What does 2007 hold for the British Council? The short answer is change, because what we have at present will not do. This is an organisation that is out of touch with the 21st century, which has arcane structures, careers, practices and procedures which few if any outside can relate to, whose legitimacy is questionable, whose accountability is absent, and whose purpose is debated even by those in Parliament who are impotently responsible for it. If it was able to survive on its own, we could all sit in wonder at its defiance of the law of gravity, but it cannot. It needs you and me to pay for it, and that’s why it cannot be allowed to continue with the present formulation.
1. Its charitable status has to go. The Charity Commission has to decide whether it is going to be mealy mouthed about its “Key Legal Principles” or whether it is going to be principled and consistent: if charities must be independent of government, then this organisation, which could not possibly exist without government patronage for its “Public Diplomacy” purposes, cannot be a charity.
2. We taxpayers cannot tolerate government subsidy of an organisation which undermines legitimate tax-paying enterprise, whether in Britain or overseas. It does nothing for Britain abroad to have a British quango messing up local enterprise, and any money that is “earned” in such a context simply costs us all good will. Public diplomacy? I think not. And as the recent closure in Moscow has demonstrated, the British Council loses interest the moment it has to even approach the commercial playing fields where others, in the real world, operate.
3. In a democracy we cannot tolerate an organisation which we pay for which has no accountability, which exists in a “legal no-man’s land”, which is opaque in its dealings and in its accounting, which has a history of being economical with the financial truth (and not just financial truth of course), which has thousands of people swanning around the world (£5.7 million spent on this last year) belching its cocktail of carbon emissions and hypocrisy, and which uses its quasi-governmental status to grab contracts and sneak business for purely self-serving purposes. And then has its officers retire at 60 on taxpayer funded index-linked pensions.
4. As we have reported over the past 20 months, the organisation is devious, untrustworthy, unprofessional, inept and unethical. It operates language schools, but only if it has an unfair advantage; it administers international examinations, but apparently has no problem with local directors authorising candidates to take bags and telephones (telephones for goodness sake!) into the exam hall; it alienates and damages third parties at home and abroad so that they are obliged to hunt about for the sadly non-existent means to hold it to account, and the overwhelming majority of its own staff, when given the opportunity, declare no confidence in their senior management.
5. When it comes to the administration of scholarships, paid for by the taxpayer, it has been found seriously wanting. Like no other language school anywhere in the world, past or future, it can build up a tax bill of £1.4 million in one place, and like no other language school it can instantly find the money (our money, whatever they say) in the accounts. It closes down offices for reasons which are unclear (and likewise keeps them open; what on earth are we doing with a British Council office in, say, Copenhagen? “Building trust”? Or just subsidising another of their money-making wheezes?). When Lord Carter of Coles, having spent the best part of a year reviewing the organisation was asked what the organisation was for, he was pretty well stuck for words. Right.
And why have I uncovered all this? Because we found out the hard way that the organisation isn’t even halfway honest. Its representation to the entire British educational establishment of the “contractual arrangement” it made in respect of Education UK (“the Prime Minister’s Initiative”) in 2001 was grotesque, its non-disclosure of material facts was a disgrace, and its furtive deployment of staff to work simultaneously on competing contracts, with a financial interest in pushing one and dishing the other, was somewhere between outrageous and incredible. And its subsequent denials and cover-up simply illustrate the depth of the rot, to which even those trustees who ought to know better turn an indulgent blind eye.
There is far too much in this country which is over subsidised, over indulged, over dependent on spin, and run by incompetents. We are told that the Home Office, for example, with over 70,000 employees who are yet unable to tell us what we need to know about immigration, or the number of escaped prisoners, or the crimes committed by either category, which does not even bother to register the overseas crimes of paedophiles and rapists on the loose on our streets, is “not fit for purpose”. But at least we have an idea of what the purpose might be, if it worked. But when it comes to freeloading at the expense of the British taxpayer, the British Council, with no clear purpose, with no clear status, interfering in the free market at home and abroad, showing contempt for professionalism and normal ethical standards while enjoying huge public subsidies and privileges, fair takes the biscuit.