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The power(s) of language

Betsan Powys | 22:11 UK time, Thursday, 22 January 2009

On this blog no subject divides you, enrages you, galvanises you more than the Welsh language. Well be warned: I'm returning to it on tonight's edition of Dragon's Eye.

There are no apologies for that either. I'm returning to it - not to divide and enrage you, not to avoid talking about the Welsh economy either but to start sketching a picture of what we understand the controversial Welsh Language LCO, the government's bid for power over the language, could allow them to do.

Could future measures affect the fabled fish and chip shop in Chepstow or not? Could your bank be obliged in future to offer services in Welsh or not? Could Vodaphone and Virgin Media could be brought into line with privatised utilities like BT who already offer services in Welsh?

Could, not will. Could, because when the LCO is finally published, it is just the start of what could be a very long process of scrutiny, let alone creation of future measures. The Secretary of State needed some persuading by the First Minister to publish at all. He seems to have agreed to go ahead under pressure from Cardiff and with a warning in return: get this one through scrutiny intact and I'll eat my hat. Publish and be damned ... or words to that effect at least.

What does the One Wales agreement say?

"We will be seeking enhanced legislative competence on the Welsh Language. Jointly we will work to extend the scope of the Welsh Language Legislative Competence Order included in the Assembly government's first year legislative programme, with a view to a new Assembly Measure to confirm official status for both Welsh and English, linguistic rights in the provision of services and the establishment of the post of Language Commissioner."

Let's start with extending the scope. How do you, if that is your will as a government, ring-fence some areas of the private sector and leave others untouched?

How about coming up with headings of the sectors you would plan to bring under the linguistic obligations of the 1993 Welsh Language Act? Try electricity, water, gas, railways, housing associations and the telecommunications sector for size. So Vodaphone and Virgin Media? Sounds like a yes. Fish and chip shops? No.

Add to that list any organisation providing public services in Wales and receiving more than £200,000 a year of public money.

Could that mean that a commercial venture, a private business that has received £200,000 to - for instance - open new premises in Wales, might find itself coming under future measures? It doesn't look like it, not unless it's deemed to be providing 'public services' in Wales. We understand that having customers in Wales isn't tantamount to providing public services.

What else? The power would also be there to make a measure enshrining the freedom to speak Welsh in Wales. Note that word: freedom, not right. Think of this, come the whispers from London and Cardiff, as firming up the official status of the language. Think of it as a kind of "Thomas Cook clause". In other words you would have the freedom to speak Welsh to your colleagues if you chose but customers wouldn't have the right to expect service in Welsh.

So wait a minute. What about banks? Why aren't they on that list? Why would you omit banks if they were - by any chance - to receive a massive injection of public money? On what grounds would they be outside that fence, not inside it? I gather the question has indeed been asked by some more thoughtful officials. Should we then predict a "Northern Rock codicil" to go alongside the "Thomas Cook clause"?

It could be yes to a Language Commissioner too, a Welsh Language Commissioner that is, yes to penalties for those who failed to comply with any future measures, including government departments. Does that start to look like a Welsh Language Board - or Quango for the lingo (copyright Rhodri Morgan) - with teeth?

I've already talked to Labour MPs chomping at the bit to tear to shreds this bid to transfer power to Cardiff. They point to companies strapped for cash, who will be bothered by the implications of this order "over my dead body". They will pay little heed to warnings from some parts of the party that Labour must not appear to be anti-Welsh.

The danger to Labour of publishing this LCO now?

The arguments, so far had behind closed doors, will become public. A united front from the Labour Welsh Secretary and Labour First Minister? Easy. From their elected members? Watch this space.

And what of Plaid? Would they really want to be seen to die in a ditch over the language of all issues?

One of their wisest heads was shaking his a few months ago. He was sensing a trap: one that said in big, bold letters: 'Plaid, who care about bilingual bills, not about how people can afford to pay them'.

Publication date? That's looking less like January, more like February. A long battle kicking off in the the shortest month?


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