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British Sign Language

Volume 738: debated on Tuesday 17 October 2023

[Esther McVey in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the British Sign Language report 2022 and implementation of the British Sign Language Act 2022.

It is a pleasure to serve under you, Ms McVey—or is it Dame Esther nowadays?

Thank you, Ms McVey—I wanted to get that correct.

I first declare an interest relevant to the debate: I have worked with the RNID, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, for some time. Currently, I am in discussion with the chairman and chief executive of the charity about how I can continue to support it through my last term in Parliament and beyond. That is not yet at a stage that I have been able to register it formally under chapter 1 of the code of conduct, but I declare the interest under paragraph 5(c) of chapter 2—although unpaid, it is clearly an “expected future interest” and clearly relevant to the debate.

I was pleased to see the first report under the British Sign Language Act 2022 published in July this year. That is why I called for this debate about the Act and its implementation, and what the report tells us about progress.

Let us look back to the autumn of 2021. Rose Ayling-Ellis was on our screens in “Strictly Come Dancing”, helping millions of mainstream viewers to see that deafness and signing is no barrier whatsoever to participation. Here in Parliament, Rosie Cooper was promoting a private Member’s bill to recognise British Sign Language as a language in the UK. As the then Minister with responsibility for disabled people, I was determined to work with her to achieve that. The result of our cross-party work, deeply rooted in the deaf community, is the BSL Act 2022.

Why did we need to do that? It was because, for decades up to that point, deaf people have suffered exclusion. Linguistic exclusion leads to social and educational exclusion, and it leads to worse services and to being left out in the workplace. That is wrong, and the Act is there to help put a stop to it in Britain. I was deeply proud to play my part, but it was just the start.

Today’s debate is about implementing all those good intentions. The journey begins now to achieve better for deaf people, built on official status for a vibrant and historic language, and on improvements in communications and public services. I urge hon. Members to look at the work of the British Deaf Association, in particular its 10-year strategic vision—rooted in consultation with the community and in learning for its own organisation—which sets out aspirations for deaf people in the UK for the next decade and beyond, following the historic legal recognition of the language. Deaf people and BSL allies alike are reaching for a more inclusive Britain, where all deaf children, young people and adults can thrive.

In my own instance, a deaf family member inspired me to take action. My father left the work that he loved, his profession and his passion, because he could no longer hear his customers. As an MP, I have seen how some constituents have struggled to get basic public services such as accessible health appointments or education.

I hope that the Act will provide a clear light by which to navigate. Its symbolism is central, but its practicality is essential, too—the guidance that is to be produced must improve public services. I also hope that the Act will spur greater understanding and accessibility in private services and throughout society. Our task today and in years to come is to closely scrutinise the delivery of progress in promoting and facilitating BSL within and beyond Government. I will ask three sets of questions of the Minister.

First, let us look at the reporting duty and the inaugural report. The report captures data on BSL usage in Government communications for the first time. It sets a baseline for ministerial Departments from which they can improve their promotion and facilitation of BSL in the months and years ahead. I am glad that the Government recognise that accessibility is essential in Government communications and engagement. That is of course so that everyone has access to important information and can engage with the Government, and indeed Parliament, on issues that will affect them.

Of course, I include Parliament in this process, and I am heartened to have seen the efforts of interpreters here—I understand that today’s debate is of course being supported by signing provision. That will make sure that a growing proportion of this institution’s work is signed and accessible. But there is more to do, including by Government. The report reveals some important good practice and case studies but also some concerning gaps—literally zeroes on the page. What will the Minister do to ensure that BSL is provided with all public announcements about policy or changes to the law, all publications such as plans, strategies and consultations, and in all Government press conferences, social media and websites, including at the highest levels of Government, led by the Prime Minister, for very significant communications that affect all citizens?

I am encouraged that the report sets out going further than the 2022 Act demanded. For example, although the Act requires a BSL report to be published only once every three years, the Government have said that they intend to do so every year for the next five years, which is welcome. It is also welcome that my successor as the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will ask each ministerial Department to produce a five-year BSL plan, setting out how they intend to improve the use of BSL within their Departments. There will be a five-year plan and an annual checkpoint for each year of those five years, which I hope will help to drive improvement, highlight successes and ensure accountability. Therefore, today I ask the Minister: is he confident that the Departments are doing that work? What steps he is taking now to drive progress in this year, which we will all want to see in the report that he would wish to be able to present next July? For example, will he set targets for Departments?

It is good to see reference to ministerial responsibility to improve BSL use. Will the Minister give an assurance today that the ministerial disability champions have now met, that—as promised—July’s report has been discussed at their meeting, and that these Ministers, who after all have been asked by the Prime Minister to provide a personal lead and commitment to championing accessibility and opportunity for disabled people within their Departments, have all given him clear plans for doing so? Will he also give us an update on how he plans to use his forthcoming disability action plan to respond to the needs of deaf people and say what level of response he has received to the consultation, which closed earlier this month?

Secondly, let us consider the guidance that needs to be produced. When legislating, we were clear that there must be an advisory board that will ensure that the deaf community is at the heart of the Act’s effect. I am pleased that the Minister has been able to take this forward, completing the necessary appointments and launching the board. As July’s report confirms, the BSL advisory board will advise the Government on the guidance detailed in the BSL Act, and its implementation, to best represent the deaf community. This guidance will be published by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions during the next BSL reporting period. I expect that we will see it between now and next April, although it would be helpful if the Minister also confirmed today that he intends to table the statutory instrument that I understand is required to enact part 3 of the BSL Act, which will allow Departments to publish that guidance.

Will the Minister also please give the House an update on the expected contents of that guidance and tell us what priorities he has received from the deaf community? I anticipate that those priorities will span every part of public services, because we know that our deaf constituents face compound problems. For example, the National Deaf Children’s Society reports:

“Access to family sign language support is currently a postcode lottery with too many families forced to pay to learn how to communicate with their own child.”

There are examples from people I chatted with at the Norfolk Deaf Festival earlier this year. Some deaf constituents are being advised that they must telephone the audiology department at one Norfolk hospital. Another constituent had a month-long in-patient stay in another Norfolk hospital, which must have been a lonely, distressing and indeed dangerous experience, because I am told that no signing was provided. I have, of course, pursued both these issues locally.

I can give a further example from a small business in Norwich, which has used AI to provide digital BSL services. It says:

“Many larger enterprises do not see a commercial value in BSL translation for their customers. Some BSL-dependent banking customers got banking products using interpreters and relay services, but when it was time for changes in terms and conditions, these were only offered in written English. As a direct result, people have suffered unnecessary debt and”—

my constituent was told—

“some have lost their homes.”

Building on the ministerial disability champions’ pledge to discuss the communications data arising from the Act and the first report, how will Ministers work together to enact effective improvement in what a person can expect when they attend a hospital, start school, look for a job, or look for private goods and services?

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing today’s debate. She has rightly outlined some of the public service barriers faced by deaf people. A number of senior educationalists have suggested that British Sign Language be introduced as a GCSE in schools. Does she agree that that is worth exploring further? Will she urge the Minister to look at how that could not just break down barriers, but better support a lot of young people to understand the needs of deaf people and communicate with them better?

My hon. Friend, who is extremely well qualified, makes absolutely the right point. Indeed, I will urge the Minister not just to look at introducing a GCSE in BSL, but to tell us how he is getting on with doing so, because is a long-standing piece of work that the Government have focused on for some time. Actually, this goes much further than merely one qualification in the education system. What about the deaf children who start school at five? What about those who are learning to speak between, say, 18 months and pre-school age? From the perspective of those deaf children and their families, doing a GCSE would look like a very long time away.

Let me return to my questions for the Minister. What data do the Government collect on BSL users, and does he have plans to improve it? Will he also set out how he hopes the board will work and how it will respond to feedback? I have heard some deep concerns about representation on the board, and the BDA, which I have mentioned already, has said:

“a common theme emerging from the UK Deaf community is a desire for more Deaf leadership in BSL service delivery; for these services to be delivered by Deaf BSL signers themselves; for support to enable Deaf-led professional planning and budget setting on BSL issues.”

Will the Minister give us an update on progress in increasing the number of interpreters? That is a key issue for the deaf community. Will he give us a brief update on how Access to Work is being improved for deaf and other users? That was another key point heard throughout the passage of the Act, and it is fundamental to the work of his Department.

I want to ask the Minister a final set of questions about how the Act may be used to drive up standards via redress. We knew at the time that the BSL Act must work in tandem with existing legislation—most obviously the Equality Act 2010, which requires reasonable adjustments to be made by a wide range of people and sectors to ensure that disabled people have equal access to goods and services. What has the Minister learned so far about how the architecture is working together? Can he share case studies—either today or by writing to me and, no doubt, the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on deafness, the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), who is present—that show how individuals have used the BSL Act and the Equality Act to get the right standard of access or service? Will the Minister explain how our constituents will be able to get redress in future, and how the tandem legislation will hopefully enable us to stop indignities and injustices happening again and again to deaf people? Does he agree with charities such as the RNID that the guidance should outline the minimum standards that BSL users are entitled to as a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act? That would force service providers to meet the needs of deaf BSL users and increase the chance of people using legal redress when providers have failed to do so.

Ms McVey, thank you for allowing me to open today’s debate. I really welcome the fact that a number of right hon. and hon. Members from different parties, and from all parts of the United Kingdom, have come to speak for their deaf constituents. We all celebrated the British Sign Language Act and would all agree that hard work is needed to ensure that it is properly implemented and that our constituents benefit from the opportunities it presents. Only with granular focus such as this and determined attention will we see the strides we need in early years, education, employment, healthcare, social care, business, the workplace and the community. There has been linguistic exclusion for too long, and we can do better.

Thank you, Ms McVey—I did not expect to be called right away, so I thank you for doing so and for the opportunity to contribute. I am certainly used to always being near the end, but that is not a bad thing, as long as I get the chance to speak. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on leading the debate, with the detail, the evidential base and her clear requests for the Minister. As she said, it is fantastic to see the cross-party support in the Chamber from those who wish to contribute, from all parts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

In Northern Ireland—I always bring the Northern Ireland perspective; you know that, Ms McVey—we have a slightly different approach. We have our own guidelines, which I will speak about soon, but it is great to be here to discuss the provision of British Sign Language across this great United Kingdom. Mr Speaker brought in provision of sign language in the Chamber some time ago, and with a real zest, to ensure that it was available for everyone—both those watching and those in the Chamber who need it. In Northern Ireland, we have two sign languages: British Sign Language and Irish Sign Language. Both BSL and ISL were embraced in the Good Friday agreement, and on 20 March 2004, the Secretary of State announced the formal recognition of BSL and ISL as languages in their own right. That is something we welcome, and it is clear that this caters for those who need it on both sides of the community in Northern Ireland.

BSL is the first or preferred language of communication of approximately 3,500 members of the deaf population of Northern Ireland, while approximately 1,500 people use ISL. It is important that deaf people who use sign language as their first or preferred language are not looked at as a cultural or linguistic minority. Their choice to use BSL, or indeed ISL, should be respected, celebrated and encouraged, and I am glad to say that that is the case in Northern Ireland.

In March 2016, the Department for Communities in the Northern Ireland Assembly consulted on a sign language framework, which contained proposals for legislation clearly setting out the way forward at that time. The consultation was referred to in the New Decade, New Approach agreement in January 2020, with a commitment to introduce a sign language Bill. While other legislation—I say this respectfully—has been imposed on Northern Ireland through Westminster, I would argue that the full implementation of a sign language Bill should have been prioritised, because it is vitally important.

Sign language is something that we are all becoming more aware of and are certainly seeing more in society, and I will give some examples of that. I am glad to say that most of my staff members in my office know the most basic of sign language. It is important that we do because people come to see us in the office who use sign language. I am not smarter than anybody else—I do not pretend to be—but it is about ensuring that, when people who have communication issues come to the office, we are able as a staff to respond to that. It is great having that assurance for constituents who perhaps require assistance and are, in some cases, either partially or totally deaf. It is something that should be normalised more in society, and that is what I and everyone here wants to see. We should all try to know and understand the basics at least.

The basics are certainly being taught in schools across Northern Ireland, and I want to touch on that as well. The right hon. Member for Norwich North did not do so—well, maybe she did and I missed it. I have six grandchildren, including two granddaughters. The oldest ones were taught some sign language in school. I think there is an indication in the education system in Northern Ireland that where possible, because of those who have communication issues because of their deafness, people are able to engage with sign language. I am quite encouraged by that because of what it means for children at an early age. We always want our children and grandchildren to have an appreciation of those who perhaps do not have the same access to things. I think it makes them a better person. The education system in Northern Ireland is, I believe, doing the right thing.

Many Members here today have raised and will raise concerns in relation to ensuring that there is a sustainable number of interpreters in the NHS. I am not sure whether there is, but there needs to be. I think the right hon. Lady referred to that in her contribution too. It is another thing on which the Minister, although it is not his direct responsibility, might be able to give us some indication and encouragement. I have heard stories of patients who have had to rely on friends and family to interpret for them at hospital appointments. I know that the nurses and other staff are under pressure; I understand that, but it is always good to have someone with sign language capability. The situation was exacerbated—incredibly so—by the covid pandemic, in which appointments were extremely limited and there was a time when people were not allowed to have anyone attend their appointment with them. That was a real issue for the two and a half or three years of covid.

More than 70,000 deaf people across the UK use British Sign Language, and that must be accommodated in a completely normal way. There is certainly an argument that there should be a sign language module—an opportunity to study it—as part of university training for nurses and those studying medicine. I am keen to hear the Minister’s thoughts on that, because I think there is a real need for it. I think the right hon. Member for Norwich North, who set the scene so well, would think the same; indeed, I think everyone here would think the same.

More than 200,000 people in Northern Ireland have some element of hearing loss, as do some 12 million—almost 18%—of the whole UK population. Our attitudes to sign language and provision to help those with hearing issues must be changed in order for this to become an inclusive society in which people who are hard of hearing feel comfortable using public services. I chaired a series of meetings to do with the eye disease wet AMD—age-related macular degeneration. It was suggested that people should perhaps have a better understanding of what that means: the person’s central vision is off, but they have the outside of their vision. That is just another example of where we perhaps need a better understanding.

I encourage the Minister, through the implementation of the British Sign Language report in England, to have conversations—I know that he is always keen to do so; he has done so in the past and will do so in the future —with the Department for Communities in Northern Ireland to ensure that we have the same approach to dealing with this issue. It is clear to me and, I am sure, to him that when we are discussing how better to ensure the implementation of British Sign Language—and, indeed, Irish Sign Language for those in Northern Ireland —our approach should be the same. Most importantly, we need to do as much as we can to learn as much sign language as we can. That is one of the goals that I hope to achieve and it is one that everyone here will subscribe to. The important thing is that we recognise that there is an issue. I am sure that the Minister, in his response, will encourage us all that we are going in the right direction, but it would be good if we all went in the same direction together.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I think this might be the first time that I have followed him in a debate in the four years that I have been in Parliament, but it is always a pleasure to be in a debate with him and listen to what he says.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) for her excellent speech, for all the work that she has done to support the deaf community over many years and for the important questions that she laid out for our hon. Friend the Minister. It would be good to hear some answers today. I will not repeat those questions, but they are very important.

I welcome the first British Sign Language report and its findings following Royal Assent of the British Sign Language Act 2022. The annex to the report shows all the BSL activity done by each Department, which is important.

Quite rightly, British Sign Language is recognised as a language of the United Kingdom. According to the report, the UK is home to 12 million people who are either deaf or hard of hearing. We can consider it a great success that BSL users have been recognised and represented in this House. As that figure rises to 14.2 million by 2035, it is essential that we support BSL users and encourage the use of BSL so that the figure of 151,000 users can continue to increase.

The report states that the Government’s communications could be improved when they are engaging with BSL users, especially on the policy changes that have been made and the financial support packages that the Treasury is putting in place. On that note, there is probably more that needs to be done in terms of how financial support is allocated at local authority level. It seems from my conversations that there is a bit of a postcode lottery and that support is not rolled out equally across the country. Some who are deaf or hard of hearing are not able to access the same financial support as others.

Although we must focus on the improvements that we can make, I must commend the Department for Work and Pensions on the work it is doing, such as its BSL-specific YouTube channel and the 26 videos that it has already produced in BSL. I encourage the Government to continue delivering on their promises to the deaf and hard of hearing community by publishing a BSL report every year for at least the next five years. Making Government more accessible is important, so I commend the work put into producing improvement plans for each Department, issuing internal guidance to civil servants, covering best practice and things to consider when planning communication for BSL users, and providing advice on how to procure BSL translation or interpretation. That is a vital way in which those who are deaf or hard of hearing will feel they are supported by the Government. As work continues to tackle accessibility issues, a key device will be consultation of the BSL advisory board.

At the weekend Guildford hosted the wonderful BSL Fest. People came from the local area and from far away. Members of the deaf community and the deafblind community came together to celebrate British Sign Language. I was pleased to receive one-to-one sign language training from Kathleen from Dot Sign Language and I had the pleasure of giving a speech at the festival, the first sentences of which were entirely in sign language. It is a daunting prospect for anyone to learn something new and different, but I encourage all of my colleagues to see whether they can engage and have a few British Sign Language lessons from experienced professionals. The reception from the deaf community—how they felt being addressed by not just a Member of Parliament but the mayor and the lead councillor for the community in sign language before we gave our speeches—was heartwarming to see.

We have come a long way since the introduction of the Act. However, I am sure we agree that we must not rest on our laurels. There is much progress to be made. I hope that my constituents in Guildford and those who are deaf and hard of hearing will continue to see the benefits of our support.

I am proud to speak today as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on deafness and as a patron of the Nottinghamshire Deaf Society. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing today’s debate and on setting out so clearly the context of the British Sign Language report 2022. She posed important questions for the Minister. As the former Minister for Disabled People in the Department for Work and Pensions, she played an important role in the BSL Bill’s becoming law. She once told me that she considers it her proudest achievement in Government.

The annual general meeting of the APPG on deafness takes place next Wednesday. I hope some Members here today will be present and I hope that the right hon. Member will become an officer of the group. I look forward to working with her to ensure that the needs of deaf people and those who experience hearing loss are properly represented here in Parliament and lead to real improvements for them.

It is a testament to the skill and determination of my former colleague Rosie Cooper, the former Member for West Lancashire, that she was able to unite the House in support of the landmark piece of legislation that finally set official recognition for British Sign Language in statute. That was an important achievement. As Rosie said in her speech on the Bill’s Second Reading,

“I want to finally recognise BSL in statute—not just a gesture but a law that requires positive action from the Government, with real progress to put deaf people on an equal footing with those of us who hear. For every deaf person, like my parents, who has been ignored, misunderstood, or even treated as unintelligent simply for relying on BSL, this recognition will be clear and a message that their language is equal and should be treated as equal.”—[Official Report, 28 January 2022; Vol. 707, c. 1227.]

The passing of the Act was a huge moment for all the members of the BSL Act Now! coalition, including RNID, the British Deaf Association and David Buxton, and many other organisations that had campaigned for many years to secure that recognition.

But recognition alone was never enough and never the intention of the Act, which was only the first step on an equally if not more important journey towards equality for deaf people. The BSL Act will have succeeded only if it leads to better access to communication for deaf people and real, meaningful change in their life chances and experiences. That means ensuring that Government communications on new laws, policies, proposals and publications, which affect all our lives, are produced in BSL to better serve the deaf community. It means ensuring that Departments’ social media posts and websites are accessible to BSL users. If deaf people who are BSL users cannot access that information, they will be denied the support, information and activities they need and excluded from full participation in decision making.

As has already been said, part 2 of the Act requires the Secretary of State to publish a report on the promotion and facilitation of BSL by each Department—essentially, to set out how they will provide information to deaf BSL users in their communications—and it is that report that we are debating. As the RNID briefing points out, the lack of accessible information from official sources can lead to people feeling anxious, feeling angry and, in some cases, being at risk of believing fake news. That is why it is so disappointing to learn that 11 Departments produced no communications in BSL at all during the reporting period, and that only six reported having used BSL for publicity. As RNID set out, only the DWP and the Cabinet Office made public announcements about policy or changes to the law in BSL, and the Treasury produced no BSL publications during the cost of living crisis, leaving BSL users in the dark about what support is available for them. The Department of Health and Social Care had only one consultation document translated into BSL.

Much as I welcome the report and the fact that we now have transparency and can see what the situation is, it tells us that the Government are simply not doing enough. That has to change. I hope that the Minister, who I suspect is very committed to this issue, agrees that there is much more to do and is determined to ensure that much more happens. It is welcome that the Government have committed to providing annual reports for the next five years, and I hope that next year’s report will show a significant improvement in the provision of BSL content across Government. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about how he is going to ensure that that happens. There needs to be an understanding across all Departments that BSL really matters and must be prioritised, and that if it is not we will be letting down a significant proportion of the deaf population.

There are some omissions from the BSL Act. For example, it does not require No. 10 to report on its BSL provision. Will the Minister commit to reporting on No. 10’s BSL provision? That would send a clear message of leadership. We all remember the deep concern and anger at the lack of BSL interpretation at daily briefings during the covid pandemic, which left BSL users without access to essential health and other information. That was rightly challenged, and I am sure the Government have learned from it. By including No. 10 in their reporting, they would send a clear message that lessons have been learned and about their commitment to making things different in the future.

Part 3 of the BSL Act requires the Government to produce guidance about the promotion and facilitation of BSL use, and the non-statutory BSL advisory board has a vital role in ensuring that deaf people’s lived experience is fully acknowledged and that they are a partner in the co-creation of that guidance. As the right hon. Member for Norwich North said, there is concern in the deaf community that they are still not sufficiently involved in departmental actions to ensure that changes truly meet the needs of BSL users. The slogan of the disability community is often, “Nothing about us without us,” and measures to ensure that those with lived experience are not just consulted about the guidance but partners in its creation would be very welcome.

As has already been said, the guidance can empower the deaf community if it sets out how public services should make reasonable adjustments for deaf BSL users. If it provides those minimum standards, those users will be better able to hold our public services to account and better able to seek redress when they fail to reach their needs. Setting that standard of expectation is clearly something that the guidance can and should do. I look forward to the Minister’s comments on that.

For too long, BSL users have faced unacceptable barriers to their full participation in society. For too long, their voices have been unheard, their independence undermined and their opportunities limited. The BSL Act must fulfil its potential and make a real difference to the lives of deaf BSL users, and the all-party parliamentary group and I will do our very best to ensure that those things happen.

Thank you for chairing this debate, Ms McVey. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing it. I think this is the right time to discuss this issue and to ask the Minister pertinent questions that need answers.

I am not going to do what I often do and talk about how dreadful a job the UK Government are doing, because this is genuinely really good progress. This is a really good report highlighting the issues and making clear what needs to be done to get to a better place. All Governments have more to do in this regard.

Let me take a moment to celebrate the fact that next week will be the eighth anniversary of the passage of the historic British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015 by the Scottish Parliament. Our strategy, which ran from 2017 until this year—it is about to be superseded by the next one—contained 70 actions across 10 long-term BSL ambitions.

Before I go into some of the actions we are taking in Scotland, I will take a moment to recognise how unique British Sign Language is. For many people, English is not their first language; BSL is, and those are not people who have come from another country. BSL is an indigenous language throughout these islands. The Scottish Government have continued to promote and support the teaching of BSL, because it is one of Scotland’s vibrant indigenous languages. We have said that we want to make Scotland the best place in the world for a BSL user to live, work and visit, which means that people whose first or preferred language is BSL 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 life.

As I said, we have taken 70 different actions. We have not made the progress that we would like on all of them, and there is definitely significantly more to do. As the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) mentioned, we are trying to ensure that the principle of “nothing about us without us” is enshrined in everything we do. When the Scottish social security system replaced the personal independence payment with the adult disability payment, we ensured that people with lived experience were at the table, telling us how they wanted the system improved. We are ensuring that when we consult on the new progress and action plan on British Sign Language, the deaf community will be as involved as possible, making the case for the action and improvement that they want. No Government can make good decisions if they do not have an adequate amount of lived experience informing those decisions.

We took some of our actions during the covid pandemic. For example, our former First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said that she

“couldn’t have done my job over the past few years”

without BSL interpreters. She said:

“They were crucial in making sure that we were able to communicate properly and fully the public health messages that were so essential in the country during that time.”

We are also taking action in relation to schools and learning. The hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) mentioned the possibility of creating a GCSE in BSL. I am not entirely sure what the equivalent is, but we in Scotland have SCQF qualifications available in British Sign Language at a number of levels. Edinburgh University is looking into introducing a primary teaching degree that includes British Sign Language, to help tackle the decline in the number of teachers who are able to teach in BSL. It is incredibly important that at all levels—whether at pre-school, primary school or secondary school, in the workplace or public life, or even in accessing shops and services—we do everything that we can to ensure that people who use BSL have access to it. We have ensured that all our colleges and universities in Scotland have a BSL plan in place, which is available both in English and in sign language.

We are also ensuring that each of our local authorities —we are not there yet—does what it can to increase access to the services they provide. In 2021, 24 of Scotland’s 32 local authorities taught BSL in primary schools—a total of 113 schools across Scotland. Obviously, we would like BSL to be taught in all 32 local authorities; as part of the action plans, our local authorities are working towards that.

I want to take this opportunity to celebrate this vibrant, dynamic and exciting language that so many of our constituents use, and to make it clear that we all have the same direction of travel. We are all trying to improve access to services, to public life and to information for users of British Sign Language. Any work that the Minister wants to do with Scotland, either to promote good practice on the part of the Government, or to learn from good practice in Scotland, would be wholly welcomed by my Scottish Government ministerial colleagues in Holyrood.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey. I am grateful for the opportunity to respond on behalf of the shadow Work and Pensions team, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing the debate. We were opposite numbers for a time. I remember her enthusiastic support for the British Sign Language Act 2022 when it was progressing through Parliament, and she worked closely with our colleague at the time, Rosie Cooper. On the day the Bill received its Third Reading, I remember the right hon. Member for Norwich North saying:

“Today is a momentous day and I truly hope it will transform the lives of”


“people across the country.”

It has therefore been very telling to hear some of her concerns this afternoon. I genuinely hope that the Minister will work with her and others to ensure that the Act delivers what was hoped for on that day. It is interesting to find myself sharing common ground with her for once. I hope that the Minister will respond in detail to the many excellent points that have been raised. I am certainly glad that we have BSL interpretation today; that should happen a lot more across Parliament.

Like others before me, I will take a moment to pay tribute to the countless disabled people, friends, families, advocates, disabled people’s organisations and charities who campaigned for the Act. I had the absolute pleasure of meeting some of them along the way. As we have heard, the BSL Act was a major milestone for disabled-deaf people in the UK, not least because it led to BSL finally being recognised as a language. However, as has been said, progress on implementation of other parts of the Act has been a little disappointing.

The 2022 British Sign Language report recorded shockingly low figures for the amount of BSL communications being produced by Government Departments. That has important implications for co-production—something I am keen for Labour to deliver on if it wins the next general election. That word is thrown around quite frequently, but it is not always fully understood. Co-production means more than just engaging with or consulting the community we are working with, which in this case is the disabled-deaf and disabled communities. Proper co-production involves everyone working together on an equal basis right from the start, and coming to a decision or creating a service that works for all. One of the most basic steps on the path to successful co-production is ensuring that all communications are accessible.

The Minister often assures me that he and his civil servants are consulting or working with disabled people on policy. The 2022 BSL report shows that the Department for Work and Pensions and the Cabinet Office were the only Departments to make public announcements about policy or changes to the law in BSL. What is his response to the Royal National Institute for Deaf People’s observation that the Treasury, for example, produced no BSL publications about the cost of living crisis, leaving BSL users in the dark about what support is available to them? No. 10 is not required to report on its provision of BSL—something that I know the RNID and others would like changed.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), chair of the all-party parliamentary group on deafness, said, all Government communications must be in BSL, and recognition of the issue alone is not enough. We succeed only if everyone has equal access. That is why we need No. 10 to report on BSL provision; we have to lead from the top. Many hon. Members will remember the “Where is the Interpreter?” campaign, which did an excellent job of highlighting that BSL users were excluded from the daily covid-19 briefings.

The third part of the Act offers the Government an important opportunity to create guidance on reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010 for BSL users. It places a duty on the Secretary of State to issue guidance on the promotion and facilitation of BSL. As hon. Members will know and others have highlighted, the Equality Act obliges public authorities to make reasonable adjustments to remove the barriers that disabled people face in accessing their services. However, there is a lack of precedent on what constitutes a reasonable adjustment for a BSL user in that context. I would appreciate an update from the Minister on that, as I know BSL users are concerned that their adjustments are often seen as too expensive. As many Members have said, including the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), we have to make progress with a BSL GCSE.

I want to touch briefly on the lack of available data on BSL users. I have found that to be a significant issue across the Department for Work and Pensions, not just in relation to the issues that we are discussing. Without meaningful data on the number of people who use BSL, and the barriers that they face, it is incredibly difficult to identify their access needs accurately. At present, Government data includes them in other groups, such as those who are hearing impaired and those with difficulty hearing. That means there is no way to focus specifically on BSL users as a stand-alone group. The Government have committed to reforming and standardising the data that they capture on disability in both the national disability strategy and the draft disability action plan. Will the Minister tell us whether those documents will include BSL users as a stand-alone group? I end by saying that the Act was an important first step, but as this debate has shown, there is still a lot more work to do.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I start by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) for securing this debate; for her ongoing passion and leadership on this issue; and for her determination to deliver this landmark legislation, working with Rosie Cooper. She takes a close interest in the Government’s performance on this issue, and in wider issues affecting the deaf community. She wants us to take further steps to ensure that BSL is used more widely in society, and that more people can communicate through it.

Interestingly, one of the key assurances that my right hon. Friend gave during the passage of the legislation was to the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), Chair of the APPG. She assured her, in Committee, that the Government would be open to scrutiny of the BSL Act, and that the first BSL report would be published on 31 July this year. That has happened, and today’s debate flows from that. I was heartened to hear that BSL will be a subject of interest to my right hon. Friend beyond her time in the House, and is something that she will campaign on passionately. Her advocacy on this issue, and that of Members from across the House—not just those who are here—is something of which Parliament can be proud. All of us, cross party, want to do our best to ensure accessible communication for everybody in society. It is to the Government’s credit that they got behind the Bill, and worked intensively with Rosie Cooper and the coalition, as was touched on, to shape and craft the legislation and ensure that we got it right.

The British Sign Language Act 2022 was the first private Member’s Bill drawn 20th in the ballot to become law in more than 20 years; that was a bit of parliamentary trivia for everybody this afternoon. That is not an insignificant achievement. It speaks to the cross-party support for the Act. Everybody came together from across the House to support that legislation, here as well as in the other place.

Many good, pertinent questions were raised in the debate, and I want to touch on them. As I say, the British Sign Language Act 2022 was warmly welcomed by the deaf community, and particularly by the BSL Act Now! campaign. Its members worked so hard, and in such a determined way, to put the issue firmly on the agenda. Arguably, that passion was reflected at BSL Fest in Guildford at the weekend. I was delighted to hear that my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson) was in attendance, was part of the celebrations and part of that important community in her area. We see those celebrations reflected in community initiatives up and down the country, which is heartening. They give ever greater prominence to the issue. All of us parliamentarians, and those of us in government, should place real emphasis on working in partnership with communities, charities and representative bodies to continue to evolve our work on this issue, and make sure that we live up to the ambition out there in our society for BSL.

It is a privilege to report today on the progress that we are making on the BSL Act, and to discuss the findings of the first BSL report, but candidly, there is more to do. The first BSL report is an important baseline to help us understand how the Government communicate vital information to a group of people with specific, distinct communication needs, and to encourage us to go further.

There are a couple of points that I want to touch on early in my remarks. One is the judicial review of BSL interpretation of the covid briefings during the pandemic. The judicial review found that the Government were meeting their obligations under the Equality Act 2010 with regard to BSL interpretation during the covid 19 briefings, and were compliant with the public sector equality duty. The court ruled that our policy of using on-screen British Sign Language interpreters during the pandemic was lawful. The judge ruled that it is not a legal requirement to provide an in-person BSL interpreter. There had been over 175 covid briefings by the date of the judgment, and in only two instances were they found to be unlawful because BSL was not provided on screen. Our priority has always been to reach the largest possible audience with important public information, and we will continue to ensure that BSL interpretation is made available where appropriate.

On No. 10, the BSL Act places a duty on the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to collate and publish a report on BSL use in the ministerial Departments listed in the schedule to the Act. The intention behind the five-year plans mentioned in the BSL report is to build on the work already being done across the Departments that are placed under that reporting duty. No. 10 and the parliamentary estate are not ministerial Departments, and there is no statutory requirement on them to report on their use of BSL. However, guidance was recently published by the Government Communication Service that covers all of Government. I am assured that it will help communicators across Government to determine what public information should be produced in BSL, so that we meet the obligations set out in the public sector equality duty and the Equality Act 2010. I am very happy to explore that area further.

As for the parliamentary estate, I would be delighted to work cross-party with colleagues on engaging with the House authorities to see what they might be able to do. It is welcome that there is BSL interpretation of our proceedings this afternoon, but we should always strive to go further. I am very willing to engage constructively with others to achieve that.

I welcome that offer, and will most certainly take the Minister up on it. As shadow Minister for Disabled People, I have struggled with the question of where funding for BSL interpretation should come from, including as regards the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. The Minister is absolutely right: we should be leading on this issue. On No. 10 and interpreters at covid briefings, we should always strive to do better, and I do not think we did well enough at the time. We should keep the ambition to continually do better, instead of saying, “We weren’t done by the courts, apart from in two areas.”

On the first part of the hon. Lady’s intervention, I am delighted to work with her to try to take that forward. At the start of my remarks, I said consistently that I recognise that we have further to travel, and I am certainly not complacent when it comes to performance across the whole of Government. As has been touched on, some of the performance around my Department—the Department for Work and Pensions —is at the top of the charts, which shows the emphasis that my ministerial colleagues in the Department and I place on this issue. I am trying to lead by example by ensuring that I demonstrate a real commitment and willingness to set a standard that I want Ministers and Departments across the board to follow. It is in that spirit that we move forward with this work.

To delve further into the issue of communications across Government, I could not be clearer that people who use BSL as their native language should be able to access the same information as native English speakers, whether that information is about their rights and responsibilities, their ability to access support or the opportunity to have their say on Government policy development by participating in a consultation. In the last year alone, the Government have ensured that BSL communications have been available for deaf BSL users across diverse subjects: providing timely updates about cost of living payments, sharing important information about the Home Office’s tackling domestic abuse plan and ensuring that BSL users could join in the celebrations for the coronation of our new King.

Individual Departments have focused their BSL communications on areas of greatest importance to deaf BSL users: the Department for Education published its “Special Educational Needs and Disabilities and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan” with BSL interpretation, the Ministry of Justice published advice in BSL for victims of rape and sexual assault, and the Department for Transport included BSL interpretation in its “it’s everyone’s journey” campaign.

I want to provide updates on two specific areas that have been raised in relation to cross-Government work and different parts of Government communicating those messages. The first is around the use of BSL in health services. The Department of Health and Social Care is committed to supporting the use of BSL and has used it in communications, such as to support the Down Syndrome Act 2022 call for evidence. The Department continues to look for further ways to promote the requirements of the BSL Act, including by sharing lessons learned from the production of the DSA call for evidence BSL videos with a view to improving BSL usage, monitoring and reporting across the Department.

Under the Equality Act 2010, health and social care organisations must make reasonable adjustments to ensure that disabled people are not disadvantaged when it comes to interpreters for GP and medical appointments. NHS organisations and publicly funded social care providers must comply with the accessible information standard to meet the communication needs of patients and carers with a disability, an impairment or sensory loss. NHS England has completed the review of the AIS, and the updates are now in the publication approval process.

Following Royal Assent for the British Sign Language Act and the legal recognition of British Sign Language as a language of England, Wales and Scotland, the Government Communication Service will promote and facilitate the use of British Sign Language in communication with the public where appropriate. Colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care keep those matters under review. Again, I want Departments to set a standard that we then ask our public services, communities and society as a whole to follow.

The other area that I want to provide a brief update on is the BSL GCSE, for which there is huge appetite in this House and beyond. The public consultation on it has now closed. The Government are analysing the results of the consultation and working up the course content, and we will publish that as soon as we can. I recognise that there is a real demand for that BSL qualification, not least because of all the opportunities it will provide. Educating the next generation to have such skills at an early stage will have knock-on benefits: more people in our society will communicate with BSL and then, we hope, go on to have successful careers, promote the language, encourage others to adopt those skills, and participate in our communities and society in that way. I know that we all want to see that, and that is welcome.

The variety of case studies in the first BSL report show pockets of good practice across the Departments named in the schedule to the BSL Act. Around half of policy Departments produced communications in BSL during the reporting period. But we know that we can go further, and produce more and better BSL content. It is important to note that different Departments will communicate with the public, whether in BSL or otherwise, in different ways, because of the fact that they have different responsibilities, different remits, different areas of interest and different communications, related to their specific areas of Government.

The Departments listed in the schedule to the BSL Act range from large operational Departments—like my own, the Department for Work and Pensions, which produces a large number of public communications every year—to much smaller Departments and offices that may not have had occasion to produce many public communications during the reporting period. Not all Departments are the same—one size does not fit all—but we know that there is room to improve and we have committed to doing so. With that in mind, there are four specific commitments that are recognised within the need to improve, which I will describe, because the Secretary of State has been clear about our determination to take greater action to drive forward progress, with four separate commitments to help us make progress.

First, although the BSL Act only requires for a BSL report to be published once every three years, I am pleased to confirm that the Secretary of State has made a commitment to publish a BSL report every year for at least the next five years. Again, that goes to the very point about transparency, and arguably is a tool to aid our conversations within Government around individual departmental performance, allowing us to continue to drive improvement, highlight successes, learn from the case studies in the first BSL report and remain accountable to the deaf community.

Secondly, we are committed to discussing the findings of the report at the next meeting of the ministerial disability champions, who are Ministers appointed by the Prime Minister to provide a personal lead in championing accessibility and opportunity for disabled people within their Departments. We have already done that, and the ministerial disability champions will work with their Departments to increase the use of BSL in their communications. The ministerial disability champions are specifically appointed to lead the inclusion agenda within their Departments, but I want to explore what more we can do to drive greater accountability and ownership of those actions, making sure that this inclusion agenda is right at the forefront of our thinking—and that we are doing these things up front, rather than their happening as an afterthought—when it comes to policy development, legislative change or any other announcements that we might make.

I was reflecting on the Minister’s comments just a few moments ago about the differences between Departments, and the way in which the information in the report is set out under different headings, such as “Public announcements about policy or changes to the law in BSL” and “Publications (plans, strategies…). That information is presented as a number, but it might be more useful if it the proportions were presented. For example, if we knew how many public announcements the Department had made and how many were also produced in BSL, we would have a better gauge of whether the Department was doing well or not so well, because I would hope that when a Department is making important announcements, it would automatically produce them in BSL as well as in English. Is that something that the Minister might consider in future reporting?

I am of course very happy to consider suggestions as to how we can try to provide greater transparency around this performance and better itemise the output that Departments are making around communications, because I genuinely want this process to be a success. Getting it right is an important barometer of the inclusion agenda. Anything we can do to give people confidence that we are getting this right can only be a good thing, and I am willing to explore anything that aids transparency, so I will gladly take away the hon. Lady’s suggestion in the spirit with which it was made.

I return to the four commitments. Thirdly, building on these ongoing discussions, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will ask each ministerial Department to produce a five-year BSL plan, setting out how it plans to improve its use of BSL. These plans will be included in the next published BSL report.

Fourthly, the Government Communication Service has published internal guidance for Departments that covers how to plan and deliver British Sign Language content where it is needed, to meet the needs of deaf BSL users. It has been written with the help of professionals and those with lived experience of British Sign Language.

In addition to those measures, I am pleased to confirm that officials will be working with the BSL Advisory Board to formulate the guidance specified in section 3 of the 2022 Act. That section places a duty on the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to issue guidance promoting the facilitation and use of BSL. It is important to recognise both that all members of the advisory board have lived experience of BSL, and that we went through a thorough and proper process in making appointments to the board. Their work will include advice for relevant Departments on best practice to support BSL users in accordance with the Equality Act 2010, the public sector equality duty and the British Sign Language Act 2022. It will also contain broader advice on best practice for communicating with BSL users, including case studies to illustrate the value of providing BSL interpretation in communications with the public both in our central communications and in frontline services.

During the debates on the British Sign Language Act 2022, we heard Members recount the everyday experiences of their constituents in accessing public services. Again, let me be clear that it is not good enough to ask the hearing child of a deaf parent to relay an intimate health diagnosis or to deal with financial issues on behalf of their family. There should be a professional BSL interpreter in those circumstances to ensure dignity and respect to the deaf adult and their family members.

On the incredibly important point the Minister is making, although this issue is not necessarily for his Department, people fleeing domestic abuse need very specialist support, and often the person who would act as interpreter is the person perpetrating the abuse. There are instances where Departments need to step up the support for the interpretation needs of those fleeing domestic abuse.

My hon. Friend raises a point that all of us will want to give due care, attention and thought to. We all want to ensure that the very best support is available for victims of domestic abuse to ensure they get the care and support they need, and that such matters are handled with the utmost sensitivity. The right support must be in place to allow them to be cared for and supported, and to have the recovery that we all want them to. If my hon. Friend provides me with more detail about whether there is a specific underpinning to that question, it is something I would be willing to ask the ministerial disability champion in the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice to look into. That would mean they are aware of those experiences as part of their policy development when taking that important agenda forward.

I want to cast the Minister’s mind back to when the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), referred to the GCSE and the need for sign language to do that course. I mentioned that my oldest grandchildren had done some rudimentary sign language at school, which enables them to have a compassion for, and an understanding of, those who use it. When it comes to schools, as we all know, we do rudimentary first aid; it is elementary, but it does provide some understanding of the subject matter. It is not the Minister’s responsibility, but can I ask that he engages with Education Ministers on that?

I am very willing to obtain an update for the hon. Gentleman on the work that we are doing to try to drive forward the uptake, availability and usage of BSL in our schools. I touched on the opportunity of the BSL GCSE, which is something that is welcome and an important part of that jigsaw. I will go and get him an update from the Department for Education. He also raised in his remarks—I scribbled down in my notes—whether there were steps we could take to engage with the Department for Communities in Northern Ireland on this agenda more broadly. Again, I am very willing to take that away and ask my officials to reach out to Department for Communities colleagues and counterparts to see what we can do to ensure that across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland we are approaching these matters in an inclusive and joined-up way, and that where we can collaborate we do so in order to take this important agenda forward.

Before the Minister moves on from the guidance, will he confirm that he will lay the statutory instrument that enables part 3 to happen?

My right hon. Friend the former Minister is trying to draw me out early on this point—I will get there imminently.

More needs to be done to enforce the obligations outlined in the Equality Act 2010, and Departments must strive to ensure that BSL signers have appropriate access to their services. A point was raised on the availability of data and the join-up between services to ensure that we understand needs. Specifically, the question was about the number of responses to the disability action plan. We received approximately 1,350 responses to the disability action plan. We are working through those responses and will come forward with a final version of that plan, having given proper consideration to all the feedback.

My right hon. Friend will know that one of the areas we consulted on was data. We want to take forward commitments in a joined-up way. Of course, we are now in a different place in relation to the national disability strategy, where commitments were also made around data. I want there to be proper joined-up, collective working across those two pieces to ensure the maximum impact when it comes to better understanding disability and people’s needs, and identifying which interventions best support people. We will come forward with that work in the near future, and I hope that there will be some opportunity to set out the steps we will take to improve that understanding and the quality of data that we have as a Government, working in partnership with others. Colleagues across the House were right to ask those questions.

The BSL Advisory Board will advise the Government on the guidance detailed in the BSL Act and on its implementation to best represent the deaf community. This external guidance will be published by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions during the next BSL reporting period—summer 2024—with support from the Cabinet Office Disability Unit.

I am hugely appreciative of the interest shown this afternoon by colleagues from across the House. I am determined that we as a Government must set the standard by which we ask others in our society and our communities to follow, ensuring that we deliver on this important agenda in the spirit of partnership, driving inclusion and broadening opportunity. A lot of questions and points were raised during the debate. I will go away and look at Hansard, and I will gladly place an update in the Library if there are any areas that I have not had the opportunity to touch on this afternoon.

It has been a pleasure for all of us to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey, and I thank you for helping us to have a constructive debate in an excellent tone. The debate has allowed us to hear, in some cases, new pieces of information from the Minister, for which we are grateful, and to draw out examples that are deeply important to our constituents. That is what we are all here to do.

I will draw the threads of the debate together by way of a number of thank yous. The first is to the Minister, who has given a great deal of his time to go through the span of issues raised this afternoon, and we are grateful for that. I am glad to hear how willingly he has responded to colleagues’ various requests and interests. As the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) said, the APPG and many others in Parliament will seek to do much more, and I am glad to hear the Minister’s attitude towards working with parliamentarians to do that.

Secondly, I echo the credit, underlined once again in this debate, to the members of the deaf community who have brought us to this place. I want to be absolutely clear that their voices must ring out loud and clear and be heard, used and listened to in the work that we do. As an aside, is it not interesting how so many of our verbs and adjectives are about hearing and speaking? I hope that all of us can take those choices of language with the breadth that I intend them in order to be able to communicate; that is what we are here to do.

The achievement we have in front of us is a huge credit to the deaf community and the alliance that has brought us to this point. However, to go further, we need to continue to work together in that manner. For that reason, I mentioned in my earlier remarks that an alliance such as this contains both deaf and hearing people; it contains all of us in society who want to see these kinds of goals achieved. I am glad that we in Parliament have had a chance to contribute to keeping this campaign moving forward, so that we see what is needed in terms of changes for deaf children, deaf hospital patients, deaf jobseekers and many others in the examples used this afternoon.

The other area of thanks goes to the many organisations that have made an appearance in our contributions. We have heard, genuinely, from all corners of the country and it is important that we do so. It is vital that Members of Parliament can seek to speak for all their constituents. However, in doing so we need data, which we have touched on in today’s debate; we need frameworks and structure, which these reports give us; and we need the clear view that there will be the possibility of change and progress ahead, which I would like to think the Minister is giving us.

In drawing today’s work to a close, I am really grateful to all those who contributed in their many different ways to the debate and to the prior work that took place, and who are looking ahead to what needs to be done. I thank the Minister again for his full response. If he were able to return to Hansard, as he has promised, and pick up a number of the more granular questions, I would be very grateful to receive that response in a letter. As he wishes, I can then share that with other colleagues who were here today. I will not leave the officials of the Department out of this, who have worked extremely hard on this matter over many years. That is part of the challenge; they are part of the team that will push this forward in the spirit of what good, inclusive, accessible, forward-thinking and proud government for everybody in this country really looks like.

Thank you, Ms McVey, for bearing with me as I seek to wrap up what has been a fulsome debate. I am very glad that we have been able to surface these issues. We may or may not return to do this next year with the next report, given the timings of other things that may happen in the calendar year of 2024, but we will be watching very closely. The Minister can be absolutely sure that there will be people who are hanging on every word of what he is able to do in this territory in the future.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the British Sign Language report 2022 and implementation of the British Sign Language Act 2022.