UK: Whitehall ’s view of Welsh language must change

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sat Feb 14 15:30:32 UTC 2009

14 February 2009: Whitehall's view of Welsh language must change
Feb 13 2009 by Staff Reporter, Western Mail

HE saga of the Government's attempts to centralise the computer for
magistrates' courts and the failure to include a Welsh-language
provision doesn't portray Whitehall in a particularly good light. It
tells us much about Wales' slightly problematic relationship with the
rest of the UK too.

This story is a classic Sir Humphrey-style Civil Service cock-up. The
new computer system was already seven years late, so they decided to
press ahead and introduce it in December 2008.

Just one problem – Welsh language software wasn't ready, so court
summonses are having to be translated manually on request.

The problem will be sorted by September this year, at a cost of £4m to
the taxpayer: on one level, just another government IT disaster to add
to a very long list. It was a gaffe but some of the details are
worrying. The HM Court Service decided to press ahead with
implementation in June 2008, despite technical problems they knew
would affect the Welsh language service.

This suggests the legal obligation to provide services in Welsh is a
bolt-on extra, to be postponed when things are difficult. Until that
mentality changes, these issues are going to keep occurring.
Departments like the Ministry of Justice have a remit in Wales and
England, not just England. Both should have equal priority but this
story suggests that is not the case. There have been calls for the
administration of justice to be devolved to Cardiff Bay, as has
already happened in Scotland, and this sort of problem only
strengthens the case for doing so.

It also highlights some of the inconsistencies of the devolution
settlement. The Welsh Affairs Select Committee complained last month
about Whitehall departments forgetting about Wales, and it's a growing
problem. Civil servants used to forgetting about Scotland because
their particular policy area is devolved are doing the same to Wales –
even though the same areas are often still controlled at Westminster.
The result is that Wales gets the worst of all worlds – no powers for
the Assembly, but no attention in London either.Other Whitehall
departments will be under the microscope from now on; none can pretend
to be unaware of its legal obligations under the Welsh Language Act.

As the Assembly prepares to take over control of language policy, it
would do well to take note that making other parts of the UK aware of
the existence of the language, and its legal status, will be a key
part of its new powers. Government IT disasters have come along so
often that they are an accepted part of the political scene. Whitehall
departments forgetting about the Welsh language shouldn't be allowed
to become such a common occurrence.

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