The British Council is an anachronistic unaccountable quango…it’s time for a cull

Time for a cull

Along with many UK private companies providing marketing services to international education providers, Levant Education often runs into a thorny political issue that we’re somehow not supposed to talk about.

That issue is the commercial, entrepreneurial activities of the British Council, a Non Departmental Public Body (NDPB, or quango), whose size, status and ambition create an unfair playing field in the sector.

The British Council often pretends to support UK companies’ efforts to promote UK education internationally, when in reality it competes for that business itself. So fair competition is virtually impossible, as small specialist companies (with the potential to make a real difference) are squeezed out.

As a competitor for Levant Education’s business (in Turkey, Azerbaijan and Kurdistan they followed us into the market), the British Council benefits from advantages we couldn’t dream of – £175 million from the taxpayer, government branding, as well as a network of ambassadorial staff and facilities that are impossible to ring-fence between what is charitable and what is commercial. In all 3 markets, the British Council sheepishly spoke of cooperation as we took the risks to establish the business, only to then wolfishly go after that same business for itself.

We do not pay our taxes for the government to pay quangos to go into business against legitimate UK companies, with huge commercial / tax advantages. Whatever the rationale was for establishing the British Council back in the 1930’s, the world has moved on.

Naive man goes to the House of CommonsAn eternal optimist and believer in the democratic process, I took the complaint to the House of Commons, with MP for Mid Derbyshire Pauline Latham OBE. Among other issues, Pauline is known for supporting the culling of badgers…what would she think of the way the British Council threatens healthy competition in the field of international education?

The MP agreed that the British Council’s behavior needed looking into, and tabled a parliamentary question. Secretary of State for Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs, Hugo Swire, answered the question, drawing attention to the Triennial Review of the British Council that he had announced on 16th July 2013. This Review would look at the continuing logic for maintaining the quango, and address “competition questions relating to British Council income generation activity.” The resulting report would be published “in early 2014”. (reponse_hugo_swire)

The complaint was also put to UKTI, which often (misguidedly) brings in the British Council in cases where UK education companies pay for export assistance abroad, as Levant Education has. The investment in UKTI assistance is subsequently wasted, as the business generated from the activity falls into the lap of the entrepreneurial British Council.

In a letter to Levant Education, Lord Green, at the time outgoing Minister of State (Trade & Investment), also deflected the question by referring to the ongoing Triennial Review (we now await the view of Baron Livingstone of Parkhead, also known as Ian, who now serves in that role).

So far so good for the British democratic process. In the markets where we operate, people can only dream of such openness of government, efficiency and access to parliamentary procedure in defence of individual freedoms. In Turkey I’d probably get a punch in the face for even trying…if I was lucky.

Not only are our MP’s quick to help and put our concerns to the right people, government has a system to ensure that NDPB’s / quangos are answerable to parliament and regular reviews are undertaken resulting in published reports.  Such examples of public accountability strengthen our democracy and show our system of government in a good light, which it could certainly do with.

What is a Triennial Review? 

Triennial Reviews are part of the democratic oversight process of Non Departmental Public Bodies (NDPB’s). The Reviews keep the NDPB’s / quangos accountable and ensure they remain useful and relevant.

According to Government guidance, published by the Cabinet Office,

“One of the founding principles of the reviews is transparency. The guidance stipulates that the review itself should be open and transparent, and that a report must be published at the end of the review that details the evidence and rationale for decisions about the body’s future. Departments publish these reports online and announce their publication to Parliament”.

In a further advisory, the cabinet office stipulates, “all reviews should be completed quickly and all reports of reviews should be published”.

Specifically on announcing results of the reviews, the Cabinet Office advice says

12.1 As a minimum, Departments should announce the outcomes of reviews by Written Ministerial Statement. This should be in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. 

12.2 The results of reviews should be published. Copies should be placed in the Libraries of the House. A copy of the announcement and of all relevant publications should also be made available to the relevant departmental select committee.

So that’s clear then – reports must be announced and published. The Review about the BC was undertaken in a timely fashion, lead by Mr Graham Glover at the FCO. Evidence was taken from a wide range of stakeholders, and the public was invited to give evidence though an online survey.

Openness, transparency, accountable, timely – the British way! No hiding place for those that would seek to hide from democratic accountability!

And yet…

Here we are in May 2014, with no sign of the report…

Thanks to the vigilance of David Blackie of International Education Connect Ltd, we know exactly what has gone wrong. The Board of the British Council has received the report, but its Chief Executive Martin Davidson doesn’t want to share it – not with the House of Commons, not with the House of Lords, and not with the British public who pay his £190,000 salary and associated expenses.

Mr. Glover and his team spent 3 months on the Review, listened to hundreds of stakeholders and received much evidence. Any mortal quango would by now have complied with the principled guidance of the British government and published…but not the British Council.

If I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.

The Discussion Paper of the Review opens with the words of William Hague, British Foreign Secretary. “It is the duty of any government to ensure that all public bodies perform as effectively and efficiently as possible.” It ends with the words “the Review Team will decide on the content and recommendations of the final report”.

But Mr. Davidson thinks he knows better. In his words, he describes the final report as “an initial draft”, which is “very very long.” Apparently the report needs to be redacted, and no doubt sexed up, to produce a happier ending (happier for the BC and all those at Grade E and above who are trying to award themselves pay rises...).

Such behaviour may be common in the ‘democracies’ of  Turkey and Central Asia, but this is the British government, and the British Council, we are talking about.  How is it possible that the British Council and Mr. Davidson are free to suppress / redact / edit an independent report into their organisation, when the government guidance so clearly states that the “open and transparent” Review should “provide a robust challenge of the continuing need for individual NDPB’s – both their functions and form.”

Could it be that the Report is a little too robust about the continuing need for taxpayers to keep underwriting a billion pound marketing, teaching and language testing business (that pays no tax)? Most probably…but we’re not allowed to see the report until Mr Davidson has made it much, much shorter.

Do the principles of openness, accountability, transparency and democratic oversight not apply to Martin Davidson or the British Council?



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