26 May 2016
Article by Rhys Iorwerth, National Assembly for Wales Research Service
This article is taken from ‘Key issues for the Fifth Assembly’, published on 12 May 2016
The Welsh Government has a statutory duty to promote the Welsh language. But is the current approach working?
At the beginning of the Fourth Assembly, the last Welsh Government committed to strengthen the Welsh language’s place in our everyday lives. The 2011 Census results were an early blow to that goal, and mean that critics continue to question whether efforts to support the language are having the desired effect.
The 2011 Census
The 2011 Census figures showed that the percentage of people in Wales who were able to speak Welsh had fallen from 20.8% in 2001 to 19% in 2011.
The actual number of Welsh speakers also fell – from 582,000 in 2001 to 562,000 in 2011.
Worryingly for language campaigners, the greatest decreases were in the traditional Welsh-speaking heartlands
In 2012, the Welsh Government published A living language: a language for living. This was a five-year strategy to promote the Welsh language in various settings. Under pressure as a result of the Census figures, the First Minister announced a new set of priorities in 2014. These were for the following three-year period, and focused on getting people to use the Welsh language more often in their daily lives and communities.
To deliver this plan, the Welsh Government reprioritised how it spent money in this area. It significantly reduced the budgets for programmes such as Welsh for adult learners, while investing in new Welsh language and learning centres, in the Mentrau Iaith, and in projects to support businesses to use Welsh.
Some welcomed these steps, but others were concerned that the Welsh Government had not been clear enough about the evidence it had used to change focus, or the specific outcomes it expected these new commitments to achieve.
Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society) went as far as to accuse the last Welsh Government of a ‘hugely worrying’ lack of urgency to act on the back of the Census figures, and a ‘staggering’ lack of progress in ‘all areas of policy associated with the Welsh language’. Dyfodol i’r Iaith (Future for the Language) called for establishing an arms-length body to undertake promotional work, claiming such an agency could find more creative and experimental solutions than civil servants.
Assessing the success of the last five-year strategy, and developing a successor for the period after 2017, will therefore be key tasks for the new Welsh Government.
Central to any language strategy is the money available to deliver it. Despite reprioritising spending, the last Welsh Government consistently cut overall funding for the Welsh language in its annual budgets.
This approach drew particular criticism when the Assembly scrutinised the Welsh Government’s 2016-17 draft budget. As the total budget had increased in cash terms, campaign groups heavily condemned the 5.9% reduction in funding to promote Welsh (which left the overall pot at £25.6 million).
The First Minister maintained that he wanted to provide a strong foundation for the language, and pointed out that funding alone did not guarantee that it thrived.
Critics, however, claimed that the reductions were inconsistent with the Welsh Government’s policy aims, that they would have a far-reaching and damaging effect on promotional work, and that they betrayed a lack of long-term strategic planning.
The 2013-15 survey
The 2013-15 Welsh Language Use Survey gave some positive news for the Welsh language.
Compared to a similar survey undertaken between 2004 and 2006, it showed that 131,000 more people throughout Wales now said they could speak some Welsh. There had been notable increases in areas such as Cardiff and Rhondda Cynon Taf.
However, areas with the highest concentration of Welsh speakers (Gwynedd, Anglesey, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire) saw the greatest reductions in the number of fluent speakers.
Young people were also more likely to speak Welsh at school than with their friends or at home.
Another element in the framework that supports the language is the statutory system of Welsh language standards that is currently being rolled out.
The standards are one of the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011’s key components. They will gradually apply to various public bodies and are supposed to give people greater clarity about their linguistic rights and which Welsh language services they can expect to receive from different organisations.
The Welsh Government is responsible for creating the standards, and the Welsh Language Commissioner is tasked with ensuring compliance. However, both parties seem unhappy with how the 2011 Measure works in this respect.
The Commissioner has said publicly that it is time to ‘strengthen and streamline’ the processes set out in the legislation, while the First Minister has acknowledged that, after the Assembly elections in 2016, ‘there’ll be a need to revisit the Measure, to see what can be done to make it work more effectively’. Whether the new Welsh Government pursues this or not remains to be seen.
The education system
The education system has long been a major part of attempts to strengthen the Welsh language, with the then Welsh Government launching a Welsh-medium Education Strategy in 2010 to try and improve planning in this area for all ages.
The strategy set five-year targets but several of these have been missed. A March 2016 evaluation of the strategy further concluded that its vision had not been ‘embedded consistently across all delivery partners’.
As part of the strategy, local authorities must adopt what are called Welsh in Education Strategic Plans. A December 2015 report by the Fourth Assembly’s Children, Young People and Education Committee said that these plans had not realised their potential, and that there was an urgent need for a better working relationship between the Welsh Government and local authorities in this area.
The next steps
By the time the people of Wales fill in their next Census forms, the Fifth Assembly will be drawing to a close. This will be the next big opportunity to get comparable data on the health of the Welsh language. What the new Welsh Government does between now and then – in all of the areas above – could be critical.
- Children, Young People and Education Committee, Welsh in Education Strategic Plans (2015)
- Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, One million Welsh speakers: A vision for 2016 onwards (2015)
- Welsh Government, A living language: a language for living (2012)
- Welsh Government, A living language: a language for living – Moving Forward (2014)
- Welsh Government, A language for living: a living language: Action Plan 2016-17 (2016)
- Welsh Government, An evaluation of the Welsh-medium education strategy (2016)
- Welsh Government and Welsh Language Commissioner: Welsh Language Use Survey 2013-15 (2015)
- Welsh Government, Welsh-medium Education Strategy (2010)