Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200 - 218)

TUESDAY 30 JANUARY 2001

MR LINDSAY HICKS, MR PAUL SELWYN-SMITH AND MR ROGER GUEST

Chairman

  200. Good morning, Mr Hicks. I do not know who wants to lead but if you could introduce yourselves and tell us what Click-Cymru is and what Hicks Randles does, I would be very grateful.

  (Mr Guest) Good morning, Chairman. Thank you for inviting us. My name is Roger Guest and I will be supported by Lindsay and Paul so it will be not a double act but a triple act. Thank you for inviting us to the Committee. First of all, I would like to tell you something about Hicks Randles. I will ask Lindsay Hicks, who is our senior partner, to say something about Hicks Randles and the things we do here in North Wales.
  (Mr Hicks) We are a four-partner firm of chartered accountants based in North East Wales employing something like 30 staff and we cover 1,200 to 1,300 clients. We are very diverse. We cover all sorts of manufacturing, people who import, people who export. We feel we are very close to the heartbeat of businesses in North Wales and in Cheshire. We like to get involved in the businesses, helping clients run their businesses, making decisions with the clients who run their businesses that aid in their development. That perhaps is enough about the firm.
  (Mr Guest) Thank you, Lindsay. Chairman, we realise time is limited so I hope that our letter to the Committee helps give a flavour of how Click-Cymru was born. I will put a little bit more detail on the bones of that. About a year ago we launched in partnership with CELTEC, that is the local training and enterprise council, our innovative bizwebwales concept. We launched that at the St Asaph CELTEC offices and we were very pleased to have David Hanson, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, to do that launch. He was joined by Chris Ruane and we were delighted to have them both there. Chris came to us at the close of that launch and mentioned the ex-pats database which he had and could we do anything through bizwebwales and the answer of course was yes because we see bizwebwales as something that is different and something that will help the business community and we are always keen to put something back in. So we set about with Chris looking at how from the coalface we could actually do something for Wales. It has ended up with a letter which Chris sent out through the database to ex-pats across the United States of America, the Pacific Rim and Europe and we had an excellent response. The response that we had was quite interesting. We decided from that there were things that we could do. Perhaps there were things that were not being done because of constraints on public expenditure and we could add value and we therefore looked at developing Click-Cymru. The rest, as they say, is history. That is where we are now. We take a targeted approach at helping small to medium-sized businesses (because that is where we believe our expertise is) develop international links. We are looking at the cultural side and we will tell you later about genealogy. We have got involved in the Objective 1 process which we can say a little bit about later on. That is a very brief summary of where we are at the moment. Progress in our terms in the private sector is perhaps not as fast as we would like. We move at the pace of the public sector and that to us is a disappointment on occasions.

  201. Could you give us an idea of the number of people who have used Click-Cymru, the number of hits on the site?
  (Mr Guest) The number of hits, as it were. I will ask my colleague Paul Selwyn-Smith to give you some answers on that. Paul is a partner in Hicks Randles and he is our technology expert as well.
  (Mr Selwyn-Smith) The point that I would like to make is that the web site we have at the moment is very much regarded by us as a pilot. There is a limit to what we can do with the resources that we have available and we have not been able to devote a great deal of time to promotional activities. Having said that, the state we are at now is we have a list of round about 1,200 e-mail addresses to which we send round about once a month an e-mail, a newsletter, which gives views about what has been happening in Wales which we think will be of interest to the recipients. When that e-mail newsletter goes out every month we tend to get quite a good response to that either by e-mail or people who visit the site to find out more background of stories in the newsletter. We get quite a good response at that time. Then it tends to level off a bit and quieten down until the next newsletter comes out. We are at the stage where it is still very much a pilot. We are getting good responses and we are getting some useful feedback. We had feedback from one individual in the United States looking to set up a small business in Conwy and we were able to put him in touch with some of the local sources of help and, as far as we are know, he has set up now over here. So little stories like that give us a little bit of a boost and make us want to continue. But, as I say, there is really a limit as to what we can do at the moment using our own funds. We have not to date had any public money whatsoever for what we have been doing. We are a commercial organisation and there is only so far we can go with the funds that we have available.

Mr Ruane

  202. You say "there is hard evidence to underpin the view that Wales is coming from behind in the promotion and awareness stakes". Why do you think this?
  (Mr Guest) I think the evidence is there. Can I take maybe a softer example of how that is coming across to us. Part of our Click-Cymru research has led us to work with the National Library of Wales with Andrew Green and his team there. When talking about expatriates expatriates are only there because their roots are in Wales. One of the things that has concerned us is that the use of the Internet and the fantastic possibilities that now presents for Wales does not allow those expatriates to come and search their heritage and their roots. Again—and I hope Chris does not mind me using the example—we were talking with Chris about how we could work with the National Library to do this. The Scots promote themselves very well. As the First Minister said when he gave his evidence to the Committee, there are a lot of Micks and Paddies, but not so many people of Welsh descendence. I would dispute that and say that maybe the Welsh descendants go back four or five generations but they have no means of tracing their heritage except by manual means at the moment. Our Celtic cousins, the Irish and Scots, have gone along the road to developing genealogical services that feed into other areas. We do not do that. It is very difficult to get any funds. There is a document here which is produced by the Heritage Council for Ireland which shows how they have done it. So Wales is not promoting itself to its people in that sense, the people out there in the world and there is a big hole. Those people would actually come on to the web site to search their genealogy, but that would be a gateway, Chairman, to them buying into other services that we have here in Wales. For example, you have just had evidence from the International Eisteddfod. That might be a link. There is the National Eisteddfod. There are many other things that we could point to. That is one area of evidence. The other area of evidence is, of course, there is a Celtic Festival we are told in Brittany which takes place each year. Up until recently Wales has been very much the poor relation there in promoting Wales at the Festival. There is small attendance from pockets of activity in Wales. I do gather from discussions I have had this week with the Cultural Division in the Assembly, as a result of a link that we had with Dennis Turner at the International Trade Division who passed on our details to them, that something is being done about that for the coming August. We wait with interest to see what is happening there. For example, Lindsay discovered when he was out in the USA talking to David Williams of the Wales North American Chamber that there is only one person in the Welsh Tourist Board representing Wales in the USA and he works out of New York. Again, an example there. I know from a previous job that I did some time ago that the embassies and consulate offices do an excellent job worldwide. But I have experienced working in Europe with trade missions and have been in Europe when the Scots and the Irish have been really very dominant and I knew Wales was not. That is not the fault of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but I think there is a lot there that could be done so, yes, there are examples.

  203. We have been told by many people that one of the problems faced by Wales is the lack of a large expatriate population of the kind Scotland and Ireland have. In the light of this, how effective a strategy is targeting Welsh ex-pats abroad? Have we got the numbers out there? Is it worth the time and effort in contacting those people?
  (Mr Guest) I think, yes, we have got the numbers out there. I cannot remember the numbers for the USA but it is about four million in the USA alone.
  (Mr Hicks) We integrated very well. We integrated so well into America that whereas the Irish and Scots have kept to their own communities, the Welsh people who went over there integrated far better. There are a lot of people in the US who do not realise they have got Welsh roots. How we get at those people is another problem.

  204. That figure you quote there is based on a tick box for being Welsh or whatever nationality you claim descendence from in America. You are saying that four million people tick that box and say "I am of Welsh ancestry"? That is showing a commitment, an awareness, is it not?
  (Mr Guest) I think there is a potential. I think the more we create an awareness the more likely the people who are not ticking the box at the moment will do that. It is about building the profile. This is why if you talk to David Williams and his team, as Lindsay has done in the States, David and his team are very keen to get that message across and are looking to us to give them the tools to do that in some way. They are business people who have extensive links in the US and together with events like the Cymnfa Ganu which we know is taking place in California this coming year and the work of our colleagues in Wales International who are members of Click-Cymru, there is a whole range of people who can get to this major figure, if that is the case, of the four million people who are not ticking the box but certainly would if we told them we were here.
  (Mr Hicks) It is one further way, is it not, of promoting Wales? Why not start through the Welsh ex-pats because at least they have got some feeling for Wales?

  Mr Ruane: It is an under-used resource and there is a lot of goodwill we could tap into. To quantify it, in money terms it would cost us millions to buy and it is on tap.

Mrs Williams

  205. You have told us that CELTEC is your only public sector partner. What do you think are the benefits of private sector-led initiatives and what more could the Government, for instance, do to encourage such programmes?
  (Mr Guest) We have been very fortunate to have the support of CELTEC from day one starting with bizwebwales and that has been absolutely excellent. Sadly, we have struggled to get the support of the other public agencies. It was some time before we could get a positive response from the Wales Tourist Board, which we eventually did, and it was a considerable amount of time before we could get a response from the Welsh Development Agency. When we did get it, it was slightly negative but we are now assured by the Chairman that they are very keen to work with the Click-Cymru and the expatriate community. I think the role of the private sector brings perhaps a different angle. We bring a business role there and if we are going to strengthen the economy of Wales, we understand how the problems of the smaller businesses, who do not have the money and the resources perhaps to access the big trade missions which go out through Wales International, and we can listen and feed that back into the process. We can also come up with innovation and new ideas which have not been done before where we see the gaps in talking to our own client base across North Wales, but also the private sector always wants to move ahead quickly and do things because if we do not move ahead, the public sector does play an important role but it tends to get locked up in committees and debates and meetings. It is about getting on with it and I think the role of the private sector is forward looking and it is delivery orientated. Maybe we can bring that skill to the party on occasions.

  206. What do you think the Government can do to encourage such programmes?
  (Mr Guest) I think there is an awful lot the Government can do. It is difficult when you think about the possibility of changing primary legislation. Maybe it is not about that. Maybe it is about empowering the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, if there is an example there, where maybe you could use the consular teams on the ground to have a country focus. I know that they have to perhaps be fairly even-handed but it is an education process that we need through our offices on the ground to say we understand the needs of Wales which are different to Scotland and Ireland and England and is that a way of doing it? Do you actually have a team of people you can second to certain key places? Are they drawn from the public sector and the private sector? There are a lot of things the Government can do to strengthen our role out there through our gateway processes which are the consular offices perhaps and also through the use of the Internet. Paul will tell you we have talked about Cymru.com.
  (Mr Selwyn-Smith) There is one concept which is worth exploring, I think. There is the possibility of new top-level domains coming in now, as they are called. We are all familiar with .co.uk and the dot-com but there is a possibility that additional types of domain could appear. The idea we had was why do we not look at the possibility of "dot-cym" so that Welsh businesses can advertise the fact of their nationality directly through their web site address. That is one example where there might be possibilities. It is quite an expensive process to set up something like that. It is not something that a private sector organisation would consider but something which as a partnership is achievable.

  207. Do you think that the advent of the National Assembly for Wales, ie devolution, has changed the perception? We are talking about "the Government" here but we have had the National Assembly for Wales now and do you think that has changed the situation?
  (Mr Selwyn-Smith) I think so very much. I think there is a tremendous resurgence in Wales of the idea of the Welsh nationality, if you like, and the very existence of the Assembly is a good plus point for promoting Wales and I am sure that the Assembly will be doing as much as it can to promote Wales internationally. I certainly think that that will change the way things are looked at.

  208. Mr Guest, you touched earlier on the problems you were experiencing with the WDA and WTB. Could you tell us a little bit about those difficulties and why you think that was the case?
  (Mr Guest) Yes certainly. When the Click-Cymru partnership team was formed in the summer we wrote to the then Chief Executive of the Agency asking could we talk about Click-Cymru. That was in July. That was both agencies, the Tourist Board as well. It took over three months to get a response to that letter. We only got a response from the Welsh Development Agency in the first instance after three months through people chasing them up. Assembly Members chased them up, Chris chased them up on occasions for us, David Hanson chased them up, and it was very difficult to get a response. When we finally did get a representative of the Agency to a meeting in Cardiff on 27 November that was a very negative process for us. It was not a helpful attitude that we had at that meeting and, needless to say, we have now had assurances from Sir David Rowe-Beddoe that they do wish to work with the expatriate community and they do wish to work with the private sector. Having said that, Chairman, there are many positive aspects of the Welsh Development Agency. As an organisation we do work for them. We have just been awarded a contract to chair the new Automotive Forum Appraisal Panel which is another part of the Agency which is excellent. We do have very good contacts with development people there because we do have companies that do expand. We have an example at the moment of a company who have just received excellent support from the Welsh Assembly Industrial Development Team who have gained grants for a major expansion of their operation in Denbighshire. It is not all bad news is what I am saying, but it has been very bad news in terms of Click-Cymru and it has caused us to question the amount of effort that the whole team have put in, particularly Hicks Randles. We did write to the Wales Tourist Board at the same time and again it took several months to get a reply. We had a positive meeting with the Board's Chief Executive in Cardiff which was good. Having said all that, in context, maybe the reason we did not get a good response is the attitude of why should the private sector be telling the public sector what is needed, but that is about partnership, is it not? If we are going to move forward we have to move forward in partnership and maybe one agency should be charged with the job of promoting Wales in a more definite sense. I am pleased to learn that the Assembly have a cultural division and perhaps it sits there. Or maybe the WDA are the right people to be given a new role in addition to their inward investment role and in addition to their new role of enterprise which they inherited from the TEC to strength their network through their offices across the world. So there are lots of things there, Chairman.

Mr Ruane

  209. Could I come in on that, Roger. The WDA in the past, as far as inward investment is concerned, have in the main dealt with larger corporations or larger bodies.
  (Mr Guest) Yes.

  210. Do you think that they have the right attitude to dealing with the voluntary sector out there, so to speak, the expatriate communities that run on the back of volunteers where your approach has got to be totally different? You have got to be quite aware and quite gracious in your approach with those voluntary organisations.
  (Mr Guest) Yes, you have. I would say at the moment they are lacking those skills. It is very much a top-down approach they have. Successful inward investment in Wales has been excellent, but it is all about the bottom-up approach and you have got to listen and it should be the bottom-up approach. You have got to listen to those groups and you have got to understand where they are building to. You have got to be sensitive in your approach and work with them in partnership otherwise they will walk away.

  211. And not wait four months to reply to a letter?
  (Mr Guest) And not wait four months to reply to a letter.

Mr Caton

  212. You began to tackle this question but I would like to give you the opportunity to expand on it. You have mentioned that UK Government could help with perhaps better access to consulate offices. Are there any other things you think the UK Government or UK Government agencies could be doing to help promote Wales?
  (Mr Guest) I read with interest the discussions the Committee had with Sir David Wright from Invest UK. I personally, if I can divorce myself from the current role, had experience of the Invest in Britain Bureau in the past and to my mind they never promoted UK plc in certain regions as strongly as they could. I wonder whether the new organisation will still do that or whether, as Mrs Betty Williams said, as we now have the Assembly and that is excellent, that perhaps the UK Government should be giving the Assembly more teeth to promote Wales? I do not know what the real answer is, but I do think the Committee needs to look in depth at the role of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the role of Invest UK, and the role of the Assembly and to see how that can be strengthened, Chairman, and move together in partnership. That is where I think the hub is; the spokes will then fit into that wheel.

  213. That is interesting. That is a message that we have been getting both over the last couple of days and previously in this inquiry, but it is a message that could perhaps create its own problems in that people are telling us the partnership is not strong enough between Wales and UK agencies, whether it be is tourism, economic development or whatever, and at the same time saying Wales should have a stronger separate voice. One can see that squaring that circle is a huge challenge.
  (Mr Guest) It is a nightmare.

  214. I think my question is do you recognise that if we do head down that road of Wales and Welsh bodies having a greater role abroad there is a potential for confusion and competition within the UK which Wales might not necessarily be the main beneficiary of?
  (Mr Guest) I would say that is probably very true. The only way to think about that is maybe using the networks that Wales has. We keep using David and his team in the United States of America but they are a very good example of how maybe we could strengthen the message coming from targeted groups like that. There will always be the competition between the regions of the UK and that is helpful for UK plc but it is not healthy if it is the numbers game we are playing for Wales, and my concern is how we strengthen that for Wales really. It is like an engine; you can only fine tune it so far. If I can come up with an answer I will come up with one.
  (Mr Selwyn-Smith) One possibility that perhaps could be explored is better sign-posting from UK Government organisations through to the relevant organisations in Wales, Scotland, whatever. I was looking at the Open Government web site this morning which is an excellent site, and an awful lot of work has gone into putting the Government on the Internet which is excellent, but I was looking for a link to the Welsh Assembly on the UK Government web site. I tried looking under `W' for Wales. No, it was not there. I tried looking under `A' for Assembly. No, it was not there. I finally found it under `N' for National Assembly along with the National Blood Service and the National Crime Squad, so it is not terribly well sign-posted. If there could be a link on the home page of the main Government web site "here is the Assembly site" and "there is the Scottish Parliament site". Similarly, with sites like the Foreign and Commonwealth Office site, if there could be some thought given to how they could link through to the people in the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament who are promoting their own countries separately, that is something that can be done quite simply and at no great cost and I think there would be some benefits for other countries there.
  (Mr Guest) On our partnership we have S4C Television, they are doing a lot of work, as I know HTV have and I am sure BBC Wales are as well, to promote Wales in their way. We have got some powerful media in the United Kingdom. I see the development of broad band multi-media which might be another way of promoting ourselves. There are many avenues, I think, but you are right, Mr Caton, it is about getting this hub right and getting the spokes working with it.

Chairman

  215. Bar some notable exceptions, practically all of our witnesses have not mentioned the Internet. Obviously those that did mention it seemed to be very impressed with it and how they were getting their business or whatever promoted through it. Do you think Welsh business should be making greater use of the Internet? There is probably an obvious answer to that one. Is there any way the Government could help in allowing or promoting business to use it?
  (Mr Guest) I think there are many ways, yes. As you can see, we would not be sitting here today if we had not seen the benefits of the web for Hicks Randles and for Wales, but it is very difficult to get SMEs to focus on issues of that nature when each day they are running faster to survive, but it is the way forward, communications are the way forward, and I think there is lots that can be done. I am quite excited by the launch of CETW. Lindsay, Paul and I went to Llandudno last week to the launch of the All Wales Council for Education and Training, the new body which is forming up. There are big human resources development issues in Wales. Is that the way forward? Do you channel the large budget CETW are going to have in helping SMEs to use the Internet more positively to learn about it making things accessible? We heard from S4C television that NTL were offering to support an Objective 1 project with set-top boxes so that you do away with the exclusion issues of not being able to buy a PC. There are lots of things agencies can do to do that. We need to do it quickly, otherwise we will get left behind, but in a targeted way.

  216. A final question from me; have you had any involvement in setting up Objective 1 projects?
  (Mr Guest) Yes.

  217. Particularly in relation to overseas trade development and how have you found the process?
  (Mr Guest) Yes. We have most certainly because that is the purpose of Click-Cymru. We want to access with partnerships Objective 1 funding to take it forward in a structured way. Can I say, Chairman, that if NASA had been organising Objective 1 then perhaps the rocket would have well and truly been off the launch pad. In Wales' case from the private sector we perceive that it is on the launch pad, the fuel is in the tanks, but they have lost the matches to light the burners at the moment. Maybe there is more to be done. It is a big job and seven years is a blink. It goes very fast and we are already biting into it. We have had first-class support from John Clarke and the team at WEFO but they appear to be vastly under-resourced and they do need the tool kit to be able to do the job. I do not know whether you have had access to the Programme and Monitoring Committee which has finished its report which has looked at reviewing the procedures that they are operating under and making them more slick. We are hopeful that we will be able to gain some funding for Click-Cymru through Objective 1. If we do not get that green light, and we have been permanently on amber for the last few months, as a commercial operation there is not much more time we can put into it. I am sure Lindsay will bear that out. It would be a great shame if we were to lose the benefits that we have already gained. There are good examples of private sector-led initiatives like better Business Wales with BT and the HSBC Bank and others. We hope Click-Cymru is now ranked as one of those. We hope the private sector unit that WEFO has just set up will be empowered to work with people like ourselves because our belief is that Objective 1 will not work unless we can get the private sector involved, whether it is us or whoever it might be. It just will not work. Yes, we have had experience, it has been very good but it is a very frustrating process and we are losing time.

  218. Thank you for that warning. Thank you for coming here this morning.
  (Mr Guest) Thank you, Chairman. Thank you for inviting us.





 
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