Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, this order has already been approved by the National Assembly for Wales.
I begin by putting on the record this Government’s strong commitment to the Welsh language. It plays an essential role in Welsh society, and is of course the language of choice for many people in Wales. This LCO is therefore of unique importance, and I am pleased to see a number of noble Lords eager to participate in this debate, which follows the scrutiny undertaken in the other place by the Welsh Affairs Committee, by this House’s Constitution Committee and by a committee of the National Assembly for Wales. I commend all those committees and those who worked on them for their scrutiny, which has helped to build a broad consensus of support for this LCO.
The Government’s approach is informed by four principles: first, that the National Assembly for Wales is the natural home to legislate in relation to the language. It is logical and appropriate for the nation’s legislature to be able to pass laws on the Welsh language.
Secondly, the order builds on existing statute in relation to the language and in particular on the Welsh Language Act 1993, with which I know a number of noble Lords here today are more than a little familiar. The Act provided a firm basis for the language to develop, ensuring that organisations providing services of a public nature implemented schemes to carry out some or all of their business in Welsh. These provisions now need updating to better fit with current times, but the order retains the focus of the 1993 Act on key public services provided by public authorities or by private companies.
The third principle, which I believe is crucially important, is that we strike the right balance in going forward between the interests of those whose first language is Welsh, and who wish to conduct their daily lives in that language, and the large majority of people in Wales who do not speak Welsh. That figure, as all Members of this Committee will know, is 80 per cent—a significant number whose interests also need to be considered.
The final principle is that any duties should be applied reasonably and proportionately. The Welsh Affairs Committee in the other place agreed this principle in its excellent scrutiny report. The principle is particularly important in the context of securing the support of business and enterprise in Wales for 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 and, recognising the levels of unemployment in Wales, we all know that the Welsh economy needs to encourage as many of those small businesses as it can in those circumstances. What is more, what is right in Meirionnydd may not be right for Gwent, so we have to take those issues into account.
This order is based on clear principles and a common-sense approach to developing the language. Its drafting reflects the real concerns of some about its scope, but at the same time meets the pressures for change. I believe that the order strikes the right balance between the complex and sometimes competing interests which the Welsh language engages. It has ensured a broad consensus on how best to proceed and works in the best interests of everyone in Wales.
The order would allow the National Assembly to legislate to promote or facilitate the use of the Welsh language, and allow the treatment of the Welsh and English languages on the basis of equality. That is based on wording from the Welsh Language Act 1993. It excludes, as noble Lords will know, the use of Welsh in the courts and prohibits the National Assembly from imposing duties in relation to the Welsh language on any body other than those falling within the 10 categories listed. Those categories include: public authorities; bodies established for specific purposes by royal charter; bodies which receive public money amounting to £400,000 or more in any financial year, and organisations—including private ones—that provide key public services including electricity, gas, water, telecoms, post, bus and rail services. As I indicated, some of those are private, some are public and one or two almost escape definition, but I shall not get into that now.
The order includes a crucial safeguard enabling bodies in those 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, especially smaller organisations, whether they are charities or companies in business sectors such as mobile telephony or energy.
I believe that this order puts in place a framework for the devolution of powers over the Welsh language to the Assembly which is robust and which provides for a strong and healthy future for the language, 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 actually speak Welsh. It provides a firm foundation on which the Assembly Government can build in developing their proposals for an Assembly measure to take forward the language. I hope noble Lords will appreciate the safeguards which are there regarding the proposal and that this, almost above all, ought to be a matter for the Welsh Assembly rather than the UK Parliament to decide, and accordingly I beg to move.
I thank the noble Lord for having presented this statutory instrument as well and as clearly as he has. The Welsh language is a very emotional business, as is the Irish language. I come from Ireland, as most people here will probably know, and I love the Irish language—in the same way as I am sure all Welsh people love the Welsh language. Long may they both live. That is my personal and, I think, my party’s stance.
I urge some caution, because this issue has difficulties, pitfalls and costs. I also suggest that, as far as possible, we look at it in a voluntary way. It is absolutely right that the Assembly has the power to do what it will with the language. As the Minister said, there can be no other place to run and manage the Welsh language than the Welsh Assembly. That has to be central to all our thinking.
The Conservative Party has a proud record on the Welsh language. The Welsh Language Act, piloted through Parliament by my noble friend Lord Roberts of Conwy, has done much to generate good will for the language, with the consequence that increasing numbers are using it today.
The 1993 Act has always encouraged participation on a voluntary basis. It is applicable to public bodies but other organisations have adopted their own Welsh language schemes.
Although we should not second-guess what the Assembly Government will do with the competence transferred to them, it is clear from the list of bodies that could potentially be subject to the legislation that they intend to extend compliance with Welsh language schemes to bodies other than public bodies. These include gas, water and electricity suppliers, telecommunications companies, bus and railway companies and post offices. It would be a concern if, by imposing duties on such a wide list of bodies, the Assembly Government were to do anything to damage the good will that has developed towards the Welsh language since 1993.
The draft LCO also provides that no duties may be imposed on any person under any legislation that might be brought forward by the Assembly Government under the provisions of the LCO unless there is a means to challenge those duties on grounds of reasonableness and proportionality. That is all very well, but it appears that the LCO contemplates the setting up of a significantly large bureaucracy to administer the Welsh language legislation.
One must also have regard to the current adverse economic climate. Complying with a Welsh language scheme will undoubtedly cost a lot of money. Consequently, the Welsh Assembly Government should be very careful about imposing duties on bodies not currently subject to compliance with Welsh language legislation if to do so would potentially prejudice the viability of an otherwise successful organisation. This is where clear and positive thinking has to be divided from emotion, desire and passion.
The LCO also provides that duties may be imposed on persons providing services to the public who receive public money amounting to £400,000 or more in a financial year. It is unclear how the figure of £400,000 has been arrived at. The figure of £200,000 in the original draft order appears to have been plucked out of the air, and the new figure is clearly simply that previous figure doubled. I am afraid that the Minister is having a busy time with numbers this afternoon but perhaps he can advise us how that figure has been arrived at.
The legislative competence extends also to imposing duties to comply with Welsh language schemes on persons engaged in central banking. Given that there is only one central bank in this country—namely, the Bank of England—it is hard to see why competence should be sought in respect of that body. Perhaps the Minister could explain the reason for including the Bank of England within the ambit of the order.
There is also a significant concern with regard to post offices. Most post offices in Wales are run by sole proprietors or, frequently, husband and wife teams. They are frequently not Welsh-speaking; indeed, traditionally, running a sub-post office has been regarded as a semi-retirement job for people from across the border. It would be unfortunate if the imposition of compliance with a Welsh language scheme were to deter such individuals from setting up in business in Welsh villages. It is all very well having an appeals process, but it is unlikely that prospective purchasers of sub-post offices would wish to go through such a process and the very existence of an appeals process might amount to a deterrent.
To summarise, the Welsh Assembly Government should think carefully as to whether, and when, they should impose new duties in respect of compliance with Welsh language provisions. The current legislation has approval and public support. It has made the Welsh language a vibrant part of Welsh national life. The Assembly Government should think carefully before doing anything at all which would damage the good will that the language currently enjoys and which might ultimately prove counterproductive.
My Lords, this is one of the most extensively considered orders ever to come before your Lordships, as we can see from the excellent Explanatory Memorandum. It has been subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny in the National Assembly and in the House of Commons Welsh Affairs Select Committee and it has been debated in the Welsh Grand Committee. It has had a very full breakfast of consultation and there is probably more to come as Assembly measures based on the order take shape.
All that is entirely appropriate, given that the order will transfer more powers relating to the Welsh language—our most precious possession—from this Parliament to the National Assembly. As a humble promoter of the last Welsh Language Act to pass through this Parliament—the Act of 1993—I am glad that the principles of that historic Act, which has served Wales and the language well for the past 15 years, are to be preserved.
We sometimes forget, under the baleful shadow of the so-called Tudor Acts of Union which discouraged the use of Welsh, just how much this Parliament has contributed positively to the preservation and promotion of the language. It was an Act of 1563, promoted by Humphrey Llwyd of Denbighshire in the Commons and Richard Davies, Bishop of St Davids, in the House of Lords that secured William Salesbury’s translation of the New Testament and Davies’s own translation of the Book of Common Prayer for use in Welsh churches by 1567. We had to wait a few more years until 1588 for a complete translation of the Bible, by William Morgan, but it stemmed from the same inspirational source. Richard Davies came from the Conwy valley, as did William Salesbury and William Morgan. All were patronised by the Wynn family of Gwydir—no relation to me.
Of course, a number of other important Acts of Parliament have ensured the language’s rightful place in court proceedings, for example, and I am glad to see them noted in the Explanatory Memorandum.
The Welsh language is part of British as well as Welsh heritage and has been highly valued as such. In spite of all the consideration that has been given to this order, there are still some potentially controversial issues, as my noble friend Lord Glentoran said, and some could become sore points. But I remind myself that this is a permissive order and that the Welsh Assembly still has to decide precisely how to legislate and whom the legislation will affect within the parameters laid down here.
I understand that the Minister most closely concerned at Assembly level, Alun Ffred Jones, is to hold meetings in different parts of Wales to test people’s feelings and to elicit their views and wishes. I shall content myself with uttering a few caveats, because language is a highly sensitive issue and it is easier to offend and antagonise people than it is to please them. Without popular good will and support, progress is impossible. So far, we have been able to nurture and grow that support in Wales and to benefit from it.
Mention is made in the memorandum of a desire to describe Welsh as an “official” language. The matter was debated in your Lordships’ House and the other place in 1993 and occasioned Divisions both here and in the Commons. The Government defeated the amendment by a majority of 39 here and 44 in the other place because no one knew what the implications of such a statutory declaration might be. English is not declared to be an official language anywhere in our law, I am told. I would advise those who may be considering reopening that debate to read the parliamentary proceedings in both Houses and to re-examine the arguments for themselves before they step into that minefield.
I am glad that the order is very specific as to the persons who may be affected by having duties laid on them and that there is a right of appeal, with tests of reasonableness and proportionality being relevant. We have to thank the Welsh Affairs Committee for those improvements. The last thing we want in this context is a clutter of objections to requests for language schemes and the whole paraphernalia and bureaucracy of a seemingly endless appeals procedure that is too much in demand and may result in enforcement. The mechanisms of appeal and enforcement have still to be established. Personally, I believe that enforcement is counterproductive and that the language stands to lose more than it has to gain if enforcement becomes the order of the day. Popular support for the language may be seriously eroded and, if that were to happen, it might be difficult to restore the spirit of good will that the language has enjoyed.
The proposed language commissioner will inevitably feature in this sphere, but we know little about his office and functions as yet. I hope that the commissioner will have a constructive role and that people’s worst fears will not be realised. The cost of new measures is another factor that will need to be taken into account, especially in the wake of the recession and the cutbacks in spending that will inevitably follow the Government’s pledge to halve the deficit. I understand that the Welsh Language Board has a staff of 70 at present. Are increases anticipated? The more persons included in the list, the more civil servants will be needed to supervise them and the greater the direct costs to those having duties imposed on them, their clients and customers. The costs will eventually be loaded on to the public.
I have one final point to make, which concerns translations. Almost all the schemes and duties involve translation, which has become an ever more substantial industry since the passage of the 1993 Act. Translation can be costly. Many are asking whether this represents the best use of resources and justifies the increased price of publication. The National Assembly itself has recently been agitated over the issue in connection with its official Record of Proceedings. There is no easy answer, but it is an issue that we must be aware of, especially when we include bus and train timetables, gas, water and electricity bills and Post Office matters that may be subject to Assembly measures. I am sure that the Assembly will consider that.
I reiterate that the language is a sensitive and potentially controversial issue. So, too, is legislation in this field. The 1993 Act was voted against at Third Reading in the other place by none other than Plaid Cymru; the Labour Party abstained. Now, 15 years later, I think that both parties would agree that the Act has done a great deal of good, raised the profile of the language and improved its status. There is enthusiasm for it, too.
The language lobby has traditionally been critical of central government, whichever major party was in power. Now its target will be the Welsh Assembly Government in Cardiff, as responsibility for the language has passed to them. However demanding that lobby is, I hope that the Welsh Assembly Government will never forget that you cannot force a language on people and that any progress made in the extension of its use must be because people really want it and regard it as a highly desirable asset for themselves and their children.
My Lords, it is very important that the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, spoke early in the debate because clearly his detailed knowledge of the Welsh Language Act 1993 and—I think I am right in saying, his 13-year tenure as a Minister in the Welsh Office before devolution—
Correction. Fifteen and a half years is a tremendous service to Wales. Clearly, the noble Lord has outlined a great number of details from his own knowledge and his acute observations on this legislative competence order. The order comes via the Government of Wales Act 2006, which gave the Assembly the power to create legal measures, which in this case promote the use of the Welsh language throughout Wales.
We are considering this LCO and what will occur later with measures concerning the language. I especially welcome it, even though, as we have heard, the process has taken far too long. The order is now on its passage through this House and has been scrutinised in considerable detail, not least by the Welsh Affairs Committee in the other place. The Explanatory Memorandum states that:
“The primary purpose of the Draft LCO … is to provide the National Assembly for Wales with legislative competence in relation to the Welsh language”.
I have written beside that: “Big deal!”. In Wales, we will be able to legislate much more on the language. To be fair, however, it also says that it will concern the existing functions of Welsh Ministers and the Welsh Language Board, which, as we know, started in 1993.
The world has moved on a lot since 1993, particularly in the educational sector. Many more young people in Wales now speak Welsh. All my grandparents spoke Welsh but, as my family was in proximity to Merthyr Tydfil, much of that language skill was lost for two generations. I can speak some Welsh, and I can understand practically all of it, but I am very pleased to say that all three of my children speak Welsh fluently. That pattern has been repeated across Wales, particularly with the advent of ysgolion meithrin, which enable young children to learn the language at a very early age in preschool, which is when they absorb it like blotting paper.
The Welsh Not in the 19th century was a terrible thing, but the language survived. It has survived because of the activities of many people. In the 1980s, the 1970s, and even the late 1960s, there was the Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, the Welsh Language Society. It was very unpopular in some places. However, it undoubtedly brought the language to the fore.
The good, detailed work done on the LCO in the National Assembly and here in Parliament by members of the Welsh Grand Committee and the Welsh Affairs Committee in the House of Commons, especially its chairman, Dr Hywel Francis, has made this LCO much more readable and understandable. The process has been long, but it is now much more objective.
In summary, we owe a great debt to those who have gone before us—those of all parties in Wales and those of none. Wales is always at its best when it unites across party divides. As for my own Liberal party, just consider what Lloyd George did to disestablish the church. I think also of my more recent colleagues, Lord Geraint and my noble friend Lord Hooson, not to mention the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies—who, happily, is here today. He has done tremendous work on this. The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, has also taken a great interest. There are others whom we must not forget. The late Gwynfor Evans was a Plaid Cymru leader and a Welsh language campaigner who was prepared to go on hunger strike for a Welsh language television channel—a channel which has ultimately made a huge difference to people in Wales who can now access the language. I was recently talking to someone on the borders of Scotland, the secretary of a rugby club, and the only way he could see his local region play rugby was to watch S4C. Many English speakers who are fond of their national game can also access the Welsh language by this means. It has been a great uniting thing.
This instrument is passing through both Houses in a week when Wales’s First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, a great supporter of the Welsh language, is retiring. I thank him, too, for all the work that he has done to promote the cause of Wales and, especially, the Welsh language.
My Lords, like all other noble Lords, I welcome the draft order. I wholeheartedly agreed with the Minister when he said that if ever there was a devolvable responsibility—that is not how he put it, but that was the thrust of it—that should be transferred as generously as possible to Cardiff, this is it.
Indeed, I doubt whether there can be any challenge to that fundamental reality. There are 20 headings in Schedule 5 to the 2006 Act. Many of those, you might say, are almost exclusively Welsh, but in all those cases, there will be some cross-border effects, some knock-on effects that will not be totally confined to the land and nation of Wales. This is the exception. This is the 20th and this is exclusively a Welsh matter.
I want to disabuse anybody who subscribes to the idea that commitment to the Welsh language is in some way a sentimental or emotional matter. It may very well engender sentiment and emotion, but I would say that it is much more than that: it is a matter of truth and principle. The way that I would put the case would be this: I would say that every language is unique and priceless and part of the patrimony of humankind. That strange scholar, Dr Johnson, said that he was always saddened to hear of the death of any living language. When one thinks of it, every language in the world is a work of genius. Its nuances reflect the hopes, aspirations, fears, attitudes, mores and standards of those people who have spoken it and espoused it. It is as much a work of human genius as the best that has ever come from the hand of the artist, the sculptor or the architect.
It is in that light, I respectfully say, that one has to look at the responsibility of humankind in general for the Welsh language, as it has for every other language, and for the people of Britain in general, let alone the people of Wales. The generality of status is at the basis of our attitude to the language. The Welsh language is one of the oldest spoken languages in Europe. It has existed for about 1,500 years, and has a history that goes back, some say, to an origin as far back as the Himalayas. It is of Indo-European origin. It is a living language, spoken by 500,000 people. As the Minister rightly said, that is only one-fifth of the Welsh people; 80 per cent of them—2.5 million—do not speak it. In my case, it was a pure accident of birth and geography that I speak Welsh, as is indeed the case with one or two other Members of the Committee. I only hope that I would have had the courage and assiduity to learn it otherwise, but it was a fortuitous accident. It is still my main language when I am at home. It is the language in which I live practically the whole of my life when I am at home in Cardiganshire.
Nothing gives me a greater thrill than to hear people who are not Welsh-speaking, but who are members of the Welsh nation, refer to the Welsh language as “our language”. That is the attitude that will gives the Welsh language a possibility of remaining a vibrant, living thing in British life. The language has enjoyed a renaissance over the past 20 to 30 years, but its life is far from safe. The pressures on it are very considerable and only our best efforts will safeguard it. So if one lays down any conditions that stultify that possibility, one is doing the language a great disservice. There is a school of thought that says, “Well, you can make all the pious declarations you like in relation to the Welsh language. You can weep oceans of sentimental tears, but you shall not spend a penny of public money and you shall not place a single imposition on anyone. You shall not impose any burden that makes life even marginally more difficult for businessmen”. Saying that effectively writes “finis” to the life of the Welsh language. I am not suggesting that such a case has been deployed in the Committee today, but it is essential to remember that if we want a priceless treasure of humankind to remain, we have to pay for it. One appreciates how difficult it is to preach a sermon like this in the strained financial circumstances that exist at the moment, but it is right to remember the central reality of the situation.
On the content of this legislative competence order, I appreciate that it is very much the product of a compromise, but so many things in politics and in life are. For myself, I would probably have wished for a somewhat more adventurous approach than this, but we have to achieve the fine balance referred to by the Minister and the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Roberts. It is very much a matter of balance. However, if on the one hand there is stodgy, unimaginative passivity, you will achieve nothing. You might as well say right now that we will let the Welsh language go. On the other hand, an overly aggressive and adventurous approach may create a wholly counter-productive situation.
No Act of Parliament or piece of delegated legislation can of itself save a language. All that statutory provision can do is create the conditions that make it possible for a language to thrive better than it would have done had one not resorted to the provision. It is on that basis that this matter takes the situation forward a little from the 1993 Act, which I regard as a very important milestone in the journey of the Welsh language through life. I appreciate that it gives quite substantial powers to the Assembly, which I am sure it will use sparingly and reasonably, bearing in mind all the time that goodwill will be the oxygen of life for Welsh in the years to come.
The one matter I would contend with is this. Nothing that we are doing today creates any legislation at all. If this order passes through the House of Lords without challenge, as I hope it will, all we will have done is peg out an area. It is for the Welsh Assembly to build a legislative edifice upon it. If the Assembly has no plans to start on that edifice soon, then this exercise will have been useless. However, I am sure that that is not the case and that the Assembly has plans that one trusts will be brought to fruition in the near future.
My Lords, I support this important draft order which has been requested by the Welsh Assembly, the highest political authority in Wales. However, I have one or two caveats—to which I will come—but I begin by paying tribute to the signal contribution of the teachers in the Welsh-medium schools, in particular, and the voluntary teachers in the nursery schools. Their contribution has been invaluable. The status of the language has been strengthened immensely since the passing of the Welsh Courts Act 1942 and, subsequently, the Welsh Language Act 1967, which was presented by the late Lord Cledwyn. Then, of course, came the important Welsh Language Act 1993, which was the creation of the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy.
When I look at the Welsh language scene in the round, three things stand out. First, more and more Welsh speakers in Wales are now demanding the right to live a full life through the medium of Welsh. This is fairly new. Indeed, I can recall how I avoided using the term “right” for many years because I thought it would be difficult to attain a consensus on that basis. However, I have come round to the view that there is a growing consensus in Wales that we ought to be constructing a framework of rights. Secondly, the Welsh language domains in north Wales and west Wales, which have been one of the most valuable assets of the Welsh language, but not the only one, are shrinking rapidly, with adverse consequences which we may not be able to assess fully. Thirdly, while the Welsh-medium schools—in south-east Wales in particular— are over-subscribed, with huge support from parents who are non-speakers but wish their children to have access to their linguistic heritage, it is an immensely difficult task to ensure that Welsh is a living language beyond the school yard. It is a daunting task which confronts us.
I am deeply appreciative of the time and resources given by the members of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee to the examination of the draft order. However, I must confess that I am confronted by a dilemma. I wonder whether the order has been over-scrutinised. On the other hand, I am bound to accept that its drafting has been improved as a result. In that difficulty, I content myself by saying that there is a special art to translating the language of politics into the language of Government and legislation, and it cannot be acquired overnight. The Welsh Assembly Government may wish to look at some of the difficulties—perhaps in their departments, perhaps in their legislative procedures—and if there are such difficulties, consider how to improve them.
I turn briefly to my two main caveats about the order. I regret—this will come as no surprise to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy—that the phrase “official status” is not included in the document. I am aware that it has been claimed since the passing of the 1993 Act that the principle of equality of the two languages embodied in that Act confers the status of official language on the Welsh language. If that is the case, why not enact the principle in a declaratory statement? I am pretty confident that this issue will not go away, but I am concerned that more of our young people may sacrifice their careers in order to achieve that objective.
My second caveat arises out of the appearance of the word “freedom” rather than “rights” in Matter 20.2. “Freedom” is a novel word in Welsh language legislation. It is not defined in the interpretation clause. Moreover, I understand from our human rights lawyer that the word is threadbare of meaning in the context of this legislation. Interestingly, what the Welsh Assembly Government Minister for Heritage said in evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee on 27 April suggested very strongly to me that he was not particularly enthusiastic about the terminology—references may be found in Questions 294 and 332 of the oral evidence. What is required is a carefully drawn framework of rights for the users of the Welsh language, rather than the vague concept of,
“freedom of persons wishing to use the Welsh language”.
Notwithstanding the caveats that I and others have, this is an important order, which will facilitate the continued regeneration of the language upon the path which began in 1942.
My Lords, in 1974 the special adviser to the Secretary of State for Wales, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, was the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies. It might be said that his service to the Welsh language has been a life’s work. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, rehearsed the difficulties, pitfalls and costs of the order. I acknowledge the distinguished role in the governance of Wales of the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy. He was right to emphasise the great consequences of Bishop Morgan’s Bible. Certainly in the 16th and 17th centuries there were no referendums and no prolonged consultations. The noble Lord, Lord Livsey, said that the Welsh Not was a terrible thing, and he has an insight into our social and cultural history when he says that. I thank the Minister for his masterly opening. He trod carefully and had his brief at his side.
Here is history in the formal and simple words of the order: “Constitutional Law”, “Devolution”, “Wales” and “2009”. Those words are in the context of the speeches that have been made before my own humble words. With regard to context, as a humble Minister in the Wilson and Callaghan Administrations from 1974 to 1979, I had responsibility for the Welsh language in what was the original Welsh Office formed by Prime Minister Harold Wilson. When it was established in 1964, the Welsh Office was led by the first Secretary of State, the bilingual James Griffiths, who in the Attlee Government initiated the National Insurance Act. My reaction is to say that from little acorns do great oaks grow.
For a Minister 35 years ago, it was a difficult brief. The Government of the day, with no or very little majority, were harassed politically by Welsh nationalists and others, and the language and road signs were often in the front line of political skirmish and battle. Astonishingly, today in the 21st century the Welsh Assembly Government are a coalition of Labour and nationalists. I think that they are because today there is to be a new leader of the Welsh Assembly Government and, one anticipates, a new Government, perhaps with different personnel.
My summary is that one can only wish the order well and acknowledge that it is historic—the story of the language of our nation in modern times. Perhaps the Minister will write to me with a considered reply if he cannot give detailed responses today to my brief questions.
First, what was in the Wales-wide consultations? What was the stance of the Wales CBI? Is there, according to the CBI, a consequence for the small and medium enterprises where the order is concerned? It looks to be positive in paragraph 7.15 of the Explanatory Memorandum. Secondly, as a consequence, will there be a further impact on our universities? I should declare my interest as a university chancellor.
Paragraph 7.1 is more than interesting. It states:
“The Welsh language is one of the defining characteristics of the UK’s cultural heritage and an essential component of the everyday lives of”,
580,000 Welsh speakers in Wales. That is very bold and very truthful. Paragraph 7.2 is equally interesting. It refers to ensuring,
“that the language can continue to be a prominent and vibrant part of people’s everyday lives”.
Surely, it must be that. These are powerful statements. On reading paragraph 7.10, I conclude that in later years more legislation will be required. I wish to be brief, but I say again that I wish the order well.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate, although there is a somewhat obvious diversity of contribution between the eloquence we would expect from those whose natural language is Welsh but who were speaking in English and some more prosaic questions to which I have to address myself. I pay tribute to not just the emotion but the love of language, and of the Welsh language, that has been expressed in this Committee. We all appreciate those who have spoken with such passion. Of course, my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies has done so much with regard to the language since he has been at Westminster. We very much appreciate that he is able to make his contribution today.
I shall address myself in a moment to the caveats, but, first, I pay tribute to the work that has been done and to others. In that context, the progenitor of the 1993 Act is here. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, has seen the development of the legislation which he introduced and then piloted through, and we pay tribute to that.
As to the prosaic questions, the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, will never let me get away with just rhetoric, so I shall address myself to his question. Let me emphasise that I do not think that costly bureaucracy will be set up by the Assembly of Wales, to which we devolved this issue. As was rightly said by the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, this is an enabling measure. It is for the Assembly to decide what must be developed in law. I assure the Committee that it is for the Assembly to address itself to any attendant costs of the legislation that it puts forward, but I do not anticipate huge costs. It is already making plans and, if this measure goes through, knows what it wants to do. It knows that it wants the establishment of a commissioner and an enforcement regime to accompany any imposition of duties, but these do not need to be costly. There has to be some enforcement regime, not because we think that the development of the language will depend on legal enforcement, but because there is no point at all in passing a law that regulates if one cannot enforce its prescriptions. There is an element of cost, but that is a matter for the Assembly to decide.
The other matter on which the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, expressed anxiety was the CBI. The CBI has expressed its enthusiasm and commitment to this measure. It clearly identified the obvious issues that the Assembly should not inhibit business, particularly in these circumstances where we want to encourage business in Wales. That would be the judgment of the Welsh Assembly with regard to the issue. Who better to make those judgments? All that I can testify to the Committee today is that the Welsh CBI has looked at the matter and welcomed it, knowing that the Assembly will ensure that the measure will not inhibit the development of business.
As to whether £400,000 was a figure pulled out of the hat, it is a figure that indicates that the organisations have to be in receipt of a significant amount of public money to come within the scope of the order. Otherwise, the great danger would be that we would be making regulations for organisations of the most modest kind. No, this is an issue for large and significant organisations. Public bodies come within its scope and bodies that receive £400,000 per annum. In a sense, any figure is drawn out of a hat, which I think is the phrase used by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. It is bound to be, but it is the question of judgment about the size of the organisation that needs to be considered. That is the basis of that figure.
Post offices are already subject to the Welsh language scheme under the 1993 Act, as the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, would remind us. If anybody considered the imposition of duties on them unreasonable or disproportionate they could certainly challenge that, including individual post offices or entire organisations. The whole Post Office could do the challenging. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, can rest assured on the particular point that he identified about those who take up their retirement serving in Welsh post offices. I thought that our greatest concern was the persistence and survival of Welsh post offices, rather than who ran them. However, he can accept reassurance on that.
On a general point, the Assembly must exercise its judgment on the impact of its legislation on private companies. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, asked about the Bank of England, which brought me up with a jolt as I had not briefed myself intensively on its role in this context. The Bank of England, like the Post Office, is subject to the Welsh language scheme under the 1993 Act. That is why we have to include it within the framework. I should have thought that the noble Lord would regard that as a source of rejoicing—that such an august institution has its role to play with regard to the Welsh language.
The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, in accurate terms—and who could be more accurate?—described the significance of the 1993 Act and developments subsequent to that. There is no doubt that this is an important order carrying on the work that the 1993 Act identified.
The noble Lord, Lord Livsey, indicated just how fragile language can be through his own family history. We all know that if language is not passed down from one generation to the next, by definition it atrophies and dies. It might have been the case that at one stage, in very substantive parts of Wales, there was a great danger that the Welsh language was declining into insignificance. Perhaps his family history reflects that decline and the resurgence that is a reflection of the developments over the past three decades. We should rejoice in the changes since then to which noble Lords have subsequently paid such testimony. I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, for putting this order into context and for emphasising even more than I could the fact that it is for the Assembly to produce the necessary legislation if this enabling order goes through.
The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, made a most eloquent speech about the necessity of ensuring that the language flourishes and develops, given its extraordinarily long history. I am not prepared to accept that the concept of “official” matters a great deal. English is not an official language; there is not a law in England that defines English as official. But if Welsh is equal with English, we have achieved the status that surely guarantees Welsh always to be a very significant part of all public utterances and all bodies in Wales subject to the law. The noble Lord also raised the issue of a right rather than a freedom. It may be a little late in the day for me to get too involved in such philosophical and constitutional matters. The term freedom makes it clear that a person would be free to speak the language and should be able to do so without interference other than in particular circumstances or specific limitations. A right, however, would enable an individual to call on the state or any other specified body to do something to support his or her right to speak Welsh. When we are talking about a language, surely guaranteeing the freedom is the issue that we are seeking to achieve rather than seeing rights insisted on. After all, that would introduce an element of legalism into the issue, which may not be necessary with regard to the language.
The noble Lord, Lord Jones, asked about the CBI. I hope that I have answered him on that. He asked whether I would write to him; well, I am not going to write to him—I am going to give him the answers now. I have already answered him on the CBI. He asked about education and the universities. Education is clearly in the scope of this legislation; the impact on the universities depends on the legislative Assembly and on the universities. After all, they enjoy considerable freedom in Wales as they do in England. It will be for those institutions to reach decisions, but if the Welsh Assembly does not have the interests of Welsh universities as a high priority, the Assembly would surely be neglectful of education in Wales beyond any conceivable measure.
This has been an inspiring debate, as I thought it would be, about an order which is not a modest order but has a wonderful logic to it, derivative from the 1993 position, the Act and the work that has gone on ever since. Therefore, I am pleased to have been able to participate in such an inspiring debate and commend the order to the Committee.