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6.1 pm

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn): I am proud to speak in this Welsh affairs debate, on the eve of St. David's day. I hope in future to take part in the debate on the eve of a St. David's day public holiday. I was one of the Members who signed early-day motion 662, and I shall give my staff the day off tomorrow so that they can spend St. David's day with their families. We should start to recognise St. David's day.

I shall concentrate on the Welsh economy and the need for even economic development throughout Wales. I shall also discuss the practical arrangements between the National Assembly for Wales and Parliament. As a newly elected Member and one of the first batch of post-devolution Members from Wales, I believe that we have a responsibility to ensure that that settlement works for the people of Wales.

The Welsh economy has made good progress since 1997. It enjoys the fruits of the Chancellor's labour, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said. We have the lowest interest rates, low inflation, low mortgage rates and low unemployment. The Government's desire for a

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stable economy is shared by the Welsh business community that I meet weekly, against a background of boom and bust under the Conservatives.

Mr. Prisk: Boom and bust?

Albert Owen: More bust than boom, it must be said.

The Labour Government's policies, such as the minimum wage and the working families tax credit, along with the new deal, have helped the unemployed and the low-paid in my constituency. Youth unemployment has been cut drastically. That means that school leavers no longer move from the classroom to the dole queue, but receive real training and hope for the future.

In my constituency, some 2,000 people had an immediate rise in earnings when we introduced the minimum wage. Almost 50 per cent. experienced a doubling of their hourly rate to £3.60. Let us not forget that the Conservative Government opposed those measures, and Plaid Cymru sat on the fence and made no decision about them.

Prior to my election to the House, I ran an advice and training centre. I saw the impact of the minimum wage and working families tax credit on unwaged people and those on low wages. However, in an area of high long-term unemployment such as mine, those benefits do not have the same impact as in the rest of Wales. Yes, unemployment is down. On the claimant count in my constituency, it stands at 7.7 per cent., which is down 0.5 per cent. on the previous year. On the residents base count, which is available in the House of Commons Library, male unemployment stands at 8.7 per cent., which represents a decrease. I welcome any drop in unemployment, but at 7.7 per cent., it is too high. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s in my constituency unemployment remained twice the average in Wales. One statistic that is a legacy of the representation of my constituency by the Conservative party and Plaid Cymru in the past two decades is the evidence of depopulation in two successive censuses. Mine is the only county in Wales that has seen such a drop in its population. Most stark is the depopulation among young people: 18 to 36-year-olds are leaving in droves to find jobs and opportunities elsewhere in the United Kingdom. With them goes the Welsh language and the Welsh community spirit that they hold, and the communities that people like me want to support. It is economic decline that leads to loss of the language in constituencies such as mine. It is not incomers who are responsible, as some have suggested, but lack of economic opportunity.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): I am listening with great interest to the hon. Gentleman's remarks. Will he be specific on this point: when in the two decades to which he referred did he see decline in Anglesey? Exactly when during that time was Plaid Cymru in government here or in Cardiff, or even in control of the local authority in Anglesey?

Albert Owen: The answer is firmly to say that when Plaid Cymru was elected to represent us in 1987, the individual concerned promised a big difference from the situation with his Tory predecessor. There was no such difference, but only a continuation. That is my answer to the hon. Gentleman.

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Let me turn to skills training. I was pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spoke in answer to a question that I asked in Welsh questions yesterday about the vocational qualifications that are coming in at GCSE level. It is important that people in my area have the opportunity at a young age to get vocational training so that they can enter the jobs market.

I want deliberately to be critical of the Welsh Development Agency. We have heard from previous speakers about the boom areas in north Wales, but unfortunately, such areas do not come as far west as Ynys Môn. If we are to achieve an inclusive Welsh society, we need even economic development and it must come across the Menai bridge to Anglesey to provide job opportunities.

I am conscious of the time and I know that other hon. Members wish to contribute, so I shall move straight to my conclusions. In 1997, people in Wales looked forward to a new, inclusive Wales. We were promised a bonfire of quangos and a more inclusive society. I am a pro-devolutionist and I will fight for devolution and to ensure that the devolution settlement works. However, if we are serious about devolution, we have to devolve economic opportunities throughout Wales.

I said that I was proud to speak in this debate. I am proud to do so as a Labour Member. I quote my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's predecessor, the first Secretary of State for Wales, who once said:

I believe that this Government, in partnership with the National Assembly for Wales, can deliver that.

6.8 pm

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon): I congratulate the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies)—or for Ogwr—who is sadly not in his place. I should say that I have had some problems with the pronunciation of my name since I have been in the House, so it is a great relief to see someone else with an exotic name taking his place in the Chamber. I use the word "exotic" because he is a Davies and I am a Williams.

Perhaps it is stating the obvious to say that it is very appropriate for us to debate the Welsh language on dydd Gwyl Dewi, St. David's day. It is especially so because this year marks the 40th anniversary of Saunders Lewis's seminal radio lecture, "Tynged yr Iaith"—"The Fate of the Language". It led directly to the establishment of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg—the Welsh Language Society, which has proved such a dynamic force in Wales in the past 40 years. It is loved by some people, loathed by many but rarely ignored.

The issue of the languages of Wales is wide, perhaps as wide-ranging as life, given that language permeates all aspects of human activity. It is not surprising that the Welsh language is close to the hearts of those of us who speak it, those who have learned it and others who do not speak it but support it. We are bound to have mixed feelings as we survey the state of the language today. We eagerly await the results of the census that was held last year. They will give some idea of the language's health.

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We have some information, thanks to Professors Carter and Aitcheson at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth and the Mercator project there. For example, we know that approximately 500,000 people speak Welsh and that the age distribution of speakers is changing. In the past, the language was predominantly spoken by older people. That proportion is declining, but that of young people who speak Welsh is growing quickly. The language is getting younger, and that is a hopeful sign.

We also know that half the Welsh speakers live in the north and west of Wales—the so-called heartland areas—and that half live in the south and east, which are not generally regarded as Welsh-speaking strongholds. However, there are more Welsh speakers in Cardiff than in Llyn and Eifionydd in my constituency, and more in Swansea than in Dwyfor. Public services are fairly easily available through the medium of Welsh in constituencies such as mine, but they are not so easily found in other areas where there are larger Welsh-speaking populations.

The number of Welsh learners is increasing every year, thanks to the dedicated efforts of learners and their teachers throughout Wales. I pay tribute to the National Language Centre at Nant Gwrtheyrn in my constituency. It has done remarkable work for more than 20 years.

Welsh speakers in the heartland areas perceive that the language is under threat as the number of communities where it is the everyday means of communication diminishes. The danger to the language must be taken seriously. Plaid Cymru, the Scottish National party and supporters of the language in Wales profoundly regret the fact that the Housing (Wales) Bill, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) promoted recently, was talked out. It was a missed opportunity.

Out-migration poses a genuine threat, as does the relatively poor economic position of Welsh speakers when compared with that of English speakers in the north and the west. A former colleague, Dr. Delyth Morris of Bangor university, undertook research that shows a direct link between Welsh speaking and a lower position in the socio-economic order. Clearly, that should be tackled.

The Welsh language is the subject of consultation by the National Assembly. I am sure that all hon. Members look forward to its conclusions. We also look forward to sufficient resources being made available to carry out any recommendations. Resources are crucial. Any conclusions that the National Assembly reaches about further legislation will be especially interesting to hon. Members. I hope that if it recommends further legislation, a way will be cleared for it here.

The legislative history of the Welsh language is illuminating. The Act of Union of 1532 aimed to expunge

that is, speaking Welsh. It was a matter of pride to me as a younger man to be notorious for such "sinister usages and customs".

The Act also states:

That led to centuries of keeping the language under the hatchet, the denial of basic human rights, and terrorising children merely for speaking their language.

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Matters progressed with the Welsh Language Act 1967. I shall not detain the House with the details of the Act, except to say that it introduced the concept of equal validity—that is, that Welsh was as valid as English. The Act, however, contained the statement:

For example, "dau a dau yn bedwar"—which means "two and two is four" in Welsh—could be supplanted by "two and two is five" in English. That is clearly ludicrous.

The Welsh Language Act 1993 states that Welsh and English should be treated on a "basis of equality". The use of Welsh is, however, qualified, in that it should be

These issues need to be addressed, and I hope that the National Assembly will steer its recommendations in this direction, possibly with a view to legislation.

Some hon. Members might remember that the First Secretary of the National Assembly for Wales, when he was in this place, opposed the Welsh Language Act 1993. He said that it was a Tory Act, and that Labour would act differently in government. That was the last we heard of that promise, but we shall see what comes from the review by the National Assembly.

The 1993 Act introduced the concept of language schemes in the public sector, and public bodies throughout Wales now have plans for implementing the principles of the Act. Significantly, however, these language schemes were not extended to the private sector. It is perfectly possible and reasonable for the private sector to adopt language schemes. Indeed, the Welsh Language Board has informed me that five large, established enterprises have already done so. The emphasis on size here is crucial. Those organisations are able to absorb the costs involved, and I am sure all hon. Members will recognise that there is a cost element to ensuring that people have the basic right to use the language of their choice in communication not only with the Government but with commercial enterprises.

The problem is how to extend this best practice from the five large organisations to other commercial organisations. We see a specific role for the Welsh Language Board there, but it will need resources. Indeed, resources are the crucial element in creating the power to bring about change. The resources are the power. The three elements to language planning—I shall try to say them slowly—are legitimisation, institutionalisation and power. If we change the law, we legitimise the use of the Welsh language. If we extend the powers of the Welsh Language Board, we institutionalise it, and if we provide the resources, we provide the power for change.

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