HL Deb 09 March 2004 vol 658 cc1119-22

2.57 p.m.

Lord Harrison asked Her Majesty's Government:

In the light of their announcement concerning expanded MI5 recruitment, whether they are content that there are sufficient graduates of non-European languages to meet MI5's requirements and the continuing needs of MI6 and Government Communications Headquarters.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, the intelligence services all run active and successful recruitment campaigns which attract candidates with qualifications in hard non-European languages and from various ethnic backgrounds. Where necessary, the security and intelligence agencies work closely together to bolster language capability, and of course language graduates are not the only source of recruits with fluent foreign language skills.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Nevertheless, is my noble friend worried that some universities are closing courses teaching non-European foreign languages, not because of a lack of suitably qualified students but because the courses are expensive to run? Is she further worried by the closure of the East Asian Studies Department at Durham University, which currently produces one-sixth of our Chinese and Japanese linguists? This will make it even more difficult to recruit suitable applicants for MI5, MI6 and GCHQ.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I understand my noble friend's anxiety in relation to this matter, but I can certainly assure him that the Higher Education Funding Council for England has a programme of support for minority subjects to provide special funding where it is satisfied that continuing provision is in the national interest but might be at risk. As to the University of Durham, I am aware that it closed its Department of East Asian Studies in September 2003 and that this has generated a deal of publicity. However, universities are autonomous organisations with responsibility for their own financial and academic decisions. I understand that the provision of language training in this regard is an issue which is still under consideration at Durham.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, is it not the case that even more serious than the dearth of British graduates is the dearth of British teachers in these subjects? In a letter only last week, Sir James Craig, Arabist and former ambassador, tells me that in Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh and SOAS, the professors of Arabic are all Syrian, Palestinian, Dutch or German; and that of the entire membership of the British Society of Middle Eastern Studies—the "British" society—barely one-third are home-grown British scholars. Will the Government address this whole issue with a sense of urgency—and, indeed, the whole issue of foreign language teaching in general in this country?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I can reassure noble Lords that the Government are taking the matter very seriously. I have already referred to the work undertaken by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Over the past three years, it has provided £3 million of funding for 35 minority subjects in different institutions. The Higher Education Funding Council for England intends to undertake a review of the arrangements for minority subjects in 2004—that is, this year. As a result of the review, I understand it is likely that institutions will have the opportunity to bid for additional funding to support subjects of strategic importance. The figures may have dipped, but I understand that those for people undertaking these studies have started to rise, which we are very pleased about.

Lord Watson of Richmond

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the balance of experience over the last few years is that intelligence gathered from human sources is of greater value than that gathered from satellite and technological sources and that in that regard language ability is crucial? Does she further agree that beyond intelligence gathering, if we are to have a real dialogue between cultures, it is essential that the learning of Arabic is greatly strengthened in this country?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord about the importance of language, particularly as we are living in a very multi-cultural, multinational community. That is why the Government have made such strenuous efforts to enhance the learning of various languages and wholly support its promotion.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that the intelligence agencies benefit from a new recruit only after a substantial period of learning the job, and that the time to train linguists is before they are needed? Is work being done to ensure that we know the linguistic skills that are likely to be needed over the next decade?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I have already mentioned the strategy that we have taken in terms of learning additional languages. That strategic approach has started to bear fruit—the figures indicate an upward trend, having gone down for a number of years. We congratulate all those who are involved in the teaching and promotion of an interest in others' languages.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, the noble Baroness has given us a number of very interesting figures for England and Wales. Does she not have in her brief the very important figures for Scotland, where a good deal of this goes on and there are problems?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I do not have the figures for Scotland. As the noble Baroness knows, the Scottish have the benefit of their own education system, and I am unable to give those figures in relation to England and Wales.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, can we safely presume that there is no age limit on recruitment and therefore that everyone is welcome?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, for the security services, the age limit is between 18 and 60. I can reassure noble Lords that if they have specific linguistic qualifications, then all will be considered, irrespective of age.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that the Government are taking sufficient steps to target vacancies in the security services among British citizens with mother-tongue knowledge of the languages in which there is currently a shortage of recruits?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I can. There are a number of opportunities for recruitment to the intelligence and security agencies. They are interested in recruiting a diverse workforce, and vacancies are advertised regularly across a broad spectrum of the press, including the ethnic minority press. The Security Service runs regular recruitment programmes employing recruitment consultants and attending recruitment fairs. It has also notified Jobcentre Plus of its requirements for those with a linguistic skill. Those interested in joining might also visit the Security Service website. So I encourage noble Lords to entertain the prospect.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, does the Minister agree that in view of the critical situation, the time has come to appoint another Parry-style inquiry into the extent of the provision in this country of overseas centres? I suspect that many of those centres, in Durham and elsewhere, have atrophied over the last three decades. The time has come for something more than having the universities funding council look at the issue.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord says, and I am sure that my colleagues at the Department for Education and Skills will take it into account. However, I reiterate what I said earlier: a strategic approach has been applied, and it is bearing fruit. The figures are going up—at last, some people will say—and the trend seems to be being sustained. That must be something to celebrate.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

My Lords, pursuant to the question of my noble friend Lady Carnegy, since MI5 is a national body, is it really sensible for the Government not to know what resources are available in Scotland?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, it is not that I do not know—I do not answer questions in relation to educational establishments. Noble Lords will know that I am not able to answer for other reasons in relation to the strategies used by the Security Service to get its information and recruits from elsewhere. I cannot, therefore, identify specific matters. I am very happy to write to noble Lords to give such information as I may, in future, be able to disclose with propriety, in due course.

Back to
Forward to