The Welsh language and legislation – the latest position

21 October 2013

Article by Rhys Iorwerth, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

The future of the Welsh language has been the subject of much debate since the 2011 Census results on the Welsh language were announced. But what is the latest position as to the legislation underpinning efforts to promote and safeguard the language in Wales? Here is a brief outline of the situation as it stands.

The Welsh Language Act 1993

Under the Welsh Language Act 1993, a number of public bodies must prepare a Welsh Language Scheme that outlines how that body will treat the Welsh and English languages on a basis of equality when conducting business in Wales.

To ensure that public bodies adhere to these requirements, the Welsh Language Board was established. As well as approving and ensuring compliance with Welsh language schemes, the Board had a wider role to play in promoting and facilitating the use of the Welsh language more generally.

Although private companies and third sector organisations are not directly obliged to provide bilingual services under the 1993 Act, they may be required to do so if they are providing some kind of service to the public in Wales on behalf of a public body that has prepared a Welsh Language Scheme under the Act.

The Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011

Over the next few years, the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011 is expected to substantially change the above framework. The Measure has already seen the abolition of the Welsh Language Board, with its functions transferred partly to the Welsh Government and partly to the new office of the Welsh Language Commissioner (established in April 2012).

In addition to giving the Welsh language official status in Wales, the Measure provides that the Commissioner may take any steps deemed appropriate to promote and facilitate the use of Welsh. Furthermore, Welsh language schemes will be phased out over a period of time and replaced with what will be known as standards.

These standards will place duties on specific organisations in respect of the Welsh language and will outline how those organisations should treat and use the language. The standards can encompass five areas in this respect: the way organisations deliver services; make policy; operate; promote the Welsh Language; and keep records. The Measure stipulates to which specific organisations and bodies these standards can apply. Amongst them are public bodies, as well as certain private companies and third sector organisations (Schedules 5-8 to the Measure provide further details).

The responsibility for introducing the standards (by way of sub-legislation) rests with Welsh Ministers. In February 2013, the Welsh Government decided not to proceed with a set of standards proposed by the Commissioner and instead announced that it would seek to develop its own standards.

In May 2013, the Welsh Government published its initial timetable for the introduction of the first set of standards (relating to local authorities, national park authorities and Welsh Ministers). An updated timetable was announced on 21 October 2013, stating that the first set of standards should come into force in November 2014.

In the meantime, the Welsh Language Commissioner will continue to be responsible for any functions relating to Welsh language schemes under the 1993 framework.

It should be noted that the Commissioner’s role can also include:

  • investigating cases where there has been an alleged interference with a communication in Welsh between individuals in Wales;
  • investigating complaints about the use (or lack of use) of Welsh by organisations; and
  • conducting inquiries into any matter relating to any of the Commissioner’s functions.

The Commissioner’s annual report

In April 2012, Meri Huws started in her role as the first Welsh Language Commissioner. In August 2013, she published her annual report for 2012-13. This report will be debated during the National Assembly’s Plenary session on 22 October 2013.

The Assembly’s Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee will hold a scrutiny session with the Commissioner on 14 November 2013, followed by a scrutiny session with the First Minister on 4 December 2013. Since July 2013, the First Minister has had responsibility for the overview and coordination of the Welsh Government’s policies for the Welsh language.