Language problems revealed during inspection by the Ombudsman
Ombudsman Riitta-Leena Paunio has issued a reminder that national authorities must use the Swedish language in their dealings with authorities in Åland.
It came to light during an inspection visit by the Ombudsman to the Social Affairs and Environment Department of the Åland Provincial Government that national authorities do not always use Swedish in their contacts with authorities in the province, as they should do under the Act on the Autonomy of Åland.
She has since clarified the matter with the Provincial Government, the Prime Minister's Office, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry as well as the Food Safety Authority, the National Public Health Institute and the National Research and Development Centre for Welfare and Health (STAKES).
Deadlines for making statements are too short
A matter that has been a clear problem from the point of view of the Åland Government is that the time allowed for it to make submissions on the national Government's legislative proposals is often too little. This is due to delay in producing Swedish translations of the draft proposals. In one case, the time allowed for making a submission was only a week. According to the Ministry, a reason for the tight deadlines has been, in addition to translation of the proposals, urgency in preparing the matter.
The Ombudsman stresses that a prerequisite for legislation being successful in its purpose is that as many as possible reasoned societal opinions and views are expressed and evaluated in the matter. Therefore, merely citing urgency is not a sufficient ground for setting unreasonably short deadlines. Too-tight deadlines can create the impression that a submission has been requested merely as a formality.
In the view of the Ombudsman, the fact that the Swedish version of the draft proposal may be ready only after the one in Finnish should be taken into account already when the deadline is being set. What is involved is equal treatment of the parties who make the submissions. Further handling of the matter in the ministry would hardly be delayed to any significant extent if some parties from whom submissions are requested are given more flexible deadlines to allow for the fact that the translation has been completed late.
Ombudsman Paunio notes that what is at issue is largely work methods and their appropriateness. It is established practice for government proposals and the drafts that are their precursor documents to contain also relatively unchanging passages. Thus translation of some passages could begin even though the draft was still not fully finalised. That would make it possible to expedite at least to some extent the completion of the final translation.
Language also makes it more difficult to participate in handling EU matters
There have been problems also in the province's participation in handling EU matters, because preparatory documents concerning Åland have not always been translated into Swedish.
The Ombudsman stresses that it follows from the Act on the Autonomy of Åland that preparatory documents relating to EU matters and with a bearing on the province must be drafted in Swedish for the authorities there so that they can participate fully and on a basis of equality in handling matters.
What is involved is correspondence from national authorities to authorities in the province. Documents should be sent to the province also in good time to enable them to be properly studied before the matter is dealt with by a preparatory/drafting body. Otherwise, willingness to take part in meetings can be lessened and the province?s real opportunities to exercise influence weakened.
An effort has been made in the Council of State (i.e. Government) to redress the situation in that the agendas of preparatory bodies have been translated into Swedish. The idea has been that the agendas would enable provincial authorities to assess what documents should be translated into Swedish.
In the view of the Ombudsman, however, it is questionable whether on the basis of an agenda only it is possible to assess the content or significance of the final preparatory document, because, according to the Prime Minister's Office, documents are often completed only very shortly before a meeting.
The Ombudsman considers the concern that the Provincial Government has expressed about implementation of the rights safeguarded in the Act on the Autonomy of Åland to be justified. She emphasises therefore the importance of a dialogue between the relevant provincial and national officials in relation to preparation of EU matters when documents that are of significance from Åland's point of view have not yet been finalised. This is an important and useful means of implementing the province's opportunities to influence matters.
What is essential is that the provincial and national authorities together strive to resolve a situation that, in the Ombudsman's assessment, seems to need improving both in the opinion of the Provincial Government and on the basis of the impression gained from the statement received from the Government.
Also bulletins about infectious diseases and e-mail messages must be in Swedish
Ombudsman Paunio has drawn the attention of the National Public Health Institute to the fact that bulletins concerning infectious diseases must be in Swedish when they are sent to the chief provincial medical officer, the infectious diseases officer and other health care authorities in Åland.
She has reminded the Food Safety Authority that an e-mail message in Swedish from a provincial official must be replied to in Swedish.
Additional information will be provided by Legal Adviser Mikko Sarja, tel. +358(0)9 432 3364