Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses(Questions 40-59)

TUESDAY 15 OCTOBER 2002

RT HON PAUL MURPHY MP, ALISON JACKSON AND MR JOHN KILNER

  40. The Secretary of State has mentioned and we know from past discussions in this House that problems in the past, such as the delay in introducing a fully bilingual website, have been ascribed to pressure on the Assembly's translation service. Are you now confident however that you have the translation resources to meet the commitments that you set out in the draft scheme?
  (Ms Jackson) We are still going first of all to the Assembly's translation service but we now have back-up in that we are in touch with Welsh language translators in London who will do the work if the Assembly is unable to do it for us. The Assembly, as the Secretary of State said, are indeed very helpful but the pressures on them are getting very tough and so we are doing more with external translators.

Mr Caton

  41. Sticking with the Welsh language, Secretary of State, the Departmental Report lists as an achievement the "special status" given to the Welsh language in the Immigration and Asylum White Paper, Secure Borders, Save Haven. I am advised that there are only two references to the Welsh language in the White Paper: one is to a provision in the British Nationality Act 1981 and the other is a reference to the provision of educational materials in English, Welsh and Scottish Gaelic. Are these two references the sum total of the special status given to the Welsh language in the White Paper?
  (Mr Murphy) As you know, the White Paper now forms the Nationality and Immigration Bill and as such is in its final stages with the Lords Report Stage which commenced I think on 9 October. Since the publication of the Departmental Report the reference to any specific language in the White Paper has been removed. In order to gain British nationality knowledge of a language for the purpose of naturalisation is required. This language is in the majority of cases English but knowledge of Welsh or, for that matter, Gaelic, is permissible. The final draft of the Nationality and Immigration Bill does not specify either the English or the Welsh language. For all public sector purposes in Wales the Welsh language enjoys statutory equal status with English. Although I would expect to see few, if any, applicants for British nationality claiming to qualify through the knowledge of Welsh rather than English, we needed to ensure this was an option because of the status of Welsh. We are keen to ensure that wherever a migrant lives in the United Kingdom he or she will have access to language tuition of a uniform standard which meets the aim of providing awareness of what it means to be an active citizen. In some parts of Wales the ability to have knowledge of the Welsh language is of course very important. The Bill is now more flexible and allows immigrants to qualify for naturalisation via an appropriate language because that was a hugely important thing to be able to put through in the legislation so that the status of Welsh is recognised, even though not many people take it up in the nature of this Bill, and also the importance within education. That was the purpose.

  42. In the Departmental Report you thought special status for the Welsh language was a significant enough achievement that you actually recorded it.
  (Mr Murphy) Yes.

  43. Do you feel now, when you say that it is not specifically mentioned in the Bill, that the special status is still properly protected?
  (Mr Murphy) Yes, I think it is. I believe it to be absolutely the case that because it was in the White Paper the Bill is predicated on the basis of Welsh and English having that core status.

Dr Francis

  44. What involvement has the Wales Office had informally with the Government's new telecommunications policy?
  (Mr Murphy) As you know, I have no executive functions with regard to broadband related issues in Wales. That is the responsibility of the Assembly and the DTI. As a member of the Cabinet I am consulted on proposed Government policies which may impact on the rollout of broadband facilities to areas of Wales where there is currently insufficient access to those facilities, for example, policies which affect the regulatory and pricing framework for broadband provision ro financial or fiscal incentives for investment. Broadband is crucial, as I know you believe, to the success of our economy in Wales and public services as well as raising people's skills and knowledge. I think it is so very important for those areas in rural Wales but also those areas which have been affected, for example, the ones we have just described in terms of lost jobs, where broadband, the new technology, I believe can mean more jobs to people in Wales as well as greater interest. My officials are in constant contact with Assembly officials to ensure that I can give informed consideration to any proposed initiatives which this Government puts forward. DTI officials also maintain very close and regular contact with Assembly officials and I make sure that those are smooth relationships. All of us welcomed Andrew Davies's announcement of £100 million investment which will bring this latest technology to 310,000 extra homes and 67,000 extra businesses. Lastly, Don Touhig visited the Radiocommunications Agency in Cardiff to be briefed on the role of the agency and future developments, so there is very keen interest, making sure that lines of communication are open between the Assembly and the DTI and the Government are fully supported.

Mr Wiggin

  45. Alison Jackson is the Wales Office's "e-Champion". Can you explain to us what the work of the e-Champion involves?
  (Mr Murphy) No. Alison will explain that one because she is the Champion.
  (Ms Jackson) As far as the e-Champion in the Wales Office is concerned, I think that my two main concerns are that the public should be able to deal with us electronically if they wish and that is certainly possible. As you know, we do not deliver services to the public but any communication that we have with the public can be done electronically just in the same way that it can be done by letter or by telephone and we have targets for responding to people's e-mails which we mostly meet. There are one or two that slip but in general we meet those targets. As far as internal procedures are concerned, I am anxious particularly with our two sites in London and in Cardiff that we should do as much business as possible electronically, so, for example, we have a document management system where the 250-300 letters a week that the Secretary of State was speaking about are scanned on the day they arrive on to our document management system so that they are instantly accessible to the people who have to brief on them in Cardiff as well as in London, and they are available to anybody who needs to consider them. We also, in formulating advice for the Secretary of State, extensively use electronic systems so that we can make amendments to each other's documents and make sure that we get the right thing. We are also logged on to the Government knowledge network so that we have access to all the briefing information that is on that. As far as the more general work of e-Champions in Government is concerned and in developing the policy, we do not procure our own IT. That is partly because we are too small but also because it makes good business sense for us to be connected to the Assembly's system, again to have access to all the information that is available from the Assembly. As far as that is concerned I certainly see the papers that go round to the e-Champions but the work of integrating the Assembly and therefore the Wales Office system into the Government's e-policy is done by the Assembly e-Champion. I do get consulted on various policy developments. For example, I had some input into the Merlin project which is the re-tendering of the Assembly IT to make sure that the specification meets our needs as well as everyone else's.

  46. Do you expect the percentage of correspondence replied to within 15 working days to go up from 80% in the future because of the amount of e-mailing?
  (Ms Jackson) As far as correspondence replied to by e-mail is concerned, that has not been part of our record, has it, John?
  (Mr Kilner) No.
  (Ms Jackson) We have met the targets on that one. As far as correspondence generally is concerned, at the moment over the last three months we have achieved 100 per cent. We have by various means brought ourselves up to what we ought to be doing.
  (Mr Murphy) Not bad, is it? It was 50% in the last Departmental Report, now up to 80 and we hope for 100%.

  47. What about e-mails going astray? Do you have any of those?
  (Mr Murphy) If we had we would not tell you.
  (Ms Jackson) Everybody occasionally clicks on the wrong name in an address book but the Assembly global address book now has separated out the Welsh Assembly Government, us, the Presiding Officer and Members so it is quite difficult for e-mails to go seriously astray.
  (Mr Murphy) Stick to letters.

Chairman

  48. The question arose because we have suffered from e-mails sort of going astray ourselves, although not from here.
  (Ms Jackson) It happened to us quite seriously in our first year but since then people have been extremely careful.
  (Mr Murphy) Stick to letters and telephone calls.

Dr Francis

  49. Do I take it that you undertook a training programme to become an e-Champion and, if that was the case, does that include some system of monitoring e-mails for their accuracy?
  (Ms Jackson) No. The e-Champions within departments are senior members of staff whose responsibility is to ensure that the department operates electronically within the Government guidelines and continues to make progress towards that. My responsibility is making sure that the Wales Office has that general policy. When it comes to the detail and the technicalities we rely, as I say, on the IT provisions in the Assembly under our service level agreement and it is they who get specific training.

  50. What about the second part of my question? Are e-mails monitored for their accuracy? It is not a mysterious question. Letters are monitored. How do you monitor e-mails?
  (Ms Jackson) Again, in the same way as letters are copied to people before they are sent for them to be checked, e-mails, if they are responding to members of the public, are not sent until they have been checked by somebody. Internal e-mails are never sent to just one person. There is always somebody else copied on the copy list who will read the e-mail and check it as it goes.

  51. I take it that there are now the same number of errors or not at all compared with hard copies, or would you not know that?
  (Ms Jackson) As far as letters which go out to members of the public are concerned, and if Members of Parliament wish to communicate with us by e-mail, those e-mails will be accurate; they will be checked carefully. The e-mails that go between members of staff, by the time anything is issued that will go to ministers or go out in public, accuracy will have been guaranteed.

  52. Can we take it then that that procedure as you have described would be something that would be across the whole of the United Kingdom in the devolved bodies? Is that something worth noting?
  (Ms Jackson) I think that most departments have an e-mail policy which would ensure that anything that goes outside the department is accurate.

Julie Morgan

  53. Do you think that your proposal for increasing the staff by seven will be sufficient to do the work adequately, seeing that the review did suggest that there should be 13?
  (Mr Murphy) As you know, Chairman, the independent review which I announced to the House last year and to this Committee to look at the staffing arrangements of the Department recommended between nine and 13. I came to the conclusion, as we were up to cover on numbers in the office, that seven would do the work that would be required to ensure that we had a smooth operation. Most of those people will be dealing with the parliamentary committee and other work. One of them will strengthen office management and therefore enable other staff better to do their own jobs. I think it will be sufficient; I hope it will. As I said earlier on, the nature of this Office, like the nature of all the territorial departments, to say the least in Northern Ireland, is that we see a changing world. We do not know from year to year exactly how many bills we are going to have to deal with until the Queen's Speech is finally announced; we do not know what crises will emerge, for example, when we had the problem with Corus which Dr Francis referred to earlier, but we hope that this will do the trick and that the advice that ministers get, and indeed the advice that Members of Parliament get, from the Office will be the best they can possibly have.

Mr Wiggin

  54. Of these 13 posts now down to seven, how many of these are special advisers?
  (Mr Murphy) None.

Mr Caton

  55. On this question, I did not understand from your first response, Secretary of State, why you decided not to accept the recommendations of your consultants when they said the increase of nine staff translates into a 90% increase in staff resources which they believe is the minimum increase that is required in order to enable the Wales Office to adequately undertake its current role. Seven is something that your consultants would say will allow you adequately to undertake your role.
  (Mr Murphy) We have never been at complement in the three years we have been in existence and I would like to see first of all what the situation would be if we were at complement and with the seven extra, and then obviously I will come back to this Committee and explain the situation to you when I see how we go. I just think it is sensible at this stage to see whether going a good way towards the nine that they were asking for is sufficient and then, if we feel we still have a difficulty, obviously it is an issue. I just think that at the moment we should have a very careful look at the structures within the Department and I have spent many hours with Alison and with her colleagues on this to make sure we get this right. We came to the conclusion that we think we can get it right by employing the seven but clearly time will tell. As I said earlier to Ms Morgan, the situation changes from time to time, does it not, in terms of what faces us as departments and we just have to take it as it goes.

Mrs Williams

  56. You have not told us how much work there would be for a translator but perhaps one of these you have not decided upon could be a full time translator.
  (Mr Murphy) It is worth examining but we would have to balance it out with the cost of employing somebody full time compared with the costs that we now incur with regard to translation and weigh that up.
  (Ms Jackson) I do not think we have enough work for a full time translator, Mrs Williams. We get very few letters from the public in Welsh. The main document we translate is our Departmental Report and although there is the website we do not put enough on that for there to be enough work for a full time translator.
  (Mr Murphy) In other words with the cost element we would probably still be better off at the moment by going out to get things translated for us.

Julie Morgan

  57. Secretary of State, we have questioned you about disabled access to Gwydyr House in previous meetings and I think there is a great deal of concern but not a lot of progress has been made on independent wheelchair access to Gwydyr House. I was concerned about the comment in the annual report that says that wheelchair users could readily visit ministers in Cardiff almost as if that was an alternative to visiting in Gwydyr House. I think it is perhaps the way it is worded which means it comes over like that.
  (Mr Murphy) That is an alternative.

  58. We think it is very important that there is independent wheelchair access to Gwydyr House. I am also concerned about the fact that in the written responses you talk about temporary arrangements that are being made but the independent wheelchair access is still under consideration, which we think is rather slow in reaching a decision about this. You also say that we need to look at the demand for such access and I think we would think that the demand is established.
  (Mr Murphy) I would not disagree with anything you have said. First of all, it certainly is not the case that anybody who is disabled we say should go to Cardiff. That is not the case at all. The reality is that most of my meetings regarding representation from people in Wales are actually held in Cardiff as it happens because if I meet Welsh organisations and Welsh groups then clearly it is going to be easier for them to meet me in Wales than it is up here. That does not mean to say that we do not need similar access in Gwydyr House. What have we done since we met last? We have had a lot of help from Dr Kevin Fitzpatrick who visited Gwydyr House and although he is not an access expert he gave us a lot of important advice on how to tackle those issues. Dr Francis knows how significant a person he is in Wales on disabled issues. Secondly, we had a look at how best we could alter the front of the building, which is the proper way into the building. Wheelchair users could independently arrive at the same door as is used by able-bodied visitors and staff. I am pleased to say that from our most recent meetings with English Heritage, which is the problem, of course, because it is a Grade II listed building and you cannot easily alter what is a very difficult and rather small entrance, the result is the possibility, if you have seen the building works associated with the Ministry of Defence and the car park outside of it, of using that side, but we would prefer the front. It would be possible to do that. In the meantime we still accept that until that decision is taken we have a responsibility to wheelchair users, and so we have made available something called a Stairmate which we purchased as an interim measure, which is a wheelchair, and we have trained four of our staff to use it. It cost us just over £4,000. The Committee will be able to look at that afterwards. This is a specially devised wheelchair which is used in circumstances like this where access is very difficult. We do not see this as a permanent solution to the issue but one that we can look at in the interim. We have done that; we have got four people who can use the chair who have actually used it; disabled people have used this. We are now going to go on further with our discussions with English Heritage. You should also bear in mind of course that wheelchair access is important but it is not the only aspect of the services for the disabled. We are looking at ways in which we can make it easier for visually impaired people to come in to the building. We cannot paint the steps white because of the nature of the building but we can have white strips put on them so that, for example, it is easier for visually impaired people to come in. We are also conscious of those who cannot hear properly. We are looking at all the different areas and think there has been considerable progress since last year, but it is not finished yet. However, it is delicate because of the nature of the building.
  (Ms Jackson) One of the problems we have as well as the English Heritage issue is that the platform in front of the door, which probably Members do know, is not wide enough for it to be safe for somebody to come out of the lift which raises you to that level to go on into the building, in that there are an extra two steps into the building and if you were to bring those two steps out forward then the platform is not wide enough for there to be safe egress from the lift, so there are practical problems as well as heritage problems.

  59. It sounds very encouraging that English Heritage are likely to have access from the front because I think we all feel that wheelchair users should be able to go in the same entrance as we all go in.
  (Mr Murphy) Yes.


 
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