HC Deb 15 July 1993 vol 228 cc1158-63

'.—(1) For the purpose of conducting investigations in accordance with subsection (3) below, the Board, after having consulted the Secretary of State, shall appoint a Commissioner, to be known as the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (Welsh Language).

(2) The Commissioner shall be appointed within twelve months from the date on which the Board is established.

(3) The Commissioner may investigate any action taken by or on behalf of a public body in respect of the preparation or carrying out of a scheme, in any case where—

  1. (a) a written complaint is duly made to a member of the House of Commons by a member of the public who claims to have sustained injustice in consequence of maladministration in connection with the action so taken; and
  2. (b) the complaint is referred to the Commissioner, with the consent of the person who made it, by a member of that House with a request to conduct an investigation thereon.

(4) The Commissioner may exercise the powers to conduct investigations, call for evidence and issue reports referred to in sections 7 to 10 of the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967.

(5) The Commissioner may appoint such staff as he may determine, with the approval of the Secretary of State and the Treasury as to numbers and conditions of service.

(6) The Commissioner and his staff shall receive such remuneration, travelling and other allowances, and pension entitlements as the Secretary of State, with the approval of the Treasury, may determine.'.—[Mr. Alan W. Williams].

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Alan W. Williams (Carmarthen)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause provides for the appointment of a Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration for Welsh language matters—that is, an ombudsman specifically for Welsh language matters.

In Committee, we discussed at some length the complaints procedure in clauses 17 to 20. When there is a complaint against the operations of the Welsh Language Board, the board is required to set up an investigation. It was pointed out by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) that the procedure may be inadequate. An amendment tabled by Plaid Cymru called for a judicial review procedure if the Welsh Language Board is not receptive to a complainant.

Under the new clause, the Welsh Language Board could take over such complaints. It would require the board, once established, to initiate discussions with the Welsh Office for the establishment of an ombudsman on language matters within 12 months of the language board being set up. That ombudsman would be a neutral referee, as we are used to in local government affairs.

When the ombudsman service was introduced, it was a novelty to British administration, but, over the years, it has earned the tremendous respect of the general public and local authorities. It is unbiased, thorough and fearless. Generally, when recommendations are made, the ombudsman recommends fair solutions to, and reasonable settlements for, all problems.

In the correspondence that we received before the Bill was introduced, the Welsh Language Forum pointed out the need for a neutral arbiter. The forum proposed a Bwrdd Cymodi Ieithyddol. That is a language reconciliation board. The Welsh Consumer Council in its submission to us elaborated in detail on the need for an independent complaints procedure. In January 1993, all Welsh Members received a briefing on the Bill from the council. In paragraph 9 it says of the language board: We argued that an organisation set up `to promote and protect' the Welsh language could not also provide a complaints and conciliation service. The council then recommends an ombudsman to handle complaints. It further states: The positive handling of complaints and prejudice is an extremely difficult matter. Proper complaints procedures are central to consumer rights. The one cannot exist without the other. My hon. Friends and I believe that there is a need for a neutral arbiter.

Complainants can come from both sides of the fence. An individual may not be able to get a particular service in Welsh and may find that the Welsh Language Board is deaf to complaints. The complaint could be about a scheme devised by a public body not being sufficiently rigorous in a particular district, or the complaint could relate to employment.

There is the danger of employment discrimination if a public body is over-zealous in insisting on Welsh speaking being a requirement for too many jobs. The Bill establishes the Welsh Language Board to promote the language—very properly. A complainant on one side of the fence would not expect justice from such a board.

At present, the Race Relations Act 1976 is the only vehicle for complaints. Later, under a new clause, we shall discuss the inappropriateness of that Act. Its use it not liked by the people of Wales.

The Labour party document before the last election, entitled "The Better Way for the Welsh Language",states: Labour believes that the Race Relations Act is not an ideal mechanism for dealing with abuses in this field.

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

I have been trying to understand the new clause. My hon. Friend raises the issue of people seeking employment complaining of discrimination because they do not speak Welsh. Many jobs in public bodies in Wales require Welsh. That prevents a large number of people—90 per cent. of my constituents—from annlying. How would they act under this procedure?

I am not saying that I am against positive discrimination. It must exist to solve the problems of history, but how would my constituents act and what would the ombudsman do? Would he say that there had been an offence against the law or would he provide a conciliation and arbitration service? I find it difficult to see the mechanics under which this will operate.

Mr. Williams

The issue is complicated and, obviously, there are strong emotions on both sides. The Bill makes frequent use of the words "reasonably practicable" and "appropriate in the circumstances". What are the accurate definitions of those terms? There must be a pragmatic definition. The situation in the Rhondda will be different from that in Cardiff, Dyfed or Gwynedd. We need some sort of referee to ensure that the interpretation of those terms is fair to English speakers and Welsh speakers in particular communities. I acknowledge that there are dangers. I tabled the new clause in an attempt to deal with the complex problem of employment discrimination.

I would expect there to be more individual complaints about an inadequate service in Welsh than from the other side of the fence. As I said earlier, the Labour party recognised the problem before the last election and suggested in its policy document the establishment of an ombudsman.

All Opposition Members want a much stronger language Bill than the Government have presented. We believe strongly in the principle of equality for the Welsh language and a status for it no less than that of English in Wales. At the same time, we want the legislation to be fairly administered to both Welsh and English speakers. The Bill simply embeds a complaints procedure in the Welsh Language Board. It does not provide a neutral arbiter. We need an ombudsman to whom to refer complaints.

Sir Wyn Roberts

It may be helpful if I explain how the Government see the relationship between the Welsh Language Board and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, the local government ombudsman and the health service commissioner.

Schedule 1 makes it clear that the board will be an organisation whose activities may be the subject of an investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner. The commissioner will be able to investigate complaints of maladministration made against the board. The existence of the board may influence the way in which the commissioner investigates complaints of maladministration made against other public bodies that come within his jurisdiction, which concern the use of the Welsh language.

To the extent that such cases involve the operation of Welsh language schemes under the Bill, we envisage that the commissioner and the board would have to reach agreement on the extent to which they would expect the machinery that we are providing for the board to investigate complaints to have been used before the commissioner decides to investigate. That would be a matter for the commissioner to decide in the light of individual cases.

We would expect similar considerations to apply to the bodies that come within the purview of the local government ombudsman and the national health service commissioner. The Bill provides a means of redress for individuals who believe that they have been disadvantaged by the operation of a scheme.

Mr. Rogers

The Minister mentioned two public areas: health and local government. He has said that the ombudsman has a right to look into problems of discrimination. Often when we refer a case to the ombudsman he says that it is outside his purview. Would the local government ombudsman, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration or whoever be able to take up employment issues in relation to the national museum of Wales, the Wales tourist board or any other organisation that may say that Welsh is compulsory as a condition of employment? Would not the ombudsman come back on that?

In this case, would it not be better to accept the new clause for a separate ombudsman who could then deal with this specific problem? One of the big issues is that if the case goes back to the board, which becomes an arbiter, it must be partial in promoting the language. That would be wrong.

Sir Wyn Roberts

May we leave the problem of employment until we discuss a later clause?

In the first instance, ombudsmen are concerned about maladministration, rather than the specific subjects to which we have referred. I think that the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) understands what I have said about the relationship between the complaints procedure under the board and the procedure that could arise because the board will be subject to the Parliamentary Commissioner. The schemes may also involve either the local government ombudsman or the national health service commissioner.

We envisage that the ombudsman would expect the board's complaints procedure to have been exercised before agreeing to mount an investigation. Those matters will also be determined by agreement between the ombudsman and the board.

The board will, therefore, have a distinct role, which is analogous to that of the existing ombudsmen but complementary to both. Nothing in the legislation will limit the locus of the existing ombudsmen. In particular, nothing in the Bill expressly prevents the ombudsmen from investigating complaints of maladministration involving the Welsh language.

6.30 pm
Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)

I believe that one of the reasons why the new clause was tabled is vividly illustrated by an example that has been given by my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams). He mentioned a school in Carmarthenshire in which science was taught entirely in English, but the authority imposed a Welsh language qualification on the job of laboratory technician. What redress would a person seeking that post, and finding himself discriminated against on grounds of language, have under the system that the Minister describes?

Sir Wyn Roberts

I should have thought that the system did not apply to such an example. Ombudsmen are concerned about maladministration. If there has been maladministration, there is a role for the ombudsman, but he has to be shown that it has occurred or that there is a prima facie case. Given what I have said about how we would expect the system of investigating complaints to operate, we would not gain anything by the introduction of yet another commissioner, as provided for in new clause 3. I regret, therefore, that I cannot support the introduction of the new clause.

Mr. Rogers

I did not intend to speak on new clause 3 because my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) put the arguments well. However, I have listened to what the Minister said about the narrow range of complaints with which a commissioner can deal—as is the case with the present ombudsmen. I think that it ought to be incumbent on the Minister to come up with some form of alternative—if not now, certainly later.

The crux of the argument about the development of the Welsh language is that one can spend all the money and resources in the world, but, without the good will of the English-speaking population in Wales, the language will not be developed as many of us want. When those of us who come from areas where the majority of people speak English developed our policies on Welsh language education in schools, we had to convince many English-speaking communities of the value of spending resources on the Welsh language. Gradually, that view has become more accepted.

The Welsh language will develop only if hostility is not produced. We do not want people to say, "Our schools are falling down; classroom resources are not available for English-speaking children, but Welsh-speaking children, or people being taught in the medium of Welsh, can have those resources." It would be awful if there were a conflict in the community.

The same principle applies to jobs. When English-speaking people find that they cannot get jobs because they cannot speak Welsh—let us not forget that we are talking about at least 80 to 90 per cent. of the population—hostility towards the language will build up, which none of us wants. It will also create an exclusive class of people who get preference as a result of speaking Welsh—as it already has in certain parts of Wales, especially in public organisations—which creates a great deal of hostility.

What will the Welsh Language Board do in that situation? If complaints are made to the board and it has to be partial and make judgments, the basis of good will for the board will disappear. One side or the other will gain or lose. There will be a few contentious cases and the press will whip it up as a good story. Before one knows it, the issue of the Welsh language will again become a football to be kicked around.

Frankly, the Government have rejected the new clause without thinking through the issue. The Minister should have said, "Yes, the arguments are valid; the answers may not be ideal, but we shall consider the subject and come back with something." That is the proper way to deal with the problem. I hope that the Minister will accept my criticism constructively, and realise the potential for damage to the language that will exist unless there is a reasonable forum for complaining and sorting out issues without their becoming a source of conflict.

Mr. Rowlands

One of the unresolved questions in Committee was the extent to which the new language board would be a major instrument of positive discrimination in favour of the Welsh language. We asked that question over and over again and will come to it again later. There are huge legislative blanks in the Bill, which unfortunately do not allow us to deal with the issues that my hon. Friend is describing to the House.

Mr. Rogers

My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) has put his finger on it. That question has been considered by hon. Members who had the privilege to sit on the Standing Committee. Some of us were not able to do so, but the Minister must take note of what we say.

The Secretary of State can dream up policies on his feet, responding to the winds in whichever direction they blow. The Minister might find that difficult, but I appeal to him to suggest an alternative way of approaching the problem when the Bill comes back from the Lords.

Mr. Alan W. Williams

I thank the Minister for his comments. When Hansard is published I shall study them carefully, but I do not think that it is enough for there to be discussions between the commissioner and the language board about the potential problems. That is a behind-the-scenes dialogue and, in the last analysis, power to investigate complaints will rest with the language board.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) highlighted the fact that there is a void in the law for people making complaints. They can have recourse only to the Race Relations Act 1976, which is an unfortunate piece of legislation to use in that context. So, in the spirit of the comments made by my hon. Friend, I hope that the Government will consider the matter more carefully, perhaps come up with a more carefully worked-out solution in the Lords, and will find a way to accept the new clause.

Sir Wyn Roberts

The Bill is all about establishing good will and trying to remove many of the difficulties that we have experienced in the past. The board set up under the Bill will deal with many sensitive areas where it must exercise a great deal of caution. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) mentioned some of those sensitive areas.

However, clauses 17 and 18 provide for a procedure for conducting investigations, and investigations could also arise in the context of the Parliamentary Commissioner, the local government ombudsman and the national health ombudsman. Moreover, in the event of disagreement, people will have a right to approach my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We have, therefore, covered most complaints.

I remind the House that the Bill's entire purpose is to sustain good will, eliminate obstacles and induce as much harmony as possible into the language issue.

Mr. Alan W. Williams

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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