The Senedd in Cardiff Bay

The Senedd in Cardiff Bay

From pandemic to cyber-attack: The Welsh Language Commissioner reports on an exceptional year

Published 22/11/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

Aled Robert’s second Annual Report as Welsh Language Commissioner reflects on an extraordinary year. Maintaining his statutory duties during a public health emergency was made that much more challenging after a cyber-attack destroyed his IT systems. But despite the challenges, it is the themes that pre-date the pandemic that endure – frustration with progress on Welsh language standards regulations or the slow pace of change in the Welsh-medium education sector for instance.

These themes are captured in the Commissioner’s 5-year Report on the Position of the Welsh Language, recording developments over the last 5 years to improve future policy-making in Wales.

Frustration with introducing new Welsh language standards

No new Welsh language standards regulations have been introduced since 2018. The last set of standards regulations were those applicable to the primary health sector. The Commissioner called on the new Welsh Government, as a priority, to “publish a programme for the introduction of Welsh language standards to more organisations and sectors”. According to the Commissioner, the “experiences of Welsh speakers are still inconsistent”, and that “Welsh speakers deserve better than this”.

For organisations currently subject to standards, the pandemic brought significant service pressures. The Commissioner opted to postpone investigations into health boards “until after the crisis had passed”. Local authorities and the Welsh Ministers were also afforded flexibility in responding to investigations, with all fully resuming in August 2020.

To assist organisations with compliance with the standards, the Commissioner drafted and consulted on four codes of practice. The codes would apply to a number of Welsh public organisations, colleges and universities, police forces and fire and rescue services. The Commissioner had previously published a code of practice for local authorities and the Welsh Ministers.

Challenges ahead for the Welsh-medium education sector

Another area of continuing concern for the Commissioner is Welsh-medium education. The education sector is central to the Welsh Government’s strategy to increase the number of Welsh speakers. The Commissioner published a briefing note in August 2020 which recommended developing a “long-term education workforce strategy”. It also recommended providing intensive Welsh language courses for all prospective teachers.

The Commissioner believes there’s a need for ”significant intervention and a total change of mindset” when it comes to Welsh-medium education policy. He goes on to warn that “unless the Government's strategy and actions reflect the scale of the challenge facing us”, the “objectives of the Cymraeg 2050 strategy will not be achieved”.

A destructive cyber-attack

Despite negotiating the challenges of the pandemic, it was a different type of crisis that hit the Commissioner’s IT systems in December 2020. The annual report notes that the last quarter of the reporting period was considered “extremely challenging” as officers dealt with the repercussions of a cyber-attack.

It was noted during a recent committee scrutiny session with the Commissioner that “the cyber-attack destroyed our systems entirely”. The Commissioner now has a new IT environment, including a new website launched in August 2021.

New tools to promote the Welsh language

The Commissioner continued to promote and facilitate Welsh language use among businesses and charities during 2020-21. These sectors are not subject to statutory Welsh language duties.

Welsh language service provision is often available when interacting with businesses and charities, but not always visible or easily accessible. To provide “clarity for the public” about services offered, the Commissioner launched ‘Y Cynnig Cymraeg’ (Welsh Language Offer). The scheme recognises organisations’ commitment to increasingly use Welsh and develop and promote Welsh language services.

In addition, the Commissioner launched the ‘Cynnig Cymraeg’ marketing fund, providing charities with up to £500 to promote their Welsh language services.

Financial stability during uncertain times

Welsh Ministers allocated £3.2 million in revenue funding and £277,000 in capital funding to the Commissioner for 2020-21. The Commissioner’s net expenditure for the reporting period was £3.28 million, which includes £119,000 of capital spend to upgrade the Commissioner’s IT systems.

Like many organisations, the Commissioner has made savings in certain areas of activity due to various restrictions, but had unexpected costs for others.

Only £2,000 of a projected £80,000 spend on travel and subsistence occurred in 2020-21; spend on projects almost halved. The cyber-attack caused additional spend of £25,000 on external expertise to recover lost data, and legal fees were higher than anticipated.

The Commissioner’s general reserves grew by £195,000 between March 2020 and March 2021 (up to £697,000). Underlying reserves, that is the amount of reserves available to the Commissioner to safeguard against potential future overspend was £413,000 (2019-20: £255,000).

The Commissioner states that “reserves have increased to a level higher than that considered by the Commissioner to be prudent”. Additional projects may be approved during this financial year to “reduce the level of reserves to a sustainable level”.

5-year Report on the Position of the Welsh Language 2016-20

The Commissioner’s 5-year Report on the Position of the Welsh Language is the second report of its kind, providing an opportunity to take stock and assess the health of the language. The first 5-year report was published in 2016.

The Commissioner notes there have been significant developments, both politically and legislatively during the last five years. This includes the “ambitious” Welsh Government strategy - Cymraeg 2050 and its target of a million Welsh speakers, and establishing Prosiect 2050 within Welsh Government. However, the Commissioner notes that, the most significant development, in tandem with Cymraeg 2050, are “the new rights established for Welsh speakers as the first Welsh language standards became operational”:

Taken together – and if fully implemented – these two developments have the potential to transform the position of the Welsh language over the next five years and for generations to come.

Other far-reaching events occurring during the reporting period include the UK’s departure from the EU, and of course the COVID-19 pandemic. The impact of both on the language may not be known for some time, but the Commissioner is clear that the language should be “at the heart of the recovery plans”.

The report has been welcomed by Dyfodol i’r Iaith (a Welsh Language pressure group), stating that it “nails the challenges facing the language at present and into the future”. In the Executive Summary, the Commissioner highlights some of the challenges ahead:

  • Ensuring services across sectors are available in Welsh and are effectively promoted to assist in increasing daily use of the language;
  • Importance of language transmission within the home, helping to increase confidence and use of Welsh within communities;
  • Where transmission in the home isn’t possible, importance of Welsh language immersion from a young age to develop fluent and confident speakers;
  • Interventions in communities where the language is not the predominant language, and likewise, provide protection for communities seen as Welsh language strongholds; and
  • Meeting the challenges and opportunities for the Welsh language in digital media and technology.

There are some significant issues to grapple with over the next few years, from building Welsh-medium teaching capacity to developing technology that supports language use. The Commissioner is clear however that if Cymraeg 2050 is to succeed, and that the Welsh Government is “serious” about the targets, then the “objectives and spirit [of Cymraeg 2050] need to be at the heart of every statement, policy and act”.

Article by Osian Bowyer, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament