Page last updated at 13:17 GMT, Monday, 2 February 2009

Language laws take the long road

Vaughan Roderick
By Vaughan Roderick

Senedd, Cardiff Bay

As proposals are published to give the Welsh Assembly Government more powers over the Welsh language, the BBC's Welsh affairs editor explains the background.

The publication of the assembly government's request for the power to make laws on the Welsh language is the latest step in the long and tortuous story of the legal status of Wales' two languages.

Surprisingly, nowhere does the law state that English is the official language of the United Kingdom, nor was the use of Welsh ever made illegal.

For centuries the language existed in the limbo created by Henry VIII's statute pledging to "extirpe alle and singular the sinister usages and customs of Wales".

In practice, that meant that people continued to use and speak the language but had to use English for any official business.

It wasn't until the second half of the 20th Century that the situation began to change.

When a Llanelli family refused to pay their rates (the equivalent of today's council tax) unless they received a bill in Welsh the council responded by sending in the bailiffs.

Hugely symbolic

That case and others like it led to a growing clamour for a change in the law.

The first legal step came in 1967 with the Welsh Language Act, a modest but hugely symbolic measure that allowed Welsh to be used in courts and recognised contracts written in Welsh as legally valid.

The 1967 act did nothing to force public bodies to use the language, although many began to do so voluntarily over succeeding years and decades.

It took another Welsh Language Act in 1993 to make it a legal requirement.

That law forced all government departments, councils and other parts of the public sector to adopt "reasonable" steps to provide a service in Welsh.

The act allowed for flexibility in how those services were delivered.

Monmouthshire council's language policy, for example, is far more modest than Gwynedd's reflecting the different linguistic characters of the two counties.

The ultimate arbiter of what is "reasonable" is the Welsh Language Board, which also administers grant aid to voluntary organisations promoting or using the language.

Private businesses

The private sector was deliberately omitted from the 1993 act and while many private companies do use Welsh they are not obliged to.

The Legislative Competence Order (LCO) just published is not a new language law. It is instead an order that would transfer the power to make laws on the subject from Westminster to Cardiff.

It would be up to Assembly Members to decide how to use the additional powers.

The order has to be approved by both Parliament and the assembly before it comes into force and it's likely that there will be attempts at Westminster to limit the assembly's powers to enforce the use of Welsh by private businesses.

Attempts by MPs to water down the LCO are likely to be resisted by the assembly government.

Delivering a new language law is a priority for Plaid Cymru ministers in the assembly government and they seem set to exert the maximum pressure to prevent any backsliding by their Labour colleagues in the coalition.

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