The Assembly Commission caves in

I haven't yet said anything on this blog about the row over translation of the record in Plenary into both Welsh and English. But I think it's time to say something now, in the light of this statement from the Assembly Commission, taken from the Politics Cymru blog:

As Wales’s principal democratic institution, the Assembly has a duty to enable all citizens and Assembly Members to be informed about, and contribute fully to, the democratic process in their chosen language – through Welsh or through English. The Government of Wales Act 2006 stipulates that “In the exercise of the functions of the Assembly Commission effect must be given, so far as is both appropriate in the circumstances and reasonably practicable, to the principle that the English and Welsh languages should be treated on the basis of equality.” (Schedule 2 Section 8(3)). Since 2007, the Assembly Commission has significantly developed and extended the bilingual services provided by the Assembly ...

In June and July this year the Commission considered its strategic priorities in relation to the draft budget which will be laid tomorrow. Our aim was to limit the budget increase for 2010-11 as far as possible, so as to make as much of the Welsh block as possible available to support public services, while still delivering effective services for the Assembly. One of the options that was considered related to the translation of the Record of Proceedings. At the Commission meeting today we took account of the representations that have been made to us by Assembly Members and others. We concluded that we should take four main steps ...

Firstly, we will continue to translate the Record of Plenary Proceedings from English into Welsh so that a fully bi-lingual written record is produced, but to do so within 3 to 10 days of each plenary meeting.

Secondly, we will introduce the facility for all proceedings related to legislation (i.e. all proceedings at Stages 2, 3 and 4 as well as committee scrutiny) to be translated.

Thirdly, we will establish an independent review to examine our delivery of bilingual services prior to the formal review of the Assembly’s Welsh Language Scheme in 2010.

Fourthly, we will take steps to bring forward legislation to put the status of the two languages used in the business of the Assembly on a sound statutory footing.

The Welsh Language Act 1993 was never intended to provide a framework within which a national legislature operates ... but the Legislative Competence Order (LCO) on the Welsh language, when made, will provide us with the power to do so. The Commission intends to consider the options which will be open to the Assembly when the LCO in question becomes law.

I would start by saying that what the Commission originally proposed went against its own Welsh Language Scheme. WLSs are generally misunderstood, and the Assembly Commission seems to have done its best over the last few weeks to add to that misunderstanding.

In particular, the Welsh Language Board does not dictate—and does not have the power to dictate—what any WLS contains. It can persuade, based on the principles laid down in the 1993 Act and the grounds of reasonableness. But in the end, it is up to the public body concerned to set out the specific things it will do in relation to the Welsh language. In the case of the Assembly, it made the commitment to translate the Plenary record into both Welsh and English (and, pointedly, the decision to only translate the record of non-Plenary sessions into English). What the Assembly Commission proposed a few weeks ago was against its own WLS, and the WLB only stepped in because it is their statutory duty to monitor how well WLSs are implemented.

So when Dafydd Elis Thomas said this on The Politics Show on Sunday:

     

... we don't want to be in a situation where the legislature is being told by bodies answerable to government ministers how it should operate ... and that's the basis of my deep constitutional unease about what the Welsh Language Board has been doing over the past months.

... he was being entirely disingenuous. He was just trying to muddy the waters, by deliberately confusing a simple issue of sticking to commitments into one of "constitutional principle". I'm reminded of the attitude of some parliamentarians in Westminster who take the attitude that they, as members of the body in which sovereignty ultimately rests in the UK, think it puts them above the law. Look at where such arrogance led them over the issue of MPs' expenses!

No, the truth is that any person or organization is answerable to the law. A WLS is essentially a contract, and you cannot break such contracts with impunity any more than a government can renege on a treaty.

Now of course it is open to the Assembly to renegotiate the terms of a contract, and they are quite free to do so and agree a brand new WLS. But no, the Assembly Commission thought their lawyers could argue that their WLS was just a good-will exercise and not binding on them. They were always completely wrong about that, and now they have backed down ... which is only sensible, seeing as it would have cost them more than the money they hope to save to actually take the matter to law.

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The compromise is that they will take a few days longer to produce the record. Under the terms of the WLS there is no specific mention of a precise timescale, so what they propose does fall within the letter of what they agreed to do in their WLS. This compromise means there are no grounds for the WLB to step in. And it shouldn't make too much difference to most people, because all the sessions are on Senedd.tv

I'm only left wondering what the precise logistics will be, because they surely won't publish one version of the Record with the English translation immediately, then publish another version with both translations a week later. That would just be more work and money wasted. So I'd be willing to bet we just have the same version as we have now, but published after three days. If they leave it any longer, then those who need the translation into English will start complaining loudly enough.

          

But that's only the headline issue. The second point in the statement is actually very positive because it addresses the obvious question of why Plenary sessions were treated differently from non-Plenary session in the first place.

My only query is what "we will introduce the facility for all proceedings related to legislation to be translated" actually means in practice. The facility already exists, the question is whether they will use it or not! Peter Black, who is the LibDem member of the Commission, is very definitely of the opinion that:

... we also extended the present service by agreeing that in future all committee records in which legislation is discussed and scrutinised will also be bilingual.

A Solution Offered

But Peter has a habit of not using words as precisely as he should. Even so, I hope his understanding is right and I'm sure it will be clarified in due course.

          

As for point three, it looks like the Commission is trying to have another little dig at the Welsh Language Board. As if they are hoping that someone they appoint as "independent" might just be a little less scathing than the WLB are likely to be. The fact remains that it is the WLB's job to monitor and review whether the Assembly has abided by its own WLS.

A point four is just a statement of the obvious. When the Language LCO gets through, there will be a new Welsh Language Measure.

          

So where does all this leave us? I think the Assembly Commission can only have been shocked at the outcry their proposal raised. And to me it is heartening to see this outcry from people in all parties in the Assembly.

Providing the statement on translation of non-Plenary sessions into both languages is actually made watertight, I think we probably come out of this wholly unnecessary mess with more than we might have hoped for.

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1 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good post, Syniadau. With the LCO/Measure on the way I think supporters of the language should embrace a wider constructive discussion once again about bilingualism. It's unfortunate that opening up the debate always just serves to put us on the defensive and opens the floodgates to the anti-Welsh brigade. The LCO was framed very much along the lines of extending the scope of the 1993 Act (Alun Ffred stressed this in his evidence to the Commons Select Committee). I can understand the tactics behind this but there is a risk of perpetuating the flaws of the Act:

1) creating a superficial bilingualism (some forms, some parts of a website, a Welsh path that often breaks down when you try to do more than the basic things in the language. For example, try using it in dealing with the Council here in Swansea, despite their excellent "skin deep" 1993 Act bilingualism).

2) There are no individual rights in the Act that could be enforced in court, yet the stress is on influencing the conscious individual choice of speakers to use what is almost always an inferior service in a context where all the signals are that English is the norm (and by implication labelling those Welsh speakers who do not choose it as "underconfident" and making them the problem).

3) No real attempt to address the shifts needed in what is the linguistic norm within institutions/contexts. That is far more important than individual choice or confidence in increasing levels of Welsh usage (I'm drawing here on the research of Morris and Williams in their 2000 book "Language Planning and Language Use").

For me the most depressing aspect of the current trouble was that the Commission's proposals were a clear statement that English is the norm in the Assembly. The Assembly is institutionally anti-Welsh.

Two ways to move forward the debate, and the effectiveness of policy, in terms of actual Welsh usage would be:

A) putting a postive duty on bodies with language schemes to increase the number of "transactions" taking place in Welsh (I don't really like the "target" culture but since we are where we are, could targets be necessary, so with 10 percent of the population speaking Welsh here in Swansea, at least an initial 10 percent target could be set).

B) more radically: moving away from the idea of translation (translation/bilingualism and formal equality can undermine a minority culture) towards a situation where it is a civic duty on all citizens to have basic functional competence in both languages rather than just in English. It might take a generation and would require the sort of teaching revolution envisaged by Ken Hopkins in his IWA pamphlet "Saving our langauge". A could place to start could have been the Assembly Record - just leaving the English in English and the Welsh in Welsh with no paper translation at all (problematic again).

Efrogwr

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