Q&A: New Welsh language legislation

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The Welsh Assembly Government's proposed Welsh language measure will be debated for the final time on Tuesday. If assembly members vote in favour, the measure will become law in the New Year.

But what is the significance of this flagship legislation?

Q: How significant a piece of legislation is this?

It is by far the longest and most complicated measure yet put before the national assembly. It has come about after the powers to make legislation relating to the Welsh language were devolved from Westminster to the assembly after lengthy discussions between the two governments. It is the first substantial new law in this area since Parliament passed the Welsh Language Act in 1993.

Q: What are the main points of the new law?

The measure will create a new system of placing duties on bodies to provide services in Welsh. It will also create a new Welsh language commissioner with enforcement powers in order to protect the rights of Welsh speakers to access services in Welsh. It also contains a clause which ministers say will confirm the official status of the Welsh language. However, it also lists exceptions to this. Campaigners say that only an unqualified statement relating to official status for the language should be included.

Q: How does it change the law as it stands currently?

The Welsh Language Act of 1993 placed a duty on public bodies to have Welsh language schemes, overseen by the Welsh Language Board. A number of other organisations, including many in the private sector, such as BT and British Gas, have had voluntary schemes for many years, where they work with the board to deliver Welsh language services to their customers. However, the government has decided to bring a number of private sector organisations who provide services to the public under the scope of the new law.

Q: Who will be affected by the new law?

The vast majority of the private sector in Wales, including small businesses, won't come under the scope of the measure. Amongst the organisations who will are utility companies such as electricity and gas, and telecoms companies, including mobile phone operators. Once the commissioner is established, they will consult with them and then agree statutory, or legally binding, standards for Welsh language provision - the first time this has taken place.

However, the commissioner will also act as a champion for the Welsh language, which has concerned some within the private sector, who believe the role should be that of a neutral arbiter.

Q: Does this mean that I'll have the right to get a full Welsh language service from all the organisations covered by the measure?

No, not necessarily. The legislation provides that the standards set for each organisation should be "reasonable and proportionate". So there will be variations across Wales in access to Welsh language provision even within organisations. All of this will be dealt with by the commissioner once the office is established. Organisations have a legal right to challenge the duties placed on them if they believe they are not reasonable and proportionate.

Q: Does it go far enough for language campaigners?

The Welsh Language Society and other campaigners would like to see the measure amended in certain key areas. Firstly, they want Welsh speakers to be given rights to use the language in everyday life. Second, they want to see an unqualified statement that Welsh is an official language in Wales. Both have been the subject of intensive lobbying and even direct action in recent months, but it looks as if the assembly government has resisted their demands.

Q: Where does the government stand on this?

Ministers are clear that after long consideration, they believe an open-ended statement about official status for the language would effectively leave it up to the courts, rather than the assembly, to decide the extent to which individuals would have rights to use the Welsh language.

Their amendment does say the Welsh language has official status - but it qualifies this in order to make the meaning clearer and, they say, less open to legal challenge. On rights, they say that the legal duty on specific organisations to provide services in Welsh itself confers rights for individuals to receive those services in Wales.

Q: Is the measure likely to pass?

Yes - the Labour-Plaid Cymru government have a healthy majority, so it should be passed. However, the debate is expected to last four hours, with more than 70 amendments being proposed.

Importantly, one of those amendments relates to unqualified official status for the language and has been put forward by a Plaid Cymru backbencher, Bethan Jenkins AM, in defiance of her own government. Although it's unlikely to pass, it demonstrates the strength of feeling on the issue within her party. The Liberal Democrats had already tabled a similar amendment.

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