HC Deb 01 July 1986 vol 100 cc851-4

5.4 pm

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Welsh Language Act 1967; and to make further provision relating to the use of the Welsh language in Wales; and for connected purposes.

Few hon. Members will be unaware of the considerable and growing interest that has been taken in the Welsh language during the past 20 years. The survival of the Welsh language is one of the miracles of modern Wales. At the last census, more than 500,000 people in Wales could speak Welsh — almost 20 per cent. of the population. Probably at least another 250,000 people have a good understanding of the language although they do not speak it. In my constituency, more than 80 per cent. of the population can speak Welsh and two out of every three constituency letters that I receive are written in Welsh.

It is the normal working language in the community, and Cyngor Dosbarth Dwyfor, one of the two district councils in my area, undertakes its work exclusively in the Welsh language. During recent years, the Welsh Schools Movement has grown to such an extent that, by now, almost one third of primary school children in areas such as Pontypridd and Caerphilly—most of whose parents do not speak Welsh—receive their education through the medium of the Welsh language.

Yet the official status of the language is far from clear. Although the Acts of 1535 and 1536 which banned he Welsh language from official use have been amended by the Welsh Courts Act 1942 and the Welsh Language Act 1967, which gives the language some new status, people still do not know what their language rights are. After centuries of having been told, or having it implied, that there is something inferior in speaking their language, it is hardly surprising that some uncertainty still exists among Welsh people.

In the early 1960s, a new interest grew in the Welsh language, especially after the historic broadcast by the late Mr. Saunders Lewis in 1962, entitled "Tynged yr laith". Soon afterwards, in 1964, the question of status was higlighted in the court case of Evans v. Thomas. The Hughes-Parry commission which reported in 1965 on the status of the language made widespread and radical recommendations. Some of those were incorporated in the Welsh Language Act 1967, which was a significant step forward. However, after 20 years of living with that Act, it is plain that there are massive shortcomings which must be put right.

A main plank of the Hughes-Parry report was the formulation of the principle of equal validity of the Welsh and English languages in Wales, whereby anything said or written in either language would be equally valid. The report made a specific recommendation. Recommendation (3) states: The principle of equal validity should be adopted as the basic principle governing the future use of Welsh in the administration of justice and the conduct of public administration. However, in the 1967 Act the provisions were not so clear-cut. The Act established the equal validity of Welsh when spoken in the courts, but it did not give all written legal documents such equal validity. More importantly, it did not establish a general principle of equal validity in the conduct of public business as recommended by the Hughes-Parry report and certainly not in general day-to-day life. There is a widespread misunderstanding in Wales on this matter.

During the years, those shortcomings have manifested themselves in a host of problems: solicitors being unable to present certain documents in Welsh to the court, parents unable to register the birth of their children in Welsh, people having cheques made out in Welsh refused —I had yet another letter of complaint about this only last week—prisoners being told that they cannot speak Welsh with visiting relatives, companies not being allowed to register their names in Welsh, and company accounts being refused by Companies house because they were kept in Welsh. The list in enormous, and enough to show that the spirit of the Hughes-Parry report is most certainly not working out as the authors of that report intended.

A main objective of the Bill is to clear up the unsatisfactory position which exists, and to afford the Welsh and English languages full official status, with written or oral statements having equal validity in whichever language they are made.

But the Welsh Language Act 1967 also failed to bring about conditions which would turn the excellent principle of equal validity into meaningful reality for the individual. The entire structure of the courts and administration was largely untouched by the Act and no requirement was placed on public authorities in Wales to facilitate a proper choice of the language for the individual citizen.

When confronted with an English-only form to fill in, 95 per cent. of people will fill it in in English because that is the implied requirement of the form. Four per cent. may choose to fill it in in Welsh, and 1 per cent. may ask why no Welsh form is available. To give the individual respondent a meaningful choice of language, there must be a dimension of bilingualism in the form iteself. Either it should have both languages on it, which is practical in a large proportion of cases or forms should be equally available in Welsh and English. To make equal validity a reality for the private citizen, the apparatus of public administration must be equal-handed. The Bill provides for public notices and forms to be bilingual, to give the individual the right to choose which language he or she uses for reading or for writing.

The Bill allows a defendant to choose in which language he or she wishes the court to hear the case. Nothing could be fairer than that. The Bill also aims at establishing a right in law for children and young people to be able to learn the Welsh language and have their education in the medium of Welsh within reasonable distance of their homes. This already happens in many parts of Wales, but not everywhere, and in some areas there have been bitter controversies when parents feel that they have not had a proper opportunity for their children to be educated through the medium of Welsh.

Welsh Office policy on the matter is encapsulated in a written reply that I received this week, which states that education through the medium of Welsh should be available within the constraints of available resources to all children whose parents are desirous of it. However, that definition has a prelude, to the effect that it is for individual authorities to determine the nature of the provision in their own area. That is the rub. Although some authorities have a very good track record, others have been reluctant to give all children in their area that option.

The Secretary of State has acknowledged that there is a need for better co-ordination in regard to the provision of instruction through the medium of Welsh. The Bill gives a framework establishing a right to such Welsh-medium education throughout Wales. It does not force Welsh-medium education on anyone. It merely provides a right in law.

The Bill would also allow employees of large companies and public authorities a certain amount of statutory time off to learn the Welsh language. That might indeed help such employees in their work, and give them an opportunity that they never had at school. Again, the provision is permissive. It does not force anyone to learn Welsh against his will.

The Bill covers a number of other matters: the standardisation of road signs; the establishment of an office of Language Commissioner for Wales, with a duty to try to conciliate and arbitrate in language disputes and to advise on the implementation of the Act; a requirement for structure plans to have regard for the Welsh language in the same way as they currently have regard to the conservation of the natural environment; rights to register births, deaths and marriages in Welsh, write cheques in Welsh and present company accounts in Welsh; and a right for prisoners to communicate in Welsh.

In various ways, the Bill addresses a host of practical problems that I have encountered in my day-to-day work as a Member of Parliament and which are faced from time to time by the Welsh-speaking community. The Bill takes nothing away from non-Welsh speakers. Throughout the Bill, the objective is to give people language rights, not to force a language on them. That being so, I am sure that it will appeal to the vast majority of people in Wales as to hon. Members on both sides of the House.

The fate of the Welsh language is not a responsibility consigned to any one party. I am glad that I have the support of members of all the four parties that represent Wales in the Chamber as sponsors of the Bill.

The language is not just a matter for those of us who are Welsh speakers, often by accident of birth. The Welsh language belongs to us all, and goodwill for Welsh speakers and non-Welsh speakers alike will be needed if its revival is to gain further momentum.

However, goodwill by itself is not enough. Fortunately, there is also tremendous enthusiasm, as we have seen over the past 20 years. Thousands of young people have campaigned for the language, especially through the Welsh Language Society. Hundreds of young people who care deeply for the language have gone to prison as a result of civil disobedience in such campaigns. Perhaps they have cared too much. Because we in responsibility have not taken up proposals that have commanded widespread support, perhaps our own shortcomings have contributed to the feelings of frustration and desperation that have occasionally fuelled excessive zeal.

The securing of the right environment for the survival of the language and the culture and values that go with it should not rest on the perennial battles of the younger generation against the perceived intransigence of an insensitive state. We need more than state neutrality, for that will do little to reverse the tide that has for centuries worked against the language. We need language rights firmly established in law—they have become the norm in other multilingual states—as in the case of Catalan, Basque and Galician in Spain and Flemish, French and German in Belgium. We must break out of the myopic insularity that has tended to blinker matters related to languages in these islands.

There is abundant evidence that there is a desire in Wales for an updating of the Welsh Language Act. Last year, the Colwyn bay tribunal showed the inadequacy of present legislation. Numerous councils, societies and denominational bodies have called for amendments to the Act. A working party including many distinguished members such as Lord Prys-Davies has been drawing up proposals over the past two years. A new petition is now circulating in Wales and I have no doubt that it will attract tens of thousands of signatures.

The time is ripe for change. What better time for change could there be than now, 450 years after the 1536 Act which threatened "utterly to extirp" the Welsh language? Next year will be 20 years from the passing of the previous Act, and if the Act is in force by 1988, that could be a fitting commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the translation of the Bible into Welsh by Bishop Morgan. The time is indeed appropriate for the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Dafydd Wigley, Mr. D. E. Thomas, Mr. Donald Stewart, Mrs. Ann Clwyd, Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones, Mr. Geraint Howells, Mr. Keith Best, Dr. Roger Thomas, Mr. Richard Livsey, Mr. Gareth Wardell, Mr. Gordon Wilson and Mr. John Hume.

  1. WELSH LANGUAGE 59 words