HC Deb 08 June 2004 vol 422 cc61-8WH

4 pm

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North) (Lab)

I am glad to have secured the debate. I wish that it were longer, because I am sure that hon. Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would have liked to join in. However, it is good to have recognition of the report and the opportunity to seek a response from Government. I am particularly pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe is responding. The significance of the debate lies in the fact that it is being dealt with by my hon. Friend on be half of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. That is the proper context within which to discuss a report by the Council of Europe on how the United Kingdom is performing under the charter on minority and regional languages. This is not a devolved or territorial issue; the charter was signed by the Foreign Secretary of the day, my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), on behalf of the UK Government, in full knowledge of the obligations that would have to be net, particularly in relation to Scottish Gaelic, Irish and Welsh. I know that that followed extensive discussions with relevant Whitehall Departments and with the devolved Administrations. A great deal of care was taken before the Government took on those commitments.

The report was prepared by a Committee of Experts, which visited the UK last autumn to assess our implementation of the charter, to which we became a signatory in 2000. It was subsequently adopted by the Council of Europe. The committee noted that the UK had, of its own volition, signed up for the most demanding levels of provision in respect of Welsh, Irish and Scottish Gaelic. It set out to examine "the real situation" and, where appropriate, encouraged the signatory gradually to reach a higher level of commitment. It is important to stress that Britain did not sign up lightly; it signed after due consideration and at the highest level of commitment.

On the whole, according to the experts' report, the UK is doing well, so this is not an unremitting tale of doom and gloom. It is unfortunate hat we do not have longer to discuss these matters because I am sure that others—I am pleased to see one Welsh representative present, the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr.Thomas)—would like to comment. The Committee of Experts made significant criticisms in relation to Scottish Gaelic and advised on how we could do better. I want the House to recognise that we require a cross-Government mechanism for responding to such criticisms and, thereby, meeting now voluntary but now binding charter commitments.

The strength of the report is that it takes responsibility back to where it belongs, which is with the signatory Government. I hope that it will supersede interdepartmental and inter-Administration disputes about who has responsibility for what. As with any international obligation, the buck has to stop somewhere. In this case, it rests firmly with the UK Government, as the member state, and the Foreign Office as signatory on behalf of the Government. I do not necessarily expect my good friend the Minister for Europe to respond on all or any of the concerns in the report about failure to meet reason table expectations of progress. However, I do want him to acknowledge that the existence of those obligations under the charter, to which we are signatory, means that we cannot simply leave such matters to the internal wranglings of our domestic agencies of Government, whether in Whitehall, Edinburgh, Belfast or Cardiff.

The crucial point is that, whatever our domestic commitment to minority languages, we now have an international obligation to fulfil. That was the significance of signing the charter. It was well understood at the time, but our political predecessors declined to do it because of the responsibilities that it entailed. We signed, which was excellent; we now have to deliver.

The implication is that someone in Government will now have to monitor progress and ensure that the obligations are being fulfilled on all counts. The assurance that I seek is that some such mechanism will be created in response to the report. I know that my good and hon. Friend the Minister is sensitive and sympathetic to issues of language and identity. I could not have asked for a better Minister to respond to the debate—as a good European, so he should be. In the global village of the 21st century, no minority language in any part of our continent or the world could be expected to survive in the face of institutional hostility.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) (PC)

The right hon. Gentleman rightly thanked the Government for signing the charter, but he pointed out that some things need to be improved. Does he take heart from what is happening in Spain, where Catalonia and the Basque country have asked whether their minority languages can be acknowledged by the European Union? They do not want them to be treated as official languages; rather, they believe that when ordinary members of the public are dealing with the EU, they should receive replies in their own languages—in Basque, Catalonian, or even in Gaelic or Welsh. Surely that is another way of ensuring that the European institutions are not seen to be foreign, but are part of our future. I suggest that that would be a suitable way for the Government to take forward such ideas.

Mr. Wilson

The more fragile the language, the more cautious we should be about saying that scarce resources should be spent on translating official documents that could otherwise be used on training teachers or expanding the speaker base. However, I do not essentially disagree. In fact, I strongly agree that the European Union and the Commission, as well as the Council of Europe, should take a stronger position on minority languages. Making additional funding available for minority languages in the EU would be a sensible step forward. Without disagreeing with the hon. Gentleman, I return to my theme.

No matter how resilient a minority language may be, it needs access to such essentials as the state education system and modern electronic media if it is to have a decent prospect of survival, especially in an era when the forces of mass media and culture are so overwhelming. I would be the first to recognise that institutional support delivered through those vehicles will not guarantee the healthy survival of a language. However, I am certain that exclusion from such support will condemn minority languages to decline. That is exactly the rationale for a charter on European regional and minority languages.

The responsibilities that flow from that understanding are implicit in the decision of states, including our own, to sign up to it.

I am realistic enough to know that it was almost certainly an Irish imperative rather than a Scottish or Welsh one that led the Government to sign the charter. That was where the pressure came from, but I gladly acknowledge that language and culture have a big part to play in the Irish peace process, and that recognition of linguistic rights is a small price to pay. I fully endorse that approach. Whatever the reasoning, however, the fact is that the same responsibilities exist in respect of all three languages—Irish, Welsh and Scottish Gaelic. It was the decision of our Government, and specifically of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, to sign up for those three languages on the same terms.

I shall speak specifically about Gaelic broadcasting, about which the Council of Europe report is probably most critical. The report could not be more clear-cut in its view that in order to meet its responsibility under the charter the UK Government must facilitate the establishment of a television channel or an equivalent television service in Scottish Gaelic. The report acknowledges that a Gaelic media service has been given a statutory existence under the recent Communications Act 2003. However, in relation to the undertaking in the charter, it then states: Compliance with the undertaking chosen by the UK requires more than simply creating a legal framework within which a channel can exist. It involves positive action, including, where necessary, funding. Therefore, it is the clear-cut view of the Council of Europe and the Committee of Experts that by so far failing to deliver a Gaelic television channel for Scotland the UK is failing in its obligations under the charter to which it is a signatory. That is the nub of the issue. The Council of Europe places responsibility where it belongs, which is with the charter signatory—the UK Government.

I will not go into details about the long saga of the failure to deliver to date on the issue. It will suffice to say that there have been four wasted years of wrangling, and that is a long time in the life of a fragile minority language. During that time, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has refused to accept any funding responsibility for a channel. It says that it is a devolved responsibility.

Both the Scottish Executive and I believe that that is untrue. Indeed, I have a recent letter from Jack McConnell, the First Minister in Scotland, in which he states: I agree entirely with your contention that prime responsibility in the matter lies with the UK government. He adds: The UK government has entered into a series of international obligations under the Council of Europe Charter for Regional and Minority Languages. Fulfilment of these obligations is also a matter for the UK government". As I said, I do not expect the Minister to comment on the merits of that dispute. However, I expect his assistance in cutting through it, in order to ensure that the international obligations that we have freely entered into as a Government are met. There are other issues in the report to which the same principle applies: educational provision through Gaelic is patchy; and teacher supply requires urgent strengthening. That is identified as a common problem involving minority languages throughout Europe. There is no guidance to public bodies on the use of the language.

Again, it is self-evidently not the job of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to remedy those deficiencies by its own hand. I would argue that it is its responsibility to monitor and, if necessary, to prod those who are directly involved, whether they are in Whitehall or in Edinburgh. In other words, the commitments that were undertaken through becoming a signatory to the charter cannot simply be left to Departments or devolved Administrations in the hope that they might or might not do something about them. There is a cross-Government responsibility and I want to have a mechanism established to meet it.

On the issue of public usage of the language, in Scotland we are light years behind Wales and Ireland. Perhaps I can signal an issue that will soon arise: the Scottish Executive is about to legislate on the status of Gaelic, and that will place responsibilities on public bodies that are devolved. Clearly, the legislation cannot force public bodies and Departments that are reserved to do anything. However, I hope that the UK Government and all their agencies that are active in Scotland will act in the spirit of the legislation and give some recognition to the existence of Gaelic. Most of them currently do not do that and it is not much to ask.

Finally, I shall refer briefly to Ireland. It is very much in the spirit of the charter that language and culture should be used to build bridges rather than to create barriers. The Irish language, particularly in the north, was in danger of becoming over-identified with one political faction and with one side of the religious divide. Building stronger links with its close cousin, Scottish Gaelic, which is politically and religiously neutral, is one way of countering hat danger. That was part of the thinking behind Iomairt Cholm Cille, the Columba initiative, which has given terrific value for small amounts of money in creating links between the Gaelic-speaking communities and peoples of Scotland, and all parts of Ireland. I hope that as part of its general work of promoting minority languages and cultures, the Foreign Office and the British- Irish Council will use Iomairt Cholm Cille and thereby benefit both the languages and the people it brings together.

This is a fairly esoteric subject, but it is of deep importance to many people, as you are well qualified to appreciate, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We are talking about people's language of daily usage and the cultural values and way of life that go with it. The Government's decision to sign the European charter was a terrific step forward and a recognition of the responsibilities that arise under it. All I, ask is that that decision should not be seen as a gesture or something that should not be followed through on. We need a mechanism to ensure that major deficiences are addressed—in Scotland, the glaring hole is the absence of a Gaelic television channel—and that our charter obligations are met. Delivering television channels is not the job of the Foreign Office, but delivering treaty and charter obligations is. In that spirit, I look forward to the Minister's reply.

4.16 pm
The Minister for Europe (Mr. Dent; MacShane)

It is a great pleasure to participate in this d abate with my right hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) and with you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as perhaps the House's most fluent speaker of Latin and Greek—ancient and some modern.

The issue is important in today's Europe. One of the most positive aspects of the European Union that we are shaping is precisely its diversity. When I attend Council of Ministers meetings for Foreign Ministers I hear Maltese, Slovakian and Slovenian spoken. Such languages, which, like the Baltic tongues, were to some extent lost under the dominance of one or two giant European languages, are now flourishing. Britain, which is perhaps the most cosmopolitan country and open to foreigners of all the European nation states, is where so many foreign languages jostle for attention.

Not for one second would I say that Gaelic in Scotland or Welsh were foreign languages. They belong to our country and deserve the support and respect that their speakers give them. The Foreign Office is involved in signing treaties, international conventions and international declarations, and it falls to the Department to ensure every aspect of their implementation. However, my colleagues in the Scottish Executive would take it amiss if I announced that the Foreign Office was determining how Scotland should spend its money. That is not the Government's doctrine, and the same is true for other Departments. Much of the argument is, alas, about getting and spending.

My right hon. Friend made a powerful case for the importance of language. For some years I lived in Switzerland, where every carton of milk had text in French, German and Italian on it. Romansch, which is a small minority language, was made Switzerland's fourth official language when I was there.

We have spoken about terrestrial broadcasting. The new technology allows much swifter communication in so many different languages, whether one is sending a text message or e-mail, or using computers or other direct video technology. Although my right hon. Friend did not refer to digital channels, they are just around the corner and will allow much more broadcasting. Frankly, I have never fully understood why Britain has to have so much broadcasting on the basis of Government funding. In many other countries, including Commonwealth countries, such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand, it is possible under law and federal or state regulation to set up community television and radio stations at town level.

Mr. Wilson

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I should clarify that the Gaelic television channel that I spoke of is a digital satellite channel, not a terrestrial one. We have no ambitions to match the £92 million currently paid by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to S4C to provide a terrestrial Welsh language service.

Mr. MacShane

My right hon. Friend's important and useful contribution, which had a slight barb in its tail, came just as the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) left the Chamber. No doubt he will read it inHansard and may have a conversation with my right hon. Friend about whether Welsh broadcasting gets more support than Gaelic broadcasting in Scotland.

My right hon. Friend is well known to the House, and to me, from his distinguished record as the founder and editor of the WestHighland Free Press, which brought journalism to that region and made Scottish journalism and reporting much more lively. I fully share his ambition to do as much as we can to support the Gaelic language. He is right to say that there is a problem between the different Departments that are responsible for this matter. I do not wish to pass the buck—on my desk I have a sign that says, "Many bucks stop here"—but I am not sure whether the buck for Gaelic broadcasting should stop on the Minister for Europe's desk.

We signed the Council of Europe's charter for regional or minority languages—I do not like the term "minority languages" as the charter concerns the languages of our common European home—and my right hon. Friend paid tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) for that, as he was the Foreign Secretary who signed it, but the Council of Europe is not the European Union. It does vital work, and I am a strong supporter of it, but it merely declares aspirations: it does not proclaim directives or laws that tell us what we must do.

Finding the correct funding is a problem. I wonder whether there are not some sources of funding in the diaspora of Scotland—I am thinking of the great Sean Connery, who pines regularly on Scottish issues—that might be used to return to Scotland some of the culture that has helped to spread Scottishness throughout the world.

Primary responsibility for broadcasting lies with the UK Government and is generally exercised through the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. That is clearly stated in schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998. Scottish and relevant UK Ministers agree that responsibility for the funding of the Gaelic Media Service has been devolved to the Scottish Executive. There is no ambiguity in the 1999 statutory order that confirmed the transfer of Executive responsibility to Scottish Ministers, and the Communications Act 2003 does not affect the continuing responsibility of Scottish Ministers through the Gaelic Media Service.

The fact that broadcasting is a reserved matter means that there will be exchanges with DCMS at ministerial and official level on a range of issues. I am not sure what implementation mechanism could be set up that could involve the Foreign Office, because part of our responsibility has to stop at the water's edge, and it is not right to assume that we then become the oversight body for the transposition into UK law of aspirational charters or formal treaty obligations that we enter into.

Mr. Wilson

I shall pass over the Minister's remark about Sean Connery and give thanks that the press Benches are empty, as I think that the idea that he should pay for a Gaelic television channel would be regarded as fairly bizarre.

All my hon. Friend is doing is demonstrating the problem, which is that he has just read out the brief from DCMS stating that the matter has nothing to do with that Department, and I have just read out a letter from Jack McConnell saying that the lead responsibility rests with the UK Government. That is the impasse. I can hardly believe that in any other context the Government's view would be that there should be no mechanism for resolving the impasse. Simply to say that it exists, and that nothing can be done to deliver treaty obligations, seems a deeply unsatisfactory position. I am sure that my hon. Friend has the intellectual calibre to recognise that.

Mr. MacShane

My right hon. Friend may find that unsatisfactory, but I cannot give him the satisfaction that he genuinely and sincerely seeks. Forgive me if I have not mentioned any great Scottish name, but I would have thought that there would be funds to be found from great Scottish companies, or from great Scottish individuals or from among the Scottish diaspora; from those who believe in maintaining Gaelic as a vibrant language.

We will have to disagree; I will examine Mr. McConnell's letter, but I should say as a Foreign Office Minister—and my right hon. Friend has served in the Foreign Office—that it cannot be right that we should be responsible for the transposition into UK law and administration of whatever obligations are put on us.

Mr. Wilson

Who is responsible?

Mr. MacShane

My right hon. Friend asks who is responsible. The Department of Trade and Industry is generally responsible for World Trade Organisation obligations; the relevant Departments are responsible for other obligations under European constitutional treaties; and the Ministry of Defence is responsible for NATO and defence obligations.

In the short while remaining, I should say that the visit of the Committee of Experts of the Council of Europe to consider the Government's performance under the charter on Gaelic broadcasting took place in January 2003, before the operation of Bord na Gaidhlig. I have looked into some of the figures. Since 1999, the amount of Government spending on helping and promoting Gaelic has increased from £11.7 million to about £14.5 million. Some £8.5 million of that goes directly to Gaelic broadcasting. It is not for me to say how that £8.5 million should be carved up.

Going further back, one finds that during the first part of the Labour Administration there were even some cuts in support for Gaelic broadcasting. I cannot accept the view that we have In any way breached our obligation under the European charter. During the passage of the Communications Act 2003, we made it clear that powers invested in the Gaelic Media Service were not for immediate implementation.

Finding the money for any wish in the public sector is one of the most difficult challenges for any Government. I can only wish my right hon. Friend well. As the Minister for Europe, I am happy to make every possible statement about our need to bring to life all UK languages other thin English. I also believe that we should give much more support to the speaking of the languages of the different British ethnic communities.

Anybody who can speak more than one language has a window into different ways of thinking, different cultures and outlooks that deeply enriches our entire UK economy. I understand that Scottish Ministers have introduced a range of new policy measures that are designed to take for ward a strategy on Gaelic language and culture. I am informed that there will be a Gaelic language Bill before the Scottish Parliament designed to give the Gaelic language a place in the routine conduct of business where that seems appropriate.

Other European countries are moving in that direction, but the cost is not borne centrally by the European Union. I wish my right hon. Friend well in seeking from the Scottish Executive, other Government Departments and, ultimately, from the Treasury the financing that he wants for Gaelic broadcasting, which is dear to his heart. I hope to see the issue taken forward.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o'clock.