Listing the top 20 charities by income shows that these include charities that many of us will recognise, for example, the Disasters Emergency Committee, Cancer Research UK, Barnardo’s and Mencap. But at number 1 by income we find that the country’s most successful charity is the British Council.
Are Wills being redrafted, and is money that might have gone to the RSPCA or the RNIB now being joyfully donated by a grateful nation to the British Council? Hardly. The organisation is primed by the money it receives from the taxpayer via the FCO, and so whether or not we are happy to see our money used to train graffiti artists in Azerbaijan, or have the organisation shuttle its offices around the country, or whatever, we give our financial support to this charity compulsorily through our paypackets.
Is this legal? Well, those of us who don’t think so are up against it. The Patron is Her Majesty the Queen and the Vice-Patron is HRH the Prince of Wales. The trustees are in the main Establishment worthies, and the FCO’s largesse grows from year to year. Reflect however a moment on these clauses from the Charity Commission Policy Statement:
Key legal principles
Any charity planning to deliver public services must continue to comply with the following legal requirements (which, of course, apply to all charities):
· Charities must only undertake activities that are within their objects and powers. This is essential. Charities must not stray from their objects in pursuit of funding.
· Charities must be independent of government and other funders. An organisation must be a separate and independent legal entity to be eligible for charitable status.
· Trustees must act only in the interests of the charity and its beneficiaries.
· Trustees must make decisions in line with their duty of care and duty to act prudently.
Setting aside the issues of whether the Council’s invasive money-grubbing actions prejudice the requirement not to “stray”, whether for example being instrumental in setting up a company in order to share profits could be said to be said to be straying (or ethical or appropriate), I ask myself whether the British Council complies with the key legal requirement of being “independent of government and other funders”.
In an earlier blog I reported on the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee session in July where the British Council gave evidence, and how when the Director General Sir David Green was asked whether a time would ever come when the British Council would be self-funding, his answer was a simple “No”. Asked - as you might expect - to expand on that answer the Director General at first flannelled with regard to the use of money, and then closed by offering our elected representatives the imperious utterance that such a development “would be detrimental to the UK’s interests”.
Ah yes, the UK’s interests. If we take a look at the FCO’s own web site there is a page devoted to the FCO minister Lord Triesman where it states inter alia that he has responsibility for public diplomacy including the British Council. Elsewhere on the FCO site it says “The FCO's main vehicle for cultural relations with other countires [sic] is the British Council.” The Chair of the Board of Trustees, presently Lord Kinnock of Bedwellty, is appointed by the FCO. The Permanent Under-Secretary at the FCO, Sir Michael Jay, is a British Council trustee, giving rise rather obviously to a potential conflict of interest as identified by the Carter review.
When asked, at the same FAC meeting, about links with the FCO, the Director-General’s reply included the following:
I would have and do have a quarterly meeting with Lord Triesman, the Foreign Office Minister responsible for public diplomacy. We would, at an annual meeting, present our plans to Lord Triesman and that would be at the point at which the Corporate Plan was being agreed. We have a thing called the FCO Forum, which contains senior officials, and Martin and is my representative on that.
Q181 Mr Horam: Is that the same as the Leaders Forum?
Sir David Green: No. This is an FCO body at senior level but quite a small forum between the Foreign Office and the British Council to talk about operational issues and priorities and to interpret the international priorities and what that means.
Q182 Mr Horam: Does that meet as and when necessary?
Sir David Green: That meets quarterly. We are very keen to make sure that our country directors in the 110 countries in which we function work closely with their heads of mission and, at the point at which they are developing annual plans, they would discuss those with the heads of mission and they would get agreement to what was in those plans.
Q183 Mr Horam: You have a dialogue with the heads of mission in these 110 countries and agree all this?
Sir David Green: That is the theory. I cannot, hand on my heart, say it happens but, by and large, that is what we expect to happen. At the point at which we develop the Corporate Plan, which is now a two-year document, we would discuss that with the Foreign Office and we would get agreement to that before it goes forward. That would be through the FCO Forum. I also meet with the Permanent Under-Secretary on a very regular basis. I meet him before every board, but I also meet him more frequently than that.
So let’s see:
The British Council is clearly dependent on government structurally, operationally and financially. The organisation manifestly does not comply with the key legal requirement to be “independent of government and other funders”, and it should not be allowed to continue to enjoy charitable status.
Expedience. This value is the one which par excellence guides the British Council. It is pragmatic but has no basis in principle. It is unmoved by altruism, but it has no qualms about using altruistic terms (see British Council “Values”) cynically to serve its own ends. It is above all expedient.
We have, over a period of more than three years, made representations to the British Council and have met with extended and repeated institutional denial. The British Council will not address, much less admit, the possibility that it may have acted improperly. And because it is taboo, the notion is flatly denied by the people responsible, and then covered by their line managers, and further denied at the highest level of senior management, so that they are all complicit. While the Foreign Office and the board of trustees (how that word “trustees” has lost its currency) are purely inert. That is the uniform that expedience wears.
The irksome thing is that we taxpayers pay for this. We pay our taxes to support an organisation which readily undermines taxpaying enterprise. This organisation, the British Council, gets taxpayers’ support to the tune of more than half a million pounds a day, gets millions more in government contracts, has charitable status at home and diplomatic status abroad. It rides roughshod over enterprise at home and abroad, and its employees retire early on indexed linked pensions. All these privileges and subsidies, which do not come cheap, are paid for by the British taxpayer.
In June, for the first time in about 20 months, I wrote directly to the British Council – this time to the Deputy Director General Martin Davidson, copied to the Chair Lord Kinnock. There was no reply. After about six weeks I sent the deputy Director-General an email, also copied to the Chair, asking (politely) whether I might anticipate a reply. No reply or acknowledgement to that one either.
So what does that mean? It means, I think, that when you can’t deny things any longer, when denial has lost its currency too, the only thing you can do is say nothing and hope everything will go away. That would appear to be British Council policy through senior management, a policy embraced even by their rather sad trustees. The depressing thing for the rest of us is that this strategy of stonewalling denial and non-response might just work because the organisation is, as we have said so many times, unaccountable. Who in government, supposedly representing the interests of the taxpayer, holds this organisation to account? The answer is nobody. It is a disgrace and a failure of democracy.
If we wanted to be kind to the British Council, we might use the word “naïve”. Perhaps, we might think, the organisation has rediscovered the importance of values and that is why in their annual report the authors feel moved to refer to the fact that they value people, integrity, professionalism and so on. Perhaps some upwardly mobile British Council employee has expressed the view that publishing such statements will assist and give weight to their mission of “building trust”. Well, let’s hope it stops there: one senses the cringeworthy possibility of a kind of values inflation – whereby every BC employee, or even every Whitehall bureaucrat, might feel obligated to pay lip service to a “values framework” in reports. Are there perhaps organisations – public or private - which state, or even suggest, that they do not value people, professionalism and integrity? Of course not. Setting aside the issue of the sheer banality of this motherhood and apple-pie exercise, the fact is that the rest of us necessarily assume that such fundamental values apply.
How “professional” is this? The British Council, while party to a successful agreement under which it is committed to supporting English in Britain with its “best efforts”, signs an agreement whereby it has a financial incentive to recruit business for a directly competing product. If this publicly funded body can make a case for that profit-sharing clause being professional, why not come clean about it when asking us to sign a waiver? And if you are going to develop a directly competing product, and put the British Council officers liaising with us in charge of that competition, why keep that fact secret too (unless of course even they could see such an arrangement was grotesque)? Why, since these staff were at this time presumably engaged in executing the “Prime Minister’s Initiative”, are there (according to the British Council FOI division) no minutes available of key British Council meetings in January and February 2002? Since the same staff were directly involved in both projects, why pretend afterwards that their own resulting clone was the product of “independent research”? Was it professional to sign up with a specially created £100 company giving the British Council a financial interest, but to announce publicly (after “rigorous selection”) a contract with a “consortium” including UCAS, CSU and Yahoo? Since the contract in question specifically excluded the involvement of UCAS and CSU, and since Yahoo had no part in the contract whatsoever, does the British Council believe that its public presentation of events was professional? Or honest? And since this arrangement was being done in the name of “The Prime Minister’s Initiative”, was it professional to change the contractual arrangements after three years without informing the British educational constituency? Was it professional for the British Council’s FOI division to report months later (February 2005), in answer to this specific question, that there had been no amendments to the original contract? Since the company “Education Websites Ltd” would not have been incorporated without the involvement of the British Council, was it professional to be party to having this company buried by renaming it (“Remone Ltd”) and applying to have the renamed company struck off the register at Companies House? And when a British Council manager, by now apparently in charge of both liaising with English in Britain and developing a direct competitor, within less than a week of the fiasco of the initial Education UK web site launch in January 2002, announced at a meeting in Manchester that the Education UK web site would, specifically, use the same system of regions as English in Britain, was it professional to tell us, and a senior Cabinet minister, subsequently that there was “no basis” for our claims that the British Council version was derivative? And now when we write to the British Council – senior management or trustees - about such matters, why do they not even acknowledge our communications, much less reply, much less actually address the issues raised and face up to things responsibly and honestly (professionally)? In the real world, what evidence is there that the British Council values people, integrity, professionalism, mutuality and creativity? There is, I suggest, rather more evidence that the British Council is an over privileged, over indulged, self-serving clique.
It is not naiveté. Just hypocrisy at its most nauseating.