Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 80)



  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 it.
  (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 to see—

  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?

Mr Rowlands

  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 embassy itself.
  (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 French.

  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 prospect.

  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 on.

  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 Council.
  (Mr Green) We are not putting all our eggs in one basket.

  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.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 19 April 2001