Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 99)



Mr Olner

  80. I have one quick one on that issue. Do you not think that the Net and all this IT based stuff starts to dissipate the Britishness of the British Council?
  (Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws) I went into this with the same sort of scepticism because I happen to believe that the great strength of the British Council is about making the people to people contact, that it is all about connection between people, and if you do it online it is never the same. For me it would not be the same. The interesting thing is you use it as an enhancer of that stuff that the British Council has traditionally been doing and the Britishness does not get lost because you use it as another tool in that wonderful work that the British Council does.

  81. I want to go to a question not directly linked to the Madrassa schools. I think you used the words "national identity" and I want to come back to the Connecting Futures initiative. The British Council has offices in East Jerusalem, Gaza, Hebron, Nablus and Ramallah. How have operations in the West Bank and Gaza been affected by recent events in the region?
  (Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws) The reality is that it is not possible to function at the moment.

  82. Closed down, finished?
  (Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws) None of our people left, all of our people are there. It is a source of pride to us that through September 11 and the whole period afterwards in all those Islamic countries where in many places, let me assure you, other organisations and institutions or whatever pulled people out, our people stayed in there. They were given a choice but most of them stayed in their places, in fact I do not know anybody who did not, because they believe that we are there for the long-term and that trust meant we were not attacked or anything. There we are on the West Bank and our people cannot function. In the building in Ramallah five people were killed. We are on a different floor but on the floor below five people were shot. We have had horrible experiences and our people have had a very, very rough time seeing up close what has been happening but they have stayed there. We cannot teach, we cannot do any of the things that we do, the infrastructure has been sorely damaged and there is a great deal of distress about how the operation has been undermined by the events.

  Mr Olner: It would perhaps be useful for the Committee to have a short written comment on those difficulties that you have just outlined.


  83. And the work in the West Bank generally.
  (Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws) We would be really happy to do that for you.[3] One of our colleagues in the Secretariat is just about to go out there to work and does not know whether there will be a job to do.

Sir John Stanley

  84. Baroness Kennedy, in the last Parliament you were conspicuously successful in persuading Treasury ministers to bring about a substantial increase in real terms in the funding going to the British Council and in that, as you will remember, you were strongly supported by this Committee. In the last spending round, however, the Treasury knocked back your bid very significantly. What was the reason for that? Has there been a change of view in terms of the Treasury's willingness to support the British Council?
  (Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws) I am going to ask for further and better particulars. When you say that the Treasury knocked us back, I am sorry but I am not sure that I follow what you are saying.

  85. Our own staff told us that the British Council only received about a third of the funds that it asked for from the Treasury in the last Spending Review. Are we correctly advised or wrongly advised?
  (Mr Green) We did not get the full amount of our bid last time around but we received a 9.1 per cent real term increase.[4]

  (Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws) Which was the big increase that you have spoken of. We have not not received the amount that we were promised. I think it is maybe not reading as—

  86. We will explore that further with our staff if we may. As of now you take the view that the Treasury is going to be hopefully as supportive of the British Council in this Parliament as it was in the last?
  (Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws) One always lives in hope, Sir John, as you know. I suspect that we will be battling with many others because there are particular pressures on the Treasury given domestic commitments, but I suspect even on the bit that will be allocated for things overseas a lot of that budget will be going to the Ministry of Defence and we understand that there will be quite a large call on security for embassies in places. You see it in our applications for the Spending Review and we say in fact on the arguments for the work that we do, strengthening dialogue, strengthening connections between people, that if ever there was a time for doing it it is now and, therefore, not a time for reducing money. We are hoping that our arguments will still be heard with sympathetic ears, particularly where we are putting up at the top of our Spending Review application the need for more money for work in those parts of the world where clearly there are issues. The Islamic world clearly feels very dislocated from the West on many fronts and we feel that we should be doing much more in trying to make bridges for better dialogue. We also feel that Africa cannot be left behind and you will see that we have made a special argument for funding for the things that we specifically can do better than anybody for Africa. We are hoping that those arguments will fall on sympathetic ears particularly.

  87. Can you just clarify within the overall bid which you have made, which is obviously a substantial one, a significant real terms increase over each of the three financial years, how much of that has been necessitated by your increased security requirements?
  (Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws) You will find that it is not a significant amount at all.
  (Mr Green) Three million.
  (Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws) If you look on the back page.
  (Mr Green) It is three million in the first year.
  (Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws) I wonder if colleagues have received this?


  88. No. Certainly we have not seen it.
  (Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws) We had this sent to all Members of Parliament. It is a Spending Review outline. On the back page it breaks down what our arguments are for different sums of money. You will see that security is our lowest, three million. One of the things—

Sir John Stanley

  89. May I say that it is very helpful to have that break down.
  (Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws) We have created this booklet. We are very good at inexpensively creating in-house desktop publishing, we are proud of the fact that we can do it so inexpensively, and it is one of our great strengths. We thought it would be useful for everyone to see simply what the arguments are for our proposals and the sums of money and why we feel it is not, if you like, an over-egging of our application.

  90. Can I ask you about a specific area which is a very important activity worldwide for the British Council which is supporting English language, people wishing to acquire the English language. In that area I am certainly aware that you face substantial competition from the Americans, the Canadians, and in Asia from the Australians. Would I be right in saying that certainly in Asia in particular the British Council is facing a losing battle in trying to get British spoken and written English accepted and increasingly those who are learning English are learning American English?
  (Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws) We would like to think that we are still putting up a very strong fight and that we compete rather well despite the challenges. Is there anything, Andrew, you want to say on that?
  (Mr Fotheringham) Still our centres in places such as Hong Kong and Singapore remain the most vital of our English teaching centres around the world. The British Council is recognised as an exemplar for teaching methodologies and it is seen as a model which other countries wish to emulate.[5]

  (Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws) We are conscious all the time that there is competition coming from other quarters. One of the things that we have found, for example, in China too is that there is sometimes a preference for coming to Britain for English because somehow there is a feeling that the authentic product must be received from here but it is also about the way in which the teaching takes place and the quality of the teaching is very high. We are still able to hold our own but we are conscious all the time that we are in a very competitive world for that.

  91. Do you think that there is a significant risk taking, say, a five or ten year view that the world will increasingly standardise outside the UK on American English, American wording, American spelling? There is plenty of evidence of ever increasing divergence between American English and British English.
  (Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws) To be resisted at all costs. This goes back to some of the questions from other colleagues about the use of technology. One of the things that we have as a great strength is that we create our own materials, our software is wonderful, so it means that people do consider what is on offer from the British Council as being the best at what it does. While we still manage to hone that great talent to be the best at that, even if it is not the cheapest, people will still come to it because of the quality of what is on offer. First of all I am not worried about the challenge as long as we can keep being ahead of the game and you can never rest on your laurels. The other thing is that challenge will be made about the homogenisation of language but I do think it should be resisted and we certainly do resist it in the way that it is taught inside the British Council. What we find is that people want the real thing.
  (Mr Green) Can I just add that the other spin-off is that because of the fact that we go for the high end of the market and we try and teach English in the best possible way and we only employ native English speakers to teach English that also has the effect of raising the standards of the other English language teaching bodies, both commercial and state bodies, so it has that other spin-off benefit as well.


  92. India presents very special problems and perhaps some of the greatest concerns about the quality of spoken and written English is in respect of India where there are 1.2 billion and rising with good basic English and highly educated people. Are there any particular problems in India that you can draw our attention to?
  (Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws) No, and one of the wonderful things in India is there is a real sense and a strong feeling that they know the difference between English English and American English.

  93. Is that just the older generation?
  (Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws) No, it has been passed on. There is a very strong sense that people want to speak English as Shakespeare wrote it, or not quite. Certainly they want to speak real English. One of the alarm calls from India though, and I ring this bell to this Committee, is that many young, very clever Indians are choosing to go to do their PhDs in America and it is partly because there are such good opportunities on offer. In January when we had the Science Fair and the Prime Minister came to open this science festival and all of our great scientists were there, the Nobel Laureate and so on, we met with lots of young scientists who came from the universities and different research institutions and I went to visit some of them as well as we spread out to do it. That was one of the alarming things, as you spoke to them and said "where did you do your PhD?" they had all been to universities all over the length and breadth of the United States. When you asked them why they said they could get online, they could get in touch with the University of Minnesota and would immediately be offered accommodation, some finance and funding for living there and wonderful research facilities, laboratories and so on which would not be on offer in India. They are brilliant young scientists, to collaborate with them would be wonderful for us and it is a great shame that we are missing them.

  94. We are losing out on some of the best IT people from Bangalore, no doubt to America, so what are we doing to meet this competition?
  (Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws) One of the things that I think we should be doing is speaking to your Committee with the world of higher education about how we could try to make offers much more competitive because we are just not able to compete with the United States.

  95. Are we not able to give a package? Are universities not able to say "here is accommodation, here are sources of funding, here is the answer to all the practical questions you are raising"?
  (Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws) In very, very limited ways. The numbers of scholarships that are available, as you know, are very limited. Although efforts go on to try to encourage this we have to rethink all of that in a much more radical way.

Sir John Stanley

  96. Just for the record to clarify my earlier remark about the Treasury knocking you back by one-third, the source of that is your own memorandum which was before the Committee at its evidence session on 30 January 2001 and that covered the period 2001-02 to 2003-04. Your memorandum says "As you can see, in the final year of the next Spending Review period the additional funding which the Council will receive amounts to roughly a third of the amount which we had originally asked for" and that year was 2003-04. You apparently asked for £37 million in that year and the amount awarded was £13 million.
  (Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws) Probably we were being too clever for our own good in pointing up that we did not get all that we had wanted. I remember being very bold the last time I was here in front of you all and putting sums out as to what it was that I felt the British Council really needed. It is right to say that we did not get exactly what I would have said the Council needed for its remit but we still were very content that we had a considerable increase on anything we had had before. To some extent it was putting right a lot of the periods of shortfall, if you like, where we had not done very well in the past. Of course, as you see, the money was set out over different periods so in that period you have referred to in real terms in fact we were getting a third less than we would have wanted, so of course we would stamp our feet that we did not get all that was on offer but we certainly did much better than we had ever done in the past.
  (Mr Green) Can I just add that in real terms we are still below the figure that the British Council received in 1994-95 before the significant cuts. With this settlement it would bring us back up to those levels.

Mr Olner

  97. I just re-emphasise that you said 1994-95. We want to get the record straight. Thank you very much for that booklet you have given us. The financial summary is set out very, very clearly on page 20. Given that Connecting Futures has an extremely high growth year on year on year, if you are not successful in getting that money from the Government who is going to lose out if you keep Connecting Futures? Is that a big priority?
  (Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws) It is rather like Mark Byford said to you earlier, that when you design your aspirations for the future and you put sums against it then if you do not get what you had hoped to get you then have to have a whole reconfiguration. What I would say is we would have to go back to the charts and to the graphs and try to work out how we could seek to deliver some of those aspirations on a much tighter budget.

  98. So there are no areas already earmarked within your figures as lower areas of priority, there are no areas where you think you have been in, done the work and it is time to move on and leave them?
  (Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws) The truth is that is not the case. I walk the corridors here and I am grabbed by your colleagues who say to me "you are not doing enough in" and then everybody has got their pet area of the world which they feel is being sorely neglected. The Caribbean gets very, very little money and very little out of the resourcing of the British Council and yet is a place that we should probably be doing more in. There are other places in the world where our presence is about doing a certain amount of English language teaching or something similar but where we have really had to cut it to the bone. In some places we have pulled out. As you know, over the last period we have withdrawn from Uruguay and other places.[6] There are not places where we can say "been there, done that, let us move on", I think we have been through that and scythed out what we could. Now we have to say is there any way in which we could deliver any of this without as much ambition, if you like, and I think it is a great sadness if we have to curtail that ambition.

  (Mr Green) Having said that, over the period of the next five years we are going to reallocate £18 million of the grant from low priority activity to high priority activity, what the Treasury calls "churn". We have looked very carefully and through the process of the strategy that I came to talk to this Committee about last year we have done a very careful review of where we can make most impact and where we can be most beneficial. We have reorganised and reallocated our resources as a result of that process.

  99. Can I say that "churn" is not a very in-word. An in-word is on-digital or—
  (Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws) Very manual.

3   Ev 34. Back

4   Ev 35. Back

5   Ev 33. Back

6   Note by Witness: Over the last period we have withdrawn from Ecuador, Lesotho and Swaziland, not Uruguay. Back

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