UK: Welsh language plan for private firms
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Tue Feb 3 18:28:12 UTC 2009
Welsh language plan for private firms
Feb 2 2009 By Tomos Livingstone and David Williamson
WIDE swathes of the service sector will have to provide services in
Welsh under the first proposed shake-up of language legislation for 15
years. A formal request to transfer responsibility for the language
from Westminster to Cardiff Bay will be made this morning, with
Heritage Minister Alun Ffred Jones making a statement to AMs tomorrow.
TUEIt will float the prospect of extending consumer rights to receive
services in Welsh to public utilities such as phone, water and
electricity companies, and offer a new legal "freedom" to use the
language. But large parts of the private sector, such as supermarkets,
are understood to have been exempted.
The move is a key part of the Labour-Plaid coalition deal in the
Assembly, and is the most controversial of the so-called Legislative
Competence Orders (LCOs) to be introduced so far. Detailed policy
proposals are still months away as MPs have to approve the transfer of
power first. The Assembly could receive the power to impose duties on
any company which receives £200,000 or more in public funding. The LCO
has already been 18 months in the making, and is far more detailed
than previous Orders on housing and social services. Under the 1993
Welsh Language Act, public sector bodies are legally obliged to
communicate with the public through Welsh and English. But the Act is
widely seen as being out of date, with so many public utilities since
transferred to the private sector.
There will also be a specific requirement on Assembly ministers to
consult widely before they bring forward any specific policy
Business leaders in particular are keen that there is no blanket
extension of language rights into the private sector, and ministers at
both ends of the M4 are concerned about the political difficulty of
increasing business regulation during a recession.
Menna Machreth, chairwoman of the Welsh Language Society, welcomed the
LCO but was disappointed that supermarkets and many private sector
enterprises could fall outside the scope of future laws. She believes
language rights should be universally respected alongside disability
and gender rights. Ms Machreth said: "It should be looked at as a
measure to give equality."
Commenting on political battles which may lie ahead, she said: "We are
calling on Members of Parliament not to participate in any cynical
effort to limit the LCO."
Russell Lawson, of the Federation of Small Businesses, hoped the
resulting laws would not compel his members to develop language
schemes. He also warned that "ambiguous" legislation would encourage
Welsh language campaigners to launch legal challenges.
He said: "If there is any kind of ambiguity within a piece of
legislation that will be good territory for lawyers... That's where
our big worry will lie."
Wayne David, the junior Wales Office Minister, said last night it was
"important that there be a cool and rational discussion about it and
the future of the Welsh language", and both Labour and Plaid ministers
are keen to avoid re-runs of old arguments over the language.
Plaid Cymru's leader at Westminster, Elfyn Llwyd, said he had had a
"long and frank discussion" with Welsh Secretary Paul Murphy over the
Christmas recess. Mr Llwyd said: "It will be a considerable
improvement in terms of the use of Welsh in Wales... it won't be there
to stuff the language down anybody's throats, or to introduce measures
that are counterproductive."
The new LCO will prove a stern test of the new devolution system,
where the Welsh Affairs Select Committee scrutinises requests for more
powers, which are then approved (or rejected) by votes in parliament.
The MPs have already shown a willingness to play a proactive role,
significantly amending the recent housing LCO to the irritation of
many in Cardiff Bay.
Hywel Francis, the chairman of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee,
said: "It will be very important for the widest possible consultation
to take place within Wales, and my committee looks forward to
performing a constructive role in the scrutiny and consultation
Former Plaid Cymru MP and AM Cynog Dafis hoped the legislation would
deliver results but said Welsh-speakers could transform society by
using the language at every opportunity.
He said: "I think what we need now is a collective decision by
Welsh-speakers very simply to use their language on every occasion
when they can. I think that could be more transformational than any
legislation can be."
Cautioning against getting "sidetracked", he said: "I am seriously
concerned , certainly, at the fact that Welsh-speakers seem to lack
the confidence or the determination to make use of their language in
settings where it's perfectly possible to do so... I've been watching
some Assembly sessions and I've been taken aback by the fact
prominent, fluent Welsh-speakers seem to decide to use English rather
than Welsh. I think the signal that sends of to all of us – English
and Welsh-speakers alike – and the coming generation is damaging."
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