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Welsh Language Act 1993

12.59 pm

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): I am pleased to have this opportunity to discuss the operation of the Welsh Language Act 1993.

I shall not be calling for a new Welsh Language Act, as hon. Members might have expected. People in Wales might be mystified by that, but the convention in these debates is that one does not call for new legislation—there are other opportunities to do that. However, this is a timely debate given the forthcoming national rally organised by Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, the Welsh language society, which will be held in Aberystwyth on 10 June and will call for a new Welsh Language Act.

When discussing Welsh language provision there is a great temptation to list various outrageous cases where people have been denied a service by the public sector. There is a danger of an extended whinge—during the past 30 years many cases have led to people such as myself whingeing extensively—and of our losing sight of the principal fault with the 1993 Act as a permanent solution to the languages question in Wales. That principal fault is inequality, which is written into the Act.

Of course, the 1993 Act is concerned with treating Welsh and English on an equal basis. That equality is qualified in the Act by its being subject to being “reasonably practicable” and “appropriate in the circumstances”. So, Welsh and English are not wholly equal; the equality is a qualified one. I have a difficulty with qualified equality as a concept; in my book, we are all equal or we are not. The Act seems to echo Orwell’s point in “Animal Farm”:

By now, it is abundantly clear that, even following the 1993 Act, Welsh and English are not even treated on the basis of that qualified equality. My argument runs contrary to that treatment: Welsh and English are equal, should be treated as such and Welsh speakers should have equal rights to use either language, or both, as they see fit. That is my basic argument; it is one of equality.

Cutting across the detail of individual cases, although I shall refer to such a case later, the crux of the argument is about equality. I would like to make it clear that the primary response that I am seeking from the Under-Secretary of State is an explanation of the Government’s stance on the fundamental inequality that Welsh speakers face: the lack of a positive right to use Welsh equal to the right to use English, which is assumed without thought.

We are talking about a fundamental principle, and as such, however we organise and develop it in the future, it must be established and we must see it as a process to an end point. I accept that we will not achieve that overnight, in months or perhaps in years, but we must insist on the process towards equality. I want to hear the Government’s response to my call for nothing less than the full emancipation of the Welsh language and of the individuals and communities that speak it.

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We are not just considering my right and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) as Welsh speakers to use the language. We must also realise that communities in Wales use Welsh as the primary social mode of discussion; using Welsh is the way we talk to each other in some communities. There are not just individual rights, but community rights.

I said that I would not whinge about cases, not that they are scarce. Of course, there is a fine tradition of using cases to drive through progressive legislation.My illustrious predecessor as Member for Caernarfon, David Lloyd George, used the famous achos claddu Llanfrothen—the Llanfrothen burial case where nonconformists were not allowed to bury their departed in the graveyard in Llanfrothen—as a battering ram that eventually led to the disestablishment of the Church of England in Wales. I am not going to list a lot of cases, but I will base my arguments about equality on a case concerning British Gas Business that neatly encompasses some of the principles. I refer hon. Members to my early-day motion 2185 on this matter.

First, I would like to quote briefly from letters sent to me by British Gas Business. Hon. Members will note that I quote from the original and in English, for even though I usually correspond with the company in Welsh—not in this case, as it happens—it has replied to me in English. I will begin with a letter entitled in large letters “We won’t be able to send your bills in Welsh anymore”.

I would like the Chamber to note that British Gas, as a former public utility, has been providing a Welsh language service to both its private and business customers for a large number of years, as have other former public utilities. I have here some material sent to me the other day that includes a bill from Welsh Water, which is now a private company. It is entirely bilingual, although English is first and Welsh second. I can access the material in Welsh and English as I want. I also have some leaflets, which are also bilingual. That is an example of a former public utility, which is now a private company, that finds no difficulty in corresponding with me in Welsh, yet British Gas Business tells me that it will not be able to send me my bills in Welsh any more.

Irrespective of that case, British Gas assures me that it will continue to use Welsh in correspondence with its private domestic customers. However, it is a case of a service withdrawn, a service cut and a service lost. I wonder how you would respond, Miss Begg, if you were to receive a letter from such a utility saying that it was unable to send you your bills in English any more. I was surprised, shocked and dismayed at the cut.

In the first letter that I received, the customer manager at British Gas Business said that it wanted to

That is the driver behind the change. I do not know what the savings from cutting the Welsh language service will be, but Centrica, the parent company, made a profit last year of £1.5 billion, so it is not short of a shilling or two to put in the meter. In 2005, British Gas Business made a profit of £77 million. It is clearly searching for cuts and to spend its money in the best way, but it has a little in its back pocket.

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The customer service manager went on to say that British Gas Business is withdrawing the Welsh service

Clearly, that is not “all our customers”—my constituents and I count as customers. I cannot see how British Gas can rationalise the step by saying that it is serving all its customers.

A further explanation was offered in a further letter, which stated that

I could say that British Gas Business should not only provide a service in Welsh, but that it would be good if it provided one in English as well. Perhaps it is unfair to tease British Gas any further. The point is that we have a former public utility that is now in the private sector and it is not subject to the principles of language planning. That is as envisaged in the 1993 Act, from which the private sector was excluded. The Act is concerned primarily with the public sector and, by voluntary agreements, with the voluntary and private sectors.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I remind my hon. Friend that in 1992, when we were discussing the 1993 Act in Standing Committee—the Under-Secretary was also a member of the Committee, and I am sure that he and I agreed on this—we said that the private sector needed to be included. However, it was not included, and we are still suffering from that mistake.

Hywel Williams: I thank my hon. Friend for that. I do not wish to labour the matter, because the First Minister in Cardiff said at the time that he would ensure in future that we had a proper Welsh language Act.

The private sector was excluded under the 1993 Act. That sector includes not only British Gas but the other former public utilities and large private sector businesses—unless they have entered into a voluntary agreement with the Welsh Language Board. I hardly need say that voluntary means just that. British Gas concludes its most recent letter with this statement:

That plainly says that British Gas will act if forced to. Let us be clear: it will provide a Welsh service only if the law compels it to do so. That is the stance of the self-proclaimed No. 1 supplier of energy to the commercial sector in Britain, so it will affect a large number of people.

I said that I would not tease British Gas any further, but its attitude is perfectly explicable given the current Act. The Welsh language may count for something to its private customers, but it has no place in the real world of business, as in the Act—or apparently so. However, many businesses in my constituency and throughout Wales now operate through the medium of Welsh. How could they access business services if every other company took the same view as British Gas?

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Mr. Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he agree that that point may be a disincentive to people whose first language is Welsh who are considering starting a business—an obstacle in the way of some who wish to form a new small business, particularly in the communities to which he referred where Welsh is the primary medium of communication?

Hywel Williams: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. There are companies in my constituency that would not dream of operating through the medium of English. Welsh is their internal language and it is the language of their customers. Why should they operate in English? They should operate in English only if they have to, because of the attitude of other businesses. That is why the 1993 Act is deficient. It says nothing about the large parts of the world in which Welsh speakers live.

I am sure that the Under-Secretary will welcome the fact that many companies now operate through the medium of Welsh. However, he cannot welcome that end unless he wills the means, and in this case the means are being denied. I have no doubt that if British Gas, as a responsible employer, faced a case of discrimination on the basis of gender, disability race or even age, it would act, but the language rights of Welsh speakers and Welsh-speaking communities are somehow seen to be different in this case. As I said, that can be traced back to the deficiency of the 1993 Act.

There is a long history of legislation on the Welsh language, and that deficiency runs throughout. The Acts of Union barred anyone who chose to speak Welsh from holding public office; the aim was to expiate “sinister usages and practices", one of which was the speaking of Welsh. As a younger man, I was rather pleased to have the sinister usage and practice of speaking Welsh, but I am now slightly wiser.

Among 20th century legislation, we had the Welsh Courts Act 1942 and the Welsh Language Act 1967. The latter bought in the concept of equal validity, and states explicitly that where there is a discrepancy between English and Welsh texts, the “English shall prevail”. If the Welsh text says that so and so is four and the English text says that it is five, it must be five. Such is the idiocy of that provision. We then come to the 1993 Act, with its qualification of equality.

Even the most determined radical would concede that there has been a good deal of progress—but at what a slow pace. Each change has been won from a grudging Government after much hardship, and I am afraid that each change has been deficient, but I believe that we are at the start of a new era for the Welsh language. I am sure that the Under-Secretary will agree that the demography is encouraging, with more and younger Welsh speakers. The bulge is at the young end of the population, not the old. The language is now heard on the streets of Cardiff and Newport as well as Caernarfon and Aberystwyth.

In those urban communities, however, Welsh is not the common language of social life. The Welsh speaker in Cardiff would have to be pretty assertive to demand a public service in Welsh—such as education, where recently the bungling local authority coupled a growth in Welsh language provision with the closing of English-medium
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schools, and effectively scuppered the plan. There are of course many enterprises that are private but which provide public services, most obviously in health and social services. The world has changed.

Furthermore, in the heartlands the Welsh language is not faring as well, because of migration from those areas that is driven by fewer opportunities, lower wages and the draw of the city. This is a time of potential hope and growth, but a time when we also need to be open to change. After all, why should John and Jane have an automatic right to public service in English, when Siôn and Siân have to fight every inch of the way—perhaps not successfully, in the end? As to the private sector, let us be clear that it is not a matter of forcing the corner shop owner to learn Welsh; it is a matter of large and profitable companies taking their responsibilities seriously—by law, if, as the British Gas case clearly suggests, that is necessary.

This year Rosa Parks died. As many hon. Members will know, she was one of the people who symbolised the fight for the rights of black people in the USA. She did so by the simple act of taking a seat on a bus—a seat that was reserved for white people. She dramatised the inequality of the treatment of black people. In Wales a more subtle and less dramatic form of inequality is present, and perhaps the steps that we take to deal with it are more subtle and less dramatic. However, change we must have. It must be based on full emancipation and full equality, and equal rights for Welsh and English speakers alike.

1.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Nick Ainger): I congratulate the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) on securing the debate. The hon. Gentleman has chosen an important issue for us to debate, and I have listened with interest. He claims that the current Welsh language legislation is no longer adequate. Perhaps it never was, in his view, in relation to private companies. He argues that the way forward is to establish genuine equality between the English and Welsh languages in Wales. I understand his desire to achieve a bilingual Wales and equality between the two languages, and for Wales to be at the forefront of the conduct of public and perhaps private life in Wales. However, I remain convinced that the way to achieve that is through greater co-operation and encouragement, not compulsion.

The Welsh Language Act 1993 has had a huge impact on the use of the Welsh language and I think that the hon. Gentleman accepts that. The language now plays a more prominent role in our national life than it has done at any time in living memory. The statistics from the 2001 census provide further evidence of that. It is important that fluent Welsh speakers feel that they have as many opportunities as possible to use the language in their everyday lives. There are now many more services available in Welsh than ever before, but one of our biggest problems is getting people to use the services that are currently available in Welsh. The Welsh Assembly Government have made great efforts positively to promote the use of Welsh, and I fully support them in that.

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The long-term future of Welsh as a language rests in our ability to encourage more people to speak the language. A new Act would achieve some things, such as compelling even greater use of the language in business and services. Would it, however, really encourage more people on the streets of Wales to learn it? Legislation can be an effective tool for dealing with problems that society faces, but, as I have said previously, my colleagues in the Welsh Assembly Government and I feel that it is far more important to channel our efforts into ensuring that more Welsh is used every day in all aspects of life through promotion and co-operation. We need to ensure that there are services available in Welsh for those who want to use them, and, at the same time, to make sure that opportunities are available for people to learn the language or enhance their language skills. It is through a combination of those efforts that we will achieve our desired outcome of a bilingual Wales.

Although the UK and Welsh Assembly Governments are not minded to bring forward new specific Welsh language legislation, it does not automatically follow that we are not prepared to consider how we can strengthen our commitment to the language in other legislation. I should point out that the Welsh language has featured prominently in the debates on the Government of Wales Bill. Clause 61 gives Welsh Ministers the power to do anything that they consider appropriate to support the Welsh language. Together with the Assembly Ministers’ functions under the Welsh Language Act 1993, it will provide a broad basis for promoting the Welsh language.

Welsh Assembly Ministers will inherit the Welsh Assembly’s existing Welsh language scheme and the commitments in it to produce an annual compliance report. As required by section 21(3) of the 1993 Act, the scheme has been prepared having regard to the Welsh Language Board’s guidelines. The Welsh Assembly Government’s proposals to bring the board in-house have been well documented and debated, and consultation is taking place on them. When they come into effect, Welsh Assembly Ministers will inherit one of the primary functions of the board: promoting and facilitating use of the Welsh language. Having such a function will mean that the Welsh Assembly Government will have to take action to do so. A duty will be imposed on them. That, along with provisions in the Government of Wales Bill, is a reflection of the Welsh Assembly’s commitment to the Welsh language.

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