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Equality of treatment

Hywel Williams: I beg to move amendment No. 17, in page 21, line 40, leave out from 'effect,' to 'to' in line 41 and insert

'save in exceptional cases where it is not reasonably possible to do so'.

Madam Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 18, in clause 61 , page 36, line 14, at end insert

', including the implementation of any of the provisions of the Welsh Language Act 1993.'.

Amendment No. 19, in clause 110, page 60, line 35, leave out from 'Welsh' to end of line 37.

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New clause 10—Welsh language legislation—

'(1)   Sections 106 to 112 and 114 shall come into force on 1st April 2007 in respect of subject 20 in Part 1 of Schedule 7 (the Welsh language).

(2)   Section 102 shall not apply to the commencement of subsection (1).'.

Hywel Williams: The amendments and new clause were discussed in Committee, but we believe that further points need to be made.

Amendment No. 17 deals with Assembly proceedings under clause 35, which concerns equality of treatment. The amendment aims to make it clear that treating the Welsh and English languages on the basis of equality is the norm and that any deviation from that practice is exceptional. The Welsh Language Act 1993 states that the Welsh and English languages should be treated on the basis of equality, where it is

but it is arguable that that puts the onus on people who want to see material in both Welsh and English to make the case that that is reasonably practicable and appropriate.

Amendment No. 17 turns the tables on that argument. It establishes that bilingualism is the norm in the proceedings of the Assembly, in which case the argument would have to be made why it is exceptional that bilingualism should not apply.

David T.C. Davies: I am surprised, because so far as I am aware, every Assembly publication is bilingual. I have never seen any other kind of Assembly publication—indeed, I question whether it is necessary to translate documents in some cases.

Mr. Llwyd: Not everything is bilingual.

Hywel Williams: I thank my hon. Friend for his sedentary intervention. The argument concerns why things should not be bilingual rather than why they should be bilingual. When the Secretary of State discussed that point in Committee, I gave him examples of circumstances in which it would be exceptional for documents to be produced bilingually. For example, if a document is likely to be superseded within a couple of months, it would clearly waste time and money to translate it, but such circumstances are self-evidently exceptional. I seek a reassurance from the Minister that bilingualism is the norm in the Assembly and its proceedings. The point may appear to be a fine one, but fine points that go missing between cup and lip can cause dissatisfaction.

I want to draw the Minister's attention to a point made by Mr. Hugh Rawlings of the Assembly's constitutional affairs unit. Will the Minister explain the difference between the Government of Wales Act 1998 and the Bill? The 1998 Act states:

However, the Bill concerns:

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Will the Minister explain the difference between the two wordings? Mr. Hugh Rawlings has pointed out that the Bill could be construed to be narrower than the 1998 Act. "The conduct of business" is a broad point, whereas "the conduct of proceedings" might be confined to the proceedings of the Assembly itself.

7.45 pm

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): I hope that the hon. Gentleman sticks to that point. In my ministerial experience, there is a civil servant somewhere who has made that distinction for a good reason, which the House has a right to know.

Hywel Williams: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. We want to clarify the matter to avoid argument and dissent. Language is an important issue in Wales and tempers get frayed, so it would be useful if that point were clarified.

Amendment No. 18 is straightforward. We merely seek a reassurance that anything that the Assembly Minister does to support the language will include the provisions of the Welsh Language Act 1993. The Secretary of State addressed that point in Committee, but if the Minister were to provide such a reassurance, it would be helpful.

Amendment No. 19 refers to clause 110—there has been a mistake, because it refers to line 28 rather than line 35. Its purpose is to ensure that Bills passed by the Assembly are in both Welsh and English and that there are no circumstances in which a Bill might be passed in Welsh only or in English only. We think it important that the principle of equality applies to the use of both the languages of Wales—English and Welsh—in the Assembly. Again, an assurance would clear up the matter.

New clause 10 is possibly the most contentious provision in the group. It would allow the Assembly to pass a Welsh language measure now as primary legislation without holding a referendum. I accept that that might be contentious, but I hope that the new clause signals to the Minister the importance that we place on that particular issue, because there is a great deal of dissatisfaction in Wales about the operation of the Welsh Language Act 1993.

In Committee, I referred to the great strides taken in 1993 and 1967—in 1967, the then Labour Government passed the Welsh Language Act 1967—but the 1993 Act is 13 years old and the situation has moved on. One would expect any Government to review social legislation in the light of ever-changing circumstances and perhaps to introduce new proposals. The Assembly has given the 1993 Act some attention and introduced its plans, but, as I have said, there is a great deal of dissatisfaction in Wales, because people see that the 1993 Act does not go far enough given the change in the nature of language use in Wales.

Use of the Welsh language is growing, especially among young people. About 30 per cent. of young people speak Welsh, compared with about 20 per cent. of those aged over 65. Welsh is a younger, growing language. Not only that, but the proportion of Welsh speakers who live outside the traditional heartland areas is growing every year. Nowadays, 40 per cent. of Welsh speakers live in the south and east, in areas where the
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Welsh language is not socially prominent and one cannot assume that one can speak Welsh merely because one is a Welsh speaker. In my own town of Caernarfon, I would not dream of using English in a greengrocer, whereas I would consider doing so in Monmouth or Cardiff.

We need to make much more explicit the absolute right to use Welsh. People should have limited rights for using Welsh in some public services. As regards speech therapy, for example, why should Siôn have a different standard of service from John? John will find it extremely difficult to get speech therapy in English but Siôn will find it impossible, in most places, to get it in the medium of Welsh. There should be parity of treatment and a positive right in respect of that aspect of a public service. I do not think that any of my colleagues, or anyone in Wales, would say that there should be an absolute right for everything to be bilingual—that would not be a practical proposition at present—but that is an example of the dissatisfaction in Wales about the working of the 1993 Act, and why a reasonable Government would review whether the rights could be extended.

Let me explain why some aspects of the 1993 Act support my case for new clause 10. Like many hon. Members, I have recently done a great deal of work on tax credits. That is difficult enough as it is, but, as the Minister will know, Revenue and Customs has found it impossible to generate letters in Welsh with its current computer system, so letters in English are produced, sometimes sensible and sometimes not so sensible. If there were to be a move in language legislation, one would hope that the production of such material in Welsh in Wales would become the norm rather than the exception, so that hon. Members would not waste their time banging the counter at Revenue and Customs and pushing for their constituents to have such material in Welsh.

Last year, I had discussions with the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell), about the forms for licensing. When people were applying for licences before the passage of the Licensing Act 2003, the forms were available only in English. The Minister was very reasonable and said that he would move as quickly as possible to provide them in Welsh. In a written reply to me about two weeks ago, he told me that a working party had met and was discussing the forms, and that that might lead to a statutory instrument some time in the spring, followed by the forms in the summer. That will be one full year after the forms were available in English. I am not trying to ascribe any blame, but that is what happens when the provision of bilingual services in Wales is not the norm, so that almost by default people are denied the right to use the Welsh language.

I will not say much about the variable standards of service from the privatised utilities or the difficulty of getting answers in Welsh from Swansea about the pension system. However, I mention in passing the difficult issue of third parties acting for local or central Government. Private organisations working for local government are supposed to be subject to the provisions in the local authority's language scheme, but that does not often happen. To give a humorous example, during a case in the local Crown court that was conducted in the medium of Welsh, when the order came, "Take him
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down", everybody in the court moved apart from the two private guards, who had come from Liverpool and had no idea what was going on. That third-party service was not subject to the Welsh language.

As I said, there is a great deal of dissatisfaction. At the very least, I would like the Minister to give some indication that the Government take that seriously and will think about how we can effect, through discussion and agreement, a positive change that would confer to Siôn rights to some limited public services through the medium of Welsh and ensure that third parties are subject to Welsh language schemes. Central Government Departments should be encouraged to see bilingual provision in Wales as normal, so that, for example, the Welsh language could have an explicit statement that it is an official language. In 1993, when Lord Roberts of Conwy was Minister of State at the Welsh Office, he said that the Welsh language is official and has always been so. However, it would be useful to have an explicit statement that Welsh is a legitimate occupational qualification.

Unfortunately, the Governments here and in Cardiff have already said that not a moment of Government time will be available for such legislation. We have in Cardiff a National Assembly for Wales that Labour Members say does not have much to do. In Committee, it was said that there is no problem in staffing committees in Wales because Members are sitting on their hands most of the time. The National Assembly has the interest, expertise and personnel to consider such legislation, so why should not we enable it to do so?

I am a realist and I do not expect the Minister to be immediately persuaded by my words, but some indication that the Government are prepared to take these issues forward would be most acceptable.

8 pm

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