Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1
TUESDAY 30 JANUARY 2001
MR D GREEN,
DR R BAKER
1. Mr Green, welcome to you and your colleagues.
The British Council is well known to this Committee; we have worked
quite closely together for a very long period of time. Perhaps
you might introduce your two colleagues and then I gather you
would like to make a brief statement.
(Mr Green) Good morning and thank you
for giving us this opportunity to tell you about the new strategy
we have developed for The British Council. With me are Robin Baker,
on my right, who is Director, Europe, and Andrew Fotheringham,
on my left, who is Director, Planning Research and Evaluation.
Dr Baker has served in South Africa, in Hungary, Greece and most
recently in Russia. Mr Fotheringham has worked in Nigeria, Singapore
and most recently India. I joined The British Council in July
1999 from Save the Children and VSO. May I just say that Baroness
Helena Kennedy is extremely sorry not to be with us today, but
in her lawyer's capacity she is conducting an appeal in the House
of Lords. I just want to thank you for the strong support you
give the Council and in particular your recent support for the
spending review submission which we made. The settlement was the
best the Council had received for many years, since the early
1990s, and will be very helpful in implementing the strategy.
The separate line in the Treasury White Paper was a landmark for
The British Council. The White Paper specified that additional
grant should be spent on extending work in China and Russia and
in increasing our use of information and communications technology.
From time to time organisations have to take a close look at themselves
and take account of the changing circumstances. When I arrived
it was clear to me that the Council had to make some significant
changes if it was to retain its strong reputation and continue
to be really effective. We needed to respond firstly to the external
environment, the geopolitical shift which had occurred since the
end of the cold war and the breakup of the FSU, the needs of and
the opportunities which the emerging democracies offer, globalisation
and the technological revolution, which give us the ability to
reach many, many more people and recognition of the increasing
power and importance of public diplomacy. Secondly, the internal
environment. British Council has been running on empty for some
time now and there is an urgent need for us to invest in our staff,
in our premises and resolve some of the pressing health and safety
issues and to invest in information technology. I believe that
we have developed a robust strategy which will ensure that The
British Council remains a strong and effective instrument in the
UK's international relations alongside our political, commercial
and development efforts. It builds on our strengths as a people
to people contact organisation, through the arts, governance,
education, science, information and its language teaching. Finally,
may I say how much the staff of The British Council value your
visits to our operations and the interest you show in our work.
It goes without saying that we take very careful note of the recommendations
as evidenced by our plans for China, Russia, Central Asia and
2. The review of your structure and strategy
is best described as root and branch, is it not? What we want
to try to find out this morning is what roots and what branches
there are once the strategy is put in place. Before doing so,
could you just tell us where the impetus for reform of the structure
comes from? Was it your arrival? Did you bring this impetus? Secondly,
what is the role and function of the Foreign and Commonwealth
Office? How were they involved in it, was impetus coming from
them as well?
(Mr Green) The impetus came partly from me but there
was a recognition within The British Council as a whole that we
had to look carefully at what we were doing for the reasons I
have just outlined in terms of the changes both externally and
the internal imperatives. What we did was to take a careful look
at the 110 countries in which we were operating and one or two
others, such as Iran and Libya, where we felt we should be operating.
We looked at them all in terms of the relationship between those
countries and the United Kingdom and how important it was from
the perspectives of political, commercial, historical links and
our ability to make an impact in each of those countries. It was
not a science; it was very much an art form. We had to make judgements,
but those judgements gave us a guide as to where we should be
working, where we should be investing our resources. We had some
very difficult decisions to make in Africa and in western Europe,
which you will probably want to come onto. In terms of the relationship
with the FCO, they are our sponsoring Department and we talked
to them and to the management board of the Foreign and Commonwealth
Office to seek their advice on what we were doing and thankfully
they were supportive of the measures we have taken.
3. When you discussed these judgements and assessments
you had to make were those British Council assessments, or were
they FCO assessments and then you worked out how your strategy
would fit into their assessment of priorities?
(Mr Green) No, they are first and foremost British
Council assessments, agreed by the British Council board, which
is independent of the Foreign Office, though we naturally must
work closely with the Foreign Office, so we sought their advice.
4. Who in the end? There will be disagreements,
there will be differences of view, differences of perception between
yourselves and the FCO.
(Mr Green) In the end we would make the decision and
if that was contrary to the advice of the Foreign Office then
we would have to live with the consequences. We would try to avoid
that at all costs, but in the end we might have to do that.
5. In the process of this review, did any important
or serious differences arise on perception and emphasis?
(Mr Green) No; there was a lot of robust discussion,
but in the end there was support for what we were doing and a
recognition that this was the right way forward.
6. You said there were difficult decisions to
take and in any structural changes and any future strategy it
inevitably happens that you end up having losers and gainers,
you have trade-offs in a sense, do you not, to make a new strategy
work or affordable? What was the nature of these difficult decisions?
Can you identify for us the key difficult decisions that your
new strategy or your new structural proposals threw up?
(Mr Green) Certainly. There was a recognition that
we should be shifting some resources further eastwards and that
we should be working more strongly in central Asia and eastern
Europe. In order to do that we had to release resources from elsewhere.
There is a shift, as you can see, from western Europe to further
east. In terms of the difficult decisions, it is always very difficult
when you have to close either countries or offices within countries.
It is fair to say that Africa was a difficult decision for us,
although I am pleased to say that in terms of the overall amount
of grant allocation to Africa it will remain roughly the same
and will be better spent in terms of operational activity. In
Africa we had a dual accountability, both to the Foreign Office
and to DFID, then ODA, which is now clearer since we have one
sponsoring Ministry. We had built up a platform in Africa based
on ODA projects and what we found was that our infrastructure
was actually too big for our needs.
7. Because the DFID contribution was going down.
(Mr Green) Yes, because the policy had changed and
they were not seeking project managers of large projects, which
we had become. So our infrastructure was too extensive and we
had to make reductions there. We did come up with this model of
hub and spoke.
8. We shall come back to that a bit later.
(Mr Green) That was an important breakthrough in terms
of being able to operate in Africa. Making decisions and having
to close in Africa, in Lesotho and Swaziland, were difficult,
particularly difficult for me given my development background.
We also decided that we would close in Belarus and in Ecuadoragain
difficult decisionsand similarly in western Europe, particularly
in Germany where we have closed a number of offices outside Berlindifficult
but we think it is the right thing to do. In the long term we
shall demonstrate that we shall be stronger for it.
9. I feel a little ill-informed at the moment.
You started off by saying that you had to re-establish your priorities
and Mr Rowlands used the expression "gainers and losers",
yet from what you are saying you seem to be giving the inference
that there were no losers in Africa. I am sorry, that does not
seem very consistent. If you are re-establishing your priorities,
clearly there are high priorities and there are lower priorities.
It would occur to me from what you said that Africa has become
a lower priority. I would certainly want to know from you and
your colleagues on what basis you came to the decision that a
continent like Africa should be a lower priority than the different
continents like Asia and Europe.
(Mr Green) I was not saying it was a lower priority,
I was saying
10. If something is a higher priority, then
something else must be a lower priority.
(Mr Green) It was not a lower priority than currently.
11. You changed your priorities.
(Mr Green) It was not a lower priority than currently.
12. You changed your priorities, was the expression
(Mr Green) No, what we were trying to do was release
resources in order to be able also to cater for the demands we
see in eastern Europe and central Asia.
13. Are you saying you have additional resources,
therefore Africa was not affected?
(Mr Green) Most of the resources we are now putting
into central Asia and eastern Europe are from reducing the amount
of expenditure in Germany and France and Italy.
14. In this reallocation of resources, how much
was saved in Germany, how much was saved from the alteration in
the African effort? What sort of money are we talking about?
(Mr Fotheringham) Our budget in sub-Saharan Africa
will be reducing overall by about £500,000 in total.
15. That is the sum total of "savings".
(Mr Fotheringham) Yes, that is the net reduction there.
The percentage of spend in Africa will remain approximately the
16. Which is what?
(Mr Fotheringham) That is about 13 per cent.
17. Thirteen per cent of The British Council's
(Mr Fotheringham) Yes; it is currently 12 per cent.
Over the next five years we see that remaining at about the same
18. So £500,000.
(Mr Fotheringham) Yes.
19. It does not sound a lot to save. Where were
the big savings?
(Mr Fotheringham) The big savings were in western
Europe where we have seen something like £4.5 to £5
million being removed from budgets in western Europe for redeployment