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Welsh and UK Government Webinar

Cathy Owens
Cathy Owens

Yesterday I took part I a business webinar with minsters from the Welsh and UK Governments yesterday. I know that video meetings will be more prevalent in the future, and that this pandemic has enhanced digital comms, but the webinar wasn’t simply a practical way of meeting during lockdown, it was actually better than it would have been in person.

All the business organisations in Wales had worked together, and in a one-hour meeting, expertly chaired by Heather Myers, the ministers in attendance - Lee Waters, Nadhim Zahawi and David Davies - each provided a one-minute opener, and then responded to brief questions from some of the 100 attendees, representing a broad swathe of the business community in Wales.

If the meeting had been in real life – no way would 100 business leaders be able to attend at 24 hours’ notice. Just imagine the cost, in time and carbon, saved by not having to travel. There would have been arguments about protocol and prominence. It would have had to have been at a whole day long, and the ministers would have bored on for at least 30 minutes in a pre-prepared keynote speech before a few blokes put their hand up with ‘more of a statement than a question’.

Crucially, the three-way conversation between the ministers would not have happened in the way that it did through the tightly chaired video call. It would not have been so open and engaged, so collaborative and so honest.

The welcome intra-government working has been driven partly by the immediacy and scale of the problem that we face but took away from the meeting that there is more appetite for joint working in the future, and this should benefit the Welsh economy in the long run.  

The content of the meeting was also fascinating. Aside from the practicalities, there were some political and structural points of contrast and potential conflict to keep an eye on.

Firstly, a small point in the grand scheme of things, but one that is important to policy wonks and political types like me. The Wales Office role is still not resolved. In such fast-moving scenarios, the major decisions made jointly and separately but the Welsh Government, the Treasury and BEIS clearly don’t involve the Wales Office. Whilst the new team’s commitment to a consensual approach is to be welcomed, ministers have yet to carve out an effective role in influencing UK Government Departments. Or if they are, we aren’t seeing it.

On a more significant policy point of contrast, the UK Government current position is that it should control the decisions made by the Welsh Government on how it spends its borrowing powers, and that it should be spent on the M4. It was a particularly jarring point made by David Davies while we all sat in our 407th video conference, having not driven on a motorway for a month. It is hard to make the case right now that the Welsh Government should be spending £2bn on dividend-paying motorway-building companies when so many Welsh businesses need direct cash injections just to survive to the end of the year. I also think that the UK Government views on this zero-sum, all-or-nothing option will ultimately turn out to be less enthusiastic than those held by Wales Office ministers and the Welsh Conservatives.

The ‘Levelling Up’ agenda – which is understood as sharing prosperity across the UK - is not necessarily reflected in the decision-making on Covid-19 economic policy. Whilst there is no doubt Rishi Sunak at the Treasury and his colleagues at BEIS have moved quickly to shore up companies across the UK, there are some that fall through the gaps, and some that do far better than others, and these won’t be evenly geographically spread. What happens, as Lee Waters points out, if the £1.25bn Future Fund criteria mainly supports venture-backed tech start-ups around Oxbridge, London and the South East?

In terms of Welsh Government spend, the illuminating issue was the ‘Star Chamber’ described by Lee Waters. Doubling the critical care capacity of the Welsh NHS and pumping money into business bank accounts is very expensive, and all other spending has to be reviewed to see if it can be redeployed back into the Covid-19 health and recovery funds. Where ministers have previously agreed projects in Wales, they are being reviewed in the Star Chamber to see if the funding can be clawed back. If your project does not have spades in the ground already, it isn’t going to happen, or at least not right now.

A stark point at the end of a very interesting meeting which certainly demonstrated to the business community how hard ministers of all stripes have been grappling with the realities we currently face, and one which I hope is regularly repeated.

For a bird's eye view.
Am olwg oddi uchod.

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