18 November 2021
James Cleverly responds to debate on the British Council and opportunities for Global Britain

James Cleverly, Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, responds to an Adjournment Debate on the opportunities to promote global Britain through the British Council which plays a vital role in enhancing our standing in the world through teaching English and promoting UK arts and culture across the globe.

The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa (James Cleverly)

I am genuinely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for securing this debate. It gives me great pleasure to see that Essex Members of Parliament now represent the majority of those in the House this afternoon. I thank my hon. Friend for the hard work that he puts in as the chair of the British Council all-party parliamentary group, and the hard work that the other members of the APPG put in, particularly on the group’s recent report on opportunities for global Britain. I also pay tribute to my good, right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who I am willing to make an honorary member of the Essex mafia this afternoon for his thoughtful contribution.

Bob Stewart 

I want to correct the Minister. I do not need to be an honorary member of the Essex mafia, as I am a member of the Essex mafia; I spent 10 years at Chigwell School.

James Cleverly 

That makes you the odd one out, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I am sure that we will forgive you.

The Government are determined that Britain will remain an outward-looking nation that is positive and patriotic, and demonstrates leadership and innovation, and I assure the House that the British Council is a key part of that. Its mission is to teach English, and to promote UK education, arts and culture across the globe. In doing so, as my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay said, it showcases our strength and values, but it also builds trust and opportunities between nations. The APPG report rightly identifies the British Council as one of the UK’s real assets, and that position is reflected in our own integrated review, which was published earlier this year. The review recognises the British Council as a key aspect of our global influence.

For 85 years, the British Council has boosted Britain’s status as a cultural superpower. Its programmes reach 790 million people in more than 100 countries every year, and it plays a vital role in enhancing our standing in the world. It forges connections, understanding and trust between the UK and other countries. That trust is already strong, and the council’s recent report on soft power noted that the UK is ranked first among G20 nations for overall attractiveness and second in the G20 for trust. The British Council adds significant value in this respect. When the council is involved in cultural and educational exchanges, trust in the UK increases by 16% on average. I am sure that the House will agree that it is more vital now than ever—as we work with our allies to promote democracy and collaborate on the very biggest challenge that the world faces— that we enhance this global trust.

My hon. Friend highlighted in his speech further opportunities to promote global Britain through the British Council. The APPG report identified potential key partners in the Indo-Pacific and sub-Saharan Africa, among others. The council has ambitious targets designed to take advantage of these opportunities. By 2025, it plans to reach 140 million English language learners and attract 600,000 international students here to the UK. It also hopes to connect to 30 million people with UK arts and culture, either in person or remotely—for example, by visiting our world-beating film and arts festivals in cinemas and galleries, or indeed online.

Next year, as we host the Commonwealth games and mark the Queen’s platinum jubilee, the British Council will lead international partnerships in education and the arts, including work to connect young people across the whole Commonwealth. School twinning schemes and cross-curricular programmes will boost understanding of our values and aspirations, including the education of women and girls, which remains a core Government priority. Her Majesty the Queen’s 70 years of service and leadership have also inspired the British Council. From its alumni the council will build a network of young, inspiring women leaders across the Commonwealth, who will develop projects to address the global challenges still faced, sadly, by many women and girls.

Meanwhile, advisory committees for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland support the British Council as an institution for the whole of the United Kingdom. They help to shape programmes and priorities and ensure there is a clear focus on all aspects of the UK’s rich culture. For example, the British Council’s Go Digital programme includes collaboration between artists and art organisations in Wales and sub-Saharan Africa. Go Digital aims to develop and showcase the arts, which have suffered so much during the pandemic. The council also works to forge connections between Northern Ireland and other societies emerging from conflict—for example, offering insights into the issues that fuelled conflicts in Northern Ireland, India, Lebanon, Sierra Leone and South Africa. Students are encouraged to turn these lessons into creative expression.

Bob Stewart 

I thank the Minister for allowing me to intervene a second time. What he has said is really grist to the mill, because the British Council is a huge success, as he would accept. The British Council has actually survived, somehow, during the pandemic. Goodness knows how country directors are able to budget during the pandemonium that has been the past two years, but somehow they have. So it does seem strange that with the success that the British Council has had in soft power terms and in floating what a great place the United Kingdom is, we are prepared to scrap 10 locations—actually, a total of 20. May I plead with the Minister to get Government to make a decision to rescind the orders so that those 20 centres remain in being, if that is possible now?

James Cleverly 

I will address the situation with regard to funding and our footprint shortly.

Together with the University of Edinburgh, the council is developing an online course, open to all, on sustainable living. This touches on key issues that connect us, from climate change to gender equality, health and inclusion, encouraging informed personal responses.

With regard to the funding situation, sadly, like so many organisations, as my hon. and gallant Friend mentioned, the British Council has been acutely affected by the impact of covid-19. More than 90% of its teaching and exam centres were shut at the height of the pandemic. It has done a genuinely exceptional job of rapidly expanding its digital services, including online teaching platforms, in response to this crisis. We continue to work closely with the council as it builds back from the pandemic. We share its ambition to innovate and to increase its digital capacity even further. I was very pleased recently to meet the British Council’s new CEO, Scott McDonald, who brings a genuine wealth of commercial experience from his previous roles. In partnership with the council’s chairman, Stevie Spring, I have no doubt that Scott will bring the strong leadership needed to drive forward the council’s transformation and put it on a sustainable future-facing footing.

Sadly, as with so many organisations, the pandemic also had a devastating impact on the British Council’s commercial activities and therefore its finances. The Government remain committed to the council’s future success, and I am confident that it will emerge stronger than ever. The funding we secured through the 2021-22 spending review demonstrates that commitment. Since the start of the pandemic we have allocated more than £600 million to ensure that the British Council can continue to deliver on our priorities during this uniquely challenging time. Earlier this year, the council, as has been said, announced that it will stop spending grant in aid funding in 11 countries. In a further nine, it will deliver grant in aid programmes remotely from other countries. These decisions were taken in partnership with the council, focusing on where it can achieve the biggest impact.

Mr Baron 

First, I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments about those at the British Council, who will be heartened to hear what he says. I know it will not be strange to them, but it is nice to hear it from the Dispatch Box all the same. I concur with his comments about the new chief executive Scott McDonald and Stevie Spring, too. They will bring a lot to the British Council at this important time. I hear what he says about the figures, and one does not dispute the moneys put into the British Council as its commercial activities collapsed, but the Government were still £10 million short of what was required to keep those 20 country operations fully operational, and that was the crime there. When one spoke with Ministers, there was no problem at all—they got it—but it still translated into a £10 million cut. The fear is that something similar will happen now going forward.

James Cleverly 

My hon. Friend raises the prospect of additional closures, and I understand his concern about that. The simple truth is that we continue to operate, notwithstanding the spending review allocation, in a challenging financial context. We continue to work closely with the British Council on the implications of the 2022 to 2025 spending review. I assure him that the funding settlement has not yet been finalised, and any decisions that we make will be in close consultation with the British Council. We will continue to work with the British Council on its future strategy to ensure that it continues to deliver not only excellence but maximum value and maximum impact.

Mr Baron 

I appreciate my right hon. Friend’s generosity in giving way again, but we have a little bit of time, without wishing to detain the House for too long. I accept what he has just said, because I know he is a decent fellow, but my worry is that this message, despite his exalted position in the FCDO, does not translate, frankly, because it did not translate last time. May I tease him a little to see whether he can go further? Would he wish to see further closures in the British Council, as we have seen in the past?

James Cleverly 

Mr Deputy Speaker, you can see the political chess moves, the political judo and the political jujitsu that my hon. and gallant Friend is performing. I know he would want me to provide assurances in strict financial terms. Sadly I am not able to do that at the Dispatch Box at this moment, but the assurance that I can give him is that the hugely positive impact that the British Council has on the lives of people around the world, as well as the hugely positive impact it has on the UK’s standing around the world, are not lost on anyone. I enjoyed a very good conversation with the new CEO. I can assure my hon. Friend that I will continue to work with the new CEO and the rest of the leadership team at the British Council to ensure we protect the excellence that this organisation delivers. I would wish, were budgets infinite, to have a British Council presence everywhere—I know that is a cheeky response to a bit of a cheeky question—but sadly we do not live in an environment of infinite resource.

My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point about Afghanistan and our commitment to helping those Afghans who helped us, including through their employment or work with the British Council. The FCDO remains in close and regular contact with the British Council’s management about the cases of eligible staff and contractors and their dependants in Afghanistan. Applications from British Council contractors for resettlement will of course have to be considered on a case-by-case basis. We will work across Government to find a way of expediting any decisions made, so that we can provide assistance as quickly as possible.

Mr Baron 

I thank my right hon. Friend for being generous in giving way. Of course I do not doubt his words, but what seems to be happening is a disconnect between Departments. This week in the House the Defence Secretary, who is a good man, said he thought it was more a responsibility for the FCDO. This situation needs gripping, because the sense is that bureaucracy is getting in the way. There are 200 level 1 and level 2 applicants for the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme, and the paperwork is simply not being produced.

James Cleverly 

I completely understand my hon. Friend’s point. The repatriation work through Afghanistan has proved to be one of the most difficult and technically complicated, and in many instances very sensitive operations we have had to work. It is inevitable that we have to work across and exchange information between Departments.

Ensuring that individuals who worked for organisations that came under the remit of the FCDO, but whose resettlement cases might be facilitated through the Ministry of Defence, will of course mean that we will continue to need to work cross-departmentally, as we have done. I pay genuine tribute to my colleagues in the Home Office, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and, of course, the Ministry of Defence, who I know are passionate about this and work tirelessly, often with incomplete information. We will continue working with them on that.

To conclude, as we all work tirelessly to promote global Britain, our partnership with the British Council remains vital. We will continue to support it as it brings people together across nations, through arts, culture, education and, perhaps most importantly, the English language. In this way, by showcasing our values and delivering opportunities, we will build connections, understanding and trust.