The British Council’s annual report for 2005-2006 reveals that in those twelve months the organisation spent a whopping £5.7 million pounds on travel and subsistence. With a budget like that it’s clear that not too many British Council personnel travel at the back of the plane, and also that there’s an awful lot of movement of staff round the globe. Interesting then that the Director-General recently identified as a strategic priority for the British Council “achieving climate change” [sic]. He may be on to something.
A few days ago the Director-General was in Yemen, where he opened an exhibition and had meetings with Yemeni government officials. In the account of the DG’s activities and itinerary during the visit in the English language paper The Yemen Times, I found myself re-reading this sentence:
As an artist Green said he reserved the last day to paint, “Painting for me is more than a hobby. It is a part of my daily life that I can express my feelings through”.
Painting is, we therefore understand, for the Director-General “more than a hobby”; indeed it is rumoured that he has in the past sent a sample of his oeuvres to all British Council staff worldwide. Who were no doubt admiring and appreciative. If for him painting had been only a hobby some people might perhaps have wondered whether setting aside a day for it when travelling on business was a good lead on the part of the chief executive of an organisation with 7000 employees. Such people might perhaps have thought that there was at least a danger that employees (and even the observing Yemenis and other chaps in foreign parts) might suppose that such an arrangement was normal and even sanctioned for all staff with access to the budget rather than what we must hope is an oligarchic privilege. That in that £5.7 million there might be, well, fat.
In the latest report from the FAC, the MPs note that the Director-General “could not foresee a time when the British Council would become self-financing”. Well, no, I think we could probably all go along with that; with a publicly funded fix of £189 million, with early retirement and index-linked civil service pensions taken care of, with a gentle lifestyle pursuing daily the expression of one’s feelings, and a zillion tonnes of carbon emissions dumped into the atmosphere, it’s more likely that pigs will fly.
In this same report the FAC also express their pleasure that their recommendation “that the National Audit Office urgently consider a value for money examination of the British Council” has been responded to favourably, and that the Comptroller has undertaken to address this task in the first half of next year. There have been too many false dawns to hope that this exercise might produce the radical reform and the accountability that is overdue, and it cannot be certain that the exercise will challenge this bloated parasite. But perhaps the Comptroller will at least be able to require more discipline in the control of our money when it comes to British Council jaunts abroad, and simultaneously reduce the organisation’s negative impact on climate change.