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Why Norman French is used in Westminster, but an MP was told off for speaking Welsh

18 Mar 2021 6 minutes Read
Picture by Luke Stackpoole.

Norman French is still a formal language of the UK Parliament, even though Welsh is not.

The Speaker of the House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, yesterday told off a Plaid Cymru MP, Liz Saville Roberts, for speaking too much Welsh, because it was against the rules of the Parliament.

However, Norman French is a language used in Parliament in some of the formal exchanges between the two Houses as Bills pass through.

It is also used at Royal Assent, which is necessary for an Act to become law. This is because these procedures have barely changed since they began, hundreds of years ago, at a time when Norman French was the official language of Government.

The Welsh language is generally not allowed in speeches in the Chamber and in committees, but there are certain exemptions.

This is in contrast to the Senedd, where Welsh is an official language of the parliament.

When a Bill has passed for what is known as its third reading in the House of Commons, it is written down in a book and formally transferred to the House of Lords for their consideration with the following text at the start: “Soit baillé aux Seigneurs” which means “Let it be sent to the Lords.”

When the Lords have considered the Bill, it is then returned to the Commons with the following added: “A ceste bille [avecque des amendmens] les Seigneurs sont assentus” which means “To this bill [with amendments] the Lords have assented”.

When the Commons accepts it, the following is added: “A ces amendmens [avecque une amendment] les Communes sont assentus” which means “To these amendments [with an amendment] the Commons have assented”.

The Bill then goes for the Royal Assent, which used to be given by the monarch in person, but is no longer the case. The last time that happened was in 1854 when Queen Victoria was on the British throne.

However, there is also a more formal ceremony which was originated by Henry VIII, and nowadays is only performed once at the end of each Parliament, to give Royal Assent to all outstanding Bills and prorogue Parliament itself.

After some more formalities, the Clerk of the Crown then reads out the title of the Bill (or Bills; normally several are handled at a time) and the Clerk of the Parliament responds with the traditional formula in Norman French.

For finance bills it is “La Reyne, remerciant Ses bons Subjects, accepte leur Benevolence, et ainsi le veult” which means “The Queen, thanking her good subjects, accepts their benevolence, and so wills it”.

For other public bills it is “La Reyne le veult” which means “The Queen wills it”, while for private bills it is “Soit fait come il est desire” which means “Let it be done as it is desired.”

Royal consent has not been refused since 1708, but the words for that were “La Reyne s’avisera” which means “The Queen will think about it”.

‘Different status’ 

The Welsh language has a different status within Parliament, and on the issue, its rule book, Erskine May states: “Subject to the exceptions below relating to the use of Welsh in committees, speeches in the Chamber and in other proceedings must be made in English.

“Use of languages other than English. Paragraph 21.3 Subject to the exceptions below relating to the use of Welsh in committees, speeches in the Chamber and in other proceedings must be made in English; quotation in another language has been allowed on occasion, though a translation should be provided.

“Since 1996, increasing freedom to use the Welsh language in committees has been allowed.

“The resolution of the House of 1 March 2017 provides that, ‘whilst English is and should remain the language of this House, the use of Welsh be permitted in parliamentary proceedings of Select Committees and of the Welsh Grand Committee held in Wales and at Westminster’, with the Official Report recording both the Welsh language contributions and an English translation, subject to reasonable notice being given of the proposed use of Welsh and to a power of the Chair to require points of order to be in English.”

It was these rules that led the Speaker to admonish Liz Saville Roberts for speaking too much Welsh.

She was told to “just stop” and that “extending the sentence in Welsh” was against the rules of the Chamber.

In response the MP for Dwyfor Meirionnydd told the Speaker that “the first was in Irish and the second was in Welsh” and explained that she was wishing everyone happy St Patrick’s Day.

He interjected before she was able to ask a question about the closure of Penally camp in Pembrokeshire, which has been used to house asylum seekers.

According to Saville Roberts, the episode demonstrates “Westminster’s disdain for minority languages”, but added that this was not a “criticism of the Speaker, who only enforces the rules”.

She said: “Beannachtái na Féile Pádrqig oraibh inniu / Pob bendith arnoch chi heddiw ar Ddydd Gŵyl Padrig (Every blessing to you today on St Patrick’s Day).”

The Speaker said: “Can I just say to the honourable lady, let’s just stop. I don’t mind the beginning, but to now start extending the sentence in Welsh does go against the rules of the House.”

After Liz Saville Roberts explained what she said, he added: “Can I say that I have no arguments with it whatsoever, but unfortunately the House make the rules. I’m only here to make sure the rules are kept.”

Following the exchange the House of Commons, the Plaid Cymru MP said: “Today I wished the House of Commons a Happy St Patrick’s Day in Cymraeg and Gaeilge – unwittingly committing an act of dissent. Westminster’s disdain for minority languages knows no bounds.

“This is not a criticism of the Speaker, who only enforces the rules. But those rules were specifically designed to exclude the speakers of languages other than English. It’s high time they are amended to reflect the reality of our modern society.

“Even better would be for Wales to follow the example of our Celtic cousins in Ireland and build an independent nation that gives full respect to our native language.”

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