A look at the Welsh Language Commissioner’s work

10 November 2014

Article written by Rhys Iorwerth, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

Image taken from ComisiynyddyGymraeg.org

Image taken from ComisiynyddyGymraeg.org

It’s two and a half years since Meri Huws started in her role as the first ever Welsh Language Commissioner. This was an independent post created by the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011. A separate blog post provides more background information on this.

The Commissioner has recently appeared before two Assembly Committees:

On 4 November, a debate was held in Plenary on that annual report. Here is a summary of some key issues that were raised in these meetings.

Scrutinising legislation and policy

During the past two years, the Commissioner has frequently emphasised the importance of integrating and mainstreaming

considerations around the Welsh language into policy and legislation. She told the CELG Committee that she believed the Welsh Government had made some progress in this respect, but that she was yet to see “that dovetailing happening in a comprehensive manner”.

As such, she again called on the Welsh Government to do more to mainstream the Welsh language into its decision-making processes, especially in terms of the economy, skills, health and education. She maintained that a comprehensive and visible strategy encompassing all these areas was needed to achieve this.

On a similar theme, the CELG Committee discussed in some detail the steps that the Welsh Government has taken to respond to the 2011 Census figures on the Welsh language, and in particular the Government’s Moving Forward policy document. A separate blog post looks specifically at this.

Dealing with complaints

A key part of the Commissioner’s work is to deal with complaints from the public about the standard of Welsh language services they receive. The Commissioner told the CELG Committee that she was, slowly, seeing this work “leading to the establishment of more definite rights for Welsh speakers”. There have been some notable cases in this area recently, including:

  • A case in January 2014 when a pharmacist refused to dispense medication on the grounds that the prescription had been written in Welsh. The Commissioner showed that there was nothing in law that prevented this from happening;
  • A successful judicial review brought by the Commissioner against National Savings and Investments, proving that NS&I had acted illegally in ceasing to provide Welsh language services;
  • A case in October 2014 in which the Commissioner determined that there had been interference with the freedom of individuals to speak Welsh with each other under the 2011 Measure. This was the second time that the Commissioner had made such a ruling – this time after a doctor at Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board asked a parent not to speak Welsh with her daughter.

According to the Commissioner, a review has been carried out of her complaints process to make that process more accessible to the public, and this will lead to establishing a new specialist team within her office.

The planning system

Earlier this autumn, the Welsh Government introduced the Planning (Wales) Bill before the Assembly (see this blog post for more background). The First Minister has frequently claimed that this is a structural Bill that deals with the framework of the planning system, and that it would not be appropriate as such for it to deal with policy issues such as the Welsh language.

The Commissioner had advised the Welsh Government from the outset that the Bill should seek a statutory solution to ensure that planning authorities consider the Welsh language when making decisions. It’s pretty clear in this respect that she sees inadequacies in the current system (whereby authorities should use the TAN 20 guidance to consider the Welsh language when formulating their Local Development Plans). The Commissioner has also argued that the Welsh language should not be treated merely as a policy issue in this context, but as a matter that should form part of the planning framework itself. The Welsh Government is still resisting calls for this to be reflected in the Bill.

This is an issue that is unlikely to go away as the Bill progresses through the Assembly.

The Commissioner’s budget

In 2014-15, at short notice, the Commissioner’s budget was cut by 10 per cent. This led to internal restructuring within her office, and to a voluntary redundancy scheme that cost £445,000. In 2015-16, the Commissioner’s budget is expected to reduce by a further £300,000 (around 8 per cent) to £3.4 million.

The First Minister has justified this reduction by insisting that efforts must be focused on promoting the Welsh language in the community (see here). However, the Commissioner has expressed concern that this may have a significant impact on non-statutory – but important – work she undertakes, such as promoting the use of the Welsh language amongst third sector organisations and businesses.

A key issue that arises from this, of course, is the appropriateness of the Commissioner being funded by the Welsh Government, bearing in mind that she will be required to regulate the Government in due course under the 2011 Measure. As the Commissioner told the CELG Committee:

When we are a body that regulates the Government but are also simultaneously directly funded by the Government, is that constitutionally sound?

The Welsh Government and the Commissioner

In a paper to the CELG Committee, the First Minister suggests that there is scope for more clarity around the different responsibilities of the Welsh Government and the Commissioner, and that duplication must be avoided. The First Minister states that Government officials are “are working with the Commissioner to identify ways of joint working and working differently” in this respect.

When questioned on this by the Committee, the Commissioner stated that the 2011 Measure made it very clear what the Commissioner’s responsibilities were. While acknowledging the need for mutual understanding, she also stressed that the functions of the two organisations were very different.

This is undoubtedly a matter that will be looked at when post-legislative scrutiny of the 2011 Measure takes place, particularly perhaps in respect of where responsibilities lie for promoting the Welsh language.

Other issues  

Two notable issues that haven’t been discussed above include an update on the process of introducing Welsh language Standards under the 2011 Measure, and a statutory inquiry undertaken by the Commissioner in 2013-14 into the Welsh language in primary care. Separate blog posts will be produced on these issues shortly.