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Deaf People: Telephone Services

Volume 745: debated on Thursday 13 June 2013

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what proposals they have to make it easier for deaf people to access telephone banking and other similar services.

My Lords, Ed Vaizey, Minister for Communications, has met representatives from the banks and written to more than 80 FTSE companies engaged with customer services to encourage them to communicate with their deaf and hard-of-hearing customers through a mix of more suitable contacts, be it by e-mail, SMS, text relay, Typetalk or video relay services—VRS. BT, Lloyds TSB, Halifax and the Royal Bank of Scotland have launched VRS schemes, with Barclays and the Post Office currently considering it.

I thank the Minister for his reply which I find most encouraging. Given that some 800,000 people in the UK are severely or profoundly deaf and 25,000 rely on British Sign Language, and given also that the technology exists pretty cheaply to provide the necessary communications and security checks, does the Minister agree that implementation of the Equality Act 2010 by all providers should be speeded up?

My Lords, we must clearly do better for the many people whom my noble friend has highlighted. I understand that for between 55,000 and 70,000 people in our country British Sign Language is their first or preferred language. The Minister for Communications has been extremely active, working with other departments, Ofcom, banks, service providers and voluntary organisations. The relay services working group has been set up to advance the potential for VRS and I would urge all service providers to see implementation as a matter of top priority.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is a question not merely of introducing helpful technology such as video links but also of the appropriate human communication skills to accompany it—for example the ability to speak slowly and distinctly with an appropriate background to aid lip-reading or a recognition that those with a hearing impairment might process material rather more slowly, particularly when they are engaged at a distance? What encouragement are the Government able to give to the banks to ensure that the acquisition of such skills and awareness is part of routine staff training?

I entirely endorse what the right reverend Prelate has said. It is very important that not only the banks but all those customer service providers are aware of how their employees should be trained. Indeed, the British Bankers’ Association is endeavouring to ensure that these problems are resolved, particularly in terms of training for deaf and hearing-impaired customers. Many concerns have been voiced around faulty hearing loops, for example—about their being in place in banks and about customers being aware of them. However, technological advances cannot replace the most important feature of our existence, which is a common decency and humanity.

I myself am slightly hard of hearing and I think that one or two other noble Lords are as well. Does my noble friend agree that the problem is far wider than hearing what people are telling you on the telephone or over a counter at a bank? I wonder what more can be done to help with this problem, apart from me getting a hearing aid.

I think that the acoustics in certain parts of your Lordships’ House may need some assistance. In truth, the banks recognise that they have a responsibility there, and the Equality Act 2010 is very clear that, with reasonable adjustments, all services should be available to all customers. With the Banking Conduct of Business Sourcebook, which is the way in which the banks are looking at this, they are actively seeing in what ways they can ensure that there is a prompt, efficient and fair service for all their customers, particularly the elderly and disabled.

My Lords, the Equality Act 2010 also includes provisions to strengthen the obligation on service providers to make information available in accessible formats for those who have difficulty reading print. Would the Government develop a cross-government strategy for ensuring better implementation of those provisions? Would Ministers be prepared to meet me to discuss what the elements of such a strategy might be?

I am most grateful to the noble Lord. The Minister for Communications is already meeting many groups and I would be delighted to encourage him to meet the noble Lord too. I would very much like to attend such a meeting as well. I know that the Minister for Communications is seeking active implementation across the piece on disabilities regardless of whether it concerns those who are hard of hearing or visual impairment.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one of the curses of the age is the Dalek-operated automated switchboard? What most of us want when we make a telephone call is to speak to a human being. Although it is terribly important to give every possible assistance to the deaf, all people should be able to speak to a recognisable human being as quickly as possible and without going through 10 options.

I think that everyone in your Lordships’ House sympathises with the points that my noble friend has made. We have all experienced difficulty in trying to get across what we think is a very simple transaction. Perhaps a message to the banks and to all service providers is, as I say, that providing a human face and human voice very early on is much to be encouraged.

My Lords, Scope tells us that 63% of people with hearing difficulties experience at least one problem compared with 37% of all those who are disabled—so this is a very serious issue indeed for those who are hard of hearing and disabled. It is very encouraging that the Government are having these discussions, and it is quite right too. However, have they set targets for the banking profession and other financial services to bring down that number? Does the Minister agree that that would be a reasonable request for the Government to make?

I agree with the noble Baroness. The Government are actively pressing for implementation. I referred to the letter that the Minister for Communications has written to more than 80 FTSE companies, and I know that he has a forward date in his diary for responses to it and will be looking for implementation. I think that this is an issue on which we can all unite. It is a no-brainer, as they say. All people in this country deserve a fair service.

Would my noble friend be interested to know that in medical schools great attention is paid to teaching would-be doctors how to communicate with deaf people, and that in the final exam they are carefully examined to ensure that they are in fact able to do so? Could this not be extended to schools and universities throughout?

Clarity of language and in communication across the board should be in any implementation and indeed from early stages in education in nurseries and primary schools. Communication skills, ensuring that the message you want to get across is understood, are essential.