Cross-border provision of public services for Wales: Further and higher education - Welsh Affairs Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1000-1019)


7 OCTOBER 2008

  Q1000  Albert Owen: One of the early successes of the Assembly was that it was more accessible for particularly the voluntary sector and community. Do you feel that the Assembly has developed that approach with business or do you find Whitehall is easier to access than the Assembly itself?

  Mr Jenkins: I think it is fair to say that the intent is there and the systems are there, so the Government of Wales Act 2006 was amended in line with the Business Partnership Forum that is meeting, but the issues of business are in some ways different from others and business is not just interested in economic development, it has a bigger interest in planning sometimes and skills as well. It would be worthwhile exploring what kind of additional requirements businesses have to ensure that certainty and those directions are given to market forces to enable companies to invest and I am not quite sure we are there yet. There is a will, but I am not quite sure we are there yet.

  Q1001  Mr David Jones: You have indicated that there is a need for greater strategic co-ordination of cross-border service provision. Do you consider that the establishment of formal cross-border structures would be a good idea and, if so, what sort of structures would you recommend?

  Mr Rosser: I think there is a role for that. It is not always visible to ourselves as a business organisation, as a lobbyist, the extent to which that co-ordination goes on between the two governments. We receive assurances from Ministers and officials in the Welsh Assembly Government that it does take place, but it would be of interest to us to see that happening more visibly and, indeed, where appropriate, perhaps to participate in it. Some of the areas where that could be particularly pertinent are around transport where there surely has to be a role, for example, in the Welsh Assembly Government and the government structures in the south-west of England to develop a case for improved rail links to the south-west corner of the UK and, indeed, in energy policy where energy supply and its resilience in Wales is of critical interest to business and policy is largely determined in Westminster except for energy generation under certain limits, which is in Wales. That kind of strategic co-operation could work there.

  Q1002  Mr David Jones: Do you consider there are any forms of structure that could be put in place which would make life easier?

  Mr Rosser: I think a new structure has just been set up specifically to look at the proposed Severn Barrage, for example, which has the Welsh Assembly Government, the south-west of England government structures and also central Government. It is probably early to say just how effective that is likely to be, but that strikes me as a model which could be developed.

  Q1003  Mr David Jones: You mentioned the issue of transport and the importance of co-ordination of cross-border policy and, in fact, you devote paragraphs 18-22 of your submission to the issue of the planning system. You point out, as you have just done, that planning is a vitally important issue, but you express some concern about the growing disparity between the planning systems in England and Wales. You comment: "Where England's planning system will be faster and more responsive, delivering early decisions on vital infrastructure projects, Wales' planning system could remain largely unchanged." I take it that this is in the wake of the Planning Bill that is currently going through Parliament?

  Mr Rosser: Certainly the CBI is a strong supporter of the IPC (Infrastructure Planning Commission) which will apply in Wales for large energy generation but not, for example, to large transport projects, which it will in England. If that provides a barrier to us developing our transport infrastructure and improving it in an efficient manner, that would be a great shame. We are also aware of other reviews going on in England to try to streamline the planning system for smaller scale applications. I am not sure we detect a similar enthusiasm to do that kind of wide-ranging review in Wales. Anything which makes it more difficult and more cumbersome (a) for companies to invest and (b) for the public sector to invest in public infrastructure in Wales would not be helpful.

  Q1004  Mr David Jones: Do you consider it a matter of regret that the single consent regime which will apply to highway projects in England will not apply in Wales?

  Mr Rosser: Yes, we do.

  Q1005  Mr David Jones: Do you know of any proposals in Wales for putting in place a similar system to the single consent regime that will apply to transport projects in England?

  Mr Rosser: We are not aware of any proposals.

  Q1006  Mr David Jones: Would you agree with me that this is going to be a particular problem in respect of important cross-border routes, such as the M4 where, of course, a major relief road is proposed for Newport, and the A494 in north Wales where there will have to be, as it were, a process of negotiation between the Welsh Assembly Government and the Department for Transport?

  Mr Rosser: I think the situation with the M4 south Wales is a little more self-contained in that the improvements which need to take place, I believe, rest entirely within Wales, so it is for the Welsh Assembly Government to get its processes and systems operating as efficiently as possible. One assumes that its commitment to that improvement remains firm. I think it is much more of an issue in north-east Wales where the road needs improving across both sides of the border and it would seem silly to treat them as two separate applications and, indeed, for one side of the road to be determined, delivered and then grind to a halt whilst planning procedures are then implemented the other side of the border.

  Q1007  Mr David Jones: Of course, the single consent regime which is provided for in the Planning Bill actually envisages the completion of the whole consent process in nine months, whereas is it not the case that in Wales we will be left with lengthy planning inquiries which could potentially take several years while people are waiting for their road improvements?

  Mr Rosser: Indeed.

  Q1008  David Davies: What do the CBI think about a new Welsh Language Act?

  Mr Rosser: Gosh!

  Q1009  Chairman: This is wide-ranging!

  Mr Rosser: It is wide-ranging, you are right. It rather depends what a new Welsh Language Act might contain.

  Q1010  David Davies: If it contained provisions for strongly encouraging private companies to adopt a Welsh language policy, which is what is suggested, would that be something the CBI supported?

  Mr Rosser: No, it would not. The CBI is entirely opposed to any form of compulsion on private sector companies to provide services to customers through the Welsh language. Those companies which do, and there are several, currently report a very low take-up for those services provided in Welsh. We strongly believe that the efforts and resources which might otherwise be put into policing legislation would be far better applied to encouraging provision on a voluntary basis where companies see it as being appropriate, but more so to encourage the use of them by the people of Wales. Passing legislation which requires a relatively small number of companies probably, ex-utilities, current utilities, to provide more services which most of them already do something on and nobody is using seems rather pointless. The CBI has offered to work with the Welsh Assembly Government and with the Welsh Language Board to develop and promote a more comprehensive accreditation scheme for companies providing Welsh language services, some form of kite marking, if you wish. We would use our best efforts to work with our members, with other business organisations, to promote that across a range of sectors and then to promote take-up of it by the public in Wales.

  Q1011  David Davies: Do the CBI think that were that Act to happen and were it to impose obligations on private sector companies that would act as a barrier to businesses coming to Wales?

  Mr Rosser: I think that depends very much on the sorts of companies that might be covered by any legislation. At the moment our understanding of the thinking within the Welsh Assembly Government is that it is likely to apply to companies predominantly providing public services, which we take to mean probably ex-public sector utilities. We think that would lead to a dumbing down in some areas of the services provided by those utilities that currently provide good services and a levelling up in others, costs which would almost certainly be passed on to the consumer in Wales, and we already have regional pricing in most utilities. Any language compulsion in legislation which went into other business sectors would have a much more dramatic impact, but we are not certain that is the way WAG are thinking at the moment.

  Q1012  Alun Michael: In your evidence and in your note in advance you have talked about the importance of certainty, clarity and communication, things like that, and understanding your business concerns. Do you feel that officials at the Welsh Assembly have a good grasp of business issues and is the relationship right following the incorporation of the WDA (Welsh Development Agency)?

  Mr Rosser: Inevitably the grasp of business issues is going to be highly variable. One might expect, and one does see, that officials within the old Welsh Development Agency who are now within Economic Development and Transport tend to have a better feel for the way businesses are thinking, what the issues are and what concerns them, than officials in maybe the Environment Division or Culture Division dealing with Welsh language issues. That is perhaps not surprising. Quite a lot of our work is not actually talking to Economic Development within the Welsh Assembly Government, it is talking to other departments to try and get across some of those messages from the business community.

  Q1013  Alun Michael: There are a couple of comments that you make in your evidence. You say: "Deferring to the expertise of the Welsh Assembly Government should not always be the assumed course of action for Whitehall and Westminster when developing non-devolved policy proposals or considering requests for the transfer of legislative competence." Have you come across specific examples or is this a sort of fear rather than a concern?

  Mr Rosser: It is certainly a fear. We very much encourage the UK Government to consult with companies in Wales when it is dealing with requests for powers which would transfer power to the Welsh Assembly Government that would have an impact on the business community. One, for example, that springs to mind is the transfer of building regulations, which I think will be done as a Transfer of Functions Order rather than the LCO Measure process, where there are very clear consequences for companies, for the development industry in Wales, but we have gained a very strong impression when we have come to Westminster to talk to officials that it is a done deal.

  Q1014  Alun Michael: Another thing you say is: "Learning from each nation or region needs to be better integrated into the policy making processes that impact on Wales." Are you, as the CBI in Wales, drawing on experiences in other regions to try to inform that sort of debate? In future, will you be drawing interesting comparisons to the attention of Members of this Committee, for example, as well as to Assembly Members?

  Mr Rosser: We would be happy to. The CBI in Wales is a fully integrated part of the CBI nationally, so we have regular discussions with colleagues in Scotland but also policy experts in our head office in England. We have been talking to the Welsh Assembly Government, for example, about innovation, research and development vouchers piloted in the West Midlands, delivered by the University of West Midlands in Bristol, just across the border, and now being rolled out in Scotland and Northern Ireland too. We very much welcome the opportunity to speak to this Committee about some of those issues in the future.

  Mr Jenkins: A positive example of this type of dialogue can be found in the DET that have set up the KPI panel, and that is a dialogue with business, almost a first blush, behind closed doors discussion about where we are going on certain key consultations and we have found that incredibly helpful because it enables businesses and policy-makers free discussion on some critical issues that will impact on businesses down the line and allows them to be fed in at the earliest stages. That type of approach has been very fruitful.

  Chairman: Can we move on now to higher education.

  Q1015  Mark Williams: What are the consequences for employers of the different funding policies between England and Wales with regard to higher education? You have talked in your brief about the shortfall of 61 million that the Welsh universities are facing. What are the practical manifestations of that for you as employers?

  Mr Rosser: The CBI has most of the large higher education institutions in Wales within membership, but I will answer this question from the perspective of our mainstream business members. To date, I do not think business is seeing any consequences in terms of the quality of graduates leaving Welsh institutions. Speaking as somebody who sits as a governor on one of Wales' HEIs, universities in Wales find it more difficult increasingly to invest in their estates, in their facilities, in the best teachers and research teams. Whether that will have an impact on the choices of potential students as to the institution they choose to go and whether they will gravitate more towards better funded institutions outside Wales is something that is not certain but we should all keep an eye on. Companies in Wales will work with the most appropriate higher education institution when it comes to research, for example. Some of the large companies are equally likely to work with English institutions as they are with institutions in Wales, but there is a much greater appetite to work with their local university.

  Q1016  Mark Williams: Have you detected a change in attitude between higher education institutions and those employers?

  Mr Rosser: There is an undoubted change in attitude between the two groups wanting to work together. The agenda of business and HE working together is moving ahead at a pace. Medium-sized and smaller companies are more likely to turn to their local university rather than larger companies who might trawl the expertise wherever it exists in the UK or, indeed, Europe. If the funding gap between HE in Wales and England continues and, indeed, continues to widen, as it currently is, and Welsh universities are less able to invest in their research capability then one could see that being a problem for Welsh businesses, but I am not certain that we are there yet. Lastly, I think what are called third mission activities for universities, which generally include working with companies, working with businesses, is something that they tend not to be core funded for. At a time when universities are under financial pressure, I think a number of them would like to do more with companies in Wales than they feel currently financially able to do. It is more a question of companies in Wales to a certain extent not knowing what they are missing, there is more that could be done if the funding was better managed.

  Q1017  Mark Williams: Notwithstanding that, and you talk of good relationships between the institutions and business, in your brief you talk about the funding gap as being "Extremely difficult. We have got to rectify that now. It is going to be difficult to rectify this at a later stage. Action must be taken immediately". What action would you like to see to remedy the gap?

  Mr Rosser: It is very easy to call for some more money to be ploughed in. The consequence of the decision on tuition fees policy in Wales was to take some higher education budget and put it into the hands of students as opposed to into the hands of institutions, and one can understand the arguments for putting money into the hands of students but there are consequences which flow from that. The tuition fees policy is likely to be reviewed both in England and Wales in the next year or two and it will be interesting to see what decisions come out of that. I do not think we would want to see that reiterated in the next review.

  Q1018  Mark Williams: Do you have a view on that as an organisation—specifically on the lifting of the cap?

  Mr Rosser: I am not sure we have developed a view on that, but certainly the consequences of the differential policy are clear to us. One other thing which could be usefully done, I think, is consideration given to moving higher education from the Education Department within the Welsh Assembly Government and putting it into the Economic Development Department if we are serious about making universities part of the infrastructure for developing our economy. Whilst universities are competing for funding alongside schools they will always struggle somewhat, but putting them within an Economic Development budget might make us think more clearly about how we use that Economic Development budget.

  Q1019  Mark Williams: It would be a very interesting dialogue with the universities on that one!

  Mr Rosser: I think the universities would probably support that.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 16 January 2009