For a little over a year now we have, from time to time, lifted a British Council stone, and each time something unexpected has crawled out. We asked for example in early January 2005 for the British Council’s contract for the “Education UK” website, and discovered that they had contracted a brand new £100 company called “Education Websites Ltd”. On January 17th 2005 we asked the British Council whether there had since been any variations or amendments to the contract, to which on February 11th we received the unequivocal answer from their Freedom of Information division: “There were in fact no variations to this contract”.
That was hardly the whole truth. The fact is that the British Council had already signed a new contract with “Sheffield Data Services Ltd” to run from 22nd September 2004 (for two years, so expiry is just 6 months away) 5 months before my enquiry. That company is half owned by Hotcourses Ltd and half by UCAS Enterprises Ltd (Sheffield Universities Enterprises Ltd having sold their share in May 2004), and so this was, and is, the replacement vehicle for “Education UK” publishing. As already reported, the previous £100 vehicle Education Websites Ltd was discovered last summer with its name swapped with another company and, with a new name, having made an application to be struck from the register, while a different, newer, company (Remone Ltd) kept the original name alive. Confused? Surely that was not their intention.
Anyway, to return to our stones, last Monday The Independent newspaper listed companies which had received a dividend from the war in Iraq, and that list included the British Council in the amount of £3.1 million (see Item 15). That item prompted us to look at the DFID procurement pages, where this is confirmed. We also noticed that there are plenty of other juicy British Council contracts, including one in March last year for £6,915,555 for an “Access to Justice” project in Sierra Leone. Justice does not, as we know, come cheaply. I confess to knowing little about Sierra Leone, except of course that Britain is positively engaged in rebuilding work in that country following the end of the civil war. But I have done jury service and do know a little about justice, the preconditions for which include the truth, proper representation and an independent and impartial judiciary.
If, dear reader, you should ever have the misfortune to find yourself at odds with the British Council, you may find justice, and those preconditions, elusive. The organisation is comfortable with its anomalous “arm’s length” status and its consequent lack of accountability. The trustees naturally enough do not want to be involved in contentious matters, the FCO does not appear to accept responsibility for the organisation, and the organisation’s own methodology in respect of such cases may be characterised by Versailles-like dismissal of outsiders and, with regard to their own actions, indulgent use of the blind eye. It does not have an Ombudsman or any mechanism for review of a third party grievance. In summary, when it comes to “Access to Justice”, in the case of the British Council the notion should be treated as circumspectly as the organisation’s stated commitments to, for example, transparency or privacy. The organisation’s access to the public purse, however, continues to be a strong suit.