Monday 5 March 2018
[Ian Austin in the Chair]
British Sign Language: National Curriculum
I draw Members’ attention to the fact that today’s proceedings are being made accessible to people who are deaf or hearing-impaired. The interpreters are using British Sign Language, and Parliament TV is showing a live, simultaneous interpretation of the debate. I call Liz Twist to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 200000 relating to British Sign Language being part of the national curriculum.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. Last September, I had the pleasure of meeting Erin, a young woman involved in the National Deaf Children’s Society. Erin told me very clearly that many young people such as her who are deaf feel strongly that British Sign Language should be taught in schools, and that it should become a GCSE subject. As a result, more young people would be able to learn BSL, and it would be properly recognised as a language qualification, equal to other GCSEs. Erin’s determination, and her clear explanation of why BSL should be a GCSE subject made a lasting impression on me. When today’s petition, created by Wayne Barrow, who is in the Gallery, came before the Petitions Committee, I was keen to speak on it, and to introduce it on behalf of Wayne, the many other petitioners and Erin.
Other hon. Members on the Committee were very conscious that, although the petition had not reached 100,000 signatures, which is the usual threshold, the issue should be considered by the House, because it is difficult to ask for 100,000 signatures when fewer than 100,000 people speak BSL as their first language. The Committee was also very keen that the debate be signed, so that young deaf people, and the not so young, could follow the debate as it happened—a first for a live debate in this House. I hope it is the first of many, as Parliament reaches out and becomes more inclusive. I thank our signers, the Committee and the House staff who made it possible.
What a day to be holding this debate, after the British film, “The Silent Child”, won the Oscar for best live-action short film last night. Furthermore, the acceptance speech by actress Rachel Shenton was signed—another achievement, and another step forward.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. Maisie Sly, the six-year-old actress in the film, who is profoundly deaf, is one of my constituents. The mainstream state school that she goes to has embraced sign language, which has really inspired lots of young people, who want to take it up. As the former Minister for Disabled People, I know that we have a chronic shortage of BSL interpreters in this country. If we can tap into that inspiration, we can solve more problems and help people like Maisie, whom we are very proud of in Swindon.
While I was training to become a primary school teacher during the early 2000s, I completed a placement in a mainstream primary school that had fully embraced the integration of all children. Teachers spoke with a special microphone that was tuned into the children’s implants, and every session was signed. All the children benefited, and I benefited as a teacher; everyone benefits from this. I also congratulate Rachel Shenton and Maisie—what an amazing achievement. Let us hope that we see plenty more signing going on in Parliament in every debate.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She gave a good example of how everyone benefits from BSL and signing, which is an idea that I will touch on later.
As I was saying, yesterday “The Silent Child” won an Oscar. Starring six-year-old Maisie Sly and Rachel Shenton, it tells the story of a four-year-old profoundly deaf girl who struggles to communicate until she learns sign language. I am sure that all Members will join me in sending our congratulations to Maisie, Rachel and the team that produced the film. Now all I have to do is follow that.
Moving on to the petition itself, the petitioners ask for BSL to be part of the national curriculum. They point out that about 50,000 people in the UK use BSL, that many children are born deaf and that those children should be given
“a better chance at a more integrated future.”
I commend my hon. Friend on securing today’s debate. Deaf children should be able to interact with their peers as much as those children who can hear. Does she agree that a simple solution to make our education system truly inclusive would be for the Department for Education to include British Sign Language in the national curriculum for all schools and all children?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I agree with that statement, and I hope to explain why.
The petitioners want BSL to be part of the national curriculum, giving better life chances to young people who are deaf. They believe that if BSL becomes part of the national curriculum, that will even up the chances of deaf young people being able to play a full part in school and attain the best results they can.
Let us look at the case. Research by the National Deaf Children’s Society into the attainment of deaf children in 2017 shows that deaf children continue to underachieve throughout their education compared with other children. Although the Department for Education claimed recently that attainment for deaf children is at an all-time high, the latest figures show that the attainment gap between deaf children and children with no identified special needs is widening, with the gap at GCSE level being particularly worrying. In 2016, 41.3% of deaf children achieved the expected benchmark of five GCSEs at A* to C grade, compared with 69.3% of children with no identified special needs. That is a difference of more than 20%, which is just not acceptable in this day and age.
All that is in the context of a reduction of 14% in the number of qualified teachers of the deaf since 2011, and a 2% reduction in just one year—2016-17. We know that we have to do more to help deaf pupils to achieve their full potential and that we need to reverse the reduction in the number of teachers of the deaf. We can do that partly by ensuring that young deaf pupils are able to have effective communication. For many, that will be through BSL. BSL has been a recognised language since 2003, but unlike other languages it is not recognised as a GCSE that can be taught in schools.
I agree with my hon. Friend that that is very important.
A pilot GCSE has been trialled and is ready to go, but the DFE is refusing to give it the go-ahead. I ask the Minister to talk to his colleagues in other Departments, and to work with them to agree the GCSE and make it available to students. The absence of a qualification in BSL with the same status as other GCSEs discourages schools from teaching sign language—a view supported by a survey run by an organisation called Signature, which I will talk about shortly.
However, making BSL a national curriculum subject is about more than just exams. It is about the whole young person and ensuring that they are able to play a full part in school activities, get on with their peers and have a full life in school and out of school.
Is my hon. Friend aware that 23,000 children aged under 15 suffer from deafness? Teaching BSL in schools will increase the inclusion of those children, help others understand what it is to be deaf, and therefore help social cohesion in school for all pupils.
I agree strongly with my hon. Friend’s point. It is really important that deaf children are able to take part fully in the life of the school.
In 2016-17, Signature carried out a survey of more than 2,000 young people, of whom 700 were deaf and 1,400 were hearing, on behalf of the National Deaf Children’s Society youth advisory board, which is made up of young people from across the UK, such as Erin, who believe strongly that there should be more opportunities for young people—deaf or hearing—to learn BSL, which is an officially recognised language in the UK. The survey showed that 91% of young people want to learn sign language, 92% think schools should offer a BSL GCSE, and 97% think BSL should be taught in schools. Their reasons include inclusivity, as doing those things would ensure that deaf people are fully integrated into society and not disadvantaged because others cannot communicate with them effectively; the importance of communication in general; and equality—they likened learning BSL to learning French or Spanish and said that BSL was at least equally important. They thought that being able to use BSL would improve employment prospects, both directly and indirectly, but many did not know of anywhere they could learn it at no or little cost.
I have already mentioned the shortage of qualified teachers of the deaf, but there is a wider shortage. In 2017, the Department for Work and Pensions highlighted that shortages in sign language interpreters have resulted in higher costs for Government programmes such as Access to Work, and have made it harder for deaf people to enter the workplace. A GCSE could lead to more people considering interpreting for deaf people as a career.
I do not want to make this petition downbeat. Some amazing young and older people are getting out there and making the case for BSL and other measures to improve inclusivity. Since this debate was announced, a number of people—not just young people—have contacted me to tell me about the work they are doing. They include Kathy Robinson, who runs Signs for Success, which teaches very young children to sign so they can communicate from their earliest days and do not face the isolation that can come with deafness. She believes that all children—not just those who are deaf—can benefit from learning to sign. People such as Erin and other young people from the National Deaf Children’s Society are out there campaigning on this issue.
As you do these days, I googled Wayne and had a look at his Twitter feed and at the site that he and his friend Lizzy Jay have, on which they sign and sing pop songs—actually, Wayne assures me that he does not sing, because he cannot, but he signs along to pop songs. This debate and this petition are about BSL helping young people to have fun as well as learn. It is not all about serious stuff.
I was contacted by a young constituent from Blaydon— I will not give her name—who told me about her time at school, which was not an easy experience. She is out there pushing for more people to learn BSL. We need to ensure deaf young people have the best possible chance. This petition is one way of ensuring we make progress in this area.
It is about time that some of us MPs had a go at learning BSL. I am sure we could arrange classes in this place. I am sure that is achievable. I will commit to putting my name down to learn, and I know that many other Members will join me.
One of the great things about petitions is that we get a Government response—hon. Members may have seen it on the website—so we know what the Minister may be going to say, although I very much hope he will be much bolder in what he says about the proposal to include BSL in the national curriculum. I am sure other hon. Members will ask him to do the same. Basically, the Government said, “Schools can already teach it. It doesn’t need to be part of the national curriculum. We have no plans to change it.” Well yes, Minister, we know that schools can do it, but those of us who have been teachers, governors or just parents know that the school timetable is already under huge pressure. Without an additional push, in most cases it will not happen. We know from the National Deaf Children’s Society survey that young people are keen and willing to learn BSL, but the Government must help to make it part of the curriculum.
The Government said—a number of people said to me that they took exception to this comment—that BSL is a “useful tool”. It is not just a useful tool; it is an essential part of communicating with the outside world and other people. It is an essential tool for many of our young people, and we should respect that.
In conclusion, I ask the Minister to push the boat out a bit, to respond positively to the request to make BSL part of the national curriculum, and to give our deaf young people the best possible chance.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on her work in facilitating this debate.
It is either coincidental or a subliminal message from another place that this debate is taking place on the same day that “The Silent Child” won an Oscar. I have not seen the film, but I understand that sign language is the means by which a whole new world is opened up for Libby, the four-year-old star of the story. Similarly, if BSL is part of the national curriculum and there is a GCSE in sign language, a whole new world will be opened up for thousands of deaf and hard-of-hearing young children and adults around the UK.
Later this month, I shall be accompanying Daniel Jillings from Lowestoft and his mother, Ann, to meet the Minister, at his very kind invitation, so they can explain why a GCSE in sign language is so important to them. Ann highlighted to me that BSL is deaf children’s first language. She said it is discriminatory that they do not have the opportunity to achieve the most widely recognised qualification in their first language, and that it is given a lower status than other languages. It is accepted that there are other accredited qualifications in BSL, but they are not widely available to children in schools and are less likely to be recognised by employers.
Daniel achieved his BSL level 1 three years ago. It was not funded, and Ann tutored him and paid for all the assessments herself. That is not right. There is a compelling case for a GCSE in BSL. First, we must ensure equality. Many other languages are rightly taught at GCSE, including Arabic, Biblical Hebrew, Persian and Urdu. In an outward-looking, pluralistic country, it is right that they are taught, but the deaf and the hard of hearing must be placed on the same level playing field.
Secondly, the continuing absence of a GCSE in BSL is a denial of choice. A survey by the National Deaf Children’s Society’s youth advisory board found that 92% of young people who are deaf or hard of hearing think schools should offer a BSL GCSE.
Finally, the continuing non-availability of a GCSE in BSL puts up a barrier for many young people initially to further and higher education and thereafter to entry into the workplace. A barrier was taken down in Hollywood last night, as Rachel Shenton used BSL in her Oscar acceptance speech. I look forward to meeting the Minister with Daniel and Ann later this month so we can begin work on taking down a barrier in Westminster.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Austin. I am grateful to the Petitions Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) for the opportunity to debate the issue. I am very pleased to see that the proceedings are being broadcast live with full British Sign Language interpretation.
I should record that I wear two hearing aids, because my hearing was damaged during my time in the London fire brigade, although I am sure age is contributing as well now. I am also chair of the all-party parliamentary group on deafness.
The previous debate, secured in Westminster Hall by the all-party group, was on 30 November, and excellent speeches were made by many colleagues. It was signed, if not live, but that too was a parliamentary first. This is the first debate with simultaneous translation for the live feed, although I understand it has been something of a challenge to make it possible, so I congratulate the House authorities and the Petitions Committee on ensuring that it happens today.
The 30 November debate was wide-ranging, whereas today’s is specific to British Sign Language and making it part of the national curriculum. The APPG has been trying to identify which Minister in which Department we should speak to about this important matter. On 11 September last year I submitted a parliamentary question to the Cabinet Office to ask just that, but the answer was not clear. Subsequently, we chased not only the Cabinet Office but the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Education, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and the Department of Health and Social Care for clarification. It now seems to be clear that the Department for Work and Pensions is the lead Department because deafness is a disability, which has some logic.
I therefore need to ask the Minister what discussions he has had with his ministerial colleagues at the DWP about the prospects for a British Sign Language GCSE. As he knows, the DFE has already piloted a GCSE and has it ready to go, but the Government will not give it the green light. One has to ask why not. Perhaps the Minister will explain in the wind-ups whether that is a DWP decision or a DFE one.
Scotland has led the way with the passing of the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015. In 2016 Northern Ireland launched its consultation, and now the Welsh Government are consulting on introducing BSL into their curriculum. England seems to be lagging behind. In 2003, in UK terms, BSL was officially recognised as a language in its own right by the Department for Work and Pensions. In 2009 the UK Government ratified the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, which states, among other things, that we should uphold such rights by:
“Recognizing and promoting the use of sign languages.”
Having said that, however, I think there is a small conflict between the title of the petition and what people were being asked to sign. The title states, “Make British Sign Language part of the National Curriculum”, but the wording asks why BSL is not taught in schools. The National Deaf Children’s Society has reiterated its position on a BSL GCSE: the society does not believe that it needs to be a mandatory part of the national curriculum, but that it might be easier for the DFE simply to approve the GCSE in British Sign Language that has already been piloted. That would make it an option for schools, should they deem it appropriate, but the DFE appears to be refusing to give the go-ahead due to a blanket policy on no new GCSEs.
The NDCS reinforces its view with a variety of points. On equality, if we can teach Turkish, Japanese and Russian—the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) came up with some even more obscure examples—but not British Sign Language, the implication is that BSL has a lower status and importance. Surely that could be demonstrated to be discriminatory if it came to the courts. On denial of choice, thousands of young people, whether deaf or hearing, would choose the subject, but they do not get the chance. On discouraging the teaching of BSL, having no GCSE deters teachers because it has reduced status. On reducing options for young deaf people and supporting wider Government initiatives, as we have heard, the DWP accepted in a 2017 report that we have a shortage of registered deaf interpreters, resulting in higher costs for such services and making it harder for deaf people to enter the workforce.
My questions for the Minister include the following: if the Department has a ready-to-go GCSE, why not authorise it? Why encourage schools to teach BSL without affording them the chance to benchmark their performances? Why offer GCSE equivalents in the form of national vocational qualifications but not a GCSE? I think—I suspect the NDCS does too—that the strongest of those points was the first: the question whether the decision not to support a BSL GCSE is discriminatory. The society promotes the issue first as a matter of law and, were a case to come before the courts, the Government could be forced to act.
I do not think that the Government should be forced to act; I think they should do so voluntarily. They should not be embarrassed or shamed by Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast for dragging their feet on the matter. In my view, that is doing not only a great disservice to deaf English schoolchildren but much more—it is tantamount to insulting them. Parliament is saying to the thousands on thousands of youngsters for whom British Sign Language is a primary method of communication with each other and the world that Turkish, Japanese, Russian, Chinese, Greek and Portuguese are more important than their language.
The Minister is held in high regard throughout the House for his integrity and honesty, but I have to ask him, are we sure about this? I am sure that he will not want to give a negative response to that question but, equally, I will be very surprised if he can say anything positive today. No, I will be more than surprised—I will be delighted if he can say something more positive on the subject. The least I hope that the Minister can do, however, would be to agree to take the matter back to the Department, to discuss it with ministerial colleagues and to try again. The officers of the all-party parliamentary group and deaf organisations have a meeting with the Minister on the subject, as he knows, next Monday afternoon. We will press our case before him again then.
In conclusion, I am grateful for another opportunity to raise this issue. I am sure that the Minister knows it will not go away. The Government, I think, recognise not only the inconsistency of their position, not only the unfairness in the provision, but the positive opportunities a change of policy would offer. I look forward to the day when we hear of such a change. Today would be great, next Monday would do also, but soon, Minister, please—soon.
In 2015, Samsung produced an advert called “Hearing Hands”. In it, a whole town learns sign language, allowing people to communicate with a deaf man. It is incredibly moving because, as he enters every shop, people sign back to him, communicating with him. That helps to break down the barriers and makes him feel part of wider society. I challenge anyone present who watches that advert not to feel a little choked up and moved by it, or not to feel inspired that that is exactly the kind of society we should have. That is exactly what we want our world to be like. The slogan for the advertising campaign was, “A world without barriers is our dream, too”. Surely that should be the dream of the Government and, of course, the Opposition. I should mention that other companies are available
The Equality Act 2010, which was brought in by the last Labour Government, has done a huge amount to improve the lives of deaf people, but there is still a long way to go. We are in desperate need of more people to learn British Sign Language so that we can get to the stage where we want to be. Schools have the power to create an almost perfect example—a microcosm almost—of what our society should be: welcoming and inclusive for everyone. Schools can play a massive role in improving people’s knowledge of British Sign Language, helping to create a “Hearing Hands” society.
As a primary school teacher, I learned a very limited amount of sign language, and I will definitely be joining my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) to learn more, because it helps to broaden us and open us up to being able to communicate with so many more people. Although BSL is a recognised language within the UK, it is not available as a GCSE that can be taught in schools.
During the conference recess last year, I met people from the National Deaf Children’s Society. They told me that a GCSE in British Sign Language has already been piloted and is ready to go. So yes, our children could already have the option to learn British Sign Language in schools, but the Department for Education is refusing to give the GCSE the go-ahead. I completely agree with the points that have been made about when a teacher is supposed to teach British Sign Language if it is not part of the national curriculum. Personal, social and health education is already being squeezed out to nothing. Even if schools were told, “It’s something you could do,” and desperately wanted to teach it, how many have the time or capacity to actually do that?
I therefore call on the Government to rethink their approach and ensure that a GCSE qualification is made available as soon as possible. Not allowing British Sign Language to be taught as a GCSE alongside other languages, many of which have been mentioned, implies that it has a lower status and importance than those other languages. It is already hard for deaf children to feel included when their key way of communicating is not recognised in the curriculum as a GCSE. Loads of GCSEs are available in so many subjects, and we do not even ask for British Sign Language to be made compulsory.
Although there are other British Sign Language qualifications that students can take, the league table-obsessed, data-obsessed, exam-filled, narrow, fear-driven schooling and curriculum that the Government have encouraged for the past eight years means that they are less likely to be offered in schools because they are not GCSEs. Our country’s examinations system shows the world what we value. It says, “This is what we value, because this is what we examine and this is what we count.” The exclusion of British Sign Language is a damning indication of what the Government hold in high regard.
Because British Sign Language is not a GCSE, it is seen as having lower status not only by teachers but by employers. That makes it harder for deaf children to evidence their full abilities and puts them at a massive disadvantage to their peers who are not deaf. However, it is not just deaf children who want a GCSE in British Sign Language: the National Deaf Children’s Society surveyed a lot of different children in 2016 and found that nine out of 10 young people who are not deaf agree that British Sign Language should be offered in schools as a GCSE. That is because they recognise the potential wider societal benefits of everyone learning British Sign Language.
At my church, the Tower Hill Methodist church in Hessle, a volunteer called Cathy signs all our services. That has allowed more people to join our community and come to our services. That is just one example of how British Sign Language allows us to communicate with more people, make new friendships and have new experiences that enrich everyone’s lives. Beyond the Department for Education, the Government must recognise the wider societal benefits of British Sign Language, because the Department for Work and Pensions issued a report last year highlighting the shortage of language interpreters, which results in higher costs for Government programmes such as Access to Work. A British Sign Language GCSE could lead to more people considering interpreting as a career and help to address such issues.
The barriers to British Sign Language being recognised as part of the curriculum are unfair, restrict choice and stand in the way of much wider societal benefits. A GCSE in British Sign Language has been piloted and is ready to go, but it cannot be studied. Why? Because of a political choice. That shows again what the Government value and what they do not. A world without barriers should be everyone’s dream. The Government have the power to take a small step towards creating the fictional world that was played out on the television in all those adverts in 2015. I ask the Minister to listen to other hon. Members and me and give British Sign Language a GCSE.
[In British Sign Language: “Thank you, Chair. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.”]
I started by signing, creating a barrier for everybody who does not sign, because I wanted to make the point that British Sign Language is the first language of 70,000 people in our country, so it is really important to understand how we create barriers and disable people. People are not disabled, except by the barriers we create for them.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) for the way she opened the debate. I want to tell the story of why I learned sign language, explain why it is really important that BSL is in the national curriculum, and ask the Minister some questions. I also thank the interpreters for their work.
I began learning sign language because my neighbours were profoundly deaf. We would write notes to one another, but I never got to know them that well. We had a barrier between us: they could not verbalise and I could not sign. I asked myself who had created that barrier and thought, “Actually, I’ve got a responsibility to learn how to break that barrier.” That was my first reason for learning. My second was that I was a physiotherapist in a school where children signed and they were teaching me. I wanted to treat them, as their physio, so we had to work together to find a way to ensure that they understood what I was saying, and it was really important that I understood them. My third reason for learning was that I became the head of equalities at the trade union MSF, which became Unite, where my whole raison d’être was taking down barriers for disabled people, whether they had a physical impairment or a hearing impairment. There I was, saying one thing and doing another, so I took myself off to night school and learned to sign.
Learning to sign was an incredible experience, which I recommend to everyone. Not only did I have a lot of fun and laugh at myself, but it meant that I could create new friendships and had new opportunities. Throughout my life, I have found it incredibly useful. I have been at meetings where there have been non-hearing people and I have been able to interpret for them. My signing is not perfect, and I am very rusty, but at least it gave those people the opportunity to access the meeting.
There are more fundamental reasons for ensuring that we sign in our country and that we make learning sign language a universal opportunity: it would improve social and economic opportunities for people with a hearing impairment and remove barriers between young people and their potential friends. We have to remove those barriers. It is absolutely right that we should put in the investment to give those children a real opportunity.
I am glad to say that I could one day communicate with my neighbours in Norwich and we were able to build a really strong friendship as a result of my being able to sign, but what about people who do not have those opportunities? I want to talk about some of the ways that sign language can open up opportunities, but it also has universal benefits. I gave an example of a meeting, but I have also been in a supermarket with a non-hearing person who did not understand what the cashier was saying. I was able to sign and break down the barrier. Believe it or not, being able to sign has also meant that I can talk to people about politics when I am out door knocking, which is good, too.
I hold my hands up and say that, although I learned a little sign language as a teacher, I am very much looking forward to the classes that my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) is going to organise. As a Member of Parliament, I feel quite ashamed. If a deaf person came to one of my surgeries, how would I communicate with them? We need to set an example. The debate is about children, but I think we are all reflecting about ourselves, too. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) for making such a powerful point.
I have done some research on behalf of the all-party group on deafness, and the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority will fund classes. I have asked the UK Council on Deafness to identify tutors who would be able to come in. Getting colleagues together is always difficult given our busy diaries, but since the cost of classes is a legitimate expense—as my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith) described very well, we should learn sign language to better serve our constituents—and the House authorities will help us do that, we should get on with it.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. Learning sign language really is life transforming, because people can share so much once they are able to communicate. We know from verbalised languages the difference that makes. British Sign Language is the first language of 70,000 people in Britain. We must always remember that, and ensure that it is accessible.
I have also signed at church. I have to say, it can be a bit nerve-racking to stand at the front and sign, but over time I found it brought real meaning to the words we sung and spoke, so there was a personal benefit as well as a broader one. We now see mainstreaming in the media, with the Oscars and the new film starring Maisie Sly. What a role model she is for young girls and young people on the benefits of sign language.
Why should BSL be on the national curriculum? If we had a signing nation, what a difference there would be. We should think first about baby sign, which is taught in some places. Babies learn to communicate first through signing and gesture before they can verbalise. We could get quicker communication with babies immediately, which would be a real advantage. We also want to ensure that children can grow up in mainstream education without facing barriers. There are links between British Sign Language and Makaton—although they are not the same language, some signs translate—so we could be more inclusive in enabling disabled children to be part of that wider learning community. Children are quick learners, so that is the time to learn a new language.
British Sign Language is difficult, but it is expressive and children will grasp that. It is about integration, not being different, having the same opportunities, having friends, being able to study alongside peers and building an inclusive culture and society. As children grow up, it is about social inclusion and access to jobs, life and relationships. It is about saying, “You are no different from anybody else, and we’re going to take those barriers down.”
It is important that we recognise the qualifications. Why differentiate? GCSE is the standard recognised qualification, so we need to ensure that British Sign Language fits not with the national vocational qualifications, which I have worked my way through, but with GCSEs, putting it back in the mainstream of our education system. We know that hearing loss is a massive issue faced by people later in life. If people had skills to sign, that could open up new means of communication among older people. Perhaps someone who lost their speech because they had had a stroke could sign to continue communication, so ensuring access to BSL could bring real benefits later in life.
In my city, York College and York St John University offer qualifications up to level 3, but they say that, as well as a national shortage of interpreters, there is a national shortage of tutors. We need to encourage people to see that as a worthy profession and something to go into in the future.
I have a few points to make to the Minister. My first was to ask whether he could organise some BSL sessions in Parliament, but I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) has that in hand. However, some dialogue on that would be of benefit so that the Minister can demonstrate how BSL can provide and open up opportunities for children in school. It would be good to join those agendas together.
Secondly, we also need to shift the agenda here. While I really welcome us having had two interpreters throughout this debate, why not have interpreters for all debates? Why do we bring in inclusion just because we are talking about BSL? Whether we are talking about the economy or foreign affairs, it is relevant to people with hearing impairments. I hope we will see a tangible shift in that agenda.
Thirdly, on qualifications, the Department must now get its skates on and bring about a level playing field to ensure that the qualifications of children who have a hearing impairment in particular—but not exclusively—are seen to be no different from those of their peers, and we must ensure that they can study and pass exams in their first language, not just in their second language.
Finally, what a different kind of society we would have if we put BSL on the national curriculum right through schooling. It is not just about qualifications; it is about cultural change. The Minister has the opportunity to bring that about today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I pay tribute to Wayne Barrow, whose work has brought the debate to the House. This has been a consensual debate. I sometimes think this place works best when we are all pushing for the same thing, so let us hope there is some movement today as a result.
The hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) kicked off the debate by paying tribute to Maisie Sly. As the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) pointed out, it is almost as if someone had a hand in the debate coming about on the same day as the Oscars win. The hon. Lady spoke on various aspects, and the attainment gap in particular. I, too, speak as a teacher, and it really is important to consider that gap. No child should start education knowing that, in the end, they will have a worse set of results than another child. We need to ensure we are taking steps to combat that.
There is not yet a GCSE in BSL, but, as a result of this debate, I hope there will be. In Scotland, we are developing a Scottish Qualifications Authority qualification in BSL, so there will be certification in Scotland. It seems appropriate and sensible that the same happens for a GCSE in England, especially if the work has already been done.
The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), who is no longer in his place, talked about the difficulties of inclusion and social cohesion when people are excluded from society. That is an important point. The hon. Member for Waveney talked about the range of languages available at GCSE, which probably took many of us by surprise. That hammers home starkly the point that, without a GCSE in BSL, we are selling short a large group of young people—not just those from the deaf community but other children who may want to pursue a career in that area.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) talked about the educational benefits to all children from learning BSL. I liked the phrase she used about the data obsession in school results. Something rich and valuable is lost in education when all we are interested in is the results at the end. She correctly pointed out that, unless BSL became a GCSE, it would remain low priority.
The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) shamed us all with her abilities and demonstrated in a simple way how barriers are created and removed. I liked her suggestion that older people who are suffering from hearing loss could learn sign and BSL as a method of continuing communication with loved ones and in their daily lives.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) talked about the work done in Scotland, and I want to say a bit about that. Obviously, the issues faced by deaf people in Scotland are exactly the same. The Scottish Government have a national strategy to make Scotland the best place in the world for deaf people. The British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015, which was passed unanimously by the Scottish Parliament, promotes the use of British Sign Language and made provision for the preparation and publication of the British Sign Language national plan for Scotland, which we now have. A good thing about the Bill was the fact that it had cross-party support, and was passed unanimously. Let us hope we can deal with the present issue in the same way.
I am sorry I have not been able to be present for more of this important debate. My mind has been opened by the Cardiff Deaf Centre and by interpreters in my constituency such as Julie Doyle and Tony Evans, and by constituents such as Stuart Parkinson. They have made it clear to me that we need to improve BSL services across the UK. I commend what the Scottish Government have done, and the hon. Lady is probably not aware that Wales has a scheme called BSL Futures, as well as many others. However, we all need to do much more across these islands and to learn from each other how to improve services for deaf people.
In this place we often say, “Look north at what Scotland is doing,” but we can look to Wales as well—and, in this context, to many other places—to see where good work is being done. We need to take that on board.
The British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015 requires certain authorities to prepare and publish their own British Sign Language plans in connection with the exercise of their functions. There is potential for the Act to have a positive impact on the lives of people in Scotland whose first or preferred language is BSL. It provides an opportunity to appreciate and celebrate regional variations, including certain Scottish signs. We want that variation to flourish. The more BSL is promoted and celebrated throughout the UK, the more exposure it will receive. Because the Act is Scottish legislation, it follows that all of Scotland’s regional variations will be included and valued, but there is no reason why that could not also happen for regional variations from across the UK.
The Act also paved the way in Scotland for the national plan for British Sign Language—the first of its kind in the UK. The plan aims to ensure that sign language users are
“fully involved in all aspects of daily and public life”
north of the border. As part of the plan, major transport hubs such as train stations and airports will be expected to provide important information in BSL, as they would for any other language. Sign language interpreters will also be made more widely available across Scotland’s public services, making it easier for deaf people to hold senior positions. Sign language has been recognised as an official language in Scotland since 2011.
We hope that more British Sign Language users will be encouraged to become school teachers and share their skills with other people; but we also hope that they will infiltrate into every profession so that people have more access to every aspect of government. The Scottish Government also have a plan for primary schools, called the 1+2 language plan, which requires every child of primary school age to have experience of their native language, whatever it may be, and of two additional languages—it might be French, Mandarin, Scottish Gaelic or BSL. That has had an interesting impact, particularly on some children with learning difficulties or speech and language difficulties. It is often far easier for them to sign than to talk.
The BSL national plan also sets out 70 actions that Ministers will take by 2020 to improve the lives of people who use sign language. That is backed by £1.3 million of public funding. I shall not go through all 70 actions, but I will highlight a couple. Scottish Ministers will be asked to make progress on investigating the level of BSL among teachers and support staff in schools in Scotland and on further developing the Scottish Qualifications Authority award in BSL. Hopefully that will come into being shortly, with, as I have said, the GCSE to follow. Something else on which Ministers will be expected to make progress is enabling parents who use BSL to be fully involved in their child’s education. For parents who are part of the deaf community, situations such as parents evenings and school concerts can be difficult. Progress is also asked for on expanding the teaching of BSL to hearing pupils in schools, and improving the experience of students who use BSL when they move from school to college, university, training or the world of work. Finally, we hope to ensure that every Scottish Government-funded employment and training opportunity is fully accessible to BSL users and that they are properly supported.
I want to end by quoting Dr Terry Riley, the chair of the British Deaf Association:
“The Scottish Government’s National Plan is a brilliant example, for the rest of the United Kingdom to follow.”
We are not gloating about that, or feeling smug. It is only a starting position, and there is a lot more to do. However, I hope that the UK Government can follow suit on some of the key objectives of the plan. Our long-term plan has an ambitious aim: we want to make Scotland the best place in the world for people whose first or preferred language is BSL. That means that deaf and deaf-blind BSL users will be fully involved in daily and public life in Scotland as active, healthy citizens, and will be able to make informed choices about every aspect of their lives.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) for securing and opening this important debate on BSL. I also thank Wayne Barrow; I have done a music video with him, which was a lot of fun. I look forward to the next one —maybe Wayne, Lizzy and I could do it. That would be really good. This is about bringing BSL to everyone, and putting it in front of everyone.
I thank the shadow education team for allowing me to respond on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition today because, while the issue is one of equality, it falls within education. BSL is an issue that is close to my heart. I was the first Member of Parliament to sign a question on it in the House.
Learning to sign is an eye-opening experience. I thank the interpreters, who do an amazing job—including the one they are doing here today—and the House authorities for providing a live subtitle feed. We are following in the footsteps of New Zealand and Australia in doing that. I know that it was not a piece of cake, but as with most things, the more we do them, the easier they get. We just need to do these things a lot more in this place, and then they will seem like nothing.
We have heard a lot about the Oscars and the win for “The Silent Child”, about Rachel Shenton delivering her Oscar speech in British Sign Language, and about Libby, the young girl in the film. People say, “What you see, you can be,” and the more we see people communicating by signing, the more we will take that as given and as the right thing to do.
The Labour Government recognised British Sign Language as a language in its own right in 2003. Fifteen years later it is time to take the next steps to equality for users of BSL. It is a little shocking that BSL GCSE is not offered in schools, given what we heard from the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) about how many languages are offered at GCSE. Why not BSL? It is a recognised language, after all. We should go further: it should be given legal status.
We have heard from many hon. Members here today—including my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), speaking as a teacher—about why BSL should be a GCSE, why it should be recognised and why that is important. We have heard that the GCSE model is ready to go and that all it needs is sign-off from the Department for Education. Signature has already done all the work needed; the qualification has been successfully piloted for two years in six schools. That highlights why making BSL a GCSE is so important.
Some people say to me, “Why learn BSL? Why is it an official language?” We have heard my hon. Friends the Members for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) speak about equality. Nobody in this place can be against equality. Everybody argues about equality every single time. Equality is equality; if it matters for one person, it matters for another. Why are we picking and choosing whose equality is more important? Deaf people deserve to have equality, a level playing field and British Sign Language as a recognised language.
The National Deaf Children’s Society carried out a comprehensive survey, which clearly showed that young people want to learn BSL. We have to remember that young people get old, whether we like it or not. Sometimes we do not believe we will ever get old, but young people get old and, as we have heard, thousands of older people lose their hearing. I have spoken to older people who say, “I wish I had learned some signing when I was younger, because then I wouldn’t feel so isolated.”
Now is the time. We have heard about lots of movements that are happening; now is the time for us to remove structural barriers in society. We need to ensure that more people are taught BSL. That will remove a structural barrier for deaf people and not only help them to reach their full potential, but help their mental health. A lot of deaf people suffer from mental health issues. A lot of people are trapped in a world of silence. When my hon. Friend the Member for York Central signed the beginning of her speech, there was complete silence in this room. I ask hon. Members to imagine that their whole lives were lived in that silence, everywhere they went, and that they could not communicate with anybody. That is the difference that learning sign language makes to people who are deaf.
Approximately one in six people suffers from a hearing loss. That is a lot of people in our country. I will speak briefly about why I learned BSL. The first time I spent a lot of time with deaf people was when I was at college, where there were two people who were deaf. I learned my name, and I learned to say hello and other little bits. Like my hon. Friend, I always wondered who was the person who could bring down the barrier: the person who cannot speak or the person who cannot sign? I realised it was me, who could not sign.
When I started working, there was a deaf person at work. I decided to go to evening classes to learn to sign. I went for two, or maybe three, years to learn how to sign. I am rusty now, because it was a long time ago, but I learned how to sign. I made a great friend at work. We signed, and we got ourselves in a lot of trouble, but it was a lot of fun. We talked about people, and they never knew about it, which would probably be quite a useful tool in Parliament.
BSL opens doors for people. It opened doors for me; I made new friends, and I make new friends wherever I go now. That could be in the supermarket, or on the buses or the trains, when an announcement is made and people do not know what is going on, but someone is able to sign—even if it is just a little bit, or it is just finger-spelling —what is going on. A hearing person can learn to bridge that gap with a deaf person, and that is important.
As I said, now is the time to remove the structural barriers. The Labour party has said that if we were in government, we would have a national plan for England. We would have a BSL Act, a consultation and a debate to ensure that we take up all the good practice happening in Scotland, Wales and elsewhere. Many other countries around the world have implemented an Act. I am not asking the Minister to go as far as the Labour party today—BSL has a lovely sign for the Labour party—but when he rises to his feet, I would like him to reflect on the fact that the Department for Work and Pensions has reported and highlighted a shortage of signing interpreters, resulting in higher costs for things such as Access to Work. We need more Access to Work, not less; we need to invest in it so that deaf people can reach their full potential. We need to invest, and the way to do that is to show commitment. I hope that when the Minister gets to his feet he will have some good news for the deaf community and BSL users. I ask him to please make BSL a GCSE.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on securing this debate and on a powerful opening speech, and I add my congratulations to both the filmmakers and Maisie Sly on their work and their success at the Oscars last night with their film, “The Silent Child”. Although I have not yet seen the film, it raises important questions about the isolation that can arise from being born deaf in a hearing world, and highlights the difference that can be brought about by learning to communicate effectively.
The Government have recognised British Sign Language as a language in its own right since 2003. British Sign Language is a vital method of communication for many people and the first or preferred language for an estimated 70,000 deaf people in the United Kingdom. Of course, many hearing people—such as the hon. Members for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) and for York Central (Rachael Maskell)—choose to learn BSL in order to communicate more effectively with hearing-impaired people in everyday life. I very much enjoyed the speech by the hon. Member for York Central.
The Government understand, as I do, the passion that many organisations and individuals have for including BSL in the national curriculum. The reformed national curriculum, introduced in 2014, places a much greater focus on the core academic knowledge that pupils need for success in an ever more globalised world. That core body of knowledge is not expected to change significantly over time, but the national curriculum is just one element in the wide-ranging education of every child that makes up the broader school curriculum.
When we reformed the national curriculum, our expert panel made a clear distinction between the national curriculum and the school curriculum. We wanted the national curriculum to be kept within a certain size, to enable schools to develop a broader school curriculum. There is enough time and space in the school day, in each week, term and year, to expand beyond the specifications found in the national curriculum.
We are unapologetically ambitious for every child, no matter what their background, prior attainment or educational needs. The best possible education for adult life in modern Britain is one that equips children and young people with the knowledge they need to succeed. Our reforms have led to the attainment gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their more advantaged peers closing by an astonishing 10% since 2011.
To do that, we ensured that the national curriculum was rigorous. We looked at curriculum design in the most successful education jurisdictions across the globe and benchmarked what our children are expected to learn at different stages. While setting stretching expectations for the knowledge and skills that each child should be taught, we have given teachers more professional freedom to choose how to teach that material and how to assess it in the classroom. We will continue to increase support for teachers to deliver this stretching curriculum effectively, including by encouraging the greater use of evidence-based teaching methods to raise standards and cut unnecessary workload.
We have a responsibility to ensure that we support teachers, reduce workload and allow our reforms to bed in and take effect. Making changes to the curriculum causes increased workload for teachers, and now that we have a high-quality curriculum, with stretching and rigorous assessments to match, we want to minimise further change. The Department’s programme of work on teacher workload aims to enable teachers to focus on teaching and their own professional development.
While we believe that BSL is an important and worth- while area of study, we do not have plans to change the national curriculum for schools to make teaching BSL mandatory for maintained schools—particularly as two thirds of secondary schools now have academy status and are not obliged to follow any part of the national curriculum, whether we revise it or not. Schools may choose to offer BSL as part of their wider school curriculum, or as part of a varied programme of extra-curricular activities. Some may also offer accredited BSL qualifications to support pupils’ achievements in the language.
For people who wish to develop their ability to communicate effectively with those with a hearing impairment in everyday situations, level 1 and 2 qualifications, which already exist, have the greatest take-up. The level 1 and 2 qualifications currently offered by the Institute of British Sign Language, Signature and ABC Awards enable people to engage in routine conversations about real life and daily experiences and to develop a wider grasp of grammar to deal with non-routine exchanges. For those who wish, there are opportunities to develop practices in BSL further into level 3 and 4, and even level 6, which is equivalent to a degree. Individuals who take those qualifications might wish to enter a career working professionally with deaf people, such as in interpreting or teaching.
I am quite upset about the tone of the Minister’s message, after a debate in which we thought we were getting a bit of movement. As a former teacher, I put on the record that I completely disagree with his statements regarding teachers feeling supported at the present time. I think it is very sad—I saw people in the Public Gallery shaking their heads—that the Government are once again prioritising exams and results in the curriculum, rather than inclusion and providing a diverse curriculum that benefits our entire society. That is a shame.
The hon. Lady interrupted my speech before I had concluded my arguments; she should hold on and be patient a little longer.
This week, we celebrate National Apprenticeship Week, which celebrates the success of apprenticeships across England. BSL is now an alternative to a level 1 and level 2 qualification in English when undertaking an apprenticeship, providing the opportunity for apprentices to achieve a qualification in their primary language. That enables those who use BSL to complete their apprenticeship without having to achieve another English qualification, such as a GCSE or functional skills qualification.
My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) referred to GCSEs in Urdu and other community languages, and the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) referred to teaching Russian and Japanese. Hon. Members will be aware that we had a very real struggle with the awarding organisations—the exam boards— to ensure that those small-cohort GCSEs continued. Ultimately, we are dependent on the exam boards accredited by Ofqual to offer GCSEs being willing to offer any further GCSEs.
Before the Minister moves on from his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith), will he give further clarification? Will he refer later to the point that has been raised by a number of colleagues, which is that the Department for Education has already piloted a BSL GCSE that is ready to go? Why is the Department not in a position, not able or not willing to validate that for schools that want to teach the qualification in such a way rather than at NVQ level?
The hon. Gentleman pre-empts what I was about to say. He makes an important point and I will address it. Hon. Members should be aware that, of the four GCSE exam boards operating in this country, OCR, one of the major ones, recently stopped providing any language GCSEs at all, including French, Spanish and German, which are not small-cohort GCSEs. The hon. Gentleman mentions the GCSE that has been prepared by the awarding organisation Signature. We have seen that draft specification, and it has been tested in some schools. However, an established and rigorous process is in place to accredit GCSEs, and the specification has not been through that process.
A number of further steps are required to develop the specification into a GCSE, including developing broad and deep subject content by working with subject experts. It would also need to meet Ofqual’s assessment criteria and be accredited by Ofqual. Signature, were it to be the awarding organisation that offered the qualification, would need to be accredited by Ofqual as a GCSE-awarding organisation and be subject to its regulatory oversight. It is not a simple process of saying the qualification is already done and dusted and ready to run. A huge number of steps have to be gone through.
I presided over the reforms to GCSEs since 2010. The new GCSEs in English and maths were ready for first teaching in September 2015, and the next set were ready for first teaching in 2016, with exams in June 2018. These GCSE reform and accreditation processes take a long time. The accreditation is not a simple thing to acquire from Ofqual, which often sends the specifications back for further drafting before it is prepared to accredit them.
I am grateful to the Minister for that further clarification. Given the hoops that have to be jumped through to actually get to a position in which a GCSE will be available, is the Department in a position to say that it supports the additional efforts to get to that point, or is it not the Department’s role to encourage that? Where do we go from here to actually get to a position whereby there will be a BSL GCSE validated by the Department that can be taught and examined in schools?
We have been clear that we want schools to have a period of stability, so we have said that there are to be no new GCSEs or A-levels for a period of time. That is not to say that in the longer term we will not consider new subjects for GCSEs. However, it is important, after the hugely extensive reforms to GCSEs and A-levels, that schools have a period of stability. I have a responsibility to schools to enable them to have that period of stability, which they have asked us for.
Does the Minister agree that what we examine shows what we value as a society? What the Minister values is clear to anybody who wishes to read it in the changes he introduced to GCSEs. What message does it send out to people if we will not even consider having BSL as a GCSE? What does that say about what we value as a society?
I would argue that not everything that is taught in schools needs to be a GCSE. We allow plenty of valuable qualifications to be taught in schools under the section 96 list that have valuable subject content but are not sufficiently broad to qualify as a GCSE. However, we none the less encourage their teaching in our schools. As I have said, we value BSL as a subject, and we encourage schools that wish to do so to teach it. Schools are permitted to teach a number of qualifications at levels 1, 2, 3 and 4.
I am really struggling. For the Minister and myself, English is our first language, and we have the right to sit a qualification at GCSE level in our first language. BSL could be the first language of the hearing impaired, yet we deny those people that opportunity, so a real inequality has therefore been built into the system. This is not about adding another subject to the curriculum but attaining equality for people who are hearing impaired.
As I said, we value BSL. However, a huge number of steps would have to be gone through for the BSL qualification to be accredited as a GCSE. Having been through it, I can say that it is not a simple process to get qualifications accredited. There are existing level 2 qualifications; GCSEs are level 2. There are existing BSL qualifications of high quality available that can be taught in schools. BSL is not a GCSE subject, but as I said, many subjects taught in schools are not GCSE subjects and none the less are valued by schools and by those who take the qualifications.
We recognise that some who wish to take a qualification in BSL will do so to communicate with a family member or friend. Indeed, many of those in most need are hearing parents of deaf children. We understand that early access to language is essential to help children to learn and thrive and it is vital that families have the support that they need to communicate with their children. The Department has provided funding for the development of a support guide to help parents of deaf children. Families or carers may also be eligible for support to learn sign language. The Department has provided funding for the I-Sign project to develop a family sign language programme, which is available online.
We believe that all young people should be helped to achieve their potential, regardless of their background or circumstances. More than 21,000 children with a hearing impairment are supported at school. We are proud that 93% of hearing-impaired children are supported to attend a mainstream school. Pupils who use sign language are generally provided with support at school through specialist teaching assistants and specialist teachers of the deaf. However, we do not prescribe how schools should support pupils with a hearing impairment.
We have made it clear in the special educational needs and disability code of practice that all schools must use their best endeavours to make suitable provision available for all children of school age with special educational needs or disabilities. The reasonable adjustments duty for schools and local authorities includes a duty to provide supporting aids and services for disabled pupils. That could include things such as radio aids or communication support workers. In addition, the local authority can support parents and children in developing the knowledge that they need to communicate effectively.
When the time comes for pupils to take examinations, schools and colleges are responsible for ensuring that reasonable adjustments are made to make exams more accessible for pupils. Common arrangements include extra time and the use of scribes and readers and of word processors. More deaf children than ever are leaving school with good GCSEs, and we want them to continue to aspire to reach their full potential. Statistics show that attainment in English and maths for that group has been improving in recent years. The proportion of children with a hearing impairment achieving a standard pass—at grade 4 or above—in English and maths GCSE has increased by 6 percentage points compared with passes at C or above in 2011. We are very proud of that improvement.
I am not interrupting; I just want to make a point to the Minister. It is wonderful that deaf people and deaf children are exceeding what has been achieved previously and doing well in terms of their attainment, but these are not equal opportunities. Surely it is the Government’s responsibility to deliver equal opportunities for all children and all people in our society. I just do not feel that the Government are taking responsibility for this issue. We have heard that it is a matter for teachers and schools and can be a matter for local government. What about the Government?
I have explained the position as regards a GCSE. As I said, two thirds of schools have academy status, which means that they are not obliged to follow the national curriculum. That trend is increasing—the number of schools acquiring academy status increases every month—and, as I said, such schools are not obliged to follow the national curriculum.
I have also set out the very real practical issues. Any new GCSE has to go through an accreditation process. It has to be provided by an awarding organisation that is itself accredited as a GCSE provider. As I pointed out, we have had a real struggle with the awarding organisations on providing language GCSEs, particularly in the community languages. We had a huge battle with them and ended up having to move a whole raft of community language GCSEs from OCR to the other awarding organisations. Ultimately, we can only provide GCSEs that the exam boards, which are independent, wish to provide. As I said, a draft specification has been provided by Signature, but it would have to go through the process of having the GCSE accredited by Ofqual and would itself have to be accredited by Ofqual as a GCSE provider. Those are the issues confronting any Minister in the Department for Education as regards new GCSEs, because the system in the legislation passed in the House to ensure that we offer GCSEs that are on a par with one another and hold their standard over time has led to our deciding to have a very powerful regulator, which is absolutely right to ensure that we maintain standards. That process has to be gone through by anyone who wishes to introduce a new GCSE.
In addition, we want schools to have a period of stability. This is not the only request for a new GCSE; there are requests for others. Schools have asked for a period of stability. There will be stability for a short period, and after that we can consider whether new GCSEs or A-levels can be introduced.
I accept that not all schools have to teach the national curriculum, but what exists is not actually a national curriculum; it is an examination curriculum. The school curriculum is built around the examinations that children take. I am sorry, but I disagree with the point that there is a wider school curriculum. There is not. Schools long for there to be a wider school curriculum, but the reforms made by this Government have squeezed things out and narrowed it down very tightly to being based solely on examinations. If we do not give British Sign Language an examination, it just will not be counted and will not be taught.
There are examinations in BSL, produced by Signature and ABC, that are for level 1 or 2 qualifications. Exams exist in BSL. The qualifications are on the section 96 list and can be taught in schools, so they do exist.
I do not accept the caricature of our school system described by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy). The school curriculum is very wide. The most successful schools in the state sector have a very wide curriculum and they offer plenty of sport, music and art as part of that. Art and music are compulsory to the end of key stage 3, and the schools that are most successful academically, in the exams that the hon. Lady dismisses, are the schools that also have a very broad and balanced curriculum beyond GCSE.
We made it very clear in our reforms to the national curriculum that there was to be a distinction between the national curriculum, which focuses on the core academic subjects, and the school curriculum, which goes beyond those subjects and includes sport and a whole raft of artistic and other subjects, which are hugely important. I am referring to subjects such as sex and relationships education, PSHE—personal, social, health and economic education—and citizenship and so on, which are hugely important in developing a rounded person.
I am struggling to understand why the Minister cannot ask an awarding body to go away and do the work to ensure that a GCSE in British Sign Language can come on stream and then be integrated in the school system, by which time the schools will clearly have had their period of stability and then will be able to teach BSL as part of their core curriculum.
I am always very happy to have meetings and discussions on these issues. I continue to have discussions with people who want to introduce a whole raft of new subject content into our schools, and I am very happy to be having a meeting next week with my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney to discuss this very issue, so we always keep these issues under review. Today I have set out the real challenges facing the school system in this country and I have put on the record in an open and transparent way where we are on the issue of new GCSEs coming into our system. That is what I have sought to do today, and on that basis I conclude my remarks.
I thank all hon. Members who made contributions to the debate. Most of it was fairly upbeat. It is a shame about the ending, but I will come on to that.
I thank the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for his support for the cause. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on deafness; my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy); and my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), who so powerfully reminded us that it is we who are erecting barriers, not people who have hearing difficulties or deafness, which is an important point to remember. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) for her contribution and my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler). Some really interesting and exciting points were made, all of them supporting the need for us to be more inclusive and to reach out and include young people with deafness, about whom we are talking today.
Then we come to the Minister’s comments. I have to say that I was really disappointed. I asked the Minister to go further than he had in his written response. I am disappointed that we have not been able to go further today. I heard all the reasons he gave, but we need a can-do approach. We have a problem and we need to find a way around it, so that all our young people can take part not only in school activities, but in life in the wider community, through the development of a BSL GCSE and the inclusion of BSL as a curriculum subject. I remain convinced, having been a governor in a number of schools, that it is really difficult to find time to teach BSL, although it is allowed. I look forward to his further discussions with the APPG.
I hope that there will be a change in the future to include BSL in the national curriculum and to recognise a GCSE qualification. I do not think that Wayne and his mates, Erin and other young people are going away. I think we will hear much more about this issue in the next few days. I am reminded that next week is Sign Language Week. I think there will be a lot going around among the Twitterati and the public about this, so watch out for a lot more questions from the public, as well as from hon. Members, on this issue.
To finish, I remind everyone that although we have spent a lot of time talking about the national curriculum and GCSEs, this is all about allowing deaf young people to be included in activities and school life, and to just have some fun, like Wayne and his mates do. I thank hon. Members and I am sure we will come back to this issue.
Before Members leave, I want to formally thank the interpreters who have been translating this debate into BSL, the people who have been organising the live simultaneous interpretation on television, and the Officers of the House who have made all of this possible.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 200000 relating to British Sign Language being part of the national curriculum.
[Philip Davies in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 207616 relating to changes to car insurance.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
The petition asks for insurance to be based on the car itself, instead of on the individuals who drive it. The petition reads:
“In some countries, such as America and Portugal, insurance is based on vehicle itself instead of being based on the individual who drives it. This is an effective method for families and friends as they are able to share a car without paying for multiple insurances.”
The petition then gives as an example the following scenario:
“3 friends go on a night out in the same car, they all have driving licenses, but only one of them is insured on the car. 2 of them are under the influence of alcohol and incapable of driving, including the car owner. If the car was insured on itself, the sober friend could drive it legally. However, because each individual is insured on the car, no one would be able to drive it as it would be illegal.”
As of this morning, 56,200 people had signed the petition. On behalf of the House of Commons Petitions Committee, I thank Rita Rocha Vidrago, the creator of the petition, and all of its signatories. Observers of the work of the Petitions Committee—I hope there are many around—will note that that falls short of the 100,000-plus signatories that many of the petitions that our Committee schedules for debate receive. However, the number of signatories to this petition is still significant, especially as it proposes quite a specialist solution to a range of problems relating to car insurance. There are certainly enough issues relating to car insurance.
The issue raised specifically in the petition is the cost of car insurance, but there is also the related issue of drivers who drive while uninsured. I believe that the petition provides a serious attempt to deal with that critical issue—a problem that is a nightmare to all who have ever been in an accident involving an uninsured driver.
The Government have responded to the petition, with the Department for Transport stating:
“The Government has no plans to change the motor insurance system to require vehicles themselves, rather than the use of a vehicle, to be insured.”
The Government are pretty trenchant in their response—in fact, very trenchant:
“There are a variety of approaches to motor insurance taken around the world, and the UK Government is not alone in requiring the use of a vehicle to be insured.
The current motor insurance system of insuring individual drivers, rather than cars, does not prevent named drivers from being added to an insurance policy for shorter or longer periods of time. This allows for friends or relatives who share a car to be included on one insurance policy.
The price of insurance depends on a range of factors, including many which are specific to the person driving; for example, driving history (whether the driver has had previous claims or unspent convictions for drink driving, for example), the use they make of the vehicle (for example, for commuting or business use), and their years of driving experience.
If insurers had to cover the vehicle itself and were not able to take driver-specific factors into account in their pricing, then the cost of insurance would likely rise for those with a good driving record and history of driving safely.”
That is the Government’s response, which I hope we will hear the Minister develop later.
That all gives rise to the question: how much further in-depth consideration should we grant the petition? To my mind, there are three key issues in respect of motor vehicles and insurance. First, how does the proposal impact on the cost to the consumer purchasing the insurance? Secondly, does it help people in the unfortunate situation of being injured by another party? That relates specifically to individuals driving without insurance. While the guilty party may be punished through the law, that rarely helps the innocent party with their car repair costs. Finally, and vitally, does the policy help or hinder road safety? I will not go through those questions in sequence in this debate, but they are worthy of our consideration.
To move on to evidence-based research, the Association of British Insurers found that on average, young drivers spend about 10% of their salaries on insuring their cars. It is therefore clear that action needs to be taken to stem rising motor insurance premiums. Analysis by the Association of British Insurers shows that drivers aged between 18 and 21 are paying an average of £973 for comprehensive car cover. Rising motor insurance bills, resulting from a range of factors including the way in which compensation payouts are calculated and a resurgence in whiplash-style claims, are hitting younger drivers hardest.
There have been many concerns about the car insurance industry, and the integrity of the market has been questioned. As a result of complaints about the sector, the Competition Commission investigated and concluded in 2013 that there were
“features of the UK market for motor insurance and related goods or services that, either alone or in combination, prevent, restrict or distort competition such that there are adverse effects on competition.”
A research paper by the House of Commons Library about the motor insurance industry notes that many people consider the UK car insurance market to be dysfunctional. The paper cites the unpredictable rise and fall of insurance premiums. The research also references the relationship between the industry and car hire, repair and legal claims firms, which some view with suspicion.
I understand the frustration of the petitioner and the many signatories at high car insurance premiums and what could be viewed as the inflexibility of the UK insurance market. A different system—one that means that if a car is insured, anyone with a valid driving licence can drive it—certainly seems to offer one solution to the UK’s sometimes complicated and expensive system, but let me consider that further.
The cost of insuring a car is calculated using a variety of factors. Driver-specific factors include the driver’s age and experience, their road safety history, where they use and keep the car, and how often they use it. Since December 2012, car insurance companies can no longer discriminate on the basis of gender. Factors that depend on the car itself include its power and value. Insurance companies seek to set premium rates such that total premium income at least matches the total amount paid out in claims. Under that system, the people deemed the least likely to have an accident and to claim on their insurance pay the least, while those considered at greatest risk of making an insurance claim pay the highest premiums.
If insurance followed the car, rather than the driver, key driver-specific factors used to calculate risks could not be used. That could mean that drivers with a history of driving safely would have to pay higher premiums. That would be likely, as insurance companies would be unable to recover the costs of paying out claims by charging the drivers at greatest risk. It could give rise to an unfair and expensive system that would not reward safe drivers at all.
The petition states that if insurance was on the car alone and was not driver-specific, friends and family would be able to share a car
“without paying for multiple insurances.”
In reality, is that not de facto the case under the current motor insurance system? Named drivers can be added to insurance policies, allowing more than one person to be insured to drive the same car. The main driver uses the car most frequently, while named drivers use it less—none the less, they can use it frequently. That great oracle beloved of so many, the price comparison website MoneySuperMarket.com, has research showing that 35% of young drivers who are the main driver on their own insurance have a named driver on their insurance, thereby making their premiums up to 13% cheaper.
Car hire firms work on the basis that a car is insured such that anyone can use it. Many business fleets are insured on a similar basis. However, in both cases there will be a variety of restrictions. Hire cars are often only available to those over 25. While fleet operators have extensive bargaining power, there will still be restrictions: the person driving a business car will, for instance, usually have to be over a certain age and an employee of the firm.
Under some fully comprehensive driving insurance policies, one’s own insurance means that it is possible to drive someone else’s car—with their permission, naturally. However, restrictions are often placed on that type of benefit. When driving a car that is not one’s own, cover is often on a third-party basis, so insurance will pay only for damage to other vehicles or property. Another possible type of insurance is for temporary cover on another person’s vehicle.
The petition cites the USA and Portugal as countries with a motor insurance system that requires insurance only of the car and not the driver. Such a principle is out there, and it is good to examine, and sometimes to copy, effective working practices from other countries. I certainly believe that that is worth doing here; however, I strike a note of caution, because on closer inspection the motor insurance model in both those countries is more complicated than it first appears.
In the United States of America, liability insurance follows the driver and covers them when they drive a vehicle other than their own. All states apart from New Hampshire require at least liability insurance. Comprehensive and collision auto insurance are tied to the vehicle; however, if someone other than the insured drives a vehicle covered by comprehensive insurance and is not listed as a covered driver, they may not be covered in an accident.
In Portugal, the vehicle and not the individual is insured; however, vehicles are generally insured to be driven by specific categories of driver. For example, if a car were insured for a category of drivers aged over 45, a sober driver aged under 45 would not be eligible to drive it. In Portugal, it is possible to insure a car with comprehensive cover for any driver. In practice, however, the driver often has to be over 30. Research from the Library suggests that comprehensive cover can be harder to get in Portugal than in the UK.
Driving without insurance in the UK is illegal—and quite right, too. Even if our model of insurance changed, I have no doubt that driving without insurance would remain illegal. The police can give a fixed penalty of £300 and six penalty points to someone caught driving a vehicle that they are not insured to drive. If the case goes to court, the uninsured driver can be made to pay an unlimited fine and be disqualified from driving.
The police also have the power to seize and, in some cases, destroy the vehicle that is being driven uninsured. There is a strong case for that practice. It encourages safe driving and compensates innocent parties for any injuries or damage to their vehicles or property as a result of a motor accident.
Although I extol some aspects of the current system, the Government need to take action to deal with rapidly rising premiums. We are not short of journalists and researchers who have made that point. In 2015, James Delingpole of The Spectator expressed it thus:
“The car insurance industry is a disgusting racket. It’s designed so that as many industries as possible can get their snouts in the trough.”
That may be hyperbole, but there is a definite need for cartel-like issues—or at least, the perception of cartel-like issues—to be examined. Reform of the motor insurance sector is necessary. I have little doubt that high insurance premiums and the perceived unfairness of the sector are leading to demand for change.
The petition does not provide a silver-bullet solution, although it is worthy of discussion and contains some interesting ideas. However, even if the petition’s answer is not the very best on offer, the Government should look seriously at it and other suggestions, including introducing graduated driving licences, freezing the rate of insurance premium tax and implementing planned reforms to the way in which lower-value, whiplash-style claims are handled. It is abundantly clear that the status quo on motor insurance premiums is not an option, and on that the Government must act. I thank the petitioners for bringing the issue to this Chamber today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones). She did a good job of introducing the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. I will pick up on one of the issues she mentioned: graduated driving licences.
This petition is about trying to get the cost of insurance down. I am sure that we all support that, particularly for young people. The cost of their insurance is around £950 a year on average, which is prohibitively expensive for many of them. We all want young people to have the freedom and confidence to be able to drive and to develop their driving skills after they have passed their test, but the cost makes that difficult for many of them.
Young people’s insurance is so expensive because they are involved in many of the accidents that happen on our roads. People under the age of 24 drive about 5% of the miles driven in this country, but they are involved in 18% of accidents. In many ways, I can understand why young drivers bear the heaviest burden of insurance costs.
The issue came to my attention after the death of the son of two constituents. They do not want to be named or to receive lots of attention. They are working through their grief privately, and they wish to continue to do that. I will say a bit about what happened, which I do not think will identify them. Their adult son was killed by a learner driver in extremely bad weather conditions shortly before he was going to become a father for the first time. They have worked through a legal process but, as hon. Members can imagine, many lives have been devastated by this event.
My constituents raised the possibility of introducing a graduated driving licence system in the UK—something that has been raised with Ministers previously. Indeed, I raised it at Prime Minister’s questions a few weeks ago, and the Prime Minister gave a very positive response and offered to look into it. As the Minister is present, I will take the opportunity to go into further detail about why the Government ought to explore it.
Places that have a graduated driving licence include New Zealand, some parts of the United States, and Northern Ireland, where the system was recently introduced. The system supports novice drivers, who are young drivers who have recently passed their test, rather than all drivers under 24. In the UK, a 17-year-old can be fully licensed in just a few months, and 89% of young drivers complete less than 40 hours of tuition before taking their test.
A graduated licence could include different measures to ensure that drivers gain more experience before they can drive on any roads in any circumstances with any passengers. I am not being particularly prescriptive about which of the possible graduated licensing measures are appropriate for this country, but I think the Government ought to look at the system in principle. It would not necessarily be right to adopt what has been done in Canada and replicate it here; the system needs to be appropriate for the way that we drive and for our custom and practice.
There could be a learner stage, as we have now, but with a minimum learning period. That would mean that an amount of experience would have to be gained and a number of hours would have to be completed before somebody took their test. Some of that ought to be under the supervision of a qualified instructor, to ensure that there is some quality of instruction—not just instruction that is sufficient to get a driver through a test, but some in-depth learning under a qualified instructor.
I appreciate that learner drivers go out, perhaps with their parents, who may not be qualified instructors, to get some experience of driving, and that is entirely appropriate. However, the accompanying person ought to be over the age of 25 to ensure that they have greater experience. It does not sound very safe for someone who has recently taken their test and who has virtually no experience to take somebody out to get some experience of driving. As the mother of two teenage sons who will shortly, no doubt, want to learn to drive, the whole idea fills me with an enormous amount of dread.
After someone has taken their test, there could be a novice driver stage, which we do not have at the moment, in which they could drive unsupervised. We would have to discuss or consult on whether restrictions should be imposed at that stage. Ought there to be restrictions on carrying passengers younger than 25, unless the driver is a young parent? Obviously we would not want to place that restriction on a 24-year-old parent who has taken their driving test because they need to take their child to school. I suspect that somebody driving a young child around would be incredibly careful and mindful of what they were doing.
We ought also to consider time restrictions, because many accidents that involve young drivers take place between 11 pm and 6 am. We ought to find some way of limiting young drivers to daylight hours during their novice period, for their benefit and for their parents’ peace of mind—unless, of course, they want to get to work or college.
Perhaps a zero-alcohol policy should be imposed on young drivers so that they can benefit from clarity. I am sure the Government have considered such a policy for all drivers, but the data shows that alcohol is an especially significant risk factor for young drivers. We could also consider restricting engine size, or introducing an additional driving test after a certain period to ensure that new drivers have reached the desired standard, that they can drive as we all do and that they would benefit from complete freedom.
There has been much campaigning on the subject in recent years. It has been estimated that more than 400 deaths or serious injuries each year could be prevented by introducing a graduated licensing approach. Public support seems to be growing: a survey by the RAC Foundation found that two thirds of adults and 41% of young drivers would support the introduction of a graduated driving licence, 84% are in favour of a minimum learning period, 70% support a zero-tolerance alcohol policy, and 90% support mandatory lessons on motorways and in difficult conditions for all learners.
Nothing can bring my constituents’ son back. The young learner driver who was responsible will have it on their conscience for the rest of their life, and it must have been a horrific experience for them and for their driving instructor. My constituents make a good argument that, under a more sensible licensing system, the learner driver would not have been out in such horrendous conditions and the accident might not have happened. Where possible, I am very careful to walk instead of taking the car out when the weather is very bad, as it has been in north-east England over the past week. Even people with a great deal of experience think twice about driving in such conditions. We need learner drivers to experience all weather conditions and types of road, and to be able to drive in the dark, fog and rain, but it needs to be taught in stages. Confidence and the ability to react quickly, look around, notice and anticipate what will happen can be learned only by experience.
How seriously are the Government thinking about acting on the issue? Are they prepared to enter into discussions and consultations with interested parties about changing our system and introducing a graduated licensing system?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) on introducing the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee in her characteristically balanced and thoughtful style. She presented it very well. I particularly liked the way in which she highlighted how the petition’s suggestion of insuring cars rather than drivers might help to limit the number of uninsured drivers on the road. In my experience, a lot of the uninsured drivers who cause problems tend to be uninsured for reasons other than cost—they may have lost their licences for various offences, or they may be serial offenders—so insuring cars might not completely eradicate the problem, but it is certainly worth considering.
I also liked the way in which the hon. Lady highlighted the key issues that should be considered before changing insurance legislation, including cost, personal injury, the possibility of helping the innocent to achieve justice, and overall safety—an issue that the hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) picked up on when she spoke about graduated licences.
The hon. Member for Clwyd South also highlighted the possible dysfunction in the market. There is no doubt that many people are cynical about how the insurance market operates, so it is always good to shine a light on it and have transparency. She mentioned insurance premium tax, which was increased a couple of years ago in yet another Budget whammy. The cost of insurance for young drivers is a major issue. The hon. Lady asked the Minister to consider freezing insurance premium tax; I would like the Government to go further and consider introducing age restrictions on it. The cost of insurance for young people is so prohibitive that the extra 10% or 12% on top of their already big premiums is a real hit.
The hon. Member for Darlington mentioned insurance premiums and then raised a matter that was perhaps a bit off topic but that is clearly very important, because she is supporting her constituents in a case that has been really harrowing for them. I certainly understand the arguments for a graduated driving licence scheme and I look forward to the Minister’s response. The hon. Lady’s teenage sons might not appreciate such a scheme, and nor might many other young people, but in the light of the wider consequences for safety, we have to consider the matter seriously. I commend her for raising it.
It is clear that the issue is not as simplistic as car-only versus driver-only insurance, as the petition suggests. The United States system imposes liability insurance requirements on drivers, and many US car insurance policies include restrictions, although they may be as simple as a requirement for a manual driving licence—many cars in the States are automatic and many people have automatic-only licences. The Association of British Insurers lists other considerations relevant to a change in the UK insurance market system, such as experience with particular types of vehicle or age profile. Many car-only insurance policies include restrictions on the age and experience of drivers. It is not quite as simple as someone insuring a car and then all their friends and family being fully insured to drive it.
The petition is loosely based on the situation in Portugal, but as the hon. Member for Clwyd South correctly highlighted, the market in Portugal is not straightforward either. I know from experience that in the United Kingdom it is possible, even under the current market set-up, to insure a car such that drivers other than the named driver are fully insured to drive it. My dad’s car has been insured for many years to cover any valid driver who has his permission to drive it and who holds the necessary licence, although I believe there are some restrictions relating to penalty points and minimum age, so it is clearly possible to get car insurance that includes the flexibility for friends and family to drive.
I, too, have a teenage son, so I can certainly see the arguments and attractions of a car-only insurance premium, which might make driving less cost-prohibitive for young drivers. Certainly my 18-year-old son, Dylan, advocates such a system, because he thinks it will magically reduce his premiums. Clearly, however, it could reduce premiums for him only if we all pay a much higher share ourselves, so again there would be winners and losers, although it might make the market slightly easier for young drivers to enter into.
As the hon. Member for Clwyd South highlighted, this petition has a decent number of signatures—56,000. Last week, when I first got notification of the debate, I think it had 45,000 signatures, so there has been a considerable increase in the past week or so, which I imagine must be due to the interest generated by this debate. At the least, this debate is highlighting an issue for more people to think about.
Only eight of my constituents have signed the petition, so it is fair to say that it has not really caught the imagination of my constituents, or of others; perhaps that is why the Chamber is not quite as busy as it might be for some other petition-led debates. Of course, that does not invalidate the legitimacy of bringing forward the debate and allowing Members of Parliament to consider the issue, and to challenge the Government to consider the possible change that has been highlighted in the debate.
The scenario given in the petition is that a group of friends goes out drinking, and the driver who is responsible for the vehicle gets drunk and cannot drive it. If the car was insured through a car insurance policy, another driver—one of his friends—could drive it home. For me, it is not necessarily a credible proposition to introduce primary legislation for such a scenario. I suggest that education and better planning by people going on a night out is the best way to deal with that scenario. Otherwise, it might end up with somebody driving the car who does not have experience of that car, and if his friends are intoxicated he might not get responsible instructions on how to operate the car. As I see it, that would impose risks rather than being a benefit.
Ironically, if the future of the driving world is as predicted by the Government and many experts, we will have autonomous vehicles taking over rather than driver-led vehicles. In the bright, new, shiny world of the future, we will have driverless cars and therefore, in that scenario I just mentioned—friends going on a night out—there would not be a designated driver, because there would be an autonomous vehicle that could pick people up and safely take them home.
I sat on the Bill Committee for the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill, in which the Government are legislating for car-only insurance for autonomous vehicles, because the risk model and functionality of those cars, as opposed to driver-led cars, mean that the insurance industry is saying that they need to be insured on a car basis, rather than on a driver basis. That is going through the legislative process at the moment and it may be that driver-led insurance gets phased out in the future.
The reality is that insurance is a risk-based market, so for the insurance market to function properly the insurance companies need to be able to assess the risk and quantify that risk to be able to set premiums. If they get it wrong, there are two scenarios. If they get it wrong and charge too much, they make excessive profits and those paying for insurance pay even higher premiums. If they get the risk model wrong, frankly they will go bankrupt, and if more companies went bankrupt there would be a shrinking market, which could lead to the worst cartel or monopoly situation. That would invariably drive up insurance premiums in the long run.
I will conclude by saying that we should never say never in terms of the changes that might happen, and I will be pleased to hear the Government’s response to the debate. At the moment, however, I am tempted to agree with the initial Government response to the petition—namely, that the change might not be the silver bullet we hope for and might not give the greater flexibility or the reduced premiums that we are looking for. I think that, on balance, the initial Government response is probably correct, but I would certainly like to hear what the Minister has to say about some of the other matters that have been raised today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
I congratulate the Petitions Committee on bringing this matter forward for debate and the hon. Members who have spoken tonight, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) and for Darlington (Jenny Chapman), and the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown). I found it particularly moving when my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington mentioned what sadly happened to her constituents, and my heart goes out to them.
Although the petition focuses on one area of reform in the insurance industry, it gives us the opportunity to discuss many other important issues in respect of the high price of car insurance, especially for young people. It is worth pointing out that, while wages have stagnated, the cost of living has increased and premiums for young people have continued to soar. We have heard tonight that analysis by the Association of British Insurers shows that 10% of the average salary of drivers aged between 18 and 21 is now being used to pay their motor insurance bills, which come to an average of £973 for comprehensive cover. That is obviously quite a sum, equating to five times the average premium for all drivers, and it is indeed a significant weight on young people.
The current UK insurance enforcement mechanisms are based on checking that each vehicle is covered by insurance, and insurance is priced according to the risk of a claim, as perceived by the insurance company. Factors that affect this risk include the age and gender of the driver, the type of vehicle and where the vehicle is usually kept or used. The petition seeks to limit the impact of the first of those factors, and it would significantly benefit younger and older drivers.
Of course, there are examples of where the car and not the person is insured. Hire car firms work on that basis, as do many business fleets. Therefore, the argument could be made that the change being proposed would just be an extension of something that is already in existence under English law. However, it is worth noting that both hire car firms and business fleets are frequently restricted to drivers over a certain age, and there is the possibility that if we moved to a car-based scheme to give cheaper insurance to young people, they could be denied insurance completely due to the same sort of age filter being applied. Where insurers could not enforce an age ban, they would certainly continue to set premium rates, such that total income matches total claims. That could result in the people who make the fewest claims paying more for their insurance than the people who make the most claims.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South mentioned in her speech, the current system allows insurers to offer a customer a tailored premium to meet their individual needs. If the car rather than the individual was insured, insurers would not have the information to assess the risk of the likely driver and could not underwrite that risk based on the driver’s profile. Also, vehicle technology is changing at a rapid pace, particular models are changing and the features of vehicles vary greatly. That makes the risk profile and relevance of a driver’s experience even more significant.
A change to a car-based model of insurance would mean a redesign of all the systems that car insurers currently use to assess risk and calculate quotes. It is fair to say that that could be a complex, lengthy and costly exercise. My worry would be that any costs incurred by the insurer would be passed on to the customer.
The reality is that there is no one solution to the issue of high premiums for young drivers, however much one might be sympathetic to the problems they face. The insurance industry will always come back to the point that statistically young drivers are, sadly, more likely to be involved in motor accidents than drivers over the age of 25. That issue needs to be tackled from a road safety perspective, which is why many of us feel that there needs to be a Green Paper from the Government on the issue of young drivers and safety.
Indeed, in March 2013 the Department for Transport released a press release that stated:
“Government to overhaul young driver rules in bid to improve safety and cut insurance costs.”
It also said:
“Green paper on improving the safety and reducing risks to young drivers launched.”
It is now 2018—five years later—and we are still waiting to see that Green Paper. Despite calls from road safety campaigners and the insurance industry, the Government no longer appear to be addressing the issue. As far as I am aware, there is no sign of a Green Paper on young drivers at the moment, although I would be very grateful if the Minister could update us. If the Government are serious about doing something to address the core issues affecting the cost of car insurance for young people, they would bring forward this work. I ask the Minister when he is thinking of doing that. If he is not considering doing so, why not?
A Green Paper could look at a number of areas. Telematics, or in-car black boxes, have been hugely successful in bringing down the cost of premiums. They enable insurers to assess real-time data on an individual driver’s behaviour and to charge more accurate risk-based premiums as a result—in some cases, new drivers can see their premiums fall by one fifth or more. Currently, black boxes are subject to VAT, which pushes up the cost for insurers and drivers. Given that the evidence shows that the technology can help to reduce the number of road accidents, surely the question is whether it would be appropriate for the VAT to be removed.
The Green Paper could also address graduated licensing, which the Association of British Insurers believes would have a positive impact. As we have heard, that involves considering how and when individuals can drive after passing their test and it is in operation in some overseas jurisdictions, including Canada. There could be restrictions on the time of day a young driver could drive or on the number of passengers they could have. In countries where graduated licensing has been implemented, it has been proven to lower death and accident rates among young drivers. That is a significant point, as I hope all Members here tonight will concur.
However, such a scheme raises a number of concerns. For example, would it lead to unreasonable curfews on young drivers? What if it led to a young driver being forbidden to travel at night when they could be required to start work early in the morning? The wrong sort of graduated scheme could restrict opportunities and be unfair as a result. I have given only a couple of examples because I am conscious of time, but a Green Paper could explore many other areas that could improve safety for young drivers.
I also want to raise road safety targets. Other parts of the world, and many international bodies of which we are part, back such targets and feel that they should be supported widely. The last Labour Government brought in road safety targets before, sadly, they were abolished by the coalition Government. Road safety targets play an important role in focusing minds and contribute indirectly, as a result, to a fall in the number of young people killed or seriously injured and recorded as road casualty statistics. I am afraid that we are seeing a worrying rise in the number of people who are seriously injured or killed on the roads, with Government figures showing a 4% increase on the previous year in the numbers killed in 2016—the highest level since 2011—and an 8.5% increase in the numbers killed or seriously injured. I wonder, therefore, whether the Minister will consider reintroducing those targets.
This has been a constructive and important debate, and important and thoughtful points have been made by Members from across the House. I do not believe that the proposal in the petition would be the best way to tackle high insurance premiums for young people, for the reasons I have covered. There is no silver bullet, I am afraid. It is time we had a Green Paper on young drivers, so that the Government could have a detailed, rounded, comprehensive look at the matter. It is also time to bring back road safety targets and allow ourselves a longer-term vision of a much safer and, as a result, much better road network, with the numbers killed or injured reduced. Other countries have piloted a zero vision and there is no reason why we should not have such a vision. Road safety targets would be a vital component in achieving that.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I would say I was speechless at the joy, except that I have to make a speech. I thank the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) for opening the debate as she did on the important subject of insuring cars rather than the individuals who drive them. I also thank all hon. Members for their contributions, and I welcome the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) to his position on the shadow Front Bench. It will be a delight to address some of his points.
I hope I can assure hon. Members that the Government take the cost of motor insurance seriously and are committed to ensuring that it is reasonable for all motorists. To do that, we have sought to identify the root causes of high insurance premiums and to address them directly, but we have no plans to change the current motor insurance system, as stated in our response to the petition, and there appears to be consensus across all the parties whose Members contributed to the debate that that is the correct position.
I will first outline the system and some of the issues and then come on to all the important questions raised by colleagues from across the House. The UK was one of the first countries in the world to recognise the benefit of compulsory motor insurance, back in 1930. Our long-standing approach has been that it is an individual’s use of a vehicle that has to be insured. The current system of insuring individual drivers, rather than vehicles, does not, as has been noted, prevent named drivers from being added to an insurance policy for shorter or longer periods, which can be a cost-effective way for friends or relatives who share a car to be included on a single policy. For a typical family of four sharing a car, the saving with a named-driver policy rather than each family member having their own policy has been estimated to be more than £1,000. There are also new insurance products coming on to the market that facilitate short-term cover, including insurance by the hour and car-sharing arrangements, without the need to change insurance law. Such products make it easy to arrange cover for someone else using your car. One new car insurance app quotes an average of £10.90 for an hour’s coverage, which can be set up at very short notice, and I am sure we can expect further developments of such pay-as-you-drive solutions in the coming years.
It is important to note, as colleagues have, that it is not at all clear that changing the system would reduce the cost of insurance. In fact, there is every reason to think it could raise it. The complexity involved in changing the system would have significant cost implications, yet would not necessarily produce tangible benefits for the consumer. Some countries opt for a car-based rather than a driver-based system because they have no-fault legal regimes, under which each insurer compensates their own policyholder. So it is a question not just of how people purchase insurance but of the wider civil law principle of liability, which is different in the UK from those other countries. Changing our motor insurance system would almost certainly, therefore, involve complex legal changes and require detailed consultation. A change in the underlying legislation would mean that all insurers would need to redesign the systems they used to offer quotes, which, as the hon. Member for Reading East hinted, would be a complex and lengthy exercise and could have significant cost implications for both the industry and, in due course, consumers. Given the alternative solutions available, such as adding a named driver or adding “drive other car” options to motor insurance policies, such significant reforms would be disproportionate.
The price of insurance currently depends on a range of factors, including many that are driver-specific: driving history, including previous claims and unspent drink-driving convictions; the use made of the vehicle, for example, whether for commuting or business; and years of driving experience. If insurers were required to cover the vehicle and were not able to take such factors into account in their pricing, the cost of insurance would likely rise for those with a good driving record and a history of safe driving and they would end up bearing, on a net basis, the additional costs of drivers who were not as careful or safe. The evidence for that is that insurers already tend to charge much higher premiums for any-driver insurance policies, under which less good drivers can join a named driver. Named-driver policies allow friends or relatives who share a car to be included on a single policy and provide the insurance provider with the necessary information to assess the potential risk of each individual.
Turning, as one or two colleagues have already done, to the scenario used in the petition, I wish to note that it is based on a drink-driving situation. Three friends need to get home from a night out, two of whom, including the driver, are under the influence of alcohol and are unable to drive. The petition suggests that a system that insured the vehicle would enable the third friend to drive the group home. However, as has been mentioned, the risk could be significantly greater than is suggested. As has been noted, the owner’s friend may never have driven the vehicle and may have much less overall driving experience or a significantly worse claims history. In an era where vehicle technology is changing rapidly, the variety between newer and older cars is only getting greater, so the driver’s individual experience of a particular make and model of car will have increased significance.
We have to think about the cost of covering vehicles, not people, as well as the incentive that creates. If that group knows that one of its members—they may be the least experienced driver—will be sober, that could create an incentive that removes the restraint on people’s drinking. There may therefore be collateral unexpected consequences, even within the scenario that was set out. That by no means means that the Government are not determined to seek to reduce the cost of insurance, and it is important to make that clear. We have no plans to change the current system, but that does not mean we are not tackling other key issues known to drive up the cost of premiums, several of which have been discussed today.
One issue that has not been discussed is that of the measures we are taking to tackle the high rate of fraudulent, minor and exaggerated whiplash claims. The scale of the problem is highlighted by the fact that 85% of personal injury claims made in 2016-17 relating to road traffic accidents were labelled as whiplash or soft tissue injuries to the neck and back. I am afraid these data are four or five years old, but that figure compares with 30% in France and Denmark, 31% in Spain, 35% in the Netherlands and 68% in Italy, which is a bit more like us. A large number of claims management companies actively encourage claims after even minor crashes, thereby potentially exacerbating the problem. The magnitude of costs that insurers inherit from whiplash claims are often passed on to consumers through higher insurance premiums, raising the cost overall.
In February 2017, the Government announced a robust package of reforms to crack down on minor, fraudulent and exaggerated whiplash claims. The measures will be introduced in a civil liability Bill in due course. Subject to parliamentary time and consideration, the Government aim to implement the whiplash measures as a package in April 2019. It is estimated that the reforms will bring down the cost of motor insurance by around £35 a policy. Leading insurers, such as Aviva, have publicly committed to passing on savings through lower premiums. Motor insurance operates under something of a cloud, as we recognise, and has often been criticised on competition grounds, as colleagues have noted. In many ways, however, it is an intensely competitive industry, and insurers will have be under pressure to pass on savings or risk being priced out of the market. We as the Government will monitor the industry’s reaction to the reforms and will consider further action if required.
I want to pick up on some of the points that Members have raised, which include some important issues that are collateral to the petition, but are important for us to touch on. The hon. Member for Clwyd South mentioned that she had three key tests for legislation in this area. The first was the effect on costs, the second was the effect on the innocent party and the third was whether it would help or hinder road safety. I hope she will recognise that one of the unintended consequences might be to push up the cost of personal injury claims. The UK is famed for its relatively high level of personal injury claims, which is one reason why it yields whiplash claims. Those claims are one of the things funded by insurance premiums. The downside is higher costs, and we have identified that problem, but the upside is that personal injury claims tend to get paid out at a higher level in this country. We are keen to ensure that the link between driver insurance and driver behaviour is maintained precisely to maintain personal accountability.
The hon. Lady, like the hon. Members for Darlington (Jenny Chapman), for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) and for Reading East, was absolutely right to note the high cost of young people’s insurance claims and the higher risk that young people face in their motoring. In answer to the question raised by the hon. Member for Reading East, I cannot comment on what the coalition Government did or did not promise about a Green Paper, but I can tell him that these issues are of enormous interest and importance to the Government. We have commissioned a lot of work under our Driver 2020 programme, which is specifically designed to explore different forms of intervention that can bear on young people and improve their driving and therefore their insurability. That includes work on hazard perception, simulated training, education, parental engagement, data recorders, telematics and the rest. That is important.
To respond to the hon. Member for Darlington, we absolutely have not ruled out some form of graduated driver licence. We do not think it is the right policy at the moment, but we are looking at it. As she acknowledged, there are different forms of GDL, and it is important to be specific about the elements that might be brought in. It is not policy, but as she has said, and as the Prime Minister has said, we are considering that for precisely this reason. It falls into a wider desire across Government and certainly on my part to reduce the risk to young drivers, particularly in rural areas.
In my county of Herefordshire, I went to an extraordinary demonstration organised by the local fire service called Dying 2 Drive. It is run in connection with the ELY Memorial Trust, which is a wonderful local charity dedicated to helping prevent road accidents for young people. It is the most petrifying experience. Young people in sixth forms are exposed to a road traffic accident with fatalities right there. The situation in front of them is then solved through an intervention by the fire service and the police. It is a very moving experience. It is very hard to see it and drive without great care and attention thereafter, and the evidence is that it is very effective. I would like to see it rolled out by all kinds of fire services. It underlines the wide range of interventions that can be used to try to help this problem of young people at risk on our roads.
I will pick up a couple of other points that have been made. Adverse consequences are a theme that everyone has rightly touched on. We all recognise that the cost of premiums is higher than we would like, particularly for certain groups in society. We are determined to adopt a series of reforms—I have talked about whiplash and the work being done on young people—to try to reduce the high premiums and their impact on particular groups, but we have to be aware of the law of unintended consequences and the danger that such reforms may inadvertently drive up costs and premiums. Costs may be reallocated to people in a way that undermines the incentives to drive well and drive safely. It would be a disaster if we had those counterintuitive and counteractive results.
I am grateful to all Members who have contributed and to the hon. Member for Clwyd South for introducing the debate.
I thank the Minister for giving way just as he was finishing. In terms of the costs for young drivers, I mentioned the fact that the extra 12% insurance premium tax is a further hurdle for those drivers to overcome. Could the Government look at reforming that?
It is hard to respond to that question, because it is about a tax and is therefore handled by the Treasury, rather than my Department. Also, it is not a tax that falls specifically on young people, but on the industry as a whole. As with any tax, one should consider not only the tax but the things it is intended to pay for and might be paying for, whether that is reducing debt or funding public services. The point I would make to the hon. Gentleman is that over the past few years the Department has pioneered a continuous insurance enforcement system that has significantly reduced the number of uninsured drivers by some 40%. Again, we take the point about the concern, but we specifically want to address the cause of it, which is the number of uninsured drivers. That is the core point of the remark.
To wind up, I am grateful to colleagues across the House and the hon. Member for Clwyd South for introducing this debate. I am grateful to the Petitions Committee for putting it on our docket. We all recognise that the cost of car insurance is an important issue for all motorists. That is why the Government are committed to the things we have discussed tonight: tackling fraudulent whiplash claims, working with the motor insurance market, keeping premiums as low as they can be and addressing the risks and concerns that relate to young people and those in rural areas. I hope on that basis that the House will be satisfied.
Again, I want to put on the record my thanks and those of the Petition Committee to the creator of the petition and to its signatories. It is rare in this place to have an in-depth discussion on car insurance. In my seven and three-quarter years as a Member I cannot remember a time when we have looked at car insurance and, in the same breath, road safety, but today’s debate has done that.
I want to pay a special tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) for her comments on the graduated licence. As she was speaking I thought back to my time as a sixth former when some friends who had passed their driving tests before me kindly offered to take me round the roads and country lanes of north Wales. It was an immensely enjoyable experience and absolutely useless in terms of driving practice to pass a test. I failed my driving test on three occasions until I went to university and passed on the streets of Bristol. I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend that there is a very strong case for a graduated licence. I also agree about the alcohol restrictions of which she spoke. I hope that if that idea ever sees the light of day we could see car insurance premiums for young people reduced, and also greater safety on our roads, which cannot come a day too soon.
My hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) mentioned a Green Paper, which I would welcome. The Minister has not exactly ruled it out and I hope that that might be considered in future. In today’s debate we have been able to look at car insurance and the critical issue of road safety in the round. I whole- heartedly thank again the creator of the petition and all the signatories who made that possible for us.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 207616 relating to changes to car insurance.