27 September 2017
In the first part of this article, we looked at the main proposals in the Welsh Government’s White Paper – Striking the right balance: proposals for a Welsh Language Bill (PDF, 870KB). This part of the article looks at some of the finer details within the consultation document.
Welsh Language Standards
The Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011 established a legal framework to impose language duties on certain organisations. The standards explain how organisations are expected to use the Welsh language in different situations. A total of 78 organisations are currently implementing Standards.
The Welsh Government in its White Paper re-affirms its commitment to the now established system of imposing Standards. The imposition of Language duties, according to Welsh Government, is the ‘best way to ensure people can access public services and deal with public bodies in the Welsh language if they so choose’.
Evidence provided by organisations who are subject to Standards shows support for the principles of the Standards. However, the system is not considered perfect, with bodies highlighting obstacles to the effective implementation of Standards. These include:
- Overlapping of Standards leading to uncertainty for both organisation and individual;
- Difficulties monitoring compliance; and
- A lack of clarity and consistency as to which Standards apply to which body and in which circumstance;
The Welsh Government has proposed a number of options to deal with some of these concerns:
- No change.
- Reforming the current system of Standards.
- Having a small set of more general Standards on the face of the new legislation.
- Regulated exceptions schemes based on a small set of more general Standards.
- Right for individuals to use the Welsh set out in primary legislation.
Reforming the current system of Standards is the Welsh Government’s preferred option. In the Welsh Government’s view, there is ‘little appetite for further wholesale change’ of the system during times of austerity.
As part of these proposals, the Welsh Government would take responsibility for making and imposing Standards. Currently, the system has several stages, with both the Commissioner and the Welsh Government taking responsibility at different points of the process. The new legislation would simplify and speed up the process, which can take up to 18 months to complete currently.
The Welsh Language Commission would be responsible for monitoring and enforcing compliance of the Standards.
Under the current system, complaints can be made directly to the Welsh Language Commissioner if an organisation has not met the requirements of a specific Standard. Under the Welsh Government’s proposals, the process for dealing with complaints would be aligned with that of other organisations.
Public bodies dealing with complaints are usually given a period of time to investigate and respond to the complainant, before it can be referred to a complaints or regulatory body. The Welsh Government is of the view that:
A public body which is required to investigate its own alleged defects is more informed about its own performance, is more likely to provide timely remedy, and is in a position to learn from its mistakes and improve.
In addition to the proposals for changing the procedures for dealing with complaints, the Welsh Government are also proposing that the new Commission should only take action for a serious breach. What amounts to a serious breach however is still unclear. Paragraph 219 of the White Paper provides some guidance on this matter.
Governance and Accountability
As mentioned, the Welsh Government proposes to replace the Welsh Language Commissioner with a Welsh Language Commission. The new body would have ‘a significantly enhanced budget’ as a consequence of the additional responsibilities it would have for promoting the language.
The White Paper sets out the possible governance and accountability framework for the new Commission. The new body would be responsible for the distribution and spending of ‘significant sums of public money’.
The Welsh Government proposes that the duties between those responsible for setting the body’s objectives and those responsible for spending and performance are separated.
The scope of bodies covered by Welsh language legislation
Organisations subject to Standards are either named or fall into categories within Schedule 6 or 8 of the 2011 Measure. The Welsh Government can amend Schedule 6 to include a new body, or by order, add bodies or categories to Schedule 8. However, restrictions apply to which bodies can be added. These restrictions are set out in Schedule 5 and 7.
The Welsh Government proposes to remove the restrictions in Schedules 5 and 7, which would give the Welsh Government the power to impose Standards on any organisation within the Assembly’s competence, ‘provided it was reasonable and proportionate’ to do so. As a result, the requirement for retaining Schedule 6 and 8 also evaporates.
Restrictions would still apply under the new proposals however:
- Standards regulations would still be subject to statutory consultation;
- Standards imposed on private businesses only relate to services provided to customers; and
- Standards regulations would have to be approved by the Assembly.
The new legislation would provide the Welsh Government with the power to impose Standards on private businesses not previously subject to Standards. However, the Welsh Government is not inclined to use this power in the near future:
We are not proposing that the Welsh Government will imminently be imposing Standards on bodies which do not currently come within the Standards system.
The Welsh Government’s priority is to foster goodwill in this sector towards the language. The Commission will be tasked with developing a work programme to support businesses to develop Welsh language services.
Initial reaction to the proposals have been mixed, with Cymdeithas yr Iaith expressing concerns about the potential impact on the rights of Welsh speakers. While they say an independent body to promote the language is needed, ‘undermining the regulatory framework is not the way to do so’. The Welsh Language Commissioner welcomed the ‘clear statement’ to retain the Standards system, but warned that ‘change for change’s sake is not acceptable’. The debate will continue for many months yet.
The consultation on the White Paper comes to an end on 31 October 2017. On 03/10/2017, Assembly Members will have an opportunity to debate in Plenary the main proposals in the White Paper.
Article written by Osian Bowyer, National Assembly for Wales Research Service