Document 1269

Scottish Parliament: Research Briefings: SB 03-22 Languages and the Scottish Parliament

Author(s): Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body

Copyright holder(s): Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body: © Scottish Parliamentary copyright material is reproduced with the permission of the Queen's Printer for Scotland on behalf of the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body.


03/22 SPICe Briefing
31 March 2003



This briefing describes the work that the Parliament carries out in languages other than English. It details the practical measures which have been taken, or are planned, in order to ensure that people in Scotland who do not speak English are able to access the information and services provided by the Scottish Parliament and to interact with both the Parliament and its Members. This briefing also discusses some of the measures taken by the Parliament to facilitate the use of Gaelic, Scots and British Sign Language. A copy of the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body's Language Policy is attached as an appendix.


The Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body (SPCB)’s Language Policy ... 3
The Scottish parliamentary Corporate Body (SPCB)'s Language Policy Action Plan ... 3
Background ... 4
The legal context ... 5
The participation of MSPs in parliamentary business ... 6
Motions and questions ... 7
The drafting of legislation ... 7
The participation of members of the public in parliamentary business ... 7
Submitting public petitions ... 7
Providing written evidence to a committee ... 7
Providing oral evidence to a committee ... 8
The provision of information and services to members of the public ... 8
Visitor services ... 9
Interpretation services for members of the public ... 9
Information about the parliament for the people of scotland ... 9
Writing to the parliament ... 10
Background note: languages used in the provision of public information materials ... 11


1. Our rules governing the use of language in the Scottish Parliament aim to facilitate understanding of and participation in the proceedings of the Parliament.

2. Our normal working language is English, and we consider legislation in English only.

3. We are committed to being open and accessible. We also celebrate Scotland’s linguistic diversity.

4. Because we want everyone in Scotland to be able to contribute to and/or participate in parliamentary proceedings, we enable all languages to be used and provide interpretation and translation when they are required.

5. Because we want everyone in Scotland to be able to understand how the Parliament works, what it is doing and its relevance to our lives, we provide public information in a range of languages (and formats) designed to meet the information needs of all citizens.

6. Because we recognise the historical and cultural arguments for facilitating the use of Gaelic and Scots, we ensure that both can be used in parliamentary proceedings and take steps to interact in both.

7. Because we want overseas visitors to get the most from their visit, we provide tourist information in a range of languages.

8. Sign language provision is dealt with separately, under the Parliament’s equality framework.


1. Where the Parliament’s adoption of English as its normal working language compromises a member’s ability to participate in the proceedings of the Parliament, steps to overcome that barrier will be taken.

2. With the agreement of the Presiding Officer, members will continue to be able to use any language in parliamentary debates.

3. Interpretation will continue to be provided when languages other than English and Scots are used in parliamentary business—by members and by witnesses.

4. When Scots is used, the Official Report of meetings of the Parliament and formal committee meetings will continue to incorporate that language in the body of the text.

5. When Gaelic is used, the Official Report will continue to incorporate the Gaelic text before the report of the English interpretation.

6. When other languages are used, the Official Report will normally continue to publish the report of the English interpretation only, but it will offer a full translation into that language of the meeting or item concerned.

7. Written evidence and correspondence in any language will be received and, where appropriate, responded to in that language.

8. Members will continue to make their own arrangements for constituency correspondence.

9. Members will continue to be able to provide translations of motions, amendments to motions, and questions in any language.

10. Information on petitioning, which is currently available in English and Gaelic, will be made available in a range of other languages.

11. The SPCB will approach the Public Petitions Committee and the Procedures Committee to ascertain their views on enabling public petitions in any language to be accepted.

12. Interpretation and translation services will be made available on request, when a failure to provide them would result in exclusion from the political process.

13. The SPCB will consider requests by committees to provide translations of their reports.

14. The signage strategy for Holyrood will use symbols and numbers wherever possible, to assist speakers of all languages.

15. Appointments will be made to two posts, to respond to demands for services in Gaelic in the Parliament.

16. A new public information leaflet will be produced in Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, English, Gaelic, Punjabi, Scots and Urdu. The leaflet and the choice of languages will be kept under review.

17. Information factfiles, which are currently available in English and Gaelic, will be reviewed and published in Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, English, Gaelic, Punjabi and Urdu.

18. The visitor management strategy for Holyrood will develop existing provision for facilitated visits by groups, for example by providing recorded guides.


The Parliament has endorsed the key principles described by the Consultative Steering Group on the Scottish Parliament (CSG). These principles were designed “to provide an open, accessible and, above all, participative Parliament, which will take a proactive approach to engaging with the Scottish people”. The CSG principles also stated that the Parliament should strive, in particular, to engage with “those groups traditionally excluded from the democratic process” (section 2 [para 4], p3).


There are no legal restrictions on the range of languages that can be used in parliamentary proceedings, other than those in the Parliament’s own standing orders. In terms of legal constraints, therefore, the general position is that the Parliament may decide on the language(s) that it wishes to use in its proceedings.

In relation to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, the UK Government has declared which provisions of this charter will apply to Welsh, Scots-Gaelic and Irish. It has also declared that it recognises that Scots and Ulster Scots meet the charter’s definition of a regional or minority language (Scottish Office Press Release 1162/98, 4 June 1998). It is a matter for the UK government, and for the Scottish Executive, to decide how they implement the provisions of the Charter in practice. Although it imposes no legally binding obligations on the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body (SPCB), the spirit of the Charter has been taken into account in formulating its policies.

The Race Relations Act 1976 (as amended), and the orders issued under this piece of legislation, oblige the SPCB and Members of the Parliament not to discriminate on racial grounds. This legislation also places a duty on the SPCB to have due regard to the need:

• to eliminate unlawful racial discrimination;
• to promote equality of opportunity and good relations between persons of different racial groups.

The Race Relations Act also obliges the SPCB to publish a 'Race Equality Scheme' that sets out, amongst other things, the organisation’s arrangements for ensuring public access to the information and services it provides. The SPCB published its Race Equality Scheme as part of its Equality Framework in May 2002. It is available on the Parliament's website at

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 prohibits the SPCB from discriminating against service users on the grounds of disability, and also places a duty on the SPCB to make reasonable adjustments to meet the needs of people with disabilities. In this context, this piece of legislation has particular relevance because the provision of interpreting or related services (for example, a British Sign Language interpreter, lipspeaker or palantypist) for people who are deaf, deafened, hard of hearing or deafblind would generally constitute a reasonable adjustment that the SPCB must make in order to ensure that it is complying with the law.

All of these pieces of legislation have informed the development of the SPCB’s Language Policy and equal opportunities policies (contained within the SPCB’s Equality Framework).



The normal working language of the Parliament is English. This was recommended by the CSG (Section 3.3 [para 55] p. 50), and makes sense, since this is the language most commonly spoken in Scotland. The CSG recommended that any rules governing the use of language in the Parliament should aim to facilitate MSPs' understanding of, and participation in, the proceedings of the Parliament (Section 3.3 [para 53] p. 50). However, MSPs are still able to speak in any language in parliamentary debates.

Rule 7.1.1 of the Standing Orders provides that “members may speak in Scots Gaelic or in any other language with the agreement of the Presiding Officer.” The requirement for MSPs to provide advance notice if they wish to use a language other than English or Scots means that appropriate interpretation services can be provided, which ensures that other MSPs who do not understand that language are not excluded by its use.

In relation to Scots, the CSG noted “that most MSPs can be expected to understand spoken and written Scots, and that many of us switch between Scots and standard English” (Section 3.3 [para 56] p. 50). They also suggested that “no interpretation facilities will be necessary for MSPs wishing to use the Scots language” (Section 3.3 [para 61] p. 51). There have been many instances of Members using Scots words in their debates and these are reproduced in the Official Report. The Parliament’s Official Report is a substantially verbatim account of what was said, and the Official Reporters’ own internal guidance states the following: “The most important point to bear in mind is intention. A clear intention to use Scots should be reflected… If a speaker uses ‘pauchle’ or ‘drookit’ or ‘sangfroid’ or an invented word – that is the word that will appear in the Official Report ” The Member's debate on Scots and Gaelic on 7 September 2000 has many examples, including the motion itself in Scots.

In relation to the way in which the use of languages other than English is recorded within the Official Report, the approach taken by the Parliament is also in line with the recommendations of the CSG. When MSPs use Gaelic in parliamentary debates, the original Gaelic and the English interpretation of it appears in the Official Report. When other languages are used in debates, an English interpretation is provided and the English interpretation only forms the Official Report. However, a full translation will be offered of an Official Report of an item or meeting at which a language other than English, Gaelic or Scots was used. This is to enable participants to have a full record of the relevant discussion.

There have been various occasions when languages other than English have been spoken by MSPs in debates. For example, in a debate which took place on European Languages Day on 26 September 2001, a wide range of languages were spoken by MSPs in the Chamber, including French, Gaelic, German, Italian, Russian, Dutch, Basque and Latin. On this occasion, in view of the subject of the debate, the original languages, followed by a translation provided by the member, were reproduced in the Official Report.


The Parliament’s Standing Orders provide that motions, amendments to motions and questions must be in English. They may, however, be accompanied by a translation in any other language, supplied by the MSP lodging them. To date, this facility has been used for motions 11 times: once for Latin (S1M-2636), once for Basque (SMI- 3934), twice for Scots (S1M-934 and 2312) and seven times for Gaelic (S1M-1565, 1817, 2129, 2222, 2571, 3915 and 3966). Three questions have been lodged with translations, all of them Gaelic. Two were written questions (S1W-29230 and 34088) and one was oral (S1O-6544).


There are strong practical reasons for the Scottish Parliament to continue to legislate in English only, including the fact that Acts of the Scottish Parliament become part of the UK statute book. Mike Russell’s Gaelic Language (Scotland) Bill was the first Bill to be accompanied by a Gaelic translation.


In the Scottish Parliament, there are different ways in which members of the public take part in parliamentary proceedings or participate in parliamentary business. For example, members of the public submit petitions to the Parliament. Also, members of the public can submit written and oral evidence to parliamentary Committees.


Following the SPCB’s adoption of its language policy, the Public Petitions Committee was asked to consider whether Standing Orders should be amended to allow petitions to be submitted to the Parliament in any language. They were also asked to ensure that those submitting petitions in languages other than English are kept informed about the Parliament’s consideration of the petition, and that such correspondence would also be in the same language if appropriate. The Petitions Committee discussed the matter on 8 October 2002 and supported the SPCB proposal, together with that to make information on petitioning available in a range of languages other than English.

Rule 15.6.1A of Standing Orders now states that ‘If a petition is brought in a language other than English the Public Petitions Committee shall arrange for the Parliamentary corporation to secure the translation of that petition into English for consideration of the petition as translated’. Rule 15.6.3 states that ‘The petitioner shall be notified of the action taken by the Committee under paragraph 2. The notification may, at the discretion of the Committee, be given in the language of the petition or in English’.


In line with fact that the Parliament welcomes written correspondence from members of the public in any language (see later section on ‘Writing to the Parliament’), written evidence to a Committee can also be supplied in any language.


Interpretation services are made available when witnesses (for example, members of the public giving oral evidence to a Committee), are unable or would prefer to participate in a language other than English (including British Sign Language). Again, advance notice is usually required by the relevant Committee in order that appropriate interpretation facilities can be booked and provided.

The SPCB has endorsed this approach and has stated that interpretation and translation services should continue to be provided in circumstances in which a failure to provide them would result in exclusion from the political process.

In February 2003 the Education, Culture and Sport Committee’s Report on Inquiry into the role of educational and cultural policy in supporting and developing Gaelic, Scots and minority languages in Scotland became the first Committee report to be published in multiple languages. It is available on the Parliament’s website in Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Gaelic, Punjabi, Scots and Urdu.


In order to ensure that the SPCB complies fully with equality legislation, and to ensure that the information and services provided by the Parliament are as accessible as possible, translation work or interpretation services are often required. The SPCB has stated that such work should be carried out when it is likely to constitute an effective use of public resources and when it enables the Parliament to:

• tackle language barriers,
• provide appropriate materials for a specific event or initiative aimed at encouraging greater participation in the work of the Parliament,
• comply with, or prove compliance with, equal opportunities legislation, or
• enable people to interact with and find out about the Parliament and its work in Gaelic.

The Parliament has contracts with outside suppliers to provide interpretation and translation facilities on demand, in a range of languages. People in Scotland who do not speak English are clearly unlikely to contact, or know that they are able to contact, the Scottish Parliament to inform us that they are having difficulty in accessing the information that we provide. Therefore, the Parliament recognises that it is very difficult to assess which languages would be most in demand in relation to our translation work. However, once translated publications have been published (either on the parliament’s web-site or in printed form), the take-up and demand for the various translations can then be monitored.


Visitors to the Parliament are a mixture of people living in Scotland plus UK and overseas tourists. According to VisitScotland figures for 1998, the top ten league table for overseas visitors to Scotland is 1. USA, 2. Germany, 3. Ireland, 4. Canada, 5. France, 6. Netherlands, 7. Australia, 8. Italy, 9. Spain, 10. Japan. The Parliament has published information for visitors to the Parliament in English, Gaelic, German, French, Spanish and Italian.

In the light of these figures, future visitor leaflets will be produced in more languages. This will include Dutch and Japanese as well as the range of languages identified for public information materials which is listed in the next section.

A visitor management strategy is being prepared for the new Parliament building at Holyrood and this will take account of the linguistic diversity of the people wishing to visit the Parliament. Signage in the buildings in the current parliamentary complex is in English and Gaelic. The signage in the new parliamentary building at Holyrood will be in English, Gaelic and Braille, and will also incorporate symbols. This is in line with international best practice.


In relation to the specific needs of those people who are deaf or hard of hearing, sign language interpreters (or related services such as lipspeakers or palantypists) are provided to enable individuals or groups of people visiting the Parliament to follow proceedings during parliamentary debates in the Chamber or in Committees. Again, the provision of these services will be subject to the same constraints set out above. Such services can also be provided for other visits to Parliament e.g. for meetings with Parliament staff, for those attending parliamentary events or for groups attending the Educational Visits Programme.

People who are deaf or hard of hearing are welcome to contact the Parliament to discuss the provision of these services in more detail – either by using the Parliament’s central textphone number (0131 348 3415) or by contacting any office of the Parliament by telephone using the RNID Typetalk service.


In a recent publication, the Scottish Executive central research unit stated: “Currently there is no reliable data on which to base effective provision of translation, interpretation and communication support” (1). Since there are no Scotland-wide data that set out which languages are spoken, the Scottish Parliament’s Research and Information Group has collected from Scottish local authorities information about the demand that their interpretation and translation services have experienced over the past year.

This information was analysed in order to identify the most commonly spoken languages in Scotland, other than English and Gaelic. The data collected indicates that most widely spoken languages in Scotland other than English or Gaelic, are likely to be Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Punjabi and Urdu. The Parliament will, therefore, be publishing a range of public information materials – both in printed form and on the Internet – in these five languages, in addition to Gaelic and English.

The Parliament produces a variety of information and educational publications and resources to promote public understanding and to support learning. For example, the Parliament publishes a series of factfiles about the Parliament, which are available in English and Gaelic. The CSG report recommended “that the Parliament’s public information centre should produce regular information bulletins in Gaelic…and…from time-to-time in other non-English languages spoken in Scotland” (Section 3.3 [para 61] p. 51).

The Parliament’s Education and Outreach Service has recently produced a video entitled Let’s do democracy and distributed it to schools across Scotland. Every copy of the video contains a Gaelic and British Sign Language version of the film as well as the English version.

Bulletins in Gaelic are a prominent feature of the website. The SPCB has also decided to produce a new leaflet that explains how members of the public can find out more about the Parliament and participate in its work. This leaflet will be published in English and Gaelic and in the five languages identified through the research outlined above as those most widely spoken in Scotland by members of ethnic minority communities (Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Punjabi and Urdu). The same leaflets will also be made available on the Parliament’s website.

Information is available in Braille and on audiotape (currently in English and Gaelic) and can be supplied in other formats, e.g. large print and on computer disk, on request. The Parliament will make information in a wider range of languages available in other formats as well. For example, the new leaflet will be available in ethnic minority languages on audiotape as well as being published in print format and on the web.


Members of the public are welcome to write to the Parliament in any language. Furthermore, the Parliament recognises that it is both good practice and polite to respond in the same language that was used by the correspondent, subject to the resource constraints and considerations outlined above. The SPCB has also endorsed the current practice of welcoming written evidence (e.g. in relation to a Committee Inquiry) in languages other than English.

The volume of correspondence in languages other than English that is received and translated by the Parliament, and the details of which languages are used, will also be monitored by the Public Information office. This will help the Parliament to ensure that it is translating public information publications into the most appropriate languages and that the best use is being made of public resources.

MSPs continue to make their own arrangements for translating and replying to constituency correspondence in languages other than English.


Visitor information is widely available in a range of languages. The languages reflect the linguistic diversity of the visitors to each location.

Table 1: Languages chosen for the translation of information for tourists

[NOTE: Table here in original]

Two other major Scottish organisations whose remit involves the provision of information to the people of Scotland as a whole were approached and asked which languages they choose for the translation of their public information materials. The results are shown in Table 2.

Table 2: Languages chosen for the translation of selected public information materials

[NOTE: Table here in original]

The Scottish Parliament’s Research and Information Group collected information from Scottish local authorities about the demand that their interpretation and translation services have experienced over the past year. The data contained within Table 3 are based on a rank order of take-up rates over an annual period. These demonstrate a great deal of regional variation, and are not directly related to the number of speakers creating the demand. Nevertheless they do give some indication of demand. The languages in which there is greatest demand for translation and interpretation work across these local authorities is Bengali, Chinese, Urdu, Arabic, Punjabi, Farsi, Turkish, Italian, Hindi, French.

Table 3: Languages requested from translation and interpretation services in selected Scottish local authorities

[NOTE: Table here in original]

These results were then compared with a separate set of data which show the numbers of ‘units’ of interpretation and translation that have been requested of local authorities by people who need to access local government services. A unit is defined as 1 hour of interpretation or 100 words of translation. This data is presented in the table below.

Table 4: Level of demand for the most-requested languages from translation and interpretation services in selected scottish local authorities

[NOTE: Table here in original]

Table 4 collates figures from local authorities in Dundee, Edinburgh, Fife and Glasgow for the annual number of units of interpreting or translation work requested in the latest year. Aberdeen City Council does not collect information in this format, and so is excluded from this table.

The five languages for which demand is highest in the four service areas surveyed are Punjabi, Urdu, Chinese, Bengali and Arabic. Table 4 shows a step change in take-up demand between the languages ranked fifth (Arabic) and sixth (Hindi). In relation to Chinese, it is recognised that the main variations of – or languages covered by – Chinese (and particularly Mandarin and Cantonese) are, to a large extent, mutually comprehensible in written form, even though they are very different when spoken.

1 McPake, Joanna and Johnstone, Richard et al. (2002), Translating, Interpreting and Communication Support Services Across the Public Sector in Scotland: A Literature Review, Scottish CILT, Scottish Executive Central Research Unit, 2002 p.59.

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Information about Document 1269

Scottish Parliament: Research Briefings: SB 03-22 Languages and the Scottish Parliament


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Publication year 2003
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