On Wednesday 2 June, the Assembly will debate the report by the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee: Supporting and Promoting the Welsh Language (728KB). The primary purpose of the inquiry was to carry out post-legislative scrutiny of the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011 (“The 2011 Measure”).
Passing the 2011 Measure was a significant step for the Welsh language. It was the culmination of 70 years of legislative developments relating to the Welsh language. For the first time, the Welsh language was afforded official status in Wales, and Welsh speakers were afforded rights that did not previously exist. There is now certainty and clarity in terms of what is expected of public (and some private) bodies in terms of their Welsh-language services, and what the public can expect from them.
Despite the importance of the Measure as a tool that lays firm statutory foundations for the Welsh language, according to some experts, the legislation alone cannot necessarily ensure a significant increase in the number of Welsh speakers and the use of the language. As the former Minister for Heritage, Alun Ffred Jones, told the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee during its inquiry:
I never said that the legislation was the most important thing in terms of the survival and an increase in the use of the Welsh language. I thought the Welsh language strategy was just as important— promotion was just as important as the Measure. But they are two sides of the same coin. One cannot exist without the other.
Main themes and messages
Three main themes emerged during the Committee's inquiry – frustration with the standards regime, the need to streamline the complaints procedure, and the responsibilities for promoting the Welsh language.
In spite of differences of opinion on how these issues should be addressed, witnesses agreed with the need to strengthen the process of promoting and facilitating the language more generally. In its report, the Committee noted its view that '…it is not where the promotional activity sits that is the main driver here, but how effective that activity is undertaken'. There are signs that the Welsh Government has begun the work of placing a greater emphasis on language planning and promoting the language internally and externally.
Welsh Language Standards
Through the imposition of language duties (standards) on public bodies, the status of the Welsh language is given legal effect. The standards also ensure specific rights for Welsh speakers in terms of using the language with those bodies.
Evidence came to light that the quality and availability of services had improved under the new regime, and that the standards had provided a level of clarity to organisations that did not exist under the previous system. The recent evidence published by the Commissioner, which compares services provided under the standards regime to the situation under the language schemes, attests to this.
Frustration with the complexity of the standards regime was evident, however, with several witnesses calling for the system to be streamlined. Despite this frustration, the Commissioner noted that ‘it's much too early to decide that the legislation needs to be amended wholesale', a view that was shared by the Committee.
The Committee recommended that efforts should be made to adapt the Welsh-language standards within the current legislative framework, and to accelerate the introduction and implementation of standards in relation to new sectors.
The aim of the legislation was to ensure a clear and robust route for Welsh speakers to be able to complain about unsatisfactory Welsh-language services. In the Committee's view, the current system 'provides certainty to complainants that their complaint will be resolved'.
Several witnesses felt that the complaints system needed to be changed to complement other complaints systems. This would mean that a complainant would not have the right to make a complaint directly to the Commissioner without first making a complaint to the organisation in question. The Committee considered that the current system should be maintained, for the time being at least, but that there was a need to explore ways of speeding up the complaints process.
The Commissioner advised the Committee recently that he had reviewed organisations’ complaints processes, and that the need for a full investigation into a complaint was something that needed to be weighed up:
Where I think there is a breach of a standard that affects a person's rights, I would be very keen to investigate. But, we have to look and balance to see what's going to be achieved by a full investigation.
...once an investigation starts, we have to follow the process through to the end—but if I had insisted on an organisation providing all the evidence at the beginning, perhaps the decision to investigate in the past wouldn't have been taken.
Promoting and Facilitating the Welsh Language
After the Measure was passed, a new body was established—the Welsh Language Commissioner—with the aim of promoting and facilitating the use of the Welsh language. This is carried out principally by imposing language duties on public bodies. However, the provision in the Measure that empowered the Commissioner to promote and facilitate the use of Welsh raised expectations regarding the Commissioner's powers and responsibilities.
The main responsibilities in terms of promoting the language were transferred from the previous body to the Welsh Government, along with the resources. The Government was now responsible for distributing grants to organisations that promote the language at grassroots level, such as the Mentrau Iaith, the Urdd and the Young Farmers Clubs. Similarly, the funding elements of early years education and Welsh for adults have been transferred to the Government, together with a strategic overview of these areas.
The Committee noted in its report that the Commissioner had received unfair criticism in relation to promoting the Welsh language. According to the Committee, 'the Welsh Language Commissioner is first and foremost a regulator', and ‘the evidence was clear that the key promotional functions sit with the Welsh Government'.
The Committee's Recommendations
The Committee made 14 recommendations. These were, in the main, directed at the Welsh Government. All of the recommendations were accepted, either in full or in principle. The Minister’s statement on the recommendations can be found on the Government’s website.
Article by Osian Bowyer, Senedd Research, National Assembly for Wales