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Gwnewch y pethau bychain

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One of the most well-known phrases in the Welsh language is that uttered by Wales’s patron saint, Dewi Sant (St David), shortly before his death: “Gwnewch y pethau bychain” (Do the little things). There are many little things that go on behind the scenes at Parliament that are vital to the smooth running of business, and this St David’s Day blog post focuses on how we at Hansard meet the demands of reporting the Welsh language. 

As readers of this blog will know, “Hansard is not all in English, and nor are its staff.” I am a first language Welsh speaker originally from Cardiff but in the employ of Hansard for some 10 years. On joining, I never imagined that my knowledge of the Welsh language would become such an important part of my work, but I’m very pleased to say that the growth in its use in the House of Commons over the past few years has been reflected in, and facilitated by, Hansard.

Owain is one of Commons Hansard's three Welsh speaking members of staff

The Welsh language 

Welsh is one of the oldest living languages in Europe, and it’s certainly the oldest living language in the UK. According to the 2011 census, 562,000 people (about a fifth of the population of Wales) speak Welsh. Unsurprisingly, MPs representing Welsh constituencies—and others—are keen for the language and its speakers to be represented in Parliament. But despite its rich, historical lineage and its relative health as a minority language, that has not always been possible.  

How shall it be known what is spoken? 

Times have certainly changed since Gwynfor Evans, the first Plaid Cymru Member of Parliament, made a point of order in 1966 requesting that he be allowed to make the parliamentary oath of allegiance in the Welsh language. In declining the request, Speaker Horace King prayed in aid St Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians: “except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken?” 

But Speaker King also had more practical considerations in mind: 

The Official Reporters in the Gallery are not required to have any knowledge of the Welsh language and it would make their task infinitely more difficult if hon. Members were to speak in languages other than English. I hope, therefore—and I speak most sincerely—that the hon. Gentleman will understand that, in ruling against his request, I am not doing so in any sense of rebuke or of any disrespect to a very noble language, but I must rule as I have ruled.—[Official Report, 21 July 1966; Vol. 732, c. 880.] 

Subsequent years, however, have seen more and more MPs seeking the right to use the Welsh language during proceedings.  And now that Hansard has not one but three Welsh speaking Members of staff, Speaker King’s ruling no longer applies. 

The Welsh Grand Committee 

Erskine May, the prime authority on parliamentary procedure and practice, notes:

Speeches must be made in English, but quotation in another language has been allowed on occasion, though a translation should be provided.

On 5 June 1996, however, the House resolved that,

whilst English is and should remain the language of this House, the use of Welsh be permitted in parliamentary proceedings held in Wales

This had a material effect on the Welsh Grand Committee, consisting of all 40 MPs representing Welsh constituencies, and others, which meets periodically—both in Westminster and in Wales—to discuss topics of importance to Wales, including the Queen’s Speech, the Budget and other relevant legislation.  

And so it was that on 30 June 1997, the Welsh Grand Committee convened in Mold, north Wales, for the first sitting at which MPs were permitted to make Welsh language contributions, for which simultaneous interpretation facilities were used. Significantly, however, English continued to be the language of Hansard’s Official Report, meaning that it was the English simultaneous interpretation rather than the original Welsh that was reported.  

St David’s Day 2017 

But that wasn’t the end of the matter, as MPs of various parties continued to press for the right not only to be able to speak Welsh in Grand Committee sittings in Westminster but for Welsh language contributions to be recorded alongside their English translation in the Official Report. This culminated in the House passing a motion on 1 March 2017—St David’s Dayagreeing to both requests.  

Welsh symbols such as the leek can be seen all around the Palace of Westminster
Photo: UK Parliament

Diwrnod hanesyddol 

Wednesday 7 February 2018 was a “diwrnod hanesyddol”—a historic day—when Members were allowed to make speeches in Welsh in a Welsh Grand Committee at Westminster for the first time. Those speeches were reported bilingually, also for the first time. Our Parliamentary Reporters were assisted by two excellent interpreters who travelled from the Welsh Assembly.  

A significant amount of Welsh was spoken—approximately 1.5 hours out of 2 in the morning, and a similar amount in the afternoon—including by the Secretary of State, Alun Cairns, who delivered the vast majority of his 40-minute opening speech in his mother tongue. Hardly anyone used no Welsh at all. Training had been supplied to all Hansard staff on common Welsh words and phrases that might crop up in English language contributions—including Diolch yn fawr” (thank you very much) and “Llongyfarchiadau” (congratulations)—but it was our Welsh speaking staff who reported the Welsh speeches and interventions. The morning sitting was published overnight on 7 February and the afternoon was published the following day.  

The Future 

Following our success in facilitating the first bilingual Welsh Grand sitting on Westminster soil, Hansard now regularly assists the cross-party Welsh Affairs Select Committee, which scrutinises Government policy in relation to Wales, by arranging simultaneous interpretation of its bilingual evidence sessions and producing a bilingual record of proceedings. Whatever challenges the future holds, we’re certain to carry on doing the little things that help keep Parliament running smoothly. 

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