Page last updated at 08:46 GMT, Sunday, 9 November 2008

Town wants Welsh language opt-out

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Councillor Eric Harries argues there are not enough Welsh speakers in Milford Haven to justify its cost

By Mark Hannaby
BBC Wales political reporter

A town wants to opt out of a scheme which would require it to translate documents into Welsh on demand.

Milford Haven Town Council argues it would be too costly and is not wanted or needed in its part of Pembrokeshire.

All public bodies must ensure by law that Welsh and English are given equal footing on signs and documents.

The Welsh Language Board said the scheme was "positive, not punitive," but ultimately, cases like this could be referred to the assembly government.

Independent councillor Eric Harries and like-minded colleagues have voted to seek an opt-out of the scheme, arguing that there are not enough Welsh speakers in Milford Haven to justify its cost.

Mr Harries told BBC Wales' Politics Show that translating just one set of minutes into Welsh would cost more than 400 and that overall costs could only be guessed at.

Councillor Eric Harries
I'm fully supportive of spending money on services that are needed, but not on services that are not needed or wanted
Eric Harries, Milford town councillor
He said: "It's not needed and it's not wanted. And the money can be more appropriately spent on other services.

"I'm fully supportive of spending money on services that are needed, but not on services that are not needed or wanted."

But Plaid Cymru councillor Rhys Sinnett said there were a number of Welsh speakers in Milford Haven who had a right under the Welsh Language Act to have services in their first language if they chose.

He said complaints about the cost of a scheme were a "smokescreen" used by those who opposed it in principle.

Exacerbated divisions

Under the scheme rejected by the council, documents in Welsh would have to be provided only on demand, not as a matter of course.

The last time Welsh language documents were requested of the town council was in 1995.

Mr Sinnett said Welsh speakers in the town had been disappointed by the council's vote and that it had exacerbated divisions between those who speak the Welsh language locally and those who do not.

The problem facing Milford Haven's council is that the law does not allow for exceptions.

It has taken 15 years for authorities to make sure the 1993 act is enacted by smaller tiers of government, but by 3 December, Wales' town and community councils are required to draw up schemes whatever problems they may argue they face in doing so.

It's not a punitive measure, it's a positive measure
Meri Huws, Welsh Language Board

Meri Huws, chair of the Welsh Language Board, said: "There is an ultimate sanction, which is referring cases of this nature to the minister but this is a situation we would wish to avoid because the whole essence of this legislation is about promoting the language, promoting the use of the language within services across Wales.

"It's not a punitive measure, it's a positive measure."

It is not only in Milford Haven that there is disquiet about the need to draw up a language scheme.

According to the Pembrokeshire Association of Local Councils (PALC), other bodies are also refusing to draw up schemes.

PALC chair Richard Shepherd said: "I'm aware of only three that have actually refused point blank and rang the board to say so but I think there are more councils, perhaps less than 10, who are considering their action on this basis.

"They're all in this part of the woods. They're all in "Little England beyond Wales"."

Mr Shepherd said concerns about the cost of translations for councils with very small precepts were genuine.

He said councils also feared leaving themselves open to legal action if there were mistakes in translation.

But he believed authorities had to face up to their legal duty, and said he would not recommend the course of action taken by Milford Haven to any other body.

The Politics Show is on BBC One Wales at 1210 GMT on Sunday.

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