HL Deb 06 October 1998 vol 593 cc258-60

3.10 p.m.

Lord Quirk asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied with industry's response thus far to the Department of Trade and Industry campaign "Languages for Export".

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville)

My Lords, the campaign has been successful in increasing awareness and raising the languages and culture issue among exporters and their representative organisations. The department's benchmarking research has shown that the percentage of companies with no language proficiency has fallen from 34 per cent. in 1994 to 27 per cent. in 1997.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his reassurance, but may I refer him to the consultative report just published by the Nuffield Languages Inquiry chaired by Sir John Boyd and Trevor McDonald and enjoying the strong support of the Prime Minister? Has he noted the view expressed therein that, UK companies remain more deficient in linguistic competence than their major European competitors", and does he accept the claim on page 22 of this interim document that, despite initiatives like "Languages for Export": a systematic and coherent government policy has not yet been achieved"?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, we would not want to claim that the situation has been corrected by this campaign, but it is clear that the campaign is a good and co-ordinated one. It involves a number of features: how-to-do-it guides on language training and business culture training; translation and interpreting; developing business language strategies; a scheme of awards; a language export advisory scheme; and a database of language training providers, translators and interpreters. It is a well-focused campaign, but I agree that there is more to be done. That is why we greatly welcome the Nuffield Language Inquiry.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, I congratulate with great pleasure my noble friend on his elevation to the Dispatch Box. Will he turn his mind to the future and say upon which languages his department has its eye to improve future exports, recognising, as we do, that being able to speak the language of the other party is of huge and previously largely unrecognised importance?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, it is equally clear that due to the lag effects on teaching, the current disposition is not necessarily the ideal one. If we look at UK export companies we see that 63 per cent. are proficient in French, 56 per cent. in German, and 28 per cent. in Spanish, but areas such as Japanese and Chinese have low figures. Undoubtedly if we look ahead at population movements we shall see languages such as Arabic, Spanish, Hindi and Urdu becoming almost as important as English in future. Therefore, over time we need to adjust the languages that we teach.

The Earl of Carlisle

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the FCO might lead the way in this matter, and that commercial attachés going to central European nations often arrive woefully deficient in the language of the country to which they are posted?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, we would clearly look to any areas from which help may come in this matter, but the DTI as a department which has the major responsibility should take the lead in this area.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, can the Minister reassure the House that adequate emphasis will be given in this admirable campaign to Spanish and Portuguese as the second and third most spoken languages in the world, given that in our education system those languages tend to be an add-on to French and German? Surely they should be instead of French and German.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I agree that there is considerable scope to adjust languages which are taught in schools. It is significant that the language college initiative has been switching into some of those other languages and placing emphasis on them. That is greatly to be encouraged.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, will the Minister note that this is an issue which apparently affects also our financial services industry where, according to the Economist last week, job opportunities are being lost to British applicants because City firms like Goldman Sachs and J. P. Morgan are finding that only recruits from the Continent have the requisite language skills?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, the figures that the DTI has suggest that 14 per cent. of exporters claim to have lost measurable business due to the lack of foreign language. Financial services probably come within that category as well.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I join the congratulations extended to the noble Lord on his appearance on the Front Bench today. If he is absent from this House supporting the UK's export effort he will suffer no complaint from this side of the House. I join my noble friend Lady Hooper in indicating the importance that we wish to attach to the promotion of Spanish as a language. Does he recognise that the too-often neglected markets of Latin America must be a focus? Will he see that his department gives the proper priority to that language?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, it is interesting that the third commonest language in the export departments of UK companies is Spanish, and that has, as a result of the campaign, increased to 28 per cent. I agree with the noble and learned Lord that if we look long term, Spanish is undoubtedly one of the languages which should be at the forefront of export efforts.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there are a number of foreign language classes available within the Palace of Westminster?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I am not aware of that. I thought at some point a question would be asked about which languages I speak, and I am glad that that has not been asked.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, perhaps I may assist my noble friend by providing him with the information. There is a German class every Thursday in one of the rooms adjacent to the Chamber. We should very much welcome new recruits to that service.

Lord Geddes

My Lords, does the Minister agree, with his responsibilities within the DTI, that it is just as important to promote the education of English for speakers of other languages to encourage inward investment as it is to teach other languages to speakers of English?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I agree with that. It is important. We should encourage students to come to this country to learn the language and in that way to become friends so far as concerns trade.