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Comhchoiste na Gaeilge, na Gaeltachta agus Phobal Labhartha na Gaeilge debate -
Wednesday, 22 Sep 2021

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

Díreoimid anois ar ár mbreithniú ar an ábhar atá os ár gcomhair inniu, is é sin, Beart na Breatnaise agus na caighdeáin a chuireann sé i bhfeidhm. Cuirim fearadh na fáilte roimh Choimisinéir Teanga na Breataine Bige, Aled Roberts. Gabhaim buíochas leis, agus leis na baill, as a bheith anseo linn inniu.

Ar dtús báire, rachaidh mé tríd an ngnáthráiteas. I have to go through the normal notice on parliamentary privilege agus ansin beidh mé leis an gcoimisinéir. Cuirim ar aird an fhinné go bhfuil finnéithe, de bhua alt 17(2)(l) den Acht um Chlúmhilleadh 2009, faoi chosaint ag lánphribhléid maidir leis an bhfianaise a thugann siad don choiste seo chomh fada is atá siad lonnaithe sa seomra coiste féin. Má ordaíonn an comhchoiste dóibh, ámh, éirí as an bhfianaise a thabhairt i leith ní áirithe agus má leanann siad dá tabhairt, níl siad i dteideal dá éis sin ach pribhléid cáilithe i leith na fianaise acu.

I wish to draw the attention of the witness to the long-standing parliamentary practice that he should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if his statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identified person or entity, he will be directed to discontinue his remarks. It is imperative that he comply with any such direction. As he is participating in this meeting from outside the parliamentary precincts of Tithe an Oireachtais, he should note that there are some limitations to parliamentary privilege and, as such, he may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness physically present does. In addition, as he is participating in the meeting from a jurisdiction outside the State, he is advised that he should also be mindful of his domestic law and how it may apply to evidence he gives. He should be advised that his opening statement and any other document he has laid or will lay before the comhchoiste will be published on the comhchoiste's website after this meeting.

Meabhraím do na baill den chomhchoiste atá anseo linn inniu an cleachtadh parlaiminte atá ann le fada nár chóir dóibh tuairimí a thabhairt maidir le duine atá taobh amuigh de na Tithe nó oifigeach ina ainm nó ina hainm ar shlí ina bhféadfaí iad a aithint.

I formally thank Mr. Roberts for agreeing to be with us and sharing his thoughts today. A number of members have just stepped out but have said that they will be back. Mr. Roberts will see on his screen Senator Ward and me, the Chair. Deputy Connolly, who is the vice chair of the Dáil, has had to step out. She is speaking in the Chamber in a few minutes. She has promised she will be back. I have received apologies from a number of other members, including Senators Ó Donnghaile and Mullen. Deputy Calleary has said he will be late but that he will be here. I formally ask Mr. Roberts to start the debate nó tús a chur leis an díospóireacht.

Mr. Aled Roberts

I thank the Chairman and the committee for the opportunity to present this evidence. I will start with a few opening remarks and will hand matters back to the Chairman thereafter. I am the current Welsh Language Commissioner, the person responsible for regulating the standards regime in Wales and England. This presentation is made in my capacity as Welsh Language Commissioner and my comments will derive from my experience of operating the standards, including their setting and enforcement, here in Wales.

The commissioner is a corporate sole, which is a legal entity where all powers are vested in a single person. The post is funded by the Welsh Ministers and the commissioner is appointed through a public appointments process, with the appointment being confirmed by the First Minister for a period of seven years. Although the post is not independent of government, it is an arm's length organisation. It is a quasi-judicial role which requires the holder of the post to adjudicate on cases. The commissioner is accountable to the Welsh Language Tribunal for all its regulatory decisions. The tribunal has the power to confirm, revoke or amend a judgment made by the commissioner when setting or enforcing a standard. Any organisation or citizen may submit a case to the Welsh Language Tribunal. Beyond the regulatory role, I also employ staff who undertake work to promote and facilitate the use of Welsh through non-statutory means within the private and voluntary sector.

It is important to note there are still two statutory regimes relating to the Welsh language. Devolution gave the Welsh Parliament, the Senedd, the right to legislate in the field of the Welsh language. The Welsh Language (Wales) Measure came into force in 2011 repealing much of the Welsh Language Act 1993 which preceded it. Due to the legislative context, the Senedd had no competence to legislate in the area of justice at the time the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure was given assent. As a result, Part 3 of the Welsh Language Act, which deals with the use of Welsh in the courts both civil and criminal, remains in force. Under the measures, ministerial approval from Westminster must be also obtained before standards can be imposed on Westminster ministerial departments and, to date, they all continue to implement Welsh language schemes. However, more than 122 organisations are currently implementing the language standards.

It will be easiest if I refer the committee to my written statement for details regarding the process of setting standards, how complaints are investigated and the power of enforcement. However, I am more than ready to answer any questions the committee may have.

Meabhraím do na comhaltaí an micreafón a mhúchadh nuair nach bhfuil siad ag labhairt. I ask Deputies tuning in here to switch off or mute their microphones when they are not speaking. I recognise that an Teachta Ó Cathasaigh has joined us, as has an Teachta Daly. The first member to indicate by raising a hand was an Seanadóir Ward.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an gcoimisinéir. Croeso, if that is the right way to say it. The commissioner is very welcome and I thank him for joining us. I have a Welsh brother-in-law who, I am sorry to say, does not speak Welsh but who has a few words, which he has passed on to me. All of us look at Wales with great envy in respect of the extent to which the national language is enjoyed and seen as a cultural asset to the country. We would love to have the same strength of numbers among native speakers of the Irish language. This may not be something which falls under the commissioner's remit but, from what he has said and his written statement, it seems he focuses more on the enforcement of standards and rules regarding the proliferation of the Welsh language. Is he involved in any schemes or programmes to promote the language or is that something that is done elsewhere? If he is, can he point us to anything he feels has worked particularly well in promoting Welsh? I say that particularly in the context of Welsh being a kind of commonality among Welsh people linguistically while Irish is not or not as much as we would like it to be.

Mr. Aled Roberts

At the time the measure was introduced, a conscious decision was taken that the commissioner would not just be the regulator. We retained some duties with regard to language promotion. In the main, these relate to seeking to ensure private companies and the voluntary sector ensure services are available through the medium of Welsh. Through the standards, the regulations also provide us with the ability to ensure the public bodies we regulate take steps to promote the language as well. The Senator will see the language standards do not just relate to service delivery. They also place responsibilities on those public bodies to assess the impact on language of any policy decision they make. A certain number of these bodies, including all of the local authorities, also have a responsibility to produce a five-year promotion plan to ensure the usage of the language and the number of speakers increase within their areas.

If I am honest with members, I have to say that during the initial period the standards were introduced, a lot of attention was given to service delivery to ensure reception areas and so on had public information etc. readily available in both languages. If you look at the investigations that were undertaken during the first three or four years, they mainly concentrated on complaints received which related to the lack of websites being available in both languages, the lack of public information that was available and the lack of staff who were able to provide the service in the Welsh language.

As our office has matured and as the workings of those primary standards have settled down, we have seen our functions move to being much more critical as to whether the standards relating to policymaking and promotion are sufficient. We are going through the second promotion plans now and they are all being prepared. Half of the local authorities are preparing their five-year plans this year and the other half will prepare them next year. We have provided guidance on what we would expect to see in a good promotion plan with the hope that this will improve the quality of the plans. To be honest, the quality of the first round of plans was not what we would have hoped for and is not what we would expect to see in the second round of plans that are being prepared.

An bhfuil sé sin sásúil?

Tá sé sin go hiontach ar fad.

I thank the Commissioner for the presentation and I apologise for being slightly delayed in coming along. I agree with Senator Ward and we might have rose-tinted glasses looking in from the outside but it feels the Welsh linguistic situation is much better, certainly in the positivity towards the language and in the use of the language within communities. I am particularly interested in that idea of having local authorities make local promotion plans. That would map well onto our context.

One of my big interests is that a well-being framework is being worked on in Ireland in terms of accommodating well-being budgets. It is something we have spoken to the ambassador of New Zealand about and they have a linguistic and cultural dimension within their well-being framework. It is something the Welsh have done well in terms of having the seven dimensions accounted for. I am looking at the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, and it jumps out at me that the role of the Welsh Language Commissioner is identified in a number of places in that Act in terms of his or her role within those well-being measures. It sets out how the commissioner should interact with the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales. I would be interested in the commissioner's commentary about whether placing Welsh and Welsh culture front and centre in terms of well-being indicators within a Welsh context has worked well in strengthening his position as a language commissioner? Does it sit well within this broader reporting framework? Has it strengthened the legislative basis of the language to have that particular indicator used to measure the well-being of the Welsh nation?

Mr. Aled Roberts

It has strengthened our role and made it clear the language should not be considered purely from a linguistic protection perspective. One of the seven key aims of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 includes building a successful, culturally diverse and bilingual Wales, and therefore it places extra duties on those public bodies so that they cannot be in breach of what are sometimes quite narrow Welsh language standards. To do so would also put them in breach of their responsibilities under the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015.

It is early days as far as proper implementation on the ground is concerned. There is a requirement on health boards, which have only been subject to the standards since 2019, to include linguistic assessments in their future planning. There is a responsibility on them to do that under the Welsh language legislation, but that is reinforced through the expectations placed upon them under the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. To date, we have seen a failure by those health boards to assess adequately the linguistic needs of their populations and a failure of that to feed through into their workforce planning arrangements going forward.

The maturity we need within the debate around well-being etc. at health board and local authority levels is something my office would expect because we went through the exact same process with local authorities when standards came through. What can happen now is that individual citizens can make a complaint directly to my office if they feel their health board or local authority has not taken proper regard of their needs and linguistic requirements as far as their health and social care are concerned. We have convinced the health boards and local authorities by now that this is not an issue of language rights per se but that the availability of healthcare or social care in the language of one's choice goes directly to the quality of the care that is given. I mention the example of a young child in Wales who is unable to converse in English or an elderly patient who has lost his or her English because he or she is living with dementia. Whether or not that authority then provides the service in your mother tongue or the tongue you have reverted to impacts on the quality of the care that is delivered.

In a roundabout way, I see the situation improving but I would not want to give the committee the impression we are there yet as far as Wales is concerned either, mainly because some of the obligations that are placed on these public bodies have only been in place for two years or so. In 18 months of those two years we have been living with a pandemic so those bodies have had a lot of firefighting to do rather than addressing some of the strategic weaknesses in their planning.

Gabh mo leithscéal go bhfuil clog an tSeanaid ag bualadh. I welcome Mr. Roberts. I am a former Minister of State at the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht with responsibility for the Irish language and the Gaeltacht areas in this country. We are often envious of what we hear about the Welsh language and I welcome this opportunity to say a few words to the commissioner.

How important has the assembly been in promoting the language? The Senedd coming into being gave more prominence to locally elected assembly members.

How important was having laws being made in Wales and for Wales in promoting the language?

Mr. Aled Roberts

It is certainly an issue. The language measure would not have been passed without us having a devolved assembly. What has been important is cross-party consensus on much of the language legislation, something on which both my predecessor and I have been anxious to build. The assembly is not subject to the standards, strangely, although the Welsh ministers are, but I am proud of the fact we have entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Senedd which has sought to ensure the language is given equal status with English. It is easy for people to forget that Welsh is a relative newcomer on the scene, both in the judicial and political context, because to all intents and purposes it was previously excluded. The devolved powers have been important and our memorandum with the Senedd has sought to ensure the practical requirements are put in place to ensure the members, if they require, can conduct their business in Welsh.

It was noticeable that the Welsh Parliament was the first parliament to ensure simultaneous translation was available over Zoom at the outset of the Covid epidemic, but there is more work to be done. If you look at the figures, the use of Welsh in the Senedd has reduced over the past three or four years, both at committee level and in plenary session. Much of that is down to the number of first-language speakers who were elected to the previous Senedd. A greater number of first-language speakers were elected to this Senedd. I am anxious to underline to them that there is a bit of work to be done to ensure children and young people, in particular, come to regard Welsh as a natural language of business in all fields in Wales going forward and not as a language for school.

I know, from watching some historical programmes on the Welsh language, there was hostility in decades past. I will not ask if that has been entirely replaced, because it probably has not, but I am sure it has been much reduced. With the number of speakers in the metropolitan areas such as Cardiff, there would be more visibility, it would be more of a living and spoken language and be something of which people would not pass any notice. Would that be a correct analysis of the situation?

Mr. Aled Roberts

Yes, I think it would be. There was more hostility. If you look at public surveys conducted from the 1970s onwards, there is certainly a greater degree of support for language practice and legislation over the past ten years or so. It has been important that language has not been seen as the possession of one political persuasion. The fact it has become just as important for all the parties has been important.

What has also happened is that an increasing number of young people use and converse in the language every day. A survey was published at the beginning of this week by the Welsh Government which showed that the figure has increased again and now 56% of Welsh speakers use the language daily. For the government's strategy going forward, it is important we look at usage. Usage is one of the two main planks of its policy, rather than only increasing the number of speakers. There is not much point increasing the number of speakers if they do not use the language in their everyday lives and it becomes a museum piece. Through greater usage and normalisation, less hostility ensues.

Does that carry on throughout the education system? Does it continue in universities or are they more anglicised rather than using spoken Welsh?

Mr. Aled Roberts

It is a complex picture. Each local authority is publishing a strategic education language plan in which targets have been imposed on each authority by the government - I think it uses the phrase "targets have been negotiated with each local authority" by the government - to increase the number of speakers within the compulsory education stage. We also have a body called the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol, which translates as the Welsh National College, which has previously been given responsibility to increase the Welsh language provision with universities. It has now been given the same responsibility for post-16 further education learning. The pattern in post-16 is not as healthy as pre-16, but that is because the majority of youngsters in Wales are no longer educated post-16 within schools. They are educated within colleges and, historically, the provision within in colleges has not been as good - let us put it that way - as it has been in the schools. There are huge issues with regard to training college lecturers who have fluency in the language. The figures on higher education have been improving, but they are still not where we want them to be. The figures in further education are challenging, to put it mildly.

I thank Mr. Roberts. I have to rush to the Seanad for a quorum on a debate.

An bhfuil aon chomhalta eile ag iarraidh teacht isteach? Tá cúpla ceist agam.

Níl ach ceist amháin agam. Cuirim fáilte roimh Aled Roberts agus gabhaim buíochas leis as an gcur i láthair. I thank the Mr. Roberts for his presentation. Unfortunately, I did not get to hear all of it, but the discussion sounds very interesting. One aspect I wanted to clarify with him was the extent of complaints or queries coming from the public over not getting services and the success rate-----

An féidir leat an ceamara a chur ar siúl chun a chruthú go bhfuil tú i dTeach Laighean? Níl sé ar siúl.

Tá brón orm; tá an ceamara ar an laptop.

Mr. Aled Roberts

Complaints have been increasing although they have significantly reduced in the period since Covid, mainly because the connectivity between public bodies and the public has been much reduced. However, it is important I explain that, unlike Welsh language schemes, if somebody makes a complaint to us, we have a duty to accept the complaint, provided it is a valid one. There is no requirement on members of the public to complain to the public body itself before they come to us. As more public bodies have become subject to the standards, that has created a problem because, and I make this point in the statement, sufficient resources have to be given to the commissioner's office to ensure the capacity is there to deal with complaints.

We also have a situation where there was an understanding between the government and the previous commissioner regarding the maximum number of officials that could be accommodated or employed by the commissioner. We currently have a ceiling of 46 employees and there is a division of roles between those employees who are within the regulatory field, dealing with standards and language schemes, and those who have responsibility for promotion.

What happened over time is that the number of complaints increased and the amount of time it took to deal with a complaint increased as well. That caused dissatisfaction with the complainants and the public bodies regarding the amount of time it was taking to resolve matters. Increasing resources were having to be placed within the regulatory teams, which meant there was a lot of criticism of a reduction in the amount of promotional work that was being undertaken by the commissioner's office. That transfer of resources led to the Welsh Government's White Paper, going back about three years, in which it questioned whether there was too much regulation and not enough promotion, for all intents and purposes.

Just prior to my assuming the role in 2019, we introduced an enforcement code, as we call it, which gave guidance to individual officers as to whether it was appropriate for a full investigation to be undertaken. We had to accept each and every complaint that was being delivered. To give an example, there could have been a complaint that a circumflex had been missed from a letter on a sign. Under the old regime, it was likely there would have been a full investigation which would have taken 15 or 18 months to resolve, with a report at the end suggesting the public body replace the sign, when in reality the sign had been replaced 14 months earlier because the body had accepted it had breached the standards. When individual officers receive a complaint, our new enforcement code allows them to make a recommendation to me personally, provided the complaint is valid, as to whether to undertake a full investigation. They can take into account the public body's previous record with regard to language, and they can look at whether the public body accepts there has been a breach of standards and what action it has taken to resolve that breach. The officers may say an investigation is not going to gain anything and suggest I do not investigate in this case. That has led to some friction between me and some language campaigners who have felt I have an obligation to investigate all cases fully, but the Welsh Language Tribunal has upheld all my decisions on the basis I have been reasonable and proportionate in exercising my powers, because the measure gives me discretion as to how many cases I investigate or what types of cases I investigate.

While some of the language campaigners were concerned we were going to be investigating fewer issues and fewer complaints, this has allowed me to release some resources, which means I can then undertake investigations of my own volition. My monitoring officers might come back to me saying they have been having discussions with a public body now for 12 months and are not making any progress whatsoever on the issue, that the body, in their estimation, is in breach of the language standards that have been placed upon it, and ask me what I want to do. They would recommend, having looked at all the other tools available to them, that this is a matter I should investigate.

The real difference between standards and language schemes is the only power the commissioner had previously with regard to schemes, and still has for those bodies that are still operating language schemes, was to make recommendations to the body itself, which in some instances might not be implemented or might be ignored. Now, once there is an adjudication made by me, I place enforcement measures on the body. Those enforcement measures range between my saying it has to do this by such-and-such a date and a situation where I say to the public body I want it to produce an action plan showing me it will have resolved this issue within such-and-such a period. If the reality is it is a much bigger issue for it to get to grips with, I might I say I want it to do this by such-and-such a date. The real need then is the commissioner's office puts sufficient resources into monitoring those enforcement measures and those action plans.

If I am honest, in the early days of standards, once the enforcement measures were actually imposed, there was very little monitoring by the commissioner's officers as to whether they had been successfully implemented. I became aware there were instances where people were having to complain about the same thing that had been investigated 18 months previously and which should really have been resolved. We have now put some resources into monitoring those enforcement and action plans, and I get regular reports confirming whether the plans are actually being implemented. If they are not being implemented, then the public bodies know there will be further consequences to those actions. Fortunately, to date the threat of public embarrassment for breach of the language standards has been sufficient to ensure most public bodies have ensured all the enforcement measures have been implemented.

To clarify, the commissioner investigates some cases and feels he does not need to investigate others. Will Mr. Roberts give a steer as to the different public bodies? Would there be a whole load of them, maybe 80% to 90% or even 95%, that come out with their hands up saying they will do their business and sort it out or are there larger numbers of problem ones that are persistent offenders? What kind of goodwill is the commissioner's office getting from the public bodies on their responsibilities?

Mr. Aled Roberts

A great deal of goodwill, to be honest. The first stage of the process is based on whether the public body accepts responsibility for the breach alleged. There are some instances where the public body just turns around and says it is not itself but some other public body that is responsible for a particular complaint. We have some instances of those and we have others where there is a ready acceptance of responsibility, but we might not be satisfied with the explanation given and we want to investigate to understand. The body may have put its hands up but we want to know how it got into that position in the first place because it assured us previously it had sufficient measures in place to ensure this kind of breach did not occur.

We have a small number of a cases, and I can provide the committee with statistics to give some indication of the number involved, where the public body does not accept responsibility and I have to undertake an investigation. At the outset of the investigation I can call for evidence from the public body. I must ensure the call for evidence is sufficiently broad to ensure I have all the evidence before me to come to a reasonable adjudication. Luckily, those instances are, if anything, reducing in number as the bodies become more aware of the workings of the standards.

Among those bodies where there have been a high number of complaints, there was a tendency for those complaints to be dealt with by the Welsh language unit and the Welsh language officers. Because the senior management teams within those organisations are concerned about the attention that is drawn to them for breaches of language legislation, we have seen the language complaints increasingly being dealt with by the corporate complaints department, which means the evidence provided to us is substantial and allows us to come to a proper decision earlier in the case. Among those same public bodies, I spend a lot of time, as do my directors, maintaining those relationships at the higher level so there is an awareness that we are actually keeping tabs on them.

Táim an-bhuíoch as sin.

Cuirim fáilte roimh Mr. Roberts. He is welcome and I thank him. It is good to have him here and to get an outside perspective. I apologise; I was here earlier, left and returned, so I have missed some of the meeting. I do read documents, however, so I look forward to reading the submission in detail.

Wales changed to the standard scheme ten years ago. It is ten years in existence. Perhaps Mr. Roberts can outline the changes that have occurred over those ten years. He said there are 122 public bodies under the Welsh language standards. Are there more to come on board? What is the possible scope that could come under the remit of the commissioner? What are the difficulties, if any, Mr. Roberts is encountering in getting those bodies under his remit?

We have not had sight of any standards here, so we are working in a vacuum, although we have asked the Government to publish sample standards for us so we might know what to expect. Perhaps Mr. Roberts can help us in that regard. I note the Welsh standards are divided into five classes. I may have misread Mr. Roberts' submission as I read it quickly. There is no public consultation. The government decides on the standards. It makes the decision and then the consultation process starts with the public bodies as to which standard they should fit under. Is that correct?

Mr. Aled Roberts

If I forget any of the points raised by the Deputy, please remind me at the end. As I understand it, the standard setting process is very different from what is currently being considered in Ireland. My office undertakes the research and suggests to the government those areas we believe should be subject to the standards. We provide the government with evidence of issues we are aware of. The public element feeds into the research we undertake. It was a conscious decision that the government would draw up the standards and present them to the Senedd for debate. That means there is a need for the research we carry out to be of sufficient quality for the government to prepare policy instructions to the lawyers who are then charged with providing the standards.

Once the standards are set, my office is responsible for the discussions with the public bodies with regard to the implementation of the standards. It is open to those public bodies to challenge our proposals. That can be either within discussions undertaken with officials or, if we come to an initial stance as regard the standards we wish to impose, they can challenge my office's recommendation and I have to adjudicate on the challenge. The challenge can be either with regard to the reasonableness of the standard or the time period for its implementation. Once I make a decision or there is no challenge and the standards are set, my organisation is responsible for the enforcement of the standards and the monitoring of the working of those standards.

I know it is difficult without seeing the type of standards the Government in Ireland is considering, but our standards are quite detailed and prescriptive. In some ways that is a good thing. In other ways, it is not, because we have come across instances after the standards have been introduced where the wording used by the government is narrow or does not take into account developments, particularly in technology, that have occurred subsequently.

I am more than happy to provide the committee with information on the standard-setting process. I probably need to go into greater detail than I did in my written statement. If members want to see how detailed some of our standards are, they are more than welcome to ask for any further evidence from my office.

Ten years after the introduction of standards, are they in a better place in Wales with regard to standards than they were with the language schemes?

Mr. Aled Roberts


Perhaps Mr. Roberts would outline some of the positives.

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.

What is the number of public bodies involved? Mr. Roberts gave a number in his opening speech of approximately 120. Are more public bodies to come on board? That is my final question.

Mr. Aled Roberts

That is probably the biggest sticking point at the moment. If you read our manifesto call to all the political parties prior to the Senedd elections, we called for the programme of government to include a timeline for the introduction of new standards. There are two issues here. The government is dependent on us to carry out the research. We have carried out the research into the train companies, health regulators, housing associations, and water, gas and electric companies. We have had a period of three and a half years where no new standards have been introduced. That, in part, was due to some questioning as to what the future of the commission would be as decided upon by the government. There was a White Paper introduced which suggested it would actually remove the office of commissioner and would introduce a commission. During that period of uncertainty, there was little movement as far as the government was concerned.

There was also the ongoing debate between my office and the government regarding the division of the regulatory and promotional duties. That has been clarified now for two years so there was an expectation we would revert to the introduction of language standards. There has not been any movement during that period. We understand there are big practical problems in place because the public health emergency here has meant the call on translation services, on lawyers in particular, has been great and there is a resource issue for the government as to the framing of regulations.

We have now reached agreement with the government that it will proceed with standards for the rail companies. That will include Transport for Wales but will also include Avanti West Coast, which runs the services to Holyhead, and GWR, which runs the service to the south west of Wales from London. They will be subject to the standards. I also have an expectation that we will move on the health regulators but, as I say, there is a political decision that is taken with regard to the introduction of standards. All I can do is the groundwork because it is then a political decision as to whether the standards are actually introduced.

The other issue, which is something the proposed legislation in Ireland does deal with, is the other shortcoming in our legislation, which is that if a new body is created, depending on the actual legislation that founded the body, there are different ways of making it subject to the standards. This has meant there have been new bodies created in the past two to three years which operate in sectors that are currently subject to the standards but the new bodies are not subject to the standards themselves. That includes a body such as Qualifications Wales, which deals with all qualifications, as you would expect, within compulsory education. There is also a new health body called Health Education and Improvement Wales. I was trying to remember what the title to the organisation was in English. It is charged with ensuring the training and recruitment of health and social care practitioners is undertaken. We had an issue where it was not subject to the standards and we were not happy with some of the actions it was taking, to the extent we agreed a Welsh language scheme with the body and I have to say our relationship with it now is very positive. It shows that there is a gap in respect of the extension of standards to bodies that are created by the Welsh Government itself.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Uasal Roberts.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Uasal Roberts.

Mr. Roberts is very welcome agus cuirim fáilte roimhe. Croeso i'r pwyllgor, if I am pronouncing that correctly. I have been very encouraged by what he has said regarding dealing with public bodies and so on. He has covered some of this already but how challenging or realistic is the target of having 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050? What resistance to the Welsh language standards has there been from the civil service, the public or departments? I recently received a complaint from a constituent who was dealing with Kerry County Council. She made her planning application completely as Gaeilge but the refusal of the planning permission was completely in English. A motion was put to Kerry County Council that anyone making an application in Irish would get a reply in Irish. The reply given was that arrangements are in place for a service as Gaeilge to be provided where requested by a customer. Obviously the fact her application was completely as Gaeilge was considered irrelevant unless there was a specific request on top of that.

I would also like to ask the commissioner something about road signage. Having driven through Wales, I have seen the signs for Abertawe, Swansea. Was the changing of all road signs arranged by regulation or was the passing of legislation in either the Welsh Parliament or the other parliament required? I would appreciate it if the commissioner would answer those two questions.

Mr. Aled Roberts

As far as the Deputy's constituent is concerned, each and every public body that is subject to the standards is supposed to decide on the language of choice of the constituent. If a planning application was made in Welsh, it would be expected that Welsh would be registered as the language of choice. In those circumstances, the standards require that all future correspondence with that constituent would be in Welsh. Clearly, we have instances where that does not happen but the constituent would then have the opportunity to complain directly to me. Provided the complaint was valid and if, following a full investigation, that complaint was upheld, I would take enforcement actions against the local authority to ensure it had proper processes in place to ensure that did not happen again.

As far as Welsh language signage is concerned, the Welsh Government decided Welsh would come first on all signage. Previously, although there was a requirement for road signage to be bilingual, which, to be fair, goes back to pre-devolution days, it was up to each local authority concerned whether to put English or Welsh first. There were instances where you could travel ten miles and, if you passed three boundaries, the signage would change each time depending on the choice of the council. The Welsh Government changed that so that all new signage has to place Welsh first. There is also a requirement for signage painted on roads and so on to be bilingual. Again, the standards ensure complaints can be made in instances where that does not occur. The only condition I would place on that is the policy only requires signage to be changed when it is being replaced. The Deputy will probably be driving through Wales from Ireland for some decades yet and still be seeing signage on which Welsh does not come first. That is the reason.

Was that policy implemented by regulation or did legislation have to be passed?

Mr. Aled Roberts

I would guess it was probably done under secondary legislation, that is, by regulation. It would be safer for me to write to the clerk of the committee and confirm that in case I totally mislead the Deputy.

An bhfuil éinne ag iarraidh labhairt? Níl. I have a number of questions myself. The commissioner mentioned earlier that he was trying to get more Welsh spoken in the Senedd. If he has any hints, I hope he will share them because one of the biggest problems we have is that the level of Irish spoken in the Chamber, although obviously not in this committee, is reducing year on year. Without this committee, the amount of Irish spoken in these buildings would be a national disgrace. If the commissioner has any hints, we will try to share. Obviously, we are supposed to be under schemes and so on but we would like to encourage Deputies and Senators to use more Irish in the Chamber. There has been debate in the Chambers over the years regarding the desire to be heard in the media, given the sometimes limited time we have to speak, as the media in the main only carries or gives prominence to quotes in the English language. As a result, many Deputies and Senators shy away from using the Irish they have.

Does the commissioner have a role in assessing the impact of legislation? When legislation is promised or is being drawn up in the Senedd, does he get advance sight of it to make recommendations? That is something we have encouraged here.

I have two short final points. The commissioner mentioned enforcement and companies being afraid of public embarrassment. Does the stick go beyond public embarrassment? Are there financial penalties involved? This is a debate we have had with regard to the Bill. The Bill we are working our way through, which will bring in the standards and so on, will be back here next Tuesday. The debate will start again and will then go on to our own Seanad. That question is part of that debate.

Has the commissioner had the same experience as us during the Covid period? For example, signage, notices to schools and other documents issued by our health service were totally in English. It is only when somebody raises a complaint that a notice will appear, often a number of weeks later. This is true of other services but is particularly true of our health service, the HSE, which issued most of the public statements in that period.

Mr. Aled Roberts

It might be worthwhile to put the committee in contact with the Senedd Commission in Cardiff because it faces the exact same issues. As I mentioned, the percentage of Welsh spoken has been reducing but, as I said, I believe this was due to the reduction in those who spoke Welsh as a first language during the term of the last Senedd. Clearly, we face the same issues with regard to Senedd members wanting to make a point in English to get exposure in the English-medium channels in addition to the Welsh-medium channels. There is an action plan in place. One of the difficulties faced by Senedd members is that it may be the case that their staff in Cardiff do not speak Welsh. That means a lot of the research, speech writing and so on is undertaken in English. It is therefore the responsibility of the Senedd members themselves to ensure they are able to make their speeches in Welsh. There are practical issues, which the Senedd is tackling.

We have also had discussions with the government with regard to the amount of background information that is available in both languages.

Members of committees, for example, do not have to translate documentation themselves. It is now expected that all committee papers will be available in both languages. If I were to present evidence in both languages, that would be sent out to all committee members within scope. I am more than happy to share good practice within the Senedd with the committee but I do not want to create the impression it is all sweetness and light. We have a job of work to do. The fact the First Minister and the ministers for education and health all speak Welsh as their first language has ensured much more exposure to the language within the current Senedd than there was previously.

We do not have prior sight of language impact assessments. That is a live issue between ourselves and the government. We have policy standards and it would be worth it for the committee to look at these. The policy standards require all public bodies subject to the standards to carry out full assessments of the impact of any policy decision on the language. This year, we were involved in an action that went all the way to the Court of Appeal in London. We were of the opinion that a language assessment was not sufficient for proper consideration of a policy. As a result, we have issued new guidance to public bodies that are subject to the standards with regard to what we expect to see within a language assessment if it is to make a proper job of work of it as far as Welsh is concerned.

We do have the power to enforce a civil penalty on a public body. This has not been used since the standards were imposed. Although it is something I would always keep in my armoury, the real purpose of enforcement, to my mind, is to bring about a change of behaviour as far as the public body is concerned. Where civil penalties are imposed, for example, in areas related to the environment or some economic measures, these penalties will only actually bring about a change in the public body's behaviour if they are enough to cause that body some discomfort financially. My problem is that the maximum civil penalty I can impose is £5,000. We have to use this power sparingly and ensure its use is proportionate. Some of the other enforcement measures that are within my power bring about that change of behaviour much more rapidly than a civil penalty would. If I was trying to get the chief executive of a local authority to introduce something that would cost a given figure, if the embarrassment of being in breach of the language standards and of being the subject of an adverse report from the commissioner was not sufficient to change his or her mind, I am not sure a £5,000 civil penalty would bring about the change in attitude. It is within our powers but it is not something that has been used to date.

As far as Covid is concerned, the picture is mixed. All of the public written communication with individual householders and individuals has been fully bilingual. We are currently dealing with a complaint regarding some of the arrangements in respect of press conferences undertaken by the Welsh Government and whether the language was given equal status. We also have a problem in that some of the signage within certain vaccination centres was not bilingual and, in some instances where bilingual documentation was used, the English part was filled in by the health practitioners without asking the language choice of the patient. We have had complaints from people who are saying their vaccination cards were filled out in English even though they asked for them to be filled out in Welsh. Those are the subject of investigations.

However, I have to say the concern we had at the outset that Welsh would be put to one side because of the public health emergency was not realised to the extent we thought it would be. There was an attempt by the government and the public health authorities to ensure information was available bilingually and that proper consideration was given to the language. Even with regard to the letter from Boris Johnson in Downing Street that was addressed to everyone at the outset of the campaign, I had to have oxygen when I opened my envelope to see that the letter was in Welsh first and then in English.

We have a long way to go to reach some of those standards. I do not think there was even one press conference at which Irish was spoken throughout the pandemic. I am open to correction on that. As I said, very little of the material from the Health Service Executive, HSE, came in Irish except where complaints were made. We have a job of work to do. Our own language commissioner will be before the committee next week. He is dealing with a number of investigations and complaints regarding that period. We will be raising that issue with him. Do any other members of the committee want to ask any more questions? If no one indicates soon, I will bring this meeting to a conclusion.

I thank the commissioner; go raibh míle maith agat. This has been a very useful discussion, as always. Perhaps we may be able to travel over and meet him in situ next time having learned further from the progress we have made at that stage. I believe the legislation will be passed in the Dáil and Seanad in the coming weeks. It is to be hoped that will happen before Christmas. We hope that will bring in a new regime which will address one aspect of the revival of the Irish language. Gabhaim buíochas leis an gcoimisinéir arís. I thank him very much. I hope we will see him again.

That concludes the debate. I thank Mr. Roberts for helping us with our discussions today. Muna bhfuil aon rud eile le plé ag na comhaltaí, cuirfimid an cruinniú seo ar athló go dtí 2 p.m., 9 Meán Fomhair 2021, nuair a phléifimid cearta teanga in Éirinn, tuarascáil bhliaintiúil 2021 an Choimisinéara Teanga agus a thuarascáil faireacháin 2021 leis an gCoimisinéir Teanga, Rónán Ó Domhnaill.

Cuireadh an comhchoiste ar athló ar 3.29 p.m. go dti 2 p.m. Dé Céadaoin, 29 Meán Fómhair 2021.