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Identity Cards (Welsh Language)

Volume 487: debated on Tuesday 3 February 2009

I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise this important issue today. I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) and the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams).

This week, we have had the publication of the Welsh language legislative competence order, which is another historic step forward in developing the use of Welsh in public life. I want to start by referring to the enormous progress that we have made in the past 50 years in the development of the use of Welsh in public life and to say, therefore, why it was so disappointing to see that there was no Welsh text on the first identity cards.

I remember well going to visit my grandmother when I was a child, who never spoke anything but Welsh to us and always wanted us to use Welsh. Yet, when she sent a birthday card, the little note inside it would invariably be written in English—an English that was clearly a literal translation of the Welsh. That is because she was born in 1901 and had little opportunity to use Welsh in an educational context. Therefore, when using money and writing notes she used English—although as she was a Sunday school teacher, she had a good knowledge of biblical Welsh. That is one of the reasons why Welsh has remained so strong in many of our communities through the centuries.

Just before Christmas, I had the opportunity to be present in Llangennech community hall in my constituency. They have named one of the halls in the new centre “Beasley hall”. Members of the Beasley family were there to commemorate the fact that it was their family who had objected to having a rates demand that was only in English and asked to have one in Welsh. We have come a long way since those days and the majority of our documents in public life in Wales are available in Welsh if we want them to be.

My predecessor as MP for Llanelli, Jim Griffiths, is famous to many for his role in the post-war Labour Government and for introducing national insurance. We sometimes forget that he was also passionate about Welsh and about setting up a separate Department in Whitehall. Eventually, towards the end of his political career, he saw that come to fruition in the setting up of the Welsh Office and he became the first Secretary of State for Wales.

Later on, in 1967, it was a Labour Government who introduced the Welsh Language Act, which laid down the principle of the equal validity of English and Welsh in Wales. By that time, enthusiasm for Welsh was growing—even in the more anglicised parts of Wales. A huge investment was made by Labour councils, such as the old Glamorgan, which in 1974 became the three Glamorgans—Mid, South and West. There was huge interest and investment in the expansion of Welsh-medium education; new schools were opened, and the element of Welsh in traditional bilingual community schools was considerably strengthened. A whole range of materials were developed that pupils could use. Someone could walk into a school and learn about millstone grit or the Vikings through the medium of Welsh. All those support materials are extremely important to developing confidence that Welsh is a language that can be used in all walks of life to talk about all subjects.

We also saw the development of the Welsh spelling of place names. Many of our place names, such as Llanelli and Llandeilo, had acquired an anglicised look, possibly because of the English-speaking census collectors in the 19th century. Gradually, in the 1960s, partly through some of the good work done by the Royal Mail and a number of enthusiasts, we restored the authentic Welsh spelling to many of our place names in Wales.

Why, then, does it matter so much to have Welsh text on ID cards? There are four main reasons. First, those whose native or preferred language is Welsh expect to see it. They expect to see Welsh on most official signs and on official documents, and they expect to have the opportunity, if they so wish, to read the Welsh part of a form or see the Welsh part of a sign. It is important that we set a good example, lead from the front on this matter and make sure that those things are there.

Secondly, using Welsh on ID cards sends a clear message that it has equal validity with English, and that is what was said in the 1967 Act. Welsh is not just the language of the kitchen or the farm yard; it can be used in official settings. If people see that Welsh is there, they may begin to use it in dialogue. The fact that someone can see the Welsh sign and that they are greeted in Welsh may mean that they continue to use Welsh. Welsh text sends out a clear message that people can use Welsh, and it acts as an encouragement for them to do so. It is important, too, to emphasise the fact that Welsh is a living language. It is used all the time. It is not a fossilised language, such as Norman French, that is brought out on occasions and for ceremonies. As we invent new things such as dishwashers or computers, we find valid Welsh words for them and so our language grows. When we introduce jargon, such as “antisocial behaviour”, we have valid Welsh words for them. The use of Welsh, both in the printed form and in the media, is extremely important in modernising our vocabulary, so that we can talk about all sorts of modern devices and not just recite the parables in the Bible.

The fourth reason for using Welsh text is that it builds up confidence. Some 20 per cent. of people in Wales define themselves as Welsh speakers. We have many who do not have a great deal of confidence in their Welsh. They will even say to Welsh speakers, “I don’t think that I can speak Welsh to you because your Welsh is too good for me.” They may not have had the opportunity to have all their education through the medium of Welsh. In addition, among the 80 per cent. of non-Welsh speakers, we have a lot of people who have a keen interest in Welsh. They like to see it being used and to see that opportunity there for people who can use it. They often benefit themselves from seeing signs and forms in Welsh because it helps them to develop their own vocabulary. It often reminds them of things that they vaguely remember from their time at school but they have not used in their lives since.

One other important way of expanding the use of Welsh is through television and radio. The 1967 Act laid the foundations for Radio Cymru and S4C. They were important landmarks that came out of that Act. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is important for the whole cultural spirit of Wales?

Absolutely. If we talk about the modern context, it is far more important to be able to say and hear something than to be able to write it down. As for influencing people’s lives, the development of radio and TV has been immensely important. It provides the opportunity to use Welsh in all contexts that go far beyond people’s own experience in the home.

Therefore, we have made huge progress. Government Departments have done their bit as well. If someone wants to discuss their tax, they can ring up a Welsh helpline. If someone needs advice or help on issues raised by the Department for Work and Pensions, they can ring up a Welsh helpline. There has been tremendous progress not just in the written language but in providing the opportunities for people to speak Welsh if they wish to. The utility companies have adopted similar policies and helplines. With the use of technology now, there are so many ways in which we can make things bilingual.

The question is, what went wrong? Are we now saying, “How do we fit three languages on the ID card that we have designed?” What we should say is, “How do we design an ID card to fit three languages?” I say three languages because the rule is that we need two EU languages. Whereas my passport has English and French, and my driving licence Welsh and English, we will need three languages on the ID card. That is not impossible because there is a number by the words “name” or “address” and then there is a key. On the back of my driving licence there is not only English and Welsh, but a lot of little pictures of various vehicles. I am sure that on an ID card there could be room for a third language. On my passport, I have a key, and I can see that my passport was issued in 2002. At that time, 12 official EU languages were listed. Therefore, it does not seem to be a great deal to ask that we should get three languages on the ID card. I hope that the Minister will arrange for that to happen as soon as possible.

I very much agree with the hon. Lady. She is a former teacher, and she expressed concisely and clearly her frustrations at the inability to get the issue of languages addressed on the cards. Does she share my concern about the timetable and the assertion that we will not hear from the Minister until 2011? We have heard some warm, encouraging words from the Minister about her intention to pursue the issue, but should we wait until 2011? Does the hon. Lady share my regret that, as part of the roll-out of the voluntary ID card system, young people and students will be offered ID cards in 2010 without any provision for the Welsh language?

Indeed I do, which is why I asked why we had to think about fitting something on to the card when we could have designed the card to fit the purpose. I share the hon. Gentleman’s disappointment, but I look forward to better things in future.

It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) and I congratulate her on securing this important debate. As she indicated, we follow two very important figures not only in Welsh politics, but in British politics: Jim Griffiths, a former deputy leader of the Labour party and the Minister who introduced national insurance; and Cledwyn Hughes, a predecessor of mine, the second Secretary of State for Wales—he followed Jim Griffiths into the office—who introduced the Welsh Language Act 1967, which was the first such Act. I am proud to follow my hon. Friend, and it is fitting that I do so.

Jim Griffiths and Cledwyn Hughes believed in a Welsh identity in a British context. They believed that they could be proud to be British and proud to be Welsh, and saw no contradiction in those things. Both men were instrumental in promoting the legal status of the Welsh language through the 1967 Act. My hon. Friend alluded to some of the provisions, including the right to have forms in the Welsh language. The Act set that important precedent.

Jim Griffiths and Cledwyn Hughes were pragmatists. They understood that problems of this nature had to be dealt with incrementally, so that people could catch up with the changes. They understood both what was practical and what could be achieved. It is important to refer to those very important parliamentarians—they graced Westminster and were well thought of for their Welsh identity, and for the way in which they represented Welshness in British politics.

It will be no shock to the Minister that I am not a fan of ID cards per se, but the debate has moved on, and we are now looking at the practical elements and asking how to move forward. We should do so by introducing a Welsh text on to the ID card. Welsh identity is important. To many Welsh people, that identity is partly expressed through the Welsh language, along with history, culture, heritage, and a sense of belonging.

I welcome the early attention that the Minister has given to Welsh text and bilingualism, and the discussions that she has had with me and other parliamentary colleagues. It is important to have such a dialogue. In the few minutes that I have to speak, I intend to say what I think is the practical way forward, so that our aspirations can be met.

I am mindful of the debacle that surrounded the 2001 census—a Welsh box was not on the original forms—which rightly caused uproar. People in Wales felt that their identity was being sidelined. That situation will be rectified by the 2011 census, but if there had been greater consultation and dialogue prior to the database being set up, the debacle could have been avoided. There is no problem with it now, but there would have been no problem at all had there been such consultation. I thank the Minister for having such an open dialogue and, indeed, the Home Office for consulting more widely. As many of us in Wales say, the Welsh language does not belong to any one group, and certainly not to any one political party: it belongs to the people of Wales.

I am very pleased to hear that. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) that the Welsh learners—the people who have moved to Wales and feel passionately about the language—are a very important lobby that needs to be considered? It is important to take into account the confidence and passion of those who wish to feel a sense of belonging.

On a personal note, I had to learn Welsh. My mother came from the capital of north Wales—Liverpool—and the language spoken at home was English. I missed out somewhat, but my mother contributed a great deal to Welsh society. She could not speak Welsh fluently but could write it and Latin and a number of other languages, and used to help to translate letters from Welsh into English. Non-Welsh-speaking people can contribute to Welsh society in many ways, but the Welsh language is part of the sense of belonging and identity so it is important that we develop and use it in practical ways.

I urge the Minister, as part of her consultation, to talk to such august bodies as the Welsh Language Board, which was established under the 1967 Act. The board has had many people as its chair who have all taken it forward. I also urge the Minister to talk to local authorities as they often produce literature and cards in both Welsh and English. Reference has been made to the DVLA, which has overcome various problems to include data on driving licences.

Yesterday was an historic day for the Welsh language, with the publication of the legislative competence order which will further enhance the Welsh language. It will be debated in this House and we hope it will give Welsh and English equal status. The term “equal status” expresses the hope that Welsh and non-Welsh speakers will be on an equal footing in a confident, bilingual Wales.

Like Jim Griffiths and Cledwyn Hughes and my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli, I am proud to be both Welsh and British. The United Kingdom is a diverse country and reflects its nations and the regions. I think it appropriate openly to express our identity, and one way of doing so would be to have the Welsh text on any identity card. My friend and near neighbour, the great linguist Professor David Crystal, never tires of saying that Welsh is one of the only minority languages to have grown over the past 50 years; many have declined. He talks about that at great length. That growth has been allowed to happen because of measures passed at Westminster, such as the 1967 Act and the Welsh Language Act 1993. The LCO will be an important addition to them.

The people of Wales understand that there are practical difficulties, but I think that including the Welsh text is a reasonable request. Some problems have been identified—for example, the limited space available on the data cards, the collation of information, and the costs involved—but they can be overcome, as has happened with various other Welsh cards. Databases and software can be made to cope, as we have seen with other EU languages.

There has been a leap forward in that Welsh has been used at EU level. I think that the inclusion of the Welsh text on the ID cards will marry well with that development and the fact that the LCO will promote equal status. I say again that I think inclusion of the Welsh text is a reasonable request and I believe the Minister to be a reasonable person. I also believe that people at the Home Office are reasonable and will have understood that the people of Wales want to express their Welsh identity in their unique way. Including Welsh on the ID card will be a great advantage in promoting the diversity of the United Kingdom, allowing Welshness to be expressed in that way. Who knows? I may even grow to like ID cards.

It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) for securing this debate on the important issue of the inclusion of Welsh text on UK identity cards. It is fitting that we are having the debate today after what was a historic day yesterday in the history of the Welsh language, with the introduction of the Welsh language LCO by the Welsh Assembly. As hon. Members have eloquently described it, we are on a mission and a journey for the Welsh language, whether or not we are Welsh ourselves. As a UK Minister, I regard it as being very much part of my responsibilities to represent the whole of the UK and to be sensitive to the issues that matter in different nations and regions of the UK.

It is important that identity cards are introduced in a way that ensures that they are as convenient to use as possible for members of the public across the United Kingdom and that the individual’s identity is reflected as well as it can be. The Government recognise that, in Wales, the Welsh language is an important part of the identity of people who live in that nation, particularly those who have a Welsh linguistic and cultural heritage.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) has suggested, I have had conversations with a number of colleagues in Parliament about the issue, particularly with my hon. Friend himself and my hon. Friends the Members for Llanelli and for Conwy (Mrs. Williams), who have been very vocal on the issue. What has been interesting is that a lot of English-speaking Welsh MPs who represent English-speaking parts of Wales have also come up to me and made a point of stressing their support for that measure. I am always keen to talk to all hon. Members who represent Welsh constituencies about their concerns and about other issues relating to that subject.

I am very supportive in principle, as my hon. Friends are aware, of doing what we can to provide an option of having Welsh language on identity cards. We still have to determine exactly how that can be done—it is not as straightforward as it may seem, as I will go on to explain—but I can give a commitment that we will make a final decision well in advance of the high-volume roll-out of identity cards that will start in Wales, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, in 2011 or 2012.

I will go into that timetable a little more later. However, I just want to explain the timetable that has applied so far. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn has said, ID cards are here. The Act creating them was passed in 2005, it became law in 2006 and at the end of last year we began introducing cards for foreign nationals; 25 November 2008 was when the scheme went live. From the end of this year, airport workers in Manchester and London City airports will receive the first identity cards for British citizens, along with a few volunteers who are keen to take up the cards early. From next year, young people in certain parts of the country will be issued with cards. I will go into that in a little more detail shortly, for the benefit of the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams), to explain how that will work and why young people in Wales are probably unlikely to be affected at that point. From then on, everyone will have the opportunity to get either a passport, an identity card, or both.

I must stress why the national identity card scheme is important. It is important that we have strong safeguards to protect our identity and to protect us from those who would hurt us, our families and our communities. The identity card scheme is one way that we can help to do that across the piece.

The cards that are being issued to foreign nationals may go to some people who currently live in Wales. However, as those cards are only issued to foreign nationals and must meet a common standard throughout the United Kingdom, they do not include the Welsh language. We are bound, quite rightly, by certain European rules on how we can frame the card. In order for the cards to be useful, it is important that they are recognisable across the whole of Europe.

As I have said, the first British citizens to receive identity cards will be those who are working in airports. The first airports that we are working with are Manchester and London City, and we do not have any immediate plans to issue identity cards to airside workers at airports in Wales. However, if any hon. Member wishes to raise with me the issue of an airport in Wales engaging in that part of the scheme, we would be very keen to talk to them. It may be a little late, at this point, for Welsh airports to participate in that first wave, but we are incrementally rolling out identity cards and we expect that they will go to Wales in due course.

At that point, we will also issue the first identity cards for British citizens to a limited number of volunteers who will have pre-registered their interest, which will happen in certain areas of the country. The precise locations of those people and of the young people who will get the cards from next year have yet to be identified. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was in Manchester last week, and local authorities and other key partners there have expressed some interest in it becoming one of the first areas of the country to have the cards for young people, but no final decisions have been made. The discussions on cities and regions to start issuing identity cards to young people have focused so far on cities and regions in England and not yet Wales. However, as I said, I am keen to talk to hon. Members. If they would like to promote this interest in an area of that nation, we would be keen to discuss that with them.

I have always maintained that it makes sense to implement identity cards incrementally, not in a one big bang approach. However, from 2012, the cards will be issued on a voluntary basis—it is not a compulsory scheme—to British citizens in all parts of the United Kingdom. That will be alongside the issue of 5 million to 6 million British passports every year.

We currently have Welsh language on passports, but it is worth stressing the difference between a passport and an identity card. If hon. Members look at their passports, what is on the page with their photograph is broadly what will be on an identity card, but it is twice the size of an identity card. On that part of the passport, no Welsh language appears; the Welsh language on passports appears in the explanatory notes. Under EU rules, we have to have two full European languages on them. Welsh is now considered a minority European language. It is not one that would qualify to appear in place of the French that we choose to put on the British passport and the language that we will put on identity cards.

Another challenge is the length of words in the Welsh language. We would have difficulty in fitting the same words on to a very small identity card. However, I can reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn and other hon. Members that we are sensitive to these issues. The Identity and Passport Service is in regular contact with the Welsh Language Board and the Welsh Assembly Government. We are considering how best to meet the expectations of people in Wales. I welcome the suggestion of liaison with local authorities. Across the UK as a whole, I and the Home Office generally will be doing more of that to discuss the roll-out of identity cards.

However, we are not able to introduce Welsh on the initial identity cards, as I have explained. We are considering options for doing so when we move to the introduction of the second generation card in line with the upgraded passports. We have to tackle the issue sensibly and I appreciate the suggestions that we do that practically. We are looking to issue cards in a process that is along the lines of the current process for driving licences, whereby anyone with a Welsh postcode is issued with a card with headings in Welsh as well as English. As I have highlighted, there are technical and space issues that we need to resolve, but where there is a will, there is a way, and we need to find a viable option.

I appreciate the Minister’s saying that she is willing to consult local authorities and examine what they are doing. Will she agree to meet me and colleagues from Wales and the Welsh Language Board to see how those early cards for driving licences were introduced?

I am certainly happy to do that if we can get it in fairly quickly, but I know that officials are already having discussions. In fact, the issue was first raised with me when I was at a roadshow in Cardiff about what identity cards would mean. People there were very concerned, and since then hon. Members have raised the subject with me persistently. We need to ensure that we do not underestimate the practical difficulties but, as I said, where there is a will, there is a way, and we need to find that. However, we do need to meet the International Civil Aviation Organisation standards and the EU standards. The cards need to be useful. It is no good having Welsh on them if that makes them less functional, so we have to get that balance right, but I do not think that means that we will not have Welsh; it just means that we have to answer those questions.

To avoid confusion, I should stress that when we talk about headings, we are talking about name, date of birth and so on. If someone has a Welsh name, that will obviously be on the card.

I look forward to contributions from hon. Members to the consultation that is under way and that ends at the end of next week on secondary legislation for identity cards. I urge them not only to contribute themselves, but to urge organisations in their constituencies to do so. I am happy to provide information outside this debate.

I hope that today I have reassured hon. Members—on the record, not just in conversations with colleagues separately—that we take this matter very seriously. We are considering how best to meet the expectations of people in Wales and to ensure that their identity is properly reflected on a UK identity card when the cards are introduced in high volumes, including to people living in Wales, from 2012.