I beg to move,
That the draft National Assembly for Wales (Legislative Competence) (Welsh Language) Order 2009, which was laid before this House on 10 November, in the previous Session of Parliament, be approved.
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.]
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.
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.
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 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?
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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 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?
I will not give way, because so many people wish to speak; I just want to finish making my points.
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.
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 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 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
“it is significant that this…proportionality and reasonableness”
“has now been written on to the face of the bill.”
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.
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.
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.
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:
“We welcome the changes to the LCO following debate in both Westminster and Cardiff. We believe that removing energy generators from the scope of the LCO was appropriate, given that generators provide no direct service to customers. We also welcome the introduction of the ‘reasonableness and proportionality’ clause.”
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,
“mewn undeb mae nerth a heddwch”—
in unity there is strength and peace.
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.
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 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.
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.
I share the view that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and other Members have expressed about the significance of this debate, and may I tell the shadow Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) how much I share their sentiments with regard to the death of Carwyn Jones’s mother? Significantly, this is the first such debate on the Floor of the House since the changeover in Cardiff, and I pay tribute to Rhodri Morgan for all the work that he has done for Wales and, particularly, for the Welsh language during his tenure in office.
For 17 months, when I held the position of Secretary of State for Wales for a second time, much of my time was spent looking at this particular legislative competence order and discussing with Rhodri Morgan how it should eventually emerge for our consideration. When Sir Emyr Jones Parry’s report came out the other week, I thought it a bit churlish when it referred to the LCO process as being too complicated, too intricate and not to be understood. I reject that. The process of creating this LCO has been exemplary, and the Welsh Affairs Committee, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon, has done a remarkable job in changing how the order has developed and how it will be accepted throughout Wales.
I, myself, decided to ensure that there was a proper consultation process, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State kindly remarked, and that process was very wide-ranging indeed. Representatives of industry, trade unions, the academic world, local government, public bodies and anyone who wanted to comment on this very important measure were allowed to do so, and they did. As a consequence of that consultation and our scrutiny here, including in the Welsh Grand Committee, in the other place and finally in the House tonight, the Measures that the Assembly eventually passes will be better. That is absolutely the case.
I welcome the order for a number of reasons, but perhaps the most important one is how the world has changed, since I was a lad, in terms of those of us who represent areas that are not Welsh-speaking—areas encompassing 80 per cent. of the population of Wales. Those of us who are Welsh men and women and proud of it, but who cannot speak the Welsh language, now accept the language as part of our life in the same way that those who speak the language have for many generations. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) has often said, that is largely due to education. In our schools throughout Wales, from Monmouthshire, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, to Meirionnydd and beyond, we see people who are able to speak and learn the language in a way that we could never do in the past. That is important, and this LCO will give the Assembly the authority and the competence to extend the use of Welsh language throughout our nation.
We must look at one or two caveats, however. We must recognise that different parts of Wales need to be treated differently. If we look at people living in my constituency, a south Wales mining valley, in rural Wales or in the cities, we find that there is a case for considering how the Welsh language is dealt with. Provision is universal in education, for example, but we must tread carefully with regard to business. We are still in a recession, and it is good that the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses and businesses generally support this LCO. They believe that the Welsh language is very much a part of our heritage, but they also warn that the measure should be implemented with sensitivity and reasonableness.
A soft touch is required in terms of how the measure is implemented throughout the whole of Wales. The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) made reference to compulsion. Of course this LCO would allow the Assembly to introduce compulsory legislation for people in Wales, but it is better to have consensus than compulsion because that is more acceptable. Compulsion may be there as a last resort, but it should not be the first method by which we deal with this issue. If those whose job it is to enforce the legislation, whether it be the new commissioner, the Welsh Language Board or the Assembly itself, are heavy-handed, then the measure will have exactly the opposite effect to what we in this Chamber have been arguing for over the past year in saying that this is an important piece of legislation. I do not believe that that will happen, but that people will be sensible about this.
Nearly two centuries ago, when my great-grandparents came from Ireland and the west of England to the eastern valley of Monmouthshire, 60 or 70 per cent. of the population were indigenous Welsh speakers. We can tell that from looking at the Welsh chapels that are still in my valley and the history of the place. I recently read a biography of Thomas Thomas of Pontypool, a great Baptist leader who was Welsh speaking, and who said that with the great influx of English speakers coming into the valleys of Wales, it was necessary to temper the approach with moderation. I believe that in the past 20 years, particularly in the past 10 years since the Assembly has been operating, we have adopted the right approach. Because of the sensitive way in which these matters have been approached, in my constituency and the valley of Torfaen, which is one of the most English-speaking constituencies in the whole of Wales, we now have a Welsh-medium comprehensive school and Welsh-medium primary schools. Welsh is taught in every school, and the language is no longer a divisive issue.
When this LCO goes to the Assembly in Cardiff for it to pass the necessary Measures, as it rightly should, rather than this place, I hope that the Members of the Assembly will realise—I am sure they will, as do Members of this House—that the process over the past year has been one of great co-operation between legislators in Cardiff and in London: all of us representing the Welsh people, all of us with the interests of the Welsh language at heart.
I wish the measure well. Like my right hon. Friend and hon. Friends, I believe that it is a milestone, not only in the history of the way in which we deal with Welsh matters in the House of Commons but in the history of the Welsh language.
I join the Secretary of State in offering condolences to the First Minister, Carwyn Jones, on the loss of his mother.
Tonight’s debate, as several colleagues have remarked, is the culmination of a process that has shown the best of parliamentary scrutiny and shown that Welsh MPs have an invaluable contribution to make in strengthening devolution and in supporting the Welsh language. I very much echo the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy). As a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee, it was a privilege to be involved in that scrutiny. Before we started, there was a prediction that there would be division. There were fears that it would all end in tears: on the one hand, there would be too light a touch; on the other, too onerous a burden would be imposed on business.
That process of scrutiny reflected the way that things have changed over several years. The language has been a matter of division and controversy in the past, but, as my right hon. Friend said, it is now valued by the vast majority of those who do not themselves speak Welsh. That includes many who have chosen to move to Wales from England or Scotland, or other parts of the world, as well as those of us who speak the language. I believe that that is largely because our model has been one of choice rather than compulsion. Education through the Welsh language was unusual as recently as when I and my wife were choosing it for our children. It is now chosen by increasing numbers every year. Let us not forget that a great deal of the progress that was made was due to decisions of Labour local authorities in places such as Glamorgan, Clwyd and Gwent. Those decisions were often taken by councils with very little representation, if any, of Welsh speakers.
In the Assembly, the language has never been an issue. Why? Because it has been possible for people to use Welsh or English as they choose and be answered in Welsh or English, and for translation to be available to all. When the LCO came forward, there were doubts from organisations such as the CBI, which were worried that the powers might be used to put onerous burdens on companies. I spent some time with the CBI and its members debating these issues, and I found that some of the concerns were genuine but some arose from considerable misunderstandings about the intentions behind the LCO. I pay tribute to David Rosser and members of the CBI for being willing to spend time exploring the issues and expressing their concerns.
Those concerns are answered by two things. The first is the provisions requiring reasonableness and proportionality. Essentially, what the Assembly has to ask itself in deciding whether to approve any Measure is whether it will help citizens to choose to use the Welsh language rather than just increase burdens or bureaucracy.
The second thing that answers the concerns is crucial, and I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen referred to it. It is the advice from the Catalan Government. When we asked whether legislation was necessary, their answer was essentially, “Yes, it requires a framework of law, but all your action thereafter should be directed to building consensus and seeking agreement to enable people to be positive about the developments that you want to promote.” I hope that there will be the wisdom on the part of Assembly Ministers and the Assembly itself to make that the test all the time. They must ask themselves, “Have we done enough to build consensus? Will this actually help citizens to make positive choices about the use of the Welsh language?” The Assembly should use Measures when they are necessary to support consensus, not as an alternative to the hard work of building consensus.
There are three lessons that we need to learn in future from this process on the Welsh language LCO. The first is on policy development. It is important that there should be full debate, and that the intentions behind any proposal should be thought through properly. Clear policy is necessary for creating good law. The second is on drafting. Intelligent and sophisticated drafting is not easy, and it is very easy to have loose phraseology and create unintended consequences. I fear that the drafting in LCOs has sometimes been too general, or certainly the first draft. It seems to have followed the Whitehall pattern, if you like—officials seeking to draft something because there may not be another opportunity for primary legislation for a number of years. Vague and loose language is therefore used to give the widest possible powers. That is not a good way of drafting legislation, especially because the LCO process makes it possible for the Assembly to come back for a further order if it wants to do something more, without any great delay.
The third lesson to learn concerns scrutiny. The Committee of the Assembly did a good job and asked the right questions, and we on the Welsh Affairs Committee quoted extensively from its findings and evidence in reaching our own conclusions. However, it did not provide answers, which the Welsh Affairs Committee did. As others have, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon for building consensus in his capacity as its Chairman. It is an example that we should all follow. I pay tribute also to the members of all four parties who worked hard on getting the matter right and put a great deal of time and effort into the discussions and examining the evidence; to the Assembly for accepting our suggestions; and especially to the new First Minister, then the Counsel-General, for his willingness to engage with MPs. Finally, I thank the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary for their willingness to take our recommendations and use them. I say that because it is very easy to say, “No. We have drafted it this way. It is not invented here. We will go the way we intend.” The willingness to listen to the wisdom of the Members of four parties on the Welsh Affairs Committee is good for Wales and we should celebrate it.
The best model for devolution is shown by the way the order has been dealt with. At the end of the day, it shows a willingness to trust the Assembly, but also to encourage it to be joined up and to be intelligent in its use of the power being transferred. The process has also made use of the knowledge and experience of Welsh Members of Parliament of the four parties that are represented here. That must be a good model for the future.
I do not intend to detain the House for long on this subject. I feel something of an interloper in these affairs, but as various right hon. and hon. Members will know, including a number of former Ministers on the Government Benches, I have ventured forth on Welsh affairs on a number of occasions, imperfectly but enthusiastically. As a Member of this Parliament, I of course take an interest in the whole of the Kingdom.
The background to this debate is the Welsh Language Act 1967 and the Welsh Language Act 1993. It is instrumental to consider those for a moment in the context of the order. The order transfers competence, but it seems to me, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), the shadow Secretary of State, pointed out, and as the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) made clear in a typically splendid contribution, important that we do so in a collaborative fashion and with what the latter described as a light touch.
To that end, I want to draw the attention of right hon. and hon. Members to the debate on the 1993 Act, which began, as they will remember, in the House of Lords. There are two aspects of that debate that I think are pertinent to tonight’s considerations. The first was the comment made by the Minister who introduced the Bill. He said:
“The Bill provides for the implementation of this principle”—
that, by the way, is the principle that the Welsh and English languages should be treated on a basis of equality—
“in ways which are appropriate in the circumstances and reasonably practicable”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 19 January 1993; Vol. 541, c. 836.]
That abiding principle of reasonableness seems essential to our considerations of the possibilities that might arise from the transfer of competence in the way the order plans. As I said, the right hon. Member for Torfaen made that point very clearly.
The three issues I would therefore like to raise are to some degree amplifications of the remarks made by the shadow Secretary of State. It is important that we consider both the disincentive effect on companies or bodies that might want to locate in Wales and the effect on organisations already situated there of any additional cost burden. I hope that that will be considered. That is certainly a reflection of some of the less favourable sentiments that have been expressed in Wales on the back of the publication of the order. As hon. Members on both sides of the House will know, reaction has been mixed. Part of that mixed reaction has been founded on concerns about the possible additional burdens on the organisations I mentioned.
The second question relates to the cost of implementation—the shadow Secretary of State raised the issue of appeals. It is inconceivable that there has been no modelling in Government of the likely costs of implementation. I appreciate that the absence of an impact assessment results in part from the very nature of the process that we are now enjoying, but none the less it would be interesting to hear what modelling has taken place. It is inconceivable that the Secretary of State has not taken a view on the likely cost that might arise from the measure.
The third issue relates to the test of reasonableness. What test of reasonableness might be applied? What constraint might be placed on where this order could end up? The possible destinations could be very different, as the right hon. Member for Torfaen implied in his speech. We need to apply a test of reasonableness to this provision, and I hope that we might hear more about that from the Minister when he sums up.
As I said, I periodically and with some trepidation intervene on Welsh affairs in the knowledge that many other hon. Members know far more about them than I do, including you, Madam Deputy Speaker, if I may say so. None the less, it is important that hon. Members who represent constituencies far from Wales show an appropriate level of concern about the affairs of this House and of the Assembly, and the relationship between the two.
May I echo the sentiments expressed by colleagues across the House in sending our sympathy to the First Minister on his loss? Our thoughts and prayers will be with him and his family. May I also echo the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) in paying tribute to the retiring First Minister, who has been an exceptional First Minister for the whole of Wales for the last 10 years?
I welcome this debate and congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on bringing this matter to the Floor of the House of Commons. It is right that this legislative competence order should come here, because tonight we are changing the constitution, and that should be a matter for the whole House of Commons. Indeed, this matter is listed on the Order Paper as constitutional law.
We are changing the constitution because the Government of Wales Act 2006 specifically allows us to do so by use of LCOs. I hope that in future all Welsh LCOs brought forward under this Act will come to the House in this way. Nobody here or in Wales should have any concerns about this form of scrutiny. We are, after all, changing the constitutional relationship between this sovereign Parliament and the devolved Welsh Assembly.
If we pass this LCO tonight, as I believe we will, we will pass to the Assembly the competence to make primary legislation on matters relating to the Welsh language. I approve of that, because the National Assembly for Wales is the right place to make such legislation. By bringing this matter to the Floor of the House the Government are avoiding the charge of devolution by stealth—a charge that I have laid at their door many times in the past when these LCOs have been taken upstairs in Committee, not down here. I take the view, as I did as deputy to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, that changes to the devolution settlement that affect the constitution should be debated in this House and, if necessary, voted on by this House. I hope that in future all LCOs relating to Wales will be brought here in this way.
This LCO, concerning legislative powers over the Welsh language, has the potential to divide Wales. I am not entirely convinced by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) that this has united Wales, because—if we are honest—debates on the Welsh language have tended to divide opinion in Wales in the past, not unite it. That may be sad, but that is how it is. In the case of this LCO, there has been wide concern that the measures that will follow giving the Assembly the right to make secondary legislation will in some way discriminate against the 80 per cent. of our people who are not bilingual. Many of those concerns have been assuaged by the extensive consultation on this LCO that was launched by my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen when he was Secretary of State. The work of the Welsh Affairs Committee and the Committee of the National Assembly in taking evidence has helped to reframe this LCO so that it has been more warmly welcomed across Wales. I think that this consultation is the right way to go.
I cannot see why any Assembly Minister or Member should fear open and transparent consideration of a matter that will affect every man, woman, child, business and industry in Wales. When I first heard about this LCO, I was concerned that the measure would have some adverse effect on business, industry and non-bilingual people in Wales. The Assembly has the right to make secondary legislation—in other words, to put meat on the bones of the order—when the power is passed to it. I consulted widely in my constituency and beyond, and talked to businesses, trade organisations, training providers and charities, all of which were seeking to express their concerns and worries about the use of the LCO.
I discussed the matter with colleagues and Ministers, including in the Assembly, and I know that many others did the same. We were not helped at the outset by what I must describe as a paranoid approach by some in the Assembly who seemed to go out of their way to refuse to give any indication of what might happen when they receive the power from Parliament and of how it might be operated. That was wholly unhelpful to the kind of discussions that we had in the beginning, and there is no doubt that the work of the Welsh Affairs Committee, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon, made a big difference there. Great credit must be given to it.
I recall that, when I was a Wales Office Minister, when matters affecting Welsh legislation came before Parliament, I often exchanged letters with the relevant Assembly Minister. That exchange would then be made public without in any way interfering with the Assembly’s right to make secondary legislation. Very often, those letters and that information enabled people in this place to better understand what would be done with the legislation when the relevant powers were passed to Cardiff. I commend that approach. I cannot think of anything better, but if anyone else can, I hope that they will pursue it, because that is the right way to pursue such matters. At the end of the day, however, we must leave the Assembly with the right to make secondary legislation.
The Assembly, as an institution, will demonstrate its maturity when all its Members—not just some of them—and some of its Ministers too, get a little less worked up about the kind of scrutiny in which we in this place, under our constitutional settlement, are rightly allowed to participate. It makes for better legislation, and I believe that we are proving that tonight.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly in this debate. I, too, wish to send my heartfelt sympathies to Carwyn Jones on the loss of his mother. At the end of an extraordinary few weeks in the history of Wales, I also offer a tribute to the retiring First Minister, who has had an extraordinary 10 years. To stand down at the end of 10 years from the most important job in Wales and to be garlanded with such popularity—by 65 to 75 per cent. of the nation—is phenomenal. It does not happen very often. A member of my party who witnessed the tributes to this great giant of the nation was surprised to see that 10 minutes later he was queuing in the cafeteria for a cup of tea with Rhodri Morgan standing next to him. It does not happen that way in Westminster—it seems to be the Welsh way—but it might explain why Rhodri was so important.
At the moment, we have rare, if not unique, unity in Wales on so many issues. We have had a year of a stable and strong coalition Government, who have not been quarrelling constantly. That has been beneficial to Wales. We have seen in the debate tonight this extraordinary unity. We all know that in the past there have been divisions between us. I served with great pride on Gwent county council with my right hon. Friends the Members for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) and for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), although we were not unanimous then.
I would like to pay tribute to the Welsh language and what it has meant to my life. It has enriched it extraordinarily. I remember living with my family and having to be told that I lived in Wales. My mother explained to me that, although everyone to whom we spoke had Irish accents, we were in fact Welsh because we were born in Wales. We were just Welsh—not proper Welsh, like the people in north Wales, or real Welsh, like the people who speak with Welsh accents, but we were certainly Welsh.
I had the great luck that few had at the time of having an inspiring Welsh teacher who taught me the glorious, majestic poetry of Robert Williams Parry and T. Gwynn Jones. I remember that to this day. All my life, the language has been a source of great pleasure, right up to today, when I drive up the motorway to the sounds of Heather Jones singing “Mae Hiraeth yn fy Nghalon”. There are many other great facets to modern Welsh, a language that in 1962 we all feared would not last until the end of the century, after the famous speech by Saunders Lewis, “Tynged yr Iaith”. He said that the language was in such a steep decline that it could not survive to the year 2000. Welsh is now flourishing in a way that none of us believed possible.
I was involved in union work, but I came into politics because of the decision by the school teaching my eight-year-old daughter that the first Welsh song that she would ever learn would be the Welsh national anthem, but taught in English, which seems an affront too far. I got involved with the movement for Welsh-language schools in Gwent, which have survived and prospered magnificently. Every one of them has been a huge success. What a joy it is now to go into every school in my constituency, where, when I was young, people would have been uncertain whether they were in England or Wales. The county’s motto was “Faithful to both”, which meant faithful towards England and Wales. Now it means faithful to both north Wales and south Wales, which is an entirely different meaning altogether.
It is a matter of some rejoicing for us as a nation that we have reached this point, where we have this treasure of the language, which has come to us down the centuries. It is a language that existed with sophisticated literature long before the English language existed, and it continues to prosper. Last week we had a saturnalia in Caerleon in my constituency—we go back a bit further than the Christian tradition—to celebrate the Roman Christmas. It is fascinating to recall that if one was attending a saturnalia in Caerleon 2,000 years ago, the children would have been speaking two languages: Welsh and Latin. Welsh is the language that survives on the lips of the children today—we do not hear a lot of people speaking Latin these days. That is a matter of great pride for us as a nation.
This evening’s debate is a historical turning point, in that we are going forward in harmony as a nation, united and at peace with ourselves, to build a much stronger Wales and see our own Parliament on the soil of our country—something that we have not had in any reasonable form for centuries—strong, stable and certain to have a great future as an independent Parliament.
It is clear from the contributions of hon. Members from all parts of the House that there is an immense fund of good will towards the Welsh language, and so should there be. As my noble Friend Lord Roberts of Conwy observed in another place, the language is a highly valued part not only of Welsh heritage, but of British heritage, and it should be cherished as such. Indeed, the fondness of Welsh people toward their language was clearly expressed just now by the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn).
While mentioning my noble Friend Lord Roberts, I feel it appropriate again to pay tribute to the efforts that he, probably more than any other living individual, has made to help secure the status of Welsh as a vibrant modern language, spoken by increasing numbers of people—and particularly young people—in the Principality, as the hon. Members for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) and for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) said. It was Lord Roberts who piloted the Welsh Language Act 1993 through Parliament. He has steadfastly championed the cause of the language at every available opportunity. All of us in the House owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude.
The wisdom that Lord Roberts showed in 1993 is just as relevant today. If people are to be encouraged to use the Welsh language, it should be done, so far as possible, on a voluntary basis. This is, as the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) pointed out, a highly sensitive issue. We cannot take a broad-brush approach. We have to take account of different sensitivities and the different traditions of various parts of Wales.
I agree with the right hon. and hon. Members who have said that compulsion should be avoided at all costs. However, our concern is that the order envisages an element of compulsion. The hon. Member for Caernarfon not only recognised that but—I am sad to say this, because he is a nice man—appeared to rejoice in it. I have to warn the House that nothing is more likely to breed resentment than compulsion in Welsh language legislation. That is one step away from the politicisation of the language, and I am sure that almost everyone in this Chamber would wish to avoid that.
The order in its current form is, however, a significant improvement on the original draft, most particularly in its introduction of a reasonableness and proportionality test. This is to the credit of the work of the Select Committee, under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis). It was not an easy task to achieve consensus, but achieve it we did, and the draft LCO is all the better for that.
I also take heart from the memorandum supplied by the Welsh Assembly Government, which states:
“It is the Welsh Assembly Government’s policy that subsequent Measures should not impose duties on organisations unless there is a clear public benefit in doing so. It is not the intention to place disproportionate obligations on any organisation.”
I, for one, am willing to take them at their word, and I hope that they will be as good as their word.
However, we are concerned that Measures might be introduced by the Welsh Assembly Government that set up an unwieldy bureaucracy to oversee the language and to establish appeals and enforcement procedures, all of which will cost money at a difficult economic time, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) pointed out. More importantly, such Measures might militate against the unselfconscious use of both Welsh and English that we all want to see.
We still have reservations about the order, and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to them. We do not know where the seemingly arbitrary figure of £400,000 has come from. We are concerned that professional supervisory bodies, many of whom may have limited resources or few members in Wales, could be subject to a requirement to produce a Welsh language scheme. We are utterly mystified as to why the Bank of England is included in the ambit of the order. I hope that the Minister can offer an explanation for that point, if for no other. We are concerned that royal chartered bodies are still arbitrarily included, although the number of categories of such bodies has, thankfully, been reduced. We are particularly troubled that post office services are still included, as that could act as a deterrent to prospective purchasers of sub-post offices in Wales. We are also concerned that niche market telecommunications, gas, electricity and water suppliers could be deterred from entering the Welsh market, which could have adverse consequences for Welsh consumers.
In summary, we are worried that, unless the powers conferred by this LCO are used judiciously and sensitively by the Welsh Assembly Government, they will have the potential to undo all the good that has been done by the Welsh Language Act 1993. They could create non-tariff barriers to companies wishing to establish themselves in Wales, and disadvantage Walsh consumers. They could be perceived as heavy-handed and bureaucratic. If the powers are not judiciously applied, they might be resented.
We must rely on the good will and good sense of the Welsh Assembly Government in this regard. We will not oppose the making of this order, but we will be looking very carefully at what the Assembly Government do with the powers conferred upon them. We urge them to proceed cautiously and sensitively. Indeed, in the medium term, they could do a lot worse than leave the current arrangements undisturbed.
I shall begin by expressing my condolences to the First Minister on his sad bereavement today, as other hon. Members have done.
We have had a good debate tonight on the Welsh language and on this Welsh language competence order. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), who as Secretary of State for Wales began the process of consultation that has taken us in a very constructive way to where we are today. I believe that the consultation he began has led to the creation of a genuine consensus on the best way forward for promoting and enhancing the Welsh language. That consensus extends, I believe, not only to both Houses of Parliament, but to the Welsh Assembly and the people of Wales. One of the lessons of recent history is that if we are actively and positively to promote the Welsh language we must have a consensual approach, so that all the people of Wales are taken with us. The Welsh language is the language of all the people of Wales—English speakers as well as Welsh speakers.
In common with other Members, I pay tribute to the Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis), and to the excellent work that the Committee has done. The stipulations of reasonableness and proportionality are extremely important in respect of this LCO. I believe that the inclusion of those two tests makes this LCO that much the stronger.
A number of Members have greatly praised the process as it has been conducted and have warmly supported the provisions in the LCO. A number of reservations have, however, been expressed—rather too strongly for my liking. It is rather unfortunate that the reservations were expressed in the way they were, but some legitimate questions have been raised. Let me briefly refer to some of them.
The future of the Welsh Language Board was raised, and I believe that is very much a question for the Welsh Assembly Government. It will be for them to decide on its future, as they are empowered to decide.
A number of Members, particularly the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), raised the issue of the potential burden on business, which was echoed by the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes). One of the most important facets of this process has been the very positive engagement with the business community. Understandably, concerns have been expressed, but many of them have been sufficiently addressed and allayed. It is very significant that the CBI, for example, has warmly welcomed the introduction of reasonableness and proportionality in the LCO. That is important in itself, but it is also indicative of wider support and an acceptance that what we have before us is the best way forward for the Welsh language.
That does not imply, of course, that a voluntary approach towards enhancing the Welsh language is to be put to one side—quite the opposite. This legislative framework before us will provide a powerful stimulus to an increasing voluntary acceptance of the Welsh language in Wales. My right hon. Friends the Members for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) and for Torfaen made the valid point that the education system in Wales is in many ways still the key to promoting the Welsh language, ensuring that it is a language for young people and in tune with the needs of modern Wales.
Issues were raised about the appeals process, which is again very much in the hands of the Welsh Assembly Government, whose responsibility it will be, of course, to fund any appeals mechanism that requires funding. I also stress that a regulatory impact assessment will be made of any Measures introduced by the Welsh Assembly Government as a consequence of this LCO. That is firmly embedded in the order, and it was fully recognised as well as warmly welcomed in the debates and the constructive discussions that we had with the Welsh Assembly Government.
Let me refer briefly to two other points. First, there is a stipulation threshold of £400,000, so that certain large organisations such as the National Botanic Garden of Wales, are brought within the ambit of the LCO. The Bank of England is mentioned specifically because of the reference in the 1993 Act to the need for a Welsh language scheme involving it. Lord Roberts of Conwy—Wyn Roberts—is to be congratulated on having the foresight to introduce that stipulation in the Act.
May I conclude by saying—
One and a half hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the motion, The Deputy Speaker put the Question (Standing Order No. 16(1)).
Question put and agreed to.
That the draft National Assembly for Wales (Legislative Competence) (Welsh Language) Order 2009, which was laid before this House on 10 November, in the previous Session of Parliament, be approved.