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Welsh Language (Non-devolved Departments)

Volume 553: debated on Tuesday 20 November 2012

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Howarth. I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss Welsh language provision in non-devolved areas. Before we enter into the substance of the debate, it is worth taking a quick historical overview of the development of Welsh language policy and rights in Wales. After all, it could be argued that until 1967, few rights were afforded to the Welsh language, a situation that has been tremendously transformed subsequently.

The Welsh Language Act 1967 was welcomed. It conferred upon the Welsh language and Welsh speakers certain rights that did not previously exist. My father-in-law would still say that one of his claims to fame was that he was involved in the first ever Welsh Language Society protest at Pont Trefechan back in 1963. I emphasise that there have been significant changes.

Today, I want to concentrate on the Welsh Language Act 1993, which was a tremendous and significant step forward, and on the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011, which is moving the 1993 Act forward positively in many areas. However, I have some concerns that I want to articulate today, and I hope that the Minister can respond to and lay to rest some of my concerns.

The 1993 Act was a significant breakthrough for the status of the Welsh language in Wales. It was a cross-party effort, and there is no doubt that we owe a degree of gratitude to my predecessor in the Conwy constituency, Wyn Roberts, now Lord Roberts. He, with the support of the leaders and members of all political parties in Wales, ensured that that Act came into being with the support of the vast majority of the population of Wales. Far too often in the past, the language has been a divisive issue. A success of the 1993 Act was to introduce some rights for Welsh speakers without in any way creating a feeling that they were being imposed on non-Welsh speakers in Wales.

Another huge success of the 1993 Act was the creation of the Welsh Language Board. In a spirit of cross-party co-operation, it was initially chaired by Lord Elis-Thomas, a previous Member of Parliament for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy. There was a time when the board, working under the 1993 Act, moved the agenda forward quite significantly. The first concern about its future and possible changes to 1993 Act came in 2004, when a bonfire of the quangos was announced by the then Welsh Government. It was an ill-thought-through, back-of-the-envelope decision in relation to many public bodies in Wales, not least the Welsh Development Agency, the abolition of which many of us still believe was a huge mistake. Comments were made at the time that the Welsh Language Board would in due course be dissolved. That did not happen for a long time, because the legislation was far more complicated than had been envisaged. However, part of the “One Wales” agreement in 2007 was that there would be a new Welsh language Measure, which came into being in 2011.

My concern about the 2011 Measure relates not so much to the content, which I believe to be fairly reasonable and to be moving the agenda forward in reflecting the fact that we have an increasingly bilingual Wales. The number of young people in the valleys, Cardiff and south Wales who take advantage of Welsh medium education has increased dramatically, and we should welcome that. The 2011 Measure looked at and tried to respond to those changes, but there were concerns, expressed at the time by some members of the Conservative party and by members of the Welsh Language Society, that some of the changes in that Measure had been rushed through and were possibly ill considered. Whether that is fair or not, my significant concern today relates to the impact of the 2011 Measure on the operation by non-devolved Departments of their Welsh language policies and working in partnership with the Welsh Language Board.

We are aware that the provisions of the 1993 Act do not apply to Crown bodies. It was based on a process of good will and co-operation. While not all non-devolved Departments co-operated and played the game, as it were, in the way that they should have, the vast majority did. Looking at the work of the Department for Work and Pensions and of the Treasury, there are examples of good effort and good will in trying to provide services in Welsh. They were neither perfect nor always to the satisfaction of many people in Wales who would have liked those services to be of a higher standard, but Welsh language schemes were in place in those Departments, and they were monitored for compliance by the Welsh Language Board. There was a relationship between the board and the non-devolved Departments, which seemed to create some accountability and acceptance that there was, first, a need to provide services through the medium of Welsh when they were demanded and desired and, secondly, an understanding that there would be a degree of compliance to ensure that the Welsh language schemes adopted were implemented.

I speak with some experience, because before I was elected, I was, on numerous occasions, responsible for Welsh language compliance visits on behalf of the Welsh Language Board, so I express an interest in the field. One of my funniest experiences happened when I conducted an overview of the services offered by the Post Office through the medium of Welsh. One of the things that we had to undertake was a mystery customer effort to see to what extent the Post Office offered services in Welsh. I turned up in a village not far from Monmouthshire where, as agreed in the strategy adopted for the compliance report, I asked for six first-class stamps in Welsh. The postmaster immediately turned round and said, “Aha, mystery customer.” Obviously, they were quick to spot the fact that not many Welsh speakers would turn up in a post office in Monmouth.

It should also be noted that, before I was elected, I came down to London on more than one occasion to conduct a compliance report on Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, on the way in which the tax credit system was not succeeding in delivering Welsh language forms to people who were trying to adopt, and trying to work through the medium of Welsh when making claims. While there was non-compliance on that occasion, it reflected more on HMRC’s computer system than on its willingness to try to make the system work. I therefore bring a degree of personal experience to the table.

We had a relationship with non-devolved areas and a system of compliance and working together. A relationship was being built and developed, and it ensured that there was understanding of the need for non-devolved Departments to deliver services in Welsh.

I do not want to show my age, but I served on the Standing Committee that considered the 1993 Act. I confirm that Lord Roberts of Conwy played a huge part in getting that Bill through, and we need to thank him for that.

The hon. Gentleman is making a valid point. I found that, in the old days, Home Office documents, however large, were translated into Welsh. That is not the case now. If his point is that we need to get some better co-operation between our friends in Wales and the people here, I am fully with him.

That is the intention of this debate. It is to examine what sort of co-operation is now required and how that can be moved forward. My concern is the extent to which the Welsh Assembly, when it looks at how it can legislate, has concentrated on devolved areas, and possibly the baby was thrown out with the bath water in relation to non-devolved areas.

I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to associate myself with an issue that I have previously raised in the Chamber. We know that we had a pretty close escape with the ballot papers for police and crime commissioners. It is vital that the commitment to bilingualism is as great here in Westminster as it is in Cardiff. That is what my hon. Friend is asking for, and I fully support what he is doing.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention.

My specific concerns relate to the fact that I represent a constituency where about 40% of the population are first-language Welsh speakers. I would be the first to admit that not enough of those constituents who are first-language Welsh speakers demand services in Welsh, but there have been occasions since I was elected in May 2010 when I have communicated by letter with various Westminster Departments to highlight concerns about the non-provision of services through the medium of Welsh. In response, I again received examples of willingness to co-operate, but it is worrying that a Department stated in a letter quite recently that it is willing to co-operate through its Welsh language scheme and that it will consult the Welsh Language Board on how that relationship may be further developed. I wish that Department good luck, because the Welsh Language Board, as we well know, has been abolished.

Section 43 of the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011 is extremely important. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, were the Secretary of State for Wales to give a statement of intent to do so, there would be no barrier to ensuring better Welsh language services in Whitehall Departments? Will he also join me in calling on the Secretary of State to give his section 43 consent?

The hon. Lady jumps ahead of me, because I will mention section 43 later in my speech, but, yes, it is an important part of the legislation.

There are concerns, because some of the services offered to the people of Wales by non-devolved Departments are crucial. We all know how important the benefits system is, and we all know the pressures faced by constituents who have to go through the Atos health care system, and for them to be able to do that in the language of their choice is important. The Department for Work and Pensions has made it categorically clear that anyone wishing to undertake such a review through the medium of Welsh can do so, but we need to ensure that we hold the Department not only to its good intentions but to its promises.

Some of the other services offered by Westminster Departments are also crucial for the recognition that the language has equal status. In that respect, I congratulate the Department for Transport, which has recently given the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency licensing contract to the Post Office. As I said, I have been involved in the compliance efforts of the Post Office, which is an organisation that works extremely hard to ensure a bilingual service. Having those DVLA forms available in both languages in post offices across my constituency and across the constituencies of other hon. Members is a major step forward.

Why do I raise the issue now? We are in a transitional period and are slowly moving from the Welsh language schemes that existed under the 1993 Act to the new system of standards. Obviously, for those standards to be imposed on non-devolved areas, co-operation is needed between the Secretary of State for Wales and the newly created Welsh Language Commissioner. I have concerns, because we need that co-operation to be strong, but it needs to work both ways. I am quite confident that there is good will, and that willingness to work exists in the Wales Office, but I want to ensure that that is put on record today.

As the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) stated, one of the key points is that the 2011 Measure categorically states that the Secretary of State can ensure that there is an agreement for services to be provided by Ministers of the Crown in Welsh, where that has been discussed and developed in a co-operative fashion. I would argue, therefore, that we need to ensure that that process is addressed and articulated in the open, because transparency is always a good thing if there is some concern that that is not being provided, or that there is a lack of understanding of the requirement. The key issue is the lack of understanding of what can and what should be expected of the non-devolved Departments. I have no doubt that co-operation will be forthcoming from the Wales Office. We have seen that the intention is to work with the Welsh Language Commissioner, and I am sure that the Minister will confirm that my understanding is correct, but I will wait for his comments.

It is also crucial to state that, in addition to co-operation and agreement from the Secretary of State for Wales, we need to address the Welsh Language Commissioner being a post and an organisation created by the Assembly. We need the credibility that the Welsh Language Board used to offer as a board established by an Act of Parliament. That credibility will be forthcoming if there is a positive and strong working relationship between the commissioner and the Secretary of State for Wales. The Secretary of State for Wales should not simply sign off an order and leave it at that; there should be an ongoing process of co-operation between the Welsh Language Commissioner and the Wales Office. I ask the Minister to comment on any developments and discussions on the way in which such co-operation might happen.

If we accept the argument that there is a need for the Wales Office to be involved in the way in which the Welsh Language Commissioner and its powers are implemented in relation to the Welsh language, and I think we do, we have to ask the key question who will scrutinise that involvement. It is perfectly clear and correct that the Welsh Assembly will scrutinise the work of the Welsh Language Commissioner. That is what I expect to happen. The Welsh Language Commissioner is a body created by the Welsh Assembly, so it should be accountable to the Welsh Assembly. If the intentions behind the 2011 Measure are to be realised by co-operation and co-working between the Wales Office and the Welsh Language Commissioner, there is a question about who will scrutinise that work.

It is important that all Departments are held to account. We often hear the claim that the Wales Office has much less to do now than it did previously. This is one area where the Wales Office should be leading the charge, but there is a need for scrutiny. Have there been any discussions with, for example, my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) on the possibility of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs taking an interest in scrutinising potential co-operation between the Welsh Language Commissioner and the Wales Office? There should be accountability in the performance of any duties that affect the public. We are all clear that accountability for devolved areas will be undertaken by the Welsh Assembly, but there is a role for the Welsh Affairs Committee in monitoring the work undertaken by the Wales Office in partnership with the Welsh Language Commissioner, if that is the way forward.

I have raised my concerns because I see a disconnect between the aims of the 2011 Measure and what is happening on the ground. I do not claim that the 1993 Act was perfect, but I am concerned that the way in which it had bedded in and reached the point where it was accepted by most of the non-devolved Departments may be lost. If we lose that, it would be to the detriment of Welsh speakers in all parts of Wales, not least in my constituency.

I believe that the structures can be created in partnership between the Wales Office and the new Welsh Language Commissioner, but that has to be open and transparent, and subject to accountability through scrutiny by elected Members here in Westminster. I can see no better way of doing that than through the offices of the Welsh Affairs Committee.

I look forward to the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.

It is also a pleasure to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) defend the Welsh language, as he does like no one else. He has a fantastic reputation as a defender of the Welsh language, and he comes from a constituency that has an illustrious history of producing defenders of the Welsh language. I recall his maiden speech, shortly after he was elected in 2010, in which he paid tribute to his constituency. He mentioned Bishop William Morgan, who, of course, translated the Bible into Welsh in the 16th century. He paid tribute then, as he and other hon. Members have today, to Lord Roberts, who comes from his constituency, for his fantastic work in defending the Welsh language.

This afternoon is a good opportunity to update hon. Members on the work of the Wales Office across non-devolved areas to deliver services in the Welsh language. My hon. Friend spoke of the significant breakthrough that was the Welsh Language Act 1993. In fact, the Act was a milestone in the modern history of the Welsh language, and of course it established the Welsh Language Board to promote the language and gave Welsh speakers the right to speak Welsh in court proceedings.

The Act also obliged public sector organisations that provide services to the public in Wales to treat Welsh and English on an equal basis, and to implement Welsh language schemes for carrying out some or all of their business in the Welsh language. Importantly, the Act enabled the Secretary of State for Wales to choose whether to adopt a Welsh language scheme for any Crown body, which, of course, includes Departments of the UK Government. Most, but not all, Government Departments introduced Welsh language schemes in respect of their services in Wales, and in so doing agreed to be subject to the same compliance requirements as other public bodies subject to the Act.

Just as a matter of information, there has been a right to use Welsh in courts in Wales since the 16th century.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that update. I bow to his superior knowledge of the history of Welsh language use.

In recent years, there have been a number of developments in the legal framework to support the Welsh language, as hon. Members have mentioned. The Welsh language is one of the 20 areas devolved to Wales, and the Welsh Assembly is responsible for the legislative framework relating to the language. The Assembly passed the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011 under powers conferred on it in 2009 through the now infamous, tortuous and bureaucratic legislative competence order process put in place by the last Labour Government. The 2011 Measure established the independent Welsh Language Commissioner to promote the language, replacing the Welsh Language Board, and provides for the introduction of duties whereby organisations comply with statutory standards relating to the Welsh language in delivering services to the public in Wales.

The Welsh Government’s thinking in moving from Welsh language schemes, which are specific and bespoke to each organisation, to generic Welsh language standards has been to establish a more consistent approach to Welsh language service provision. Welsh language standards will replace Welsh language schemes over time, so that Welsh speakers will be clearer about the Welsh language services they should expect to receive. Organisations subject to the Measure will understand the levels of service in the Welsh language they are expected to provide, and the regulatory framework applied by the Welsh Language Commissioner will be simpler than at present.

The Welsh Language Commissioner consulted on proposed standards this summer, and I understand will shortly make recommendations to Welsh Ministers on what those final standards should be. The standards decided by the Welsh Ministers will be subject to final approval by the Assembly.

On the role of the Wales Office, we acknowledge from the outset that there is certainly room for improvement in the quality of Departments’ Welsh language services. As I have said, not all Departments have developed Welsh language schemes, and there have been instances in which we have been open to criticism. The Welsh Language Commissioner is, of course, a position created by the Welsh Assembly, so my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy is right to note the limitations of the post in respect of non-devolved areas.

It is important that sufficient support should be given to the Welsh language in non-devolved as well as devolved areas, and I assure my hon. Friend that the Wales Office is ready to provide the leadership and support to do so within Government. Since his appointment, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales has underlined the role of the Wales Office as the lead Department on Welsh language issues. Indeed, he made clear at Welsh questions last month that we in the Wales Office are fully committed to the Welsh language in non-devolved areas as they apply to Wales. We want to ensure that Departments deliver the consistently good-quality Welsh language services that Welsh language speakers need, where there is demonstrable demand for them.

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the fact that Welsh language standards would apply to Crown bodies only with the consent of the Secretary of State, but I do not necessarily share his pessimism and concerns that protection for Welsh language provision in non-devolved areas will be reduced as a result. On the contrary, the Wales Office intends to undertake a review of Departments’ Welsh language services to examine their capacity to meet Welsh language standards. We are working closely with the Welsh Language Commissioner to prepare for the review and hope to secure a secondee from the commissioner to support the work.

I applaud the action that the Government are taking. In the partnership that the Secretary of State and the Wales Office are seeking to develop with the Welsh Language Commissioner, can I ask that consideration be given to the style and mode of translation? Efforts to reduce costs sometimes lead different elements of different documents to be translated by different people in different parts of the country. That approach does not lend itself to an easy-flowing translation style, which can increase some people’s reluctance to use the language.

That is an excellent point. It is exactly the kind of point worth making when we begin the review, hopefully after the arrangements are in place for the secondee from the Welsh Language Commissioner’s office.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy said that he wanted positive and strong co-operation. I absolutely assure him that that is what we intend. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales has a close dialogue with the Welsh Language Commissioner on matters relating to the Welsh language in general and Government services delivered in the Welsh language in particular. Indeed, the Wales Office has always maintained a good working relationship with the commissioner and her predecessor body, the Welsh Language Board. That close relationship continues as we plan the review. We can only set about the task once we know for sure what the Welsh language standards will be, but we hope to be in a position to do so as soon as the final standards are confirmed.

In conclusion, I assure hon. Members from all parties that the Government are fully committed to the Welsh language, that the Wales Office is taking the lead in ensuring adequate Welsh language provision in Government services in non-devolved areas where needed and that we will consider carefully UK Departments’ capacity to meet the new Welsh language standards.

I am pleased with the response that I have heard. My concerns were not that the Wales Office was not positive about the language; they had more to do with the fact that some of the provisions of the Welsh Language Act 1993 might have been lost as a result of the change to the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011. Before the Minister finishes his response, will he comment on the possibility of scrutiny by the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs?

It is the duty of all Select Committees to scrutinise and monitor the activities of relevant Departments, and the Welsh Affairs Committee has the role of monitoring everything that we do in the Wales Office. I do not think that it is appropriate for me or my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to recommend or suggest to the Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee subjects that the Committee should investigate; that is entirely a matter for the Committee itself. However, we would naturally expect and hope that some of that scrutiny work will be done by the Committee.

My hon. Friend said that he wanted the Wales Office to lead the charge. I leave him and other hon. Members here with the assurance that we will indeed lead the charge in defending and promoting the Welsh language across non-devolved departmental areas.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.