Previous SectionIndexHome Page


8.31 pm

Mr. Walter Sweeney (Vale of Glamorgan): I welcome the opportunity to speak briefly against some of the Procedure Committee's recommendations. I should like to alter slightly the Latin quotation cited by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House by saying omnes cives Britannici sumus, which loosely translates as, "We are all Brits here." Whether hon. Members are English, Welsh, Irish or Scottish, we are all British--or Irish--citizens and we all speak English in the House and its Committees.

Such use of English may originally have been part of a campaign to discriminate against Welsh, as the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) suggested, but no reasonable hon. Member could doubt that the rule serves the convenience of monoglot Members, who should not be discriminated against. Most hon. Members can speak English fluently--[Interruption.] Even in Wales, 80 per cent. of the population cannot speak Welsh.

I warmly welcome the first recommendation of the Procedure Committee that English is and should remain the language of the House. I would have been happier if the Committee had left it at that, subject to one exception to which I shall return. I do not accept the recommendation that members of the Welsh Grand Committee should be entitled to address the Committee in Welsh when it meets in Wales. I consider that a totally unnecessary, inappropriate and unacceptable sop to Welsh nationalism.

Such an entitlement is unnecessary, because every member who serves on the Welsh Grand Committee is almost bound to be capable of speaking and understanding English. It is inappropriate, because most Committee members are likely to be unable to understand Welsh. It is unacceptable, because the possibility of Committee members speaking Welsh represents a breach of the centuries-old principle that the language of Parliament should be English.

The Procedure Committee has considered the matter against the background of the Welsh Language Act 1993. This is not the time to rehearse the general arguments about how best to preserve and enhance the richness that the Welsh language bestows on the culture of Wales, but the detailed application of Government policy on the Welsh language can be intensely irritating and wasteful of paper.

Every publication that I receive from a Welsh Government agency is printed in both languages, even though virtually every recipient has a good understanding of English. As a non-Welsh speaker, I rip such publications in half and discard the Welsh part--not because I have anything against the Welsh language, but to save storage space and make a small gesture against the waste of paper and print. Some documents frustrate my intentions because the two languages are printed on opposite sides of the page. Whenever practicable, recipients of bilingual documents should elect which language they prefer and then be given a single-language document.

Documents produced in Welsh cost many times more than those produced in English, because Welsh documents have so few readers. The policy of wasting paper and

5 Jun 1996 : Column 685

money will be built on if the House accepts the Procedure Committee's recommendation to introduce interpreters and additional electronic equipment that, according to the Committee's report, will cost about £2,500 a sitting. What a waste of money!

I would have more sympathy with the Procedure Committee's proposals if I thought that there was any significant risk of a member of the Welsh Grand Committee who speaks Welsh being unable to speak English. From talking in English to hon. Members who speak Welsh, such as the hon. Members for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Dafis) and for Gower (Mr. Wardell), I have formed the impression that their English is up to the higher standards found in the House. Such hon. Members are the Welsh equivalent of English people who are good at Latin, Greek, French or German, who tend also to be first-class English speakers. There is no practical benefit for hon. Members who speak Welsh being allowed to speak Welsh.

Mr. Llwyd: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Sweeney: I regret that time does not permit me to do so.

I accept that those whose first language is Welsh may be even more at home with Welsh than they are with English, but any special Welsh idioms or nuances of meaning are likely to be lost in translation. So, for monoglot English colleagues, and in Hansard later, the added value of the original Welsh would be lost.

I said at the outset that, although I favour the retention of English as the only language authorised and spoken in the House and its Committees, I also favour one exception. If the Welsh Grand Committee or the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs ever take evidence from Welsh speakers who are not hon. Members, and if such witnesses are not competent in speaking English, they should be allowed, at the discretion of the Chairman, to address the Committee in Welsh--whether they give evidence in Wales or Westminster.

I make that exception not to give witnesses who are equally at home in English or Welsh the opportunity to elect to speak Welsh, but to ensure that Committees are not deprived of the opportunity of hearing evidence from a Welsh speaker in the very unusual circumstances of such a person being unable to speak English.

8.37 pm

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): It is refreshing that we have heard the authentic, arrogant voice of linguistic chauvinism towards the end of the debate. I shall not dwell on it. Perhaps Freud could explain why the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Sweeney) tears in half bilingual forms. There are probably deep-seated reasons for it.

The House has taken a more enlightened position. I add my gratitude to that of others for the thoroughness and speed with which the Procedure Committee reported. I should like to strike a slightly cynical note in saying, to vulgarise Virgil, "Timeo Conservatores et dona ferentes"--I fear the Conservatives though they bear gifts.

5 Jun 1996 : Column 686

Progress since I tabled an amendment on 11 March--it has caused the Government to act so quickly--has been remarkably speedy. They have suddenly realised that the Welsh language is a great treasure. As has been said, the first early-day motion that I tabled on the first St. David's day after I was elected called for the use of the Welsh language to be permitted in the proceedings of the Welsh Grand Committee using simultaneous translation facilities. That early-day motion was tabled not on11 March this year but on 1 March 1988.

We should all acknowledge that the reason for the extraordinary speed with which the Government have acted has little to do with their love of the Welsh language and much to do with their desire for the Welsh Grand Committee to sit in Wales and to do a certain amount of mischief as they see it in putting their case before the people of Wales. They will be sadly disappointed in that aim, which has a clear political slant.

Let me say what a pleasure it has been listening to the speeches tonight. In my constituency, a fortnight ago I attended a centre where the Romans were in Wales--the second legion were in Caerleon 2,000 years ago. A group of schoolchildren were visiting the Capricorn centre, which is a wonderful centre for teaching children about life in Roman times. That school party was from ysgol Trimsaran. The children were learning about the Roman barracks and the living conditions there. It was all fascinating stuff.

However, the most vivid reminiscence of Rome was on the tongues of the children who were all Welsh-speaking from Trimsaran. When they see the bridge that crosses the river at Caerleon, they do not call it a bridge, they call it a "pont". When they see the windows that decorate the town, they do not say "window", but "ffenest". Those are two examples of a whole range of words that came to Wales with the Romans 2,000 years ago when the children of Caerleon were bilingual. It is a remarkable miracle that those words have echoed down the centuries and are a great living treasure.

The right hon. Member for Conwy (Sir W. Roberts) mentioned the Gododdin. He did not quote from it. I shall attempt to do so from memory. Its first words are of great significance:


That means "The men went to Catterick". It was the first book in the Welsh language and was written two centuries before Beowulf. If I quoted Beowulf, not a soul in this place would understand me.

The Leader of the House talked about Chaucerian English which is one of our great joys and a treasure to us all. It is a beautiful language:


It is music; it is poetry; it is beautiful and it is part of the inheritance of every hon. Member. Why do we not delight in it? When I used a different quotation--

Mr. Newton: I suppose that the hon. Gentleman realises that he will have to write that out for Hansard.

Mr. Flynn: I shall be quite happy to do that, although I am afraid that the spelling is a matter of dispute. I would be happy to write it out for hon. Members as well.

5 Jun 1996 : Column 687

If only hon. Members who are unfortunately monoglot could understand what it means to speak more than one language. They are not better Welshmen or Englishman than anyone else. We have many reasons for welcoming the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans), to his place tonight. He said with some passion, "I do not speak the two languages of Wales," but he is no lesser Welshman for that. If only hon. Members knew what they were missing--the great treasure that has been handed down to the children from Trimsaran.

Earlier today I was listening to a gentleman from the place where I was educated. Mr. John Humphreys is from Splott. I had the great fortune to be born in Grangetown in Cardiff and educated in Splott. It is known as the dream ticket in Cardiff circles. Unfortunately, neither of those areas was rich in the Welsh language. Mr. John Humphreys referred to the great change that has taken place since 1979 when the Welsh language, the Irish language and many other languages were seen as a divisive grit in politics. They did divide, separate and create suspicions and hatred. That is gone now. It is remarkable that in Grangetown, Splott, Lliswerry and Ringland in Newport there is a great flowering of Welsh schools. Children without any Welsh language in their background are becoming first generation Welsh speakers--for which they will be grateful for the rest of their days. That is a wonderful improvement that has taken place in our time.

I share many of the misgivings that have been expressed about the decision of the Procedure Committee. There are many points to quibble about, particularly by those who are used to living in two languages. Nobody is completely bilingual. Nobody is equally comfortable in both languages. Some are more comfortable in English and some are more comfortable in Welsh. It depends on their mother tongue. People should be allowed to use both languages.

I see little difference between what has been suggested for Wales and what happens in the House of Commons. People who come here from Estonia and Lithuania sit in a special corner where equipment is available to enable our proceedings to be translated for them. That equipment is most sophisticated and could be adapted to other languages.

We are all in the mood to welcome the concession that we have here tonight. We claim it as a right and we look forward to the great joy of using in the only Parliament that Wales has both the beautiful languages of Wales.


Next Section

IndexHome Page