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15 Dec 2009 : Column 914

Secondly, it is unclear for how long a duty would be imposed on these organisations. I hope that the Minister will be able to clarify whether the organisations are merely covered in the years in which they receive the requisite amount of public money or in perpetuity. Could he also clarify why it was felt necessary to include the Bank of England in the order? To date, I have seen no justification for its having been explicitly included. This legislative competence order, in its final form, has certainly addressed some of the concerns raised by both Labour and Conservative Members about the original draft. Certain questions remain, however, and I hope that he will address them in his closing remarks.

On the face of it, it appears appropriate for the Assembly to gain competence over the Welsh language. My concern is that the approach that seems to have been taken could have wider repercussions. In the course of this debate over the past few months, nobody has produced any substantial evidence or proof that the existing arrangements were not working or were unsatisfactory, or that there was any dissatisfaction with them. Indeed, I am not aware that there was any significant demand for legislation in this area at all.

However, the business grant that was previously given to help businesses to implement Welsh language schemes has quietly and quickly been phased out. Instead of supporting businesses with the costs of bilingual materials and signage, it seems that the Plaid Cymru-Labour coalition has decided to resort to compulsion, at the risk, perhaps, of forfeiting the good will that the language enjoys. Conservative Members are great supporters of the Welsh language, and it is undeniable that major progress on the language has come under Conservative Governments. However, the decision to go down the route of new legislation in the current economic climate carries risks of raising costs and fuel bills, and of deterring certain businesses from operating in Wales-unless, of course, the Minister can answer the questions that I have rightly raised on behalf of the people who have contacted us. Not only would that be extremely damaging economically, but it would risk doing harm to the language itself-nobody in this place wants that.

I want to see the language protected and nurtured, not resented or turned into a non-tariff barrier to business or to consumer choice. If this order goes through, measures will flow from it, and I hope that none of my fears are realised. At least I know that we have tried to identify those issues that may cause problems and to ask the questions that have been raised with us. We will be watching progress on this matter closely to ensure that, particularly in these difficult economic times, nothing is done to disadvantage Welsh businesses, Welsh consumers, Welsh families and, most importantly, the language itself.

10.24 pm

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): It is a genuine pleasure to take part in this debate tonight, albeit that it is late in the day. However, I think that it is right to say that in many quarters there will be a palpable sigh of relief that the order in its final form is now before us.

Some outside this place have condemned the presence of this business on the Order Paper today and in particular the last session of the Welsh Grand Committee as deliberate attempts at delay and prevarication. I do not believe that that is the case. I believe that what the
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Secretary of State said was true-he has just about succeeded, judging by the turn-out this evening-and that there was a conscious effort to ensure that there was the widest possible consultation on a matter that could be emotive and sensitive and that is very important. I hope that there will be approval by the end of the debate, too, although I hesitate to say that after the last speech.

Tonight's debate is not about the merits of the LCO process. It is about transferring powers to our Assembly, at its request, and using the LCO process to achieve it. I can think of no other area of policy where there is such a strong moral case. I am proud to be a member of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, and our Chairman, the hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis), is always at great pains when we scrutinise all LCOs to ensure that we do not stray into the realms of Measures that the Assembly might introduce. The irony in this process was that some of the most strident supporters of the order were telling us on the one hand to keep our noses out, as we should, and to respect the integrity of the Assembly to introduce what Measures it wants, but on the other to include certain facets in the order. Under the chairmanship of the hon. Gentleman, we resisted.

Welsh is the first language of more than half the population in Ceredigion and its use is heard across Wales, as we will no doubt hear later on, including in the more anglicised parts. Linguistic Welsh language education policy based on choice is working, and it is working well. More than 40 per cent. of three to 15-year-olds have an understanding and practical use of the language in our schools, compared with about 20 per cent. of the over-45s. It is a success story that is moving forward. That growth among the young is, I believe, the greatest motivation for the order to proceed and for Measures to follow, so that the growing number of Welsh speakers can access services in the language of their choice. That principle is as valid for the children whom I used to teach in my primary school a few miles from the English border as it is for my children, who are learning and speaking Welsh in a category A school in Y Fro Gymraeg in our village in Ceredigion. It transcends the whole country.

The jigsaw needs to fit together and the Assembly rightly wishes to acquire the capacity to fill the holes left by the passage of time since the Welsh Language Act 1993 and to advance the cause of true bilingualism. Like the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), I commend the work of Lord Roberts of Conwy in 1993 and praise the constructive way that the Assembly Minister has approached the order as well as the work of one of his predecessors-one of my party colleagues, Mrs. Jenny Randerson-who did much to initiate and promote Iaith Pawb under her watch.

We have the system that we have, and of course some of us would welcome an even broader transfer of powers, but the order is none the less welcome. The scrutiny has been immensely worthwhile. It has brought us a much improved order, in particular because of the introduction of the concept of proportionality and reasonableness. I believe that many of the sceptics have been reassured. I welcome the increase in the threshold to £400,000. It gives a more reasonable basis on which we can move forward in the future. There was a question mark over
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whether there should be an arbitrary threshold, and whether it was the right way forward. This figure is certainly an improvement on that of £200,000. I welcome also the disapplication of those in receipt of one-off payments. That, too, made great sense.

Now in particular, at the end of the process and despite what we heard earlier, I want to welcome the response from the business community. I remember a very difficult meeting of the Federation of Small Businesses in my constituency, where I tried to justify the original order to a very sceptical audience, concerned at the perceived added costs during the recession. It was heartening that in the evidence that people from the FSB gave to our Committee, they said that they felt reassured by the assurances given to them by the Minister for Heritage in the Assembly, and it was especially heartening to see the response of the CBI. Its initial evidence to us showed that it was sceptical and concerned about the implications but, at the end of the process, it has said publicly that

element

It is happy with the legislation and wants it to proceed, and I think that many of us wish to proceed on a positive note.

All parties-most parties; I should qualify that-have worked well to arrive at where we are now. The Chairman of our Select Committee ensured that we reached consensus. There was consensus in the Welsh Grand Committee, and I hope that there will be consensus tonight. Liberal Democrats are confident that the order will give the Assembly the tools that it needs to develop the next stage of Welsh language provision, and I am happy to offer the order my party's support, although I still look forward to the day when the Assembly exercises even greater autonomy, unfettered by this place.

10.30 pm

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): I add my condolences on behalf of the Welsh Affairs Committee to Mr. Carwyn Jones following his bereavement today.

I am pleased to speak in support of the order, which is important for the people of Wales. I speak from the perspective of being Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee, which produced a unanimous cross-party report supporting the principles underpinning the order. The Welsh Affairs Committee has an important role in carrying out pre-legislative scrutiny of proposed LCOs and ensuring that the final versions are fit for purpose. Both my Committee and the Assembly's scrutiny committee recommended changes to the original proposed order to establish reasonable, proportionate and cost-effective language legislation. I am pleased that our key recommendations have been reflected in the draft order presented by the Secretary of State for approval today. I thank him for his kind words of support for the work of the Welsh Affairs Committee, with which, of course, I agree.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I compliment the hon. Gentleman and his Committee on their work. Given the circumstances in which we find ourselves, introducing reasonableness and proportionality into the LCO was probably a good thing, but it is strange that that has to be in the order and that we cannot trust the Assembly to be reasonable and proportionate when it brings forward Measures.


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Dr. Francis: It is not strange at all; it is perfectly straightforward. As it happens, that was the way in which we achieved unanimity in the Committee.

It is also a significant achievement that an order that was originally perceived as controversial has, in its revised form, secured cross-party support. I feel that that was achieved as a consequence of listening carefully to all sectors of Welsh society. The support was unanimous, which no one could have predicted.

The Committee made the important point that while language legislation is a fundamental part of ensuring that the Welsh language continues to thrive, it is far from the whole picture. That was demonstrated by the evidence that we took during our inquiry including, crucially, from the Catalan Government, who have a long experience of language law. The Catalan witnesses clearly felt that legal sanctions were secondary to the development of a positive culture of acceptance of and support for the language-we are now at that point in Wales. Compulsion and enforcement need to be secondary to a continuation of a consensual progress and should be used only as a last resort. Clarity of expectation, as reflected in legislation, should be the primary route for further progress, and I believe that the order fulfils that aim well.

Hon. Members representing all the major parties and rural, urban and valley constituencies listened and responded to the concerns, aspirations and, most of all, the united pride in our language expressed by Welsh speakers and non-Welsh speakers. That was the key to our success, and the success of the LCO is that it has not proved to be divisive but has unified Wales and the Welsh people in its support.

Only today, I received an e-mail from the senior public affairs executive of E.ON UK plc, in which she said:

Against that background of unity, I would simply say to the House tonight, "Rrhowch eich cefnogaeth i'r Iaith Gymraeg heno."

I urge the House therefore, as Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee, to give this legislative competence order, its full support tonight. As the Abercraf miners' banner proclaims, in the colours of the African National Congress,

in unity there is strength and peace.

Mr. Speaker: Order. It is worth reminding hon. and right hon. Members that I have imposed a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions.

10.35 pm

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): Perhaps I should begin with a few points about the remarks of the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), who speaks for the Conservatives. She seems to be entirely obsessed with compulsion, without recognising that compulsion is a central feature of the Welsh Language Act 1993, which was passed by this place after the great work carried out by Lord Roberts.


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There is compulsion in Wales, where Welsh speakers are compelled each day to speak English or do without. Indeed, Mr. Speaker, even in this place, the very cockpit of British democracy, I am compelled to speak English or you would rightly show me the door. There is compulsion in all these matters: compulsion is nothing new in respect of language use in Wales, where people are compelled to use English.

My second point is for the benefit of those struggling to record my words earlier. After 49 years of struggling with English, my English deserted me at the crucial moment. The point that I wanted to make to the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham was that she was praising the voluntary approach while at the same time pointing out that it did not seem to work. She quoted the figures, and the words that I was struggling to find were, "How does she reconcile those two contrary standpoints?" However, we got her answer anyway, such as it was.

I am glad to see the LCO reach this final stage. Emancipation for the Welsh language has been the focus of my work, political and otherwise, for at least the last 38 years. In that time, I have been inspired in many ways, for example by the people from all over the world who have moved to Wales and learned Welsh. I have also been inspired by the first words of children as they learned the language, and by my own grandson, Osian Rhys, speaking his first words in Welsh. I was seven when I learned English, so perhaps when he gets to that age he will also speak English-although that may happen a bit earlier these days.

We also have a vigorous culture through the medium of Welsh. That includes our literature and music, but also the recently published four-volume dictionary of Welsh published by the university of Wales. That is a towering and incredible intellectual feat for what is a fairly small language group. We have all kinds that we could be very proud of, but problems have always arisen throughout my concern for the Welsh language over all these years. Despite the vigour of the Welsh language, and of the campaign in its favour, there have always been problems and inequality. That is why, when talking about the Welsh language, I use the word "emancipation" advisedly.

The LCO is a progressive and radical step towards ensuring that it will eventually become possible for people to live their lives through the medium of Welsh, able to take for granted all the things that speakers of English take for granted. We will do so without continually having to ask, to press, to argue and eventually to organise and to protest, as I have done to demonstrate my concern for the language. Hopefully, one will be able to live one's life normally through the medium of the Welsh language.

The LCO is a step towards winning equal rights for Welsh speakers. It does not go the whole way; there is further work to be done. I draw the attention of the House to two of my ten-minute Bills, one on bilingual juries and one on the registration of births and deaths in Welsh, both of which can be passed only in this place. If the order is passed, much of the work in future will be undertaken in Wales. That is how it should be.

It is striking that during the long, long passage of the order, no one, as far as I know, has argued that responsibility for the Welsh language should not be passed to the
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Welsh Assembly. There have been intense discussions about the nature of the powers that are to be passed and the conditions attached, but the central fact tonight is that if the order is passed through the House, responsibility for the Welsh language will be passed to the Assembly. That is a striking and radical step. We should be rightly proud of having taken it. Twelve years ago, when the Labour Government came in, that would have been seen by many people as an impossibility. I am glad to acknowledge that we have come this far.

Circumstances have changed substantially, of course, over those years and certainly since the Welsh Language Act 1993. The implementation of any social legislation should be reviewed and remade every now and then. Perhaps 15 years is a proper period to revisit it. In that time, many changes have taken place, most strikingly in Wales in the demography of the language. When I first became interested in the issue, one could reasonably expect to find Welsh speakers among the older group of the population. Now it is clear that Welsh speakers are preponderantly young people. The Welsh language is getting younger and growing. That is a striking fact, and the law needs to respond to that.

Education has changed substantially. Under the Education Reform Act 1988, Welsh became a compulsory subject. That brought about profound changes. There have been changes in broadcasting and in the daily use of the language. A significant point in our discussion about whether telecommunications should be included is that there has been a great change in the use of technology, particularly by young people.

We were all struck by the fact that the average age at which young people acquire a mobile telephone is eight. At the age of eight, they are using those little devices, which at present usually speak English. However, when our Catalan friends came over to give evidence, they pointed out that if one presses a certain button on a mobile phone, it speaks Catalan. There is no technical problem to prevent it providing a service through the medium of Catalan, and there should be no problem in providing a service through the medium of Welsh. The European context has changed a great deal, and Catalan, Basque and other European so-called minority or lesser used languages are more prominently used, and Welsh has been used in Brussels.

In closing, I pay tribute to people who have contributed to the generation, discussion and development of the LCO. It has been a long process. It would be remiss of me not to pay a generous tribute to my colleagues at the Assembly, Rhodri Glyn Thomas and Alun Ffred Jones, for their vision and their perseverance. At this late hour, it would be remiss of me not to congratulate the Secretary of State and his deputy, who have worked hard, as well as the members of the Welsh Affairs Committee and of the Committee in the Assembly.

I am sorry that the shadow Secretary of State took the rather negative tone that she took earlier. Her colleague, the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones), has contributed positively to the discussions, although we took different sides on some questions. We did not agree on everything, but it was disappointing that the hon. Lady adopted such a negative tone in her remarks.


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We have reached a conclusion. In part it represents a compromise on all sides, but it is also a highly significant staging post. I hope that the LCO can now progress and the Welsh Assembly can proceed with the real work, as far as the Welsh language is concerned, of passing and implementing Measures.


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