Subsequent to our earlier commentary on Lord Carter of Coles’ review of Public Diplomacy, we were interested to read his evidence to the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee taken only a few days ago. Like the evidence given last October by the British Council itself, this latest interview is well worth reading for any British Council watcher. There are some delightful questions – “Why are you so suspicious of the British Council?”, “Are you are aware of any study that has been done on value for money of the British Council?”, “do you really think it is necessary to have hundreds of people working in the Soviet Union in the British Council, putting on rather obscure plays that a few people go to watch in English and a library that hardly anybody ever seems to visit?”, “What is your preferred notion or model of how the British Council should be accountable?” – and I want to concentrate on just one of them. This is the question which (like the last of those quoted above) came from Gisela Stuart MP and which goes:
“If I were to ask you now what is the point of the British Council, what would you say?”
and the answer from Lord Carter:
“We had quite a debate about this. I think probably its greatest contribution is in education, in getting people to come to British universities and into higher education, and it is a major effort….”
So here we have an organisation that costs the British tax-payer millions, starting with “grant-in-aid” of £186.25 million, plus of course millions more in civil service pensions, which needs a publicly funded committee to have “quite a debate” about what its point actually is. The less than incisive reply to Ms Stuart’s question from Lord Carter begins with the reference quoted above to the British Council’s international student recruitment function. But, Lord Carter, please note: the British Council makes British educational institutions pay very good money for that service. Basic subscription costs are, depending on establishment size, between £3,000 and £18,000 per year, then on top of the basic there are country-specific add-ins adding up to about £11,000 per year, and all that’s before you sign up for one of their exhibitions or publications which cost further thousands more. Is £186.25 million not enough? Do you suppose that genuine British enterprise could not do that job more effectively with a fraction of that money? Instead Britain gets a double-whammy: the British tax-payers prime this organisation with millions so that it can then use the monopoly position that results from this enormous subsidy to charge further exhorbitant amounts to publicly funded universities. This is a working example of the logic of Lord Kinnock's rationale referred to in our last piece.
Had Ms Stuart asked the same question of the chief executive of the British Council she might perhaps have got the answer he wrote recently to all his 7000+ employees, namely that the role of the British Council was “to enable the greater understanding of the richness of all humanity to take place”.
What suckers we British taxpayers are.