THE BRITISH COUNCIL CHAIRMANSHIP – 15 July 1998

Dr Julian Lewis: Unlike my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs Bottomley), I do not have the advantage of having seen the most recent annual report of the British Council, so my starting point in examining its role and leadership – I shall touch on its relevance to an ethical foreign policy – is the 1996-97 annual report, which states:

"The purpose of the British Council is to promote a wider knowledge of the United Kingdom and the English language and to encourage cultural, scientific, technological and educational co-operation between the United Kingdom and other countries . . . The Foreign and Commonwealth Office . . . is the Council's sponsoring Department."

The report later stresses that members of the board

"must be British citizens . . . chosen from among those who occupy positions of recognized eminence in British educational, professional and cultural life . . . Appointment to the offices of Chairman, Deputy Chairman and Vice-Chairman require the approval of the Foreign Secretary."

A recent publication, "The British Council in Russia", refers to the fact that the British Council lists among its "main priorities" the promotion of "democratic values" and of

"Russia's transition to a market economy".

Who is to be at the head of this multi-million pound, taxpayer-funded exercise in the export of democracy and market-oriented values? Hon. Members have referred to Baroness Kennedy, about whom I want to make some remarks. I have written to inform her that I would be doing so, and I shall not refer to anything that has not been published or stated openly in the press.

 

When it was announced that Baroness Kennedy would be appointed as chairman of the British Council, the new director general, David Drewry, said: center

"This is a great opportunity for the Council and Helena's impressive track record and leadership qualities will help us enormously in projecting Britain's strengths worldwide."

On 21 April, the Financial Times described Baroness Kennedy as a

"Blairite lawyer and human rights activist".

It predicted:

"Her appointment is likely to reinforce the role of the British Council in the government drive to 're-brand' the image of Britain which, in her words, 'is no longer of men of a particular class'. The impact of the Blairite baroness, who gained her peerage last year, is likely to be most felt in the human rights work of the Council which arranges exchanges of lawyers with foreign countries."

An intriguing profile by Harriet Swain in The Times Higher Educational Supplement of 22 May stated that Baroness Kennedy

"has become a symbol of a feisty woman, determined to expose the anachronisms of this country's institutions, and a heroine for the underprivileged."

It explained:

"She has worked her way into many of this country's most powerful institutions from a standing start, and is determined that they should become more open to the type of person she represents . . . 'You have to take an institution by the throat to get it to change,' she says. 'You have to have a radical agenda for reform.' Throughout her career, she has chosen to work at reform from the inside, and as a result has incited some criticism. Some believe" – 

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Michael J. Martin): Order. I become very concerned when hon. Members read articles into the record. That is not what a debate is about. The hon. Gentleman must paraphrase. Moreover, he must be careful about making personal remarks about a member of the other House.

 

Dr Lewis: I thank you for that guidance, Mr Deputy Speaker. As I said, I notified the noble Baroness of the remarks that I intended to make but, given the time shortage and your advice, I shall move on.

I want to declare an interest. I used to be a consultant to a group called the Media Monitoring Unit, which investigated whether the BBC and ITV were observing the provisions for due impartiality on politically contentious subjects. During that time, I came across frequent references to Helena Kennedy, as she was then.

 

Ms Hewitt: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that Baroness Kennedy's appointment was made after open advertisement and an extensive search? It was made on the unanimous recommendation of the search committee of the board of the British Council. Is he also aware that, as the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs Bottomley) said, the British Council is not a party political body? It has been supported and valued by Governments of all parties for the past 60 years. Will he cease his slur on the noble Lady and make a valuable, rather than a tawdry, contribution to the debate?

 

Dr Lewis: The hon. Lady has made her speech and she is welcome to intervene on mine if she wants. However, I am talking about the facts, which, summarised, are these: only a decade ago, Baroness Kennedy was actively involved in the International Association of Democratic Lawyers – 

 

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I make an appeal to the hon. Gentleman. The title of the debate on the Order Paper is

"The work and future prospects of the British Council",

and he should not use it as an opportunity to attack someone. He may, perhaps, do so on another occasion, but not in this debate, which was secured by his right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley). I really think that he is overstepping the mark.

 

Dr Lewis: Again, I thank you for your guidance, Mr Deputy Speaker. In a week or so, the noble Lady will head the British Council, a multi-million pound organisation, so I do not know on what occasion it would be more appropriate to point out some of the things of which the selection committees and the people who elected her unanimously were not aware. Those things I shall list briefly and then – no doubt to the delight of those hon. Members who are present – I shall conclude my remarks. Baroness Kennedy actively participated in a leading Soviet-front organisation, the International Association of Democratic Lawyers – 

 

Mr Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

 

Dr Lewis: No, I will not give way any further. If hon. Members do not want me to criticise the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, they should take issue with the Labour party, which banned it as a proscribed organisation and a communist front from 1952 until 1973.

 

For three years in the 1980s, Baroness Kennedy chaired the Haldane Society of so-called Socialist Lawyers, which is in fact the British arm of the Soviet front, the International Association of Democratic Lawyers. In the early 1980s, a curious announcement appeared in the personal columns of the Morning Star, congratulating Helena Kennedy on the birth of her son, from the Covent Garden branch of the Communist party.

 

Mr Wyatt: What is the relevance of all this?

 

Dr Lewis: The relevance is simple: if we appoint someone to head an organisation promoting abroad the values of democracy, reform and the free market, as is alleged to be the case in some of the British Council's literature, past membership of communist front organisations and involvement with the British Communist party are relevant considerations. No one mentions these things, because these days such people reinvent themselves.

 

Mr Savidge: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Did the hon. Gentleman say that Baroness Kennedy was a past member of the British Communist party, and would he like to retract that?

 

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. It is for me to decide whether an hon. Member is in order. The hon. Gentleman is not out of order in what he has said so far. If he is out of order, I will not be long in notifying him.

 

Dr Lewis: I invite Baroness Kennedy to say to the community at large whether she now repudiates the affiliations that she had through those years of the cold war and recognises the fact that she should have had nothing to do with organisations such as the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, or whether she thinks that it is satisfactory to change her opinions and her political clothes with the fashions of the day.

 

I make no apology for having raised these matters. Ministers, from the Prime Minister to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, with no hesitation whatever, have raised political activities in which I was involved 20 years ago whenever I have attacked them. I am not being appointed to run an important organisation, and Baroness Kennedy is. It is right that she should disavow her disgraceful political record of support for communist organisations that supported regimes whose murderous activities left a blot on the history of the 20th century.