Welsh Affairs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:48 pm on 4th February 1980.

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Photo of Mr Nicholas Edwards Mr Nicholas Edwards , Pembroke 3:48 pm, 4th February 1980

I have already made clear that any relevant expenditure quali- fies for rate support grant in the normal way, and my hon. Friend knows that that involves a substantial contribution from the Government.

I do not propose to repeat what I said recently in the Grand Committee about the Health Service or to duplicate the discussions taking place in the appropriate Committees on education, housing, the Land Authority or local government finance, but I want to say a brief word about the major transfer of responsibility for rate support grant to the Welsh Office.

It has for a long time been a weakness that the Secretary of State for Wales should not have responsibility for the administration of rate support grant in Wales, despite the fact that he is responsible for local government in Wales and that the grant represents such a large share of public spending there. It was an obvious step to take in the evolutionary development in the responsibilities of the Welsh Office and will, I believe, enable us to react with greater sensitivity to the particular needs of Welsh local authorities.

Some have suggested that Wales will get less under this arrangement than at present. There are no reasonable grounds at all for thinking that. Certainly, it has never been the experience of Scotland, which has for long operated under similar arrangements. Wales did well out of the RSG distribution this year, and I see no reason why we should do less well in future.

I think it right to take this opportunity to say something about the Welsh language broadcasting. It is my intention within the next few weeks to set out in a comprehensive form the Government's view on the Welsh language and the way in which we can fulfil our clear commitment to support it. We shall shortly be issuing a consultation document on the place of the Welsh language in the curriculum.

We have set in train the legislative steps to provide additional financial support for Welsh language teaching and, despite the financial crisis, we are planning further to improve the present financial backing given by the Government to the language. I have already announced support on an increased scale for the National Eisteddfod, which will enable those responsible to plan ahead with greater confidence. All this is an indication of our commitment.

The proper time to debate all this will be, I suggest, after I have made the announcements that I have promised, but I think it right to take this opportunity to explain the change of policy that has taken place with regard to Welsh language broadcasting. Having heard all the arguments and considered all the possibilities, I changed my mind, and I make no apology for that. There is nothing to be said for sticking obstinately to a policy when one comes to believe that it is wrong.

The arrangements that we are now proposing will, we hope, achieve at least 20 hours of Welsh television programmes a week from the autumn of 1982, and my right hon. Friend and his officials are having discussions with the broadcasting authorities about this. The Broadcasting Bill will make provision to ensure that there is consultation about the scheduling of Welsh language broadcasts.

We expect that in this way clashes will be avoided and that the Welsh language programmes will get their fair share of peak viewing times. The end result will be that when one of the four channels in operation is showing Welsh language programmes the other three will be showing English language programmes.

In providing a Welsh language television service there are two claims to be met: the interests of those who speak the language, and the interests of a larger number who do not. The one-channel solution was a satisfactory answer to the problem provided only that the fourth channel was not operating on a United Kingdom basis. To use the fourth channel exclusively for Welsh language programmes would mean that Wales would have to opt out of the United Kingdom network for nearly 50 per cent. of transmission time. It would be an almost impossible task to reschedule the programmes that were missed. That task becomes much simpler if the Welsh language programmes are spread over two channels.

I believe that there would have been great anger in Wales when people discovered that they were being deprived of the opportunity to see the greater part of what will be a very attractive new channel. And even if the single channel were available for Welsh language programmes, I do not believe that it would be in the interests of the Welsh language. It would have had the effect of confining the new channel to a comparatively small dedicated band of people who would watch Welsh language programmes irrespective of their content or quality. Far from increasing the audience, it would have reduced it.

Our solution gives as much Welsh language broadcasting as the other, it gives wider choice to the Welsh people, it enables them to enjoy much of the new English programmes on the fourth channel if they want to, it gives a sounder financial base, and it prevents the exile of Welsh language broadcasting into a ghetto. I believe that it is the best solution to a difficult problem to which there is no perfect answer.