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Business without Debate

Delegated Legislation

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Ration and Valuation

Question agreed to.

15 Dec 2009 : Column 908

Constitutional Law

10 pm

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): I beg to move,

This legislative competence order has already been approved by the National Assembly, and I would like to put on record at the outset this Government's strong commitment to the Welsh language. I hope that my personal support for its future development speaks for itself. Parts of my constituency are strongly Welsh speaking, and when Neath hosted the National Eisteddfod in 1994, I gave a welcoming address speaking in Welsh-after considerable coaching, as my Welsh is limited. I wanted to do that to make a statement of support, and I was grateful for the way in which it was received. When I was Welsh Education Minister in 1998, I extended Welsh as a compulsory subject- [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Secretary of State. I would be grateful if Members who are leaving the Chamber would do so quickly and quietly. I know that those who are remaining will not want to converse privately, but to attend to the business of the House.

Mr. Hain: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

When I was Welsh Education Minister in 1998, I extended Welsh as a compulsory subject to the GCSE-age cohort, in the face of hostile criticism in some quarters.

Hon. Members will know that draft legislative competence orders-LCOs-are not normally debated on the Floor of the House, but I was determined that that should happen in this instance. The Welsh language plays a central, fundamental role in Welsh society, and in the day-to-day lives of many people in Wales. I believe that the unique importance of this LCO merits all Members of this House having the opportunity to debate it.

Our debate here this evening follows on from the approval of this LCO last week in the House of Lords, from the Welsh Grand Committee debate on the proposals on 14 October and from the scrutiny undertaken by the Welsh Affairs Committee, the Lords Constitution Committee and a Committee of the National Assembly. I would like to commend the Welsh Affairs Committee in particular for its first-rate scrutiny of this LCO, and for its role in building the broad consensus that now exists around it. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) for his meticulous leadership of the Committee. I have been heartened by that consensus: a broad church of interest groups, together with those whom the LCO might affect, now supports it in principle. This provides a solid foundation on which the Assembly Government can build in developing proposals for an Assembly Measure to take forward the language.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Does the Secretary of State agree that the process that he has adopted on this occasion ought to set a precedent for Governments of all colours, in the sense that, once a matter that is clearly in the domain of the Assembly-in
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spirit and also, to some extent, in words-has been decided by the Assembly, it would not be in order for us to overturn it? Does he therefore acknowledge that we are putting a marker in the sand for how these important decisions might be made in the future, and how they should be respected when they come from Cardiff?

Mr. Hain: In this case, we have seen how detailed scrutiny-undertaken primarily by this Parliament, either in this House or through the Welsh Affairs Committee-has improved a draft piece of legislation that would not otherwise have been in such good shape. That is the way I would respond to the hon. Gentleman's question.

The Government's approach to this LCO has been informed by four principles. The first is that it is logical and appropriate for the National Assembly for Wales to be able to legislate on the Welsh language. The nation's legislature is surely the natural home for making laws in relation to the language.

The second principle is that the order builds on the firm foundations of the Welsh Language Act 1993. That landmark legislation ensured that organisations providing services of a public nature implement schemes for carrying out some or all of their business in Welsh. These requirements now need updating better to fit new times, but the 1993 Act provides a sound basis for the focus of the LCO on key public services provided by public authorities or private companies.

Thirdly, it is crucial that as we move forward, we strike the right balance between the interests of those who use Welsh as their mother tongue and who wish to conduct their day-to-day business in the language and the large majority of people in Wales-some 80 per cent.-who do not speak Welsh.

The final principle is that any duty should be applied in a reasonable and proportionate way. This is the key point made by the Welsh Affairs Committee and it has my full support. This is particularly important in the context of ensuring that business and enterprise in Wales support these proposals. No one would want to see the private sector discouraged from investing in Wales because of burdensome Welsh language duties being inappropriately imposed on business. What is right in respect of a large public authority need not necessarily be right for a smaller private sector company. What is right in Meirionnydd may not be right for Monmouthshire.

There has been a great deal of consultation on these proposals. My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) sought the views of interested parties on the proposed order earlier this year, and I am grateful to him as he paved the way for the consensus that has now been built. The Under-Secretary of State for Wales and I have held discussions with a large number of organisations-and their representative bodies-that may be affected by subsequent Assembly measures. This engagement has been vital in helping to frame the draft LCO before us this evening.

This LCO, then, is built on firm and clear principles. It is grounded in a common- sense approach to developing the language and, in drafting it, we have responded to the very real concerns of some about its scope while at the same time meeting the pressures for change. I believe it gets right the intricate balance of interests that hon. Members will know the Welsh language engages; it
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builds a broad consensus on how to proceed and it works in the best interests of everyone in Wales.

The draft LCO would enable the National Assembly to legislate to promote or facilitate the use of the Welsh language and the treatment of the Welsh and English languages on a basis of equality. This is based on the wording from the Welsh Language Act 1993. It does not extend to the use of Welsh in the courts; nor would it allow the National Assembly to impose duties in relation to the Welsh language on any body other than those falling within the 10 categories listed in the order. These categories include public authorities; bodies established for specified purposes by royal charter; bodies receiving public money amounting to £400,000 or more in a financial year; and organisations providing key public services, including electricity, gas, water, post, telecoms, bus and rail services.

The LCO includes a crucial safeguard enabling bodies in these categories to challenge the imposition of Welsh language duties on grounds of reasonableness and proportionality. This is a robust safeguard against any inappropriate imposition of such duties. It ensures that the reasonableness of duties will be a key consideration in developing Assembly measures, and provides an important reassurance against disproportionate obligations being imposed on any body, and especially smaller organisations, whether they be charities or companies in business sectors such as mobile telephony or energy.

I believe this LCO puts in place a framework for the devolution of powers over the Welsh language to the Assembly, which is robust and provides for a strong and healthy future for the language by building on the achievements since 1993 in a common-sense, evolutionary way to make the language a source of pride for everyone in Wales, whether or not they speak Welsh. I commend it to the House.

10.9 pm

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): May I begin by offering my condolences and, I believe, those of the whole House to the new First Minister on the untimely death of his mother, of which we heard earlier today? I am sure that everyone would wish me to pass our condolences to him.

I thank the Secretary of State for giving us the opportunity to debate the legislative competence order on the Floor of the House. It has undergone considerable amendment since it was first proposed by the Welsh Assembly and referred to the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs and the Welsh Grand Committee, and the opportunity for us to scrutinise its closing stages on the Floor of the House is very welcome. I do not intend to speak for long, because I know that many other Members wish to speak.

I am aware that accusations have been made in certain quarters. It has been claimed that the LCO has been delayed in the House, and that the Select Committee's recommendations-most of which have now been adopted-were superfluous. Indeed, that criticism has dogged the LCO process from the beginning. Those critics have argued what we are considering is a permissive power, not a Measure, and that it is not for Parliament to second-guess what may or may not be done with an LCO once it has been passed by the Assembly. Our duty, they say, is only to scrutinise whether it is appropriate for the power to be passed down.

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It has been argued that LCOs should not be scrutinised as if they were fully fledged Measures, but it is clear that to pass down a power that had not been scrutinised by the House of Commons would defeat the object of the existence of this place, and its role and function in our legislative process. I think that the Secretary of State and I have similar views in that regard.

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Is it not worrying that if it were not for the House of Commons with all its Members, and the Members of another place, there would be very little scrutiny from the 60 Members who currently inhabit the Welsh Assembly?

Mrs. Gillan: I have to say that on this occasion I agree with the Secretary of State. I think it important for LCOs to be properly scrutinised in this place. As the Order Paper makes clear, this is a constitutional matter, and it is right for it to be debated on the Floor of the House.

I think it important to give some thought to what it means to say that the passing down of a power is "appropriate". Of course, nothing seems more immediately appropriate than passing power over the Welsh language to the Welsh Assembly. The Assembly is certainly capable of exercising that power, and it is an elected body, just as the House of Commons is. I would argue, however, that what we mean by "appropriate" in this case is not whether the Assembly can do the job, but whether it makes more sense to legislate on this matter at Welsh level in the Assembly or at national level in Parliament.

As the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) once observed, and as I believe has been observed by the Secretary of State himself, it would be inappropriate to rubber-stamp the passing down of power to legislate on matters which, without proper scrutiny, could have unintended consequences. I have always believed that, and it has been the case with this LCO. As my grandmother used to say, two heads are better than one. I think that this extra scrutiny is welcome, and that it has improved the LCO greatly. It is entirely proper that, when deciding whether it is appropriate to pass down powers, we should pay careful attention to the scope of LCOs and their possible implications for the people of Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom.

I disagree with the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), who appears to have left the Chamber immediately after his intervention, and also with Lord Elis-Thomas, who said that legislative proposals for the Assembly should be passed automatically. I do not believe that that is the right thing to do.

Let me turn to the detail of the order. It has certainly been greatly improved since its first draft. I pay tribute to the work of the Select Committee and its Chairman, the hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis). It is clear that the system places a considerable burden on the Committee, and it is testimony to the dedication of all its members in all parties that they managed to do such a good job despite their immense work load. However, there are still a number of issues that I want to raise. I hope that the Secretary of State, or the Minister, can provide clarification or reassurance both for myself and for those who have raised matters with me.

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The first issue is the future of the Welsh Language Board. It has been doing a first-class job in promoting the language under Meri Huws, yet no one seems to have raised what will happen to it and to the jobs involved, and I know that it was not consulted in an appropriate fashion before the LCO was promulgated by the coalition Assembly Government. I hope that the Minister will be able to shine some light on its future.

The order applies to a number of bodies outside the public sector and thus outside the scope of the Welsh Language Act 1993, including gas, electricity, water and telecoms providers. I appreciate that the intention is to allow the people in Wales to live their lives in the language of their choice, and I, too, support that aim, yet many of these companies already have some form of language scheme. The comment I have heard most often from such companies is that take-up is severely limited. For example, Wales & West Utilities Ltd identified that over the three years of operation between 2006 and 2009, in 600,000 calls to its hotline only four requests were made to converse in Welsh. Also, of 152,000 pieces of correspondence generated annually, only two requests for Welsh correspondence have been received. Surely the energies of government would be better used in encouraging private companies to adopt Welsh language schemes voluntarily than in legislating further.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Gillan: I would like to make a little more progress first.

As the Federation of Small Businesses has said, businesses will respond to customers more than to legislation, and continuing to promote the language is surely the best route to take. If a significant customer base wanted to operate in the Welsh language, companies would have every reason to do so.

Hywel Williams: The hon. Lady is intent on promoting a voluntary approach, while pointing out that that approach has not succeeded. The company's figures that she mentioned show that the Welsh language is seldom used under the voluntary approach. Can she explain that apparent contradiction?

Mrs. Gillan: I am just raising some queries which I hope the Minister will address. I think the voluntary approach has worked rather well in Wales. I have just given an example of one of the submissions to the Secretary of State, and I am asking the Minister whether he thinks we should continue to promote such schemes, rather than take the legislative route that will be available under the LCO.

Imposing a stringent language scheme on bodies, regardless of whether they already have some form of language scheme, would clearly result in additional cost. The consequences are clear: either the cost will be passed on to the consumer in the form of higher bills, or companies may choose not to operate in Wales at all. As a result, Welsh consumers may be deprived of choice and competition.

The Mobile Broadband Group has expressed the concern that resources are limited in the current economic climate, and said that priority should be given to extending coverage across Wales of a service that is consistently in
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demand by Welsh consumers. BT has called for action to encourage uptake of existing services, rather than have new legislation that could be planned by the Assembly Government. It does not want to supply Welsh language services by law and compulsion, but is happy to continue to do so voluntarily. I hope that the Minister will address that in his winding-up speech.

Companies supplying liquid propane to rural areas, such as Calor Gas Ltd, have also raised the objection that their main competitors-suppliers of oil and coal-are exempt from the order. Any additional costs put on companies such as Calor would have to be absorbed into the cost of the liquefied petroleum gas they supply, forcing up prices, which would hit Welsh families, especially in rural areas, at a time when the fuel poverty rate in Wales stands at 340,000 households. Furthermore, the order applies not only to multinationals but to some small companies, and as the Secretary of State has said, it must be ensured that the extra cost does not risk crippling otherwise successful and growing organisations. For that reason, I welcome the test of reasonableness and proportionality that has been inserted in the order in its final form.

The order specifies that before a duty can be imposed on any organisation, there must be a clear right to appeal. I agree with that sentiment, but there are implications to the proposal. First, it sounds as though a significant bureaucracy will be necessary not only to enforce Welsh language legislation, but to deal with any appeals. I wonder where the finance is coming from to fund the appeals process, because I believe the order attracts no accompanying extra funding-perhaps the Minister could confirm that. Secondly, small organisations might feel that the process of appeal is simply too arduous to consider even operating in Wales. I am not aware of any impact assessment having been carried out, so could the Minister reassure me that such an impact assessment will be carried out, as this issue has been raised by more than one company?

The Welsh Language Act has consistently encouraged participation in Welsh language schemes on a voluntary basis, and over the years much good will has been engendered towards the language. I pay tribute to Lord Wyn Roberts, because he really is the champion of the Welsh language; I am proud to say that it is a Conservative who has protected, promoted and advanced the language with such sensitivity and wisdom. There are many people in Wales who are not Welsh speaking but who, nevertheless, feel an affinity with the language, and it will be a sad day if that sentiment and good will is damaged by higher bills or a reduction in choice and fewer services, and by a resentment that could come from compulsion

I should also mention, once again, the £400,000 threshold on public money received in consecutive years. I do so, first, because the figure seems to be merely the original arbitrary figure, just doubled. Will the Minister confirm what consultation took place over where to set the threshold, either in the original order or in the version before us, and where the figure has come from? Has it been plucked out of the air?

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Gillan: I will not give way, because so many people wish to speak; I just want to finish making my points.

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