|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
It is a responsibility for all of us here to ensure that public services are delivered to our citizens at a proper standard, as a matter of right. That is not the case, however, in respect of the provision of public services through the medium of Welsh, and I would like to develop that argument by looking at the Welsh Language Act 1993 and looking a little bit at its antecedents. I want to look at what I think would be a creative and positive way of addressing this deficiency.
The history of the legal status of the Welsh language is a history of change. It goes back a very long way. To see the very first reference to the Welsh language in legislation, one looks to the Acts of Union of 1532 and 1536, which explicitly banned the use of Welsh by saying that no person who uses
in England, Wales or any of the King's dominions. The Welsh Courts Act 1942 changed that to some extent, allowing translation in courts. The Welsh Language Act 1967I remember it going through Parliamentestablished the principle of equal validity, whereby if anything was done in Welsh, it was as if it had been done in English. The Act stated, however, that in the case of
4 Apr 2005 : Column 1210
any discrepancy between an English and a Welsh text, the English text would prevail. It was not a matter of equality.
The Welsh Language Act 1993 had been campaigned for by a wide range of groups with an interest in Wales. It was, of course, passed by the previous Administration, and it established the principle that English and Welsh should be treated on the basis of equality, which is slightly different from equality itself. My party and, significantly, the then Labour Opposition opposed the 1993 Act, and Mr. Rhodri Morgan himself said that an incoming Labour Government would introduce a proper Welsh language Bill.
The 1993 Act set up the Welsh Language Board, which stated that the Welsh and English languages should be treated on the basis of equality. That statement was qualified by the 1993 Act, which stated that that should happen only where practicable and appropriateagain, qualified equality rather than absolute equality. The 1993 Act was unacceptable to the then Labour Opposition and Mr. Morgan, but it is now defended as the epitome of common sense and good practice.
I have asked about Welsh language provision in the public services on a number of occasions in this House, most recently on 23 March, when I asked about services through the medium of Welsh for people with dementia. I do not know how many times I have written to public bodies in England and Wales and to Ministers in Cardiff and London about the provision of public services in Welsh. Such bodies always reply that they have a language scheme that has been approved by the Welsh Language Board.
I wrote to the then Minister for Health and Social Services in Cardiff asking about the status of health records written in Welsh and whether such records are acceptable. After a great deal of considerationthe legal department spent three months considering the matterthe Welsh Assembly told me that the receiving body is responsible for translating such records. In that case, the Welsh Assembly decided, outside the 1993 Act, that medical records in Welsh are acceptable and that the receiving body should translate them.
I have pursued the issue for a long time. Many Welsh language schemes are goodsome are very good indeed, as far as they gobut they all share this generic problem: they might specify that a public body should correspond with the public through the media of Welsh and English in providing a public service, that public signs inside and outside offices should be in both Welsh and English and, perhaps, that receptionists should be able to give information in Welsh and English, which is all very good, but when one examines the actual servicenot the signs, letters or leaflets, but the service itselfit is provided in English only. Many of my constituents would prefer to speak Welsh when communicating with a public body and to receive services through the medium of Welsh. Some of them cannot receive services through the medium of English because of their age or their ability.
The Welsh Language Board has done a great deal of work in promoting the use of Welsh in public services, but it faces becoming part of the Welsh Assembly
4 Apr 2005 : Column 1211
Government, and it is quite a question whether it will function as effectively in the future. Mr. Rhodri Morgan and the Welsh Assembly Government want to bring the board into the Welsh Assembly Government. How will that be done and is it an opportunity to extend and improve public services through the medium of Welsh?
"I have not received any request for legislative proposals in that respect, although the First Minister has said that he will look for an opportunity, should it arise."[Official Report, 2 March 2005; Vol. 431, c. 943.]
One can thus infer that it is not whether but when we shall have Welsh language legislation and what it will be. With the current legislative congestion, it may take some time, but it is legitimate for us to discuss what the legislation might be and how we can use that opportunity constructively for public services in Welsh for the proportion of the population that wants them.
My aim, like that of many people who have the interests of the Welsh language at heart, is to ensure that people in Wales have as much opportunity to live their lives through the medium of Welsh as through English. That is a laudable aim. That is what equality is about. There is some hope in some areas. I live in Caernarfon where Welsh is the common language of the town, so one can live one's life mainly through the medium of Welsh if one chooses. However, when one tries to access public services one comes up against the block that they are usually available only through the medium of English.
Some years ago, I was a social worker in Pwllheli, for Gwynedd social services department. In that area, there was no language problem; it had been solved. If one came into the social services department and spoke in English, the service was provided in English. If one spoke in Welsh, the service was in Welsh. That bilingual service met the highest standards. The clients of the department were provided with the linguistically appropriate service, there was no language problem. That is also the case in other communities, but their number shrinks every year. Such communities are under threat, so we need to take advantage of any legislative opportunities to address the problem.
Furthermore, about 40 per cent. of Welsh speakers in Wales live outside the core Welsh-speaking areas. In general, they live in the south and the east, in communities where Welsh is not a socially prominent aspect of life, where one can live one's life through the medium of Welsh as long as it is under the hatches. If one tries to access any public service, one comes up against the block that they are available only in English.
Given current demographic trends, it seems that the percentage of Welsh speakers living in the south and east is likely to increase, so there will be more and more pressure to do something about the language problem. It will not be solved informally as it is in the north and
4 Apr 2005 : Column 1212
the west. That demands a response from the Government; a change in the law. As I have already argued, the history of Welsh language legislation is one of changefrom an outright ban to the situation of near equality brought about by the previous Conservative Government.
With the demise of the Welsh Language Board, we may face some losses; for example, the board has done much good work on language planning in a wholly apolitical way, looking first at the best interests of the language. We may face the danger of losing the consensus on the language that has been reached in the Chamber and in other political forums in Wales. We may see some losses in language-related industries, where the board has also done good work; for example, on translation, especially in the north and the west. There are questions about the function of the board in hearing and pursuing complaints. I referred to that in my speech on the Public Service Ombudsman (Wales) Bill earlier this afternoon. I accept that the Government have come up with some answers, but they need to be developed.
The Welsh-speaking population of the south and east is growing, but there is no informal way to ensure that those people will be guaranteed good-quality public services through the medium of Welsh. How are we to respond to that?
My response is rather different from the one that has been the consensus over the past 10 or 15 years, whereby language planning has taken place using language schemes that clearly have not worked properly. What I suggest tonight and what I will pursue over the next few months is what could be termed a rights approach. We must look carefully at the rights of individual citizens to receive appropriate public services through the medium of English or the medium of Welsh, as they choose. Such an approach has been pioneered by other groups in terms of race, gender, disability and, most recently, age.
A rights approach offers a constructive way out of the current situation where services are not being developed. We should put an initial emphasis on developing the services that are most important to users who are in some difficulty, such as people with health problems or care problems and people who are facing the courts or who require Government information directly. To improve public services, people should have positive rights. Why should a child called Siôn have a lesser right to speech therapy through the medium of Welsh than his friend, John, has to speech therapy through the medium of English? That is a hard question to answer, and, indeed, the answer is long, practical and costs money, but finding the answer must start with a change in attitude and some long-term planning.
Other areas that offer themselves most readily to such a rights approach, which is a departure from the most recent way to tackle problems, include the assessment of older people with dementia, dealing with people with mental health problems and people with learning difficulties, the provision of Government information directly to the public over the phone and responses from the emergency services, such as 999 calls, where clear communication is of the utmost importance.
We were lucky enough recently to have the draft Mental Health Bill discussed by a Joint Committee of the House and the other place, and we had the
4 Apr 2005 : Column 1213
opportunity to meet the Minister and the Welsh Assembly Government. I raised this very issue with Jane Hutt and asked her whether people would have a positive right to be assessed through the medium of Welsh for compulsory admission to hospital if and when the Mental Health Bill was enacted in Wales. Her answer to that fundamental question was a very positive "Certainly", thereby going outside the scope of the Mental Health Act 1983. However, that is a lucky circumstance; we just happened to have mental health legislation on the stocks, and I happened to be in the right place to ask the Minister, who happened to have a positive attitude to the question and answered in a way that I found very acceptable indeed.
If we are to systemise such improvements to public services through the medium of Welsh, we must take legislative action, and I will certainly press for that if I am returned after the next election. I have commissioned some research on the issue. I will circulate it to anyone who is interested, and I am looking for responses that provide a constructive way forward. Apart from the procedures that I have mentioned already, such as health assessments, others offer themselves for consideration. For example, there has been some cross-party support in the House and in the other place for Welsh-speaking juries and for Welsh language provision for children held in custody.
About six weeks ago, I attended a criminal justice conference in Llandudno and heard Professor Rod Morgan, who is the head of the Youth Justice Board, talking about the number children from Wales who are held in custody. There are about 200 every year, 80 of whom are held in Wales and 120 of whom are held in England. Those 120 are held contrary to the guidelines that say that young people should be held within 50 miles of their homes. Welsh-speaking children from my constituency and other constituencies are certainly held in places where no provision is made in Welsh. Professor Morgan was extremely disturbed by that because, as we know, tragically young people who are held in isolation far away from their homes in strange circumstances harm themselves, sometimes even to the extent of killing themselves. He was worried because he said that such provision was probably the major issue facing the Youth Justice Board in Wales. The provision should exist, but it certainly does not, as mental health provision in the medium of Welsh does not.
I recognise immediately that it is now easier to tackle the problem because of the progress that has been made over several years following the Welsh Language Act 1993. In 1995, I surveyed 15 social services departments and probation services in Wales to ask what sort of provision they had. In response to that survey I received one fairly full answer, one partial answer and one reply saying that the body had a sprinkling of Welsh speakerswhatever that means. One reply told me that it would be an
We have come a long way since then, but we must recognise that more progress must be made. We have come up against a brick wall. We have the opportunity,
4 Apr 2005 : Column 1214
perhaps with the change of the status of the language board, to move the matter on. I certainly think that a rights approach would be the way in which to tackle the problem so that we can deliver public services to people who speak Welsh that are of the same standard as those available in English.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|