HC Deb 23 February 1999 vol 326 cc293-300

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

10.27 pm
Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives)

In many ways, I wish that there had been no need for the debate. I wish that the self-evident case for the official recognition of the Cornish language was accepted for the foregone conclusion that it should be. That may still be so, but the primary point of raising the issue this evening is that the Foreign Office has not yet been informed which of the home Departments has the capacity and responsibility to assess the case. I am not apportioning blame for that, because it has been so for many years. It is not the fault of this Government.

During the debate, I should like to explain the growing interest in the revival of the Cornish language; the fact that Cornwall wants to make a small but significant contribution to the celebration of the diversity of cultures and languages throughout the British Isles and Europe; and to make the case for the official recognition of the Cornish language.

Cornish is one of the Brythonic Celtic languages, which include Welsh, Breton and, originally, Cumbrian. The related languages of Scottish Gaelic, Irish and Manx are known are known as Goidelic and are based on a different spelling system.

Even at the time of the Prayer Book rebellion 450 years ago in 1549, which was a reaction to Parliament passing the first Act of Uniformity, people in many areas of Cornwall, including most of west Cornwall, understood little English. Place names throughout Cornwall bear witness to that.

We have to keep everything in proportion. The Cornish language is not now a life and death issue, but in 1549 it was. Many Cornish people protesting against the imposition of an English Prayer book were massacred by the King's army. Their leaders were executed and the people suffered numerous reprisals.

The Cornish language is supposed to have died out in about 1800—a year after the death of Dolly Pentreath, whose native language it was and who could speak little English. However, it carried on throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century. Even in my constituency of St. Ives, fishermen were counting fish in the Cornish language into the 1940s. In the early part of the century, my grandparents on the Lizard were speaking Cornish in a dialect form at home, and a dialect form of Cornish continues to this day in some areas.

One might ask the extent to which the language is now spoken. The night before last, I was judging the finals of the Pan-Celtic song for Cornwall competition on local radio. There were 32 entries—all sung in the Cornish language—in a variety of genres from folk to classical, rock, punk, indie and rap. Many groups were young people. One of the finalists consisted of five members with an average age of 14. Some of it was fairly ordinary, but the majority was impressive, and the finalists were breathtaking.

It is estimated that there are approximately 3,000 Cornish speakers. Many thousands more are like me, and either speak some Cornish or have a knowledge of the language. The vast majority, if not the whole population, see Cornish as an emblem of pride. Cornish, of course, exists in place names, and a knowledge of the language really helps to read the landscape. Many Cornish names are adopted for children, pets, houses and boats.

Cornwall county council has an established policy to support the language, and last week passed a motion supporting it being specified within the European charter for regional or minority languages. There are at least three regular periodicals solely in the language—An Gannas, An Gowser and An Garrick. The two local radio stations, Radio Cornwall and Pirate FM, have regular news broadcasts in Cornish, and have other programmes and features for learners and enthusiasts.

Local newspapers such as the Western Morning News have regular articles in Cornish, and newspapers such as The Packet, The West Briton and The Cornishman have also supported the movement. The St Ives Times & Echo felt so confident about local knowledge of the language that it circulated Christmas messages and cards saying Nadelek Lowen ha Blethen Noweth da and offered no translation to the English version Wishing You a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year". The language has financial sponsorship from many sources, including the Millennium Commission. The Bishop's advisory committee on Cornish language services provides advice and support to churches wishing to use the language. Increasingly, churches have visitors' instructions in Cornish and English.

The take-up of the language is now becoming so widespread that organisations such as Kevas an taves Kernewek, the Cornish Language Board, are finding it difficult to keep up with demand. Others include the Cornish sub-group of the European bureau for lesser-used languages, Teere ha Tavas—or land and language—Gorseth Kernow, Cussel an Tavas Kernuack, Cowethas an Yeth, Agan Tavas and Dalleth, the last of which is the organisation promoting language to pre-school children. There are many popular ceremonies—some ancient, some modern—which either use the language or are entirely in the language.

Cornwall has many other cultural events associated with the language, including the prestigious international Celtic film festival, which we hosted in St. Ives in 1997, with the programme in Cornish, English and French. There are many films—some televised—made entirely, or significantly, in the language; the latest on the Cornish surfing culture.

Commercially, Cornish is taking off, with shops selling only Cornish material, such as An Lyverjy Kernewak, the Cornish book shop in the town of Helston in the south of my constituency. Many companies are preferring to use Cornish names, and the GP overnight service in the county is now called Kernowdoc. A great deal now goes on in our schools—more than in my day—and there are many who study Cornish at degree level in places such as Aberystwyth, Wales, and Harvard, USA.

One may ask what benefit that brings. In a world where many commercial and multinational forces are producing bland uniformity, people want to hold on to—and even develop—the fragments of cultural remains. In Cornwall, I would argue that we have more than simply fragments, and we generate significant cultural tourism not only in itself, but as an added dimension to the tourist experience.

That has also been significant in helping Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly to secure objective 1 status, which we hope will be secured at the end of March in the next EU funding programme. Eurostat, in its statement agreeing to the splitting of Cornwall from Devon for statistical purposes, made very specific reference to Cornwall's … distinctive cultural and historic factors reflecting a Celtic background. Before Cornish can rightfully take its place as an officially recognised language, we need to sort out which Department is responsible for assessing Cornwall's case for being specified under part II of the European charter for regional or minority languages. It has been considered by the Department for Education and Employment, the Home Office, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Welsh Office; I have asked the Cabinet Office to determine responsibility, but it has put the question back to the Foreign Office.

Cornwall has an unassailable case for being specified under part II, and some argue that it should also be specified under part III of the charter, but it cannot get to the starting blocks because no Department recognises its responsibility.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Before the hon. Gentleman came to the House, I tabled questions about the Cornish language; one was answered by the Secretary of State for Wales, and the next by the Minister for Sport. The Government seem to have difficulty in identifying where Cornwall is.

It is a great joy to hear the hon. Gentleman's pronunciation of Cornish. Every word that he has said in Cornish is immediately understandable to a Welsh speaker. There is great enthusiasm for his case and we hope that it will find a willing audience in the Foreign Office Minister—that gives an extraordinary view of how central Government see Cornwall—who will respond tonight.

Mr. George

Perhaps not so extraordinary. I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I entirely agree with him. I said earlier that the present Government are not to blame for the problem, but this needs to be sorted out and one Department must take responsibility. We need to know what other hurdles the Cornish language needs to get over to secure recognition under the charter.

The framework convention for the protection of national minorities is also often mentioned in Cornwall. The Government say that they will apply the convention to those groups that fall under the definition of a racial group as set out in the Race Relations Act 1976. As is reasonable, the Government are determined that the Cornish are not a racial group under the Act because there have not been any court rulings on whether it is possible to be discriminated against on the ground of being Cornish. That is right and proper. Cornwall is not claiming that its people are a racial group or that Cornish people, however defined, experience significant discrimination or prejudice.

The problem is whether the Home Office has interpreted the question correctly. It cannot be held that it is necessary to be discriminated against to qualify as a minority or a racial group. As the Government cannot justify defining groups by referring to national legislation, do they not accept that, in international law, the view is generally held that the existence of a minority is a question of fact, not of law?

I am concerned that article 16 of the framework convention is interpreted by a tiny and extreme minority as being usable to justify policies that control or influence population mix. I seek a reassurance that that sinister interpretation is unacceptable to all. If recognising the Cornish language and culture could be interpreted in that way, we would all oppose it. Surely, European charters and conventions are intended to contribute to a celebratory and constructive role for languages and cultures, not to narrow isolationism.

The debate about how a group is identified as a minority could lead us to a nil sum gain argument which gets everyone nowhere. I refer the Minister back to the preamble of the framework convention, which reflects its spirit. It says: Considering that the creation of a climate of tolerance and dialogue is necessary to enable cultural diversity to be a source and a factor not of division but of enrichment for each society". It is exactly that enrichment, and not division, that the Cornish language and the identity of its people can contribute.

If Cornwall is to play its full part and achieve its full potential in celebrating the diversity of cultures and languages in the British isles and Europe, it should not be excluded from the European charters as that hinders and damages the emerging self-belief and confidence of the language and cultural revival.

Let me reassure the House—the movement is inclusive. It is not about the Cornish wanting to cut themselves off, but about their wanting to cut into what is going on in a wider Europe. It is not the plaintive cries of the "Stop the world, I want to get off? brigade, because Cornwall wants to get on and get involved. It is time to let Cornish take its proper place, agree a home Department to assess Cornwall's case and move it forward into the charter. After all, it would be absurd not to include Cornish in part II of the charter. Then we could get on with life.

I must emphasise that Cornwall has been going through an exciting and positive revolution in recent years, and it has seen a growing interest in things Cornish. I am particularly proud to say that that is happening in an environment of harmony and celebration. Indeed, when the Keskerdh Kernow, the Cornwall march, took place from St. Keverne in my constituency to London in 1997, the walkers included those who were Cornish born and bred and those who, without apology or explanation, claimed no Cornish ancestry but a love for and commitment to Cornwall. Although there will always be a few absurd and silly people who would prefer things otherwise, that showed the maturity of the modern Cornish community, with Cornish people and those who would not necessarily define themselves as Cornish—although I would—walking shoulder to shoulder and standing up for Cornwall.

We are concentrating on positives and looking outward. We want to contribute to the celebration of diversity for positive reasons only. Perhaps soon Cornwall will host a festival of culture from around the British isles and, among the colour of multiculturalism, a Minister may come along and play her Northumbrian pipes. There is an old saying in Cornwall—karensa a vynsa, covatys ny vynsa—which, roughly translated, means "love would, greed wouldn't". That is what Cornwall is trying to say. It is not self-seeking, but seeking to be included. I urge the Minister to help us to be included in the charters.

10.42 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Ms Joyce Quin)

I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George) on winning this Adjournment debate and speaking on an issue that I know is dear to his heart and to which he has drawn the attention of hon. Members and my ministerial colleagues on several occasions. As he recognised at the end of his speech, I share strongly his beliefs in the importance of regional cultures and traditions and the need to encourage and welcome diversity at the various levels of government in the United Kingdom, the European Union and other institutions, such as the Council of Europe, to which he referred. As a Geordie with a keen interest in the distinctive folk music of my own region, I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's views, although my playing of the Northumbrian pipes might not be very tuneful to the ears of his constituents.

I am also aware of the interest shown in the subject by the presence of several hon. Members in the Chamber tonight. The Foreign Office's involvement in the debate relates to the fact that my Department has the lead on Council of Europe issues and the charter for regional minority languages, which the hon. Member for St. Ives mentioned, was set up by that body. I must apologise for the absence of my fellow Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), who has taken an interest in this issue and recently met the hon. Gentleman, representatives of interested Cornish groups and language experts. My hon. Friend is on a ministerial visit to Africa and regrets that he is unable to be present this evening.

I wish to make clear beyond any doubt the degree of commitment that the Government have to Cornwall. In doing so, I take issue with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) with whom I normally have much sympathy. I can tell him firmly that we are well aware of where Cornwall is on the map and, given the efforts that the Government have put in to securing objective 1 status for Cornwall, I am sure that that will be clear to all the inhabitants of Cornwall. We have a strong commitment to that part of the country and it is an important part of our overall devolution strategy that the regions of England should have greater economic vitality in a decentralised framework. Devolution ensures that many decisions affecting people's day-to-day lives will be taken locally, and that those decisions will take into account local needs, conditions and history.

The creation in the English regions of regional development agencies will benefit Cornwall. Those agencies will help to promote sustainable economic development and will co-ordinate support for business development, including inward investment, training and regeneration. In general, their work will help to develop Cornwall's economy and make Cornwall competitive.

Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly make up one of four areas scheduled to get objective 1 status as a result of the reform of the structural funds in the Agenda 2000 negotiations. The change has come about following lengthy negotiations, in which it was agreed that Cornwall should not continue to be considered as part of a single region, along with Devon, for structural fund purposes. Cornwall's gross domestic product is only 70 per cent. of the European Union average, and so we expect it to qualify for generous EU assistance designed to promote the development and structural adjustment of the area. Financing from Europe may be for as much as 75 per cent. of projects.

It will be up to the regional and local authorities to co-ordinate how the funds should be spent, but a number of sectors of the Cornish economy could get support, including small business development, rural and coastal areas, and the information and communications industries. Structural funds can also be used to promote investors in people. The designation of objective 1 status is a valuable opportunity, although careful planning will be needed to maximise the benefit. I understand that the regional authorities already have programme planning in mind.

Secondly, the hon. Member for St. Ives spoke about the framework convention for the protection of national minorities. The framework convention guarantees people belonging to national minorities equality before the law and freedom from discrimination. Signatories to the convention agree to adopt, where necessary, measures to promote full and effective equality between minority and majority groups in all areas of economic, social, political and cultural life.

The Government ratified the convention to underline our commitment to tackling racism and xenophobia, in the United Kingdom and across Europe. It is true that the Government have received representations from a relatively small number of people in Cornwall who are seeking recognition of the Cornish people as a national minority under the convention. However, as the hon. Member for St. Ives recognised, very reasonably, the Government clarified their position in response to a series of parliamentary questions in October. The Government said that, for the purposes of the convention, they would base their interpretation of the term "racial group" on the definition set out in the Race Relations Act 1976. That legislations defines a racial group as a group of persons defined by colour, race, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origins.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Do other members of the Council of Europe take the same line on the definition of a racial group? I understand that they do not. If there were a divergence in the definition used by different member states, that would be unfortunate, as it could be interpreted to mean that the British Government are discriminating against the Cornish, and that other minority languages and cultures are treated differently.

Ms Quin

I would prefer to let the hon. Gentleman know in writing the position of other member states, as we understand it. In part, that is because my hon. Friend the Minister of State has had much more contact with the Council of Europe than I. However, the Government are not aware of any rights granted under the framework convention that are denied to people in Cornwall. Indeed, we would be very concerned to hear of any specific barriers preventing people from freely maintaining and expressing their culture and identity.

Obviously, the convention aims to address the position of minorities across Europe as a whole. I can reassure the hon. Member for St. Ives that we most definitely do not intend to justify policies aimed at preventing natural changes in the racial or ethnic balance of a particular region. That would be totally perverse. Such an interpretation would clearly contravene the spirit of the convention, particularly article 2, which states: The provisions of this framework Convention shall be applied in good faith, in a spirit of understanding and tolerance and in conformity with the principles of good neighbourliness, friendly relations and cooperation between States. Such an interpretation would also be contrary to human rights as defined in the European convention on human rights, and it would contravene the welcome addition made to the Amsterdam treaty when we, along with our European Union partners, introduced a non-discrimination clause. All that reinforces our understanding that the convention should not be misused in the way that the hon. Gentleman rightly raises as a danger.

The hon. Gentleman's main point related to the status of the Cornish language under the Council of Europe's charter for regional or minority languages. He asked how the Government choose to deal with the issue. The charter places legal obligations on contracting parties regarding regional or minority languages spoken in their territories. Regional or minority languages are defined as those that are traditionally used within a given territory of a State by nationals of that State who form a group numerically smaller than the rest of the State's population; and which are different from the official languages of the State. Under the charter, languages can be specified in two categories. Under part II, states commit themselves to base their policies, legislation and practice in respect of minority or regional languages on specified objectives and principles. Should a state decide to specify a regional or minority language under part III of the charter, the state is required to promote its use in public life. That is done by applying several paragraphs from part III, which cover education, justice, public services, the media, cultural activities and facilities, and economic and social life. In other words, they are very wide ranging.

Mr. Flynn

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Ms Quin

I am sorry; I must address the key points raised and I am afraid that I shall not have time if I give way.

The Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central, told the House last June that the Government intended to adhere to the charter. He said that, at the time of ratification of the charter, we would specify the Welsh language in Wales and the Gaelic language in Scotland. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland informed my Department that the lengthy process of identifying which minimum of the 35 paragraphs or sub-paragraphs are to be applied to Gaelic in Scotland has now been completed. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales hopes shortly to be in a similar position with regard to the Welsh language.

Once the process is complete, we intend to ratify the charter. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that this is a suitable year in which to do so, as it is the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Council of Europe.

I am well aware, particularly having heard the hon. Member for St. Ives this evening, that the hon. Gentleman regrets the fact that the Government have not yet taken a position on Cornish. It is a complicated issue, and the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that consideration of regional languages in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are matters for the relevant Secretaries of State. For Cornish, the charter raises issues that touch on the responsibilities of a number of Departments. There are implications for education, culture, transport, the judicial system and the whole range of public services in Cornwall.

The hon. Gentleman was given an assurance when he met my hon. Friend the Minister of State that the matter of the lead Department was with the Cabinet Office. The hon. Gentleman has written to the Prime Minister on that point, and sent copies to my hon. Friend the Minister of State and to other interested hon. Members.

Following inquiries, I am glad to be able to say that the hon. Gentleman will be given the information about the lead Department on those issues shortly—within the coming month—and he will also receive a reply from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I hope that that will reassure him that, as well as taking Cornwall's general situation seriously in the way that I outlined at the beginning of my contribution, we are dealing with the specific issues that relate to the Cornish language.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments. It is important to raise those issues and I am glad that interest has been shown—a number of hon. Members have attended the debate. I hope that he will feel that, in spite of the frustrations of the past, we are making some progress on the issue.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Eleven o'clock.