Examination of Witnesses (Questions 907-919)|
MP, MR MICHAEL
15 JULY 2008
Q907 Chairman: Good morning and welcome
to the Welsh Affairs Committee. Minister, for the record could
you introduce yourself and your colleagues.
Bill Rammell: Bill
Rammell, Minister of State for Lifelong Learning, Further and
Higher Education; Ashley Malster, who is the Deputy Head, Economic
Impact, Science and Research Group within the Department, Mike
Hipkins, who is the Director, Student Finance Strategy, and Matt
Hamnett who is the Deputy Director, Adult Skills Directorate.
Q908 Chairman: As you know, this
is an inquiry on cross-border issues, and one of the challenging
or intriguing issues facing us is the role of your own Department.
Could you explain to us whether there is a strict separation,
demarcation, between the higher education responsibilities of
your Department between UK-wide responsibilities and English-only
responsibilities? Is that clearly understood, and is that understanding
there with your officials?
Bill Rammell: I think it is clearly
established. It probably helps if I just try and set it out in
some detail. Institutional funding and student finance are devolved.
Nevertheless, there is formal liaison between my Department and
with the devolved administrations. There is a series of quadrilateral
meetings between my officials and the devolved administrations
that takes place three times a year. My Department also coordinates
the key performance indicators agreed by each administration in
respect of the Student Loans Company that we jointly own. There
are a relatively small number of issues where the UK is still
treated, in terms of student finance, as one nation in respect
of the European Court; therefore elements of student financing
relating to EU students and UK residency are not devolved. All
four UK countries have to agree the same provisions. We lead in
trying to broker agreements when that issue arises. In respect
of further education, funding comes to further education colleges
in Wales through the Welsh Assembly Government and through the
Learning and Skills Council in England. I think both at official
level and at ministerial level there is a good ongoing dialogue.
To take one specific example, in terms of communications on student
finance which is critically important, there is regular ongoing
informal liaison at official level to ensure for example that
we are not running major national advertising campaigns at the
same time, and that we manage any cross-border issues. I certainly
at the moment and on a needs-must basis meet with my Welsh counterpart.
Perhaps as a result of this inquiry I am minded to say that we
probably need to up that and maybe meet formally two times a year.
Q909 Chairman: Is that understanding
there amongst your senior and not so senior officials? You would
be aware that the Secretary of State for Wales, the Wales Office
itself runs seminars, briefings and awareness-raising about the
nature of democratic devolution? Are you confident and comfortable
that that is actually happening and your officials are signed
up to it?
Bill Rammell: I think I am. If
I put it like this: I have certainly not had representations from
the Welsh Assembly Government, either at ministerial level, or
at official level that there is a gap or an absence of knowledge
on the part of officials. If I think of key specific announcements
that I have been responsible for, the perspective and the ownership
of the devolved administration is actually brought into the system
at a very early stage; because we know that ultimately we cannot
get to making announcements if it is a UK-wide issue without that
Q910 Chairman: When the Secretary
of State for Wales was before us I posed to him the question:
do you think that it would be helpful (and it was in the context
of health, as it happens) that there should be greater transparency
about meetings that are being held between the devolved administration
ministers and UK ministers, an announcement of what is being discussed
and when it is being discussed, that that would be helpful to
wider civil society? Would you sign up to that?
Bill Rammell: I do not instinctively
have a problem with it, as long as it does not actually block
ad hoc liaison where specific issues come up and you actually
need to engage and have a dialogue within a relatively short period
of time. I have no problem with regularising meetings, where everybody
is aware that those meetings are taking place. As I say, the fact
that I was coming before this select committee forced me to think
about the working arrangements, and I am instinctively committed
(and I will have to discuss this with Jane Hutt) to the idea that
twice a year we get together and have that kind of formalised
dialogue where people are aware that it is taking place. I would
not want that to block out other avenues of communication in between
Q911 Chairman: One gets the impression,
anecdotal evidence shows us it appears that the Scottish Executive
and Scotland seems to be extremely well organised in its relationships
with UK Whitehall departments. I am not making any observation
on the situation in Wales by comparison. I am not sure where this
question is going! It is a rhetorical question in the sense that
we are still at early days in terms of democratic devolution.
One of the interesting features is the variation between the four
countries. Part of the British/Irish Council role of the Secretary
of State for Wales now is to achieve some greater coherence. What
would you say about that variation between the countries?
Bill Rammell: As a graduate of
Cardiff University I would not want to say anything that undermined
the impact of Welsh further or higher education. What I would
say seriously and genuinely is that, as the Minister of State,
I do not observe a difference in scale or quantity of interaction
at ministerial level comparing Scotland to Wales. Mike, I do not
know at official level whether it feels different?
Mr Hipkins: At official level
it does not feel different either. I think we have as good and
as close relationships with our colleagues in Wales as we do in
Q912 Chairman: Let me finish with
one final specific question. Can you assure us that it is your
view, your official view, that Wales has a fair share of the resources
from your Department for matters that are UK-wide?
Bill Rammell: Yes, I do believe
that to be the case. There are a series of mechanisms whereby
the interests of the devolved administrations are factored in
at an early stage. Take one example, research, and the Research
Base Funders' Forum on which both the Welsh Assembly Government
and HEFCW Wales sit to ensure that that view is put forward. I
am sure when we come on to talk about research, and I have actually
seen some of the evidence that has been before your Committee
on this issue previously, when you talk about a fair shares allocation,
of course research funding is driven by excellence. There is a
competitive bidding process and it is not driven by formula; therefore,
the extent to which Welsh higher education institutions actually
get their allocation of research funding is really down to their
Chairman: We will come back to that in
a moment. Mrs Siân James.
Q913 Mrs James: Minister, I would
like to turn to policy coordination now. For the UK part of your
Department's higher education responsibilities, how do you ensure
that the policies and priorities of the Welsh Assembly Government
are articulated and fed into the policymaking process?
Bill Rammell: Let me take some
specific instances. I have already referred to the quadrilateral
meetings that take place in respect of student finance. Those
meetings occur three times throughout the year. If we look in
the research area, the creation of a strategic coordination of
a Health Research Committee, which was a recommendation of the
Cooksey Review, the Welsh perspective is inputted with regard
to that. If we look at the move from the research assessment exercise
to the research excellence framework, the Welsh perspective, the
devolved administration is part of that process of forming the
new structure. Indeed, Bangor University is part of the pilot
study. I think in a number of ways the Welsh perspective is
inputted into those areas where there is a UK-wide remit. If there
is a perception that that is not happening adequately enough then
I think that is down to dialogue at official level and at ministerial
level. That is where I say maybe if we were to meet formally twice
a year that would help the process.
Q914 Mrs James: Higher Education
Wales when giving their evidence have suggested that your Department
should work very closely with the Welsh Assembly Government to
explore the potential for a joint science investment fund and/or
possibly a strategic science site in Wales. What are your views
on this proposal?
Bill Rammell: Can you outline
that again to me.
Q915 Mrs James: Higher Education
Wales have suggested that your Department should work much more
closely with the Welsh Assembly Government on establishing a science
investment fund (we have already touch upon what Bangor is doing
etc) and/or a strategic science site in Wales. Have you any views?
Bill Rammell: I am aware of the
science policy for Wales that has been developed. It appears to
me there is a lot of synergy between that approach and the approach
that we are driving. I think we need to be clear as well in respect
of research funding; there has been a concentration of research
funding both within Wales and within England, and it is driven
on a competitive basis. The applications to the research councils
do not take account, and in my view should not take account, of
location. There is clearly a debate about the way in which Wales
ensures that through, for example, the Research Base Funders'
Forum it influences the kind of projects that the research councils
will seek funding proposals in relation to, to ensure that that
fits with the priority areas for Welsh universities. I do not
think, and I would not be comfortable of getting into a process
of national planning about what science capacity went to which
institutions in which part of the UK. I think that would run very
counter to what has been a very successful policy of driving up
the quality of research over the last 10 or 15 years.
Mr Malster: We do work closely
with all the devolved administrations and, in particular, the
funding bodies in relation to capital funding. Up until now there
has been the Science Research Investment Fund, SRIF, which has
been jointly funded by the HE budgets of the four countries and
the UK Government to try and clear the backlog of under-investment
in the science facilities. There is going to be a new one, the
Research Capital Investment Fund, which is basically the same
sort of idea but looking forward. We have more or less dealt with
the backlog and now we are into more of a care and maintenance
basis. The idea is that we coordinate funding there to make sure
that the HE system across the UK has sufficient investment in
capital facilities, where there has been a tradition in the past
focussed on getting the grant money in and spending it on paying
the academics but leaving the infrastructure to decline slightly.
We have been working together on that particular thing, so there
is funding available for capital in that way.
Bill Rammell: Although again the
formula for that is driven by performance in terms of how successful
you are in getting research contracts.
Q916 Mrs James: Perhaps the earlier
questions, the questions from the Chairman and my first question,
were about how do we get that dialogue between the Welsh Assembly
Government and your Department to ensure that everybody is working
on a level playing field, and that everybody is getting a fair
bite at the cherry?
Bill Rammell: I think through
fora like the Research Base Funders' Forum there is a clear channel
of communication; but I would actually resist a move to allocate
on a fair shares basis because I think that would run counter
to a policy that has been very successful in driving up the UK's
research performance nationally.
Q917 Mr David Jones: Minister, what
proposals does your Department have for a UK-wide strategic science
site? Science policy is not devolved, is it?
Mr Malster: I think the general
approach is that the science policy operates at a UK level as
a whole and we look to fund excellent science wherever that may
be, rather than trying to specify that particular regions should
have particular funding. Obviously on certain occasions there
are certain sites which have built up significance historicallythe
Daresbury and the Rutherford Appleton Lab area. In particular,
because of the significance of it, we look at those issues specifically;
but in general we do not try and plan and say, "We need to
have a major investment here and a major investment there".
We look at proposals in terms of the excellence. "Is this
the best place to invest in the science?"
Q918 Mr David Jones: Because Higher
Education in Wales seems to think a strategic science site would
be quite a good idea?
Bill Rammell: Again, I am in danger
of repeating myself, I think that would run counter to the policy
of actually rewarding research excellence regardless of its location.
I am not a fan of actually saying we should single out a specific
institution or a specific site and focus a disproportionate amount
of funding to that site regardless of performance.
Q919 Mr David Jones: You see no merit
in establishing a new strategic site?
Mr Malster: If there was a proposal
for a project which was sufficiently attractive to the Research
Council, they felt it met their priorities, that could be something
they looked at; but they would not be looking at it on the basis
that there needs to be a strategic site in Walesthere is
not one at the moment so they must make up that gap.