The Welsh Language Measure

Like Alan Trench, I was rather surprised that the proposed Welsh Language Measure was not published on St David's Day as intended. The reason given made no sense, so I can only conclude that one of the parties in the One Wales Coalition needed to get the proposed Measure approved by their leaders in Westminster before they would allow it to be published. Which is fair enough. Carwyn Jones is not the leader of the Welsh Labour Party, just the leader of the Labour Group in the Assembly. The Labour Party hasn't yet reached the point where Labour politicians in Wales can make their own decisions about any policy in Wales ... I hope that might change in future, but it is up to them.

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But anyway, it's only a few days late, and it makes interesting reading even though it is very long. Choose for yourselves which level of detail you want to go into:

     Welsh Government Press Release
     Proposed Measure
     Explanatory Memorandum

In the process of getting the LCO that now allows the Assembly to make legislation on the Welsh language, it appeared to me that the main focus of the argument was on which bodies should be brought under the scope of any new legislation. The end result was that bodies operating in some areas—notably large private companies providing some essential services—were included and that some weren't. It was a compromise which failed to satisfy some, but which represented a minimum that politicians from all parties felt comfortable with. That consensus shouldn't be underestimated. We should not make the language a party political issue.

But as that argument was happening, my thoughts were that not too many people were thinking very hard about the other legislative powers that were being sought. And of course if they hadn't noticed, why should I have wanted to bring it to their attention? Even so, I wasn't exactly sure which direction the eventual legislation would take. The commitment in the One Wales Agreement was only this:

•  to confirm official status for both Welsh and English
•  linguistic rights in the provision of services
•  the establishment of the post of Language Commissioner

What is in the proposed measure, at least at first glance, is very positive in these two major respects:
 

Enforcement

The current Welsh Language Act requires bodies to agree Welsh Language Schemes with the Welsh Language Board. There way no way in which the WLB could insist on any of these bodies doing anything in particular. They could reason, persuade, cajole ... but not insist. Therefore many WLSs were characterized by nice sentiments but very few firm commitments. But, even where commitments were made, the WLB has never had any power to hold the body concerned to its commitments. It had the power to investigate and report ... it could "name and shame" ... it could try to persuade ministers or other officials to apply pressure from above ... but it had no enforcement powers. In short, many bodies got away with saying one thing, but doing either nothing or very little.

What has now changed is that the Commissioner has powers of enforcement, and that there is also to be a Welsh Language Tribunal in any case of disagreement ... followed by resort to the Courts for enforcement of penalties if all else fails.
 

Championing individual rights

Under the current Act, individuals or groups that felt aggrieved by the way they had been treated by a body that was subject to the Act had no direct way of seeking redress from that body. They could raise the matter with the WLB, but even then the WLB had no way to enforce any sort of redress. So another big change is that the Commissioner will be able to act as a champion for individuals and groups, to investigate and seek redress on their behalf. This is very much the same model as is used by the EHRC in matters of discrimination on race, gender, disability etc. To my mind this is entirely appropriate, for it recognizes that the Welsh language is not some sort of special case, but that we are merely seeking to give those who choose to interact in Welsh the same sort of rights that we already accept should be given to other minorities.

The only reason rights for Welsh are not included under the general umbrella of the EHRC is that these language rights only apply in Wales. But given some of the problems within the EHRC that is, shall we say, rather fortunate.

Another part of the Measure (Part 6) deals with the general right to use Welsh or, more specifically, for any two people who choose to communicate in Welsh not to be prevented from doing so. This does not apply just within bodies that are currently required to produce WLSs (or the other large bodies brought now under the scope of the Measure) but would apply in any situation, even in the smallest private companies. This is obviously welcome, and in fact goes further than the One Wales commitment.

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Taken together, these two aspects of the Measure have the power to make a very real difference to the way we use Welsh. The intention of the 1993 Act was that all public bodies would be required to treat Welsh and English equally, and that provision of services should be available in both languages. In practice, only some public bodies have actually done this. Even after seventeen years some councils, health authorities and the like have only paid the most nominal of lipservice to doing it. It is high time that some enforcement mechanism was put in place to require these bodies to do what they themselves agreed to do.

However it is time to move forward from there. Yes, these are many bodies that have failed to do what they said they would, but in that same seventeen years we also have many good examples of public bodies providing decent bilingual services. So another aspect of the Measure I like is that we will gradually move away from agreed Welsh Language Schemes to enforceable Welsh Language Standards. If some bodies can deliver bilingual services properly, why shouldn't we expect similar standards from all bodies that are included in the scope of this measure?

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