HL Deb 30 October 2000 vol 618 cc657-60

Lord Watson of Richmond asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, and if so why, they are encouraging the British Council to redirect the balance of its future resources away from Europe.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, in our strategic guidance to the British Council we invited it to focus on countries where it can achieve most impact, particularly those in transition to democracy. In its current strategic review the council has decided to increase resources for central and eastern Europe. Spending in western Europe will decline initially as the council reduces expenditure on premises and other fixed costs, but that will permit investment in new IT-based programmes and services that exploit new technology and are designed to reach wider audiences, which in turn will benefit Europe. The council will continue to spend much the same proportion of its grant-in-aid as before—nearly 40 per cent—on Europe.

Lord Watson of Richmond

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer and understand the purpose behind it. If it is the avowed purpose of the Government that Great Britain should be as important to France and Germany as both are to each other, how can it possibly be justified in the case of Germany to reduce the total expenditure by nearly half and close many offices, including the one in Cologne, and to make substantial reductions in France and other European countries, for example Spain and Italy? Does the Minister agree that this is not the right time to take such action?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord slightly misunderstands the thrust of the review. The council's plans for Germany, for example, do not reflect the council's waning interest in that country but a mature judgment as to its capabilities and the opportunities to make an impact there. Infrastructure costs at present absorb 80 per cent of available funding and, at the same time, there are tremendous possibilities to exploit the advanced state of IT and national media infrastructure in Germany. Accordingly, the council chooses to focus its physical presence in Berlin. As the noble Lord rightly said, the offices in Cologne, Hamburg, Leipzig and Munich are to close. However, the council has just opened a highly acclaimed showcase office in Berlin and has decided to devote the bulk of its resources to programmes and services, not buildings.

Lord Brookman

My Lords, if I heard my noble friend correctly, I believe that she referred to a new strategy for the British Council. Can my noble friend provide a little more detail of new strategy?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords. I referred to the strategic review which has just been undertaken by the British Council. The aim of the council in deciding on the new strategy is to ensure that it maximises its impact so that the resources at its disposal bring optimal benefits in term of improved perceptions of Britain. A major aim of the council's new strategy is to exploit the enormous potential of new media by offering new IT-based services. Their advantage is that they can reach much wider audiences, thus multiplying the impact, and allow the council to shift resources from infrastructure to programming activity.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, while I sympathise with the implications behind the noble Lord's Question, does the Minister agree that it is still very important that the British Council should devote a high proportion of its resources particularly to English language teaching in those countries which were formerly francophone and whose second language was French but have, often as a matter of policy, decided that English should become their second language?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, the British Council is very active in the realm of English language teaching. To its great credit, the council also earns money by so doing and thereby augments its overall spending activities. That will remain a high priority for the British Council.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that how the British Council spends its resources and directs its input is best left to that body in view of its past record? Does the Minister also agree that, although it is open to investigation, at the moment the council in no way warrants any form of criticism?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, I assume from what has already been said this afternoon, and is frequently said in this House, that the British Council is not subject to great criticism; on the contrary, it is usually much praised in your Lordships' House. The council undertook a review of its activities over the next five years on its own initiative, not at the prompting of the FCO; nor was it an exercise about saving money.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, will my noble friend take steps to ensure that the British Council is thoroughly aware of the prevailing mood in the United Kingdom, which is fundamentally against any further tampering with the British passport?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, I make two points in response: first, I am not sure that that is one of the responsibilities of the British Council; secondly, I know of no plans to tamper with the British passport.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, perhaps I may preface my remarks by sending my best wishes to the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, for early recovery from her current indisposition.

On these Benches we have over the years strongly supported the work of the British Council. Given that the interests of this country are to be reflected in the fact that more than half our earnings come from outside the European Union and that the vast proportion of our investment income is outside western Europe, we are happy to see the British Council reflect those interests in the pattern of its work. Will she do nothing at all to discourage the British Council from building up its work in Asia, eastern Europe and the Latin American area, and ensure that the balance is maintained between our proper interests in Europe and our even greater interests on the global scene?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Howell, for his good wishes to my noble friend Lady Scotland. We hope very much that the noble Baroness will be back with us shortly, if not tomorrow, perhaps the next day.

I welcome the good things that the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said about the British Council. While it is for the British Council to make decisions as to how it is best advised to use its resources over the next five years, I believe it has taken wise decisions, very much along the lines indicated the noble Lord, Lord Howell. For example, it will expand its activities in both Russia and China. The British Council has a very good record for being very realistic and adjusting to the new demands of the world order. I have no reason to suppose that that position will change in the future.

Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her kind explanation of the British Council's review. I should like to add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, for her chairmanship of the British Council and for the way in which she has carried out the review. Nonetheless, although the Government have done better by the British Council than the previous government, I believe that the Government should put further funding into the British Council.

I welcome the Government's commitment to central and eastern Europe. I have seen the Government's work in Romania. However, I beg the Government to put more finance behind the all essential work in western Europe, as my noble friend Lord Watson mentioned.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, as a result of this year's spending review, the Council will receive a £25 million increase in its grant in aid over the next three years. I believe the Government are doing as much as they can for the British Council for the moment.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the British Council has done some excellent work in central and eastern Europe, not just in terms of English language training, but also in arranging conferences and seminars dealing with the needs of the European Union accession countries? Will she ensure that the Government give their encouragement to that work?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, that is an important part of the work of the British Council. It will look, especially in Europe, at helping countries which are in their transition to democracy, including many of the European Union applicant countries.

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