“There is no subsidy of those operations by the grant”.
These were the words of the Director-General of the British Council, Sir David Green KCMG, given in evidence last July to the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, when claiming that taxpayers’ money (“grant-in-aid”) was “completely separate” from the British Council language school operation, which he said was “not in any way subsidised by the grant-in-aid”. We’ve had occasion to quote these words before – here and here - let’s hope this is the last. The Director-General, in his last week in office as I write and at the time of this story flanked by his deputy and now heir apparent Martin Davidson and his head of finance Margaret Mayne, set out to “nail” this point when asked whether the British Council might ever become “self-financing”. The hammer hit the thumb.
The doughty Ian Pennington has for some months been trying to find out who or what was paying for the courses of some rather well-connected and well-to-do students in the British Council’s language school in Tripoli, Libya. He has finally had a reply from the Freedom of Information division of the British Council which includes the following:
“In all of the above cases, the sponsorships' full class fees of 360 Libyan dinars each (approx. £140) were debited to BC Libya's country education budgets, which is funded from "grant funded services", ie. from the funding we receive via our core grant-in-aid from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which amounted to a total of £186.2m for the year 2005/6.”
So there it is in black and white. The taxpayer is, through the British Council’s “grant-in-aid”, paying the fees of students at the British Council’s language school in Tripoli, and the evidence given to parliament by the British Council Director-General was the opposite of the truth. Will the FCO / Parliament / “Establishment” break with 70 years of precedent and actually do something about this? Or is the British Council immune or exempt by virtue of some sort of parademocratic status? In any case should the rest of us be concerned at this further evidence of the organisation’s casual relationship with veracity? We should.
· These “sponsorships” are “to build mutually beneficial relationships” with Libyan government departments or officials. Such gifts (and we can think of another word) to the well-connected are quite incompatible with charitable status, which is bad news for real British charities.
· Taxpayers should not be paying British Council language school students’ fees at all, and no publicly-funded organisation that has a “business” is permitted to use its public funding to support its business activities
· The British Council claims to represent us. But who amongst us wishes to be associated with (and pay for) perks for the privileged just because some b.f. imagines this will advance our cause with Moslems? We should distance ourselves from this sort of stuff PDQ.
· The British Council’s use of public funding to support “enterprise” (a.k.a. “leveraging” ) distorts the market economy and undermines genuine, legitimate, unsubsidised, tax-paying business.
· This publicly funded “grant-in-aid” (i.e. subsidy, costing the taxpayer over half a million pounds a day) is simply a topping-up operation anyway for an organisation that gets stacks of government contracts, tax privileges at home, tax privileges and other wangles abroad and an open-ended British taxpayers’ commitment to their employees’ early retirement and index-linked pensions.
It is high time that the British Council’s arrogance was checked, and that the organisation was disciplined and properly governed. We who pay for this organisation require a mechanism to establish what it is and what it is for, to control it, to discourage its habit of duplicity, to bring its actual values closer to those to which it lays claim, and to stop it meddling and money-grubbing where it has no business. And when it loses its grip on normal ethical behaviour as it so frequently does to hold it to account.