Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)



Mr Rowlands

  1. Mr Green, welcome to you and your colleagues. The British Council is well known to this Committee; we have worked quite closely together for a very long period of time. Perhaps you might introduce your two colleagues and then I gather you would like to make a brief statement.

  (Mr Green) Good morning and thank you for giving us this opportunity to tell you about the new strategy we have developed for The British Council. With me are Robin Baker, on my right, who is Director, Europe, and Andrew Fotheringham, on my left, who is Director, Planning Research and Evaluation. Dr Baker has served in South Africa, in Hungary, Greece and most recently in Russia. Mr Fotheringham has worked in Nigeria, Singapore and most recently India. I joined The British Council in July 1999 from Save the Children and VSO. May I just say that Baroness Helena Kennedy is extremely sorry not to be with us today, but in her lawyer's capacity she is conducting an appeal in the House of Lords. I just want to thank you for the strong support you give the Council and in particular your recent support for the spending review submission which we made. The settlement was the best the Council had received for many years, since the early 1990s, and will be very helpful in implementing the strategy. The separate line in the Treasury White Paper was a landmark for The British Council. The White Paper specified that additional grant should be spent on extending work in China and Russia and in increasing our use of information and communications technology. From time to time organisations have to take a close look at themselves and take account of the changing circumstances. When I arrived it was clear to me that the Council had to make some significant changes if it was to retain its strong reputation and continue to be really effective. We needed to respond firstly to the external environment, the geopolitical shift which had occurred since the end of the cold war and the breakup of the FSU, the needs of and the opportunities which the emerging democracies offer, globalisation and the technological revolution, which give us the ability to reach many, many more people and recognition of the increasing power and importance of public diplomacy. Secondly, the internal environment. British Council has been running on empty for some time now and there is an urgent need for us to invest in our staff, in our premises and resolve some of the pressing health and safety issues and to invest in information technology. I believe that we have developed a robust strategy which will ensure that The British Council remains a strong and effective instrument in the UK's international relations alongside our political, commercial and development efforts. It builds on our strengths as a people to people contact organisation, through the arts, governance, education, science, information and its language teaching. Finally, may I say how much the staff of The British Council value your visits to our operations and the interest you show in our work. It goes without saying that we take very careful note of the recommendations as evidenced by our plans for China, Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus.

  2. The review of your structure and strategy is best described as root and branch, is it not? What we want to try to find out this morning is what roots and what branches there are once the strategy is put in place. Before doing so, could you just tell us where the impetus for reform of the structure comes from? Was it your arrival? Did you bring this impetus? Secondly, what is the role and function of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office? How were they involved in it, was impetus coming from them as well?
  (Mr Green) The impetus came partly from me but there was a recognition within The British Council as a whole that we had to look carefully at what we were doing for the reasons I have just outlined in terms of the changes both externally and the internal imperatives. What we did was to take a careful look at the 110 countries in which we were operating and one or two others, such as Iran and Libya, where we felt we should be operating. We looked at them all in terms of the relationship between those countries and the United Kingdom and how important it was from the perspectives of political, commercial, historical links and our ability to make an impact in each of those countries. It was not a science; it was very much an art form. We had to make judgements, but those judgements gave us a guide as to where we should be working, where we should be investing our resources. We had some very difficult decisions to make in Africa and in western Europe, which you will probably want to come onto. In terms of the relationship with the FCO, they are our sponsoring Department and we talked to them and to the management board of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to seek their advice on what we were doing and thankfully they were supportive of the measures we have taken.

  3. When you discussed these judgements and assessments you had to make were those British Council assessments, or were they FCO assessments and then you worked out how your strategy would fit into their assessment of priorities?
  (Mr Green) No, they are first and foremost British Council assessments, agreed by the British Council board, which is independent of the Foreign Office, though we naturally must work closely with the Foreign Office, so we sought their advice.

  4. Who in the end? There will be disagreements, there will be differences of view, differences of perception between yourselves and the FCO.
  (Mr Green) In the end we would make the decision and if that was contrary to the advice of the Foreign Office then we would have to live with the consequences. We would try to avoid that at all costs, but in the end we might have to do that.

  5. In the process of this review, did any important or serious differences arise on perception and emphasis?
  (Mr Green) No; there was a lot of robust discussion, but in the end there was support for what we were doing and a recognition that this was the right way forward.

  6. You said there were difficult decisions to take and in any structural changes and any future strategy it inevitably happens that you end up having losers and gainers, you have trade-offs in a sense, do you not, to make a new strategy work or affordable? What was the nature of these difficult decisions? Can you identify for us the key difficult decisions that your new strategy or your new structural proposals threw up?
  (Mr Green) Certainly. There was a recognition that we should be shifting some resources further eastwards and that we should be working more strongly in central Asia and eastern Europe. In order to do that we had to release resources from elsewhere. There is a shift, as you can see, from western Europe to further east. In terms of the difficult decisions, it is always very difficult when you have to close either countries or offices within countries. It is fair to say that Africa was a difficult decision for us, although I am pleased to say that in terms of the overall amount of grant allocation to Africa it will remain roughly the same and will be better spent in terms of operational activity. In Africa we had a dual accountability, both to the Foreign Office and to DFID, then ODA, which is now clearer since we have one sponsoring Ministry. We had built up a platform in Africa based on ODA projects and what we found was that our infrastructure was actually too big for our needs.

  7. Because the DFID contribution was going down.
  (Mr Green) Yes, because the policy had changed and they were not seeking project managers of large projects, which we had become. So our infrastructure was too extensive and we had to make reductions there. We did come up with this model of hub and spoke.

  8. We shall come back to that a bit later.
  (Mr Green) That was an important breakthrough in terms of being able to operate in Africa. Making decisions and having to close in Africa, in Lesotho and Swaziland, were difficult, particularly difficult for me given my development background. We also decided that we would close in Belarus and in Ecuador—again difficult decisions—and similarly in western Europe, particularly in Germany where we have closed a number of offices outside Berlin—difficult but we think it is the right thing to do. In the long term we shall demonstrate that we shall be stronger for it.

Mr Chidgey

  9. I feel a little ill-informed at the moment. You started off by saying that you had to re-establish your priorities and Mr Rowlands used the expression "gainers and losers", yet from what you are saying you seem to be giving the inference that there were no losers in Africa. I am sorry, that does not seem very consistent. If you are re-establishing your priorities, clearly there are high priorities and there are lower priorities. It would occur to me from what you said that Africa has become a lower priority. I would certainly want to know from you and your colleagues on what basis you came to the decision that a continent like Africa should be a lower priority than the different continents like Asia and Europe.
  (Mr Green) I was not saying it was a lower priority, I was saying—

  10. If something is a higher priority, then something else must be a lower priority.
  (Mr Green) It was not a lower priority than currently.

  11. You changed your priorities.
  (Mr Green) It was not a lower priority than currently.

  12. You changed your priorities, was the expression you used.
  (Mr Green) No, what we were trying to do was release resources in order to be able also to cater for the demands we see in eastern Europe and central Asia.

  13. Are you saying you have additional resources, therefore Africa was not affected?
  (Mr Green) Most of the resources we are now putting into central Asia and eastern Europe are from reducing the amount of expenditure in Germany and France and Italy.

Mr Rowlands

  14. In this reallocation of resources, how much was saved in Germany, how much was saved from the alteration in the African effort? What sort of money are we talking about?
  (Mr Fotheringham) Our budget in sub-Saharan Africa will be reducing overall by about £500,000 in total.

  15. That is the sum total of "savings".
  (Mr Fotheringham) Yes, that is the net reduction there. The percentage of spend in Africa will remain approximately the same.

  16. Which is what?
  (Mr Fotheringham) That is about 13 per cent.

  17. Thirteen per cent of The British Council's budget.
  (Mr Fotheringham) Yes; it is currently 12 per cent. Over the next five years we see that remaining at about the same level.

  18. So £500,000.
  (Mr Fotheringham) Yes.

  19. It does not sound a lot to save. Where were the big savings?
  (Mr Fotheringham) The big savings were in western Europe where we have seen something like £4.5 to £5 million being removed from budgets in western Europe for redeployment elsewhere.

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