Previous Section Home Page

Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are discussing the Second Reading of a Bill. Extended remarks along those lines are getting to the point of irrelevance.

Mr. Richards : I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was just finishing.

I say to doubting hon. Members how much more compelling is the case for 500,000 Welsh speakers next door in Wales.

7.41 pm

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon) : Mae'n warth o beth nad oes gennyf fi, fel aelod seneddol o gymru, yr hawl i siarad fy iaith fy hun yn yr unig senedd sy'n deddfu ar ran fy ngwlad hyd yn oed mewn dadl sy'n ymwneud a'r iaith gymraeg.


Column 985

Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. I believe that the hon. Gentleman was here when my predecessor in the Chair made the rules of the House quite clear. I hope that I do not have to repeat them. May I ask the hon. Gentleman to continue his speech in English?

Mr. Wigley : I had availed myself of a translation of my speech, Madam Deputy Speaker, in case you requested it. I said :

"It is a disgraceful situation that I, as an MP from Wales, have no right to speak my own language in this, the only Parliament that legislates for my country, even in a debate concerning the Welsh language."

Had I addressed the House in Norman French I would have been in order, and that is a reflection on the status, or lack of status, of the Welsh language. That lack of status is the central issue in the debate on the Bill.

I listened to the hon. Member for Clwyd, North-West (Mr. Richards), and I dare say that Ministers will realise what a polarising effect and influence he would have if we ever had the misfortune of seeing him as a Minister at the Welsh Office.

The Bill has been long delayed. It represents the Government's response to a widespread campaign in Wales over the past 10 years and more for a new Welsh Language Act. The 1967 Act has long since been seen to be totally inadequate, as hon. Members on both sides of the House now recognise. As other hon. Members have said, that Act was based on the Hughes Parry report of 1965, which advocated equal validity for Welsh in speech and in written documents, both in the courts and in public administration. However, the 1967 Act provided for Welsh-speaking people only the ability to speak Welsh in the courts, with no rights regarding documents in court. There were no rights in connection with public administration. In other words, the 1967 Act fell well short of the 1965 Hughes Parry report. Since then, the principle of equal validity itself has been shown to be inadequate. It was a step in the right direction at the time, but equal validity is a licence to allow all public bodies to do nothing whatever for the Welsh language and to do everything through the English language alone. Indeed, in order to give people who speak Welsh and who want to use the Welsh language the opportunity to do so, the institutions with which they deal must have a degree of bilingualism, to make equal validity meaningful for those individuals.

Over the past decade or more, people have called more and more for Welsh speakers to have language rights established in law, in a way that does not deny English speakers their rights. We are a nation with two languages. Both should have full and equal rights. Those who want to use Welsh should have the right to do so, certainly in dealings with the Government and public administration, with the courts and with public services, and with officialdom in general. In other words, Welsh should be as much of an official language in Wales as English. Individuals should thereby have full, free and unfettered choice of the language that they want to use.

On 1 July 1986, I introduced a ten-minute Bill to that end. It was supported by hon. Members from all four parties in Wales, and given an unopposed First Reading. At about the same time, Lord Prys-Davies introduced a similar Bill in another place. The details were slightly different, but the objectives were the same. He and I overwhelmingly agreed on our targets ; the Bills were


Column 986

almost interchangeable. I pay tribute to the work that Lord Prys-Davies has done, both at that time and over the intervening period.

In October 1986--this is the prelude to the present Bill, Madam Deputy Speaker, and that is why it is relevant--Lord Prys-Davies and I met Welsh Office Ministers to discuss the way forward for the two proposed Bills. The Secretary of State at that time, Nicholas Edwards, and the everlasting, evergreen Minister of State, who was there in his present capacity, met us and agreed to a public consultation exercise on the contents of the two Bills. That took place in the winter of 1986-87. By April 1987, when the consultation had been completed, about 2,000 responses had been received, of which only 43 objected to the direction in which the two Bills were going. However, it was 1988 by the time that the new Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Walker, said that, of course, there would be legislation. There has been a saga of prevarication and delay over the intervening period.

In the meantime, the Welsh Office set up an advisory panel on the language consisting of, I believe, eight wise people. They were consulted and they consulted people in Wales, and they recommended a new language Act. The Welsh Office then moved on and set up a Welsh Language Board in July 1988. It consulted again, and again recommended a new Act ; indeed, it published a draft Bill in February 1991. There was wide consultation again, and that draft Bill was then regarded as a minimalist provision. However, it was not taken up by the Welsh Office, and last autumn in Cardiff 4,000 people from all parties demonstrated in favour of new Welsh language legislation. Now, seven years after we introduced those Bills in 1986, the Government are moving forward with their own Bill. Their Bill does not even go as far as the minimalist Bill provided by the Welsh Language Board, and it is interesting to note what the board said about it. I pay tribute, as other hon. Members have, to the work of the board. When the Bill was published in December last year the board commented in its press release :

"The Government's Bill clearly fails to achieve the objectives set out by the Secretary of State in his statement to the House in February 1992 and falls well short of the Board's own proposals published in February 1991 All Welsh MPs and Members of the Upper House will now have a key role to play. The Board urges them to ensure that the eventual legislation gives the language and the people of Wales a firm foundation of rights".

I emphasise the word "rights". Those were the considered comments of the board set up by the Government themselves to advise on the matter, after extensive consultation with the people of Wales.

Mr. Win Griffiths : Unfortunately, one of the references in the Welsh Language Board's press release will not be true. Although it was right for the board to say that it was up to all Welsh Members of Parliament to improve the Government's Bill and to press for the measures suggested by the board, when we return after the recess we shall debate a measure that will take the choice away from Welsh Members. We shall not be responsible for the status and future of the Welsh language in Wales.

Mr. Wigley : Undoubtedly, on the Monday that we return, there will be a debate on that matter and strong feelings will be expressed. It goes without saying that I should like to see our own Parliament deciding these matters in Wales, but we must make the best of what we have. The House of Lords tried to amend the Bill.


Column 987

Interestingly enough, the former Secretary of State for Wales suggested that the Government should make progress on the definition of status and a cross-section of peers voted in support of a change in that direction. However, we have not yet had that change. I hope that the Government will be sensitive to these matters in Committee and will give ground because a number of the members of the Welsh Language Board were on the point of resigning if the Government had not given an undertaking to re-examine some of the details of the Bill. We are still looking for a fulfilment of the commitments given at that time. The Bill went through the House of Lords without any significant strengthening. The Government refused to accept amendments to improve the status and other shortcomings. The lobby in Wales has been overwhelming on a number of these points, but the Government have not yet moved on them.

At last we have the Bill before the House. We have waited 25 years since the last Bill and we need to get it right this time. The hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) said that there is not likely to be another Bill this side of the millennium. I hope that he is not closing the door to the possibility that, if this Bill is not strengthened enough and if the Labour party gets into government, the next Labour Government will provide their own Bill to do the necessary job. We would, however, rather see the Bill strengthened now and get it right in Committee.

Frankly, the Bill is extremely inadequate in its present form. It is little more than a Welsh Language Board Bill setting up a statutory board and relatively little else. It is worth drawing the attention of the House to the comments made by the Welsh Consumer Council :

"If Welsh language policies are to be meaningful, and if legislation is to be useful, and if the ordinary consumer is to exercise choice in going about his or her daily life, the test must be that the Welsh language can be used in a normal and unproblematic way on a daily basis in everyday life."

The central question that arises--this has been the central objective of the campaign over the years--is to enshrine language rights in law. We need legislation to create and define the rights of those who want to use the Welsh language--some 500,000 people, although there are possibly 1 million people when one takes into account those who understand and speak some Welsh--and enable their children to have a bilingual education. After all, language belongs not simply to the Welsh speakers in Wales but to all the people in Wales. The Bill creates rights for one person alone--the Secretary of State. There are some limited rights for the Welsh Language Bl. If he is to undertake a successful job with the responsibilities that he has, he needs stronger legislation than what we have before us and resources to ensure that such legislation can be turned into meaningful reality.

Mr. Win Griffiths : Is the hon. Gentleman implying that Lord Elis- Thomas is ill advised to accept the post when we have such a weak Bill before the House?

Mr. Wigley : It may well be that Lord Elis-Thomas knows that the Government will accept strengthening amendments in Committee. Time will tell whether that is the case. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that Lord Elis-Thomas and members of the board--or


Column 988

whoever is chair of the board--will find it easier to do that job if the Bill reflects what is wanted in Wales and they have the resources to undertake their responsibilities.

As I said, the central inadequacy relates to the status of the language. I draw the attention of the House to the recommendations made by the Welsh Language Board in its draft Bill. The first clause in the Bill before the House should relate to the definition of status :

"Welsh shall be an official language in Wales where in relation to English it shall be of equal validity for the purposes of the administration of justice and the conduct of administrative business so that, subject to the following provisions of this Act, any oral statement and any act, writing or thing made or done in Wales for those purposes and expressed in Welsh shall have the like effect as if it had been expressed in English."

That is a clearly defined legally thought-out statement and I do not understand why the Government have not been willing to take an unequivocal statement of that sort as the opening part of this Bill, rather than hiding it behind a sub-condition lower down in the Bill :

"The purpose referred to above is that of giving effect, so far as is both appropriate in the circumstances and reasonably practicable, to the principle that in the conduct of public business and the administration of justice in Wales the English and Welsh languages should be treated on a basis of equality."

This contains a lot of qualification and uncertainty. We need a clear-cut statement as the starting point on which the Bill should be built.

The Bill must be amended if it is to be accepted by the Committee. There are a number of inadequacies, but I shall not go into them in depth. However, I shall refer to them in passing so that we can follow them up in Committee. For example, in courts of law, when the hearing is requested by the defendant to be through the medium of the Welsh language--that is, the hearing should be in Welsh as the predominant language--the jurors who are listening to the case should be able to understand Welsh. Public bodies should make available forms in a bilingual format. Public sector bodies that are now private utilities should be included in those public bodies. Clause 6(1)(o) defines that and I hope that it will be clarified by the Government in Committee.

There should be a definition of the right to have bilingual education within reasonable reach of people's homes. Most authorities do that and I pay tribute to them. I also pay tribute to people such as Lord Haycock in the old Glamorgan county council who did sterling work in that direction. Some areas are slow and dilatory. West Glamorgan is one of those areas in which there has been an outcry for many years to have a better provision of bilingual education. A right needs to be enshrined in law to overcome the difficulties in such areas.

There have been problems in the introduction of race relations legislation when jobs have been advertised as having a Welsh language requirement. Clearly, that is ridiculous in areas such as Gwynedd where a job was advertised for people to work in an old people's home. Overwhelmingly, the people in that home are Welsh speaking and there was a requirement for the job to be bilingual. That matter was taken to the Race Relations Board. There needs to be a change in the law to overcome that sort of abuse of race relations legislation to frustrate the Welsh language. The right of people to speak Welsh to each other in their place of work should be clarified, because it has caused difficulty in the past.


Column 989

Prisoners should have the right to converse with visitors through the Welsh language and to write and receive letters in Welsh. There should be no difficulty for parents who want to register their children's names through the Welsh language. Such practical difficulties have arisen in the past. If the Bill is to be acceptable, it must deal with those points. We must have a board that is independent of the Welsh Office, not a handservant to the Welsh Office. We must have a board to serve the whole of Wales and the Welsh language, not to serve the administrative convenience of the Government of the day. That will be achieved only if the Bill is substantially improved.

We have been under pressure, as have other hon. Members, to oppose the Bill on Second Reading. We will not do that because we believe that it can be improved in Committee. When we eventually get to Third Reading we will determine our attitude on the basis of what improvements have been made along the lines that I have outlined and those to which many other hon. Members have referred.

7.59 pm

Mr. Roger Evans (Monmouth) : I welcome the Bill, and applaud the careful and thoughtful way in which it has been prepared, and the way in which it has met the practical and careful aspects with good will and co- operation.

I must nevertheless raise two points with my right hon. Friends upon which I seek reassurance. The first is the particular position of my constituency. Monmouth is not Gwynedd. Its traditions are different. In the 1991 census from Monmouth borough--that is not quite the same area as my constituency--only 2 per cent. of people returned that they were Welsh speakers. Monmouth borough council receives about six letters a year in Welsh and I understand that, as a matter of courtesy, those letters are always replied to in Welsh. The position in Monmouthshire is different. Clause 5(2) of the Bill describes schemes which are

"appropriate in the circumstances and reasonably practicable". Will my right hon. Friend the Minister give an assurance that what is suitable for Gwynedd will not be imposed upon Monmouth, and that matters will be looked at sensibly?

I shall describe to my right hon. Friend and to the House the points that some of my constituents have emphasised to me. First, despite the great concern of the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) and as he will appreciate, the practice of British Telecom, Welsh Water and South Wales Electricity is to submit bilingual bills. Some of my constituents are not very pleased with that. Secondly, my constituents complain that the national curriculum for Wales introduced compulsory Welsh teaching by the back door, in the sense that the impact of that was not appreciated in my constituency until it had happened. I am asking for special consideration for Monmouthshire.

My next point is slightly more exotic. I ask my right hon. Friend to re- examine schedule 2 to the Bill, which puts a piece of dynamite under what the Government intended. The schedule of repeals refers to the Laws in Wales Acts 1535 and 1542, in each case the extent of repeal is the whole Act, so far as unrepealed. I have checked with


Column 990

the Library how much of each Act is still in force. No doubt someone will have to double check this, but let us be absolutely clear what the Government are proposing. If we repeal an Act of that kind of date, the effect is to make it as if the Act had never been passed, except as to matters which are past and dead. It would be startling and shocking if we were told that Wales was dead and past or even that the Welsh language was dead and past.

Let us examine the provisions of the Laws in Wales Acts. Section 1 of the 1535 Act says :

"That his said countrey or dominion of Wales shal be stonde and contynue for [ever] incorporated united and annexed to and with this his realme of Englande."

[Interruption.] The nationalist Members are right to cheer. My right hon. Friend--I am sure, by mistake--seeks to repeal the Act of Union. That has the most startling legal consequences. The 1535 Act goes on to deal with the rights of persons born after the passing of the Act, a matter which was of considerable importance before the Act of Union with Scotland.

I am sure that if the House sought to repeal the Scottish Act of Union by a schedule of incidental repeals, there would be satisfaction in some quarters and howls of protestation in others. The repeal of the Laws in Wales Act has nothing to do with the Welsh Language Bill. I can go further. The test that those responsible for statutory repeals apply is whether a provision in legislation is past or spent. It is a logical and legal absurdity that the rights of persons born after the Laws in Wales Acts should continue to be what they were before.

If there has never been an act of union with Wales, how can later legislation ever have been intended to apply to Wales? That has several ludicrous political and legal consequences. I shall not deal specifically with section 3 of the Laws in Wales Act 1535, which imposes on my constituents the obligation

"to be obedient and attendaunt to the lorde chauncellour of Englond, the Kinges justices, and other of the Kinges moste honorable counsaile".

That may be dealt with now in specific legislation. Monmouthshire's position may be separate.

However, it is worse than that. In section 47 of the Laws in Wales Act 1542, the law on markets overt is vastly superior in Wales to that in England. The medieval anomaly and scandal that a person could go and buy stolen goods in certain markets in England and get a good title was not part of the laws of Wales. It has not been since 1542. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister did not intend by a backwind to do that.

Sir Wyn Roberts : I draw my hon. Friend's attention to what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said about the repeals. They are repeals of the spent provisions of the Laws in Wales Acts 1535 and 1542. We have been advised on the matter by Law Commission staff. We are examining carefully the markets overt point and we shall come back to it in Committee.

Mr. Evans : I respectfully suggest to my right hon. Friend that the advice given is wrong. The repeals section refers to the whole of each of the Acts, as unrepealed. It does not refer simply to those matters which one might think were relevant--those relating to the Welsh language. Those provisions were repealed 50 years ago. They were the notorious sections of the legislation which were so rightly criticised in Wales.

I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Minister has admitted that the section relating to markets overt is


Column 991

relevant and current law and that to change it would be a policy change. I am delighted to hear that it will be investigated. I have drawn the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) to this matter, and he is worried about it. Under section 56 of the Laws in Wales Act 1542, Bewdley shall be part of Worcestershire. There is a saving for the inhabitants of Bewdley, however, covering

"all suche liberties and frauncheses as they lawfullye had and exercysed within the same towne before the making of this Acte". I do not suppose for a moment that the Welsh Office or those responsible for statutory repeals have examined the customs and privileges of the inhabitants of Bewdley. Likewise, those customs and privileges should not be taken away by a backwind.

I shall not continue this analysis. The City of London will be most interested in reviving the concept of the Welsh mortgage, which was also outlawed. It was a much fairer financial arrangement than many conventional mortgages. I suppose that those responsible for statutory repeals would say that the Welsh law of alienation of land or in the Welsh law for the descent of real property is spent. If that is right, it is an interesting matter. I am sure that nationalist Members who are learned in law will be interested to know the consequences of the Bill being passed in this form.

Mr. Wigley : We will take it to the courts.

Mr. Evans : I am delighted to hear that. That sedentary observation that the matter will be tested in the courts is right. I have no doubt that, by a blunder of those who advise on statutory repeals, my right hon. Friend the Minister has got us into an unnecessary predicament.

We have rightly heard a great deal about the traditions of culture and language of our country. However, I place infinitely greater importance on another part of our tradition than do those responsible for statutory law revision, who seem intent on ripping passages from the record of what Parliament has achieved over the centuries simply to shorten the law books and increase the profits of Messrs Butterworths.

The preface to the 1535 Act is one of the noblest pieces of English Tudor prose. It is rather pro-Welsh if one reads it carefully. I shall not weary the House by doing so, but I finish with a request to my right hon. Friend the Minister to reconsider both points. 8.9 pm

Mr. Peter Hain (Neath) : Welsh is spoken with pride across my constituency. In many valley villages such as Rhifawr, Cwmllynfell, Cwmgorse, Gwaun-cae-Gurwen, Lower Brynamman, Ystalyfera, Godrergraig, Trebanos, Alltwen--I am pleased to say that it now has a Labour county councillor--Gellinudd, Blaendulais and many other communities in the Neath area, Welsh is the first language of many families. It is important to remember, however, that in those former mining communities the Welsh language is part of a distinctive valley culture, which is treasured for its principles of mutual aid and co-operation. That culture is now under siege from economic decline and social disintegration. I support the welcome growth in the use of the Welsh language, but my only concern is that it is ceasing to become a working-class one. The Welsh


Column 992

Language Board and the Welsh Office must address that problem, otherwise the board will not be representative of the entire population of Wales, particularly those valley villages that were once thriving mining communities in which the Welsh language was an integral part of daily life. As testimony to our commitment to the language, we will welcome the National Eisteddfod to the Neath valley next year and I hope that it will be the most successful one ever. The Bill is an important step forward along the road away from the bad old days when the use of the Welsh language was repressed. It has many defects, however, which the Labour party has already identified and which I hope we shall be able to address in Committee. For example, all powers to enforce the Act will lie with the Secretary of State and not the board, which is specifically designed to be an advisory body. That means that the Welsh Office will retain the discretion to interpret and enforce the Act. Although all that power is given to the Secretary of State and the Welsh Office, an anomaly is created because the Secretary of State cannot be prosecuted under the Act.

It is also important that the new board should be made up of individuals with the relevant expertise and not stuffed with Conservative placemen and women. I wish Lord Elis-Thomas well and congratulate him on his appointment --after all, it is better to have an ennobled deal on the Welsh language than a grubby deal on Maastricht. It is important that the Secretary of State gives full representation to all opinion in Wales and not simply to those with whom he happens to be in coalition at a particular time or those who happen to be drawn from the ranks of Conservative lackeys. One of the main defects with the Bill, as has been identified by several hon. Members, is that its provisions relate to public bodies only. That leaves a big question mark over what will happen to the privatised utilities--gas, telecommunications, water and, who knows, the Post Office. British Rail is certainly in an anomalous position, because the subsequent Act will apply to it for the few remaining months of its life in the public sector, but will cease to do so once BR transfers to the private sector. That is absolute nonsense. The Government have committed themselves to examine the possible privatisation and deregulation of the Post Office--in effect, they have given it the green light. The Post Office will, therefore, be covered by the Act only while it remains in the public sector. The same would apply if just a part of the Post Office, such as Royal Mail Parcelforce, were privatised, while its counter services remained in the public sector. What about those parts of the Post Office that were hived off into the private sector?

Mr. Jonathan Evans : The hon. Gentleman has sought to make some distinction about the railways and the Post Office moving into the private sector. If he reads the Bill, however, he will understand that they are not covered by it other than under clause 6(1)(o), subject to the discretion of the Secretary of State. They are unchanged by the Bill, because, if they move into the private sector, the Secretary of State can then decide whether they should be covered by the Bill.

Mr. Hain : I do not believe that that interpretation is incorrect, but the Minister of State was not positive about that issue when the hon. Gentleman raised the matter


Column 993

earlier. There are too many grey areas and too much fudging in the Bill, which we will need to explore in Committee.

It is important to note that almost one third of the citizens in my constituency speak Welsh. Many will welcome the progress towards proper recognition of their language that is offered, to some extent, by the Bill. We have an excellent Welsh secondary school, Ysgol Gyfun Ystalyfera, in my constituency and virtually all the Welsh primary schools are overflowing. There is a tremendous demand for more places in Welsh-medium schools and more resources for Welsh language education. It is a matter not just of more classrooms but of better quality textbooks, better training for teachers and better resourcing of education ; in that way, Welsh language teaching will enjoy equal status with English teaching in Wales.

Although it is important that the Welsh language receives the legal recognition and status to which it is entitled, a living language needs more than the backing of the law ; it needs the resources which the Government have so far denied it and which the Bill does not provide. We want a language that is indigenous, not elitist, one that is living, not academic, and one that is part of the community, not imposed on it. That requires the firm backing of the law, but, together with that firm foundation, it demands a tolerance that springs from a new confidence that the rights of Welsh speakers are, at last, to be guaranteed.

8.15 pm

Mr. Walter Sweeney (Vale of Glamorgan) : When I listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, North-West (Mr. Richards), I thought that he went a little over the top, until I heard the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley). I should like to hark back to the consensus that seemed to exist among the other hon. Members who have spoken. It is clear that the temperate speeches of other hon. Members revealed a need for the Bill and that persuasion rather than coercion is likely to be the best way in which to further the interests of the Welsh language.

It is impossible to please everyone with the Bill because of the different nature of different parts of Wales. My hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (Mr. Evans) rightly referred to that when he said that just 2 per cent. of his constituents were Welsh speakers. In some parts of Wales more than 60 per cent. of the local people are Welsh speakers, but, according to the latest available statistics, there are only 5.9 per cent. of Welsh speakers in my constituency. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth that we should take into account those parts of the country where Welsh is not widely spoken.

I welcome the resurgence in the use of the Welsh language that has occurred in the Vale of Glamorgan. The grandparents and parents of many of my constituents can speak Welsh, but they do not. They hope that their children, or at least their grandchildren, will do so. The resurgence in the Welsh language is due, in large measure, to the success of the measures introduced by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who has laboured hard in support of the Welsh language throughout his political career.


Column 994

If we are to continue to move forward, however, it is important to avoid unnecessary division. Division would be bound to be created if we foisted on the private sector a requirement that it introduce a policy for the use of the Welsh language. Any business that is trying to make a profit will recognise that if its customers want communications to be in Welsh or if it wants to be able to communicate to them in Welsh, it will be in its commercial interest to ensure that Welsh enjoys equal status with English. Surely that is the way forward rather than coercion and diktat from central Government.

I was interested in the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth about the Bill's constitutional implications. I shall certainly be interested to see what the Standing Committee makes of it.

Sir Wyn Roberts : I shall add one point that I did not make in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (Mr. Evans) and say that I am assured that the Union of England and Wales no longer depends on the laws that we are proposing to repeal. That unity is based on subsequent legislation--which probably includes the Bill.

Mr. Sweeney : In the Vale of Glamorgan we are seeing a resurgence in the Welsh language. One reason for that is the widespread recognition that Welsh schools generally provide a high standard of education. I see a parallel between schools providing Welsh in south Glamorgan and schools such as my own grammar school in England which provided Latin in years gone by. Even if the learning of a language is an intellectual discipline rather than a necessity for communication, it stretches the intellect and helps people to learn other subjects. The mere fact that people have grappled from an early age with two languages instead of one seems likely to mean that they will make better students.

It is essential for the Committee to consider the distinction between Welsh being learnt--as Bacon would have it--as an ornament and Welsh being learnt because it is an inherent part of the local culture. If we can bridge that divide in a spirit of fellowship and with a recognition of the differences that exist between different parts of Wales, we shall be more effective in making the Bill a success.

8.22 pm

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) : I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Evans) and was extremely disappointed that he picked up on the constitutional issue. It was something that we noticed some time ago, but did not raise. On a more serious note, Welsh is one of the oldest living languages in Europe, which is remarkable. It is all the more remarkable because, until this century, it has not been given fair play. Hon. Members have referred to the Welsh "Not". Several attempts have been made to annihilate the language, but now the Welsh language appears in every walk of life in Wales--there has been a welcome resurgence in the language.

I agree with the Secretary of State that there is a vast reservoir of good will in the country towards the language. I congratulate everyone who learns the language. It gladdens my heart when people move to my constituency


Column 995

and learn the language, often in concert with their children. To them, I say, "Thank you for your effort and congratulations." Last year, 60,000 plus people registered on various courses in Wales to learn Welsh. That is an astonishing figure of which I am proud. I am sure that the credit for it is shared equally throughout the House. The issue is not a political one and I am pleased that hon. Members are not treating it as such. From my upbeat preface, people might be tempted to think that all is well but, regrettably, all is not well. Every citizen of Wales and of the British Isles has a duty to nurture and maintain the language and culture of Wales. Welsh was the intrinsic language of the British Isles well before the Anglo-Saxon influence--a fact that is sometimes forgotten. I have said that I am glad that the debate has not been about politics, and that Welsh is not a political football. However, the reference of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans) to Saunders Lewis was offensive to many people, perhaps not in the Chamber, but all over Wales. I am a great respecter of Mr. John Elfed Jones, the chairman of Dwr Cymru, and I am sure that even he would not wish to have heard what was said earlier.

I mention in passing the remarks--as usual, that is all that they are worth --of the hon. Member for Clwyd, North-West (Mr. Richards) which were immature, offensive and politically motivated. I have cleared my chest and shall now get on with the business in hand. If the hon. Gentleman had done so, we would have arrived at our business earlier.

Seven years have passed since my hon. Friend the Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) presented his Bill to the House. I echo his generous, honest and sincere tribute to the work carried out by Lord Prys-Davies at that time. We have had an agonising wait in Wales, and we have now been presented with a woefully inadequate Bill. We have a golden opportunity and we must grab it. If we miss it, the consequences will be dire. If the Bill is not comprehensively amended and strengthened, Wales will have waited for nothing, not just for seven years but for many centuries.

There is little in the Bill to make one cheer. We have an opportunity to take positive steps to ensure that the language is safeguarded and nurtured and that, as the Secretary of State said, the continued renaissance of the language proceeds apace. Therefore, although I am pleased that the Bill has come before Parliament, I have to say that it is inadequate in many ways.

My hon. Friend the Member for Caernarfon and other hon. Members have said where they believe the Bill to be inadequate. I shall confine my remarks to a few parts of particular concern to me and to many tens of thousands of people in Wales. I must make it abundantly clear that the list of subjects to which I shall refer is not exhaustive--far from it. I wish that I could say that only a few amendments were necessary, but I cannot.

The Bill's inadequacy has prompted several groups and societies, and thousands of Welsh people, to urge Opposition Members, and no doubt Conservative Members, to reject the Bill ab initio and vote it down. In discussion with the Bill's opponents, I have taken the view that if Parliament is about making laws that are just and equitable, the Bill must surely be amended. I trust that that faith in the parliamentary system will not prove to be misplaced.

I believe that the Bill should carry a clear definition of the status of Welsh in relation to the English language.


Column 996

That point was forcefully made by Lord Crickhowell in another place. As a former occupant of the Welsh Office, he could see nothing detrimental in such a definition, and representatives from all parties in the other place felt that it was right and proper. I do not understand why the Bill does not state that Welsh should be an official language in Wales, having equal status with the English language in the administration of justice and the conduct of administrative business. That issue was mentioned by the Welsh Language Board. The Bill should seek to address the current imbalance--there is no doubt that parity between both languages cannot and will not be achieved unless it is clearly embodied in the Bill that Welsh is an official language in Wales.

The Welsh Language Board's report of February 1991 was discussed and extensively quoted in another place. The report says : "Unless it be declared by an Act of Parliament that the Welsh language shall have equality of status with the English language, it will continue in its existing state of inequality."

Paragraph 37 says :

"Without such a declaration, the Welsh language will remain bereft of official status and will continue to be perceived as being inferior, in all legal and administrative respect, to the English language."

The import of those words could not be clearer. They are the words of a board that the Government set up to give advice on the subject of the Welsh language and how to nurture it. It is astonishing that the board's view, clear and strong as it is, and based on good sense, appears to have been dismissed out of hand by the Government. We as a party will definitely table amendments to fill this serious lacuna in the Bill. Without such a declaration of principle, the Bill, which seeks parity for the languages, is fatally flawed.

This is our opportunity, and I urge hon. Members on all sides of the House to take it, otherwise we shall be criticised for having taken part in a legislative process that failed the people of Wales. As Lord Prys-Davies said in another place, the fruit of failure could be bitter. In my view, this is a core issue that must be addressed. On the all-important subject of Welsh-medium education, the Bill contains no provision concerning the rights of individuals. The Welsh Language Education Development Committee recently expressed specific concern about this issue. It did so in a letter to Lord Prys-Davies, which referred to the fact that the board would have insufficient power in respect of bodies responsible for education in Wales. The letter said :

"There will be insufficient power to establish Welsh-medium provision in accordance with parental wishes where it is not currently available The board will not have sufficient power to require funding councils for further and higher education to recognise the costs of providing for students whgh the medium of the Welsh language in order to respond to the demands of the public." These concerns are vital. Parents throughout Wales have shown that they, too, are greatly concerned about the lack of forward planning and funding to satisfy the--thankfully--rapidly increasing demand for Welsh-medium education.

Sir Wyn Roberts : The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that Welsh- medium education is provided for in section 8 of the Education Act 1944, which lays duties on local authorities and, possibly, the funding council, if it is


Column 997

established by my right hon. Friend. The duty of the Welsh Language Board will, of course, relate to the performance of the local education authorities and the funding council.


Next Section

  Home Page