Criticism of the British Council in Establishment ranks is as rare as hen's teeth, as it turns a blind eye to its many faults and anomalies and to what must be the blindingly obvious fact that it can only "compete" in commercial activity when the dice are loaded, the goalposts have been moved and the playing field is tilted. The leaked document which we refer to in my earlier piece (and we acknowledge with gratitude that a British Council insider has had the courage to leak it) on how the BC organises unfair competition is something of a classic in that it points up how little the truth, or whatever they tell others, matters to them. Consider the context.
- In 2005 the British Council Director General David Green said this “First, can I nail one thing and that is that all of the work we do in terms of teaching English through our language schools and the examinations that we promote on behalf of examination boards is not in any way subsidised by the grant-in-aid. It is a completely separate operation and there is no subsidy of those operations by the grant.”
- On October 15th 2008 Lord Kinnock, at that time chair of the British Council, told the same Foreign Affairs Committee “There is an absolute auditing and accountancy ring fence. It is impenetrable. We are never in any danger of cross-subsidising in a way that gives us an unfair advantage.”
- In June 2008 the present Director-General (re-styled “Chief Executive”) said “we ensure through a clear firewall, that there is no subsidy of our teaching or other operations from the grant.”
The senior management of the British Council and the trustees of the British Council clearly agree that this is a message that the government and public must be given ad nauseam. Readers of this blog will know that not only has it been our own depressing experience as a partner organisation that unfair competition, along with deceit, public misrepresentation and worse is pretty much instinctive, but that use of public money in their commercial operations – as evidenced by the report on their school in Tripoli - is a fact. What is new that emerges from the present leaked document is that internally the British Council are, without any caveat, doing exactly what they say they do not do and are actually integrating grant-funded and FCR funded English services, and that this, together with further wheezes for revenue, is all being organised and overseen by grant-funded employees. Given that staff costs are the biggest element in the accounts, that represents the biggest possible breach of, and contempt for, the line they take publicly. No "separate operations", no "impenetrable ringfence", no "clear firewall", nothing. There is not even a pretence of holding up their stated position, and it is clear that not one among them gives a toss about either the fact of unfair competition or the integrity of what they say to Parliament and the wider world. Their concern is simply about deflecting complaints about unfair competition and about how such matters may be hidden in their accounts.
Meanwhile the government sings from the same officially sanctioned hymnsheet as those above.
4. The minister with responsibility for the British Council wrote in a letter to my MP (also an FCO minister) in September last year that “The British Council’s accounts maintain a separation between income derived from state funding and that received from other sources” (etc)
5. As recently as April this year the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude in a letter to a group of chief executives working in international education came out with the same standard line: “An accounting firewall within the organisation ensures this [subsidising] does not happen and enables them to demonstrate that it operates on a level playing field. The National Audit Office audits their accounts, and certifies each year that there is no material cross-subsidy of commercial activities out of public funds”.
And so it goes. The British Council has been formally endorsed by successive senior politicians from the three main parliamentary parties. During the past year it has been represented on sales mission planes to China and India with David Cameron. It operates out of our diplomatic missions all over the world. It is a registered charity. HM the Queen is its patron and Prince Charles its vice patron. It has a team of MPs organised to support it. And even the most uncomfortable employees don’t rock the boat for fear of threatening their golden pension prospects. And our last and best hope the NAO certifies each year that the playing field is level. Even if you believed that the British Council could be capable of erecting and managing a firewall which would prevent them from having an unfair advantage in all areas of commerce in which they are engaged, and even if they wanted to, there is in fact no such thing, or even where it matters any pretence of such a thing. The only firewall is the one erected by the Establishment which exists to protect the organisation’s privileges, and which therefore gives them the licence to say what they please and mislead whomsoever they please, confident in the knowledge that they will not be contradicted by any soul who can influence their paymasters. All of the people and institutions named above - they who are the keepers of the real firewall that comes between us and the truth - wittingly or unwittingly lend their names to something fundamentally rotten. How much longer?