HL Deb 01 February 1996 vol 568 cc1551-4

3.15 p.m.

Lord Judd asked Her Majesty's Government:

What development criteria have led to the decision to impose a 28 per cent. reduction in real terms in grant-in-aid from the Overseas Development Administration to the British Council over the next three years.

Lord Chesham

My Lords, the planned levels of the British Council's grant-in-aid from the ODA over the next three financial years take account of Britain's increasing multilateral obligations and other priorities for available bilateral funds.

Lord Judd

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Does he agree that he himself assured us of the Government's determination to protect the bilateral programme? Does he further agree that the British Council, especially in the sphere of education which is so vital to development, is second to none in the quality of its work? Why then must there be such a vicious cut in aid when, by its work in development, the British Council is building the friendship across the world which we so desperately need for our own future economic strength?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, the British Council does an excellent job for Britain overseas, both in development and in cultural diplomacy. It remains an integral part of our overall aid effort. The council has built up a large body of expertise and experience over the past 60 years. However, it is not possible to exempt the council from budgetary pressures on the aid programme and the current drive to cut costs and sharpen priorities. I should be interested to know where the noble Lord would find the funds to meet the needs to which he referred.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the cost of making cuts through redundancies and relocation of personnel will almost equal the actual savings made by way of the cuts? Therefore, where is the saving to the public purse in making such cuts?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, that is not actually true. The matter is under consideration at present. Proposals are being made but, until they are available and have been discussed, we cannot be definitive on the issue.

Lord Winston

My Lords, is the Minister aware that one of the great contributions of the ODA has been to help to control the HIV/AIDS virus? By cutting its budget, we risk condemning many more millions of people to a horrible death and also overburdening the health services of poor countries which can ill afford to support the disease.

Lord Chesham

My Lords, we are attempting not to reduce such aid, especially in sub-Saharan Africa where HIV is most prevalent. It is for the British Council, which is independent, to allocate its resources as best it can to enable it to deal with the problems that exist.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, perhaps I may begin by declaring an interest as I am a member of the British Council. Can the Minister confirm that the Government will maintain their support for the ODA technical co-operation training programme? The programme has been managed successfully by the British Council since 1960. It brings significant numbers of trainees from developing countries to study in Britain where they benefit from the excellence of our institutions of learning.

Lord Chesham

My Lords, the contract for the programme is due for renewal in March 1997. Discussions are already taking place. It would he premature to make any announcement until the discussions have progressed further.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the British Council, together with the BBC World Service, is one of the two main ways of extending British influence throughout the world, sometimes in a fairly intangible manner but one which has a real synergy with diplomatic attempts of a more political nature? Some of us are doubtful about the cut. We hope that the matter will be looked at much more closely next year.

Lord Chesham

My Lords, I understand exactly the point my noble friend makes. We would all like there not to be any cuts of any sort anywhere.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I understand the Minister's response that the budget is tight. But the track record and performance of the British Council and of the BBC World Service are quite outstanding. That is borne out by many comments of foreign observers. Might it be feasible to reconsider whether the whole aid budget should be cut so sharply, given the excellence of British aid delivery?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her comments about the British Council and the BBC World Service. I agree totally that those bodies have performed magnificently. However, in a time of tight budgetary restraint cuts have to be made. I certainly give no assurance that the Budget Statement of last November can be re-examined to consider increasing the amounts.

Lord Judd

My Lords, the noble Lord says that it is important to suggest from where alternative resources will come for expanding programmes. Does the noble Lord accept that we arc not arguing for an expansion? We are arguing for a preservation of the programme. This vicious cut is five times as large proportionately as the cuts in the overseas development programme as a whole. When the council is doing such excellent work in the front line of education, it is exasperating to find Ministers congratulating what it is doing and then, behind the council's back, undermining its capability of undertaking the tasks they applaud.

Lord Chesham

My Lords, it is not a question of undermining the council. The council now receives over 50 per cent. of its income from its important outside work including its contracts for teaching English in different countries. It does a superb job in that field and will be increasing its efforts. We are trying terribly hard not to cut support—this is associated with the area we are discussing and comes under the same budget—to the voluntary agencies and non-governmental organisations. We are maintaining our support to those bodies and cuts have therefore to be made elsewhere.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, cannot some funds come from the Department of Trade and Industry given that the British Council contributes to the export trade figures of this country?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, that would he a matter of trying to get money out of the Treasury not the Department of Trade and Industry. The noble Viscount will be aware that that is not an easy thing to do.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, would not the Minister agree that this is a question which comes up with depressing regularity and has done for the past 40 years? Should it not be a time when we can at last give the cultural arm of this country—the British Council—some sense of commitment and stability?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, we are fully committed to the British Council. However, as I said, it is just a question of the budget.