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

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. There are companies in my constituency that would not dream of operating through the medium of English. Welsh is their internal language and it is the language of their customers. Why should they operate in English? They should operate in English only if they have to, because of the attitude of other businesses. That is why the 1993 Act is deficient. It says nothing about the large parts of the world in which Welsh speakers live.

I am sure that the Under-Secretary will welcome the fact that many companies now operate through the medium of Welsh. However, he cannot welcome that end unless he wills the means, and in this case the means are being denied. I have no doubt that if British Gas, as a responsible employer, faced a case of discrimination on the basis of gender, disability race or even age, it would act, but the language rights of Welsh speakers and Welsh-speaking communities are somehow seen to be different in this case. As I said, that can be traced back to the deficiency of the 1993 Act.

There is a long history of legislation on the Welsh language, and that deficiency runs throughout. The Acts of Union barred anyone who chose to speak Welsh from holding public office; the aim was to expiate "sinister usages and practices", one of which was the speaking of Welsh. As a younger man, I was rather pleased to have the sinister usage and practice of speaking Welsh, but I am now slightly wiser.

Among 20th century legislation, we had the Welsh Courts Act 1942 and the Welsh Language Act 1967. The latter bought in the concept of equal validity, and states explicitly that where there is a discrepancy between English and Welsh texts, the "English shall prevail". If the Welsh text says that so and so is four and the English text says that it is five, it must be five. Such is the idiocy of that provision. We then come to the 1993 Act, with its qualification of equality.

Even the most determined radical would concede that there has been a good deal of progress—but at what a slow pace. Each change has been won from a grudging Government after much hardship, and I am afraid that each change has been deficient, but I believe that we are at the start of a new era for the Welsh language. I am sure that the Under-Secretary will agree that the demography is encouraging, with more and younger Welsh speakers. The bulge is at the young end of the population, not the old. The language is now heard on the streets of Cardiff and Newport as well as Caernarfon and Aberystwyth.

In those urban communities, however, Welsh is not the common language of social life. The Welsh speaker in Cardiff would have to be pretty assertive to demand a public service in Welsh—such as education, where recently the bungling local authority coupled a growth in Welsh language provision with the closing of English-medium schools, and effectively scuppered the plan. There are of course many enterprises that are private but which provide public services, most obviously in health and social services. The world has changed.

Furthermore, in the heartlands the Welsh language is not faring as well, because of migration from those areas that is driven by fewer opportunities, lower wages and the draw of the city. This is a time of potential hope and growth, but a time when we also need to be open to change. After all, why should John and Jane have an automatic right to public service in English, when Siôn and Siân have to fight every inch of the way—perhaps not successfully, in the end? As to the private sector, let us be clear that it is not a matter of forcing the corner shop owner to learn Welsh; it is a matter of large and profitable companies taking their responsibilities seriously—by law, if, as the British Gas case clearly suggests, that is necessary.

This year Rosa Parks died. As many hon. Members will know, she was one of the people who symbolised the fight for the rights of black people in the USA. She did so by the simple act of taking a seat on a bus—a seat that was reserved for white people. She dramatised the inequality of the treatment of black people. In Wales a more subtle and less dramatic form of inequality is present, and perhaps the steps that we take to deal with it are more subtle and less dramatic. However, change we must have. It must be based on full emancipation and full equality, and equal rights for Welsh and English speakers alike.