British Sign Language Bill

– in the House of Commons at 11:49 am on 28th January 2022.

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Second Reading

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Before I call Rosie Cooper to move Second Reading of her Bill, I would like to point out that a British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings is available to watch on parliamentlive.tv.

Photo of Rosie Cooper Rosie Cooper Labour, West Lancashire 11:54 am, 28th January 2022

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Today is a momentous day for many deaf people, one they thought would never come. I want to begin by acknowledging the people who have been instrumental in getting the Bill to this position—David Buxton, the chair of the British Deaf Association, who has led the “BSL Act Now!” campaign; and Rob Geaney, from the Royal National Institute for Deaf People—and some of the Bill’s many supporters, such as my hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood and Sir Mike Penning. So many people have supported the Bill and are willing it through that I do not propose to use this valuable time naming them all. They know who they are and I am grateful for their help.

My sincere thanks go to my friend the Minister of State, who is the Minister for disabled people and has wholeheartedly embraced the campaign and even learnt to sign a bit of BSL. I also commend Deborah Lonnon from the Cabinet Office’s disability unit, who worked tirelessly and kept me sane as the fine details were being worked out—I am not famed for my patience. I also wish to thank those in my office, Michael Rout in particular, for the hard work they have done in keeping this all going and making sure that we got to today, when we are actually going to move it forward. Finally, and probably most importantly, I would like to thank the deaf community and, most of all, my brilliant parents, for everything they have given me in life: a family, a culture and a language.

Both my parents were profoundly deaf. My dad was born deaf, as were his two sisters, and my mum went deaf when she was four. BSL was a language created at least 230 years ago—some say it was even longer ago than that. BSL is my first language and, as a child of deaf parents, I have to tell the House that hearing children of deaf parents grow up fast. They have to shoulder a responsibility well beyond their years, and that is not fair. We do it willingly—I never knew any different—but it is not fair and we have a chance to help with it. Growing up, I saw at first hand the difficulties that deaf people face every day: the huge challenges that my parents had to overcome to be heard, to be listened to and, more importantly, to be understood. I am told that I booked my first family holiday when I was four years old—I do not remember that, but I did.

As for the impact of BSL, I am going to tell the House a quick story about my dad, who was a supremely intelligent human being—he was so quick, so fast. He did not have vast books to read, because his language was not great, but he was so intelligent and insightful. He was absolutely my hero. I talked to him about what happened when he was getting a job at 16 and leaving school, and I asked him what he wanted to be. He said that he had wanted to be a joiner, but then he went round looking for a job, as a BSL user. He could read and write, but he was trying to pass O-Level English right up until he was about 70—that language skill was not there. However, he was supremely intelligent and he wanted to be a joiner.

He went to firm after firm, and one said, “Yes, we’ll give you an apprenticeship as a joiner, but you have to be a labourer first.” My dad said to me, “I knew they were lying. I knew they had no intention of giving me that job, but I laboured away.” That was in wartime. One day, the big jobs were all held up because a plastering job could not be done as no plasterers were available. After a few days of the jobs being held up, everyone came into work and the plastering had been done. It had been done really well but nobody knew who had done it—the fairies had been. Everyone was looking and trying to work out how it had been done. It was great but they did not know who had done it. My dad said, “I did it.” They looked at him and said, “How?!” My dad told me, “They’re daft. I just watched.” They then said to him, “You can have the apprenticeship tomorrow, but you will be a plasterer, not a joiner.”

My dad became known as the best in the north-west. As I grew up, on a Friday night, directors of different plastering firms—the big ones such as Unit Construction and Pollock Brothers—would sit round the table in our living room, with me interpreting while my dad went, “More money” and “No, not doing that.” He was seeing them all off, and they would come and compete for him. Just think about that. In the scheme of things, they would not have given him that job. He would have been written off. It is important that we do not undervalue deaf people because their ears do not work. It is only that their ears do not work. Mine do not, either.

Growing up, I saw what a wonderful language sign language is, and how incredible the deaf community is. I often joke that I was kidnapped at birth, not just by my parents but by the whole wider deaf community in Liverpool. It is an understatement to say that deaf culture and values have shaped the person I am today. I would not be here now or be the person I am without those influences. The Bill is my way of paying it forward, because of the kindness and the care the wider deaf community have shown me. Today I am talking about the life lessons they taught me.

Sadly, I need to bring the Bill to the House because, despite the incredible progress, so many of the unbelievable obstacles I saw my parents face throughout their lives are still a problem for deaf people. People like my dad were campaigning for subtitles in the 70s—pressuring the BBC and TV companies to get subtitles. We have them today, although, if Ofcom is listening, the quality is atrocious.

Since introducing the Bill, I have been asked repeatedly, “Wasn’t BSL recognised in 2003? How is this different?” On 18 March 2003, BSL was recognised as a language—an essential and important step in this journey. But in the intervening years, deaf people have been forced to rely on inadequate provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, and little progress has been made.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Labour, Garston and Halewood

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for telling her story; a story that often is not heard. She is making a great speech.

I was the Minister for disabled people at the time when BSL was recognised as a language in a written ministerial statement. There was much debate then that it did not even count as a language. That line in the sand was important, but I am so pleased that my hon. Friend is now bringing forward legislation to take a further step, which has been too long coming, to promote the use of the language. It will enable it to flourish in a way that other languages that have been recognised in statute have flourished thereafter. I congratulate my hon. Friend and I wish her and the Minister all the very best getting the legislation through.

Photo of Rosie Cooper Rosie Cooper Labour, West Lancashire

I thank my hon. Friend for those remarks. It is true that we have made progress. The deaf part of me is standing here thinking that deaf people are saying, “Very good—let’s not wait 19 years more.” We need to make some rapid progress.

In bringing forward the Bill, 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.

When I was pre-school and at home, we used to have lessons every day. I could not say exactly when they started, but probably when I was about two. We would learn numbers, sums and English and to read a bit. I remember saying to my mum and dad, “Other children don’t have to do this. It’s not fair.” I can well remember their reply, which was repeated right through my growing up: “You have to. Because we’re deaf, they’ll think you’re daft.” Only as an adult can I appreciate how much that said about how they—intelligent people—had been treated just because their ears did not work.

Throughout this campaign, and from my own life experiences, I have seen the shocking inequality in access that deaf people have to public services. The reason I got involved in local politics is that I was at school and my father wanted to complain to the local councillor. Guess who did the complaining? It was me. That inequality in access goes across all aspects of life: healthcare, social care, education, jobs and benefits, to name but a few. The Royal National Institute for Deaf People estimates that 151,000 people in the UK use British Sign Language and, of those, at least 87,000 are deaf. A huge number of people rely on BSL, yet we constantly let them down and fail to see the challenges they face.

This Bill requires the Secretary of State to produce guidance, which will be issued across Government, about how they should be promoting, facilitating and protecting the use of BSL in their Departments. I am sure the Minister will set out in her speech how the Government intend to ensure the guidance will reflect the needs of the deaf community.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care)

I commend my hon. Friend on bringing forward this legislation to the House of Commons. It is long overdue and builds on the work that she mentioned earlier. The fact is that there are 90,000 primary users of British Sign Language in the United Kingdom today, and probably another 60,000 on top of that who use it as a means of communication as well. This is not a minority thing; this Bill is a social justice measure for those for whom BSL is the primary form of communication. I congratulate my hon. Friend, because it is long overdue.

Photo of Rosie Cooper Rosie Cooper Labour, West Lancashire

I thank my hon. Friend, and I absolutely agree; this Bill is long overdue, but we are dealing with it today, and we are going to make progress. [Hon. Members: “Yes.”] God is good.

I very much welcome the plans the Minister has to work directly with deaf BSL users on the creation of guidance. Using that guidance, we aim to right the wrongs that happen on a day-to-day basis. Much of that comes down to the need for interpreters. There simply are not enough interpreters in the workforce right now, and there is a clear lack of understanding and forward planning when an interpreter is needed—it is really not that hard.

Photo of Anna McMorrin Anna McMorrin Shadow Minister (Justice)

My hon. Friend is making an incredibly powerful speech, and I thank her for raising this issue and making all these important points. Does she agree that in Wales we have a Welsh Government who have put BSL at the centre of the new curriculum in Wales, putting it on a statutory footing to ensure that the language is there and prominent?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. Can I remind everyone to please face forward when speaking so that the microphones can pick you up and everyone can hear?

Photo of Rosie Cooper Rosie Cooper Labour, West Lancashire

I do indeed agree with my hon. Friend, and I am sure that we will encourage BSL to be used in schools, and I think BSL is a GCSE subject. When I was Lord Mayor of Liverpool, many aeons ago in 1992, the deaf community relied on minicoms before mobile phones. We got the children in Liverpool to learn to finger spell the alphabet and be sponsored for it. The money that they raised in learning their secret language, which they loved, meant that all deaf people in Liverpool and any organisation that needed it got a minicom. So yes, we will all be in it together and make it work.

The need for an interpreter should be obvious, but it is repeatedly overlooked. It shocks people to know that the only place where someone is guaranteed a qualified interpreter is in the courts. As a result, it seems that every deaf person has their own awful account of being failed, such as the NHS failing to provide qualified interpreters for a medical appointment. It is unthinkable that we live in a world where a person can go to a pre-arranged medical appointment and the doctor has no way of clearly and understandably communicating a diagnosis or giving medical advice.

It can be even worse emotionally—I have done this—when a hearing family member, sometimes a child, is left to interpret medical information. How can we expect a non-medically trained family member to listen to and translate complex medical information? I do not think my parents ever went to anything important, even my school days, where I did not do the interpreting. I always told the truth, but I often wonder, if I had ever been in trouble, would I have told the whole truth? I do not know, but it was not an issue, so we were okay.

In the run-up to my O-levels, my mum had a problem and she potentially had breast cancer. She went into hospital for an operation and biopsy. Can hon. Members imagine what it was like for me as a 15-year-old trying to phone the hospital between my morning and afternoon exams to get them to talk to me, who was not her next of kin—that was my dad, but he could not do it—to find out whether she was going to be okay? That pressure was unbelievable and wrong.

I have even heard heart-wrenching accounts of a son having to convey a terminal cancer diagnosis to his father, because no one thought to book an interpreter. That is outrageous and unbelievable, yet it still happens. We need a much deeper understanding of the needs of deaf people and BSL users. I hear of deaf students complaining that interpreters and support workers are not interpreting all the information that is being given, but when they complain, they are told that, “That isn’t important information.” Proper interpretation matters.

Photo of Marie Rimmer Marie Rimmer Labour, St Helens South and Whiston

I, too, commend my hon. Friend for bringing forward this important Bill. Does she agree that sign language is vital to the wellbeing of many, as it allows them to take part in activities that we know and love, such as celebrating mass?

Photo of Rosie Cooper Rosie Cooper Labour, West Lancashire

I absolutely agree. I have often joined in masses where signing is really good. When my father died, we had BSL at his funeral, the priest was able to do BSL and we had a deaf choir. It was a very sad but very joyous occasion, and one that I will never forget. It was made all the better by those people in the congregation being able to communicate properly with the priest and each other. That is really important.

I could refer to thousands of examples, across all aspects of life, that the Bill aims to improve. If we can create this guidance with deaf people, not just for deaf people, there will be such an increase in understanding of BSL and we will become acclimatised to it. We will actually start to accommodate deaf people rather than sidelining them and pushing them aside. Let it become the norm that they count.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Conservative, South Swindon

I pay warm tribute to the hon. Lady’s excellent personal testimony, which is so powerful. Does she agree that, now for the first time, deaf jurors will be able to have the benefit of interpretive services as a result of legislation that I helped introduce? The crucial point that she makes about interpretation has never been more important, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will work closely with her.

We talk about the deaf community, and the hon. Lady is right, but let us not forget the thousands of people with learning difficulties who use BSL, including a member of my family. On her behalf, may I thank the hon. Lady from the bottom of my heart. [In British Sign Language: “Thank you.”]

Photo of Rosie Cooper Rosie Cooper Labour, West Lancashire

I thank you too. [In British Sign Language: “Thank you.”] BSL really is important. It is not just for the deaf community. It is for the hard of hearing. Frankly, it is for all of us, because we will let loose all the talent and ability that is locked in deaf people because we ignore it. I am delighted that we are expanding the boundaries to make sure that interpretation is really available. Thank you so much.

Most importantly, working with the Minister, these improvements will be in services that people rely on. Deaf people looking for employment need equal access to advice and support at the jobcentre. None of us would go to a meeting with a benefits adviser and find that they cannot communicate with us so why should a deaf person?

We have already seen how much difference a Bill like this can make. Similar legislation passed in Scotland in 2015 has already made a huge difference to deaf people’s lives. There has to be—I make a plea—a BSL interpreter for all Government briefings. The deaf community should be able to watch those important updates in the same way as everyone else.

I have gone on at length, but in closing I would like to say how important it is that we seize the moment and capitalise on the interest that the country at large has in BSL. I would never have guessed—I would still have done it, but I would never have guessed—that we would make such incredible progress between introducing the Bill last June and now, seven months later. Clearly, much of the awareness is due to Rose Ayling-Ellis in “Strictly”. She proved what my dad always said, “Deaf people can do anything”—even the impossible, such as winning “Strictly” when you can’t hear the music. That 10-second glimpse she gave the hearing world into deafness when the music stopped was truly momentous. People became aware and interested in BSL like never before. I know that we have much support across the House, so let me say that the Bill is not about politics. After more than 230 years, the Bill is about doing the right thing.

In closing I would like to thank the Minister. [In British Sign Language: “Thank you for supporting this Bill.”]

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

May I say what a privilege and honour it was to be in the Chair to listen to that powerful speech?

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead 12:18 pm, 28th January 2022

What an honour and privilege it is to follow my friend Rosie Cooper. We have talked on the phone in the last couple of days. I agree completely with everything that she said. Like me, she is deeply religious and her mum and dad will be so proud. They are looking down on her now and they are chuffed. I would be very chuffed if I was them. No one can understand her loss in losing her mum and dad, but what a project they have left for us.

I declare an interest. I am a patron of Hertfordshire Hearing Advisory Service, which does massive work in my part of the world. When I was a signatory to this Bill, I thought back to when I was the disabilities Minister. Maria Eagle referred to the fact that she was also disabilities Minister. I pay tribute to the Minister. The write-round letter that she sent out to us is everything that I was trying to do when I was in the Department. I can only imagine the difficulty she had with the write-round. It means she has to write to every Department, and they all put in their thoughts. They all come back and say, “This is going to cost loads of money; this will do this, this will do that”. The difficulty will be getting it through the Department for Work and Pensions. I understand why Ministers will be concerned, and the DWP in particular, but to get to a position where I know the Minister will support the Bill—we have all had letters from her—is a massive move forward for this House and this country, and for people who use BSL now and in the future.

What the Bill will do, and what was attempted in 2003—I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood—is open the public’s awareness to the needs of people who are deaf or have learning difficulties, as my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Robert Buckland alluded to a moment ago. It will break out the capability, skills and frustrations of people who want to be heard in their first language. Many people around the country might not understand that BSL is their first language. Someone said to me, “Why are you supporting the Bill? Surely they can all lipread”. That is naivety, and when I explained it to them, they were perfectly understanding. Of course lipreading plays a part. Technology is also playing a part, and it will continue to play a part in different Departments as we try to develop the Government’s approach, and the country’s approach, to BSL.

This issue is massively important for the younger generation, who I think get it much better than the older generation. The young children in Liverpool that the hon. Member for West Lancashire alluded to get this. The problem is that sometimes there are complications about what sign language is being used in schools, but I will not get into that debate today. The Bill has the backing of the Government, the country, and Members across this House. I am sure that when it goes to the other place it will also receive full support. It means that people have to adjust the way they think about people who are deaf or have hearing difficulties.

As the Member for West Lancashire said, some people are born deaf and have had to adapt to that from birth, and some people have lost or partially lost their hearing during their lifetime. No one will be surprised if I now allude to our veterans. I am lucky. My hearing is impaired because I did not wear hearing protection when I was in the armed forces. Frankly no one did. We were all macho, and no one ever thought about it in those days, but—quite rightly—we do now address that. Tens of thousands, if not even more of our veterans out there have had their hearing affected, sometimes in situations that mean they are legally deaf. BSL was not their first language to start with, but it has become their first language going forward.

The biggest thing that has made me so proud is where we have come in such a short space of time. There was a long time between 2003, and even before that, up to now. The Bill has only just been published, but to get from when we announced what it would do, to where we are now—like the hon. Lady and other hon. Members, I am quite shocked. Government grinds on and on, but if a Minister is in the right spot, they can take the issue out of certain Departments and bring it forward, so that people do not have to worry about their silos, and the Minister can champion the Bill. Some colleagues said to me, “Shouldn’t this have been a Government Bill?” Well, there is an argument for that, but actually this is the best way. That is because people who really care are involved in the Bill. We are not being whipped or told what to do. We are not given advisory notes. The only advisory notes are from people out there who are experts.

I say to the Minister, and other Ministers, that as we go forward and she has the advisory group around her, those who best know what is going on out there are people who need and use BSL. It is not just the big charities—now I will get told off by a charity—but there are myriad different charities with huge amounts of expertise. In my constituency I have great advocates for the deaf community in my patch, and they do fantastic work. I am sure they will write to me, and I will submit certain names. If there were a spare place, and the Minister wanted an old politician, I would be more than happy to assist as well—as, I am sure, would the hon. Lady.

I think we can go further. When I was the Minister for Disabled People, I insisted that my departmental business cards should have braille on them. A huge proportion of our community cannot read because of visual impairment. I was absolutely chuffed when I raised this with the Minister and said, “This is what we should have,” and, quite rightly, it was done. That did not happen across Government. There was shock in the Department when I asked for that as disabilities Minister. I know this has absolutely nothing to do with the Bill, but if we really want to reach out to people with disabilities, that is another little step that would mean so much to so many people. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs) 12:26 pm, 28th January 2022

I am here to support the Bill, but I am also here to support my friend. My hon. Friend Rosie Cooper and I came into Parliament together in 2005. She has been open and generous in talking to us about her life and her life experiences—sometimes funny, often sad—and I know that her mum and dad will be so massively proud. God is indeed good. I know how personal the Bill is to her, and I was surprised that she managed to get through the entire speech without having us all in tears. I am really grateful to the Minister for enabling the Bill to come to the House today, and with such a good wind.

I will not speak for long because I have seen the number of hon. Members who are present, and I am always worried that just a little bit too much enthusiasm for a Bill can cause it not to succeed. As a former Whip, I have used those tricks in the past, but I am sure that the Whips Office will be as good as gold today.

I think we in the UK should be very proud that our sign language has developed in the way it has over hundreds of years, through constant use and refinement by the deaf community. It is only right that British Sign Language be legally recognised, so that its tens of thousands of regular users are afforded the legal protections and equal respect that they are absolutely due. It is important that we all remember that for many people across this country, English is their second language and is used for writing and lipreading, while British Sign Language is their first language and primary language.

When public services and others do not recognise those facts and do not work together effectively to ensure that their communications and services are equally accessible to British Sign Language users, that is a major form of discrimination.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care)

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case in support of this excellent Bill. Our hon. Friend Rosie Cooper gave her really personal experience of how, as a very young child, she had to communicate with adults and the adult world on behalf of her parents. That is a social justice issue for her parents and people like them, who have no other form of communication if British Sign Language is not provided by public services. The Bill recognises British Sign Language as an official language. Does that not push this agenda forward to ensure that public services serve all the public?

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs)

I absolutely agree. The story about a child of a parent—we are all children of our parents—having to tell the parent about a terminal diagnosis when they are obviously coming to terms with it themselves, having heard it for the first time, is just so devastating. I genuinely do not think I would have been able to sit with my mum or dad and explain what a doctor had said, and tell them that their life was about to close. I just do not think I could have done it. To think that that is something that those in the deaf community have to experience often is tragic. It is unfair and it is discriminatory.

Discrimination in all its forms has to be tackled, because it harms us all. What my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire talked about most eloquently was the fact that there is so much talent in the deaf community that is simply not allowed to be unlocked.

Photo of Sarah Olney Sarah Olney Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport)

I am enjoying listening to the hon. Member’s speech. I was first made aware of the issue of British Sign Language not being an official language by one of my constituents, Feras al-Moubayed. He came to see me because he was really keen to impress upon me, as his local MP, the barriers that he is experiencing in getting work, keeping work and engaging as a full member of society. He is a very talented tailor. He has worked in the past for Harrods and other high-end manufacturers of clothing. He has so much to offer, yet he faces barriers daily. He faces barriers when dealing with local government and with the banks. He frequently finds himself in positions of great stress and anxiety because of the situations that he routinely finds himself in, but he has so much to offer. I am here today because I really want to support this Bill—I am so glad that the Government are supporting it—on behalf of Feras and so many other people like him who have so much to offer.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. She reminds me to name-check Lister Community School. The pupils of the deaf community from that school spoke to me earlier this year and requested that I come here today to support the Bill. I am glad that the hon. Lady reminded me to name-check them, and she is absolutely right: frankly, if we are not allowing parts of our community to participate fully in culture and the economy, the whole of our community and all of us are the lesser for it.

I am really grateful that this Bill will allow some very basic and practical steps to be taken to right this wrong. I want to enable it to proceed today, so I am going to sit down now and hope that it passes as quickly as possible.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee 12:33 pm, 28th January 2022

Please be assured, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I am going to take my lead from Ms Brown, but first I must pay tribute to Rosie Cooper, who has done such incredible work getting the Bill to this point, and to my hon. Friend the Minister. She may have been pleased to send the letter yesterday informing us all that the Government were going to support the Bill, but that is nothing compared with the relief with which we all received it. Perhaps that means we are making much jollier and friendlier contributions than might otherwise have been the case.

As Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, through the course of 2020 I listened to a great deal of evidence from people with disabilities about their access to services during the pandemic. I pay huge tribute to those people who came forward with their stories of the challenges that they had had receiving information as BSL users. We got testimony from the RNID, among others, about whole families who had not been able to understand the rules of lockdown and how they impacted them. It is critical that, moving forward, we make sure that access to Government information is available for all those with disabilities, but on this occasion I want particularly to focus on those with a reliance on BSL as their first language.

It was not until a constituent of mine came to see me in 2019 to talk about an app he had developed that translated websites into BSL, which was being used by Lloyds Bank, among others, that it dawned on me that in many cases BSL users were not able to read written English to the same standard that we in this House might be able to. He was brilliant at explaining to me that perhaps their access to medical information was restricted and, as the hon. Member for West Lancashire explained, their ability to communicate with their children’s schools or interact with services such as the Department for Work and Pensions was limited because they could not read as well as they needed to in order to understand.

I made a plea to the Minister’s predecessor that a similar system could be considered for gov.uk, with BSL overlaid on its many hundreds of thousands of pages to make the information there more accessible to BSL users. I do not intend to detain the House for long today, but I want to thank my right hon. Friend the Minister and all those who have supported the Bill—all those charities that have come forward to us with information—and to say, “Please, let us not impede it any further. As we heard earlier, we have waited too long. Let’s crack on now.”

Photo of Lilian Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons) 12:35 pm, 28th January 2022

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on deafness, it is a great privilege to speak in this debate and to support the British Sign Language Bill. It has been a long road to get to this point, and the success of this Bill comes down, as has already been said, to some tireless campaigners.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Rosie Cooper on her work to bring forward the Bill and to win such wide cross-party support for it, and on her wonderful speech. Her contributions to the all-party parliamentary group have always been informed by her experience as a child of deaf adults. She has made no secret of how she was captured by the deaf community, as hon. Members have heard today. Her passion, knowledge and determination have underpinned the Bill and the negotiations to secure Government support for it. As Sir Mike Penning and my hon. Friend Ms Brown have said, she has done her parents and the deaf community proud; I am sure many of my constituents who are members of Nottinghamshire Deaf Society will have been cheering her on.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire, I pay tribute to the British Deaf Association, particularly its chair David Buxton. The BDA has campaigned for decades in support of sign language legislation. Its work is a major reason not only that we are discussing the Bill but that the Scottish Parliament has already legislated in favour of British Sign Language. Similar proposals are at different stages in the Welsh Senedd and Stormont.

I also thank Rob Geaney and RNID for their support for the APPG and the campaign, which of course is supported by many other organisations and charities that support the deaf community and advocate for better communication, including SignHealth, the Royal Association for Deaf People, Black Deaf UK, the Institute of British Sign Language, the National Deaf Children’s Society, Signature and the National Registers of Communication Professionals Working with Deaf and Deafblind People.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development)

I add my wholehearted support to this Bill and the efforts of my hon. Friend Rosie Cooper. Like many hon. Members, I have campaigners in my own constituency, such as Stuart Parkinson, an activist for the deaf community with Cardiff Deaf Centre, but I also pay tribute to the work of the Association of British Sign Language Teachers and Assessors, which I have been honoured to be a patron of for some time. Interpreters such as Julie Doyle and Tony Evans can be seen on Welsh Government broadcasts, live with the First Minister and the Health Minister, interpreting in BSL in real time—in the room, crucially—and I pay tribute to them for all the work they have done for the deaf community and in supporting this Bill.

Photo of Lilian Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. I am sure many of us want to thank people who got us to this stage.

Through my time as chair of the all-party group I have heard numerous and devastating examples of the barriers that we place in front of deaf BSL users. We have heard about the failure to think about accessibility in the design of public policy and public services, and how that limits the opportunities and life chances of BSL users. That is why I am pleased to support the Bill. I do so not just because it gives the deaf community and their language the status and recognition they deserve, although that is vital, but because the Bill provides sensible mechanisms to help Departments and public service providers overcome the barriers they create.

I wish to give a couple of examples that relate to accessing healthcare, the first of which is the refusal to provide a video relay service to contact the NHS. A VRS would have allowed BSL users to speak to health professionals remotely through a videocall with a registered BSL interpreter. But rather than commissioning a national service, the NHS failed to make provision, leaving many BSL users without access to their GP during the pandemic, when remote appointments became the default. At best, deaf BSL users were reliant on charitable support, provided by organisations such as SignHealth. Access to core NHS services should not be left to charities; those services should be provided as a right. My hope is that the guidance required by clause 3, designed and informed by lived experience through the non-statutory board mentioned in the explanatory notes, will provide both NHS England and local health commissioners and providers with the obligation they need to provide such a service, as well as the support and information on how to make it work for deaf people. The guidance across the NHS can help empower deaf people to manage their own health and improve the way they do so.

I also hope that the guidance supports the delivery of specialist mental health services. Through the all-party group, we know that too many commissioners think that providing interpretation for mainstream mental health services is sufficient. This guidance can make commissioners aware of the evidence showing that specialist services, delivered by those who understand deaf culture and the impact that being cut off from the hearing world has, are best for outcomes. There are countless examples of these barriers and how we fail the deaf community. The guidance should help us to remove the barriers we create across society, particularly in health and education services, and in the support we provide to deaf BSL users through jobcentres. That will really make a difference to their life chances and to outcomes.

I also hope the transparency and accountability created on accessible communications by clause 2 can drive a huge increase in the volume of accessible information in BSL, as that is another area where the deaf community are being let down. The high-profile failure to provide BSL interpretation at the initial covid press conferences is just one example, but there are many others. Deaf BSL users are forced to navigate complex information in their second language. How many of us who speak a second language would want to use it to apply for a passport, check our entitlement to benefits or arrange childcare vouchers on a site such as gov.uk? Why do we demand that nearly 90,000 of our citizens deal with these routine interactions with government based on an ability to use their second language? This needs to change, and information in BSL can empower deaf people to manage their own affairs and lead confident, independent lives. I hope that the required BSL report set out in clause 2 spurs on all Departments to meet the basic need to provide accessible information to the deaf community. Ministers can certainly expect to be held to account for their performance.

Today will be a momentous day for the deaf community when this Bill passes, as it is a really important step forward in the equality and equity that deaf citizens should be entitled to expect from their Government. Many people are out there in Parliament Square following this debate and waiting for news. I know that Members across the House will support the Bill, which will give the deaf community the recognition they deserve and the Government the tools—through the BSL report and the guidance—to improve the services provided to them. I hope the Minister and her Department will commit to a genuine process of co-production in how she works with the advisory body announced in the explanatory notes, empowering the deaf community to lead the change and create the society they deserve. As Craig Crowley, the chief executive officer of Action Deafness, commented this morning, “The principle of ‘nothing about us without us’ is the right one.”

The Bill should matter not just to the deaf community —we all benefit from creating a more inclusive and accessible society where everyone can fulfil their potential. I was reminded of that recently on a visit to Mellers primary school in my constituency, which, since September, has been home to Nottingham city’s focus provision for deaf pupils. It has benefited from having deaf students and ensuring that BSL is an integral part of school life. It was a real pleasure to hear that the whole staff team are learning BSL and that hearing pupils are becoming fluent in BSL, and to see the school choir singing and signing together. That inclusion should be the norm. The World Federation of the Deaf tells us that legal recognition of sign language promotes understanding in society and, in turn, better promotion of human rights for the deaf community. Today is a really important step on a journey towards a better and more equal society.

Photo of Marco Longhi Marco Longhi Conservative, Dudley North 12:45 pm, 28th January 2022

[In British Sign Language: “Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.”]

I pay tribute to Rosie Cooper for bringing forward the Bill and for presenting it in such a powerful, if not emotional, way. It certainly touched me when she was speaking. I also pay tribute to the Minister, who I feel quite certain has not taken “No” for an answer in getting to this point, probably on multiple occasions.

The people who know me are probably fed up with my antics at pretending to be a bit of a linguist. I try to speak English to the best of my abilities, but I do know a little Italian and Portuguese. I hope, soon, that I might be able to learn a bit more British Sign Language, and to a much better standard than I have just demonstrated, for the benefit of my deaf constituents. I only wish that I had the ability and knowledge to give my entire speech today in British Sign Language. Several former Members have dabbled as contestants on “Strictly Come Dancing”—I stress that this is not an invitation to producers to invite me on the show—and the most recent series saw deaf actress Rose Ayling-Ellis raise the winner’s glitter ball. If her dancing skills alone did not inspire us to try harder, her awareness in raising the importance of access to BSL certainly did.

On 18 March 2003, the then Labour Government formally recognised British Sign Language as a language in its own right. They also promised to investigate conferring legal status on BSL. Nearly 19 years on, we are still waiting and the deaf community are still waiting, but, as the saying goes, better late than never. This country has a proud history of leading and improving accessibility for those with disabilities, and it is so important that we create public policy mechanisms that will remove the countless barriers that society places in front of deaf BSL users in their daily lives.

Photo of Sara Britcliffe Sara Britcliffe Conservative, Hyndburn

I want to thank Rosie Cooper. I am proud to be part of the county of Lancashire and fully support what she is doing.

On the point about daily lives, the fundamental point is that we all get on every day doing what we do very easily, but that is difficult for many of our constituents, and the Bill is about making everyday life that bit easier for BSL users.

Photo of Marco Longhi Marco Longhi Conservative, Dudley North

I could not agree more. Those of us who do not have this particular disability, or other disabilities, we take ordinary life for granted.

As Members of Parliament on all sides of the House, we have a duty and a responsibility to transform the lives of our disabled constituents. That includes supporting and empowering the deaf community, and improving communication between deaf and hearing people. In 2022, deaf people in the UK still do not have access to the same public information and services that are easily available to the hearing population. As we have heard, they are forced to rely on disability discrimination legislation, the Equality Act 2010, to fight for access in their own language to vital information about covid and healthcare, for example, and education and justice. We are talking about an indigenous language of the UK, BSL. I am told that this situation has proved to be inadequate, and it is right that this Government are supporting the hon. Member for West Lancashire in righting it, by seeking to recognise BSL legally as an official language within the UK.

What is also important is listening to the lived experience of those who use sign language as their primary language. They are best placed to understand and take decisions about their own needs. When decisions are taken without involving and properly consulting those they affect—in this case, the deaf community—it leads to inappropriate and inadequate services, which also leads to a waste of public money and taxpayers’ cash. I know that it is incredibly frustrating when I cannot find accurate and up-to-date information, and I cannot even begin to imagine how frustrating it must be for my deaf constituents to experience that routinely, often with the most basic but essential of information. I welcome, with open arms, this Bill and the duties it is placing on Departments to help us break down barriers and revolutionise and improve people’s lives.

Photo of Virginia Crosbie Virginia Crosbie Conservative, Ynys Môn 12:51 pm, 28th January 2022

I congratulate Rosie Cooper on using her opportunity to table a private Member’s Bill on such an important subject as British Sign Language. I was particularly touched by her speech and her sharing personal experiences. Her family must be incredibly proud, and rightly so. I also wish to thank the Minister, who has worked so hard to make this Bill a success.

As a disabled children’s champion, this subject is close to my heart and I am delighted to support this Bill. I am not a natural linguist—I am a scientist—but when the people of Ynys Môn elected me to represent them, I committed to learning Welsh. I have seen at first hand how important it is to communicate with people, and although it has been incredibly challenging, it is one of the most important things I have committed to doing.

Last year, I met the National Deaf Children’s Society to discuss the challenges faced by deaf children and, in particular, the use of BSL. I have had subsequent meetings with the charity and discussed the matter with constituents. One constituent, an incredible lady, is a qualified teacher of the deaf who lives on Ynys Môn. She uses BSL and has told me about the 170 children on Ynys Môn who are registered as deaf or hard of hearing but who struggle to access appropriate education because of the lack of locally qualified teachers. In her annual report for 2016-17, the Children’s Commissioner for Wales expressed concerns about access to BSL learning opportunities for deaf children and their families, and the lack of support in mainstream education. Despite that, five years on, there is no school for the deaf in Wales, and the nearest deaf education unit to Ynys Môn is in Wrexham, some 90 miles away. Data shows us that barriers to equality of education have a detrimental impact on employment and wellbeing. There are, for example, a disproportionate number of deaf people in our prison population.

BSL is a unifying language for deaf people. By making BSL a language of Great Britain in its own right, this Bill allows us to take an important step to recognising the rights of deaf people to access the education, support and assistance they need using their own language. Under this Bill, the duty placed on Departments to report on their use of BSL does not extend to the Welsh Government, but I hope that our colleagues in Cardiff will seek to introduce a similar duty. Like the British Deaf Association and the National Deaf Children’s Society, I want to see the changes wrought by this Bill level the playing field.

The sense of community is one of the many fantastic things about my constituency and I will do everything and anything I can to encourage that sense of belonging. I want the deaf children in Ynys Môn, right across Wales and throughout Scotland and England to have the full and equal access to education, employment and public services that they deserve. Those young people will then be able to look forward to playing a greater role in their national and local communities. Most important of all, the Bill can give them hope for a better and more equal future.

This Bill is not about politics; it is about doing the right thing. I am proud that today the House is using its collective voice to change lives and work towards a more equal society.

Photo of Peter Aldous Peter Aldous Conservative, Waveney 12:55 pm, 28th January 2022

I congratulate Rosie Cooper on bringing forward this Bill and for her passionate and tireless campaign, over a lifetime, on behalf of the deaf community. I thank my hon. Friend—and near constituency neighbour—the Minister for working collaboratively on the detail of the Bill, which will secure legal status for British Sign Language as the primary language of the deaf community. This is a huge step forward and provides the opportunity to enhance the quality of life for deaf people by improving their inclusion and autonomy in British society, their education and their career opportunities.

The Bill is short but will deliver a great deal for the deaf community: equal and fair access to services; the opportunity to play a leading role in co-designing and co-producing those services; the assurance that both public and private organisations must legally provide qualified and regulated interpreting services; access to video relay service calls of a standard equivalent to audio phone calls; the ability to access services remotely via intermediaries without the need to overcome spurious data protection barriers; full and appropriate access to emergency announcements; increased legal protection against domestic violence and hate crime; protection against discriminatory employment practices; and, finally, parity of access to mainstream television programmes at conventional viewing times. To go back to my childhood, “Vision On”, presented by the late Tony Hart, was a pioneering programme, but the deaf community should not have had to wait 50 years for that particular level playing field.

I pay tribute to Ann and Daniel Jillings from Lowestoft, who are in Westminster today. They are passionate campaigners for the deaf community and for deaf children in particular. I commend Daniel’s school, Bungay High School, for setting up a deaf resource base.

Along with the National Deaf Children’s Society, Ann and Daniel have campaigned tirelessly for a GCSE in British Sign Language. In 2018, following a successful legal challenge, it looked as if they had made a significant breakthrough, in that the Department for Education undertook to start work on the design of the curriculum. I acknowledge that it is important to get it right but, nearly four years on, we are still waiting. It was Daniel’s ambition to sit the BSL GCSE alongside his other GCSEs, but it now looks as if he will have left school by the time it is up and running. I would be most grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister could liaise with her counterparts in the Department for Education to ensure that the BSL GCSE is introduced as quickly as possible.

This great Bill will deliver so much for the deaf community. Time is short in this parliamentary Session, so we need to get on with it without procrastination and get it on the statute book as quickly as possible.

Photo of Nickie Aiken Nickie Aiken Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster 12:59 pm, 28th January 2022

Once in a while, an individual pops up in this country and stops us in our tracks—someone who really makes us think about, and often makes us rethink, what is important in life: someone like Captain Tom during the pandemic or, of course, Rose Ayling-Ellis and her time on Strictly Come Dancing, one of the most successful programmes on television. She is the most amazing model for the deaf community, and she gave us an important insight into the barrier that deaf people must cross each and every day. Her use of BSL in a prime-time television programme has raised this issue into mainstream consciousness, and has shown us all that BSL should not be a marginalised language. In fact, it is a beautiful, rich language, which has its own structure, its own grammar and its own slang. What Members on both sides of the House have said today has only reaffirmed to me the importance of understanding sign language and its value in society, and I pay tribute to Rosie Cooper for bringing us this brilliant Bill.

The significance of the equality and accessibility that come with British Sign Language is both undeniable and unavoidable. That is exactly what I heard when I spoke to the National Deaf Children’s Society, whose members described to me the challenges with which many deaf children have had to deal during the pandemic. In the run-up to this Second Reading debate, I heard from one constituent who said that if ever there was a time when access to information was important, it has been during the pandemic.

One thing that I learnt from visiting Caxton Youth Organisation, a centre in my constituency for young people with autism and learning difficulties, is that recognising visual communication will make even more people feel included. Indeed, I think it important to note that—as was pointed out by my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Robert Buckland—this Bill benefits not only the deaf community, but those with autism and learning difficulties.

Many Members may have noticed that I prefer to wear a see-through mask as much as possible. I do so to convey a message to those who have to lip-read in order to understand what people are saying, because inclusiveness is important. It will probably not surprise Members to learn that I have been subject to some criticism from people on social media who say, “What an awful mask.” I say to them, and to anyone else who does not like my see- through mask—well, actually I will not say what I would like to say, but I know from people in my constituency such as Alexandra Morgan Thomas, who was born deaf, why my use of a see-through mask is so important.

Today we have the opportunity to recognise the rich language that is BSL and to recognise its history and culture, and, principally, to ensure that its users feel completely fully included in our society. The Bill contains four main proposals which I welcome: it proposes to make BSL an official language in the UK, to establish a board to promote and facilitate the use of BSL, to state principles to guide the operations of bodies that provide public service, and to require bodies to promote and facilitate the use of BSL.

I am in no doubt that the Government take the principles of the Bill seriously. I thank the Minister, with whom I have had meetings to discuss the Bill; I also thank the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, whom I met recently to ask him to ensure that BSL was supported throughout the Government, and who was himself very supportive. I am delighted to stand with the Government, with the hon. Member for West Lancashire, with charities working with deaf people, and with BSL users in the Cities of London and Westminster to bring about much-needed change.

I back the Bill, and, as the Chamber will have heard in my recent question on the business statement, I am putting that commitment into action. My new year resolution is to learn British Sign Language, and I am pleased to say that my first lesson will start next week.

Photo of James Davies James Davies Conservative, Vale of Clwyd 1:04 pm, 28th January 2022

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Nickie Aiken. I, too, congratulate Rosie Cooper on all her very hard work on the Bill, and I praise her constructive and cross-party efforts, which I recognise well from my time with her on the Health and Social Care Committee.

The Royal National Institute for Deaf People estimates that there are 12 million people with hearing loss in this country, and that is potentially set to rise to 14.2 million adults by 2035. At this point, it is worth acknowledging yet again the role of Rose Ayling-Ellis in representing that community during her time on “Strictly Come Dancing”. She is supporting the Bill, which is fantastic.

In Wales, roughly 7,200 people use BSL as a primary form of communication. As we have heard, across the UK that rises to perhaps 87,000. It is important to be aware that the use of BSL goes beyond those with hearing loss to include others, such as those with learning disabilities, as my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Robert Buckland mentioned. I support efforts to promote and protect BSL, especially given the likelihood of the number of BSL users increasing further, including through its increased recognition as a language of Great Britain.

The pandemic has had a significant impact on how we communicate. We have adapted to more a virtual way of contact very often and to the widespread use of face masks. As has been highlighted, they obscure our lip movements and that can be difficult for all of us, in fact, in shops and elsewhere, but it has been very difficult for those with hearing loss. That fact has helped to drive society to embrace BSL over the course of the pandemic. Admittedly with some pressure sometimes, most public health information has been available in alternative formats, including BSL, and the Cabinet Office is looking to extend similar BSL provisions for all public broadcasts, including non-covid broadcasts from Downing Street.

In this place, it is important that BSL translation is now available to those in the deaf community wishing to watch Prime Minister’s questions every week. More widely, I am encouraged by the work being undertaken by the Department for Education to promote BSL. As my hon. Friend Peter Aldous said, plans are under way to introduce a GCSE in BSL as soon as possible, and funding from the adult education budget is enabling adult learners aged 19 and over to undertake BSL qualifications. The Government have also funded the development of a family sign language programme, known as the I-Sign programme.

We have made so much progress since BSL was first recognised by Ministers on a non-statutory basis in 2003 and since the Equality Act 2010 and the public sector equality duty brought with them an expectation of “reasonable adjustment” on the part of public sector organisations. I have a degree of experience of that as a general practitioner, but I recognise that it is far from acceptable on some occasions. Family members can attend to help to interpret and that may be appropriate in some circumstances, but I have experienced times when the service has not quite been what it should be. The digital opportunities that have arisen from the pandemic will quite possibly assist in that respect, and the Bill will help towards those objectives.

In addition to recognising BSL as a language of Great Britain in its own right, the Bill will require the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to issue guidance to Departments on the promotion and facilitation of BSL in the public sector. It will also place a duty on the Cabinet Office to report on the promotion of BSL in ministerial Departments at least every three years. There is a strong preference for the full engagement of the devolved Administrations to ensure that the practical outcomes of the Bill are enjoyed nationwide, and I hope that the Minister will be able to assure the House that that is the intention.

The intention is that the DWP will establish a non-statutory board, the British Sign Language council, to promote and advise on use of the language. The board would have the remit to issue guidelines via the Secretary of State that public bodies should take account of.

Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Conservative, North West Durham

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the great successes of the last few years has been helping to encourage people with disabilities into employment? In putting the board through the DWP, there should be an extra driver to help people who are deaf into employment in future.

Photo of James Davies James Davies Conservative, Vale of Clwyd

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend and I was about to acknowledge that in my final comments.

The proposals are reasonable and represent a further step to full recognition and integration of BSL in our diverse society. They could lead to an increase in the number of interpreters and a reduction in the jobs gap with non-disabled people. The Bill has the support of the British Deaf Association, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, the Government and hon. Members on both sides of the House. I am delighted to add my voice to the support for the Bill, which will help to secure the role and status of BSL in communities across the country.

Photo of Jane Hunt Jane Hunt Conservative, Loughborough 1:10 pm, 28th January 2022

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Dr Davies. I congratulate Rosie Cooper on this phenomenal achievement. I also thank the Minister, whose laser-like focus and winning smile has, I suspect, contributed to getting the Bill to this point.

I understand that 11 million people in the UK are deaf or hard of hearing. We know that deaf people are more likely to have poor mental health, with up to 50% of deaf and hard of hearing people suffering from poor mental health compared with 25% of the general population. Sadly, they are also more likely to be unemployed, with only 65% of working-age deaf people in employment.

It is vital that we do everything we can to ensure that neither deafness nor being hard of hearing is a barrier to participating in society, entering and remaining in employment, and accessing services. That is particularly true for the about 87,000 BSL users who are deaf and use BSL as their first primary language. As the hon. Member for West Lancashire has highlighted, they often have to fight hard every day to feel heard and listened to.

I am pleased that action has already been taken to help to improve the experiences of deaf people and the hard of hearing, with the Government formally recognising British Sign Language as a language in its own right in 2003, and making provision for accessing services by users of BSL in equalities legislation and the public sector equality duty. Rightly, employers, service providers and public bodies must provide services in BSL when it is reasonable to do so. I am pleased that the Government led by example by making public health information available in many alternative formats, including BSL, during the covid-19 outbreak.

More broadly, BSL may also be offered in schools as part of the school curriculum. I understand that the Department for Education is working to introduce a GCSE in BSL as soon as possible. I look forward to reading the Government’s consultation on the draft subject content when it is published.

Given the ongoing problems that many deaf and hard of hearing people face, however, it is clear that more needs to be done. The Bill is a great step in the right direction. Ensuring that BSL has a legal status and that guidance is issued to all Government Departments on how they should accommodate the use of BSL in each of their responsibilities will not only improve the lives of users, but help to bring awareness to the issues that the community faces and facilitate change across society. Therefore, I will be supporting it today.

I hope that the debate, the Bill and the “BSL Act Now!” campaign will encourage more people to take up BSL in much the same way as Rose Ayling-Ellis’s fantastic win on “Strictly Come Dancing”, which I watched every single week. I understand that it led to a phenomenal rise in people searching for information about sign language and signing up for free training programmes.

All that being said, I understand from one of my constituents that there is a national shortage of BSL interpreters, which often leads to difficulties for users who rely on them to access legal or medical services. As a result, I have been told that the deaf community have taken it upon themselves to set up community groups and act as interpreters for one another. I understand there is one in the north-west called Signalise. However, if the Bill passes, there will be even greater demand for interpreters. I will be grateful to hear from the Minister about the Government’s plans to increase interpreter provision. As the hon. Member for West Lancashire said, let us let loose the talent of deaf people.

I would like to take the opportunity to talk about an issue faced by another constituent, who has suffered substantial hearing loss as an adult but is not a BSL user and instead relies on lip reading and facial expressions. My constituent was recently an in-patient in hospital and, understandably, was concerned that the skills and techniques they had developed to manage their hearing loss frequently could not be used when people wearing face masks approached in groups, stood in difficult-to-see positions and even asked questions in the dark in the middle of the night. That was incredibly distressing and frustrating.

My constituent pointed out that, had serious medical matters needed to be discussed, that could have substantially impacted on their safety and recovery. I therefore urge the Government to look more broadly at the issues faced by those who are not BSL users but who face very similar communication issues. In conclusion, I say to the Minister regarding the Bill: [In British Sign Language: “Yes, please.”]

Photo of Chris Clarkson Chris Clarkson Conservative, Heywood and Middleton 1:16 pm, 28th January 2022

I start by thanking Rosie Cooper for introducing the Bill. It is a remarkable thing for a private Member’s Bill to affect so many lives so positively. I echo the comments of some of her colleagues; I think her mum and dad will be incredibly proud of what she is doing. I also thank the Minister. I have had the privilege of being on two of her Bill Committees, and to describe her as just being on top of her brief would be to do her a serious misjustice.

I am a linguist. We have had several of them in the Chamber but they all seem to have disappeared just as I started speaking. My hon. Friend Marco Longhi talked down his inestimable talents, and my hon. Friend Sara Britcliffe is, I think, the only Member of Parliament who speaks Catalan. I decided I wanted to do something different in Hansard when I first got here, and so far I have managed to include German, French, Japanese, Latin, Arabic, Farsi, Hebrew, Māori, Welsh and, this morning, Icelandic.

Communication is something I am very passionate about, and I want to drill down into that. The Bill is about not just fairness, although fairness is at its very heart, but recognition. It is about how we recognise and understand one another, and understand that some people communicate differently but are no less valuable to our national conversation. As my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Robert Buckland—who has also gone—mentioned, the issue does not affect just the hard of hearing community. My mum worked in a special school and some of her greatest joy came when she learnt Makaton, which is another form of sign language used to communicate with profoundly disabled children. For some of those children, it was the only way of getting their message across. It is an awful way of phrasing it, but to be heard in that way is incredibly important.

I want to reflect on a personal musing. There are two best ways to understand people. One is food. As hon. Members can tell from the increasingly structural nature of my suits, I have leant into that one quite severely. The other is language. It informs how people behave in the world and how people view things. I was very lucky to grow up in Germany, so I grew up bilingual. I think in two languages. That has definitely shaped the way I view the world. I assume—I am sure the hon. Member for West Lancashire will correct me if I am wrong—that it must be the same, and it gives us a different perspective on the world. I have to simultaneously think twice, and to understand and reason things. That causes me to see other people’s perspectives more clearly.

There are at least 90,000 people in this country who see the world differently and have not been recognised by this Parliament, which is a serious misjustice. We are also addressing the fact that, as a community, we are not looking to our own heritage. As we have heard, British Sign Language is over 200 years old. We have almost disregarded a part of that heritage. That is phenomenal, especially considering some of the ignorant attitudes towards disability in the past: we had this wonderful way of communication that grew naturally, with its own grammar, syntax and community within our community, and we have not been addressing that. As a member of different minority community, I know how badly that hurts. It really does hurt not to be recognised and treated the same just because of who you are and how you choose to live. I will not labour the point because there have been some far more eloquent speeches than mine, but I will add another little language to my list by saying to the hon. Lady, [In British Sign Language: “Thank you, and well done.”].

Photo of Suzanne Webb Suzanne Webb Conservative, Stourbridge 1:20 pm, 28th January 2022

It is an absolute pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Chris Clarkson, whose eloquent speech was absolutely joyous. I was touched by the deeply moving speech by Rosie Cooper. I loved her moving stories about her hero dad, the courage of her mother, and her support for her mother.

As the hon. Lady said, today is a momentous day, and I am absolutely delighted to support her Bill, which will have a transformational impact for more than 150,000 deaf people in the UK who use British Sign Language. She should be incredibly proud of having introduced the Bill. I agree with her that we should seize this moment and ensure the Bill’s safe passage. I have been contacted by constituents about this issue, and I know that the passage of the Bill is as important to them as it is to me.

By granting BSL the same legal recognition and associated protections as the current six protected languages in the UK, the Bill will ensure that deaf people are afforded equal status with everyone else. That can only be a good thing and it is the right thing. The creation of a British Sign Language council is a vital component of the Bill that will have a significant positive impact in promoting and protecting the use of British Sign Language. It is important that that council is inclusive and representative, which is why I welcome the Bill’s proposal that it should be comprised of a majority of deaf signers. It is imperative that any guidance be created in direct consultation with the deaf community.

Many years ago, I did lots of voluntary work with a group called Birmingham PHAB Camps, a charity for both physically handicapped and able-bodied children, and we used to go to a variety of facilities during amazing one-week holidays. I was shocked that at the end of the holidays, I was asked how we should change the facilities so that those with disabilities would have better holidays. They should not have been asking me; they should have asked the people with disabilities. That is why the Bill’s proposal for an inclusive and representative British Sign Language council is so important. It is about asking the right people what they want and how we need to deliver it—they are the ones with the right answers.

BSL is the preferred language of more than 87,000 deaf people in the UK, which is why it is so important that it is made an official British language going forward. As others have mentioned, if the amazing Rose Ayling-Ellis of “EastEnders” and “Strictly Come Dancing” has taught us anything, it is that BSL is an expressive and absolutely beautiful language. We have all seen it every Saturday night on “Strictly”—it seems my hon. Friend Jane Hunt has seen every show in—I suspect—every single series since its conception. Long may that continue.

BSL is distinctive, and it utilises grammar, handshapes, facial expressions, gestures and body language to convey meaning. To some extent, it is more beautiful than how we speak. That was demonstrated every Saturday when we watched the beautiful Rose do her most amazing dances, and particularly when the music stopped. We did not need music; it was just absolutely compelling.

BSL was recognised as an official language by the UK Government on 18 March 2003, but it does not have the legal status of languages that have been accorded protected language status. That is bizarre, and I do not know why it has taken so long, but I am grateful to the Minister for acknowledging that the measures will go forward.

I welcome the Bill’s requirement for the Secretary of State to issue guidance to ensure that BSL is accommodated in the responsibilities of Government Departments and public bodies. It is important that they are accountable for the actions they take to promote the use of BSL. That is why the Bill’s inclusion of a requirement for Ministers to report on their use and facilitation of BSL is so important.

The Bill builds on the public sector equality duty and existing equalities legislation in establishing a level playing field for the deaf community. I am proud of the progress this country has made. Throughout the pandemic, public health information and Downing Street press briefings have been made available in BSL, and I am pleased that the Cabinet Office is currently working to extend similar provisions to all future broadcasts from No. 10.

There are at least 50,000 deaf children in the UK and there has been tremendous progress in promoting and facilitating the use of BSL in schools. Many schools teach it in their curriculums, and I welcome the Department for Education’s work to introduce a GCSE—I was going to say O-level—in BSL as soon as possible. I know the Government aim to consult the public on the draft content of the qualifications this year, and I encourage people in my Stourbridge constituency to take part.

Beyond early education, there has been substantial progress in supporting adult learners after leaving school. The adult education budget and the advanced learner loan provide funding for people aged 19 and over to obtain qualifications in British Sign Language. With Government funding, the National Deaf Children’s Society has developed the “I-sign” sign language programme for families to learn BSL. It is an incredible free resource, and I urge people to take full advantage. I note that some of the hon. Members present have probably been using that service to learn some of their signing, and I think we are all keen to follow up on that and do more, so that we can go out to our constituents and use BSL. It is so important.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to reviewing the access to work scheme. It is vital that deaf people receive equal education and employment opportunities, which is why the review will ensure that Government-funded workplace adjustments enable BSL users to receive the support they need. My hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton mentioned people potentially feeling isolated and that they are in a minority, which is why it is so important that those going into a work situation can feel confident that it is an inclusive environment. I think that is what he was alluding to, and we need that inclusivity.

We are making progress on Government policy. I have mentioned the sign interpretation when we do covid announcements on television and the move on future announcements from Downing Street, but the provision for BSL users to access services is covered by equalities legislation and the public sector equality duty. Employers, service providers and public bodies must provide services in BSL when it is reasonable to do so. I have mentioned the Cabinet Office, but organisations such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission have suggested we should go further, for example by including a live BSL interpreter on set.

Schools can choose to offer sign language in their curriculum, as I have already mentioned, and include it as part of their extracurricular activities programme. I will be going around to my schools and having those conversations to ensure that that does take place. BSL forms part of the non-statutory local flexibility offer and qualifications are either fully funded if the learner is unemployed or participating in the low wage trial, or co-funded depending on the age, prior achievement and employment status of the learner. BSL qualifications at level 3 and above can be funded through an advanced learner loan, which is brilliant to hear, and the Government have funded the development of a family sign language programme. I am told it is freely available at the National Deaf Children’s Society family sign language website, for those who are listening.

There have also been recent parliamentary initiatives: the Deaf Awareness Week in 2021 and an early-day motion calling on the Government to introduce legislation giving legal status to British Sign Language, which received about 50 signatures. There is growing momentum behind this issue, which I very much hope will conclude today. Another motion on teaching of BSL in schools was tabled in September 2020 and has gained significant ground. There have been many people supporting this Bill: the British Deaf Association, the Royal Institute for Deaf People and of course Rose Ayling-Ellis, the winner of “Strictly Come Dancing”, who commented:

“BSL is not an official language, legally, in this country. Which is outrageous. Because it is such a beautiful, rich language with its own structure, its own grammar, its own slang. It’s even got accents.”

I feel that it is important to recognise the role that charities have played in supporting the deaf community. Deafscope in Stourbridge is a fantastic local organisation that provides a directory of deaf-friendly and deaf-owned businesses. It is brilliant. It improves accessibility for deaf people and gives deaf-friendly and deaf-owned businesses a platform to promote their services. That local success story was created by a deaf couple, Kerry and Ishtiaq Hussain, and is shaped by their personal experiences of isolation and loneliness growing up deaf. Their innovative company has had a tremendous impact on the deaf community, helping to combat feelings of exclusion by connecting deaf people to inclusive opportunities.

I know that the Bill will be welcomed by Deafscope, as it has been by other deaf-led organisations. Significant progress has been made in recent years in promoting and facilitating the use of British Sign Language, spurred on by brilliant grassroots organisations such as Deafscope. However, there is still much more for us to do, and the Bill is a big step forward in enabling us to do that.

The Bill will ensure that British Sign Language and its users finally have legal parity. I thank the hon. Member for West Lancashire so much for bringing it to the House—I know that everyone else here does, too—and I thank the Minister for supporting it. My hon. Friend Virginia Crosbie and Lilian Greenwood spoke about the importance of inclusivity and accessibility in society. That is so important. I talked about it in my maiden speech, and it is something that I very much want to work on. If there is anything I can do to support work with BSL to improve inclusiveness, I am more than happy to help. [In British Sign Language: “Thank you.”]

Photo of Danny Kruger Danny Kruger Conservative, Devizes 1:31 pm, 28th January 2022

Debates in this place can often be fairly depressing or disappointing. On Wednesday, Mr Speaker had to reprimand the House about the bellowing that went on at Prime Minister’s questions. I have no idea how the BSL interpreter is supposed to cope with that. But sometimes it is very different, and on two other occasions this week I have had cause to think what an amazing privilege it is to listen to debates. They can be very different; we hear all sorts of things about each other. Who knew that the Chair of the Treasury Committee, my right hon. Friend Mel Stride, is a Blue Badge guide, or that my hon. Friend Chris Clarkson speaks Farsi and Māori?

But debates can also be very serious and moving. I want to quickly mention yesterday’s debate on Holocaust Memorial Day, which I sat through. There were some incredibly powerful and very personal speeches. I was particularly struck by Alex Sobel talking about his family and the effect of the holocaust there. So, sometimes we are human and we behave ourselves and speak very powerfully and well, and we have really seen that today. I pay tribute, as everybody has, to Rosie Cooper. She is a tribute to her parents, as everybody has said, and this Bill is a great tribute to her and her life’s work. I really congratulate her on it.

The line in the hon. Lady’s speech that struck me most powerfully was her point that we should never write people off. That is the essence of a just society—we do not write people off. It strikes me that the value of full participation is twofold. First, from the perspective of rights—particularly, in this case, those of deaf people—it is absolutely right that we make all efforts to ensure that deaf people can participate fully in all the activities of society, whether those are leisure activities, education, opportunities for work or healthcare; we heard a powerful point about the role of communication in access to healthcare and advice. The second value is the benefit to society. The hon. Lady told a powerful story about her father and his work as a plasterer, not a joiner, and the enormous benefit if we properly include all our citizens.

It has been fascinating to hear about BSL today, and to read about it. I did not know about how old it is—it has been developing for centuries—or the enormous range that the language has. Rather like English itself, it has huge flexibility and range. My hon. Friend Suzanne Webb just mentioned the beauty that the language has; we can all see that when we see people signing. I was not aware, either, that there are different accents in BSL. I wonder whether the hon. Member for West Lancashire would like to intervene and demonstrate Merseyside signing. I do not know whether Scouser signing is a thing, but I would be interested to see it. Failing that, I know that the Minister has learned BSL herself, and I look forward to her wind-up in thick Norfolk BSL. I congratulate them both on the Bill.

Photo of Rosie Cooper Rosie Cooper Labour, West Lancashire

I think everybody would be so amazed by how many dialects there are and how a single word can be so different just across this small country. As I grew up, I learned sign language as my first language. In my dad’s later years, every time I said something, he would go, [In British Sign Language: “Stop. It has all changed. Now it is this.”] I get to this old age, and I know that even I am not expert at it yet.

Photo of Danny Kruger Danny Kruger Conservative, Devizes

I think the hon. Lady lost her accent when she came to London. I offer sincere congratulations to her and the Minister. I am delighted to support the Bill.

Photo of Julie Marson Julie Marson Conservative, Hertford and Stortford 1:35 pm, 28th January 2022

I should say, [In British Sign Language: “Thank you.”] I start by congratulating Rosie Cooper. We speak a lot in this Chamber in conventional ways and according to protocol, but I would like to show her that this Bill goes above protocol and convention. I say to her, [In British Sign Language: “Thank you. I am proud”] to be part of this debate and to be in the Chamber for it.

On a Friday, our proceedings often seem to become about protocol and procedure, but this Bill transcends that kind of debate, because we are in agreement and we are united. It is one of those moments where we can be proud to be doing something that we came into this House to do, which is to make people’s lives better than they already are, and I am very proud to be part of that. I also pay tribute to the Minister. When two powerful, formidable women get together, we can relish the results. It is a pleasure to be a small part of that.

The hon. Member for West Lancashire summed it up when she called this a momentous moment. It is momentous, but it is also timely. Many Members have already spoken about Rose Ayling-Ellis and the issues of communication during a pandemic, where we have literally seen people disadvantaged by the means of communication and being unable to fully participate in that.

I was pleased that my hon. Friend Peter Aldous mentioned “Vision On”, which takes me back, too—I go back a little bit further to that. I will also mention trailblazers such as Evelyn Glennie, who for many years as a percussionist has shown what deaf and partially hearing people can do when they are allowed and have the ability to play a full role in society in all its glory. I learned about Helen Keller at school, who was blind and deaf and was a huge champion of disabled people, of women and of workers’ rights. It is a truism, but given the chance, deaf people can play as much of a part—a powerful part—in society as anyone else.

Like many people, I have learned a lot through the process of preparing for this debate and through listening to the debate. I had no idea how old British Sign Language is, but when we start to unpack it and think about it, the desire to communicate is the most basic human need. We are no more and no less of a member of the animal kingdom, and animals communicate in many non-verbal ways, as do we, such as our facial or physical gestures. I gesticulate a lot when I speak, so we already do it, and while British Sign Language was recognised as a valid means of communication to some extent in 2003, the Bill takes a further step, and that is welcome and logical. It should not surprise anyone; it is part of a progression.

We should acknowledge that more people use BSL than use the languages that are already legally recognised, such as Welsh, Scots, Gaelic, Cornish and the other languages that make up the rich fabric of communication in this country. They are all very valuable, and it is an absolute pleasure that we have another beautiful language to add to that cornucopia of means of communication.

But of course it is about inclusivity. I think it was a week or two ago when we debated a Bill that would enable disabled people to use taxi and cab services. Step by step we are making the right choices and legislation. We are going in the right direction. Of course we can always do more and go quicker, but this is the right direction and the sort of thing we want to see.

Photo of Lilian Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

Does the hon. Lady agree that when we provide access for disabled people, we often improve public services for everyone? For example, the provision of audio-visual announcements on buses is helpful for disabled people, but it makes it easier for everyone to use them. That is a good reason for improving inclusivity.

Photo of Julie Marson Julie Marson Conservative, Hertford and Stortford

The hon. Lady pre-empts something I was going to reflect on, because I completely agree. We should not silo people so that we do something just for that group of people. It enriches and helps us all when we do this kind of thing. Twelve million people in this country are hard of hearing in some way, although they might not call themselves disabled. My father is very hard of hearing. He uses subtitles, hearing aids, and he cannot go into restaurants because he cannot distinguish language and conversation. It strikes me that by bringing British Sign Language more into the mainstream and recognising it legally, we promote it and give it more prominence. Perhaps some of those 12 million people who are affected by some kind of hearing loss might think, “Well here’s another option. I can communicate in a different way. Just as when I travel abroad I might try and order something in Spain in a different language, perhaps I can progress my communication skills in a different way.” The reach and impact of such a measure could be much greater than even we in the Chamber envisage. I am proud to support the Bill, and I again thank the hon. Member for West Lancashire for introducing it.

Photo of Anthony Browne Anthony Browne Conservative, South Cambridgeshire 1:42 pm, 28th January 2022

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Julie Marson for her speech, and in particular to Rosie Cooper. I was moved throughout her speech—I think it was the most moving speech I have heard since I came to this place. It was incredibly powerful, and included her background and her parents. She is proud of her parents, and her parents absolutely have a right to be proud of her. While you were making that speech I thought, “This is what politics is about”. You are bringing experiences from your life to here—[Interruption.] Sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a very personal thing and it is difficult not to say “you”. The hon. Lady comes here bringing her experience from her life, background and childhood, and turns it into legislation to help people and, as she said, to pay forward the benefits of her upbringing to help other people in the community. I am struck by many of the examples she gave about how her parents dealt with things, the first language she learned, and particularly that she had to be the interpreter for her parents when dealing with the health service. There were also the anecdotes about being a student, studying for exams and having to rush out between exams to be an interpreter for her mother. She said it was not right that that had to happen, and I fully agree.

I agree with several of my colleagues who have said that one of the great things about this debate is that it is cross-party and consensual. It is a positive thing and we can make a real difference to a wide number of different people. That is what the House of Commons should be about. As the hon. Lady said, debates such as the one we had on Wednesday at Prime Minister’s questions, when everyone was baying at each other, are a bit depressing. These debates are the diametric opposite of that.

It was not until I became an MP that I realised quite how widely BSL was used. I saw two of my councillors—neither of them deaf or hard of hearing—speaking to each other in BSL, and I was slightly surprised. One of them, like the hon. Member for West Lancashire, grew up with parents who were deaf, and the other worked with deaf people. They used it to communicate comfortably with each other.

As we have heard, 1.2 million people in the UK have quite strong hearing loss, of more than 65 decibels, and there are 50,000 deaf children; 87,000 deaf people have BSL as their preferred language and 151,000 can use it overall. That is not including the various interpreters and so on.

As we have heard—I have really appreciated the contributions today—BSL really is a full language. It is not just something that you can communicate with. It has different accents, it has humour, it has gestures, it has all the richness of any other language. It was recognised officially in 2003, but it is as rich and strong as any other language that is officially recognised. Clearly, public awareness of BSL has grown a lot in recent years and decades, not least due to Rose Ayling-Ellis winning “Strictly Come Dancing”. It has been far more widely used. We mentioned PMQs, and the covid briefings from No.10 had sign language interpretation. All that is good. The hon. Member for West Lancashire pointed out how far we have come—that is the positive side—in recent years, but clearly we need to go an awful lot further and recognise it as an official language. As many others have said, I am surprised that it has taken quite so long to do so. I welcome the fact that the Government support the Bill and that the Department for Education is looking at a GCSE in BSL. Maybe I will be tempted to learn it myself; I certainly would have done when I was at that stage.

It is obviously important that legally recognising BSL as an official language is not the end of the matter. We need the council that is in the Bill to help drive it forward. We need to make sure that all public services, as widely as possible, give full access to BSL interpretation so that people in the hon. Lady’s position in the future do not have the frustrations that she had. We must make sure that people who are hard of hearing or deaf who use BSL have full access to all the services, can lead a full life in terms of employment and do not face any of the barriers that currently exist. The Bill will be a big step towards that full equality and inclusivity of deaf people in the rest of society.

This has been a fantastic debate with very positive and powerful speeches. I have certainly learned a lot. One of the things I have learned today is how to say “thank you” in BSL. [In British Sign Language: “Thank you.”]

Photo of Claire Coutinho Claire Coutinho Conservative, East Surrey 1:47 pm, 28th January 2022

It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Anthony Browne and I congratulate Rosie Cooper. We all feel that the speeches that people make here when they bring their own personal story are so powerful. Her speech illuminated some of the challenges that the deaf community face, in a way that none of the rest of us who have not personally experienced those challenges could do. So I really thank the hon. Lady for that, and for introducing this important Bill.

I also thank the Minister. As someone who has worked in government in the past, I know that the ambition to do good things often meets the challenge of the immovable force of the machine, and I can only imagine the amount of times that the practicalities, difficulties and cost implementations have been put to her. I welcome both the Minister and the hon. Lady for pushing through and coming to such a quick resolution to get the Bill to this stage.

I was privileged to be offered a course in BSL when I was at school. I am afraid to admit and slightly embarrassed that at the moment my ability is only to sign “rainbow”, but it offered me a window into the life of the deaf community and some of the challenges that they face, but also the huge talents that they have to offer this country. We have heard about the 90,000 people in this country who are primary BSL users and the 150,000 people who use the language, as well as a lot of people who have hearing loss. I am not sure if there is an MP who has made a speech in full in BSL in this place, but this is a brilliant moment for all of us to share some of the stories of our constituents who might otherwise not be able to be heard in this place.

My constituent Janet from Caterham, who recently moved to East Surrey from Nottingham to be closer to her children, has struggled to find a job since relocating. She told me she would much rather not be supported by benefits but has found it challenging to find a job due to her communication needs as a deaf BSL user. I therefore very much welcome the Bill in providing a duty to review the access-to-work scheme to ensure that BSL users receive the support they need. Listening to the hon. Member for West Lancashire’s story of her own father, and that experience of being locked out of a workplace when he had so much to offer, really resonated with me and will resonate with Janet, too.

My constituent Robyn from Oxted asked me to support the Bill. She told me about her experience of supporting deaf students in school, and how they improved in leaps and bounds when the right support was given. In researching the Bill, I heard of instances where people could not take their preferred exams because the facilities were not there. How opposite that is to our ambition for the education system if we do not allow people to learn the things they want to learn. I also support the duty under the Bill to examine how we increase the number of BSL interpreters and access to BSL interpretation across all our public services.

I very much welcome the thrust of the Bill, which will increase the promotion, protection and facilitation of BSL. Why do we need that step when BSL legislation came in a couple of decades ago? Currently, it is rightly a requirement for institutions to promote BSL where it is reasonable, but under the Bill, across Departments, Government must be not just reactive but proactive about ensuring access. That is so important.

It is also important that we think about each individual’s right to have access to essential information across different areas of public services, from employment to education to health. I spoke about the young person not being able to take their preferred GCSEs. I have also heard instances—we have heard very moving stories today—of people not being able to interpret health advice, whether during the pandemic or during a medical interview, and someone with a very close family connection having to interpret medical results for them. As one who comes from a family of doctors, I know how unintelligible medical results can be. I cannot imagine how difficult it is to have to explain a very difficult diagnosis to a family member; that is not something anyone should have to do. If someone has a booked appointment, we should be able to provide support, particularly in those very difficult instances.

I was very touched and moved by the hon. Member for West Lancashire when she talked about her father being written off. Clearly, he was an exceptionally talented man. Watching someone plastering and then understanding how to do it is not something I would be able to achieve, so I can only imagine the depths of his talents. We as a country should not write anyone off. I am passionate about creating a second-chance society. The Bill and some of the contributions today have shown us that some people do not get a first chance in society. This country is in a very challenging time and there is so much that we have to rebuild post-pandemic. We cannot afford to gloss over the talents of any of our people. We need everyone to achieve all they want to if we are to get ourselves back on our feet.

I was very supportive of BSL being added to the six indigenous UK languages. The history and culture of BSL is so important to recognise. It has been around for hundreds of years.

Photo of Suzanne Webb Suzanne Webb Conservative, Stourbridge

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. What is coming out of the debate is that British Sign Language has the richness of any other language. We are all passionate to understand it and to learn it ourselves.

Photo of Claire Coutinho Claire Coutinho Conservative, East Surrey

I agree that hearing about the richness of the language has been a joyous part of today’s debate, as well as hearing about the different grammar, accents and slang. I am glad that it will now be added to our list of indigenous languages.

On that note, I conclude by agreeing with all hon. Members who have said that it is important for the deaf community to be listened to and understood. I thank the hon. Member for West Lancashire and I am sure that her work will provide a rainbow to the deaf community. [In British Sign Language: “Rainbow.”]

Photo of Marion Fellows Marion Fellows SNP Whip, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Disabilities) 1:55 pm, 28th January 2022

I congratulate Rosie Cooper on her tenacity and organisation in getting the Bill to where it is. I am delighted to support the Bill to give BSL the legal status and public awareness that it needs to ensure that deaf people have full and equal access to education, employment, public services such as the NHS, information and legal processes, and that they can play a greater role in their communities more widely. I am particularly happy that the Bill has received Government support, as the Minister informed us yesterday.

Since 2003, disabled people’s organisations and disability charities have not stopped campaigning for BSL’s legal status. I thank the activists and organisations who have continued to fight to make it happen, such as the British Deaf Association, RNID and the Royal Association for Deaf people. In my constituency, the local Lanarkshire Deaf Club has been vocal in calling for such a Bill to raise and protect the status of the language in Scotland and the UK.

As has been mentioned, the Scottish Government have used their devolved powers to promote the use of BSL in Scotland and to engage with the deaf community to develop the first British Sign Language national strategy, which I commend to the Minister; I am sure that she is aware of it. Often, we do not need to reinvent the wheel and I am sure that she will take lots of good points from it and bring them forward. As part of the national strategy, the Scottish Government set up the BSL national advisory group to represent the views of BSL users and I am delighted about the British Sign Language council. Everything works better if lived experience is used at its foundation.

UK-wide legislation is needed, however, to ensure that British Sign Language gets legal protection as a language in its own right, and I am happy that that is now happening. It is an indigenous language of Scotland and the UK and, as such, deserves to finally have the legal recognition accorded to Gaelic and Welsh.

The Bill provides a great opportunity to break down barriers; to begin to create a more inclusive, equal and fair society for deaf people across the four nations; and for signers to be prominent in the public arena, as they are in Scotland. It is almost impossible for them not to be—even my party’s annual conference is signed front and centre, which is really useful and good. We need more inclusion across the public sector and I am pleased that the Bill will do that. I congratulate the hon. Member for West Lancashire again.

Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 1:58 pm, 28th January 2022

How wonderful that you are in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, as you represent Doncaster School for the Deaf, which is one of the oldest deaf schools in the country since 1829. How wonderful to be here to speak on the Bill on behalf of the Opposition with my hon. Friend Rosie Cooper. As she said, she is not famed for her patience, but she is famed for her determination. How wonderful, too, to have been one of the Merseyside kids who learned to finger spell, as I did in the early 1990s. Until today, I never realised that I had her to thank for it.

The stories that my hon. Friend tells of her mum and dad echo across this country, in which working-class talent has too often been written off because of a loss not on their part, but as part of a structural flaw in our society. Every step, like today, on the journey towards equality offers us all a better hope of using all our talents not just for individual gain, but in service of our wonderful country.

I want to pay tribute, as so many Members across the House have, to all those who have campaigned long and hard for a British Sign Language Bill that would provide the legal recognition that the language deserves. I say to all those who have led campaigns up and down the country, right across the United Kingdom, that their potential success, which we begin today, is a credit to their work. I know that all Members join me in that thanks and celebration. At the last two general elections, the Labour party manifesto committed to legislating for a BSL Act and to giving the legal recognition that the language deserves, and we are very pleased that the Government are backing the Bill today.

All too often, as we have heard, deaf people and BSL users are not provided with the support that they need. Throughout society, we impose far too many barriers on the use of British Sign Language that need not be there. As a result, the deaf community live with worse outcomes and life chances that could be so much better. That includes the failure to provide the correct support in schools, which harms children’s outcomes, or the inability of NHS services to provide qualified and registered BSL interpreters at appointments. That means, as we have heard so often, that people are put in situations that they do not want to be in, where family and friends have to act as an interpreter, which is just not appropriate, or people leave appointments unclear about a diagnosis or how they should take their medication. Those clear examples demonstrate why the Bill matters.

Legal recognition can be a powerful moment to raise the status of British Sign Language across the UK, but the Bill can do much more than that. The Opposition fully support the mechanisms in the Bill to publish guidance to Government Departments and public bodies and give them clear, objective standards.

I will not say much more except to agree with the many and good contributions that have been made. It would be great if the Minister said a bit about how the Government will implement the Bill. I know that many in the deaf community will want to hear her say how she will continue her work with them to make this the beginning of a journey that will fundamentally change our country.

The Bill commits Departments to review their implementation of the guidance as set out in the Bill, and it would be great if the Minister also confirmed some details about publishing that so that we can see the path ahead and, as has been mentioned, how it will interact with the national disability strategy. We also want to see the Bill progress swiftly through Committee and make progress in Parliament without delay— [Interruption.] The Secretary of State is nodding and I thank her for it. People outside this House will see our joint determination on this issue.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) and for West Ham (Ms Brown), who made excellent contributions from the Opposition side of the House, and to all the Members who have joined together today to send a message about the change that we want to see. I want to say how proud we are of the deaf community for winning this fight and for the journey that our country will go on.

I say, lastly, to my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire that Merseyside today is very proud of her. Atheist though I am, I cannot comment on the Almighty, but I can say that all kinds of Scousers, plastic and otherwise —that is, people from Birkenhead—are exceedingly proud of her. I know that if her mum and dad were in the Public Gallery right now looking down on her, they simply could not be more proud. Let her example spur on every single campaigner for equality in our country. Sometimes progress happens; this is what it looks like.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions 2:04 pm, 28th January 2022

I join many others in thanking Rosie Cooper and congratulating her on all the work she has done to bring forward the Bill, working with me to do so. I see, loud and clear, her commitment and dedication in championing BSL, for the reasons she has set out so eloquently. I am humbled to join her in doing that. We both have personal experiences of deafness in our families, and we share that passion for change. We hope that, through the Bill, we will see an increase in the use of BSL by everybody in society and a better deal for deaf people.

The Bill will recognise BSL as a language in its own right, and place a duty on the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to issue guidance on the promotion and facilitation of BSL. It will also require the DWP to report on information supplied by ministerial Departments regarding their use of BSL. As is now widely known, I am pleased to confirm that the Bill has the Government’s full support, because, among many other good reasons I shall come on to, we share a set of goals and ambitions that is reflected in our national disability strategy. I am sure that all of us here today want to be able to make such change. I am also pleased, Madam Deputy Speaker, that today’s proceedings in this place are available with BSL interpretation, as that is only right, and I hope that more can be done here, with Parliament being a beacon.

The Government are committed to supporting all people with a disability, including deaf people, to lead fulfilled and independent lives. For deaf people, that must include the ability to communicate with others through BSL or other forms of deaf communication. Across the UK, as many as 150,000 people use some form of BSL every day, according to the British Deaf Association—that is thousands of our fellow citizens—and for many it is their first language and main form of communication, as has been explained. However, ignorance and indifference remain, and that is what we want to tackle. The vocabulary and syntax of BSL do not replicate spoken English and many deaf citizens have a lower reading comprehension age than the general population, and too many deaf people in the UK still face social exclusion as a result of linguistic exclusion, affecting employment, education and access to healthcare. I am pleased to hear Members from around the Chamber make points on all of those valuable aspects.

This Government already recognise the importance of deaf people being supported and enabled to communicate through BSL where they wish to do so. I am glad that Maria Eagle is here today, because she made the point that recognition was given to BSL in a ministerial statement in 2003. In addition, the Equality Act 2010 already means that employers, service providers and public bodies should provide services in BSL when it is requested and reasonable to do so. We do not intend to make any changes to that Act, so that supporting architecture remains in place. However, individual BSL users can often find themselves not receiving the interpretation they need. The hon. Member for West Lancashire and campaigners are clear that more recognition and guidance is needed, and I agree.

I, too, am very grateful to all who have campaigned for the Bill and for sharing the challenges that BSL users face. I am pleased that we have been able to work together to give recognition and make real improvements to the communication options for deaf people. I also briefly wish to thank my officials, who have been working very hard to bring this about, and my hon. Friend Gareth Bacon, for his support in forging cross-party consensus for an important goal here today. Many hon. Members have come to the Chamber today especially to help their deaf constituents’ voices be heard, which is magnificent.

Through the Bill, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will regularly report on what each relevant Department—those detailed in the schedule of the Bill—has done to promote or facilitate the use of BSL in their communications with the public. Part 2 sets that out in more detail. Such communications could include public announcements, the publication of any plan, strategy or consultation document, or any activities promoting the work of that Department, for example, press conferences. Reporting on such things will give us a much better understanding of how BSL is used across Government and how we can continue to improve communication for BSL users.

The Secretary of State will also be required to produce guidance on the promotion and facilitation of the use of BSL, as set out in part 3. Such guidance may include advice not only on reporting requirements but best practice for BSL communications, and even case studies to set out the value of BSL provision.

I note that Members from Wales—notably my hon. Friends the Members for Vale of Clwyd (Dr Davies) and for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie)—contributed to the debate. I wish to make it clear that we absolutely share their intention to support deaf and disabled people throughout the entirety of the UK, including in their constituencies. We are working behind the scenes to establish that, in the appropriate way in respect of the devolution settlements, in the Bill. I refer Members to the territorial extent set out in the explanatory notes. I also acknowledge the contribution of Marion Fellows and welcome her support.

In the lead up to the debate, my Department and others have held a number of stakeholder forums to ensure that we understand the views and perspectives of disabled people. That work will continue as the Bill passes through Parliament. We are also going further: I am going to create a non-statutory board of British Sign Language users that can advise the Government on matters pertaining to BSL. I will of course let the House know more about all such aspects as time goes on.

To complement the approach in the Bill, we are developing a suite of non-statutory measures that will help to promote and facilitate the use of BSL. That work includes examining how we might increase the number of BSL interpreters, reviewing how we might work in DWP to ensure that the Access to Work fund helps BSL users, and aiming to update the national disability strategy to facilitate and promote BSL usage. I also acknowledge the wider work across Government to benefit BSL users, including the expansion of jury service, as noted by my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Robert Buckland. I am very much looking forward to the development of a British Sign Language GCSE, which has been mentioned several times.

Let me end on a personal note. As many Members have said, this is a national moment: throughout the autumn, in popular culture, we saw the inspirational success of Rose Ayling-Ellis on “Strictly Come Dancing”. From that, we see interest in BSL on the rise. The Bill is an important next step. We want to seize the moment to help to improve the lives of deaf people and those closest to them. It is a crucial step and will make a tangible difference in deaf people’s everyday lives, not least because we will listen to deaf people about how that should be done.

Rose and her journey to glitterball glory have played a huge part, but many of us have personal stories in our back pockets. I am incredibly proud to support the Bill, which is very meaningful to me because I have a family member who is probably at home right now watching with the subtitles on. That is somebody who crashed out of the work that they loved because of increasing hearing loss. That is an example to me of somebody who spurs me on in the kind of work that we can do here in Parliament when we work together. When we find the important issues on which the might and power of Government can come together with personal stories and we can create change, we have a privileged opportunity for public service. I am proud to commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Rosie Cooper Rosie Cooper Labour, West Lancashire 2:13 pm, 28th January 2022

Is it not fantastic that the Chamber has spoken with one voice today? It has been absolutely brilliant. I have enjoyed working with the Minister and her team. Look what a difference we have made by working together across the House. We have made a difference and we will make a difference.

On the behalf of the deaf community, I thank each and every Member for their support for the Bill. My dad would have loved to have been here today, as would all those campaigners who have gone before and upon whose shoulders we stand on this momentous day. Thank you, all. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] [In British Sign Language: “Thank you, all.”]

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I congratulate Rosie Cooper, the Minister and everybody involved in making the Bill happen. It has been a good day’s work.