Plans to cut arts jobs will irreversibly damage the organisation, workers say, as their union calls the consultation “severely problematic”.
Plans to cut jobs at the British Council and outsource up to 60% of projects should concern the entire UK cultural sector, its staff say.
The restructure will cut 2,000 jobs across the organisation internationally, about 20% of its workforce. The UK arts division is expected to take one of the biggest hits due to a £2m funding cut – 36% of its total budget – and lose nearly a third of its staff.
Strikes are going ahead today (March 24) and tomorrow after the council failed to share a business case for redundancies it had agreed with its parent department, the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).
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The FCDO loaned money to the council last year to compensate for a loss of income throughout the pandemic, on the condition it carried out structural reforms that reduce its pay bill by up to 20%.
British Council employees told ArtsProfessional specialist art form teams which numbered up to 11 people in 2019 will each be reduced to three.
“Many of us on strike this week feel that the model being presented will harm not only our own capacity to deliver bespoke projects that respond to the needs of the local overseas cultural context, but [that] these changes will also greatly reduce the benefit we bring to UK artists and cultural organisations.”
They are demanding a fair, open and transparent approach to transformation, with no forced redundancies, privatisation or outsourcing of jobs.
Employees represented by union PCS voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action earlier this year.
The union has accused the Government of a lack of transparency over failure to share the business case for redundancies and called the council’s “piecemeal” approach to consultation “severely problematic”, after Chief Executive Scott McDonald refused a meeting.
“This is a public body; there shouldn’t be this level of secrecy about what they’ve agreed with another department,” a PCS spokesperson said.
A British Council spokesperson said the organisation has been “fair, open and transparent” with staff from the outset and “consulted fully, openly and meaningfully” with PCS.
The British Council plans to deliver 60% of its activity through partners by 2025, according to a redundancy consultation document.
Increased work with multinational corporations is on the cards, as the council plans a more hands-off approach to projects, focussing on facilitating, business development and managing relationships.
Striking employees said they are concerned the council could turn into an outsourcing body administering soft power for the UK government.
“[It] will no doubt mean we are able to communicate bold narratives to our government sponsoring department. But many of us fear that arts and culture don’t thrive when in thrall to these great narratives.”
The British Council did not respond to a question asking how increased partner work will affect the provision of arts projects but confirmed “a ministerial decision” means it will spend Grant in Aid in fewer countries.
A British Council spokesperson said the organisation is “working out” what this means for arts projects but said it remains committed to expanding connections and audiences for UK arts and culture at home and abroad.
Redundancies will disproportionately affect lower grade staff, PCS understands.
Lower paid staff are more likely to be women, ethnic minorities and those from lower socio-economic status, or with a disability, a PCS spokesperson said, calling the British Council’s current structure “top heavy and questionable”.
According to Third Sector’s Charity Pay Study 2021, 627 British Council employees earned more than £60,000 last year, the highest number of any charity in the UK, and 116 more than in 2019.
Redundancies come as the council continues to advertise new positions - a “massive waste of public funds,” PCS says.
Further action has not been ruled out if this week’s action does not lead to strikers’ demands being met.
“The British Council states its role is to ‘build connections, understanding and trust between people in the UK and other countries through arts, culture, education and the English language,” PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka added.
“Now is the time to strengthen international ties, not cut them.”