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David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): On a historical point, there was no Wales-wide Government prior to the Acts of Union. There were various Marcher lordships, which were pretty much a law unto themselves, and Welsh-speaking feudal lords, who controlled other areas. There was no Wales from the point of the view of government and it is therefore not correct to say that Welsh was the language used in government before the 1532 Act.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): It was used.

Hywel Williams: I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) for making the point that the Welsh language was used, although perhaps not exclusively. We can avoid having these historical discussions simply by recognising that, at one time, Welsh had a different status from the one that it enjoys today. Perhaps we can also agree that progress has been made as a result of the three pieces of legislation that I have mentioned, most recently the Welsh Language Act 1993, which was passed by the Conservative Government.

David T.C. Davies: Supported by Labour.

Hywel Williams: Not all of them.

The Welsh Courts Act 1942 allowed the use of Welsh in the courts, while the Welsh Language Act 1967 provided for the equal validity of anything said in Welsh or English. It conferred a kind of honorary status on the Welsh language. I have already mentioned the 1993 Act.
 
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Our amendment would provide not for full equality, but for a reasonable and gradual move in that direction. It would allow for circumstances in which Welsh need not be used on the same basis as English, but that would involve exceptional cases in which it would not reasonably be possible to do so, in contrast to the provisions in the 1993 Act. We hold that that would be entirely reasonable, because we do not want the language to be used when it would be unreasonable to do so.

I shall give the House a brief example, involving some work that I did before I was elected to the House. I was proof-reading a quality assurance manual in Welsh, although it was going to be superseded in four months. I was paid quite well for doing the work, but it was a complete waste of time. We would not want to see the Welsh language being used if it were unreasonable to do so. However, we believe that such cases would be exceptional.

Given the exemplary development of the Assembly's simultaneous translation service, the quality of its translations, the large number of Assembly Members who speak Welsh or who have learnt it—very well indeed, to their credit—and the growing number of Assembly staff who speak Welsh, it would be entirely possible to introduce the provisions in our amendment. It would be quite proper for the National Assembly for Wales to treat equally the two languages that are widely used in Wales.

A growing number of young people speak Welsh as the result of educational changes introduced by the previous Conservative Government and by this Government, and I pay proper tribute to those Governments for doing that. Changes in the demography of Wales mean that more young people than older people speak Welsh, and there is a growing use of the Welsh language by private businesses. The National Assembly could give a clear lead by treating the Welsh language more equally, if I can put it like that. I shall be interested to see whether the Minister argues that the present situation—which is characterised by the Welsh language being treated unequally—is acceptable, given the advantages of our amendments. They would provide for the principle being breached in exceptional circumstances.

I note that amendment No. 16 is also supported by the Conservatives. It would add to the list of subjects that the Welsh Ministers may consider it appropriate to support:

Clause 61 contains a long list of subjects that the Minister might care to support, starting with "archaeological remains in Wales" and ending with "the Welsh language". The Welsh language certainly should not be classed as archaeological remains; it is a living language spoken by a quarter of the population as a whole, and by a third of young people in Wales. Welsh is getting younger. The amendment would add

to that list, so that Ministers could do anything that they considered appropriate in respect of culture, including the implementation of the Act.
 
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As I said earlier, the principle behind the Welsh Language Act 1993 was to treat the Welsh and English languages on a basis of equality, but there has been dissatisfaction with the way in which the Act has been operated. However, given that we have the Act, even in its present form, it would seem reasonable that Ministers should be able to act to support its implementation.

This amendment should also be considered in the context of the First Minister's decision to bring the Welsh Language Board into the Welsh Assembly Government. It is entirely unclear to me and to a great many others how that will be done. Perhaps the Secretary of State will explain.

The 1993 Act set up the board, which carries out certain functions. It seems to me that, for the board to disappear, we might need another language Act. If it were set up by an Act, it should be taken into the Welsh Assembly Government by another Act. On that, the First Minister is equally unclear.

There is then the question of the regulatory functions of the board. The First Minister talks about setting up an office of y dyfarnwr, which means the adjudicator or the referee. It is unclear to me on what legal basis that office would be set up, as there is no reference to such a person in the 1993 Act. What power will he or she have to ensure the proper implementation of that Act? Where are these ideas laid out? I have no idea; perhaps the Secretary of State has. Whatever the fate of the Welsh Language Board in 2007, given that uncertainty, we would argue that it is feasible for Ministers in the Welsh Assembly Government to be able to support the implementation of the 1993 Act.

Lastly, amendment No. 124 and new clause 10 are more contentious, or perhaps less. They would allow for the commencement of Welsh language provisions in respect of Assembly Acts that begin on 1 April 2007; that is, the Assembly could pass one of its measures in respect of the Welsh language immediately in 2007, without having gone through a referendum. That is a peculiar exception. It would apply only to the Welsh language and to no other field. There are several reasons for proposing it.

I have already referred to the widespread dissatisfaction with the 1993 Act. By the way, that Act was introduced in the face of much opposition from no other person than the First Minister, Mr. Rhodri Morgan, who was a Member of Parliament at that time and, I think, shadow Secretary of State. He promised the House that the new Labour Government would introduce a proper Welsh language Act, but, eight years later, we are still waiting.

In those circumstances, why should not the Assembly have the opportunity to use its power to introduce such a measure? The First Minister and, I think, the Culture Minister in Cardiff, as well as, possibly, the Government here, have already said that they will not expend a single moment of Government time on introducing a new Welsh language Act. If the Government will not do it, although they promised through Mr. Rhodri Morgan in 1992 to do so, why should the Assembly be prevented from doing so in 2007, without having to wait?

I will not go much further into the reasons for a new Welsh language Act. As I said, there is a great deal of confusion and some mystery as to the probable fate of
 
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the Welsh Language Board. Interestingly, there is a coalition of thought across Wales, across a number of groups in Wales and across a number of political parties in Wales that we need to look again at the 1993 Act. We need to do so in the new circumstances that are being brought about by Mr. Rhodri Morgan.

The 1993 Act was an answer of sorts in 1993, but we contend that it has run into the buffers and needs to be considered carefully. The Secretary of State, in other arguments, talks about the need for the National Assembly to bed in. He has said that we need some time for it to prove its worth. The 1993 Act has had ample time to do so. I do not want to discuss the merits or otherwise of that Act, and I pay tribute to Lord Roberts for his work on it, but the day has come to look at it again. Given its deficiencies and the pressures for reform, and given the Government's refusal to make time here, there is a strong case for the Assembly to have the power to pass a measure on this quintessentially Welsh issue.

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): Given the time pressures, I do not intend to reiterate what the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) said in relation to amendments Nos. 13 and 16, which we have supported. At the very least, those are important probing amendments, to which the Secretary of State should respond.

5.30 pm

We are less inclined to support amendment No. 124 and new clause 10. Our interpretation is that proposed new subsection (2) makes it clear that the referendum would have no effect on the commencement of full law-making powers in respect of the Welsh language, and that if a future referendum were lost, that would likewise have no impact on full law-making powers in this area. Amendment No. 124 therefore makes it clear that, effectively, none of the commencement provisions in clause 104 apply to the assumption of full law-making powers in respect of the Welsh language, which would come into effect on 1 April 2007 should new clause 10 be passed.

We would prefer all the subjects set out in schedule 7, including the Welsh language, to be subject to a referendum. We see no case for stripping out the Welsh language from that list of subjects.


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