Section 1 — Constitution and functions of Bòrd na Gàidhlig

Gaelic Language (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3 – in the Scottish Parliament at 2:56 pm on 21st April 2005.

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Photo of George Reid George Reid None 2:56 pm, 21st April 2005

Group 1 is on the status of Gaelic. Amendment 5, in the name of Alex Neil, is grouped with amendments 6, 7, 43 and 46.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

I do not anticipate a great deal of controversy in this afternoon's debate, but my amendments in this group address one of the areas in which there will perhaps be a difference between my party and the Scottish Executive.

My amendments are designed to strengthen the bill. A clear message has to go out from the Parliament about the importance of the Gaelic language, not just in terms of what we are trying to do for the language itself but in regenerating the language as a key part of regenerating the culture, traditions and heritage of all of Scotland. One of the great myths is that Gaelic is relevant only to people in the Highlands and Islands but, as many people in the chamber will know, there are actually more speakers of Gaelic in Glasgow than there are still in the Highlands and Islands.

The purpose of amendment 5 is to incorporate the aspiration of the Executive to build into the bill the terminology of equal respect for Gaelic, but to strengthen that further by giving Gaelic equal validity, as recommended in evidence to the Education Committee by Bòrd na Gàidhlig. The purpose of doing that is so that, when Gaelic is used, it will have the same meaning in law, the same validity and the same level of importance as the English language.

We do not suggest—no one suggests—that Gaelic should be used as a second language in every instance. The amendments in my name do not propose such an approach; they propose that in situations in which Gaelic is used, the language should have equal validity with English. If the amendments are agreed to, they will send a clear signal about how important Parliament considers Gaelic to be and ensure that the validity with which Gaelic is treated is built into the bill, as is the concept of respect.

At this late stage, I ask the minister to reconsider the matter and to agree to reasonable amendments. Such unity in the Parliament would be the first sign that we can approach the bill on a consensual basis. Let us ensure that we treat Gaelic and English on the basis of equal validity, as well as with equal respect.

I move amendment 5.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour 3:00 pm, 21st April 2005

Alex Neil is unconscionably reasonable, as he has been throughout the consideration of the bill, but his arguments are not terribly persuasive. I want to take time to set out clearly why that is, because his amendments would create complications.

The status of Gaelic has properly been a recurrent theme throughout discussions before and after the introduction of the bill. At stage 2 we debated concepts of status at some length. We considered equal validity, which is the concept that Alex Neil proposes again, and equal respect. My proposals in relation to equal respect were accepted by the Education Committee. As I said during the stage 2 debate, on one level the two concepts are very close to each other, but there are important, material differences between them, which I am glad to explain to the full Parliament.

Throughout the passage of the bill, I have made clear my strong desire to do what I can to enhance the status of Gaelic, which the bill will significantly move forward. The language should not suffer from any lack of respect at individual or corporate level. There should be a generosity of spirit towards the language. In fairness, I think that all the parties in the Parliament share that objective.

As a result of amendments in my name at stage 2, the bill gives clear recognition to the language

"as an official language of Scotland commanding equal respect to the English language".

Those amendments ensured that the Gaelic language would not suffer from a lack of respect, while ensuring that the bill remained sufficiently flexible to be able to take account of the differing use of Gaelic across Scotland. Bòrd na Gàidhlig has explained that it wants the language to have a status that requires public bodies to treat it with a generosity of spirit and good will. That aspiration, which the Education Committee supports, can be achieved by requiring the Gaelic language and English to be treated with equal respect, for which the bill provides.

There would be a real danger that, if Alex Neil's amendments were agreed to, the courts could interpret the new provisions as giving the language a status that Parliament does not intend and which could not be delivered. As I said clearly at stage 2, the phrase "equal validity" carries a significant risk that a court might rule that the legislation conferred the right to demand the use of the language in a wider range of circumstances than is intended. Bòrd na Gàidhlig itself has expressed little sympathy with the view that, in the current circumstances, all public services should be made available in Gaelic in all places, to anyone who requests that. Alex Neil said that he did not believe that his amendments would carry that force. However the interpretation that I have set out would be a real possible consequence of his amendments being agreed to.

The Education Committee supported the position that I have set out and said that any formulation of status should not confer rights on individuals. Indeed, Alex Neil said at stage 2—and has repeated today—that he does not think that anyone is asking for a provision that would require Gaelic to be able to be used on every occasion on which English is used. He said that he wanted the language to have equal validity, but he did not explain what he meant by that. As Fiona Hyslop said at stage 2, if an amendment that uses the phrase "equal validity" were agreed to, the bill would need to contain a definition of "validity". However, Alex Neil has not supplied the Parliament with such a definition. I suspect that that is because he is unable to come up with a definition that encapsulates the principle that he supports without conferring unintended rights.

All parties agree that we do not want a formulation that could create expectations of an approach that would be undeliverable or which could change the priorities to develop the language in order to address rights that might flow from legal interpretations. As I said at stage 2, the courts normally refer to the normal usage of phrases such as "equal validity". Alex Neil wants Gaelic and English to be treated on a basis of equal validity and with equal respect, as he indicated, but he has not lodged an amendment that provides an interpretation of the phrase that would explain what is intended to readers of the bill. If amendment 5 were agreed to, the courts would have to find a definition for "equal validity and respect".

Alex Neil may not like the following definitions, but it is critical that Parliament should hear them. The Oxford English Dictionary—which is the dictionary to which the courts would refer—defines "validity", among other things, as the

"quality of being valid in law; legal authority, force, or strength".

In contrast, to "respect" means, among other things, to

"treat ... with ... esteem, or honour; to feel or show respect for".

At stage 2, Alex Neil said that he treated ministers' views with respect; but he also said "I do not think that those opinions have any validity."—[Official Report, Education Committee, 2 March 2005; col 2239.]

If Alex Neil were legally obliged to recognise the validity of my views, it would clearly undermine the flexibility and independence of his position and would deprive us of his very considerable wit. I therefore ask Alex Neil to think logically about this. If the Gaelic language were to have equal validity in its strict sense—

"legal authority, force, or strength"— one logical result would be that any public authority would be obliged to make Gaelic provision available for any service on demand and to be in a position to respond to such demand. I ask him to concede that that risk would be a logical consequence of his proposals.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

Before the intervention, I ask members not to hold conversations while the minister is on his feet.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

The legal advice from the Executive on the Food Standards Agency was entirely wrong, so how can we have any faith in its legal advice on this matter?

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

I ask Alex Neil to wait until we have a debate on the Food Standards Agency. He will have to work very hard to convince me, but he knows that I am a reasonable man and that I will listen to his arguments.

We may all aspire to the use of the Gaelic language across Scotland in all situations, but it is patently clear that not enough resources are available to allow that.

I return to the normal usage of the word "respect", which is to

"treat ... with ... esteem, or honour; to feel or show respect for".

I believe that those terms accurately capture the sentiments of what we have all tried to aim for in the bill. They offer a sound basis for the future development and expansion of the use of the Gaelic language.

I acknowledge the spirit in which Alex Neil has lodged his amendments—and, indeed, the spirit in which he has approached the bill in general. However, I ask him not to press amendments 5 to 7 and 46. Today, we have a bill that recognises Gaelic as an official language of Scotland, commanding equal respect with the English language. That is reflected in my amendment—amendment 43—to the long title of the bill. As it stands, section 1 will provide Gaelic with the status that it so richly deserves while leaving intact a bill that is capable of implementation Scotland-wide and of targeting the activity that is needed to develop Gaelic.

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative

All of us want to give the maximum encouragement to Gaelic, but we must do so in a way that is not oppressive and which will command the support and good will of Scotland's population. I therefore believe that the minister is right to demand that Gaelic should have equal respect to English, but I am concerned that including the words "equal validity" could have unintended legal consequences. The issue that we are discussing is of a kind that could lead to test cases.

Support for the minister on this group of amendments should not be interpreted as a blank cheque. After the bill is enacted, we would all wish it to be reviewed in the light of experience, because we are anxious that Gaelic should be effectively promoted and safeguarded.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I would like to pay tribute to Alex Neil's contribution to the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Bill, which was considerable and restrained throughout stage 2. However, with this group of amendments, he has gone a little bit off track, which is unfortunate.

The Education Committee was given guidance from the Welsh Language Board, whose practical experience was obviously considerable. The phraseology that it used, oddly enough, was less precise and less favourable than the wording that the minister is presently arguing for.

The chamber should pay heed to the wording of the bill. When talking about the constitution and functions of the Gaelic board, the bill says:

"The functions conferred on the Bòrd by this Act are to be exercised with a view to securing the status of the Gaelic language"— there is no issue about that—

"as an official language of Scotland"— there is no issue about that either—

"commanding equal respect to the English language".

It will do that through

"increasing the number of persons who are able to use and understand the Gaelic language" and

"encouraging the use and understanding of the Gaelic language".

All of that seems to me to express exactly what the committee, in its stage 1 report and its stage 2 considerations, wanted.

I must confess that I am somewhat at a loss to understand what additional standing or status would be created by Alex Neil's formulation. The minister has got it right; his is an elegant formulation. The provision is widely welcomed across the Gaelic community. I hope that Alex Neil will not press amendment 5. He should leave the bill as it stands in this important respect; that is the unanimous view of the chamber.

It is important to note that, so far, the bill has the support of members of the Education Committee and, at the stage 1 debate, it had the support of parties right across the chamber. That support should guide people well; it should also entrench the future of the Gaelic language, which, at the end of the day, is the substantial and central issue in this debate. I support the minister's position on amendment 5.

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

I too ask Alex Neil to reflect on the point that he is making in amendment 5.

The Education Committee debated the question of the status of the Gaelic language exhaustively. It is fair to say that we agreed that we want to see the most bold and comprehensive assertion and expression of the future of the Gaelic language. In doing so, we took a planning-based approach to the language, which is the one that is adopted by the bill, and not a rights-based approach.

It is misleading for Mr Neil to suggest that he wants to go further than members of the committee or the Executive wanted to go. It is also misleading to suggest that the use of the term "validity" is somehow stronger than the present wording of the bill. Unlike Mr Neil, the majority of committee members feared that the term "validity" did not add anything to the bill and that it could lead to problems of interpretation.

I ask Mr Neil to accept the consensus on the point and not to create artificial division. I also ask him not to press amendment 5. The Parliament wants to send a strong message to the Gaelic community that we are united in our respect for the Gaelic language and that we are unanimous on the equal status that the Gaelic language should enjoy.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

As I have said before in the Parliament, the Conservative party has always shown its support for Gaelic-speaking people, the Gaelic language and Gaelic culture. We have done so ever since we tried to stop the Liberal Whig peers and their supporters perpetrating the Highlands clearances. That was one of their first so-called social experiments. The Tories have always supported rural communities and we are as intent at keeping people in the Highland glens today as we were in the past.

In fact, we are the only party with a Gaelic name and the only party that was present in the old Scottish Parliament before the act of union of 1707. We are the true national party of Scotland. It makes us happy that, at least on Gaelic, the other parties in the chamber are obviously thinking what we are thinking.

It would be a sad day for devolution if Scotland did not bring renewed hope for Gaelic. Let us hope that the bill will provide a framework within which Gaelic is reinvigorated in the same way that the Conservative party reinvigorated it with incentives and injections of cash in the early 1980s.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

That was very good, Mr McGrigor, but you did not speak to the amendment.

I ask Mr Neil to wind up and to say whether he will press or seek agreement to withdraw amendment 5.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

The question is, that amendment 5 be agreed to. Are we agreed?

Members:

No.

Division number 1

For: Adam, Brian, Ballance, Chris, Ballard, Mark, Byrne, Ms Rosemary, Crawford, Bruce, Curran, Frances, Fabiani, Linda, Fox, Colin, Gibson, Rob, Grahame, Christine, Harper, Robin, Harvie, Patrick, Hyslop, Fiona, Ingram, Mr Adam, Leckie, Carolyn, Lochhead, Richard, MacAskill, Mr Kenny, Marwick, Tricia, Mather, Jim, Maxwell, Mr Stewart, McFee, Mr Bruce, Morgan, Alasdair, Munro, John Farquhar, Neil, Alex, Scott, Eleanor, Swinburne, John, White, Ms Sandra
Against: Aitken, Bill, Arbuckle, Mr Andrew, Baillie, Jackie, Baker, Richard, Barrie, Scott, Boyack, Sarah, Brankin, Rhona, Brocklebank, Mr Ted, Brown, Robert, Butler, Bill, Chisholm, Malcolm, Craigie, Cathie, Curran, Ms Margaret, Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James, Eadie, Helen, Ferguson, Patricia, Finnie, Ross, Fraser, Murdo, Gillon, Karen, Glen, Marlyn, Goldie, Miss Annabel, Gorrie, Donald, Henry, Hugh, Home Robertson, John, Hughes, Janis, Jackson, Dr Sylvia, Jamieson, Margaret, Kerr, Mr Andy, Lamont, Johann, Livingstone, Marilyn, Lyon, George, Macdonald, Lewis, Macintosh, Mr Kenneth, Maclean, Kate, Macmillan, Maureen, Martin, Paul, May, Christine, McAveety, Mr Frank, McConnell, Mr Jack, McGrigor, Mr Jamie, McLetchie, David, McMahon, Michael, McNeil, Mr Duncan, McNeill, Pauline, McNulty, Des, Milne, Mrs Nanette, Mitchell, Margaret, Morrison, Mr Alasdair, Muldoon, Bristow, Mulligan, Mrs Mary, Murray, Dr Elaine, Oldfather, Irene, Peacock, Peter, Peattie, Cathy, Pringle, Mike, Purvis, Jeremy, Radcliffe, Nora, Robson, Euan, Rumbles, Mike, Scott, Tavish, Smith, Elaine, Smith, Iain, Smith, Margaret, Stephen, Nicol, Stone, Mr Jamie, Turner, Dr Jean, Wallace, Mr Jim, Watson, Mike, Whitefield, Karen, Wilson, Allan

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

The result of the division is: For 27, Against 70, Abstentions 0.

Amendment 5 disagreed to.

Amendments 6 and 7 not moved.