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An introduction to social work in Wales
An introduction to social work in Wales

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5.1 The language, legislation and policy

Following a long history of exclusion from public life, a decline in usage in the 20th century, followed by a resurgence of its use (peaking at 20.8% by the 2001 census) the Welsh Language Act (1993) introduced a requirement for the language to be treated on the basis of equality with English in public business and administration of justice. The Welsh Language Board was established, as was the requirement from public bodies to produce a Welsh language scheme, outlining how they would work toward providing bilingual services and provide language choice for service users wherever possible.

However, the 1993 Act did not lead to the much hoped-for increase in Welsh medium service provision, and service users ‘continued to face the dual block of low personal expectations and correspondingly low levels of actual bilingual provision’ (Williams, 2011, p. 52), with the onus of responsibility for requesting bilingual services on the service user, rather than the service provider. Nearly 20 years later, a further piece of legislation, enacted in Wales through the new powers conferred on the Welsh Assembly, the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011 (HMSO, 2011) confirmed official status for the language, and provides for the creation of Language Standards. The Welsh public will be able to appeal to a tribunal regarding matters of language and service provision. All this has clear implications for public services and social work practice in particular.

Furthermore, the onus of responsibility with regard to offering language choice now lies with the professional, who is required to implement the ‘active offer principle’, not only by the health and social care strategy More than just words [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (WG 2012), but as part of their professional conduct (CCW, 2014). The strategy also identifies the need to develop the Welsh language skills of professionals in order to satisfy the needs of Welsh-speaking service users and carers. Indeed, the national strategy for the Welsh language identified that ‘lack of confidence was found to be one of the main obstacles preventing staff from using their Welsh language skills at work (Welsh Government, 2012). This may well have an impact on the capacity of organisations to provide bilingual services. The importance of such choice for users of services and carers has long been recognised as a matter of anti-discriminatory practice:

The care and counselling services are in a crucial position as they often deal with people who are disempowered, who are in trouble or are disadvantaged in their lives. In such circumstances, real language choice can contribute directly to the process of empowering the individual.

(Davies, p. 59)

It will remain to be seen whether, with the Measure in place, and a robust strategy for the language outlining the Welsh Government’s expectations regarding language choice in health and social care, the citizens of Wales are provided real choice in language use in the services they receive.

Activity 10 More than just words

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

Listen to service users and carers speaking about the importance of receiving language-sensitive and/or Welsh medium services on the Welsh Government’s More than just wordswebsite. As you do so, jot down brief notes about the following:

  • Why is it important for people to have language choice in the services they receive?

  • Are you surprised that professionals lack confidence in using the language?

Next, reflect on the following questions:

  • What do you think about Thompson’s assertion in the previous activity that people should not be made to feel guilty for their upbringing?

  • Do you think this might be the case for some Welsh-speaking service users?

  • How should this affect professional practice?