My Lords, I want to draw attention to the impact of Covid-19 on the British Council and, by extension, on the UK’s international influence and reputation. I declare an interest as co-chair of the All-Party Group on Modern Languages, which is supported by the British Council.
The Government’s review last year described the British Council as fulfilling
“an important and unique role” and as
“a world leader in its field.”
It operates in over 100 countries and employs 12,000 staff worldwide, 1,200 of them in the UK. Eighty-five per cent of its income comes from teaching and examining English, generating export earnings of £125 million a year for UK exam bodies. But the pandemic has forced 90% of its overseas teaching centres to close, shutting down its ability to generate revenue.
The range of activities and the depth of value to the UK’s global standing and soft power goes far wider than teaching English. It includes skills training for a digital future, combating gender-based violence and programmes that directly benefit UK schools, such as Connecting Classrooms, run jointly with DfID, and the language assistants scheme. All this could be at risk if the council were to fold.
I know that the FCO has already provided some extra funding and that the British Council aims to furlough around a quarter of its UK staff, but this does not come close to putting the council in a financially sustainable position post Covid. Further support is essential before the end of May to ensure that the organisation has a future. If ever there was a case for a government bailout based on enlightened self-interest, it is this. Will the Minister hold urgent talks with colleagues across government to secure the emergency funds to guarantee a future for this important and unique body?