As one of our key conduits of soft power overseas, the British Council cannot be allowed to decline through a lack of funding and the further closure of offices overseas, writes John Baron MP.

The British Council is one of Britain's greatest assets. Since its foundation in 1934, it has done sterling work in promoting British culture and the English language abroad, along with promoting cultural exchanges and building trust between the UK and people in other countries. Along with the BBC World Service, it is a key contributor to Britain's status as a 'soft power superpower', a position it retains even amidst intense soft power competition from other countries, including China.

In usual times the British Council represents excellent value for money, receiving only 15 per cent of its income from the Government. This compares favourably to its French, German and Japanese equivalents, which receive 48 per cent, 62 per cent and 65 per cent from their governments respectively. This is in large part due to the British Council's commercial activities, such as the teaching of English and overseeing examinations abroad. Given the amount of influence it exerts and the trust it builds between the UK and other countries, it repays the Government's small investment many times over.

For these reasons, it was distressing when last year the Government allowed the situation to develop which will require the British Council to close down its operations in 20 countries – the largest set of closures in the organisation's near 90-year history. Most directly, this was caused by the various lockdowns worldwide, and especially in China, which caused the almost complete cessation of the Council's commercial activities which provide the lion's share of its income.

The Government provided a generous amount of financial support to tide the British Council over until the income from its commercial activities could return to pre-pandemic levels, estimated to be within in a few years. However, there was a shortfall of £10 million between the level of support offered by the Government and the costs of operating its overseas network.

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Once the Government made it clear it would not cover this £10 million, the British Council had to make some agonising decisions as to where to cease operations. In the end, this included pulling out of the other 'Five Eyes' nations of the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. It also included pulling out of Afghanistan, despite the enormous commitment the UK had made there over two decades, although events there soon eclipsed this decision.

This retreat from the international stage is unwelcome on many levels. It sends out very much the wrong message to friends and competitors alike, especially at a time when countries are watching Britain to see how we adjust to life outside the European Union. International politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and our competitors are not slow to take advantage of a vacated field, just as a trusted ally feels slighted when one of the most valued and visible symbols of Britain in their country closes down its operations and withdraws its staff.

Having just digested this unwelcome news, the British Council APPG were distressed to learn in the autumn that the British Council's discussions with its parent department, the FCDO, indicated that there would be a further cut in its funding allocations across the three years of the spending review – even as the FCDO's overall budget increases by 21 per cent over this period.

Since then, the APPG have been pushing the Government for clarity as to whether it is its intention to require the British Council to close a further 20 of its overseas offices (resulting in 40 closures in total), or whether this is an unintentional consequence of a wider decision. I have pursued this in the Commons Chamber, where in addition to my PMQ last month I held an Adjournment debate last November, and in discussions with the Foreign Secretary. These discussions continue.

Finally, there is another long-running issue which the British Council APPG has been pursuing -the plight of British Council contractors who are still in Afghanistan. These people did not work directly for the organisation and so were not airlifted out as part of Operation Pitting, but they still worked closely and identifiably for the British Council. Members of the APPG have received alarming correspondence from these people, some of whom are constantly on the move and in fear of their lives.

The announcement last month of the launch of the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme gives hope that there may be a resolution in sight for the contractors, although questions remain as to how long this process will take and how people will be invited to come forward for assistance. I await a promised meeting with ministers from the FCDO, MoD and Home Office to push for clarity on these and other points.

7 votes

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