14 October 2016
Article by Osian Bowyer, National Assembly for Wales Research Service
Four and a half years ago, Meri Huws started in her role as the first ever Welsh Language Commissioner. An independent post created by the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011. A separate blog post provides background information on this.
The Commissioner recently appeared before the Culture, Language and Communications Committee to discuss her Assurance Report 2015-16 – Time to set the standard: A portrayal of Welsh language users’ experiences.
On Tuesday 18th October 2016, a debate will be held in Plenary on the Commissioner’s annual report.
Welsh Language Standards
30th March 2016 marked a milestone in terms of rights for Welsh speakers. Welsh language standards set new legal duties on local authorities, Welsh Government and national park authorities to provide public services to citizens through the medium of Welsh. The Commissioner stated that the journey to this point had been long, but that these rights “realize the official status of the Welsh language and enable people, in every part of Wales, to use the language in their everyday lives”.
Over the coming months, duties will be placed on 54 additional organisations, including Natural Resources Wales, Estyn, the BBC and Welsh Police Forces. The regulations relating to the 54 additional organisations (Regulations Numbers 2, 4 and 5) were approved by the Assembly in February and March 2016. However, regulations no.3 relating to Universities were not approved by the Assembly following calls to delay the process to resolve specific issues within the sector.
Over time, more organisations will be included as Welsh Government publish regulations relevant to other sectors. (See this blog post for more background information on the standards).
Dealing with complaints and statutory investigations
One of the Commissioner’s key functions is to investigate “suspicions of failure by public organisations to implement their statutory duties” in relation to the Welsh langauge. During the reporting period, a total of 250 cases were referred to the Commissioner, although not all cases complied with the statutory definition of a complaint under the Welsh Language Act 1993.
Many complaints can be resolved without the need to conduct statutory investigations, however, in some cases, a statutory investigation will be conducted into alleged failures by an organisation. Eight statutory investigations were conducted during 2015-16.
Where organisations do not operate within the standards system or operate a statutory or voluntary Welsh language scheme, the Commissioner can act on the basis of concerns from the public about a service or lack of it. In these instances, a review can be conducted. For example, a review was conducted by the Commissioner in April 2015 into the Welsh language services of high street banks in Wales following “significant increase in the number of concerns raised by members of the public regarding a lack of Welsh language services in banks”.
The review was based on evidence provided by the public and interviews with senior officials within banks operating in Wales. The review resulted in eight recommendations for banks, from “setting timescales for establishing Welsh language online services and mobile bank apps” to “ensuring consistency in the use of Welsh across all branches”.
The Commissioner’s budget
The reduction in Welsh Government budgets for the Welsh language as a whole in 2016-17 is 5.9% overall. According to Welsh Government, the reduction was limited to ensure that activities to promote the language in communities in Wales are protected.
The Commissioner’s budget for 2015-16 was £3.4 million, 8.1% lower than the previous year. Welsh Government has confirmed that there will be a further 10% cut to the Commissioner’s budget for 2016-17, down to £3.05 million. Over a period of 4 years, the Commissioner’s budget has been cut by 25% in financial terms, or once inflation is factored in, a 32% cut in real terms.
According to the Commissioner, the budgetary cuts seen over the last few years mean that “existing resources are not sufficient to extend the hold of the Welsh language measure on different sectors in the near future”.
The Commissioner has also highlighted the inconsistency in cuts to other similar organisations with regulatory functions and statutory obligations.
Assurance Report 2015-16
The 2015-16 Assurance Report: Time to set the standard – A portrayal of Welsh language users’ experiences, is the second such report the Welsh Language Commissioner has published, which focuses on areas of concern for the Commissioner. The report emphasises the need for organisations to “step-up and deliver good quality public services that enable Welsh speakers to increase their use of the language in their everyday lives”.
The Commissioner told the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee that she believed that many organisations had reached a plateau in terms of Welsh language public services, whilst some had rolled back their Welsh language services provisions over the last few years. She cited GOV.UK as a particular example where Welsh language services have deteriorated since its introduction by the UK Government, and that provision of Welsh language services by Government agencies such as DWP, which were once strong, have since weakened.
The Commissioner is due to appear before the Culture, Welsh Language and Communication Committee in the near future to discuss her 2015-16 Annual Report.