My Lords, I am pleased to speak in this debate. I think that we all appreciate the importance of soft power in the modern world. We must therefore make friends and influence people overseas. I am very supportive of the BBC World Service and believe that it provides a truly valuable service, but I shall focus today on the work of the British Council.
The British Council is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities, building lasting relationships between the UK and other countries. The British Council has been building long-term trust, people-to-people connections and international opportunities for the UK for more than 80 years. Each year, it works with millions of people on six continents and in more than 100 countries. It is an essential part of our international effort to promote British values and interests.
I speak as someone who has benefited from the work of the British Council. Growing up in Uganda, I found the British Council to be an extremely helpful and informative organisation. The regional representative of the British Council used to come to our school to give talks. There was a British Council library in my home town, and I used to borrow books from it frequently. It was through the British Council that I learnt about Britain—its constitution, institutions and values. Indeed, my first knowledge of this House doubtless came as a result of the British Council. Little did I know that I would end up in your Lordships’ House one day—I would never have dreamt that when I was young?
I came to the UK to study by myself, and my family arrived later. When I came to Britain, I stayed in a British Council residence: first in Knightsbridge and, following that, in Lancaster Gate. The council also helped me to find private accommodation in London and once, when I was once in hospital following an injury, a lady from the British Council used to come to see me frequently.
I have nothing but admiration for what the British Council does. I have continued to support it in my work ever since. I have travelled a great deal abroad and have spoken to representatives of the British Council all around the world, including in Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Jordan and Nepal.
The British Council does admirable work, but in this country, at least, it is not good at telling people what it does. We must therefore publicise its work. I was pleased to learn that only 22% of the British Council’s funding comes from government, with 63% coming in the form of fees and income from services. By 2015, government funding will be less than 20%. I am pleased that the British Council seeks to maximise earned income to minimise the cost to the public of its activities.
The activities of the British Council can be summarised under the following headings: English examinations, language school accreditation, arts, education and society and overseas development assistance. As noble Lords will be aware, the British Council’s activities are under review, with the findings expected later this year. I would like to add my views on the subject.
I have already said that more needs to be done to promote the work of the British Council. I also think that the British Council could move out of central government, with its multifarious activities taken over by the private sector. I also believe that we need to put more power in the hands of local groups. The British Council is already a very good employer in the areas in which it operates, but individual facilities must be given more autonomy. However, they must work hand in hand with our embassies to ensure a joined-up approach to our overseas activities.
I am passionately supportive of the British Council and hope that the Government continue to give it the support it needs to carry on with the work that it does so well.