HC Deb 26 January 1978 vol 942 cc1805-16

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Snape.]

1.9 a.m.

Mr. Ioan Evans (Aberdare)

I am pleased to have this opportunity to raise the subject of bilingual road signs in Wales which has been the subject of controversy recently. I thank Mr. Speaker for giving me the opportunity to speak in the Adjournment debate. I also express my appreciation to my hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock), who asked a Question recently on this subject, and to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who replied. I deplore the attack that was made by the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Evans) on my hon. Friend for raising this subject and on my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary who replied. It is quite proper for the matter to be raised, and I believe that it is important that information should be given by the Welsh Office. I am pleased to give the Under-Secretary of State this opportunity of stating the lastest position and clearing up any misunderstandings.

I am not merely concerned with increased expenditure, although that is one of a number of reasons why I think we should now review our road sign policy for Wales. On 10th June 1974 I asked the Secretary of State whether he had yet reached a decision on the subject of bilingual road traffic signs in Wales and requested a statement. He replied: I intend to continue the policy announced under the previous administration of moving towards the progressive introduction of bi- lingual traffic signs in Wales. The pace of progress in this field will be governed by the availability of resources and the competing claim for funds for other aspects of Welsh language policy. He went on: I have decided therefore that on road safety grounds these signs should bear English legend above Welsh. The statement concluded: I stress that it is only one of a range of policies being followed by the Government to further the cause of the Welsh language."—[Official Report, 10th June 1974; Vol. 874, c. 489–90.] I believe that in this and other areas the Government have an excellent record in encouraging the use of the Welsh language. But it was Nye Bevan who said that Socialism was the language of priorities. We must get our priorities right in ensuring not only that we put public money to the best use but that public expenditure which is used to encourage the use of the Welsh language is spent in the best way.

Let us suppose that we were to devote £30 million to encouraging the Welsh language. We must ask ourselves whether we should spend it on speeding up the implementation of bilingual road signs or whether we should instead use it to bring forward a matter which is now under consideration—the plans for an all-Welsh fourth television channel to be shared by the BBC and HTV.

An all-Welsh television channel would be welcomed if both the BBC and HTV were able to show those programmes that would be welcomed by the 80 per cent. of non-Welsh speaking Welsh people while at the same time the desires of the 20 per cent. Welsh-speaking viewers would have their requirements met to a greater extent. Or should we think of making a greater contribution to the National Eisteddfod rather than spending extra on road signs? We must determine how the money can be put to its best use.

The hon. Member for Carmarthen has argued that producing extra road signs produces jobs. I am all for doing what we can to increase the number of jobs, but making extra road signs is not the best way of creating employment. To follow that argument to its logical conclusion, presumably Plaid Cymru would suggest a return of toll gates in order to provide employment. We must increase job opportunities, but we must have worthwhile jobs.

Now that the policy of bilingual signs is being developed, surely we should review the developments. Nothing pleases me more when travelling to my constituency than to see the sign on entering Wales "Croeso i Cymru"—"Welcome to Wales". But as one leaves the Severn Bridge and travels into Newport one is greeted with the sign "Dociau Casnewydd" and a very big sign stating "Dim cerbydau nwyddau yn y lon dde ½ milltir ymlaen", which means "No goods vehicles in the right hand lane a half of a mile ahead." I have thought to myself many times what effect that sign has on German, French, Belgian and other European drivers driving their articulated lorries to Newport docks. I have thought of them looking at their English-French or English-German dictionaries for the word "dim" and perhaps dimming their lights.

I believe the main recommendation of the Bowen Committee was that the authorities responsible for traffic signs should be required to provide bilingual English and Welsh traffic signs on all categories and classes of roads throughout Wales. What response has there been by the local authorities? It is understood that two out of eight counties had not adopted a bilingual policy, and that a third of them, because of the costs, had shelved plans. Gwent and Mid-Glamorgan while providing bilingual signs on trunk roads are keeping English signs only on minor roads. Apparently, Gwynedd's scheme has been halted because it wants Welsh to appear above the English. There is an obvious need, therefore, to review the situation in the local authorities.

Furthermore, we do not know what the future holds. If we are to have a Welsh Assembly will it take over responsibility for road signs? Will it have a policy of scrapping the county councils and district councils, and should we be erecting road signs monolingual or bilingual if there is—which I would regret—a massive reoganisation of local government again? Are we, as the Deparment of Transport has stated, in the next five years or so to change our system from miles to kilometres? Is this the time to intensify the changing of road signs when we know that the mileage or kilometres are not just painted on but impregnated on the signs one would require?

While many of us want to encourage use of the Welsh language, must we not assess the damage being done by Welsh language fanatics who deface signs and damage, destroy and remove signposts, despite the serious effect and inconvenience caused by such vandalism? I should like to hear a loud and a clear condemnation from the Welsh Office of those irresponsible actions which are condemned by the vast majority of people in Wales, whether they speak Welsh or not. I should like to see all the political parties in Wales including the Welsh nationalists, condemning such vandalism.

I shall conclude because I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty wishes to take part in this debate and it was he who originated this matter in a parliamentary Question. The Cynom Valley Borough Council is concerned about the lack of signposting in the Cynom Valley, Aberdare, Mountain Ash, Abercynon, Aberavon, and Ynysbwl. Those places are not signposted outside the valley whereas other places have signs in both Welsh and English. We must realise that if six signs are needed, three in Welsh and three in English, three signs needed elsewhere may not be erected.

Therefore, I hope that this matter will be reviewed. Although we need to encourage use of the Welsh language, I believe that we should insist on the correct priorities.

1.18 a.m.

Mr. Neil Kinnock (Bedwellty)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdare (Mr. Evans) on securing an Adjournment debate on this subject and seeking to put this matter in perspective. I had hoped to have the assistance, even in this short debate, of hearing the other side of the argument put by the Welsh nationalists, but it appears that at 1.19 a.m. they have retired from the parliamentary forum and are engaged in more profitable activities on behalf of the people of Wales—though I rather doubt it.

I am surprised by the non-attendance of the nationalists at this debate in view of the fanatical way in which they greeted the Answer I received on 16th January on this subject from the Under-Secretary of State for Wales. My Question was: What was the original estimated cost of providing bilingual road signs throughout Wales; what that figure would have been at current prices; what the programme is now expected to cost in total; and how much of an increase in expenditure this will have been in real money terms."—[Official Report, 16th January 1978; Vol. 942, c. 67] Doubts have been cast on the reasons why I asked that Question. It was not an annual Question but a biennial Question as befits a bilingual subject. I asked the same Question in 1975 and the final cost estimate then was £10 million. That received a certain outraged response from people in Wales, either Welsh-speaking or English-speaking, and from those who are fortunate enough to speak both languages. Taking into account inflation, an element that bedevils all calculations, the final cost given by the Minister was £17 million.

We have to consider the response in Wales to those figures. It was divided into three parts. The first was the response of the overwhelming majority of people in Wales who, while wishing to nurture the Welsh language and give it all reasonable opportunities to develop and being prepared to dedicate resources to that end—and this applies especially to the young people—nevertheless cannot see how the language is fostered, the community of Wales bettered or the economy of Wales advanced by the spending, over however many years, of £17 million on bilingual road signs.

That was the attitude of a crushingly overwhelming majority of the population, whether English monoglot or Welsh bilingual.

The second response was that articulated to an extent by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary who is to reply to the debate. He said, in reasonable terms, that these sums must be divided into what would have to be spent anyway on the renewal, renovation and resurrection of English language road signs in Wales and the £7 million for making them bilingual. The fact that the cost of bilingualism is £7 million rather than £17 million sounds more reasonable, but in a nation with stringently limited resources and few means of adding to those resources even £7 million, it may be con- sidered, could be better spent on advancing the interests of that nation.

The third response was the outraged opinion of nationalism which, in response to a proper and legitimate parliamentary Question, accused me and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State of collusion over these matters and accused me of being anti-Welsh. The accusation of collusion against me, of all people, in connection with the Welsh Office is, to say the least, evidence of political ignorance and historical inadequacy and stupidity. I moderate my language in making these accusations against the leader of Plaid Cymru, the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Evans), who is not here.

The claim that I was anti-Welsh disturbed me even more. Had I been able to get a written copy of what the hon. Gentleman said, as quoted in the South Wales Echo, earlier than I did—the story appeared on 17th January, but I did not receive a copy until the next day—I would have taken up the matter with Mr. Speaker and the hon. Gentleman would have received the overwhelming criticism of the House.

I should like to issue a warning to the hon. Gentleman which I would be glad to deliver personally if he were here in his usual sedentary position. If he says any such thing outside the House again, I will sue him to the point of bankruptcy. If he says it inside the House, I will ensure that he receives the ignominy reserved for hon. Members in the most grave breach of the Privilege of the House.

The Western Mail must be the only newspaper in Britain that would spend time, money and column inches on an editorial on something as insignificant as road signs. On 18th January, the Western Mail summoned itself to its full height and said: No newspaper should be averse to obtaining information. We do not therefore crib at the fact that Mr. Barry Jones, the Parliamentary Secretary at the Welsh Office, has revealed such a considerable increase in the estimates for the work of converting Welsh road signs to a bilingual system. That needed to be known. But, however inadvertent, it was both unwise and insensitive of him to issue such a bald answer to Mr. Neil Kinnock's question with none of the very important qualifications which he has been obliged to offer today. The net effect of his original answer was to create what can only be described as a scare story suggesting that £17m. was directly attributable to the decision to change to bilingual signs. Now he has made it clear that the real cost of the added Welsh element is £7m., the other £10m. being inescapable expenditure on normal provision, maintenance and replacement of signs. When a Minister gives an honest answer to an honest question and a newspaper describes that as a bald answer, and further elaborates it as a scare story, I wonder what the Press is coming to. Can it be that the Press, or at least the Western Mail, is so obsessive and paranoic, and so distorted in its treatment of the fringe issues of the survival of the Welsh language, that it is bound to slander both my hon Friend and myself by distorting the whole nature of my question and of his answer? Can it be that the newspaper that purports to be the national newspaper of Wales can place so little weight on the gross expenditure of £7 million attributable directly to bilingualism as to be able to speak of an unnecessarily bald response?

The newspaper says that there is a misleading nature to both the question and answer. I suspect that what makes the Western Mail in its paranoia, and the Welsh nationalists in their obsession, so sensitive to the question and the answer is that both were the truth, and that is what they have most to fear.

1.27 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Barry Jones)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdare (Mr. Evans) for raising this subject. He has always taken a close interest in it in this House. I listened, too, with interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock).

There are compelling and obvious reasons why discussions about the life of the Welsh language should be conducted calmly and with a reasonable hearing afforded to all points of view. In a civilised society the aim should be for an issue like this to be tackled on the basis of consensus.

Fortunately, the approach adopted by the Government has gained the assent of the majority of our fellow countrymen and women.

As has been implied tonight, extreme opinions and extreme behaviour exist, of course, and have to be noted and afforded the weight they are worth. Broadly, however, I believe that a mainstream of opinion is in harmony with the policies which my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State has developed. He has frequently expressed his own commitment to the language and explained that the Government's aims are to encourage and foster it whenever it is practicable to do so. The Government's record shows that they have taken a number of realistic decisions in pursuit of these aims.

It is against this background that bilingual road signs have been authorised to be erected progressively on highways in Wales. To give prominence to the Welsh names of our villages, towns and cities—names which have been handed down through centuries and still used naturally by Welsh speakers—is only to accord the language the dignity, status and respect due to it.

The statutory regulations which were laid before Parliament in 1975 include 24 bilingual local direction and informatory signs which can be erected by highway authorities without reference to the Welsh Office. Authorisation for other bilingual signs is readily given.

The policy which has been followed was begun by my right hon. and learned Friend's predecessors as far back as 1970, and in 1974 the remaining decision for him was to decide on the order of the languages. Since then bilingual signs have been provided on all new lengths of motorway and trunk road. Bilingual signs have also been erected where traffic has been re-routed—for example, in Abergavenny. What we have been doing is simply putting up bilingual signs where new signs were needed in any event.

A programme for converting the signs on some 300 miles of existing trunk road was also considered in 1975, but in view of the cost—then estimated at £2.5 million—and the particular emphasis being placed on holding down public expenditure we decided to defer the introduction of bilingual signs on existing routes.

In the interests of safety, the Bowen Committee advised against the introduction of isolated signs, and I would add for the same reason we have simply replaced or refaced a number of existing monolingual signs. Also in the interests of safety we have taken care to design the signs at the optimum size. While costs are reduced as far as is reasonable, we have carefully protected the ability of drivers to take in the information provided safely in as short a time as possible.

As my hon. Friends the Members for Aberdare and Bedwellty have said, discussion has focused on the figure of £17 million, which was given as a clear response to a direct question about the total and eventual cost of providing bilingual road signs on all roads in Wales.

It has been suggested that the figure is inflated and that this has been done against the interests of the language. The report by the Bowen Committee indicated that the provision of bilingual road signs was likely to be less. At current prices its estimate would work out at about £6 million. But it has to be remembered that we now have practical experience of what is involved in providing bilingual road signs—something the Committee did not have.

Attempts have been made to draw a comparison between the cost of introducing bilingual signs and introducing bilingual signs and introducing metric speeds and distances on highways.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdare said, such comparisons are, of course, completely invalid. Costs are related to the size of signs, and I doubt if any drivers would be able to read a directional sign, for example, if it were the size of a speed limit sign—unless, of course, they left their vehicles to read it.

I propose to explain the estimate and put it in perspective so that it can be seen whether it is inflated and whether the money is being handled sensibly.

New signs were erected on the more important roads in Wales in the late 1960s following recommendations of the Worboys Committee. The majority of these signs are still in good condition and should not require replacement for some years. When the time comes for maintenance it should be necessary only to reface the plates and paint the posts. When bilingual signs are used, however, new and larger plates will be required, often with longer and stronger posts and heavier foundations. The complete replacement of all signs will not always be necessary but in many cases there will be no alternative.

The estimate of £17 million is the best figure we can give for the provision of bilingual signs on all roads throughout Wales. If the present monolingual signs remain for some years until they need maintenance, the cost of refacing the plates and some other work will be saved, but these offsets will be relatively small and in any event larger bilingual signs are bound to cost more to maintain.

I have already told hon. Members that just over £1 million averaging £¼million a year over four years, has been spent on the provision of bilingual signs for motorways and trunk roads—that is, highways for which the Welsh Office is responsible. This was on about 30 miles of motorway and 10 miles of general purpose trunk road. There remain 50 miles of motorway and over 900 miles of general purpose trunk road, and for this a further expenditure of £11 million is estimated. This figure is in proportion to the £1 million already spent taking account of the different circumstances of different types of road.

I now turn to the 20,000 miles or so of county roads. For these an allowance of about £5 million for the provision of bilingual signs is reasonable. This estimate is more difficult to make since it is based not on the direct experience of the Welsh Office but on a more general appreciation of local circumstances. It would be expensive to commission a detailed survey of all signs on these roads, and I must make it quite clear that the actual costs will depend on the degree of enthusiasm with which local highway authtorities proceed with conversion programmes.

The £17 million is thus comprised of £1 million already spent on motorways and trunk roads; £11 million as the remaining cost on Welsh Office roads; and £5 million on county roads. New monolingual signs would cost about £10 million, so the cost of adding Welsh to them would be about £7 million, and this over a period of years.

Where signs are erected, as has been the case so far on new trunk roads and motorways, monolingual signs would have had to be provided in any event. The result is that of the £1 million which has been spent so far on providing bilingual signs on motorways and trunk roads, about £600,000 was inevitable and £400,000 arose because the signs had to have a second language. That is £400,000 over four years, an average of £100,000 a year. The figures of £10 million and £7 million are derived roughly from these proportionate relationships. Applying these figures to a general programme of change involves making assumptions about the engineering, maintenance and unexpired life of existing signs.

It is all very well to say that the £10 million would be incurred anyway, making the net cost of bilingual only £7 million. But a great part of this argument depends on the speed of the change-over. Some existing road signs may be good for a further 20 years or so. But are the proponents of bilingualism willing to wait until every sign in Wales falls naturally to be replaced? If they are not, and if they wish to see the changes completed in, say, five years, then of course we would be incurring premature and unnecessary expenditure on replacing the signs and the relative cost must accordingly be different.

In the time available, I want to deal with the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdare about devolution and this particular subject. Hon. Members might be aware that the Wales Bill envisages the Assembly having the power to prescribe bilingual signs as well as to authorise them.

My hon. Friend also mentioned metrication. At this stage of the day, all that I want to say about that is that the cost of conversion is low compared with that for bilingual signs because speed limit signs are smaller than most other signs, and in may cases they are much smaller. The signs showing distances will, where-ever possible, simply have the figures altered, probably by the placing of small plates in front of existing figures.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdare dazzled us all with his command of the Welsh language. I much appreciated his remarks about the "Croeso i Gymru" sign that we see as we enter Wales on the M4. He might recollect that currently that very sign is making a dramatic impact, on television anyway, in advertisements by the Wales Tourist Board in an attempt to attract more people to Wales.

On this matter, I think that a brief comment about county roads would not—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Thursday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-one minutes to Two o'clock.