Welsh Language Act 1993

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 12:59 pm on 23rd May 2006.

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Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development) 12:59 pm, 23rd May 2006

I am pleased to have this opportunity to discuss the operation of the Welsh Language Act 1993.

I shall not be calling for a new Welsh Language Act, as hon. Members might have expected. People in Wales might be mystified by that, but the convention in these debates is that one does not call for new legislation—there are other opportunities to do that. However, this is a timely debate given the forthcoming national rally organised by Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, the Welsh language society, which will be held in Aberystwyth on 10 June and will call for a new Welsh Language Act.

When discussing Welsh language provision there is a great temptation to list various outrageous cases where people have been denied a service by the public sector. There is a danger of an extended whinge—during the past 30 years many cases have led to people such as myself whingeing extensively—and of our losing sight of the principal fault with the 1993 Act as a permanent solution to the languages question in Wales. That principal fault is inequality, which is written into the Act.

Of course, the 1993 Act is concerned with treating Welsh and English on an equal basis. That equality is qualified in the Act by its being subject to being "reasonably practicable" and "appropriate in the circumstances". So, Welsh and English are not wholly equal; the equality is a qualified one. I have a difficulty with qualified equality as a concept; in my book, we are all equal or we are not. The Act seems to echo Orwell's point in "Animal Farm":

"All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others."

By now, it is abundantly clear that, even following the 1993 Act, Welsh and English are not even treated on the basis of that qualified equality. My argument runs contrary to that treatment: Welsh and English are equal, should be treated as such and Welsh speakers should have equal rights to use either language, or both, as they see fit. That is my basic argument; it is one of equality.

Cutting across the detail of individual cases, although I shall refer to such a case later, the crux of the argument is about equality. I would like to make it clear that the primary response that I am seeking from the Under-Secretary of State is an explanation of the Government's stance on the fundamental inequality that Welsh speakers face: the lack of a positive right to use Welsh equal to the right to use English, which is assumed without thought.

We are talking about a fundamental principle, and as such, however we organise and develop it in the future, it must be established and we must see it as a process to an end point. I accept that we will not achieve that overnight, in months or perhaps in years, but we must insist on the process towards equality. I want to hear the Government's response to my call for nothing less than the full emancipation of the Welsh language and of the individuals and communities that speak it.

We are not just considering my right and that of my hon. Friend Mr. Llwyd as Welsh speakers to use the language. We must also realise that communities in Wales use Welsh as the primary social mode of discussion; using Welsh is the way we talk to each other in some communities. There are not just individual rights, but community rights.

I said that I would not whinge about cases, not that they are scarce. Of course, there is a fine tradition of using cases to drive through progressive legislation.My illustrious predecessor as Member for Caernarfon, David Lloyd George, used the famous achos claddu Llanfrothen—the Llanfrothen burial case where nonconformists were not allowed to bury their departed in the graveyard in Llanfrothen—as a battering ram that eventually led to the disestablishment of the Church of England in Wales. I am not going to list a lot of cases, but I will base my arguments about equality on a case concerning British Gas Business that neatly encompasses some of the principles. I refer hon. Members to my early-day motion 2185 on this matter.

First, I would like to quote briefly from letters sent to me by British Gas Business. Hon. Members will note that I quote from the original and in English, for even though I usually correspond with the company in Welsh—not in this case, as it happens—it has replied to me in English. I will begin with a letter entitled in large letters "We won't be able to send your bills in Welsh anymore".

I would like the Chamber to note that British Gas, as a former public utility, has been providing a Welsh language service to both its private and business customers for a large number of years, as have other former public utilities. I have here some material sent to me the other day that includes a bill from Welsh Water, which is now a private company. It is entirely bilingual, although English is first and Welsh second. I can access the material in Welsh and English as I want. I also have some leaflets, which are also bilingual. That is an example of a former public utility, which is now a private company, that finds no difficulty in corresponding with me in Welsh, yet British Gas Business tells me that it will not be able to send me my bills in Welsh any more.

Irrespective of that case, British Gas assures me that it will continue to use Welsh in correspondence with its private domestic customers. However, it is a case of a service withdrawn, a service cut and a service lost. I wonder how you would respond, Miss Begg, if you were to receive a letter from such a utility saying that it was unable to send you your bills in English any more. I was surprised, shocked and dismayed at the cut.

In the first letter that I received, the customer manager at British Gas Business said that it wanted to

"make sure we're investing our money in the right places".

That is the driver behind the change. I do not know what the savings from cutting the Welsh language service will be, but Centrica, the parent company, made a profit last year of £1.5 billion, so it is not short of a shilling or two to put in the meter. In 2005, British Gas Business made a profit of £77 million. It is clearly searching for cuts and to spend its money in the best way, but it has a little in its back pocket.

The customer service manager went on to say that British Gas Business is withdrawing the Welsh service

"so that we can provide all our customers with outstanding customer service".

Clearly, that is not "all our customers"—my constituents and I count as customers. I cannot see how British Gas can rationalise the step by saying that it is serving all its customers.

A further explanation was offered in a further letter, which stated that

"the reason we have taken this decision is that British Gas Business customers are being migrated to a new billing platform."

I could say that British Gas Business should not only provide a service in Welsh, but that it would be good if it provided one in English as well. Perhaps it is unfair to tease British Gas any further. The point is that we have a former public utility that is now in the private sector and it is not subject to the principles of language planning. That is as envisaged in the 1993 Act, from which the private sector was excluded. The Act is concerned primarily with the public sector and, by voluntary agreements, with the voluntary and private sectors.