A Bilingual Assembly?

Assembly Members vote today on the Official Languages Bill which will set the Assembly’s Welsh language policy for the future. The purpose of the Bill is to ‘place the duties of the National Assembly and of the Assembly Commission in relation to the provision of bilingual services on a statutory footing’ .

In the 1990s, it was promised that devolution would not only create a new voice for Wales and an institution with powers over domestic policy matters, but would also create a new type of politics. I, like many others, supported a Yes vote in 1997 partly because there was hope of creating a new institution which would respect Welsh language rights along with other rights – such as those for women and the environment.

Unfortunately, that promise hasn’t been fulfilled. The Welsh language is rarely heard or seen in the Assembly, and there has been a drop in its use over recent years. In 2004/05, 2.3% of the spoken questions were asked in Welsh – by 2009/10 the percentage had fallen to 0.5%. Over the same period there was an even more alarming drop in the percentage of written questions in Welsh, down from 2.4 to 0.1%. Of the members who could speak Welsh, 24% asked at least one question in Welsh in 2004/05, only 9.1% did so in 2009/10. Clearly, the Assembly is far from being a fully bilingual institution.

Over the last three years, matters have been compounded by a reduction in investment in Welsh-language services within the Assembly: a more than 14% cut at a time when the Assembly Commission’s budget overall has risen substantially.

In 2009, the actions of the Assembly Commission – the body running our national legislature – were widely condemned when it decided to stop the production of the bilingual Record of Proceedings and to publish it in English only. In so doing, it breached its own language scheme. It was a decision that destroyed the good name of the Assembly, an institution which should, after all, be leading the way on the Welsh language. It sent a message to all other bodies in Wales that the Welsh language is not essential to our public life, but peripheral to it. In response, we in Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg started a mass campaign against the decision. Following that campaign and a statutory inquiry into the matter which concluded that the Assembly Commission was wrong to make that decision, the bilingual Record was restored. However, contrary to the inquiry’s recommendations (not to mention the spirit of equality) the Welsh language version of the Record is published four days later than the English. Also at odds with the cross-party scrutiny committee’s recommendations is the fact that not all the records of Assembly business are available in Welsh, with committee reports remaining in English only.

However, thanks to the efforts of Assembly Members Aled Roberts (Welsh Liberal Democrats)  and Suzy Davies (Welsh Conservatives), there is some hope that the Assembly could restore its good name and ensure that a record of all the Assembly proceedings are published fully in Welsh at the same time as the English language version. Their amendments laid to the Official Languages Bill in the vote today give AMs a chance to reaffirm their leadership on Welsh-language issues. We hope our politicians understand that many expect them to lead the way for all the other bodies in Wales and at least meet a standard equal to the new standards set by the Welsh Language Commissioner for other organisations.

The fundamental question facing Assembly Members is whether they want to restore the promise of devolution and make the Welsh language central to all their activities, or leave it on the sidelines. It is disappointing that some have argued that the 'Welsh language' is too costly. However, The Western Mail was made to understand very quickly, via social media where many Welsh people stood with regard to the language. The fierce response to the suggestion on grounds of cost that the Welsh language shouldn’t be central to our democracy on cost grounds was overwhelming. The status that the language is granted affects its use, of course. For example, Welsh-language documents in the Assembly make an important contribution to building up the Welsh-language corpus, that everyone can benefit from.

This week Cymdeithas yr Iaith wrote to the parties asking for a free vote on the Bill, rather than one on party lines, for a number of reasons. Firstly we believe that the language is more important than party politics. But we also see there’s an opportunity to set an important precedent. This is the first Bill tabled by the Assembly Commission, a body which includes representatives from all parties – individual members should not be forced to follow a party line. The Welsh language, its speakers, its learners and supporters deserve a free and open discussion on these matters today.

Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg still believes in devolution’s promise of a new politics, we very much hope that the promise will be kept alive.