Diolch, Madam Deputy Speaker. Rydw i’n falch iawn o gael y cyfle i wneud araith am yr iaith Gymraeg yn San Steffan heno. Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak about the Welsh language here in the Palace of Westminster tonight.
I tabled my request for this Adjournment debate for several reasons: first, because I believe the Welsh language to be of such importance that it should be on our agenda here at Westminster at least once in every Parliament; and for the rather more selfish reason that this may well be my last speech in the House of Commons before I retire at the forthcoming general election, and I wanted to speak on an issue of special personal interest and importance to me.
First, on a personal level, I want to wish the hon. Gentleman very well in his retirement. I have always enjoyed debating with him over the years we have been together in this House. Secondly, I commend him for his choice of topic for this final debate. Many parents in my constituency—increasing numbers, actually—seek Welsh-medium education for their children, and it is great to see him here putting that forward on a national stage.
It is good to find myself, and anticipate finding myself, in agreement with quite a few Members in the Chamber, which is probably quite pleasant.
I speak with a special personal interest in that Wales and matters Welsh have been absolutely my focus as an MP, my overriding interest, and almost at times, I think, my obsession since being elected in 2010, as they have been throughout my 40 years in public life before that. Other hon. Members will have their own perspectives, which will inevitably sometimes be different from my own. The first half of my comments will be about the history of the Welsh language and where it has touched on my own life, before I share thoughts about attitudes and investment for the future.
I was born in Montgomeryshire, or Sir Drefaldwyn in Welsh. I have always lived there, and I have no ancestors who were born anywhere except in Sir Drefaldwyn—at least that I know of. More unusual is that I think every single ancestor spoke Welsh as their first language. Again, that is as far as I know, but I have gone to a lot of trouble to try to find out.
There were two main reasons why my five sisters and I were the first generation not to be bilingual—we were Davieses, Lloyds and Evanses, and everyone was bilingual until my generation. First, my parents moved from the Welsh-language villages of Llanerfyl and Pontrobert to the predominantly English-language villages of Castle Caereinion and Berriew. The second reason was more significant and pertinent to this debate. At that time, and for some time before, Welsh was seen as the language of failure. It was simply not encouraged. It was the age of the Welsh not. I do not remember hearing my parents, both first-language Welsh speakers, ever speak Welsh in front of the children. That is not in any way a criticism; it was not at all unusual at the time. That had an impact on all of us.
I left education aged 16, to join my father on the family farm, during a long period of his illness. However, I fancied myself as a writer, and in the early 1960s I wrote an essay for an eisteddfod competition, “The Future of the Welsh Language”. We could write in either English or Welsh, it was 20,000 words—quite significant—and it involved weeks of research. My reward was to win the chair and to be crowned bard, but the key point that I want to make is that my essay predicted the end of Welsh as a spoken language—not at all an uncommon belief at the time. Many academics would have taken the same view. But time has proven my conclusion to be too pessimistic. The future, as it so often does, decided to take a rather different course.
Throughout the period of my youth, the inevitable reaction was a strong pro-Welsh language protest movement, in response to the long-term decline. There were marches and protests, and even properties burnt down. There were Saunders Lewis, Lewis Valentine, Gwynfor Evans and others well known in the history of Wales. There was also the early development of the political voice of Wales, and of Plaid Cymru. In fact, as I have admitted in this Chamber before, the first time that I voted it was for Plaid Cymru, as it happens—[Interruption.] I have told my own party, so it will not come as a shock.
Crucially, from the mid-20th century, there was a change of political attitude. I have no desire to make any partisan or political points, except to record my pride that my party played a significant and proactive part in that change. Mrs Thatcher’s Government established S4C with what I shall call encouragement from the great Gwynfor Evans, who went on hunger strike to support the cause. The biggest advance, in my view and that of many others, was the Welsh Language Act 1993, when Lord Wyn Roberts was such a key player.
Today, we have reached the stage in the recovery of the Welsh language at which the Welsh Government have formally adopted the aim of there being 1 million Welsh speakers in Wales. That is beyond the imagination of any of us 20 years ago. I do not know how realistic that aim is, but 20 years ago it would have been laughed out of court. We can now have that sort of serious prediction, which is unbelievable for those of us who care so much about the language.
Today, yr iaith Gymraeg is in a far better place than anyone could have predicted in the middle of the last century, but those who want to see the Welsh language succeed cannot be complacent. Across the world, there is always ongoing pressure on all minority languages. Survival depends on continuing support, battling against political and economic pressures.
Rydw i’n ddiolchgar iawn—I am grateful to my hon. colleague and, in particular when talking about Welsh, friend. I would like to raise with him the great significance for the future of languages of the increasing digitalisation of our means of communication. With the Government looking at digital by default, it is essential to ensure that the language is not only available but accessible. Someone should be making sure that Welsh speakers are encouraged to use the Welsh language by default. In some instances, such as the Disclosure and Barring Service scheme, we need to look at how to ensure that happens—we are looking at the future now. I briefly congratulate the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that we will have a few more speeches from him, but this is a very worthwhile one.
The right hon. Lady makes a very good point, which could be spread to quite a lot of other areas as well. Our means of communication change so much, and we always have to be looking forward to different ways of ensuring that the language has its place.
May I add my thanks to the hon. Gentleman for all the debates he has been involved in, and for his work on the all-party groups in which I have sat alongside him? I thank him for his contribution.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned minority languages. As an Ulster Scots speaker and one who loves the language, I believe there is something beautiful in speaking with our cultural and historical tongue. Does he not agree, however, that it is inappropriate to use any of our historical languages as a political weapon—it is very important to take them forward as something we love because of what they mean, rather than to try to use them for any other purpose—and that any attempt to do so must be vehemently and actively opposed by any true historical linguist?
Again, I very much agree with that point.
Because Welsh language policy is devolved, I accept that our role here at Westminster is largely, though not exclusively, a supportive role. The main policy levers lie with the National Assembly for Wales, but in my view it is important that the UK Government make clear policy statements that we support constructive policy objectives, rather than just pay lip service. Over time, we have seen some objections to interventions designed to grow and protect the Welsh language, because they do carry responsibility and cost. However, I hope we can all support a policy that all children should have meaningful contact with the Welsh language, and that we can support increasing opportunity to use Welsh outside the education environment, particularly in the workplace. Personally, I believe we should encourage more learning of Welsh through sport and culture, and where young people take their forms of entertainment.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. I know that he has indicated his intention to stand down at the next general election, so although he and I do not always agree on a lot of policy areas, there are some areas in which we stand united—our love for Wales, for example—and I thank him for his service to date.
I am a Welsh learner, but my husband is a Welsh speaker naturally, so I know how important our national language is and how much we all still welcome the Welsh Language Act 1993 and its amendment, the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011. Will the hon. Gentleman join me in highlighting the immense pride many Welsh speakers feel, and the need to maintain its parity and equality with English and to encourage as many people as possible in Newport West, Montgomeryshire and the whole of Wales, as well as the rest of the United Kingdom, to think about learning Welsh?
I thank the hon. Lady, and I would like to return to that point, if I may, in the last sentence of my speech.
Welsh language policy is devolved, but devolution is not totally clearcut in all areas. There are opportunities within the devolved settlement to promote the language here at Westminster. Today, I believe the Secretary of State for Wales has committed Government investment to mid-Wales as part of the mid-Wales growth deal— £55 million towards a total investment of £200 million. The programmes will be guided by Ceredigion and Powys County Councils, but I hope the investment will be able to take into account the impact on the language and support the language. I very much hope that there will be an opportunity for input from the MP for Montgomeryshire, and even perhaps from an ex-MP for Montgomeryshire—who knows?
Finally, I want to finish with another personal reflection on life, and what happens in life when we grow older and start to ask ourselves who we are as an individual and where we come from, perhaps when sitting by the fence in the garden, enjoying a glasiad o gwrw and thinking about life. For me, it was when a lifetime of playing rugby and squash and running was coming to an end, and perhaps it was the lectures from my nain about the disgrace of my not being able to speak Welsh striking home after 40 years, and not being able to communicate with all of my family. I remember not being able to communicate at all with great-nain, who lived in Dolanog and was monolingual Welsh. She was one of the very last people who could speak only Welsh. I do not know whether there is anybody left now, but she died when she was 97 and she was one of the last, and I could not speak with her.
Anyway, I decided to learn Welsh, and because I became sufficiently fluent to appear on Welsh media quite a lot, many people now engage me on the street in Welsh, in Welshpool, Newtown and all over the place. It is incredibly satisfying. It is just reward for struggling over to Millbank or College Green on a cold, wet, frosty morning at half-past 7 to speak to the audience of “Post Cyntaf”. To me it is a huge reward and makes it all worthwhile. I am going to miss it when I am not here.
We Welsh MPs must resist a “devolve and forget” attitude. I sometimes think it is so easy for Ministers, when the pressure is on them to deal with what is on their desk that day, to devolve something and then suddenly take it off the agenda and forget about it. We must not do that. Welsh language policy may be devolved, but we retain a responsibility for it. We must not just put Welsh language policy in a box. It is an issue for every Department, not just the Wales Office.
Welsh is a Great British language. It is older than English. Backing the Welsh language is backing the Union. I hope that is not seen as too controversial. It is what makes Wales special. Yes, we have wonderful Welsh landscapes, wonderful mountains and really wonderful Welsh people, but other parts of the United Kingdom have special landscapes with special people and special mountains. In my view, where Wales is unique in the UK is that we have our own distinctive, widely spoken Welsh language. We must never, ever forget that.
Diolch, Dirprwy Llywydd. [Interruption.] I thought it was worth an attempt. I congratulate my hon. Friend Glyn Davies on securing a debate on this important issue. He is a known champion of the Welsh language and campaigner for the right to use Welsh in the House; the Secretary of State for Wales has worked alongside him to see Welsh spoken in the Welsh Grand Committee.
This debate is timely as this is UNESCO’s International Year of Indigenous Languages, the purpose of which is to raise awareness of the critical risks historic languages face and their value as vehicles for change, knowledge systems and ways of life. Indigenous languages play a crucial role in enabling communities to participate in their countries’ economic, cultural and political life.
My hon. Friend was absolutely right to say that this cannot be a matter of “devolve and forget”. The UK Government are committed to supporting the UK’s indigenous languages. As he touched on, Welsh is recognised as an official UK language and is one of the oldest living languages. It is also one of the greatest inheritances for our Union as a whole, so we have a responsibility to protect it and develop a strong future for it. We also have a duty to represent the communities we serve and to understand that, for many people, both fluent speakers and learners, the Welsh language forms an integral part of their identity—their British identity as well as their Welsh identity.
It is good to see that, far from what my hon. Friend’s essay concluded back in the 1960s, almost 30% of Wales’s population aged three and over now say they can speak at least some Welsh. We are therefore seeing progress towards the aspirations of Cymraeg 2050, which aims for there to be 1 million Welsh language speakers by 2050 and for the Welsh language to be part of everyday life in Wales, empowering and representing Welsh speakers and their communities.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Glyn Davies on his fantastic speech. In counties such as mine—in Staffordshire, Shropshire and Herefordshire, which border Wales—huge numbers of our constituents go on holiday to Wales and enjoy Wales. We would like at least the opportunity to learn Welsh in our areas. We would like it at least to be offered as an option in some of our schools and colleges. It is vital. I have tried to learn Welsh; I have not had much success so far, but as I too am stepping down at the next election, it is something that I hope to do in the future.
Putting my Union hat on briefly and speaking as Minister with responsibility for the constitution, it would be wonderful to see more of the culture of our Union being spread across it, including opportunities to study the Welsh language—and Welsh law, given the nuances that there are, following the devolution of law-making powers to the Welsh Assembly. I am sure that my hon. Friend Glyn Davies would be happy to help my hon. Friend Jeremy Lefroy learn a bit more Welsh after their joint retirement from this place. It would be good to see schools offering to teach Welsh. Certainly the Office of the Secretary of State for Wales will at every opportunity look to promote the ability to learn Welsh, and not just in Wales, so that people in the rest of the Union can get an understanding of the language, and the rich culture attached to it.
The UK Government will continue to support the targets I have outlined, and will use every opportunity to promote them. My Department is proud to have lead responsibility for the Welsh language in the UK Government, and for ensuring it becomes the language of success, rather than what it was once described as being.
Diolch yn fawr iawn. I pay tribute to Glyn Davies, who is a good friend, I hope, for the work that he has done in Montgomeryshire. I thank him for his service to his constituency. I am sure that he would agree that there is a real need for more Welsh teachers. I was lucky enough to attend a Welsh school, and to have a nain who lived with us who was monolingual and could not speak English. For me—I am sure the Minister will agree—the important thing was to have Welsh teachers in my Welsh school. I hope he supports the initiative being taken to promote the recruitment and training of Welsh language teachers.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. Of course I support the work being done in Wales to recruit more Welsh teachers. Immersion in a language is the best way to learn it. There is only so much that can be learned in a classroom. It is important to see the language used, and be able to use it for real, not just, as was touched on in one or two interventions, in an educational setting. It is important to be able to see it online and in media, and obviously to be able to speak it with friends.
As part of the work being done by the Office of the Secretary of State for Wales, at the National Eisteddfod in August, the Secretary of State, together with the Welsh Language Commissioner, Aled Roberts, launched new guidance for UK Government Departments when planning and delivering bilingual communications targeted at audiences in Wales. This guidance, endorsed by the Government Communication Service, is the first of its kind for the UK Government. Included in this guidance are recommendations and good practice on designing and creating quality bilingual content in areas including events, consultations and campaigns. This guidance will support people working across both Governments, in Wales and in Whitehall, to help us achieve the Cymraeg 2050 ambition, ensuring the Welsh language is visible, audible and, above all, accessible.
My Department has also promoted Welsh as part of Wales Week in London. I was proud to see every aspect of Welsh cultural life represented, alongside showcases of Welsh culture and identity, tourism, and food and drink products; I particularly enjoyed the latter two. We also celebrated our champions of the Welsh language. My Department has sought a commitment from all UK Government Departments to preserving and promoting the Welsh language. I am pleased to say that 11 UK Government Departments now have a Welsh language scheme, including most recently the Cabinet Office. As some may be able to guess, there has been a series of bilaterals between me as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales and me as the Minister with responsibility for the constitution. I found very persuasive my argument that the Cabinet Office, as the Department that very much takes the lead for constitutional and Union matters, needed to resolve the issue and get a Welsh language scheme in place.
It is not just the Office for the Secretary of State for Wales taking the initiative in promoting Welsh language and culture. My colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have encouraged its network of posts to mark St David’s day across the overseas network. This year’s activities included a digital campaign highlighting Welsh culture, including the Welsh language.
Bringing Welsh to a global stage does not stop there. The Department for International Development launched Connecting Classrooms through their Global Learning Programme, which connects Welsh pupils and teachers with schools all over the world. The FCO and DFID are examples of Departments playing their part in promoting the Welsh language.
The UK Government are also funding award-winning creative output, providing bilingual services and developing initiatives where Welsh plays a central part. This includes the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which has announced that Welsh language programming will benefit from up to 5% of its young audiences content fund and audio content fund, with the aim of stimulating the creation of dynamic and distinctive Welsh language productions from the independent sector.
The UK Government have also committed to maintaining S4C’s funding at its current level for 2019-20. S4C does not just make a contribution to the promotion of the Welsh language; it also makes an important contribution to the creative economy in Wales. It recently moved its headquarters from Cardiff to Yr Egin in Carmarthen, and I am proud that through the Swansea Bay city deal we will be supporting the next phase of this move, which will generate major and positive change to the creative and digital economy of Wales. This will ensure the Welsh language will be seen and heard not only throughout Wales but beyond its borders.
The UK Government are also supporting civil servants to learn Welsh. For example, the DVLA is one of many departments registered as an employer with the National Centre for Learning Welsh, and as a result over 280 of its staff have registered to undertake online Welsh language training courses. It is also championing Welsh in its service provision and has developed a new “Welsh language call handler of the year” award category in its annual contact centre awards to recognise the importance of providing excellence in this service.
The UK Government are constantly looking to improve our Welsh language services. Most recently, the Department for Work and Pensions implemented a Welsh version of the universal credit online system and is ensuring that all its digital services are in Welsh as well as English. It has also undertaken a number of Welsh language-specific recruitment exercises to ensure it has enough Welsh-speaking work coaches. This has been considered a leading case study of best practice for Welsh language recruitment, and it has been sharing its experience with other UK Government Departments.
Welsh language considerations are also being embedded in other Departments. The Home Office has Welsh language champions who raise the profile of the Welsh language across the Department and its arm’s length bodies. It has also run successful campaigns in the Welsh language on forced marriage and female genital mutilation. I hope this gives the House a flavour of the UK Government’s passion and commitment to the Welsh language.
I would like to end on a personal note. It is sad news that my hon. Friend Glyn Davies will be standing down at the next general election. The £55 million announced today for the mid-Wales growth deal is perhaps another example of what he has achieved for his constituents during his time in the House. I know that his support for the Wales Office has been greatly appreciated by me, my predecessors and the Secretary of State for Wales, and he will be greatly missed in this Chamber. The House will also lose a great champion of the Welsh Language. That said, we will be delighted, I hope, to welcome back in his place another champion of the Welsh language, Craig Williams.
Question put and agreed to.