HC Deb 05 April 2000 vol 347 cc1124-32

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jamieson.]

12.54 am
Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak)

It is appropriate that this Adjournment debate on British sign language should take place after a two-day debate on freedom of information. As I shall show, sign language could be considered to be a freedom of information issue. I must first acknowledge that we are following the path that has been taken by the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, which debated sign language on 30 September 1999 and 16 February 2000 respectively. Both debates took place at an hour rather more conducive to argument and discussion.

This is the third debate that I have initiated on issues to do with deafness and I believe that there is scope for many more. However, I want to focus on British sign language and its use, the provision of interpreters and the right of those for whom it is the first language to have it recognised in a practical, effective and useful manner. We need first to explain exactly what we are talking about.

British sign language is a genuine language with its own grammar, tenses and expression, but a year or so ago in the other place this was said: It is correct that…sign language…is a distinct language, but it is based on…English.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 18 February 1999; Vol. 597, c. 749.] It is not. Sign language is a genuine language, but not an international language, which has also been suggested. Indeed, its history mirrors that of spoken languages and each country has its own. There are regional sign language dialects in this country, as one would expect of a spoken language. In particular, the ways of describing colour and counting differ considerably.

Sign language is a visual language in every respect. It is partly iconic, partly abstract and partly derivative. It is capable of sensitivity, great detail and great delicacy. It is a language not only of the hands, but of the whole upper body. It is easy not only to misunderstand the effectiveness of sign language as a language, but to consider it not to be a language at all. It must not be confused with finger spelling, which is simply the spelling of the English language on the fingers, or with sign-supported English, which is the speaking of English with the support of signs borrowed from sign language.

Also in the other place, a former chairman of the BBC board of governors said that individuals have their own system; there is no common language in signing.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 December 1999; Vol. 607, c. 1133.] Again, that is simply not true, but it is typical of the misunderstanding that leads to sign language not having the recognition that it richly deserves. Sign language is the first language of one in every 1,000 people in this country. At least 50,000 people have British sign language as their only or main functional language. That is more than the number who have Welsh, Cornish, Scottish Gaelic or any other indigenous British language as their first language, although it represents only a fraction of the 8 million people in this country who have impaired hearing.

We must also recognise that people who are born deaf or who lose their hearing profoundly before developing speech and spoken language have to rely on a language that does not depend on hearing. They should be given opportunities to develop their first language—sign language—wherever possible. We could have a different debate about the role of sign language in education, but it helps to explain why people who cannot develop language skills through hearing have to do so through other senses. They perhaps tend not to grasp English as well as hearing people unless they are given the facility to develop their first language. I can provide an example.

A friend of mine—a deaf man—was told that he had the best voice and was the best speaker of English in the whole of a school for the deaf. He was very proud when he left and went straight to a job on a shop floor. However, on the first day, his voice provoked so much ridicule and teasing from his workmates that he did not speak again from that day on. That was 40 years ago. He has not tried to speak aloud ever since. It was unreal and unreasonable to expect someone whose first language was sign language to be able to function in the world of speech.

Until 20 years ago, sign language could only be used locally: there was no way in which it could be used to communicate over distances. It was used on television occasionally, but only the advent of videotape, signed television and cheaper video cameras enabled people to use their own language to communicate over distances. Then it was as easy as sending a letter.

Let me say a little more about the grasping of English by those who have been profoundly deaf since birth. It is often assumed that all deaf people can lip-read, but they cannot: if someone is not speaking properly, that person cannot be lip-read, and people for whom English has never been the first fully functional language cannot be expected even to start using the complex skills that lip-reading requires.

There are 50,000 people in this country whose first or only functional language is sign language. They are profoundly prelingually deaf. Most are born to hearing parents. In many cases, meningitis in the early years of life has been the cause; there may be genetic reasons, or reasons connected with rubella during pregnancy, for them to have been born deaf.

The gentleman I met in 1986 who opened my eyes to the world of signing around us was born deaf, and went to a deaf school where he learned sign language. His parents were told that sign language was just a phase that he was going through. They were told that it was not worth their while to learn the language of the deaf because, after all, it was not a proper language. They were told, in essence, that they would never, and should never, have a language in common with their son. Again, that was 40 years ago, when he was at school.

I am afraid that some of the attitudes that I have described are deliberate, rather than arising from negligence.

I believe that all children must be given the opportunity to be fluent in their first language, and in the language of the community in which they grow up. There is a slight incongruity, in that, as I have said, most profoundly deaf children are born to hearing parents. Nevertheless, if they have no hearing they cannot be expected to function fully in a hearing world during the process of language acquisition.

Let us assume that a person grows up developing sign language and living in a deaf community. After all, deaf communities in this country tend to centre around areas in which services to deaf people are well advanced. They are thriving and lively communities, often built around deaf clubs, in which the person who speaks is the odd one out and sign language is, as it were, the lingua franca. How, then, do we bridge the communication gap between what those people need in order to function as citizens, and the language of the society around them?

Unfortunately, according to the 1998 figures, there were only 102 trained and qualified working sign-language interpreters for those 50,000 people—20 fewer than 10 years earlier. The current total is only about 132, plus 170 training to be interpreters for the whole of England, Wales and Scotland. There are 132 qualified interpreters for 50,000 potential clients.

It is essential for deaf people to have access to high-quality interpreters when they face life-or-death experiences such as getting a job, going to the doctor, going to hospital, going to court or being interviewed by the police.

Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne)

In my rural area of Camborne, which has a large deaf community, there is a real problem with access to interpreters. People have to travel up to 150 miles to take part in debates or go to the deaf club. It costs me nearly £250 to hold a surgery to which my deaf community can have access.

Mr. Levitt

I commend my hon. Friend for holding surgeries in a deaf club—and for doing so at considerable cost to herself because of the need to bring interpreters such a long distance. I hope that other hon. Members will follow that model, and that we can a find a way of ensuring that cost does not make it difficult for hon. Members to provide that service to their communities.

As with any language, it takes years to become fluent in British sign language. Many of today's interpreters are the hearing children of deaf sign language-using parents. In 1997, 18,000 people undertook the stage 1 sign language qualification, but only 2,500 went on to stage 2. Of those, only 250 went on to stage 3. The pool of those whom we can train as interpreters for work in the community is remarkably small. There is also virtually no career structure for interpreters, many of whom have to work as freelancers. Moreover, there is no formal training in sign language for hearing people under 16. Therefore, the opportunities and facilities not only for developing sign language to a high level, but for career development as a sign language interpreter are very limited.

The British Deaf Association is conducting a campaign for formal recognition of sign language, and suggests achieving that recognition by means of the European charter on minority languages. Although my understanding is that, in its current form, the charter does not apply to non-written language, the most important objective is that British sign language should be recognised in practice rather than theory. People should have access to an interpreter—to information in their own language—when and where they need it.

I tell my hon. Friend the Minister—with whom I was very proud to serve on the Committee that discussed the Disability Rights Commission Bill—that the excellent disability rights legislation that the Government have brought into force will increase demand on interpreters, on signed video information and on CD-ROM-based information containing, for example, sign language avatars.

If we are to ensure deaf people's human rights, it is essential that they have access to their first language. Access to high-level sign language interpretation is not only reasonable and justifiable, but it is essential in life-and-death circumstances.

The Government have made progress on the sign language issue in several ways. As originally drafted, the Representation of the People Act 2000, for example, provided that someone who wanted assistance with voting in a polling booth had orally to request assistance from the presiding officer. The Government accepted an amendment moved in another place that provides that, for those who cannot use speech, that request may be made in writing.

The use of video recorded interviews in police stations should be increased. It is essential in matters involving sign language users. In cases involving deaf people, it should be obligatory throughout the legal system to include the sign language interpreter in the video recorded interview. That is the only way in which we can check that what has been recorded as being said is what was meant, and it is the only way in which we can ensure justice for deaf people.

We also have to make progress on the right of deaf and hearing-impaired people to sit on juries, which is another issue that has been raised in the House before. At Question Time, the Prime Minister himself has said that that is a legitimate objective. I understand that the British Deaf Association has been in discussions with the Lord Chancellor to see how best to achieve that objective.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 requires reasonable adjustment in employment and the provision of goods and services. Poor, inappropriate or absent interpreting is not reasonable. I also accept that 100 per cent. interpreting on demand—having an interpreter on every street corner—is not reasonable. However, it is reasonable to include British sign language in any corporate public communication strategy. BSL can be used on videos or CD-ROMs, with human interpreters and with staff with signing qualifications. Deaf people whose first language is sign language can be employed in circumstances in which they are of particular help to fellow deaf employees or service users.

There must be a proper system of booking sign language interpreters at a reasonable cost, given reasonable notice. That should be paid for by the state when circumstances demand it. The Lord Chancellor already pays for all sign language interpreters who are needed in the courts.

It is essential to have interpreters on call for emergencies. I heard a story about a profoundly deaf girl who was hurt in a car crash and taken to hospital. She said afterwards that the experience in the hospital was far more frightening than the car crash, because at least in the crash she could understand what was happening once she had had a look round. In the hospital, nobody could tell her what was happening in a language that she could understand. It is particularly important that there should be high levels of deaf awareness among staff in front-line service provision where British sign language is not available.

This debate has come from the heart. I am delighted to say that my first debate on deaf awareness is available on video with a sign language insert on the screen from the Royal College for the Deaf in Derby. I believe that I am the only Member of Parliament who has studied British sign language. As a trustee of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, I have spent many years campaigning on the civil rights of deaf people. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is well disposed towards my arguments. I am only sorry that the rules of the House do not allow me to have a sign language interpreter standing at my side so that television viewers can appreciate not just what I have said, but, perhaps more importantly, how my hon. Friend the Minister responds.

I am grateful for this opportunity. I look forward with great hope and expectation to hearing not just sympathetic, but constructive and positive proposals from my hon. Friend.

1.12 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Margaret Hodge)

It is worth observing that there were nearly 500 Members in the House to discuss the Freedom of Information Bill that we have just passed to another place. There are now a bare half a dozen of us here to talk about an issue of key importance that provides freedom for a large minority group of those who are deaf or have a hearing impairment and for whom sign language is their first language. That is a sad reflection on the House, but even at this late hour there are many people outside following our debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt). He is well known for his commitment on disability issues, particularly his interest in deaf people. He is a trustee of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and undertook his Parliament Industry Trust fellowship with Leonard Cheshire. His contribution to disability causes is warmly acknowledged and recognised. I am grateful for the great support that he gave to my work on disability issues before he became a Parliamentary Private Secretary.

My hon. Friend has raised a number of important issues that I want to address. More than 8 million people in this country have a hearing impairment, of whom 670,000 are profoundly deaf. Of those 670,000, 50,000 use British sign language as their first language. The recognition of the language is crucial to facilitate communication for them and is a civil rights issue.

Since I have had ministerial responsibility for disabled people, there has been a strong lobby on the recognition of BSL, with particular focus on specifying the language in the Council of Europe's charter for regional or minority languages.

As my hon. Friend knows, officials and lawyers are arguing over whether we can give recognition to BSL and whether it can be classified as a minority language under the terms of the charter. I have assured my hon. Friend and others that the Government will explore the matter with other parties in Europe, once we have ratified the charter, and I repeat that commitment now.

The charter has now been signed. It will he ratified, by means of the processes of the House, in the near future, and then we shall open the discussions. A range of difficulties will have to be overcome, and this country's lack of a written constitution creates additional problems in the recognition of official languages, including BSL.

In preparing for this debate, I have gathered information about the action being taken by other countries. The Finns, the Swedes and the Danish are probably the most advanced in giving formally recognition to BSL, but other countries are also making advances.

The Dutch Government set up commissions in 1995 and 1997, and reports and recommendations have been passed to that Government. The federal Government in Germany is discussing the matter with the Lander, and Westphalia has commissioned a report on the legal implications. The Portuguese approved an amendment to the Portuguese constitution covering sign language in 1997. In Belgium, associations for deaf people are forming close links with political parties with the aim of speeding up the process of recognition. Although sign language is not recognised in Italy, a number of laws include a specific reference to the use of a sign language interpreter.

On reflection, therefore, I give my hon. Friend the undertaking that I will ask officials to look again at what we can do, outside formal recognition in the charter, to achieve the objectives that he set out—that is, the acceptance of the language's legitimacy, its systematic use by all authorities, and the willingness to allow submissions to be made in that language. I will also write to the Disability Rights Commission as soon as it opens its doors on 25 April, asking it to explore the issue further.

I can also tell the House that I recently wrote to all Government Departments to find out their views about what they might do with regard to sign language. Responses have started to come in, and I thought that my hon. Friend and the House would like to know what I have heard.

Progress is being made. For example, as my hon. Friend said, since April 1998 the courts have operated a system by which any form of communication support can be booked for parties involved in civil or family proceedings. I was also pleased to see that users of the electronic version of the community legal service directory—the "Just Ask" website—can select to choose an agency offering BSL as one of the search criteria. That directory contains more than 15,000 entries, and the site was launched on 3 April.

The Benefits Agency has set a standard for communicating with people who do not speak English or Welsh, and it applies to users of other languages, including BSL. When it is necessary to interview customers who need interpreters but cannot or do not wish to provide their own, the Benefits Agency makes arrangements within 24 hours for the provision of such an interpreter.

Further examples of which the House may be aware include the signed video magazine programme "Public Scene", which is produced and distributed by and on behalf of Government Departments by the Central Office of Information. In addition, the Department of Health produces BSL-signed videos when the information involved is particularly relevant to deaf people on issues such as direct payments and the long-term care charter.

I was also pleased to learn from my write-around that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is currently cataloguing videos that include titles filmed in BSL. My own Department has produced a BSL version of the disability rights taskforce report.

My hon. Friend mentioned education. We believe that choice is crucial for deaf children and their families in connection with special educational needs. We are strengthening the process, as my hon. Friend knows, and emphasising inclusion in legislation that we intend to introduce later in the Session.

It is for local education authorities to decide on the provision in the light of local circumstances and the child's need. However, we have established 11 special educational needs regional co-ordination projects covering the whole of England. Their aim is to establish a more effective co-ordination across local education authority boundaries, in particular for low-instance disabilities. A number of those projects are studying sensory impairments such as deafness. The aim is to ensure some consistency of provision throughout the country. I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that we want to ensure that we provide a choice that suits the needs of children and their families.

My hon. Friend mentioned disability legislation. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 is having an impact. The code of practice that we published on the changes in the provision of goods and services, which was published in October, contained a number of examples showing where BSL would be an appropriate adaptation that should be made to ensure that people were not discriminated against. For example, a hospital would be expected to have a BSL interpreter for an appointment. That would be considered a reasonable step in a large hospital, although it might not be reasonable in a doctor's surgery.

My hon. Friend spent some time talking about interpreters. There has been a shortage and in my desire to do something practical to ensure that BSL can become a real language to many more people, without getting involved in the legal niceties of what we can or cannot do under particular charters, I am trying to tackle that shortage.

We have undertaken some research, which I have been anxiously awaiting. Again, in preparing for this debate, I asked for the results of the research but was told that it had been delayed because of the illness of one of the academics undertaking it. The purpose of the research was to identify the gaps and whether we could take action to ensure that existing interpreters were better used. I will ensure that my hon. Friend has access to that research as soon as it is with me and has been published.

In the meantime, I have been talking to both the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and the Council for the Advancement of Communication for Deaf People. I propose to try to find a shorter-term solution to the undoubted shortage of interpreters and to set in place a longer-term solution that will provide us with a steady stream of interpreters to meet what will undoubtedly be a growing demand.

Whatever we do, it will not have a totally immediate impact, simply because, as my hon. Friend knows, it takes time to go through the long training and qualify to become an interpreter. I can assure the House and my hon. Friend that, by Easter, which is not too far away, thank goodness, I hope to be able to announce funding to provide an urgent boost to the number of trained BSL interpreters. That will be the first step. In the second step, I hope to announce the first stages of the longer-term strategy and how we go forward.

Those are some examples of the progress that I have been able to make since I have been the Minister responsible for disabled people. We still have some way to go. I am sure that this debate has helped to raise awareness of the issues and has helped me, officials in the Department and those in the community at large to concentrate minds.

I very much hope that, working together with those in the community for whom this matter is important, and with my hon. Friend and others who have an interest in the issue, we can make real progress so that we can break down the barriers that prevent those deaf people whose first language is BSL from taking a full part in civil society.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes past One o'clock.