Thursday, 8 October 2015

Welsh Language Standards

The Welsh Language Commissioner, Meri Huws, has been busy issuing compliance notices to public bodies in Wales. It's no longer enough for an organisation to have a sop to the Welsh language, with bilingual signs and a 'bore da' at reception. They must be able to offer people a full service in Welsh. This will cover everything from complaints made over the phone, email correspondence about a planning application, or even a tweet from the council about bin collection delays.

Torfaen has been issued with 176 standards, the majority of which are to be delivered within the next six months. Given Torfaen's previous dealings with the Welsh Language Commissioner, it promises to be a bumpy ride. Yesterday we looked at the financial impact of the new standards in Resources Overview and Scrutiny Committee. You can watch the webcast of the meeting HERE.

Map of Wales by percentage of Welsh speakers.

The main issue was summed up in response to a question about how many Torfaen residents are members of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (Welsh Language Society, a pro-Welsh pressure group). People are supporters but not members. Because people are generally happy to support the Welsh language so long as it doesn't cost them any money - be that the £18 a year to join Cymdeithas or the upwards of £500,000 estimated by Torfaen officers to implement the new standards.

Why so expensive? That was the question on everybody's lips. Gwynedd, it was pointed out, say they will only incur minimal costs as a result of the legislation. Well, with around 70% of their population being Welsh speakers, they would. Only 13% of Torfaen residents have any knowledge of Welsh, according to the 2011 census. Within the council's workforce, less than 2% (96 people) have any Welsh competence. My C at short course GCSE is included in that figure. The number of fluent Welsh speakers, confident in their ability to translate, is 3. Not 3%. Just 3. It's a mammoth task ahead of us.

But. The law is the law, and we have to abide by it. We (this being the royal, referring to the local authority, we) have to set a legal budget, we have to comply with employment law, and we will have to implement the Welsh Language Standards. All we can do is look at damage limitation because the money will have to come out of the ever decreasing budget.

Logo of the Welsh Language Commissioner.

If we need new IT systems, as the lead authority in the SRS ("a collaborative ICT provision that covers Gwent Police Authority, Monmouthshire County Council and Torfaen County Borough Council") we have an advantage that can perhaps be built upon. Providing our neighbours are willing to pool resources. We can continue the uphill task of recruiting Welsh speakers and training our existing staff. (Decades of Welsh courses and nobody is yet confident enough to call themselves fluent.) We will work on the success of short term student placements through our links with Ysgol Gyfun Gwynllyw and others.

The problem, aside from supply and demand (as in, everything costs money and we ain't got none), is that we don't know the full extent of what is being asked for. Under the new standards staff will have the right to documentation in Welsh - but does that include internal computer systems and software? For instance, is it enough to give people a Welsh payslip, or does the entire payroll system need to be bilingual? We don't know. The guidance hasn't been issued though the clock is already ticking on those deadlines.

Like so many top down mandates, it feels poorly thought through. The measure was passed in 2011, so it's not as if there hasn't been time to work on that guidance. You'd expect better with an election looming...

Will you be affected by the new standards?


  1. That's crazy! I grew up in Gwynedd, so I'm fluent in Welsh, and thankfully there's a large Welsh speaking contingent in Wrexham, where I live now, so I can understand these kind of rules being passed up here - but to be forced in councils where there are only three fluent Welsh speakers? It's a terrible waste of resources and time.

    1. I'm quite torn on it because I support the language, but it's just the cost vs benefit side of it. It cost £200 yesterday for about 20 mins of simultaneous translation. Our big problem is recruiting welsh speakers - if you are fluent round here chances are you're going to want to freelance for that kind of money rather than work in the council call centre.

  2. The standards are not just for people who work at the council, they are for users of council services. In Torfaen there are 6,250 people who can read, write and speak Welsh so it is for that 7% of the population the council will have to implement the legislation.

    It is a chicken and egg situation in a way, as if services are not available in Welsh people won't have opportunity to use Welsh, if people don't use Welsh it dies.

    1. Yeah, I thought that was made clear in the post? All public bodies will have to implement them for users and staff. I've nothing against the idea in principle, just the fact the standards are coming in with no additional funding, and no guidance.

      Personally I can't see the legislation increasing usage much in an area like Torfaen - people's interactions with public bodies tend to be around formal issues (finance, complaints, health, etc) where they feel more comfortable using a first language where possible. The big push will be if / when there are more leisure opportunities and Welsh language media becomes more prevalent - and relevant. Always a bigger task to get private sector take up though!


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