As Christopher Booker reminded us over the weekend, the British Council is a pretty rum do, even by quango standards. Starting right at the top, it employs Lord Kinnock as its Chairman. Not content with that, it also employs his son- as Head of the St Petersburg branch- and his Lordship's longtime favourite "Axeman", Billy Bragg, on the Advisory Council. Hmm.
And we're talking a sizeable operation here. The British Council employs over 7,500 people in 110 countries all around the world. It costs £0.5bn pa, of which £0.2bn is a straight subsidy from the taxpayer, with much of the rest comes from "selling" services to other bits of the public sector.
But what does it actually do?
It says: "Our purpose is to build mutually beneficial relationships between people in the UK and other countries and to increase appreciation of the UK’s creative ideas and achievements".
Clear? Well, according to their report, £150m pa goes on "promotion of English language learning", £135m goes on "increasing learning opportunities and educational cooperation", and no less than £127m goes on "support costs".
Still not clear? Here are some specific examples of how they are actually spending our hard earned money:
- "Soul, R‘n’B, hip hop and UK garage scenes- our work in these genres covers many areas, from the showcase gigs of hip hop artists Blak Twang and Fingathing in South Africa to DJ Pogo’s workshops with youngsters in the poor and deprived areas of Sao Paulo to soul star Lynden David Hall performing in Nigeria".
- Funded 'Funny, high-speed, elastic clown', live-comedian and mime artist Les Bubb at the 20th Ankara International Music Festival.
- Estrela- "Believes that excluded communities in north-east England and north-east Brazil have challenges in common and that community arts are powerful, accessible and participatory...partnering ...creative fight for inclusion...facilitate learning and effect positive change ....six -week summer exchange initiative brought Gueto Politico, a street and popular theatre group from Bahia, north-east Brazil, to Britain, with their giant foam puppets."
So how can it possibly defend itself? Or rather, how can the Foreign Office defend giving it all that money? Fortunately for us, there is a very well-informed blog almost wholly devoted to the BC- The Language Business. A recent post comments on exchanges on this very subject at a recent session of the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, grilling Lord Carter who has reviewed the Council's purpose:
"There are some delightful questions – “Why are you so suspicious of the British Council?”, “Are you are aware of any study that has been done on value for money of the British Council?”, “do you really think it is necessary to have hundreds of people working in the Soviet Union in the British Council, putting on rather obscure plays that a few people go to watch in English and a library that hardly anybody ever seems to visit?”, “What is your preferred notion or model of how the British Council should be accountable?”
I want to concentrate on a question from Gisela Stuart MP: “If I were to ask you now what is the point of the British Council, what would you say?”
Lord Carter: “We had quite a debate about this. I think probably its greatest contribution is in education, in getting people to come to British universities and into higher education, and it is a major effort….”
So here we have an organisation that costs the British tax-payer millions, which needs a publicly funded committee to have “quite a debate” about what its point actually is. The less than incisive reply to Ms Stuart’s question from Lord Carter begins with the Council’s international student recruitment function. But, Lord Carter, please note: the British Council makes British educational institutions pay very good money for that service. Basic subscription costs are, depending on establishment size, between £3,000 and £18,000 per year, then on top of the basic there are country-specific add-ins adding up to about £11,000 per year, and all that’s before you sign up for one of their exhibitions or publications which cost further thousands more. Is £186.25 million (BC subsidy) not enough? Do you suppose that genuine British enterprise could not do that job more effectively with a fraction of that money?
Instead Britain gets a double-whammy: the British tax-payers prime this organisation with millions so that it can then use the monopoly position that results from this enormous subsidy to charge further exhorbitant amounts to publicly funded universities. This is a working example of the logic of Lord Kinnock's rationale referred to in our last piece.
What suckers we British taxpayers are."
We couldn't have put it better.