Following the announcement that the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council is to retire shortly, there has been some discussion about the way the council has been run in the past. Personally, it seems to me that if an authority is – or gives the impression of being – led by its officers rather than its political leadership, the fault for that lies squarely at the door of the political leadership. Blaming the officers for filling a vacuum, or for having dominant personalities, is a cop-out; the responsibility always lies with the elected members to assert their authority if and when necessary.
Of more interest to me is the question of the future replacement. Last week, Cymdeithas yr Iaithcalled for the council to ensure that the next appointee is a fluent Welsh-speaker, something with which I would whole-heartedly agree. I remember speaking with some of the councillors about this issue before the current chief executive was appointed. Whilst some very much wanted a knowledge of Welsh to be a requirement, they were strongly advised that they couldn’t do that at the time. I thought that advice was wrong then, and I think it would be wrong now. The compromise arrived at was, as I recall, a requirement for the new appointee to learn Welsh. Whilst I know that lessons were provided, hindsight shows clearly that that was a meaningless stipulation.
The problem has been, historically, that organisations considering whether to make a post ‘Welsh essential’ or not have been considering, primarily, the external aspect of the role – how, and to what extent, the appointee needs to be able to interact directly with the public outside the council and whether translation facilities can be sufficient to render a requirement to be able to use Welsh superfluous. The question that needs to be asked in a bilingual county like Carmarthenshire, however, is about the internal language of the authority as well. Carmarthenshire is an authority whose political leadership have committed to extending the use of Welsh not just for external purposes but for internal ones as well, and that needs to be taken into account.
The argument that the council must get ‘the best person for the job’ regardless of language works only if, and to the extent that, the Welsh language is some sort of optional ‘add-on’ to the council’s activity, rather than something absolutely central to everything it does. I doubt that anyone would seriously argue that a monoglot French speaker could ever be the ‘best person for the job’, no matter what other attributes or qualifications she or he might possess, so in what sense can the ‘best person for the job’ be a person who cannot understand what half the staff are saying to her or him unless either they switch to their second language or else a translator is present?
And what about communicating with the political leadership of the authority? Of the 10 members of the executive board, I make it only 2 who don’t speak Welsh, yet in all discussion with an English-speaking chief executive, they must either switch to English or else have a translator present. The latter works, up to a point, for formal meetings, but how about all the informal and casual discussions which must be taking place on a more or less daily basis?
But even for formal meetings, there is an impact. As a translator, I have sat through many council, committee and working group meetings in the county as a translator. What I have observed is that, no matter how well-intentioned senior officers may be (and many are extremely well-intentioned towards Welsh), the language in which meetings are largely conducted varies greatly according to the language of the officers (and, of course, the Chair). That is not a criticism, merely a statement of observed fact. If an authority like Carmarthenshire is serious about shifting the internal administration to make greater use of Welsh, then ensuring that the language is used from the top down is a key step that they can, and need to, take.
Cymdeithas are right to see the impending vacancy as a major opportunity for the council; but the way in which the council responds will also tell us how seriously they really take the policy which they espouse.