Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60
TUESDAY 30 JANUARY 2001
MR D GREEN,
DR R BAKER
60. Your Chairman comes with you, does she?
(Mr Green) Yes.
61. Is the chairmanship of The British Council
a paid post?
(Mr Green) Yes, it is.
62. How much?
(Mr Green) It receives an honorarium of £30,000.
63. I just want to touch on the logo. I want
to put to you that the logo has no Britishness at all. It also
does not have a functional purpose. If you are in a high street
somewhere, you cannot find The British Council but you can find
your other principal European Union partners. I do not want to
take up time; you might just want to think about that and test
(Mr Green) That is a point well taken. We do want
to look at the way in which we present The British Council because
there are confusions about all the different elements within The
British Council such as the Central Bureau and how they fit in
the overall British Council organisation and the logo will have
to be part of that.
64. In your note on Belarus you say "The
environment created by the regime severely limited the Council's
ability to achieve impact widely". Of course you are in many
difficult parts of the world. What was so unique and so constraining
about this one?
(Mr Green) We have been running an English language
teachers' centre there and there has been a problem over the status
of The British Council in Belarus. It has been unclear from the
start. Latterly we have been harassed and hounded and harried
by the Belarussian authorities and it was getting very, very difficult
for our staff to operate. The authorities gave us basically two
options: either to become a commercial organisation, which we
cannot do, or to go in with the embassy, which would have meant
that it was very difficult for us to operate a teachers' centre
and would have increased our costs. Added to that, it would not
have solved the issue of us wanting to work more with the pro-democracy
lobby within Belarus. In the end, sadly, we had to cut our losses
and take the decision to withdraw. Having said that, we are still
managing the Chevening scholarships for Belarus and there are
some regional academic partnerships which we manage on behalf
of DFID, which will continue, and some work is being done through
Connect Youth International, which is part of the Central Bureau.
65. In your statement you also say "The
relative lack of importance of Belarus to this country".
Who makes that assessment? I think that is highly challengeable.
This is the heart of Europe and a very fragile and difficult area,
where we are trying to promote what democracy can be achieved
there. Who made that judgement?
(Mr Green) The decision was based on both our ability
to make an impact and the issue of the relationship between the
UK and Belarus. The balance was more in terms of our ability to
make an impact.
66. Was it discussed with Ministers?
(Dr Baker) It was certainly discussed with the Foreign
and Commonwealth Office and we both concluded that Belarus was
not a high priority. That, coupled with the fact that the operating
environment was extremely difficult and our staff were actually
being harassed personally by the authorities, meant the status
quo was certainly untenable.
67. What about the impact withdrawing had on
those people trying to champion democracy and plurality? What
consideration was given to the actual act of withdrawal?
(Dr Baker) A great deal actually. It has to be said
that our operation in Belarus, because of the constraints on our
status or because of our status, meant that we were not able to
engage effectively with the pro-democracy groups. Our main contribution
to Belarus was in the area of English language teaching. We have
operated in Belarus since 1993, principally at supporting reform
through English language teaching. Interestingly in the correspondence
which our decision to withdraw has generated, we have had correspondence
from Belarus on English language teaching and from English language
teachers. To my knowledge we have not received any letters from
people in the pro-democracy camp.
68. What memoranda did you write or your Chairman
about the difficult decision to withdraw? If we were to ask the
Foreign Office for these, or you, would you be able to demonstrate
a robust discussion? You said a lot of robust discussion does
take place. Would we be able to see that in terms of minutes or
memoranda saying you had a difficulty, your staff were being harassed,
you had been asked to become a company, which you cannot do, etcetera,
all those things you have uttered? Would we be able to see that?
(Dr Baker) I do not know whether you would be able
69. I put it to you that my view is that this
is a crass decision by the United Kingdom, a mixture of the Foreign
and Commonwealth Office and yourselves, which sends all the wrong
signals. There have been numerous representations to us as politicians
from the people who are trying to maintain democracy there. You
work in other parts of the world, other parts of the world where
you are frustrated. You have problems in China. You do not pack
up and say goodbye. You have a duty and obligation to stand firm,
particularly, if you read the tealeaves, because there is a presidential
election one year away or less. At the very least I should have
thought that the Brits would have held out there to see how the
wind blew on that rather than throwing in the towel now. I put
that to you. I put it in quite robust terms but it seems to me
if I am being unfair, you should be able to demonstrate that all
these things were taken into consideration.
(Dr Baker) They certainly were. At the time we were
discussing the movements in the former Soviet Union. I have to
make a comment here, that we have actually announced a decision
to open in Armenia, we are increasing our budget and this is in
direct response to FAC recommendations in July 1999. We are increasing
by over 100 per cent our budgets in central Asia and in the south
Caucasus. So there has been a very vigorous response on the part
of The British Council to these concerns. Belarus is a very special
case. The discussion on Belarus and what we should do was taking
place during the last parliamentary elections in fact. We were
very mindful of the political environment in which we were making
decisions and we were also mindful with help from our FCO colleagues
about the possible ramifications of this decision. I would repeat
that we were left with a situation where the status quo
was totally untenable for our staff, for ourselves, and we could
not appear before you or appear before anyone and actually hand
on heart say we were having impact in Belarus in the areas where
we believe the UK needs to make impact. Our status was a major
inhibitor to being able to do that.
70. You keep returning to the harassment of
staff which deeply concerns me because we have an obligation.
You must have written to the British Ambassador and/or here saying
you had a great problem, your staff were being harassed. Did you
do that repeatedly and in quite definite terms?
(Dr Baker) We were in constant contact with the British
Ambassador in Minsk, we were in constant contact with the wider
Europe geographical command in the FCO.
Mr Mackinlay: Is Germany there still?
71. What about our European partners and the
United States? Have they also pulled out?
(Dr Baker) My understanding is that they have not
pulled out. The way they have chosen to operate is within the
embassy. They do not have the same burdens in terms of a need
to have a public access centre that we do.
72. Our European partners and the Americans
have actually pulled all their equivalent operations into the
(Dr Baker) I am not saying they have pulled them;
they were there anyway. I cannot speak for the Americans, I can
certainly make comments on what the Germans are doing and the
73. We are running out of time, but there are
two areas I should just like to cover, though we have been touching
on them: programmes and services generally. One is this very interesting
linkup with the World Service and World Bank in developing a partnership
arrangement and CELLS, Centres for English Language Learning Support.
You say you are going to have China as your pilot scheme for this
type of initiative. Is that right?
(Mr Green) Yes.
74. Why China?
(Mr Fotheringham) Mr Green referred earlier to the
difficulty we have in establishing a direct teaching centre in
China. We see English language work as a crucial part of what
we do in China, but there is an opportunity to work with a local
partner and with the BBC World Service, in fact with the China
Central Radio and Television University, to establish this centre
for English language learning support. What it will enable us
to do is to reach a much wider audience than we should have been
able to do through a direct teaching centre in either Beijing
or Shanghai. The China Central Radio and Television University
is effectively the Open University, so it has a very extensive
network throughout China. The idea is that we would develop materials
with partners both in the BBC and in the China Central Radio and
Television University for learning English in China. We would
also run some modular courses for primary teachers of English
and for young professionals wanting to study English for business
purposes. Some of the materials we would develop there could then
be used and disseminated more widely. It is a very attractive
75. How do you share the financial cost of it?
It is a tripartite partnership, yourself, the World Service and
the World Bank, is it?
(Mr Fotheringham) In this case it is the Chinese partner
who is the third party in the link rather than the World Bank.
It is the BBC World Service
76. How do you split the cost?
(Mr Fotheringham) The BBC, for example, are proposing
to fund a member of staff to work on the CELLS and The British
Council similarly will be doing that. The Chinese partner will
be contributing in kind its facilities and its staff time as well.
77. Do you have assurances from the Chinese
authorities that in terms of the content of your programmes which
might include human rights issues and the rest, there is going
to be no form of editing or interference in the content?
(Mr Fotheringham) This will form part of the contract
we draw up with the Chinese partner, together with the BBC World
Service and that will be taken into account at that stage. We
have not yet signed a contract. This is at the stage where we
are working up a proposal in detail and looking at the funding
implications and some of the implications of the type you touched
78. Your editorial independence will be guaranteed
as part of this contract, will it?
(Mr Fotheringham) I am sure that would not only be
our intention but that the BBC World Service would be very keen
to ensure that was the case.
(Mr Green) That would be a very important element.
We have worked with this Chinese partner for some years now and
built up a very good relationship, so we have every reason to
believe that the tripartite arrangement will work well. What it
does is bring together two British organisations which are well
trusted and well known within China and it combines both the best
experience of British Council in terms of its English language
teaching experience and the fact that we have networks on the
ground with the BBC with all their technical and programming experience.
So it is the BBC in the air and British Council on the ground.
79. You have laid a lot of emphasis, and indeed
it is central to the new strategy, on the investment in IT. You
are going down the IT route in a big way and one understands that.
Is there a concern that you can place too much reliance on IT
and that you are going to create a virtual British Council rather
than have a real high profile British Council which people can
see on the ground, whether in Africa or elsewhere? We can overestimate
the access to IT. You might get your opinion formers but I am
slightly worried right through your evidence that I can understand
why you are going for the elite and going for the opinion formers,
but British Council has always also been on the ground. It has
always been visible to people, not just on a screen or on the
internet, but actually visible to people. Are you sure the balance
is not going to be shifted too much in the direction of the modern
IT and away from being people-orientated?
(Mr Green) I absolutely agree with the point you are
making. We have to get the balance right. We are first and foremost
a people-to-people agency and that is how we built up our reputation
and trust over many, many years and that is very much the essence
of public diplomacy. We also feel that there are tremendous opportunities
to be able to reach more people and to supplement that face-to-face
experience. We feel we have to move forward and invest in this
area and we think that the people we are seeking to reach, which
is a younger professional audience, will have access to facilities
which will get them to what we produce. In places where connectivity
is much less available, such as in sub-Saharan Africa, we will
do that through the information centres we currently have but
also eventually through the knowledge and learning centres. We
want to invest in the knowledge and learning centre pilots, in
the CELLS pilots and also in producing information over the web,
whether that is portals to other information, whether it is the
LearnEnglish website which we have which helps people to access
English language learning, whether it is through MONTAGE, a curriculum
project which connects something like 60,000 schools across the
world and shares curriculum material. There are lots of benefits
which we have to utilise but your point is taken, we also have
to get the balance right and it must not be distorted.
80. You do want a real and not a virtual British
(Mr Green) We are not putting all our eggs in one
Mr Rowlands: Thank you very much indeed. May
we thank you as always? This Committee has always been passionately
interested in The British Council. I remember a head of state
lobbying me about opening a British Council office; we happened
to be in Armenia at the time. There there is some really welcome
news as well. Thank you very much indeed.