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Ryanair: Afrikaans Language Test

Volume 822: debated on Thursday 9 June 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with Ryanair in respect of the Afrikaans language test administered by that airline to South African passport holders before flights to and from the United Kingdom.

My Lords, the language test requirement for passengers travelling with Ryanair is not a UK government requirement. The FCDO’s post in South Africa has confirmed this via its social media channels and has been in touch with the South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation. My department has approach Ryanair for comment. As yet, we have received no response.

I am grateful to the Minister for that. Like other noble Lords, she will remember that next week will mark 46 years since attempts to impose the Afrikaans language on black South African children led to the Soweto uprising. Today, in post-apartheid South Africa, Afrikaans is one of 11 official languages, and it is less prevalent than Zulu and Xhosa, so using Afrikaans to verify citizenship is as ignorant as it is insulting and discriminatory. Will the Minister and her Government explore all potential regulatory options to persuade Ryanair to the cause of common sense and decency?

When the noble Baroness raised this with me earlier this week, I thought that the entire thing was morally dubious and surely not appropriate, and my view has not changed. If a passenger is refused the right to fly despite having the correct documents and there being no other grounds for the refusal, they have the right to compensation—I encourage all such passengers to take it up—by being either reimbursed or rerouted to another destination. I completely and utterly take the noble Baroness’s point. As I said, we have not yet heard from Ryanair, and I will take this up with the Aviation Minister and the CAA to ensure that we do whatever we can to make it see sense, frankly, in this matter.

My Lords, the South African Government have recognised that this is not UK government policy, and I also recognise that. But, as the Minister said, Ryanair operates under licences, part of which states that the company has to be in good repute. It is not in good repute if it is, in effect, in breach of Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights for discrimination on the basis of language. It is also not in good repute if it gives this whole country a poor reputation among international travellers. Will the Minister not seek to persuade Ryanair or ask it for comment but rather demand a reply? If that is not forthcoming, will she ask the regulator to take action?

I wholly expect that we will get a reply from Ryanair, although our relationship with it has not always been as open as one would like. But the civil aviation consumers and markets group within the CAA is already looking at this and is in contact with Ryanair, so I will not make any further comment at this time, before those conversations have resolved themselves.

My Lords, since the Minister is minded to engage with Ryanair, might she or one of her colleagues ask whether Gaelic will be a prerequisite for Irish passport holders to fly to Dublin?

I am not sure I can commit to doing that, although I do recognise that Ryanair is based in Ireland. There are a number of people, organisations and Governments involved in this entire sorry debacle that could put pressure on Ryanair to make it see sense.

My Lords, did the Minister have the opportunity this week to listen to or watch the debate on the Irish language regulations coming to this House? Irrespective of what view people took on that, one thing is very obvious: the great sensitivity of issues concerning language, particularly in Ireland at this moment. Is it therefore not ironic that this crass move should have been made by Ryanair? When she is exchanging comments with Ryanair, could she bring this to its attention?

My Lords, this is not the only example of Ryanair, and indeed other airlines, treating passengers in a cavalier manner over the last few days. What action are the Government now taking? Only the Government can work together with the airlines, airports, air traffic control and all the others involved to try to make sure that passengers are treated like human beings and not animals.

I warmly invite the noble Lord to a QSD that will take place in your Lordships’ House at about 3 o’clock today. I will be going into great detail about what the Government are doing in terms of our work with the airports and airlines. It is the case that it is not every single airline and airport, but there is much we can do with the entire sector regarding skills, recruitment and training, and we are working on that. We recognise that there are challenges for the sector, and the Government are going to step in to do what they can.

Given the uniformity of view on this question, may I probe the Minister a little further? Can she tell us what powers the Government have to force Ryanair to take a more enlightened view?

As I said, I am probably not going to go much further than I already have, because we have yet to hear back from Ryanair. A number of noble Lords have recognised that the CAA, as the UK’s regulator, may well be able to assist Ryanair in reaching the right decision.

My Lords, will the Minister take the opportunity provided by the British-Irish Council, which contains representatives from the British Government, the devolved Administrations, including the Northern Ireland Executive, and the Irish Government, to raise this issue immediately? If it is not possible to have a British-Irish Council at the moment because of the standing down of the institutions under the Good Friday agreement, it would be greatly appreciated if the Minister could nevertheless deal with this issue, given its importance and the need to emphasise equality in all matters in South Africa.

I will certainly take that idea away and see whether it is a route that will achieve the quickest resolution to this matter.

My Lords, following on from my noble friend Lord Foulkes’s question, could the Minister have a look at the processes at Prestwick Airport? I am told that passengers can go through without any delay whatsoever. Maybe they have got something to teach the rest of us.

If we are talking about specific experiences at specific airports, I landed at Gatwick on Friday afternoon and 30 minutes later, I was standing outside waiting for my minicab. The point is that it is not happening at all airports at all times. There are certainly peaks when things are falling over a little, and that is the thing we really have to tackle. As I say, the Government are well aware of the issues and we are looking to see what we can do.

My Lords, I am not sure the Minister answered my noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe’s question very satisfactorily. He asked what the Government are able to do under those circumstances. Are we to understand that the Minister’s department made inquiries of Ryanair without being clear what its back-up position was, or indeed what powers it has in this respect?

No. Clearly, we need a response from Ryanair because we cannot always believe what we read in the media, so that is our first step. Of course, the CAA has already issued a statement and as the UK’s regulator and the body that issues licences, it will be looking closely at this.