HL Deb 09 March 1995 vol 562 cc396-8

3.12 p.m.

Lord Quirk asked Her Majesty's Government:

How satisfied they are with the progress of their efforts to make British industry more responsive to the need for staff competence in foreign languages.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, we have made a good start. This is a long-term effort, since a change in public attitude and business culture is required. There has nonetheless been a discernible positive shift in awareness since the Government launched a three-year National Languages for Export campaign in October 1993.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, any progress in this area is good news and I am grateful to the Minister for the crumbs of comfort that he has been able to offer. But may I ask him whether, in view of the fact that it is not just the exporting industry but the promoters of tourism in this country who need to be shedding their complacency, he can assure us that they also are heeding the DTI's warnings that not all foreigners are equally comfortable in the English language?

Further, could I just ask, given the fact that it has long been easier to persuade, say, Spanish people to learn English than it has been to persuade English speakers to learn, say, Spanish, how come that other English speaking countries are so much more accommodating and enterprising than our own country?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, there are two aspects to this question. On the business side, we live in a world of international trading. Perhaps we in Britain have been slower than some other nations to appreciate that language skills and the ability to deal with people in languages that we do not ourselves speak is an essential business tool. Clearly, against that background we want to see improved skills throughout. Efforts are being made to bring that about—and not only at the educational level through the national curriculum. That seems a good basis on which to build.

Lord Renton

My Lords, bearing in mind the obvious expansion that is taking place in business and trade in the Far East, will the Government do all that they can to encourage the learning of the languages of the Far East?

Lord Inglewood

Yes, my Lords. Historically in this country the learning of languages, particularly at higher levels, has been perceived as disqualifying people for careers in business. Therefore we very much welcome the advent of mixed degree courses which provide business skills and language skills together. We believe that that will be important.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, the Minister says that there is evidence of improvement in relation to this very important issue. Will he give the evidence, indicate the percentage, and give whatever other statistics he has at his disposal?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I cannot helpfully quantify this matter. Suffice it to say that the response to the National Languages for Export campaign has been good. Activity is taking place on the ground, and we are confident that the campaign will not only raise awareness of the problem but that it will also lead to better language skills.

Viscount Eccles

My Lords, given the fact that we live, or will live, in an English speaking world, is it not the Minister's first duty to see that all our own children can speak very good English?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. The primary duty of the education system in this country is to ensure that all our citizens can read and write and are properly equipped in their own language. However, we must not be seduced by the fact that there is a very considerable use and knowledge of English elsewhere around the globe. If we are trying to sell things to people, we must remember that the customer is always right. If the customer wants to deal in his own language, he is entirely entitled to do so. It is for us to try to ensure that we deal with him on that basis where appropriate.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, does the Minister therefore agree that good relationships are essential in today's tough business environment and that languages play an important part in that? Can he say how many telephone operators at the DTI speak a foreign language so that inquiries from abroad do not fall at the first hurdle?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his question. I am afraid that I am not immediately in a position to give him the reply that he seeks. Had the noble Lord rung up the DTI himself, he might have been able to gain the answer that he seeks at first hand.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, after English, to which my noble friend Lord Eccles referred, the second most internationally spoken language is Spanish? Is he further aware that there are today in the United Kingdom a large number of public and private institutions teaching that language—I must declare an interest in that I am associated with two of them—and that the facility to learn Spanish is now widely available?

Lord Inglewood

Yes, my Lords. But it is interesting that, now, most of our exports go to German speaking countries.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, are the Government aware that the best time for a person to learn a language is in the early years in primary school? Can the Government advise the House as to what financial assistance they provide to primary schools to ensure that foreign languages can be taught?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, clearly, the noble Lord is right: the best place to start acquiring a knowledge of languages is in school. That is why we made it mandatory under the national curriculum in 1992 that languages should be a part of what every child is taught. The appropriate way to deal with this is through the education budget.

Lord Quirk

Nonetheless, my Lords, to what extent does the Minister agree that until employers show, perhaps through their job ads, that language skills are valued in the job market, schoolchildren will not take up the option of learning foreign languages?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. It is crucial that people realise that if they want a good job, one of the best ways to get it is to have these skills which are very valuable to business.