Article by Rhys Iorwerth, National Assembly for Wales Research Service
At present, under the Welsh Language Act 1993, a number of public bodies are required to produce what is called a Welsh Language Scheme. This document must outline how that body will treat the Welsh and English languages on a basis of equality when conducting business in Wales. It’s a framework that has underpinned the provision of bilingual services in the public sector for over twenty years. As explained in this blog post, Welsh Language Schemes are to be phased out over the next few years, and replaced by what are called standards – all as part of the implementation of the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011. The responsibility for introducing these standards (in the form of sub-legislation) rests with the Welsh Government. It is then the responsibility of the Welsh Language Commissioner to ensure that the relevant organisations comply with the standards. On 6 January 2014, the First Minister announced the Welsh Government’s proposals for the first set of standards, applicable to county and county borough councils, national park authorities and Welsh Ministers (i.e. the Welsh Government itself). Details about the proposed standards can be seen here. The standards are intended to make it clearer to people which services they can expect to receive in Welsh, and to ensure that those services are consistent. The Welsh Government's proposals contain a total of 134 standards, in five different areas:
- Service delivery standards (how the organisation deals with correspondence, phone calls, meetings, notices, publications etc);
- Policy making standards (how the organisation looks at the impact of policy decisions on the Welsh language);
- Operational standards (how the organisation uses Welsh in internal administration, ICT, workforce planning, training and recruitment etc);
- Promotion standards (how the organisation promotes and facilitates the use of Welsh more widely);
- Record keeping standards (how the organisation keeps a record of its compliance with other standards, of Welsh language skills information, and relevant complaints).
It may be worth noting that, between May and August 2012, the Welsh Language Commissioner held a public consultation on a set of proposed standards that she herself had drawn up. These were rejected by the Welsh Government, with the then Minister for Education and Skills stating that the model was too complex and that the standards would ‘not achieve the shared policy aim of providing clear linguistic rights to citizens’. The question that many will now be asking is how the Government’s proposed standards fare in this regard, and what will be the implications for how bilingual services are delivered by the organisations concerned. There will also inevitably be comparisons between the proposed standards and the requirements of the current Welsh Language Schemes of the relevant organisations. The likely timetable for what happens next is as follows:
- The Welsh Language Commissioner will undertake what is called a ‘standards investigation’ – an investigation and consultation to determine whether the relevant organisations need to comply with the standards, and if so, which specific standards should apply;
- The Commissioner will present a ‘standards report’ to the Welsh Ministers, setting out the conclusions of the investigation. According to the Welsh Government’s latest timetable, this will take place in May 2014;
- The Welsh Government will then bring draft regulations to the Assembly (most probably during the autumn term of 2014);
- If the Assembly approves those regulations, the Welsh Language Commissioner will issue ‘compliance notices’ to the relevant organisations, setting out which standards they must comply with, and by when.
As stated above, the current set or standards are only applicable to county and county borough councils, national park authorities and Welsh Ministers. The Welsh Government has not yet announced its timetable for introducing standards applicable to other organisations and bodies. The Assembly’s Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee scrutinised issues relating to the Welsh language in two recent meetings: with the Welsh Language Commissioner on 14 November 2013, and with the First Minister on 4 December 2013.