which they can have confidence, and in so far as they are not going to be axed, can continue to serve, not with the heavy heart which at the moment actuates so many of them.

I should like to hear from the Government something that is sufficiently generous. The Council is, in my view, an extremely valuable organisation. It is an organisation that works on the most economical basis. I visited Council institutions and Council stations in many parts of the world and, although perhaps it was because they knew I was teetotal, I was never offered a drink and I never saw any evidence of a drink that could be offered to others who were less abstemiously inclined than I.

The Council conducts its affairs on the basis of exemplary economy. I do not think that a penny is wasted. I doubt whether any organisation in the world could conduct the number of stations that the Council conducts on that sort of budget. It is, if I may say so, extremely unwise. It is a remarkable indication of penny wise pound foolish that the Council should be subjected to economies of this kind. The Council does a job of work which is immensely valuable in terms of trade and in terms of the income that it generates, so far as publishing is concerned; so far as the propagation of British books is concerned; so far as the sale of British educational equipment is concerned and the establishment of schemes for universities and schools. The Council's work cannot be over-valued. To economise on that is, in my view, a really awful mistake. It is an awful mistake, based on the belief that one has to demonstrate that everyone is being similarly sacrificed. It is rather—and I speak in the presence of a very eminent doctor—as though I were to say that, having been so advised, as I often have, to reduce my intake, I propose to reduce by 10 per cent. all nourishment, including my pills. That is the type of logic that attaches to this kind of economy. It is a totally false, mistaken logic.

1 beg your Lordships to remember, when talking about phases 2 and 3, that the present phase is a lethal one. It involves an economy of 14 per cent by the time we take into account the expenditure on redundancies. Fourteen per cent. is a massive sum of money and for an institution to have to make economies of that kind it might well be fatal if it were not an institution of remarkable resilience and courage. A message should go out to the staff that they are wanted; that the institution is wanted; and that the Government are adopting a policy which, right or wrong, is one that they think appropriate in the present circumstances of desperate economic necessity, but that when the day comes the Council will still continue to operate as effectively as it ever did and that so soon as possible the resources taken away from it will be restored.

It must be remembered, as the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, said, that we appear to be budgeting for permanent poverty, permanent indigence. That is a very poor policy if we arc to encourage the country to return to prosperity. We cannot restore stations that are closed. We cannot replace the enthusiasm and goodwill of people who have been "axed" and removed from their jobs. However, what we can do is to instil in those who remain a sense that, on the whole, it is a temporary setback and that, if they soldier on, the position will be restored. At this time of night I have kept your Lordships too long. I would only like to say that the Council would be grateful for any expression of confidence and goodwill that may be uttered here this evening.

7.53 p.m.


My Lords, I speak not on behalf of the Council, but as perhaps a very large-scale user of the services of the British Council. For 10 years the Open University has been a focus of interest for the educational authorities of well over 50 nations. There has been a tremendous surge of interest in distance-learning systems of which the Open University is a prototype. So, we have been called upon to provide advice, materials and know-how in many lands. Sometimes the initial contact has been made through the activities of the British Council. Sometimes direct contact has been made and the follow-up has been channelled through the British Council. In all cases we have found the offices and representatives of the Council helpful, and often we have found them quite invaluable. Their knowledge—political and demographic—of the local educational scene has made our task much easier. However, perhaps more important than that is that we have tried to provide those services—that advice and those materials—on a commercial basis.

In 1977 and 1978 our total earnings in overseas currencies were well over £1 million. That may be small money, but the cuts that are being proposed are not all that much bigger. The existence of the British Council representatives was undoubtedly effective in helping to achieve this; but the British Council will get absolutely no credit for that.

I should also say that I have noticed, and welcomed over the last decade, an increased awareness on the part of representatives of the Council of the need for this country not only to exert cultural influence overseas, but to make economic progress. Many people have said tonight that it would be a retrograde step, both culturally and economically, if further cuts in the Council's budget were to be made. I can only echo that and ask that the Government use discrimination in making cuts and do not make cuts across the board.

7.56 p.m.


My Lords, I must apologise for not putting my name down on the list of speakers. However, as three noble Lords whose names were down have been scratched from the list I think that I can safely take some of the minutes that they would have taken. I wish to support my noble friend Lord Hatch of Lusby in his plea to the Government on behalf of the British Council. The Council is a goodwill organisation, but it has a quite open, selfish motive. It is in British interests to promote personal exchanges with other countries and that is something that we should face. It is partly a matter of getting a showing overseas for British achievements, but even more, a way of assisting harmonious relations, and that is in the interests of world peace which must be a major British interest. In addition, it creates an atmosphere which is sympathetic to British trade.

The Council has the great advantage—and my noble friend Lord Ritchie-Calder in fact contrasted the American situation—that it has no responsibility for representing Her Majesty's Government in their current policies: the information services do that. The Council's mandate is long-term cultural relations and its staff can usually go on beavering away at, for example, medical and educational exchanges and English teaching even when political relations are strained.

A noble friend earlier mentioned Poland as a good example. The British Council has been working in Poland ever since the war. It has not been affected at all by the fact that the ideological situation in Poland is different from that in this country. The Council has just opened an office in China. I am quite sure that again the type of work that it will do in China will have the same sort of effect. The Commonwealth is another example of the value of the Council. When independence approaches the Council plays a valuable role when the United Kingdom, as ruler, is about to disappear and when a new relationship is about to be established.

We have a current example in Zimbabwe. The Council has, in fact, been enabling 1,400 Zimbabweans to be trained. This year it is hoped that there will be an increase to 2,000; and, of course, with Zimbabwe becoming independent, in effect it will probably have to provide help and training for many more. At present the same holds good for Zambia, because the Council has been carrying on technical co-operation with Zambia, which I have no doubt will become more and more important now that, as we hope, the bombing of Zambia has ceased and the people of Zambia are able to develop their country without that sort of disturbance. Those are examples of what happens in the Commonwealth.

But what distinguishes the Council's work from aid programmes as such is that it is essentially concerned with individual people. I have made some notes on this. In 1978–79—and I saw the annual report—the Council helped 300,000 people come to Britain from 160 countries; 17,000 people went abroad to 120 countries; 23,000 young people took part in youth exchanges; 750 people worked abroad on educational contracts; 1,600 people went abroad as lecturers, advisers and tutors; 1,000 academics received grants to attend conferences or to take part in interchange schemes. That is the sort of work that the Council does, people-to-people. It is of the utmost importance.

For more than 40 years the Council has been concerned with making friends, and in more than 80 or so countries in which it has had staff there are many individuals for whom it has made efficient and happy arrangements when they have come to the United Kingdom as students or as specialist visitors and/or with whom it has become friendly through its activities. At a time of acute crisis—and the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, mentioned what was happening in Iran—I am sure one would think that all this work was not worthwhile. But that is not true; it is the other way round, because storms pass and when there are signs of calm it can be very useful to have people around who are in the professions, in administration and even in the arts, who have the habit of working with Britain through the British Council.

That, briefly, is why I think the taxpayer should be very pleased to spend money on the Council. Of course, some cuts can be supported, tolerated and accommodated. The danger is of heavier cuts next year which will mean withdrawals from certain countries. I am most worried that cuts will cause redundancy and may seriously damage the Council's ability to recruit and retain staff of the high quality which is essential. The noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, referred to the period of the Beaverbrook campaign against the British Council. The consequence of that campaign was that between 1949 and 1956 it was not possible to have any career recruitment in the British Council. What was worse was that the universities used to advise graduates against the British Council.

In the late 1950s and in the 1960s there was a transformation in thinking, and Her Majesty's Government, through the Foreign Office and the Commonwealth Relations Office, urged the British Council vehemently to open up in many places and develop its work. The Council had difficulty in doing so. My fear is that the pendulum will swing again, and that again the Council will have to say to Her Majesty's Government that it is not possible to recruit the trained staff required. In 1956 the Foreign Secretary had to write to every vice-chancellor in the United Kingdom giving reassurances about the Council. The Council then resumed career recruitment, and it has built up an excellent service which is the envy of other nations. Had the noble Lord, Lord Ballantrae, been here he would have told us how highly he esteemed the staff of the Council, because he has visited a great many of its overseas posts. I wish to join other noble Lords in expressing my sympathy to him in his recent bereavement, to tell him how sad we feel for him and how we all grieve for him on this occasion.

That is the situation. Unfortunately, although envied abroad, the British Council is not known at home and there is no political steam behind it. I should like to suggest that we had better give it some. The British Council serves British interests very well and serious cuts to it are damaging to British interests. I should like to conclude on a personal note. The new Director-General of the British Council, John Burgh, was my colleague in the Community Relations Commission—we were joint deputy chairmen. I merely beg the Government not to let him start his job with his hands tied behind his back.

8.7 p.m.


My Lords, may I begin by joining my sympathies with those of other noble Lords for the appalling tragedy which the noble Lord, Lord Ballantrae, has suffered. If the middle of his speech was as good as the beginning and the end, we have missed something very good. We miss him here and we send him our sympathy from the bottom of our hearts.

My noble friend Lord Hatch of Lusby has achieved the remarkable success of having the whole House behind him. It is not something that happens every day of the week. I hope that in due course the Minister will not be totally opposed to what my noble friend has said. Noble Lords opposite are slightly more in favour of general cuts than we, and, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Goodman, are. Basically speaking, however, we say and many other speakers say that the proposed cuts are too hard. But what everyone says is that the Government must stop there. That is the point. We hope that we shall be given something constructive from the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, because until we are, the Government's position needs a good deal of explanation.

The British Council was founded 45 years ago and was given a Royal Charter in 1940 in which it was told: To promote a wider knowledge of Britain and the English language, and to develop closer cultural relations with other countries ". Over the years it has worked out various means of doing that, all of which have proved fairly effective. But as has been mentioned by a number of noble Lords, it has been constantly sniped at, often, 1 fear, as a result of Treasury scepticism; and perhaps because it is an outstation of the Foreign Office it has hardly ever had the departmental defence which it was entitled to expect. As has already been said, there have been no fewer than seven inquiries in the last l3 years, and one is just reporting at the moment. The Government must decide whether they want to reverse the Royal Charter or to continue it. After all, the Council will go on spending £40 million of the taxpayers' money, even after the cuts. If this is £40 million well spent, then the Government must show their confidence in the job which, under the Charter, the British Council is doing and which, in my opinion, and in the opinion of 12 speakers from all sides of the House today, it is doing extremely well.

I can only find the present attitude of the Government—and that is before the noble Lord the Minister has clarified it—somewhat half-baked. I hope very much that he will be able to convince us that he knows what he is trying to do, and explain the reasoning behind these severe cuts. Do the Government, for example, think that some of the things which the British Council is doing are not worth doing at all, and can be dispensed with? If so, which? Or that some of them are done too well today, and can afford to be done less well? Or that some of them are too wide in scope and should be reduced? If so, which and why?

The Berrill Report, as a number of noble Lords have reminded us, took the line that most of what the Council does is not worth doing at all and should be scrapped. My Government rejected that view, and I think the Opposition agreed with us. Are the present Government taking a different view and supporting the Think Tank's thinking? Let me list once again—my noble friend Lord Hatch did it originally but it is some time ago—the main functions so that the Minister can tell us what he is prepared to do without. The most important, everybody has agreed, is direct teaching of the English language abroad, com- bined with running the libraries of English books. We know that this is being cut severely. Is it the intention to reduce this, or is it something that has just happened by default? Then there are the interchange of professional people, academics and students; in particular helping foreign students on their arrival here for study; training programmes and recruitment of teachers for overseas posts; advisory visits in response to overseas needs; and presenting the best in British art in drama, music, and the visual arts.

May I add a gloss to the last two headings. In 1974 I went on a British Council sponsored visit to Thailand at the request of the Thais to help them in one particular thing in which they were interested and which I happened to know something about, and I was followed by the chief officer of the Inner London probation service. As a result of these two visits they have set up a probation officers' training course, an after-care service has been created, and a central probation bureau established. This is one tiny thing that I happen to know about. I do not know to what extent England is helped by looking after a certain number of Thais, but this is part of the whole approach which the speakers here have been trying to impress on the Government has to be made.

As to the arts, I went to enough functions abroad when I was Minister for the Arts to know personally at least what the effects seemed to be of the Scottish National Opera at Aix, the Prospect Company's Hamlet in Teheran. Incidentally, one noble Lord—I think it was the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles—suggested that if we had done more selling ourselves in Persia we might have eased things there. I believe in fact that this is one of those rare cases where the opposite is the fact. I think there is a real resentment on the part of the religious fanatics of Western culture and Western art. I think that to have done it better might not have been the best thing to do, but this is a side issue. I am perfectly sure that, as a result of seeing the marvellous Chinese acrobats and jugglers, I take far more interest in the Chinese than I would have if I had not.

Quite honestly, nobody can put figures on this sort of thing. We all know that. But there is not the slightest doubt that it is important. As various noble Lords have said, the Germans, who after all are so much more successful than we are in all commercial matters, have no doubt at all of the value of exporting their art. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, said that they spend four times —my figure is five times, but we shall not quarrel about that—as much as we do. They issued a formal statement saying: The Federal Republic of Germany's position and reputation in the world do not depend solely on this country's political weight and economic capability, but just as much on the legitimacy of our claim to represent a civilised country. Therefore the Government considers cultural exchange, along with political and economic relations as equally ranking aspects of foreign policy ". Really these activities need no defence in this House.

May I quote further from The Times leader when it was attacking the Berrill Report. The values by which a country lives, or strives imperfectly to live, are simultaneously a contribution to the world as a whole, a justification of that country's own existence, and a measure of its own sense of worth and purpose. In this area it is not possible to separate giving from receiving. Britain's ' values ' have been formed by centuries of international traffic in culture and information. If Britain ceases to attach high importance to continuing participation in this traffic, loses faith in the contribution she makes to it, and fails to respond to the demand which her excellence generates abroad, her own cultural bloodstream will become that much poorer, her self-respect that much lower, and in the long run her international influence that much smaller ". That is, roughly speaking, what every noble Lord has said.

May I ask the Minister again: Do the Government think that these activities are important and desirable, or do they take the purely negative view of the Berrill Report? Incidentally, even that negative and, in our opinion, wrong-headed report made one useful suggestion which I pass on to the Minister with urgency; namely, that the Foreign Office should lay down a clear policy, and clear guidelines, on which the British Council should in future act. And, may I add, having done so, should leave the Council to get on with it. Can he allay my fears, and those of the Council's employees, whose morale is as low as it could be, and tell us that, having imposed these drastic cuts of 11½ per cent. involving the loss of 368 posts in London and 179 overseas, the Government will now call a halt? This was the message which nearly every speaker brought out.

May we look at the cuts as no more than a temporary economy, a contribution to solving the nation's problems? Are the Government content and happy to spend, and go on spending, £40 million or so a year on this important work? And will they lay down policy and guidelines and then leave the Council to lick its wounds and go ahead with the work it has developed over the last 25 years without further cuts, inquiries or hindrances? Nothing else, nothing less than this assurance, will restore its morale; and I very much hope that the noble Lord will be able to say something encouraging.

8.18 p.m.


My Lords, I desire at the outset on behalf of the Government to be associated with the remarks made about the awful tragedy that has befallen the noble Lord, Lord Ballantrae, and to join with other noble Lords who have extended their sympathy to him.

I am particularly glad to have the opportunity to answer this Question tonight because, in addition to enabling me to take up some of the points made by noble Lords, it also enables me to make three major points about the British Council which I hope will help your Lordships: first, because the British Council's work is not as understood or appreciated as widely as it should be; and secondly, because I shall have the opportunity of restating and emphasising the value which the Government attach to this work. I find myself able to agree with many, indeed most, of the things which noble Lords have said about the Council in the course of the debate tonight. The Council deserves the support it has received from so many worthy protagonists. The third major point is that it gives me the opportunity to explain the implications of the reductions that have recently been agreed.

The Council is our main instrument of cultural diplomacy. If there are some of your Lordships who find that a bit woolly, perhaps I can put it in other words. We live in times when the projection of British excellence abroad is of special importance, an importance which your Lordships may think increases as our capacity to influence events by other means diminishes. It is the Council's responsibility to ensure that British intellectual and artistic achievements, past and present, receive the international recognition which they deserve. It is their job to ensure that the English language maintains its unique position in the world and that the highest standards of tuition are maintained in its continued expansion, and I shall say more about that in a moment. It is the Council's task to administer an important and varied system of exchanges covering academic, educational, scientific and artistic activity. These must be tailored to fit the requirements of particular countries abroad, but they are also designed to meet the overall interest of Britain.

Apart from the not inconsiderable revenue which the Council derives from English language teaching and educational projects, the overall value of these activities cannot be quantified; the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, said that and knows it from wide experience. The Council plays the major role in the projection abroad of Britain's achievements in the arts at a time when their reputation stands higher then ever. In many parts of the world modest support from Council sources produces a contribution some ten times greater from the host country. The Council's worth is fully recognised by those concerned with the promotion of British interests abroad and I am happy to underline this point on behalf of the Government this evening.

Another whole area of the Council's activity is its work in administering major aspects of the ODA's programme of aid to education in developing countries. The Council has considerable expertise and experience in this field. It has built up an extensive network of professional contacts in Britain and abroad. It is therefore a most valuable source of professional advice both to Government departments and to our missions overseas. We also look to the Council for specialised services in a number of other fields in which its skills are universally acknowledged, above all in English language teaching, which is a major priority of the aid programme as well as an activity which serves our national interest in its widest sense.

On a personal note, a few months ago I was in Ecuador on Government business and I there visited the British Council's school in Quito for the teaching of English. I remember meeting the director of the school, Mr. John Foley, and I recall being particularly impressed by the efficiency of the school and the enthusiasm of its staff. This was emphasised by the fact that they were fully occupied and were, I believe, turning away students for whom space could not at that time be found. I remember noticing particularly how efficiently it was run and how much of the equipment—they had some recording and electronic equipment as part of the language laboratory—had been made by the staff locally, a very laudable example indeed.

Then there are a number of schemes of technical co-operation on behalf of and under the policy control of Ministers. The largest of these is the ODA's training programme under which students are brought to the United Kingdom from developing countries. The Council administers this and other training programmes, including the placing of students at United Kingdom institutions under government to government schemes. Other programmes which the Council manages for the ODA are concerned with filling key overseas posts to develop local capacity for the teaching of the English language, particularly "English for specific purposes "; in-country seminars for teachers; provision for educational books and development of libraries; and educational technology. All these activities are conducted within the framework of the Government's aid policy. We highly value the work which the Council has done and continues to do in the execution of this policy.

I turn to the question of cuts in expenditure. The spending plans which the Government inherited were based on assumptions about economic performance and growth which have proved to be unrealistic. To meet the overriding need to set our economic house in order, some very painful decisions have had to be made in many areas of the economy. The Government decided that as a State financed organisation, for that is what it is, the British Council could not be exempt from this exercise. As a result, a reduction of some £5 million in the Council's budget for 1980–81 has been decided on and accepted by the Council. Like the Civil Service, the Council has also had to reduce its staff costs by 3 per cent. from this year and is subject to cash limits. No one can deny that these reductions were painful, but Her Majesty's Government considered that the wider need to restore our national economic well being must in present circumstances be the first priority.

In finding savings for 1980–81, there were close consultations between the Council and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The aim of both was to maintain the Council's overall capabilities and to avoid as far as possible the closure of the Council's overseas representations, and that answers one question asked by Lord Donaldson. This has meant that a greater share of the reductions for 1980–81 has had to fall on such things as the Council's capital works programme, supplies and services, and home based activities including the Council's various functional programmes. The decisions of detail—I emphasise this—have been taken by the Council itself, because it is an independent body under Royal Charter.

Before I leave the 1980–81 savings, I would emphasise two things. First, conscious of the national need to which I have referred, the Council co-operated with admirable public spirit in identifying the areas in which savings might be made, an attitude, sadly, not always evident elsewhere. Secondly, they did so in the knowledge of the regrettable but unavoidable effect which the reductions agreed would have on the morale of their staff. I should not like to let this occasion pass without paying them all a tribute and have been asked to do so by several noble Lords. They are in the very front line of our diplomacy, often quite literally. The difficulties and dangers they face in the field are considerable—their library in Islamabad was sacked by a mob only days ago—and their spirit cannot be too highly praised. I wish to emphasise that the Government share the high opinions expressed of the quality, loyalty and integrity of the British Council's staff, and, within the limits of our resources, we shall capitalise on this asset.

I now take up some of the specific points that have been put to me in the debate. My noble friend Lord Home of the Hirsel asked me about the English language teaching programmes. These are, by and large, self-supporting because fees are in general charged to the students. Many of them take some time to reach that point and have to be supported in the interim, and sometimes local conditions make it difficult for these courses to reach self-sufficiency as soon as we should like, but we shall continue to support them within the limits of our resources. Regarding the English language teaching in Greece, which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, I can assure him that no reduction is planned in that area.

The noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, in a typically colourful and emphatic speech, used words like "shameful" and expressed regret at what he referred to as our loss of self-confidence; but I would suggest to him that there is nothing shameful in declining to draw cheques when there is no cash in the bank. Continuing that analogy, my noble friend Lord Eccles explained how one always put on one's best suit and polished one's shoes before going to see the bank manager about increasing the overdraft. But we are not trying to increase the overdraft; we are trying to reduce the one we have.

The noble Lord, Lord Hill of Luton, asked me specifically about the various book programmes. I know that there is concern about these schemes, which make valuable contributions to education in developing countries by bringing the cost of text books within the reach of students. In the year 1979–80 (the current year) we are spending £1.7 million on the English Language Book Society scheme, as compared with £1.5 million in the previous year, but I am afraid that a modest reduction is inevitable for next year. There is another scheme called the Book Presentation Programme, which I think the noble Lord knows about. This, too, is a valuable programme, but I am afraid that it must bear a share of the cuts in bilateral aid. Spending this year is expected to be just under £1 million. Nevertheless, we expect to fulfil existing commitments and to continue the programme at a substantial level.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris, in a typically thoughtful speech, reminded us of some of the famous and not so famous people who have had the benefit of British Council schemes. I do not think that I should want to swap names with him tonight, but I shall certainly study what he has said and keep it in my memory bank of useful information for the future.

The noble Lord, Lord Goodman, referred to the philosophy of cuts and he explained—I think quite rightly—that a policy of even percentage cuts across the board is not necessarily always the best way to do it. I should say to him that in the situation in which we found ourselves when we came into office recently, when cuts of some kind were vitally and urgently necessary, there really was not then time to make a detailed critique of every area of Government expenditure and discover those areas where more than a fixed percentage could be allowed and some other areas where nothing could be cut.

I am not privy to what my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has in store for us for the future, but I should expect cuts in the future to be more selective. There must be some areas of Government expenditure—and I am certainly not specifically referring to the British Council here—where the Government have no business to be at all. Those kind of areas can be cut not by 5 or 10 per cent., but by 100 per cent. There are other areas where the Government do have business to be and which ought not to be cut further at all; and we have already said that defence is one of those areas.

There is one other point I want to deal with before moving on to the future. It was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Pitt of Hampstead, who referred to the training programme that we have for Rhodesian personnel. Yes, my Lords, that is the largest single programme operated by the British Council at present. I have no doubt that it will remain so, and we look forward to setting up further schemes with the new Zimbabwe Government when they come into being in the near future.

I am also reminded by my noble friend Lord Mowbray and Stourton (who spoke to me sotto voce just now) that recently there was a most important exhibition of pictures in Munich—it is still going on—sponsored by the British Council. That exhibition, which has enjoyed wide success, contains 360 British pictures, including some lent by Her Majesty the Queen; and the fact that it is such a huge success is of course due to the fact that it was opened by my noble friend.

Now to the future, my Lords. The level at which the Council will be enabled to discharge its aid functions will clearly depend in part on future decisions relating to the aid programme itself. But we expect the British Council to continue to play a significant part in our aid to education in developing countries. Meanwhile, the overriding national need to seek further economies over a wide field, where-ever these are possible, remains; and it was with this need in mind that the Government decided to set up an interdepartmental review of the British Council to consider the position in succeeding years. The British Council has been closely involved in the work of the review, and its staff side has been able to make its views known to it. The review committee has now completed its task and has reported to Ministers. The decisions taken in the light of the report will be made public.

In reaching their decisions, the Government will take into account the views of those outside, both in this country and overseas, who are, or have been, involved in the British Council's affairs. We have received representations from many important academic and cultural organisations and individuals, as well as from industrialists and exporters, which testify to the value that they attach to the work of the Council. May I mention one example of how we have also taken into account the views of the staff. My noble friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary received a delegation from the staff at the height of the Lancaster House Conference last week and expressed to them his support and appreciation of their work.

We will also take into account the British Council's own views. We shall pay full regard to their own estimate of the continued importance of the Council's work, to which I have already devoted some necessary, and I hope emphatic, words. Above all, we will take careful note of the views heard in your Lordships' House tonight.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, will he answer the main economic issue that I put to him? Do the Government consider that the work of the British Council is an agent for economic, commercial and industrial revival, which should be fostered for that purpose, or do they discard that role entirely?


My Lords, we accept all these important roles for the British Council. The difficulty is that we cannot write cheques when there is no money in the bank.


My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord will not think it discourteous to the very courteous and detailed reply that he has given if I ask to be permitted to correct one impression that might be very unfortunate. He gave the impression that the Council had co-operated in relation to the cuts with a degree of enthusiasm that might he described as almost masochistic. I hope he will allow me to say that the Council, which regards itself as a law-abiding body, of course conformed to the directions that it received, but at all times made dignified and strong protests against what it believed to be unjustifiable cuts.