Law would force firms to use Welsh language

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Gas, electricity and water suppliers could be legally required to offer their services in Welsh under a law-making bid published by the Welsh Assembly Government yesterday.

Businesses providing public services that receive at least £200,000 of taxpayers' money could also be included in new laws intended to guarantee equal status for Welsh and English.

Ministers in Cardiff yesterday began seeking the right to legislate over the Welsh language when they unveiled a long-awaited request to transfer powers from Parliament.

First promised for last spring, the legislative competence order (LCO) has been delayed by complicated negotiations between the Assembly Government and Whitehall.

The CBI has cautioned against the move, questioning whether new laws on the language - spoken by about a fifth of Wales's population - will encourage more people to use it. But language campaigners said today's offering does not go far enough.

Individual businesses are not named by the LCO and it does not transfer powers over courts. It will be up to the Assembly to decide which firms must comply with the eventual legislation.

Phone, railway and post services are covered. Banks and supermarkets are not included as distinct categories, but there are ways they could be subjected to new laws if, for example, they receive public money.

The LCO will be scrutinised by AMs and MPs before it is passed. Only then will the Assembly be able to legislate in the field.

Supporters of Plaid Cymru in particular will be watching the process carefully to see whether it meets key pledges of their party's governing coalition with Labour.

The LCO is also intended to lead to the appointment of a powerful language commissioner.

Heritage Minster Alun Ffred Jones said the move would help meet the goal of creating a "truly bilingual Wales".

"The National Assembly is the appropriate place to legislate and scrutinise legislation on the Welsh language," he said.

"Westminster passed three laws on the Welsh language during the last century. The last occasion was in 1993.

"With the existence now of the National Assembly, it is unlikely to introduce another one."

Public sector bodies already have duties towards the language under the 1993 Welsh Language Act, which set up the Welsh Language Board.

Campaigners have long argued fresh legislation is needed so Welsh speakers can expect the same treatment in the private sector.

Menna Machreth, chair of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (The Welsh Language Society), said: "Even though there are many things about the LCO to be welcomed, the Welsh Assembly Government has prevented the people of Wales from gaining access to the Welsh language because of the absence of comprehensive statutory rights in the LCO.

"The Welsh Assembly Government has erected large 'No Entry' signs preventing access to large areas of the private sector.

"This is the very sector that most people come into contact with in their every day life."

CBI Wales director David Rosser said: "We just don't think this legislation in itself will solve what I assume was the objective of getting people to use more Welsh language services.

"I think most companies in Wales will find it a little odd that this is seen as a priority at the current time."