UK Foreign Policy in a Shifting World Order (International Relations Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:38 pm on 21st May 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Coussins Baroness Coussins Crossbench 6:38 pm, 21st May 2019

My Lords, as a member of the International Relations Committee I was privileged to be part of this ambitious inquiry. I pay tribute to the excellent support we had from our clerks and policy analyst. In view of the time limit, I will pass on the opportunity to comment on China, Russia, cybersecurity or the US, and will use my time to draw attention only to the two recommendations tucked away in paragraphs 354 and 355, on the importance of foreign language skills. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, referred to this issue in his opening speech and it was part of our thinking on whether the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and Whitehall generally, has the skills to make it fit for purpose to shape and conduct foreign policy in the shifting world order that we described. I should declare my interests as co-chair of the All-Party Group on Modern Languages and a vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Linguists.

One of the committees overarching conclusions was that:

“To maintain its influence and leadership on global issues, the UK needs a more agile, creative and entrepreneurial approach to foreign policy”.

Language skills are a perfect example of what fits that definition of agile, creative and entrepreneurial. Many recent reports from the British Academy, the British Council, the all-party group and others have stated, with increasing urgency, that in a post-Brexit world the UK will need foreign languages more than ever. But what we have is a languages crisis which risks the UK being unable to fulfil its public policy needs, notably in defence, security and diplomacy. Our committee concluded that language skills are essential for the effective conduct of diplomacy and export growth.

On the positive side, the Foreign Office language school and the Defence Centre for Languages and Culture are, to quote the British Academy’s report,

“beacons of commitment to language learning across government”.

Witnesses informed our inquiry that the diplomatic academy in the FCO has placed increasing importance on language skills and increased the proportion of posts where a foreign language is required, with a target of 80% by 2020. By contrast, the Department for International Trade told us that it had 24 designated language roles overseas but expects future free trade agreements to be negotiated in English, using professional interpreters where needed. I find that attitude from the DIT extremely worrying and a depressing illustration of the lack of awareness of the importance of language skills, and the cultural understanding that goes with them. After all, we know from research at Cardiff Business School that the UK is losing 3.5% of GDP per annum because of a lack of language skills in the workforce. Yet, astonishingly, the DIT’s new Export Strategy does not even mention language skills.

I found the Government’s response to our recommendation that there should be a cross-government language strategy, including an audit of existing language skills across Whitehall, disappointing. It simply is not good enough to point to the good work being done at the FCO, MOD, DfID and GCHQ, and assume that it will provide the co-ordination and responsibility for languages across the board. It is as much in the interests of the Treasury, the DIT and BEIS to get the message on languages as it is for the FCO. In my view, it is absolutely inadequate to assume that this is just an issue for the Department for Education to resolve. It is not just the DfE’s problem and it is unfair to expect that department to sort it all out.

One very good example of the strategic interconnectedness of languages, highly relevant to the topic of this debate, is the need to pay more attention to the 1 million or so school students in the UK who are bilingual. Children who speak languages such as Mandarin, Arabic, Korean, Turkish, Farsi and Somali at home should have their language skills recognised, developed and accredited. They should be shown how much more employable they will be as a result, whether in business, diplomacy, security or education.

The committee’s second recommendation on languages is that the Government should do more to encourage universities to restore modern language degrees in order to ensure that we produce sufficient linguists to meet the UK’s foreign and trade policy needs. The Government’s response rightly points to some of their positive and welcome initiatives in schools, designed to try to improve the supply chain to universities. These are the Mandarin Excellence Programme, the pedagogy pilot programme and the introduction of compulsory language learning in primary schools. Overall, though, I found the Government’s response on this point rather thin, lacking any sense of quite how dramatically serious the decline of languages at school and university has become. The Government set great store by the EBacc, yet the boost it has given to GCSE take-up has clearly stalled—stuck for the last three years at only 47%. In 2015, 100,000 fewer language GCSEs were taken compared to a decade earlier and A-level languages, especially German, are in freefall. No wonder over 50 of our universities have scrapped some or all of their modern language degrees. The total number of modern language graduates has declined by 54% in the last decade.

Will the Minister say whether the FCO will take a further initiative, building on the cross-Whitehall languages group, to draw in more departments and agencies? Between them, and with expert advice, they could come up with an effective mechanism for ensuring not just a cross-government talking shop but a genuinely cross-government strategy on languages, backed up by committed leadership, transparent accountability and resourcing—one which acknowledges the importance of languages and linguists for the success and resilience of the UK’s future in the world.