|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
One of the most heart-warming facts of recent years has been the recovery of the Welsh language from a dying one to a living one. It is crucial for the continuance of the variety of culture in the United Kingdom that the Welsh language be supported. I pay tribute to all those who have made that a success. In many ways, it is probably the most successful attempt at recovering a language. The reason for that lies deep within the Welsh cultural tradition, which is very much a vocal tradition, in singing, in poetry, and in the great works of Welsh art.
It behoves the United Kingdom Parliament to take seriously what is said about the Welsh language because, for our convenience, we have long insisted that English is the only language that is spoken in the Chamber of the House of Commons. That is necessary. We might gain less understanding and knowledge of Welsh concerns if Welsh Members always spoke in Welsh. It would also give the Minister some difficulty, which would be unfair. We therefore need to right that balance by leaning in favour of the language in Wales. It is difficult to understand how the House of Commons can provide enough time for the evolution and the reflection of the
27 Feb 2006 : Column 88
growth in importance of Welsh, especially, as the hon. Member for Caernarfon said, among young people and outside its heartland.
When my father learned Welsh, he was thought to be odd. It was not something that a young person did. He did it to be able to sing in Welsh, which one cannot do well without knowing what the songs mean. One can make terrible mistakes and that would have been embarrassing to a clergyman, which my father later became. He liked to know what he was saying or singing. He therefore took an early step in what became a much wider movement.
I have great sympathy with the amendments' intentions, which are to provide that it should be assumed that the two languages are the languages of Wales. I would have been unhappy if the Welsh nationalists had tried to suggest that English was not as much a language of Wales as Welsh. However, we who speak English and not Welshlearning Welsh was for only one generation; I am English on both sidesmust remember that the submerging of the languages of the United Kingdom is a symbol of conquest by the English. We who are English should also remember that the best compliment that we can pay and the best statement about the difference in attitude nowadays that we can make is to ensure that, when languages have survived despite the appalling effort to destroy them, they are encouraged, not least because, unless they are perceived as automatically equalas the amendments proposethe cultural base that is so important in the Principality will be greatly eroded.
Lembit Öpik: The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point. As he rightly observes, the cultural conquest was largely the attempted extermination of the language. Does he agree that a key goal of the political strategy that we must adopt is to ensure that Welsh has parity of esteem with English, especially in the eyes of younger people? On some occasions, I observe people who feel a little awkward about speaking Welsh because, due to the cultural history that he outlined, it is downgraded in the communities where they live. To that extent, the amendments are in line with achieving parity.
Mr. Gummer: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is right. We need to make it clear that the two languages of Wales are equal and, whenever possible, they should be presented as equal. I therefore want to ask the Under-Secretary two questions. First, if he does not support the amendments, does he acknowledge the concern that lies behind them? If so, will he ensure that the language used in future is generous and not mean? I use generous in the sense of ensuring that the emphasis is on ensuring the parity of languages, and not giving an impression that a concession has been squeezed out of any political party. That is why I intervened to support the point of the hon. Member for Caernarfon about the difference between words. The difference in the meaning of the words "business" and "proceedings" may be difficult to imagine, but its existence gives rise to concern, which has a pretty good basis in historical fact. It is therefore important for the Government to be seen to be generous in the matter.
Secondly, I am sure that the Government could ensure the withdrawal of new clause 10 if they would undertake to listen regularly and seriously to proposals
27 Feb 2006 : Column 89
for changes in the way in which the language is offered in the Principality that arise from genuine changes in society. If the Welsh Assembly knew that time would be found to give voice to proposals that are made on the basis that Welsh is a living language and that the position changes year by year, I am sure that the extension that the new clause suggests would not be pressed. However, if the Government say that they will do nothing about the matter and that they will not undertake to grant extra time, it would be understandable if the Welsh nationalists felt that the new clause should be pressed, simply because it covers an important issue in the Principality that should be aired in this imperial Parliament. It is a proper matter for the Member of Parliament for Suffolk, Coastal to comment on because it is important to our culture as a whole that we do not lose the culture of a part of the United Kingdom.
If the United Kingdom is to mean anything, we should be as proud of the fact that there is a culture that is special and particular in Wales as I hope the Welsh would be of our culture in the east of England, especially Suffolk. I hope that they would perceive it as important to them, even though the current Government are trying to snuff it out through their regional policy.
David T.C. Davies: I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) that the matter is as relevant in Suffolk as anywhere else. After all, we are considering a language that was called Brythonic and was once the language of Britain before various waves of Angles, Saxons, Danes and Norsemen came to England and pushed it further west. "Cumbria" and "Cymru" are descended from the same word. Hon. Members will guess from that that I have an enthusiasm for the language, which I am told that I have learned to speak with some proficiency.
I am sorry to say that I must stop short of supporting the amendments because I have some concerns about them. I pay tribute to the previous Conservative Government who rightly did so much to protect and preserve the language. It has started to grow even in places such as Monmouthshire. People used to joke that I had doubled the Welsh-speaking population of that county when I learned Welsh, but I assure hon. Members that that is not the case.
Overall, there is a positive attitude to the language, but concerns have been expressed not only by those who want more Welsh, but those who feel that there is too much at the moment. Some people complain about the cost of road signs and of translating every document. I have some sympathy with some points about road signs; the policies could be tailored slightly more to the areas in which they apply, but I would not generally argue with the comments about the positive attitude to the Welsh language. However, if we go too much further and start giving the Assembly powers to legislate without the same amount of scrutiny that applies to all other legislation, is not there a danger that we will begin to turn people against the Welsh language, especially in the anglicised parts of Wales?
The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) pointed out that statistics show that 20 per cent. of the population speak Welsh. I am not sure about that. I believe that 20 per cent. have a knowledge of Welsh, but whether one in five could hold a conversation in Welsh
27 Feb 2006 : Column 90
is another matter. He underlined the problem when he used the example of speech therapy. There is a huge general shortage of speech therapists in Wales. One cannot legislate for more speech therapists and certainly not for more who conduct their treatment only through the medium of Welsh.
Mr. Llwyd: I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument carefully. One can legislate for more Welsh language speech therapists. For example, one can offer incentives to students to study speech therapy. On almost a monthly basis, I am confronted with the problems of youngsters who need Welsh-speaking speech therapists.
To follow the comments of the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) and my hon. Friend the Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams), the Welsh Language Act was passed in 1993, but since then only nine Departments have adopted Welsh language policies. Last year, wearing my lawyer's hat, I had to advise somebody who had been refused forms to apply for legal aid through the medium of Welsh. Much remains to be done without offending non-Welsh-speaking people. Obviously, their good will needs to be kept, but much work needs to be done.
David T.C. Davies: I would rather look at the bigger picture. There is a danger that we might end up going a bit too far and alienating the many people in Wales who do not speak the language but who have a very good attitude towards it and are prepared to support policies such as compulsory Welsh up to the age of 16 in all state schools, which is something that I have a problem with after key stage 4.
I am not going to go so far as to say that I support the amendments, but I do support the Welsh language. Years ago, my great-grandmother, who came from west Wales, caused shock and horror by saying that she thought that it was important to learn Welsh in order to be able to communicate with the servants[Laughter.] I am sure that I am going to regret sharing that. However, if we were to go to some parts of Cardiff nowadaysparticularly the Pontcanna area, which is inhabited by quangocratswe would probably find that it was the other way round, and that people would have to learn English in order to talk to the domestic servants. I shall finish by reminding people of the Welsh phrase, "Gan bwyll mynd yn bell", which roughly translates as "Go a little bit more slowly and you'll get a lot further in the long run."
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|