Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 1:17 pm on 23rd May 2006.
I congratulate Hywel Williams on securing the debate. The hon. Gentleman has chosen an important issue for us to debate, and I have listened with interest. He claims that the current Welsh language legislation is no longer adequate. Perhaps it never was, in his view, in relation to private companies. He argues that the way forward is to establish genuine equality between the English and Welsh languages in Wales. I understand his desire to achieve a bilingual Wales and equality between the two languages, and for Wales to be at the forefront of the conduct of public and perhaps private life in Wales. However, I remain convinced that the way to achieve that is through greater co-operation and encouragement, not compulsion.
The Welsh Language Act 1993 has had a huge impact on the use of the Welsh language and I think that the hon. Gentleman accepts that. The language now plays a more prominent role in our national life than it has done at any time in living memory. The statistics from the 2001 census provide further evidence of that. It is important that fluent Welsh speakers feel that they have as many opportunities as possible to use the language in their everyday lives. There are now many more services available in Welsh than ever before, but one of our biggest problems is getting people to use the services that are currently available in Welsh. The Welsh Assembly Government have made great efforts positively to promote the use of Welsh, and I fully support them in that.
The long-term future of Welsh as a language rests in our ability to encourage more people to speak the language. A new Act would achieve some things, such as compelling even greater use of the language in business and services. Would it, however, really encourage more people on the streets of Wales to learn it? Legislation can be an effective tool for dealing with problems that society faces, but, as I have said previously, my colleagues in the Welsh Assembly Government and I feel that it is far more important to channel our efforts into ensuring that more Welsh is used every day in all aspects of life through promotion and co-operation. We need to ensure that there are services available in Welsh for those who want to use them, and, at the same time, to make sure that opportunities are available for people to learn the language or enhance their language skills. It is through a combination of those efforts that we will achieve our desired outcome of a bilingual Wales.
Although the UK and Welsh Assembly Governments are not minded to bring forward new specific Welsh language legislation, it does not automatically follow that we are not prepared to consider how we can strengthen our commitment to the language in other legislation. I should point out that the Welsh language has featured prominently in the debates on the Government of Wales Bill. Clause 61 gives Welsh Ministers the power to do anything that they consider appropriate to support the Welsh language. Together with the Assembly Ministers' functions under the Welsh Language Act 1993, it will provide a broad basis for promoting the Welsh language.
Welsh Assembly Ministers will inherit the Welsh Assembly's existing Welsh language scheme and the commitments in it to produce an annual compliance report. As required by section 21(3) of the 1993 Act, the scheme has been prepared having regard to the Welsh Language Board's guidelines. The Welsh Assembly Government's proposals to bring the board in-house have been well documented and debated, and consultation is taking place on them. When they come into effect, Welsh Assembly Ministers will inherit one of the primary functions of the board: promoting and facilitating use of the Welsh language. Having such a function will mean that the Welsh Assembly Government will have to take action to do so. A duty will be imposed on them. That, along with provisions in the Government of Wales Bill, is a reflection of the Welsh Assembly's commitment to the Welsh language.
The hon. Gentleman referred specifically and at some length to British Gas and its decision no longer to provide bills in the medium of Welsh to its business customers. We accept that private businesses have the right to make changes to their services on commercial grounds. However, it is disappointing when a prominent organisation such as British Gas takes such a decision. The company has informed my officials that it will continue to provide a bilingual service to all domestic customers who wish to communicate through the medium of Welsh. It has a voluntary Welsh language scheme, agreed by the Welsh Language Board, and a dedicated Welsh call centre based in Cardiff. However, this move is disappointing, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State intends to raise the matter with the company. I understand that Alun Pugh, the Welsh Assembly Government Minister with responsibility for promoting use of the Welsh language, plans to do the same.