HC Deb 12 July 1973 vol 859 cc1923-8

10.24 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Mark Carlisle)

I beg to move, That the Elections (Welsh Forms) Regulations 1973, dated 9th June 1973, a copy of which was laid before this House on 20th June, be approved. The regulations simply prescribe a revised version, partly in English and partly in Welsh—I understand that there are to be one or two comments about some of the spellings of Welsh words—of the canvass form, Form A, used in compiling the register of electors. The revised version was prescribed in the Representation of the People Regulations 1973, which the House approved on 26th February last. The revised form takes account of the changed basis of jury service introduced as a result of the Criminal Justice Act 1972, which extended liability to jury service to all electors between 18 and 65. A form based on the regulations will shortly be printed for use in Wales this year.

In view of the indication I have had from the hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Elystan Morgan), I am certainly prepared to look carefully into any points made about the Welsh translation and shall, of course, consult the Welsh Office if any changes need to be made. We shall try to make them in the forms printed for use in Wales this year.

10.25 p.m.

Mr. Elystan Morgan (Cardigan)

The Opposition welcome these regulations which give official status to what is a very important Welsh translation of an official document. I think I am right in saying that this is the one hundred and ninety-second official translation which has been prescribed under the Act of 1967. I accept that there have been many scores of official translations beyond the pre- scribed forms under Section 3 of the Act. Both Governments have reacted generously to the exhortation implicit in the 1967 Act that these translations should be maintained in a steady flow. That has been the case over the last six years.

There are two general questions I should like to touch on very briefly. First, although the volume of these translations has been considerable over the years, one is always conscious of the fact that there are some 20,000 official forms and documents in current use. What concerns many Members on both sides of the House is whether there is some strategic plan in choosing forms which would be likely to make the greatest impact on Welsh life if they were to be translated. There should be some strategic appreciation of the value of a document before a decision is made to translate it. For example, the impact that can be made by a single document may be much greater than the impact made by a totality of 300 other documents used only very seldom.

Secondly, we would like to know what more the Government propose to do to see to it that the fullest use is made of these forms. I understand that in some cases only a fraction of 1 per cent. of the forms is used in the Welsh language. It may be that in some circumstances the Welsh version is not given the same prominence as is the English version—it is not readily available and has to be asked for. We say that that is reprehensible and that such practices should be very closely looked into. By and large one appreciates that the Welsh forms are not on the whole popular, and I think that there is a duty not only on the Government but on Welsh people themselves to make the fullest use of these forms. There is something bizarre in a situation where scores of young people defy the courts and go to prison, very often egged on by respectable middle-aged men who would rather remain academic militants, and where at the same time perhaps only a few hundred people avail themselves of the Welsh forms when they are ultimately published.

We welcome this translation. We welcome it particularly because it is bilingual in that both languages are set out in the same document. Despite the reservations which the Hughes Parry Committee had on this matter, we think this is the best way of conveying the Welsh language to those who do not speak it at present. Sometimes a form would be very bulky if it were to have both languages in it, and that might sometimes be inappropriate; but in most cases we think it appropriate to have the two.

We appreciate that this is an important official document since it brings home to the ordinary voter his legal obligation to be registered on the electoral roll. It is a chastening thought that, apart from those who choose not to vote at a parliamentary or local government election, there are, especially with an old register, millions of people who are disfranchised because their names do not appear on the roll.

I am sorry to have to conclude on a note of criticism. I readily acknowledge that, concerning nearly all the other forms that have been translated under the Act and the official translations, the Welsh that appears therein is of a very high standard. But this form is clearly an exception. It is bespattered with dozens of obvious grammatical mistakes and dozens of obvious and patent clerical errors. It is not that one is affecting a stance of scholastic pomposity. I have shown the form to a number of my colleagues who, like myself, have the Welsh language as a first language. It is obvious that this is a grotesque effort at translation.

I know that the Minister has good will towards the Welsh language and that he is anxious to do what is proper in this situation. We shall not divide the House on this matter. I ask the Minister, however, either to give an undertaking that, if the regulations are passed, the form will soon be replaced by another official form that will be a worthy and proper translation or, alternatively, to withhold them tonight and to bring forward a proper and accurate version very soon.

In a sense, bureaucratic language is the enemy of a living language in every country. But the language used in this form is arthritic and grotesque and completely distorts the Welsh out of all recognition.

10.31 p.m.

Mr. Goronwy Roberts (Caernarvon)

I strongly support what my hon. Friend the Member for Cardigan (Mr. Elystan Morgan) has said, both on the subject of producing bilingual forms in Wales and on the shortcomings of this particular document.

I do not think that all hon. Members of the House realise how widely used Welsh is as a medium of speech and writing in very many parts of Wales. I do not think most hon. Members realise that 23 out of 36 Members of Parliament for Welsh constituencies speak Welsh. That is a very high proportion having regard to the fact that Wales has been a country of two languages for some centuries. Like every Member representing one of the western parts of Wales, I habitually use the language in the politics and representation of my constituency. It is a rarity for me, for instance—as I am sure it is for my hon. Friend the Member for Cardigan and my hon. Friend the Member for Merioneth (Mr. William Edwards)—even in the heat of an election, to lapse into the tongue of our Anglo-Saxon friends.

Welsh is a modern language, fully capable of coping with all the demands of modern life; indeed, we have experience of that. Therefore, I commend the present Government, like the previous Government, for making progress in producing Welsh versions of official forms and directives. But I protest against the fact that this particular form, which is one of the most important, bearing as it does on the essential process of democracy, contains quite incredible mistakes of both grammar and idiom. The very first sentence is an imprecise and misleading variant of the English. For instance, the electoral registration officer, in English, "has to compile"; in Welsh he "is requested to compile." There is a difference of statutory undertaking implied in the first sentence of this fairly long form. One could go on and point to faulty grammar and spelling, but above all to an imprecision of statement. This is both a danger in the relationship between government and governed and something of a disservice to a modern language.

I ask the Minister of State, who I know is sympathetic to what is being done for the Welsh language nowadays, to look very carefully not only at the form and presentation of this document but also into the arrangements for translation wherever that is done. It is unclear to my hon. Friends and myself what the arrangements are. Is there a reasonably strong unit of translation in the Welsh Office in Cardiff to which this very important work can be entrusted? Is it all that essential that whoever is asked or instructed to undertake this work should be a permanent civil servant?

I mean no disrespect to the excellent men and women who serve us in Wales. I have some experience of them as one who has held the post that the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Gibson-Watt) now holds. This is something special and I suggest that consideration should be given to putting this work out to people in Wales who are not civil servants. There are plenty of people who could give the Minister an idiomatic, precise and readable form without his having to overtax the already energetic and busy members of the Civil Service in Cardiff. Indeed, I could almost volunteer to give the Minister—not tonight, but in the course of the next day or so—an improved version in Welsh of this very important document.

10.36 p.m.

Mr. Carlisle

I reply by leave the the House. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Elystan Morgan) and to the right hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Goronwy Roberts) for what they have said. This is an important form because it goes into every household and must be filled in to enable qualified persons to vote. It is a bilingual form in that it will go out in English and Welsh to every household.

On behalf of my Department, I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman for the state of the translation into Welsh. I would not for one moment attempt to dispute with him if he said that the form was full of errors.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the unit in Cardiff which does these translations on behalf of the Welsh Office. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Welsh Office is present and will have heard what the right hon. Gentleman said. I am sure he is anxious to ensure that the Welsh Office has a strong translation unit in Cardiff.

I assure the hon. Member for Cardigan that there is no need to withhold this document. The Act allows the form to be used with such variations as may be necessary or appropriate. It will have to be printed for the purpose of being sent to Wales. As I said at the beginning, in conjunction with the Welsh Office we will be willing to look at the translation again and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Welsh Office would not take it in any way amiss if the right hon. Gentleman cared to give us the advantage of his knowledge on a more suitable wording for the form.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Elections (Welsh Forms) Regulations 1973, dated 9th June 1973, a copy of which was laid before this House on 20th June, be approved.