HL Deb 19 March 1964 vol 256 cc955-63

3.20 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this is a Private Member's Bill introduced in another place by my honourable friend the Member for Barry. The present situation under the Representation of the People Act, 1949, is that all election forms that are prescribed in that Act have to be in English. This is a most unsatisfactory situation, as your Lordships will appreciate, for Welsh speakers in Wales. It takes no account of the fact that Welsh is a living language; that it is spoken daily throughout Wales; that it is taught in the schools, and is, on the whole, used by many people for whom it is their first language. Already a number of forms used by Government Departments are in Welsh, and it seems to me only right that for electoral purposes translations of the prescribed forms should be available when required.

An anomalous situation also arises at the present time from the local election at Ammanford in Carmarthenshire in 1961. In this case a nomination form in Welsh was rejected by the deputy returning officer on the ground that it was invalid. An election petition was brought, and in May, 1962, the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court ruled that this form in Welsh was valid in "the very special circumstances of the case." Those very special circumstances were that there is a high proportion of Welsh speakers in the urban district of Ammanford, and the returning officer had Welsh speaking officials on his staff. So we have the present anomalous position that in a national General Election any Welsh form is invalid and illegal, whereas at a local election a form in Welsh in similar very special circumstances as those that applied at Ammanford could be held to be valid.

The object of this short Bill is to remove all those doubts by giving the Secretary of State power to prescribe by regulation Welsh translations of the form used under the Representation of the People Act, 1949. In particular, this will satisfy the demand that nomination papers should be legal in the Welsh lan- guage. I understand that the Secretary of State will not prescribe Welsh versions of all the many forms connected with elections, but will in all important cases.

Clause 1(3) of the Bill ensures that, where the Secretary of State does not prescribe an official Welsh translation, the use of an unofficial translation will still be lawful in similar very special circumstances such as applied in the case of the Ammanford local election. This is a simple and short Bill, but it is an important one for Wales, and I would ask your Lordships to give it a Second Reading. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a,—(Lord Aberdare.)


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, for his explanation of this Bill, which I think adequately covers it, and for his undertaking to pilot the Bill through this House. I notice that the noble Lord is down for two Second Readings and one Third Reading to-day. I hope that his Parliamentary allowance will be suitably adjusted to cover his output, or throughput, whichever happens to be the right word.

From these Benches we welcome this Bill. It is not a concession to one of the nation's "tribal areas"—a term used by the noble and gallant Viscount, Lord Montgomery of Alamein this week. He used it not in any derogatory sense, because he is himself a member of one of the tribes that go to make up a complete nation, and he is proud of it; and certainly I would not use the word in any derogatory sense; for if I did, I should not dare to go to my home in South Wales this week-end. This is a Bill which clears up an anomalous situation created by the Judge's decision referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare. I see very little controversial in the Bill, but I imagine that somebody might raise a point about Wales and Monmouthshire being coupled up in the same way as it is in this Bill; but that will be a matter for the Committee stage, rather than stirring up passionate feelings in this Second Reading debate. I can assure the noble Lord that we on this side of the House will, so far as it lies in our power, facilitate the passage of this Bill.


My Lords, I should like to support this Bill. As the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, has said, it is the case that in parts of Wales Welsh is still the first language, and in these circumstances I think it only right that a person for whom Welsh is the first language should have the various papers and forms that are delivered to him in a language that he understands. It is a very ancient language, and the original language of most of this country. In fact the first poem in that language extant at the moment is one which was written in the sixth century by a man called Taliesin, who was reporting to the King at Edinburgh (they spoke Welsh at Edinburgh then, although nowadays they speak Welsh in Edinburgh only on international match days) the result of an attack by the Welsh on the Saxon fortification of Catraeth. To-day we know the fortification as Catterick, and it is still a military fortification, now in the hands of the Royal Signals. What the English have they hold!

I mentioned in this House some years ago—to be exact, on November 26, 1958—when we discussed the compulsory teaching of Welsh in schools, a note of danger. I felt that if we were not careful the one-quarter of the Welsh people who spoke Welsh might be inclined to forcibly feed, so to speak, the three-quarters who did not speak Welsh. I gave it as my view that Welsh would continue for centuries, so long as it was not forcibly fed, and that there was a danger that through the medium of the British Broadcasting Corporation and other institutions this might prove to be the case. I regret to say that that seems to be the fact, and there is considerable feeling in West Wales that some of what they regard as the best programmes, such as Z Cars, Maigret and others, have to make way for programmes they do not understand. This is what I was afraid of. I am anxious for the survival of the Welsh language, but I feel that it will not survive if it is pressed too hard. I should feel strongly if some of my favourite programmes—Dr. Finlay's Casebook and others—were taken off. This is a matter to be considered carefully by Parliament when dealing with this sort of question.

As to Lord Champion's aniseed trail (it is foxhunting week, and I must not put it in more bloodthirsty terms than that) about Monmouthshire, in my view, there is no doubt about this question. The question of Monmouthshire was settled by the English King Offa, who dug a dyke between England and Wales, and the English have accepted it ever since. Offa's Dyke went on the east side of Monmouthshire. I do not think it is for anybody to-day to interfere with an amicable arrangement—it was not amicable in the beginning, but it has been ever since—establishing the frontier between England and Wales. Apart from that, I have no further comments to make on this Bill. I wish it well, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, for introducing it.

3.30 p.m.


My Lords, while in principle I support this Bill, I have one or two reservations and queries about it because, to my mind, this small Bill could be regarded as a small brick in what is a rather more ambitious structure which is going on behind the scenes in Wales. I have very little to say about the latter, but I am not quite sure who is asking for this Bill. Is it intended to help those who speak Welsh only, or is it intended merely to help those who hope to preserve the language? In other words, will the translation be published in large numbers, or will it be available for distribution in areas where it is asked for?

I think the chief query I have is this: in which version of the Welsh language will the forms be printed?—because people who live in North Wales invariably say that they find it very difficult to understand people who speak in Welsh in South Wales. Therefore, there would appear to be some doubt as to whether there is really only one language which covers the whole of Wales. For instance, I have in mind the Highway Code. When that was translated into Welsh, I understand it was translated by an official who lived in North Wales. It then got into the hands of officials who live in Cardiff, and was corrected by them. When finally it was published, the original translator was reported as having said that he found it difficult to understand. Therefore, I hope that, if translation of these various orders and so on is made, they will be in a language which will not give rise to differences of opinion between North Wales and South Wales.

There is only one other point on which I should ask your Lordships' indulgence, because although it goes slightly off the Bill, this seems to be an opportunity for mentioning it. I referred in my opening remarks to a small brick in the build-up of a more ambitious structure. I refer, of course, to the preservation of the Welsh language, which in turn is part of a desire by a small minority wanting Home Rule for Wales. I will not enlarge on that theme, but there are many influential Welshmen who would find it much easier to encourage all that is best in Wales, including the Welsh language, if a way could be found to separate these very understandable and desirable ideals from politics, including Home Rule. They do not wish to be associated with the extremists who find it necessary to blow up electric pylons, reservoirs, embankments, et cetera. There is a good case for preservation, but its furtherance can be made difficult by wrong tactics. Finally, I support the Bill, provided that it is not regarded as a small step towards some more ambitious plan.

3.35 p.m.


My Lords, I would first of all say how delighted I am that my noble friend Lord Aberdare has introduced this Bill into the House. I am glad to be able to tell him that in my Office at Cardiff I have a Bardic Stick presented to his grandfather when the Royal Welsh National Eisteddfod was held in Aberdare in 1885. I am not quite sure how I came by it, but if he would like to have it back I should be pleased to give it to him at some time, because on that stick is carved a number of messages, not only in Welsh, but in English, Latin, German and Greek.

I am delighted to think that all noble Lords who have spoken have welcomed this Bill. I will reply in a few moments to the questions which my noble friend Lord Boston has asked me. It is important that this Bill should come at this time, because not only are we to have a General Election this year, but the triennial local elections will also be held this year. I believe and hope that this will be a non-controversial Bill, and I am certain that it will be a very useful measure. I hope it is non-controversial, even between Wales and Monmouthshire, because I have a noble friend sitting behind me who has just sent me a note reminding me that, so far as Monmouthshire is concerned, they mostly play for Wales in the Rugby internationals and not for England, although they have supplied some jolly good English forwards to help Lord Wakefield of Kendal and other people who represented England on those occasions.

The measure, of course, is very welcome to my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, who has responsibilities in respect of legislation for elections and, of course, was at one time Minister for Welsh Affairs, and has a particular and very great interest in the principality. It is equally welcome to my right honourable friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government and Minister for Welsh Affairs, in both his capacities, since it relates to local government as well as to Parliamentary elections. It will clear up a doubt which arose following an election at the last triennial elections.

The Representation of the People Act, 1949, consolidated the Representation of the People Act, 1948, and a number of other provisions relating to elections. It was a major and comprehensive piece of legislation, and it may not always be remembered that it brought up to date the law relating to the local government elections, too. But it is to an election petition after a local government election—a comparatively rare occurrence—that this Bill can trace its origins. The Ammanford decision, to which my noble friend has referred, underlined this difference in the law relating to Parliamentary elections from that relating to local government elections. As my noble friend has explained, the 1949 Act itself contains certain election forms, but other forms are prescribed by the Secretary of State in rules or regulations which the Act empowers him to make.

The nomination papers tendered at Ammanford for the Carmarthenshire County Council elections were required to be in the form prescribed in the County and Borough Council Election Forms Regulations. The decision of the deputy returning officer on the validity of a nomination paper is final, subject only to an election petition in the High Court. He decided that the form was not valid, but as noble Lords will have heard, the Court held that it should not be held to be invalid in the very special circumstances which existed at Ammanford. Your Lordships have been told of these very special circumstances. They were not only that there was a high proportion of Welsh speakers in the population of Ammanford, but the returning officer had Welsh-speaking officials on his staff. In fact, it is interesting to know that in the Ammanford population of 6,040 people at the last Census, 4,853 speak Welsh, which is 60 per cent. I believe I am right in saying that the number, though not the proportion, of Welsh speakers in Aberdare, from where the noble Lord takes his title, is even higher than in Ammanford, and in fact out of a population there of about 37,000 about 12,700-odd are Welsh speaking,, which is 34 per cent. I am sorry to say that in my own town of Brecon it is only 11 per cent.

If this Bill becomes law it will remove the anomaly, which was highlighted by the Ammanford decision, about the law for national elections apparently being different from that for local government elections. The Bill goes beyond the immediate question of local nomination papers, because it gives the Secretary of State power to prescribe in regulations versions of any of the dozens of election forms required to be used by the Representation of the People Act, 1949, or the rules and regulations made thereunder, and makes lawful the use of such translations in Wales and Monmouthshire.

I am able to give an assurance that, if the Bill becomes law, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary intends to exercise as quickly as possible the power to make regulations. These regulations are unlikely to be in force by the county council elections next month, but, of course, the Ammanford decision will have clarified the law. However, it is very much hoped that they will be in force for the local government elections in the following months. When the regulations have been made all doubt will be removed as to the use of the Welsh versions of the prescribed forms, even in parts of Wales and Monmouthshire where the special circumstances, such as those at Ammanford, do not exist.

The noble Lord, Lord Boston, asked who has asked for the Bill and for this to be done. I can tell him that the Council for Wales made this request to the Government in its Report last year, and there are many people in Wales who want this and have asked for it. As regards the cost, I can tell the noble Lord that the expenditure on registration, including forms, is met in the first instance by local authorities, who are reimbursed in part by the Exchequer by means of the general grant; but the expenditure in respect of a Parliamentary election, including forms, is met by the Exchequer, and expenditure on local government elections, including forms, is met by the local authority concerned. So far as the local authorities are concerned, they, of course, get their general grant and their rate-deficiency grant as well.

As to the question of the Highway Code and whether it will be in North Wales Welsh or South Wales Welsh, I can tell the noble Lord that this question will be referred to the Board of Celtic Studies at the University of Wales, and I think that the majority of people in Wales will accept their decision on this matter. The preservation of the Welsh language is something that all people want, and I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Boston, that it is sad when this becomes a political issue. It would have been far better if all Welshmen, whether or not they speak the language, were to support it and keep it going, because I think it is one of great cultural beauty. I would add that last summer my right honourable friend the Minister for Welsh Affairs appointed a Committee to clarify the legal status of the Welsh language and to consider whether any changes should be made". It might be thought that this measure should await the report of that Committee, but the Secretary of State sees no reason for delay, when the courts have pronounced in this particular sphere and an indefensible distinction has been seen to exist between national and local elections. This Bill stands, I think, outside the field of Party politics. It will remedy an anomaly and give pleasure throughout Wales. In these circumstances, I hope that this small but useful measure will commend itself to your Lordships.