United Kingdom: Use of Minority Languages in Public Administration – Alessia Vacca

This post deals with the right to use minority languages in the public administration of United Kingdom. Great Britain is the home of English, one of the most widely spoken languages in the world but, despite this, there are also other languages spoken there, including autochthonous languages, such as the Celtic languages (for example Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Irish and Cornish) and Germanic languages (for example Scots and Ulster-Scots). Legislation is adopted in Wales and Scotland but not yet in Northern Ireland. Public administration is a sector which has a high symbolic value.

Public administration is arguably one of the most important areas through which a state can affect the vitality of a minority language community. Use of minority languages in the public administration has a high symbolic value, and can therefore promote the status of such languages. It has the potential, for example, to raise the visibility of the language quite considerably, thereby enhancing its prestige. The use of minority languages in the public administration creates many additional opportunities for speakers to use the language in their daily lives and also ensures that the public administration provides a range of minority language services which enhance the perception of the usefulness of the language.

At the same time, the public administration can sometimes be the most challenging and problematic domain for the use of minority languages. When it is used in the public administration, a technical administrative vocabulary must be developed in order for the language to be used, for example, on bilingual forms. Staff with sufficient language skills to provide minority language services to the public must be recruited. This presents challenges, as the labour pool with the requisite skills may be quite limited in size. Financial resources are necessary in order to afford these activities which, in this time of financial crisis, can be a problem. Ensuring the presence of a minority language in the public administration often also requires legislative protection and, even when legislation is adopted, the implementation of such legislation often faces a number of difficulties.

In the UK, the state language policy, until recently, has been directed at promoting the acquisition of English. Great Britain is the home of English but there are also other languages spoken there, including autochthonous languages, such as the Celtic languages (for example Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Irish and Cornish) and Germanic languages (for example Scots and Ulster-Scots).

The UK’s approach to minority language policy is variegated. This variegation has increased following legislative devolution.

Legislation regarding the protection of minority languages (Welsh for Wales and Scottish Gaelic and Scots for Scotland) was adopted in Wales and Scotland, in particular: the Welsh Language Act 1993, the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011 and the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005. With regard to domestic protection, in Wales the legislation (Welsh Language Act 1993) was stronger than in Scotland even before the Welsh Language Measure 2011.

The Welsh Language Act 1993, although enacted by the Westminster Parliament, did not extend to Crown bodies such as central government departments. However, the Government made a commitment when the Act went through Parliament that these bodies would prepare Welsh Language Schemes. Even now, Welsh speakers have only one clearly identifiable language right: an absolute right to speak Welsh in court proceedings. Under the Welsh Language Measure 2011, the Welsh model continued to evolve, arguably towards a more rights based approach (though no new rights were explicitly created).

The Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 was adopted by the Scottish Parliament, but as that Parliament is not able to legislate on matters outside of Scotland, the legislation has the potential to reach only those public bodies that operate within Scotland or deal with devolved matters.

The fact that there are different schemes in Wales for each public body is useful since the obligations imposed on each body can be better suited to the real circumstances in which they operate. However, at the same time, too much flexibility can lead to inconsistencies and inequities amongst similarly-placed speakers. Furthermore, the large number of different schemes can create confusion because, if each one differs, people cannot be expected to be fully aware of what they can expect from the public administration. In these circumstances, even if members of the public speak Welsh, they may be reluctant to use it because they have to ask for information for each public administration and this can delay their request. It was partly to address these inconsistencies and inequities that the Welsh Language Measure 2011 was introduced. One of the aims of the measure is to promote greater consistency and, with it, greater transparency in terms of Welsh language service provision.

The Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011 was approved by the National Assembly for Wales on 7 December 2010. It received Royal Assent and became law on 9 February 2011. Unlike the Welsh Language Act 1993 which it replaced, the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011 is an extremely lengthy (150 pages) and complex piece of legislation. One key aim of the Measure is to give clarification about services that Welsh speakers can expect to receive. The Measure will also lead to new duties on select organisations outside the governmental sector, such as key utilities providers, something which the 1993 legislation did not seek to do. The Welsh Language Measure also introduced a much more detailed system of graduated enforcement of the obligations created under the measure.

The Northern Ireland Act 1998 gave to the Northern Ireland Assembly significant legislative powers in most policy areas that are relevant to the protection of Irish and Ulster Scots. Generally, however, this power has not been used, largely due to the highly contested nature of language in Northern Ireland, and the stalemate between Nationalist parties, who are broadly supportive of taking legislative action to protect Irish, and the Unionist parties, which oppose such measures, and invoke the protection of Ulster Scots. Irish is considered by many people of Northern Ireland a very important part of their cultural heritage.

In Northern Ireland, despite the absence of a legal framework, there is a neighbour state, the Republic of Ireland, in which Irish is an official language, and this has been beneficial for the development and sustainability of Irish, particularly within the public administration as significant terminological development has largely taken place.

The situation of Ulster-Scots in Northern Ireland is in some ways similar to that of Scots in Scotland. A precondition to greater institutionalisation of Ulster-Scots is its standardisation and codification.

The case of Northern Ireland shows that devolution can be a double-edged sword in respect of legislation for minority languages since devolution of powers to a regional body did not facilitate in this case the development and implementation of language legislation because there has not generally been broad political consensus on the need for and desirability of such legislation.

The most obvious difference between Welsh and Gaelic is the percentages of people which speak the languages: 19% for Welsh and 1,1% for Gaelic (2011 Census). In these circumstances, it is not surprising that there will generally be different levels of provision of services in the minority language. In Northern Ireland, according to the 2011 Census, among usual residents aged 3 years and over, 11% had some ability in Irish and 8.1% in Ulster-Scots.

In Scotland and Wales, though, language schemes (as they are called under the Welsh Act 1993) or plans (as they are called under the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005) are particularly useful in order to create services in areas with relatively more speakers; where there are relatively few speakers the level of protection is lower. The Welsh Language Schemes have generally been more detailed than the Gaelic Language Plans created to this point under the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act.

Two Treaties are particularly relevant for the protection of Minority Languages in UK: the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (ECRML), both signed and ratified by UK and written under the auspices of the Council of Europe. The languages under protection of the ECRML are Welsh, Gaelic, Irish, Scots and Ulster-Scots; by virtue of further declarations of 11 March and 2 April 2003, the UK recognised that Cornish and Manx, spoken in the Isle of Man, respectively were also Part II languages covered by the UK’s ratification.

Art. 10 ECRML (Part III) deals with administrative authorities and public services. The actual reality of delivery on commitments made under Art. 10, as well as implementation of domestic obligations, is different among the various protected languages in UK. The United Kingdom declared that Scots and Ulster Scots meet the ECRML’s definition of a regional or minority language for the purpose of Part II of the ECRML. It must also be remembered that Part II languages do not benefit from the protection of Art. 10. Among Part III languages, Irish receives much less formal protection and much less extensive provision, in fact, than Gaelic and especially than Welsh. Fourteen sub-paragraphs have been designated under Art. 10 of the ECRML with regard to Welsh, compared with eight for Gaelic and nine for Irish.

In the public life, in their respective territories, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic and, to a lesser extent, Irish (all three of which are protected under part III of the ECRML) are present in the public life. However, a bilingual public administration is not guaranteed and the situation varies from council to council. Certainly, the best performance is obtained by Welsh.

The other languages of the UK which are protected under part II are largely invisible in public life, or present only in some councils and not in others, partly due to the relative weakness of the legislative framework and partly due to the lack of an overall policy.

Another problem for all these lesser used languages is that, even when public administrative documents are provided in the minority language, the availability of these documents is not normally made publicly known or even easily accessible on the government websites. In some cases the public is not informed of the possibility to submit applications in the minority language. This is clearly a significant weakness, as it does little to encourage uptake of the opportunties which do exist to use the minority language in dealing with the public administration.

Alessia Vacca
Assistant Professor of Law (School of Law, University of Sassari), PhD in Law (University of Aberdeen)

For further information, read also the articles published by this author in the Revista de Llengua i Dret:

Vacca, Alessia. «Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011, Use of Welsh in the Public Administration: a Step Forward?», Revista de Llengua i Dret, núm. 59, 2013, p. 131-138, DOI: 10.2436/20.8030.02.8.

Vacca, Alessia. «Protection of Minority Languages in the UK Public Administration: a Comparative Study of Wales and Scotland», Revista de Llengua i Dret, núm. 60, 2013, p. 50-90. DOI: 10.2436/20.8030.02.30.

This article is currently being edited and is due to be published in issue number 62 in December: Vacca, Alessia. “Protection of minority Languages in the Public Administration of Northern Ireland: Irish and Ulster Scots Linguistic Legislation, which and when?

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