New Measure will strengthen position of the language

Alun Ffred Jones argues that it is better for the Welsh Government rather than the courts to lay out Welsh language rights

Welsh Language Measure Alun Ffred Jones

It is the language of my home, a language I use at work. It is the language of my family, many of my friends and colleagues. It is the language of my community – the chapel, the school, the shop. It is the language I speak with my children. It is also the language that I, along with thousands of others, have fought to protect and promote for most of my adult life. I know that I have been able to choose to do what many others would like to do but can’t, which is to live most of my life speaking the Welsh language.

It is, to a large extent, for these reasons that I have been acutely aware of the responsibility and the sense of expectation facing me as the first Welsh Minister to steer legislation on the Welsh language through the National Assembly. I also understand the sense of expectation of those who support our commitment to confirm the official status of the language, to create a Welsh language Commissioner and to provide rights for Welsh speakers in the provision of services.

The process hasn’t been easy. The months of negotiation over the scope of the Assembly’s new powers over the Welsh language during the Legislative Competence Order process regrettably impacted on the time for discussion about the content of the Measure. Despite this, and contrary to some views expressed this week, I have listened intently and considered carefully the views of all those who have made representations on this Measure. I am grateful to everyone who has shown such interest and passion about this and I have reached some clear conclusions.

First of all, I believe that this Measure will be a huge and important step forward for the language. The creation of the Welsh Language Commissioner will, at long last, ensure the creation of a champion for the language who will be tasked with the vital role of ensuring the delivery of services through the medium of Welsh.

I also believe that in being able to place duties on bodies to provide services through the medium of Welsh and to promote the language, this legislation will provide greater clarity and certainty for the citizens of Wales in terms of where they can use the language.

However, the issue which has been the source of much debate over recent weeks has related to the official status of the language. In addition to establishing a Welsh Language Commissioner and an improved system for placing duties on bodies to provide Welsh language services, the Government’s intention is to include a clear declaration that the Welsh language has official status in Wales, and to set out clearly how this status is given legal effect.

In reaching this conclusion, and throughout the debate which has ensued, I have given a great deal of thought to the case for an open-ended statement on the status of the Welsh language. However, I have come to the conclusion that such a course of action could pose a serious risk of undermining the core principles which underpin this Measure. These are that:

  • Duties and rights established at law should be clearly set out in legislation.
  • Establishing and securing an individual’s right to a service through the medium of Welsh should not be the responsibility of, and a burden upon, that individual.

I am not convinced that a Court should be given the primary responsibility of deciding the full nature and extent of duties in relation to the Welsh language.  In my view, these should be a matter for the Welsh Government and the National Assembly to decide. For this reason, the declaration of the status of the Welsh language contained in the Measure sets out how it is given legal effect. As a result the declaration is something tangible and real.

It would not be clear what effect on the law an open-ended statement of status would have. One person’s interpretation of the effect of that statement could be very different to another’s. The only way of resolving the extent to which a statement required a person to act in a certain way in relation to the Welsh language would be to take the matter before a Court. Therefore, the risk we could face is that the length and breadth of the language’s status and its effect on the law could be decided in Court.

A Court would have to interpret any effect such a statement could have on the law within the Assembly’s legislative competence and it would be possible for a Court to determine that the statement had limited impact and reach. The language is too important to me to allow us to face such a risk.

For example, the Assembly’s legislative competence to impose duties upon persons to promote and facilitate the use of the Welsh language and to treat the Welsh and English languages on a basis of equality is limited to a defined group of persons. Even then, duties cannot be imposed on those persons without a means for them to challenge those duties, as they apply to them, on the grounds of reasonableness and proportionality. The exception to this rule is that duties to promote and facilitate the Welsh language and to treat the Welsh and English languages on the basis of equality may be placed upon a small group of bodies known as Welsh language authorities – for example the Welsh language Commissioner and the Welsh language Tribunal – without a means of challenge.

As a result, a Court could conclude that, in the absence of a means of challenge in a declaration of status, the declaration of status could only alter at law the behaviour of a very narrow group of bodies, those known as Welsh language authorities.

I hope that, even if some disagree with my approach and consider the risk connected with an open-ended statement on the status of the language as one worth taking, they will appreciate my reasons for including in the Measure a statement that is clearer with regard to its scope and purpose.

My aim, and the aim of the proposed Measure, is to strengthen significantly the position of the language. It is a task I have approached with considerable enthusiasm, with a view to ensuring that the Measure will help the language continue to thrive – and play a real part in the day-to-day lives of all who wish to use it.

Alun Ffred Jones is Plaid AM for Arfon and Minister for Heritage.