Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 22 September 2021

Joint Committee on the Irish Language, the Gaeltacht and the Irish Speaking Community

Beart na Breatnaise agus Caighdeáin Teanga: Coimisinéir Teanga na Breataine Bige

Mr. Aled Roberts:

I say that as a language standards agnostic going back to 2011. In a previous life, I was a local authority leader who had responsibility for language policy within my authority. That was because I was one of only three Welsh speakers in the authority. They thought, "Who should we give it to? We'll give it to the leader." I live in Wrexham in north-east Wales which does not have a large Welsh-speaking population. It is probably at around the 15% level. I was first elected in 1991. I can remember instances when officers directly stated in public session that they would not provide services in Welsh. They are the circumstances I have grown up with in my own area as a first language Welsh speaker. Members can imagine how that felt.

Language schemes were introduced which were, in my opinion, burdensome as far as administration and process were concerned. At the end of the day, there was a reporting mechanism to what was then the Welsh Language Board, but it was dependent on the information supplied to it by that same authority.

Subsequently, if there was any complaint, even if that complaint was investigated by the commissioner's office because the commissioner was then in existence, all the commissioner could do, as I said previously, was to recommend to the public body what it should do. There was no real enforcement process available.

I was then elected to the Welsh Assembly as it then was and was a spokesperson on the Welsh language. I was not convinced at the time, in terms of the language measure that was introduced, that the standards would be anything other than another administrative tool, if I am to be honest with the committee. However, since 2015 to 2016, the standards have been in existence with local authorities and the Welsh Government in any event. They have been introduced in Wales sector by sector. The local authorities, the Welsh Government and the national parks were in the first tranche of bodies that were made subject to the standards.

I can honestly say to the committee, even looking at the authority of which I was previously a member, that the attitude towards the Welsh language since 2016 has altered significantly. It has not been an easy road but it is one that has involved many investigations against the authority concerned and, as far as some of the elected members were concerned, they felt antagonism towards the commissioner's office which they felt was investigating too many complaints against them. We now have a healthy relationship with that authority to the extent that all of its public-facing services are now available in both languages, which would not have been the case prior to the introduction of standards. We have a recruitment policy for reception staff. Remember, even in an area where it is only 15% Welsh speakers, reception staff would be required to be fluent Welsh speakers as part of their terms of employment.

There are other instances which allow me to use Welsh in my everyday contact with the local authority. I get my bin collection notification by text every Monday evening reminding me to put my bins out by 7.30 in the morning. That is sent to me in Welsh only because I am registered as a Welsh speaker with that local authority. If I had been asked in 2014 whether there was any chance that that local authority would text me in Welsh regarding my bin service, there would not have been a cat in hell's chance of that happening.

It is practical things like that which change the attitude of both Welsh speakers and non-Welsh speakers in a particular area. Another strength of our system is that we also do not differentiate between areas that have large or small numbers of Welsh speakers. There are areas in south-east Wales that might have 3% or 4% Welsh speakers and the standards on those authorities are exactly the same. Realistically, are they going to be able to provide the same level of service in Welsh as Gwynedd or Ynys Môn in the north west where there is over 70% Welsh speaking? The answer is "No", but the standards give us the opportunity to ensure their workforce and service delivery planning moves along so that we can increasingly see provision in Welsh for everyday services.


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