HC Deb 24 March 2003 vol 402 cc129-36

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

10.15 pm
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important matter, and I was delighted by the announcement last week that the Government have recognised British sign language as a language in its own right and committed funding to it. As the Minister is aware, 8.7 million people in the UK are deaf or hard of hearing. BSL is the language of the deaf community in the UK. There are no accurate figures for the number of deaf people who use BSL, but it is estimated that 70,000 deaf people use BSL as their first or preferred language. In Northern Ireland, an estimated 30 per cent. to 40 per cent. of the deaf population use Irish sign language.

BSL is not a new language and it was not created by hearing people. BSL is a naturally occurring form of communication. 1t varies from area to area, just as dialect affects spoken languages, but it is clear that there is one single British sign language in the UK. I find it remarkable that BSL has survived through the prohibition of the use of sign language in educational institutions, the oralist movement, much prejudice and a period of being ignored and shunned. What does that suggest? It is that BSL is natural and inherent to the deaf. It is appropriate that BSL should receive the recognition it deserves. When the Minister responds to the debate, I hope that she will confirm that that rightful recognition will also be extended to Irish sign language.

Although BSL is different from English, it has much in common with spoken languages, sharing grammatical processes and features that have led linguists to begin to analyse it as a natural language. I shall touch later on some of the results of that research, along with the results of neurological research. BSL is a language of movements and space. It uses the hands and facial movements, storytelling and abstract communication. It exists in a visual-spatial mode, allowing much versatility, such as juxtaposition, the manipulation of symbols, the isolation of features and the discussion of events and objects that are separated in time and space. There are iconic symbols, such as those for "give" and "food, but there are also signs that are arbitrary, such as those for "easy" and "allow".

Stories in BSL incorporate mime, but contrary to popular belief mime is not the essence of BSL. If it were, a hearing person would have no difficulty understanding BSL, but I know from experience that it is not possible to understand a signed story. Mime is used as a vehicle for enhancing the story, rather than to convey the full meaning.

Linguists say that all natural languages have design features, including a semantic system, a grammatical system, a sound system and a lexicon. BSL has its own semantic system, in the form of signs instead of words, and its own grammatical system. It would not be possible to translate word for word from BSL to spoken English. Obviously, we cannot expect it to have a sound system, but building blocks are present in signing. Spoken language consists of sounds that have little meaning in themselves, but which are used as building blocks to make words. Similarly, in sign language we can see components that are smaller than signs, such as the location of the sign in space or its direction, the type of movement made by the hand or the hand shape. Each sign is complex, with an inner structure comprising all those features.

It is clear that BSL is a rich, complex and unique means of communication, with spatial syntax and grammar that conform to the definition of a language. Linguistically, BSL has all the components of any spoken language. Neurological research carried out on stroke victims has shown that BSL uses the same neural pathways as grammatical speech. Stroke lesions to the left hemisphere can cause aphasia for sign that is analogous to the aphasias of speech. The Minister may be interested to know, or may know already, that aphasic signers are not impaired in other non-linguistic visual-spatial abilities, such as waving goodbye and shrugging. That illustrates the distinction between sign and gestures.

Visual-spatial activity is controlled by the right hemisphere of the brain. Lesions to the right hemisphere therefore result in spatial disorganisation, but the ability to sign is not affected. Even though sign is a visual-spatial language, does not use the visual-spatial processing area of the brain. Instead, it uses the same area as spoken language. That demonstrates clearly that BSL is a language in its own right.

When the UK signed up to the European charter for regional and minority languages, we agreed to sign up to the provisions of part II of the charter, which ensures that languages are properly taught and that they are protected, and to promote academic research into all the regional and minority languages used in the UK. As hon. Members know, the Council of Europe does not recognise any indigenous sign language under the charter. I hope that my argument demonstrates that sign language is a language linguistically and neurologically, and that that will strengthen the case in the discussions with the Council of Europe and will help to convince the council that sign languages should be adopted under the charter.

In last week's statement it was announced that the Government would consider the proposals of my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) in the report to the Council of Europe on European sign languages. I hope that the Minister will give some assurance that she will do what she can to ensure that the members of the Council of Europe give the report full consideration on 31 March.

The official recognition of BSL will provide many practical benefits. Although the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 provides some protection of the rights of deaf people, there are aspects to which the Act does not apply. Those are linked not with deafness as a disability, but with sign language as a minority language. I seek assurances from the Minister that last week's announcement will rectify the problem, bearing in mind that legislation that would provide better protection for BSL users could be included in the European charter for regional and minority languages.

I am sure the Minister shares my concern that much of a deaf child's time is spent outside their natural language. I should like her to consider the amount of learning time that is consumed by the lack of a shared language between student and teacher.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West)

On the subject of shared language, the hon. Gentleman and others may not be aware of the wonderful work done by the university of Wolverhampton in my constituency with British sign language, with teachers who are hearing-impaired or deaf using that as a medium of instruction. On the back of that, the British deaf film and television festival, which I had the pleasure of opening recently in Wolverhampton, takes place annually. It is such centres of excellence for minority languages that we need.

Tom Brake

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and welcome the good work done by his university.

It is vital to introduce language as early as possible. Young children can be fluent in signing at the age of three. That clearly facilitates a free flow of information, an intercourse of minds and possibly the development of speech. There is no evidence that signing inhibits the acquisition of speech. As the chosen language of the deaf, BSL has been undervalued by the rest of society. Most minority groups accept the language of the wider society and become bilingual, but that is not always possible for deaf people. Will the Minister consider that in this case, the responsibility lies with wider society to meet the communication requirements of deaf people?

The Minister will be aware that in 1999 there were just under 300 qualified and trainee BSL/English interpreters in the UK. There is not sufficient provision of certified interpreters. Indeed, it is thanks to the British Deaf Association that we have an interpreter for tonight's debate. I hope that, with the official recognition of BSL and the money that the Government are committing, it will be possible to provide an official interpreter if not for all debates, at least for relevant debates or for those for which members of the public have requested such a service.

The Minister will not be surprised to hear that the standard of interpreting varies. Interpreting fatigue after one hour can cause significant errors. That is happening because there are not sufficient interpreters and they are overworked. Although the DDA requires a BSL/English interpreter to ensure that a deaf person has equal access to a public service, there are not sufficient interpreters and the requirement is not always met, especially given that one needs to book an interpreter up to six weeks in advance for an important appointment or job interview. Indeed, I was due to meet someone who wanted to do work experience in my office, but the interview had to be cancelled at short notice owing to the non-availability of an interpreter.

Official recognition would actively promote the teaching of BSL. Article 8 of the European charter makes provision to encourage or provide teaching in or of the regional or minority language at all the appropriate stages of education. I am also concerned that the importance of training tutors is often lost in the push for more interpreters. There is a need to invest at the grassroots in order to benefit the wider community. I see the Minister nodding; she may have some points to make about that shortly.

I am sure that the Minister realises the positive impact on social exclusion of more people in society being able to sign, even at a basic level—as well as easing the pressure on interpreters. I understand that, at present, about 4,000 people are attending BSL classes in the United Kingdom. They are showing initiative and willingness to help by signing. I should be interested in whether the Minister can provide details on the level of funding allocated to that from the £1 million-worth of initiatives that have been announced. I tried to find out from the Department exactly what that £1 million-worth of funding would be spent on. Perhaps people will have to bid for that pot of money, or it has not yet been allocated. There does not seem to be much information available about what it is to be spent on.

Sign language is complete as a language. It is capable of expressing every emotion and discussing any topic. It can be abstract or concrete. It is as much of a language as English, Welsh or Cornish. I hope I have illustrated that greater recognition under the European charter and acceptance of Irish sign language could offer opportunities for the increasing involvement of deaf people and easier access to information, knowledge and legal security. The provision of proficient BSL interpreters in employment, further education establishments and in law would offer a greater range of choice to BSL users.

I hope that the Minister will be able to respond now or in writing to the following questions. Will she support my hon. Friend in presenting his report at the European Council? Will she confirm whether what the Government have said about BSL applies to Irish sign language? Will she clarify whether the £1 million-worth of initiatives is a one-off or recurring funding? Will she give an assurance that the money will not simply be taken from other Departments' spending on deaf issues, and that it is additional funding? Will she say something about the regulation of BSL courses, qualifications and tutors? Will she clarify whether funding from the £1 million will be made available to Scotland or any Scottish initiatives? Finally, will she uphold the rights of all deaf British and Irish children, and guarantee them a bilingual and bicultural education?

10.29 pm
Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate and I shall be brief. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) on initiating the debate. It is extremely well timed, as the issue is to be debated in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe next week. I note that the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), the leader of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe, is in the Chamber, as is the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) who is, I think, the only qualified BSL interpreter in the House. I am glad that he is in the Chamber on this occasion—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman tells me that he is a sign language user. He certainly has the subject very much at heart.

I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), not only for the statement made last week but for the reference in it that the Government acknowledge that BSL users want the language to be given the same protection as minority languages under the European charter. When the Legal Affairs and Human Rights Committee of the Council, of which I am a member, debated the charter, I asked our rapporteur why sign language had not been incorporated and was told that nobody had thought about doing so. Although the Parliamentary Assembly wanted to amend the charter, at that point it was too late to do so. However, there is growing recognition that an equivalent instrument would be extraordinarily helpful. I appreciate that the Government have not given unqualified support for that but they realise that there is a demand and have promised to consider the matter. That is extremely welcome.

In the course of preparing my report, I visited Scandinavia because the deaf community told me that it had the greatest provision for deaf sign language users. One simple statistical example will show how far we have to go. In Finland, where the population is 5.5 million and the proportion of deaf people is the same as in most other countries, there are 600 qualified sign language users. In my country. Scotland, which has a similar population, there are fewer than 30. As a consequence, deaf people are excluded from a variety of activities that are accepted as normal in Scandinavia.

The Government have acknowledged the force of the argument and they have taken an important first step down the road. I thank the Minister and congratulate her on that. I hope that we can work together to make that step the first on a road to ensure that sign language users are fully included in our society.

10.32 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) on his good fortune in holding the debate at this particular time. The timing could hardly have been better. I welcome the remarks made by the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce). He and I will be meeting tomorrow and I do not think that it will break any confidences to say that I shall want to talk to him about how we can support the work that he and my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) are doing at the Council of Europe to take BSL recognition further.

The steps taken last Monday to recognise BSL and the Government's declaration are important, but they are only a step on the road and not the end of the road. Indeed, my hon. Friend and I have already had some discussions about how the Government can assist the process currently under way in the Council of Europe. Obviously, we cannot tell the Council what to do, but we want to make clear our objective to take BSL recognition further. We want to do all that we can to help our delegation, which includes my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Gordon, to ensure wider European recognition for sign languages.

While I am handing out congratulations, I congratulate the deaf community who, for at least 20 years, in great heart and without giving up, have campaigned for the recognition of their language, as other minority groups have done in the past for their language. I am very pleased, having considered the issue in my current role for some 18 months, to have been able to assist with that. There is no doubt that but for the campaigning efforts of the deaf community, not only in bringing this to the attention of parliamentarians and Governments, but in continuing to insist that it is an important issue of self-esteem that needs to be taken seriously, it is unlikely that this step would have been taken.

I have taken a particular interest in the matter since I have been in the job, but so did my predecessor, the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), who originally, in 2000, asked the Disability Rights Commission for advice about how recognition could be taken forward. The DRC suggested in its report that British sign language should be recognised and that using the Council of Europe's charter for regional and minority languages was the most appropriate way of doing so. Were it not for the unfortunate fact, as the hon. Member for Gordon said, that the framers of that instrument simply forgot about sign languages and that, as independent experts have confirmed, it is not designed for the recognition of sign languages, we may have made more progress across Europe in respect of indigenous sign languages. We now have to ensure that progress takes place. The report by the hon. Member for Gordon says that there are about 44 such sign languages, so it is not only a matter of BSL.

As those familiar with the charter may know, it is specific in its definitions. Our advice has consistently been—this has been confirmed by the committee of experts—that the charter as it stands cannot be used, but the Council's Parliamentary Assembly, to its credit, has called on the Council to find a further means of protecting and promoting sign languages, and we want to do what we can to support that. I am sure that we will be able to co-operate with the parliamentarians who are involved to encourage progress on wider European recognition. I am anxious that that should happen.

Although the Council will bring forward proposals in due course, the Government wanted to act in advance of that: hence the writ ten statement. As many deaf people I have talked to made clear, this is a matter of identity and self-esteem, and I have tried to make progress on it since I first came into the job as Minister with responsibility for disabled people. I met representatives from organisations of and for deaf people more than a year ago to hear first-hand their perspectives, and we are still committed to moving forward still further. The statement, which was published last Wednesday as a written statement to the House, reflects the fact that the Government have already taken steps to improve access to BSL. For example, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 requires service providers to consider reasonable adjustments to the way in which they provide their services so that they are accessible to disabled and deaf people. The provision of a BSL interpreter could be considered as a reasonable adjustment in the right circumstances, and certainly the Disability Rights Commission's code of practice on rights, goods, facilities, services and premises includes examples of situations where providing a BSL interpreter might be a reasonable adjustment.

There are several other examples of where access to BSL has been improved. For instance, the Government meet the reasonable costs of BSL interpreters for deaf and hearing-impaired litigants, and witnesses for hearings in civil and family proceedings, and have put in place arrangements for providing interpreters in investigations and proceedings in the criminal justice system. The NHS Executive has produced a video called "When is it my turn? Making the NHS better for deaf people", which was produced by an all-deaf film crew and looked at improving access to the full range of services for deaf users, including access to interpretation. A good practice guide, "Doubly Disabled: Equality for disabled people in the new NHS: Access to services"—a rather strange title—was issued at the same time as the video and includes a section on providing good-quality services for deaf and hard of hearing people. It is vital that we raise awareness in our public services and in other areas, as well as making available access to interpretation.

The Government have also taken steps to ensure that deaf children, young people and adults normally have access to BSL provision when that is appropriate to their needs. Many teachers and other staff have taken the opportunity to make use of the resources that the Government have made available for supporting training in special educational needs and disability to improve their understanding of BSL. I am sure that that will increase as the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 is implemented over the next few years.

For students in higher education, access to BSL is assisted through the disabled student allowance. Those allowances became non-means-tested in 1998 and have subsequently been extended to part-time undergraduate students, to full-time and part-time postgraduate students and to Open University students and other distance learners. Expenditure on the disabled student allowance has increased from just over £13 million in 1997 to £45.5 million last year. As the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington will know, that can pay for communication support such as BSL interpretation.

In the employment field, the access to work programme does a similar job for BSL users who may be attending an interview or who may need communication support and interpretation to do their job. The number of people who are helped by the access to work programme has tripled since 1997, as has the budget for the programme. Beyond the extra £l million that was announced with last week's statement, more money and more resources are going into interpretation where it is needed. That £1 million is additional money; it is not drawn from existing budgets or from any expenditure that had already been planned.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington asked how the money would be spent. We expect that about half of it will be spent on assisting in the training of more interpreters. As he made clear—and I agree with him—one of the main problems is a lack of interpreters. There are not enough of them around. Even with the best will in the world, it is often difficult for service providers to provide interpretation when it is necessary.

Malcolm Bruce

Will the Minister give way?

Maria Eagle

I am afraid that I do not have much time left, although I appreciate that we all have a lot to say on the subject.

Beside the Government, others have been active in promoting access to BSL. For example, the DRC has jointly, with the British Deaf Association and the Royal National Insititute for Deaf People, produced guidance on BSL English interpreting. The DRC is currently consulting on the guidance. The consultation closes on 7 April. The joint project is one example of the work being done by non-governmental organisations with an interest in this issue.

There is still much to be clone. The Government recognise that further work is needed to raise awareness so that the status of BSL is understood and so that it is fully accepted as a language—one that is used by a significant number of deaf people. The written statement that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions made to the House is an important sign of the Government's commitment.

BSL is important for deaf people's sense of identity and self-esteem. It has a symbolic significance that should not be underestimated. However, its significance is greater than that. Practical benefits will follow from the initiatives that were announced in support of the statement. We will be working with deaf organisations to progress those initiatives. However. I cannot give full details of that today.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington is quite rightly concerned to ensure that there is a continuous funding stream for the training of BSL tutors and so on. The £1 million that the Secretary of State has announced is in addition to existing resources. For example, the "success for all" strategy of the Department for Education and Skills is investing £200 million over the next three years in improving and raising standards for teaching and learning in further education. There is no reason why BSL tutors and trainers should not benefit from that funding in the same way as tutors and trainers in any other specialist subject.

I want to emphasise that the statement is not the end of the story, significant though it is. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington referred to Irish sign language. That will be a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who will no doubt be in touch with the hon. Gentleman on the intentions for Irish sign language.

This is not the end of the process. It is a beginning and a step on the way towards increasing the profile of BSL and of recognising it for what it is—a language. I am committed to continuing to encourage wider recognition through the Council of Europe—to the extent that I can press for that—and to improving the opportunities for access to all aspects of life for deaf people whose first language is BSL.

I was never that good at learning languages. The extent of my vocabulary in BSL is to say, "BSL recognition". With that, I should probably resume my seat.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.