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Sign Language Users: Safeguards

Volume 597: debated on Thursday 18 February 1999

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Whether they are satisfied with the current safeguards for sign language users being interviewed at police stations.

My Lords, the codes of practice which regulate the conduct of police interviews with suspects contain a number of safeguards for suspects who are deaf or hard of hearing. These include the requirement for an interpreter and for a contemporaneous written note of the interview to be made as well as an audio tape recording. In addition, it is open to chief officers to video record interviews of their suspects and, therefore, I believe that the safeguards are adequate.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and must declare an interest because I have a half-sister and a step-sister both of whom are profoundly deaf. My half-sister relies totally on British sign language to communicate.

Will the Minister acknowledge that British sign language is a visual and spatial language and the only way to record the source of an interview is by video? That then records the visual aspect of sign language which audio recording will not do. Will the Minister also acknowledge that it is the responsibility of the Home Office to ensure that police forces throughout the country have minimum standards so that they do not disadvantage deaf people?

My Lords, I recognise the noble Lord's keen interest in and knowledge of these matters. It is correct that the sign language to which the noble Lord referred is a distinct language, but it is based on the English language. The written record is provided for the suspect to take away. It is useful for a solicitor and for a friend or colleague to have a permanent record in that form.

It is open to chief officers of police to video record interviews, but not every police station has those facilities, which are expensive. If one insisted on video recording, one would then have delays which would be unfair and unfortunate. I acknowledge the responsibility of the Home Office and am pleased to be able to say that we are holding seminars in five centres between 22nd and 31st March of this year to talk through with senior police officers the problems identified by the noble Lord. We are taking the matter forward promptly in that way.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us what proportion of police stations have the capacity to make video recordings?

My Lords, I cannot. I shall research the material, write to the noble Lord and put a copy in the Library of the House. In my experience, outlying small police stations are unlikely to have expensive sophisticated video equipment.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that if a mistake is made by the interpreter, a written record of the interview would not pick up that mistake? However, a video recording of the signing by the deaf person would show what had actually been said by the deaf person and not the mistake that appeared on the written record.

My Lords, there is some virtue in what the noble Lord says. It is a case of practicalities and numbers. That is the reason these seminars are to be held, taking forward research materials that have been provided in at least two documents dealing with this difficult area. However, I stress that the codes of conduct under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) provide written safeguards for those who might otherwise be disadvantaged by not being of perfect hearing during an interview.

My Lords, I am grateful for the Minister's reply with regard to the police stations that may not have the facilities for video recording. However, can the Minister say to what extent interviewing procedures covering sign language are required in police stations?

My Lords, the code requires in a number of different contexts that specific safeguards shall be in place for the interviews to which my noble friend refers. For instance, it is not proper to conduct an interview without an interpreter; the interview must be recorded; a copy must be provided; and there must also be audio recording. All those requirements are in the regulations under PACE and in the codes. If there is any unfairness to a defendant, the judge has the overriding discretion under Section 78 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act to exclude the evidence entirely.

My Lords, is it not difficult for the Minister to reconcile his advocacy of the laws about the courts admitting video evidence in cross-examination, while leaving the responsibility entirely up to the police to implement individual suggestions such as those of my noble friend Lord Annaly?

My Lords, there is no contradiction at all. The police have the responsibility for conducting interviews under the PACE codes. It is rightly upon them. Thereafter the judge has an overriding discretion to exclude unfair material. It is simply not practicable overnight to provide video recording equipment in every police station in the United Kingdom to deal with what is, in the end, a limited number of people.

My Lords, can the Minister say whether there has been, as a matter of fact, any substantial complaint of unfairness in this context which has reached the police or the Home Office?

My Lords, not that I am aware of. That is an indication that the best methods are properly drafted and that they are, by and large. adhered to.