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How learning Welsh opened my eyes to progressive smugness

The Welsh government wants to promote the Welsh language. Yet many English speakers are disinterested in preserving it. 

This week has seen the launch of a new white paper on the Welsh language by the Labour Welsh government. Cymraeg 2050 talks of increasing the number of Welsh speakers to one million by 2050. That target already existed, but the document gives more detail on how it is proposed to get there. Much of the emphasis is placed on education: increasing nursery provision in Welsh, having more primary school children taught in the language, and improving teaching to Welsh learners.

The document targets a substantial expansion in the number of speakers of Welsh, and in the use of the language across daily life in Wales. The current reality is rather less impressive. The Welsh language has not suffered the death foretold by Saunders Lewis in 1962. But it could hardly be said to be going from strength to strength. Although Welsh-medium schooling is growing, the number of local communities where Welsh is the majority language continues to erode. The 2011 census actually showed a showed a small decline in the numbers claiming to speak Cymraeg.

This is not an issue on which I can claim, or aspire to, neutrality. Born and raised in England, I moved to live and work in Aberystwyth in January 2000. I recall, early on, some of my new Welsh friends remarking with a tone of pleasant surprise on my positive attitude to their language. I began formal lessons a little later, and after a bit told a couple of good friends at work that we would now begin every conversation in Welsh. At first, the point at which I would feel the need to switch to English usually arrived quite soon. Then it got later; and now it would never arrive.

Welsh is my second language. (Although that in part says something about the typically English, and poor, standard of my French). I don’t often dream in it, and would rarely count in it. But I use Cymraeg every day. I have taught and broadcast in Welsh; this summer I’ll be giving a lecture on the general election at the National Eisteddfod in Ynys Môn. Part of my wedding ceremony will also be in Welsh. (Reflecting my other half’s cultural inheritance, part will also be in Punjabi – although she is the one who was born in the valleys). I was not born into, or raised in, the Welsh language. But, later in life, I have been given at least partial insight into a culture of extraordinary richness and history. This matters to me a great deal.

Along my sometimes stumbling journey with the Welsh language I have met with nothing but encouragement and support. I have often been very glad of this – but also occasionally deeply saddened. Too many people have appeared, on too many occasions, to be almost pathetically grateful that I have shown their culture some respect. They should be entitled to expect that as a matter of course. But the daily lived experience of far too many Welsh speakers is the exact opposite. Respect for the Welsh language, and Welsh culture, is distinctly an optional extra in Wales, never mind across the UK as a whole.

If the one million speakers target is to be achieved, there will need to be much more rapid progress than has been evident in recent years. That will require changed behaviours across many communities, and many areas of life, in Wales. Increasing Welsh medium education, for instance, has often been resisted by some local authorities. And advancing the Welsh language can sometimes be in tension with other laudable principles and aims. Increasing Welsh-medium education will mean recruiting more people who can teach through Welsh, or teach Welsh. Yet those who can do so are – currently at least – overwhelmingly white. Wales also suffers a shortage of black and minority ethnic teachers, and the desire for a more diverse workforce will tend to conflict with prioritising more Welsh-speaking teachers.

But to underpin practical changes there will need to be a fundamental change in attitudes. That remains an uphill struggle. Within Wales, surveys consistently indicate most people have a positive attitude to the language. But Wales exists within the British state. And, to the extent they think about such things at all, many of those with a strongly British identity are deeply contemptuous of the native non-English languages of these islands. Welsh, along with Gaelic and Irish, is rarely valued as part of the collective cultural heritage of all of us in these islands. This should belong to all of us – but it does not.

The left has no room for smugness on this issue. Lots of people who would happily support indigenous cultures in the global south have little time for them in the UK. Many friends and colleagues in Aberystwyth, who would be impeccably leftist on other matters, made no attempt to engage with the local culture around them, and were seemingly oblivious to the linguistic marginalisation and colonialism in which they were complicit. But they were hardly alone. The Green party in Wales, for instance, has rarely shown much time for the language, and sometimes appeared almost openly dismissive.

Cymraeg 2050 was launched this week by Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones, and Welsh cabinet member responsible for the language Alun Davies. Both are fluent Welsh speakers, and I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of their ambition. But elsewhere in their party very different attitudes have often been evident, and are sometimes still so. A side-consequence of the long Labour dominance in Welsh politics is that some of most important divisions in Wales run through the party rather than between it and its opponents. That remains so with regards to the Welsh language. Wish Jones and Davies pob lwc (all good luck) in pursuing their aims. They will need it.

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.

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Universal Credit takes £3,700 from single working parents - it's time to call a halt

The shadow work and pensions secretary on the latest analysis of a controversial benefit. 

Labour is calling for the roll out of Universal Credit (UC) to be halted as new data shows that while wages are failing to keep up with inflation, cuts to in-work social security support have meant most net incomes have flat-lined in real terms and in some cases worsened, with women and people from ethnic minority communities most likely to be worst affected.

Analysis I commissioned from the House of Commons Library shows that real wages are stagnating and in-work support is contracting for both private and public sector workers. 

Private sector workers like Kellie, a cleaner at Manchester airport, who is married and has a four year old daughter. She told me how by going back to work after the birth of her daughter resulted in her losing in-work tax credits, which made her day-to-day living costs even more difficult to handle. 

Her child tax credits fail to even cover food or pack lunches for her daughter and as a result she has to survive on a very tight weekly budget just to ensure her daughter can eat properly. 

This is the everyday reality for too many people in communities across the UK. People like Kellie who have to make difficult and stressful choices that are having lasting implications on the whole family. 

Eventually Kellie will be transferred onto UC. She told me how she is dreading the transition onto UC, as she is barely managing to get by on tax credits. The stories she hears about having to wait up to 10 weeks before you receive payment and the failure of payments to match tax credits are causing her real concern.

UC is meant to streamline social security support,  and bring together payments for several benefits including tax credits and housing benefit. But it has been plagued by problems in the areas it has been trialled, not least because of the fact claimants must wait six weeks before the first payment. An increased use of food banks has been observed, along with debt, rent arrears, and even homelessness.

The latest evidence came from Citizens Advice in July. The charity surveyed 800 people who sought help with universal credit in pilot areas, and found that 39 per cent were waiting more than six weeks to receive their first payment and 57 per cent were having to borrow money to get by during that time.

Our analysis confirms Universal Credit is just not fit for purpose. It looks at different types of households and income groups, all working full time. It shows single parents with dependent children are hit particularly hard, receiving up to £3,100 a year less than they received with tax credits - a massive hit on any family budget.

A single teacher with two children working full time, for example, who is a new claimant to UC will, in real terms, be around £3,700 a year worse off in 2018-19 compared to 2011-12.

Or take a single parent of two who is working in the NHS on full-time average earnings for the public sector, and is a new tax credit claimant. They will be more than £2,000 a year worse off in real-terms in 2018-19 compared to 2011-12. 

Equality analysis published in response to a Freedom of Information request also revealed that predicted cuts to Universal Credit work allowances introduced in 2016 would fall most heavily on women and ethnic minorities. And yet the government still went ahead with them.

It is shocking that most people on low and middle incomes are no better off than they were five years ago, and in some cases they are worse off. The government’s cuts to in-work support of both tax credits and Universal Credit are having a dramatic, long lasting effect on people’s lives, on top of stagnating wages and rising prices. 

It’s no wonder we are seeing record levels of in-work poverty. This now stands at a shocking 7.4 million people.

Our analyses make clear that the government’s abject failure on living standards will get dramatically worse if UC is rolled out in its current form.

This exactly why I am calling for the roll out to be stopped while urgent reform and redesign of UC is undertaken. In its current form UC is not fit for purpose. We need to ensure that work always pays and that hardworking families are properly supported. 

Labour will transform and redesign UC, ending six-week delays in payment, and creating a fair society for the many, not the few. 

Debbie Abrahams is shadow work and pensions secretary.