Hywel in Parliament - Debates

Welsh Grand Committee

Wednesday 14 October 2009
[Mr. Martyn Jones in the Chair]

National Assembly for Wales (Legislative Competence) (Welsh Language)

The Chairman: It might be helpful if I remind Members of the timing of the debate. We have from now until 11.25 am. We will meet again at 2 pm, with Mr. Martin Caton in the Chair, and the debate on the motion can continue until 4 o’clock.

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the matter of the Ninth Report from the Welsh Affairs Committee, Proposed National Assembly for Wales (Legislative Competence) (Welsh Language) Order 2009, HC348, and its implications for Wales.

For the benefit of the Committee members—and after seeking your approval, Mr. Jones, and that of others—I thought it would be appropriate for my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon to open the debate as we are discussing his Committee’s very important report.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): I wonder if you could advise me on something, Mr. Jones. The Secretary of State has moved the motion to discuss the report produced by the Welsh Affairs Committee. We have received a copy of a letter, dated 5 October, that was written to the Chairman of that Committee from the Secretary of State. It states that the Welsh language competence order, which was the subject of scrutiny, has been changed. Furthermore, we have received a written statement from the Welsh Assembly Government, which also changes the subject matter of that order. Paragraph 12 of the Select Committee’s ninth report, which we are debating, states:

“It is possible that there will be significant changes to the wording of the draft Order after the pre-legislative scrutiny period and should this be the case, the Committee would wish to return to the draft Order to give consideration to any substantial changes that have been made.”

From the two documents, it is clear that substantial changes have been made to the order. I presume that the Secretary of State is not going to quarrel with the recommendation of the Select Committee. I understand that the Select Committee met yesterday, but we still do not know the outcome of that meeting. We do not have an order to look at, and the report has been superseded by what has passed on through formal documentation, although what legal status it has I do not know. May I ask you for a ruling, Mr. Jones, as to whether it would be more sensible, in the interests of Wales, the Welsh people and doing proper justice for the Welsh language that we delay this sitting of the Welsh Grand Committee until possibly next week. It is not a question of delaying proceedings; it is just so that we can have the right documentation in front of the Committee.

Mr. Hain: Further to that point of order, Mr. Jones. Can I just say to the Committee and remind the hon. Lady that further to that point of order—[Interruption.]

Mrs. Gillan: It was not a point of order.

Mr. Hain: I do not know what it was if it was not a point of order. This Committee has been convened to consider the motion on the report. In addition, I circulated, as the hon. Lady has fairly pointed out, my response to the report to every member of the Committee, including her, in an e-mail sent on 6 October at 9.24 last week. It may also be helpful to point out to the hon. Lady that Standing Order No. 102 does not allow the Committee to consider delegated legislation on a formal motion, unlike the position for the Northern Ireland and Scotland Grand Committees, where the relevant Standing Orders do permit such consideration. What we are doing is considering the report. It is a very important report and I think we should get on with it.

Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op) rose-

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab) rose-

Mrs. Gillan rose-

The Chairman: May I tell the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham that that was a point of order, and I took it as such? I am now going to move on because, as she will see from the Question that has just been put to the Committee, the report, as issued by the Committee, is the one that is being considered by this Committee today. I therefore intend to move on and that is my ruling.

Dr. Francis: Bore da. Diolch yn fawr.
May I begin, Mr. Jones, by thanking you and Mr. Caton for agreeing to this new format? Through you, may I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, for proposing that format following discussions with me on behalf of the Welsh Affairs Committee? I bring the report from my Committee on the Welsh language legislative competence order to the Welsh Grand Committee with pride, because it enjoyed unanimous support. However, it is challenging, too, because it poses alternative solutions. We arrived at our approach because we were impressed by the remarkable enthusiasm and good will towards the Welsh language. At the outset, I urged my Committee to recognise the contributions to the protection and enhancement of the Welsh language of all four main parties in Westminster that represent the Welsh people, both English and Welsh-speaking. We started from that agreed position of mutual respect and support. I believe that we all desire to see the Welsh language prosper and flourish, and to do so in a particular enabling and democratic context. Professor Colin Williams, a leading academic in Wales, characterised that spirit when he spoke of a “a rapidly changing world which recognises citizenship and civic identity, as much as linguistic birthright, as the basis of participative democracy”.

There is, however, concern in some quarters that new Welsh language legislation might harm the economy. For that reason, I reflect on our recent history to seek to harmonise and unify work around the language and the economy. It does not take much of an imaginative leap from that approach to the powerful slogan, “Heb gwaith, dim iaith”—without work there is no language—which was used in the 1980s to defend Welsh rural and industrial communities. It was attributed to two very different—what I would call “quasi-revolutionary”—organisations: the Welsh Language Society and the south Wales area branch of the National Union of Mineworkers, which worked closely together during the miners’ strike of 1984-85 and used the slogan effectively. In reality, it appears to owe its origins, as I have said many times in the House, to the slate-quarrying communities of north Wales in the 1940s and 1950s, and it was popularised by the late Goronwy Hughes, a Labour MP for Caernarvonshire, and probably also by the late Lord Cledwyn. On reflection, it could also have been used by Liberals such as Lloyd George or Lord Geraint; Conservatives—notably Lord Roberts of Conwy; Labour authorities such as Flintshire and Glamorganshire, early promoters of bilingual education; and even today’s CBI Wales leaders. The late Gwynfor Evans most certainly endorsed such campaigning throughout his political life in calling for the survival of rural and industrial communities all over Wales.

In our lifetimes, tens of thousands of people have become convinced that Welsh is not a dying language, as I heard it was too frequently in the Cardiff of my youth. Many of the thousands who have been convinced over the past 50 years were practical visionaries, such as the late Norah Isaac of Trinity college, Carmarthen, who told us to take pride not only in our language but in our many indigenous dialects, and my late father who would scold us children if he heard English on the hearth: “Beth yw’r Saesneg mawr hyn?”

Building on that sea change, the challenge before us as a people is to ensure that the Welsh language is part of the wider world, both culturally and economically as Professor Colin Williams has suggested, and that it exists within a thriving economy, recognising the potentially positive and benign interrelationship between work and both our languages. The evidence from the two seemingly contrasting bodies, Cymdeithas yr Iaith and CBI Wales, was complementary. They were united in their recognition of that powerful axiom: “heb gwaith, dim iaith”. Our starting point, therefore, was to find common ground between us all, built on a genuine cross-party approach.

Could I just say a little about the process? The role of the Welsh Affairs Committee in the pre-legislative scrutiny of legislative competence orders has often been misunderstood. We are responsible for taking a proposed order and testing it against the evidence we receive from interested parties, including businesses, industry, charities, the voluntary sector, campaign groups and Ministers from both the Wales Office and the Welsh Assembly Government. It is not our role to rewrite proposed orders nor do we attempt to do so in our reports. Nor do we speculate on measures. I have firmly stopped members of my Committee trying to introduce discussion on such measures. I see a number of members of the Committee nodding assent from a sedentary position.

Our inquiries take a proposed order that has been given to us for scrutiny and check whether it is likely to fulfil the aim for which it has been designed or whether there are problems with the drafting that might lead to unintended consequences or difficulties further down the line. After we have published a report at the end of our inquiry, the Wales Office and the Welsh Assembly Government will consider whether they want to redraft the order before submitting it to Parliament for approval. We hope that they will listen to our recommendations and improve the order. I must say on behalf of the Committee that we are delighted that that has happened in this case. After all, it is the purpose of pre-legislative scrutiny to highlight any potential problems so that they can be resolved at an early stage. Pre-legislative scrutiny of these LCOs helps to ensure that the people of Wales have a robust legislative framework within which the Assembly can go on and make measures.

In the case of the Welsh language LCO, I thought that it was important to hear the widest possible range of views from all parts of Welsh society. I arranged to hear evidence through the medium of Welsh for this inquiry and the Committee took oral evidence from Welsh language groups, including Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, Mudiadau Dathlu’r Gymraeg, the Welsh Language Board, the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses, telecommunications and utilities industries. We also heard evidence from the Catalan Government about their experience of language law. We received a substantial amount of written evidence, including many individual submissions from members of the public. I would like to thank everyone who took the time to contact us, including those still writing to the Secretary of State for Wales and copying their messages to me demanding that we hurry up with our report. I was delighted to inform them that we published our report more than three months ago. I am proud to say that a number of organisations gave evidence in Welsh and a significant majority of members of my Committee asked questions in Welsh. I am also proud of the work that they devoted to this important inquiry. A number of people who contacted us asked us to complete our work as quickly as possible. As Chairman, my objective is to ensure that the Committee does a proper job of scrutiny as effectively and as expeditiously as possible. I believe that we achieved that aim. I gave a personal undertaking to the Welsh Assembly Government’s Culture Minister, Mr. Alun Ffred Jones, that we would deliver our report before the summer recess and he has thanked us for that several times.

Our scrutiny of the Welsh language order ran in parallel with that of an Assembly Committee which was looking at the same order. Members of my Committee held a very productive meeting with members of that Committee towards the end of our evidence-gathering process at which we exchanged views about the order and discussed the main issues which came up in evidence. In my view, the Assembly Committee produced an excellent report and many of our recommendations build on the suggestions that it made. I would like to place on record my personal thanks to its Chair, Mr. Mark Isherwood AM, for the close working relationship we managed to develop during that period.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): It is important to put on record, when considering timetabling and indeed the workload of the Welsh Affairs Committee in the pre-legislative scrutiny process, that not only did we do that LCO but some important work on other LCOs—namely, environment and mental health—and gave all three equal consideration and, as my hon. Friend said, did a proper job.

Dr. Francis: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I thank him, too, for his contribution to the work of the Committee.

I turn now to the findings. For both ourselves and the Assembly Committee, the key criticism of the order that we heard in evidence was about the way in which its scope was defined. The order contained a number of categories setting out which bodies and organisations could be subject to Welsh language duties under future measures. Witnesses told us that the way in which the categories were set out was inconsistent. For example, certain industries were specified in the order, such as telecommunications, railways and gas and electricity companies, but others were not— for example, buses, banks and financial services.

In addition, the order included in its scope companies receiving over £200,000 of public money in a year. We never received a convincing explanation of why that figure was chosen. Nor did we receive any analysis of the effect of setting the threshold at that figure rather than a higher or lower sum.

Mrs. Gillan: I am very interested in the Committee’s deliberations on the threshold. While considering the £200,000 threshold, which the Committee obviously deemed to be an unreasonable and arbitrary threshold, did it make any recommendations or discuss internally whether there would be a suitable limit attached to the provision?

Dr. Francis: We had internal discussions about that. I was particularly interested to hear the official response from the Secretary. It would be appropriate to listen to his explanations. The fact is, whatever the threshold, it is problematic. That was the general feeling of the Committee.

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman clarify whether the figure of £400,000 was ever raised during the Committee’s discussions?

Dr. Francis: No, that was never raised with us. We understand that the intention behind the order is to require large organisations that have significant dealings with the public in Wales to offer a Welsh language service to the growing number of people who would prefer to use Welsh. At the same time, the aim is not to place an unreasonable burden on small companies or charitable bodies that might struggle to cope. That is an intention that the vast majority of Welsh people endorse.

In legislation, however, good intentions are not enough. Clarity and equality of treatment are needed for bodies covered by the law and we concluded that changes were needed to the LCO to achieve that. Because of the problems with the list of categories in the order, we suggested in our report that the Government might want to consider an alternative approach to the LCO. During our inquiry, we heard about legislation in other countries which focuses much more on the type of service received by the customer or the size of the organisation involved rather than trying to divide up business sectors between those who are “in” and those who are “out”. We believe that the aim should be to establish reasonable, proportionate and cost-effective language legislation. We also believe that more information is needed on the role of the proposed language commissioner in Wales. Furthermore, we believe that burdens should not be imposed on smaller bodies, such as charities, non-governmental organisations, organisations established by royal charter and very small companies.

The spirit of our report focused more on the quality of the service provided to the citizen rather than exclusively on the needs of the provider, as has been emphasised by Maria Battle and Viv Sugar of Consumer Focus Wales. I welcome their progressive and enlightened approach, which they publish this week. Last week, the Wales Office published its response to our report and the Welsh Assembly Government announced how they intend to proceed with the order.

I note from the Wales Office response to our report that much of our approach has been taken up positively, and we can expect the redrafted order to reflect that. My Committee looks forward to seeing the new draft order, with some of our fingerprints on it. It is true to say that my Committee sees the bulk of its work as being complete and it endorsed that view in its meeting yesterday. I am particularly pleased that steps will be taken to ensure that new duties will be proportionate to the size and functions of an organisation, as recommended by our report.

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): The hon. Gentleman says quite rightly that the Select Committee is looking forward to seeing the redrafted order. I invite him to remind the Secretary of State of the recommendation in paragraph 12 of the report that it is possible that if there are “significant changes to the wording of the draft Order...the Committee would wish to return to the draft ...to give consideration to any substantial changes that” may be made.

Dr. Francis: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing my attention to that once again. I am sure that the Secretary of State, and my Committee, will have noted that. As the hon. Gentleman stated yesterday, of course it is in our gift to return to the issue. I am sure that we will return to it, but I am confident that that will not be seen as a barrier—it will be seen simply as an enabling process, if it is necessary for us suggest improvements to the order.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that if the Committee returns to the issue it will be a matter of tidying up or reviewing? There is no intention whatever to delay unduly the progress of the LCO because, in fact, we have acted expeditiously in our considerations.

Dr. Francis: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for using the word “expeditiously” rather than “swift”. I can assure the Grand Committee and the House that in no way will my Committee delay the process. It will not necessarily be just tidying up. We will perhaps offer constructive suggestions, which might be regarded as tidying up, but which might also be slightly more than that.

Mrs. Gillan: The hon. Gentleman has made a statement about the future work of the Select Committee. I appreciate that he is going to some lengths, with the assistance of other Select Committee members, to ensure that its work is not seen as a barrier or delaying tactic. Where have such suggestions come from? It is rather alarming that the work of a Select Committee looking at something in a proper and orderly fashion should result in, obviously, messages being passed to the Chairman suggesting that the Select Committee was delaying. Will he please ensure that that is not the case and tell the Grand Committee where those suggestions have come from? It cannot be right. As a supplementary: the two documents from the Secretary of State and the Assembly have no legal status as far as I know. They are a set of good intentions. If neither we nor the Select Committee have seen the order—

The Chairman: Will the hon. Lady draw her question to a close?

Mrs. Gillan: One cannot presuppose what is in that order until it arrives.

The Chairman: Will hon. Members keep interventions as short as possible?

Mrs. Gillan: I am sorry. It was a bit long.

Dr. Francis: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. She asked me where I heard the notion of delay; I suggest that she reads the press of the past year—the suggestion is there in abundance. The implication is always that we delay and that we should rubber-stamp. I would repudiate both processes.

Alun Michael: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. When the Committee made a strong caveat that we might wish to return to the issue, we thought there might be a lot of resistance—from perhaps the Assembly or the Secretary of State—to the constructive ideas proposed by the Committee. Does my hon. Friend agree that it has been a pleasant surprise to the Committee to find that the responses of the Secretary of State and the Assembly were so positive, and that there is such a clearly developing consensus about a constructive way forward that will be supportive to the language, but not unreasonably burdensome to any organisation in Wales?

Dr. Francis: Yes.

Mr. David Jones: I refer to the hon. Gentleman’s reference to suggestions that the Select Committee should simply rubber-stamp requests for legislative competence.

Dr. Francis: Not my suggestion.

Mr. David Jones: No. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that suggestion has been made most frequently and loudly by none other than the Presiding Officer of the Welsh Assembly?

Dr. Francis: I note the observations of the hon. Gentleman. May I begin to conclude? The Secretary of State said that his aim is to “ensure a strong and healthy future for the Welsh language, building on the solid foundations established since 1993”. I know that all members of my Committee share that aim, and I am sure that all members of this Committee also share that aim.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Just before the hon. Gentleman concludes, it might be useful for the record—as it sets a valuable precedent in terms of process—if he could outline the key strengths of the process as he has seen them, in a more generic sense, and the things that we need to watch out for in the future. We do not want to keep re-learning the process of the relationship between the Assembly and Westminster in the future, when evidently it has worked rather well on this occasion.

Dr. Francis: I welcome that positive intervention. I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the fact that the Welsh Affairs Committee has undertaken a review of the process and is about to make an announcement. Without betraying any secrets—the draft review has not been properly discussed yet—I think it will point out some of the positive and negative points. We will take note of constructive observations that have been made about the process, some of which have come from the hon. Gentleman’s party.

Hywel Williams: Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the positive remarks that he has made about the process, which I agree with, refer specifically to the process of the Committee, and are not necessarily general praise for the whole process over a number of years?

Dr. Francis: Indeed, yes. I think the hon. Gentleman wants me to agree with that, and I endorse that. In conclusion, Mr. Jones, I refer to a previous meeting of this Committee, when the hon. Member for Clwyd, West suggested that I should return to my previous occupation. [Interruption.] It was a kind observation, I know. I will revert to my earlier, now lapsed profession, as a historian, once again. The great Edward Williams, Iolo Morgannwg, invented myths, legends, the Gorsedd and the National Eisteddfod, itself as a democratic, albeit patriarchal creation, which, among other things, has been the longest surviving bulwark in modern times for the Welsh language, and we should celebrate that. In the inimitable words of the late Gwyn Alf Williams:

“Iolo built his Gorsedd out of legends of remote and misty druids. He invented ceremonies, ritual and robes that Wales had never seen. Having created his Bards out of fantasy and forgery, he then gave them the watchword: Y gwir yn erbyn y byd: the truth against the world.”

Surely, near as we are to Primrose hill, we can in all truth, take this small forward step together, for the sake of the Welsh language. Set against Iolo’s inventions and achievements this is but a very simple request. The real challenge is to ensure that the measures which will flow from the agreed order are not sources of division within Wales but sources of enhanced pride and greater unity in support of both our languages. I hope my Committee has prepared the way for that unity. After all, mewn undeb mae nerth a heddwch: in unity there is strength and peace.

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