British Sign Language Bill

– in the House of Commons at 11:46 am on 18th March 2022.

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Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.

Third Reading

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

Before I call Rosie Cooper to move the Third 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 11:48 am, 18th March 2022

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

This is a momentous day for the deaf community. Exactly 19 years ago to the day, British Sign Language was first recognised in a ministerial statement. Sadly for the deaf community, not a lot has changed, so today we have the chance to finally commit that recognition to statute.

Members of the deaf community have been fighting their whole lives for this moment, and many of them are currently in Trafalgar Square watching the debate on a huge display. I realise that the fact that we have got this far is quite astonishing. I have many people to thank for guiding the way and providing useful insights, case studies and reports that have been invaluable in developing the Bill. This has by no means been a solo effort—far from it. I have had help from very many people. Locally, it has been all hands on deck. My specific thanks go to the politics lab group at Edge Hill University in my West Lancashire constituency, who have been helping out by conducting interviews, gathering data and creating a briefing to aid the campaign.

I also want to thank Janice Connolly and everyone at the Merseyside Society for Deaf People. They could not travel here—they could not get coaches to be here—but they are watching this debate at the Deaf Centre in Liverpool. I grew up in that community, running around there, and I owe so much to them all. They have been a huge part of my life. As a child, it was the Friday evening ritual that deaf adults would meet at the Deaf Centre. In those days, it was at Park Way in Princes Park. While the adults socialised, their children, both deaf and hearing, would play together, able to communicate easily and without effort. Being a CODA, a child of deaf adults, gives me a unique position, straddling two worlds with equal access to both. I hope the Bill will bring the hearing and deaf communities together as never before.

I remain incredibly thankful to the Members who have been so supportive of the Bill, both here in the House and in promoting it elsewhere. I echo the words I used on Second Reading in January when I said how fantastic it is that this Chamber is speaking with one voice and that we are doing the right thing.

To come back to this momentous day—one I hope deaf people will celebrate for many years—the recognition of BSL is a landmark acceptance of a language that for far too long as been overlooked and misunderstood. The Bill is a testament to the perseverance of all deaf people and a celebration of deaf culture. We, all of us today, stand on the shoulders of every deaf campaigner who has fought so hard to get us here. Better historians than me can tell that story, but it really is a remarkable one. Every single campaigner who came before or who is still fighting now deserves to be recognised by us today.

In honouring them, I will focus on one campaigner who meant the most to me. That was, of course, my dad. He fought to be treated as an equal human being: to be appreciated and heard based on merit not on deafness. On Second Reading, I spoke of his life experiences and how hard it was for him to show his value and, once he did, how prized and needed his skills were. From that, he was able to provide for his family and enjoy a fulfilled and happy life, which nonetheless, every day, had its communication challenges. He fought for better education for deaf children, and for deaf teachers to teach deaf children. One of my great friends, Mabel Davis, was a very successful deaf headteacher at a school for deaf children. My dad believed that education enabled you to live your best life. He campaigned to make television accessible by using subtitles—what a hard journey that continues to be. On Second Reading, I made reference to Ofcom. It obviously does not read Hansard, because programme subtitles are still dreadful and it is not doing anything about it. Inaccurate rubbish is how I would describe them. I have two hearing aids, so more often than not I prefer to watch TV with subtitles.

To come back to BSL, people assume that BSL is simply sign-supported English and that all deaf people have to do is learn to master the English language. Nothing could be further from the truth. My dad used to say to me, “You can learn a new language; I can’t learn not to be deaf, nor to be hearing.” His words sum up the problem that every deaf campaigner struggles to get across to hearing people who just do not understand the real issue.

That is why this Bill is focused on improving BSL provision. Too often, hearing people have made decisions for deaf people that rely on their conforming to the hearing-centric ways of accessing services. That is just so wrong. Developing guidance for deaf people, integrating BSL into those services, is very important.

There is also a lack of cultural understanding of deaf people and of sign language, which has prevented this change for so long. We are seeing a BSL revolution before our eyes. Deaf people cannot learn not to be deaf, but hearing people can learn BSL, and they are learning. Huge numbers of people are signing up to BSL courses. People at secondary schools and universities are asking to do it, and I am delighted to say that so are Members of this House. Well done.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this Bill to Parliament. Last week I went to a school in Putney where I found out the sign for Putney. [In British Sign Language: “Putney”.] There is a deaf teacher teaching the hearing pupils British Sign Language. The pupils love those classes, and now they are opening up the ability to communicate throughout our community. It is fantastic to see. I have seen the revolution for myself in Putney, and it is great to see it going on across the country as well.

Photo of Rosie Cooper Rosie Cooper Labour, West Lancashire

I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. BSL is such a rich, vibrant, brilliant language, which relies not only on signing but on body language and facial expression. It is great fun. When I was Lord Mayor of Liverpool I got the children to finger-spell 26 letters of the alphabet for sponsorship. The money they raised in sponsorship was used to buy minicoms for deaf people—although mobile phones would soon replace those; none the less in those days that too was a revolution.

Where are we today? Deaf representation in the media is at an all-time high. Just in the last year we have seen a deaf superhero using American Sign Language; Troy Kotsur, a deaf actor, is nominated for an Oscar and last week won a BAFTA, and Rose Ayling-Ellis won “Strictly Come Dancing”. In 1987, all those years ago, Marlee Matlin won the Best Actress Oscar for “Children of a Lesser God”, but it took another 35 years for Troy to become the second person nominated for his role in “CODA”, which stands for “child of deaf adults”—I know, I am one, but sadly I will not be getting an Oscar.

Since 1987, other movies have been roundly criticised for using hearing actors to play deaf roles. A sign of the times is that “CODA” actually cast deaf actors in deaf roles—what recognition! That is magnificent. The times they are a-changing. The country is supporting deaf people, and we cannot let Parliament fall behind. I believe we must capitalise on this revolution by passing the Bill and taking every step we can to push it as far as possible.

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

My hon. Friend started her speech on Third Reading by paying tribute to all those campaigners who went before her and the magnificent landmark changes that they fought for over the years. It would be remiss of us not to get on the record our thanks to her for bringing this Bill to Parliament and getting it through to Third Reading today, and to wish it Godspeed in the other place.

Photo of Rosie Cooper Rosie Cooper Labour, West Lancashire

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments. My dad would be really pleased with himself today—not necessarily with me, but with himself.

Photo of Neil Hudson Neil Hudson Conservative, Penrith and The Border

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing such an important Bill before this House, and pay personal tribute to her. I am very moved by what she is saying, especially her comments about her parents.

During the debate on taxis, my hon. Friend Peter Gibson talked about Bills passing the “mum test”, and the hon. Lady has been making very powerful comments about her dad. In the last years of his life, my dad was profoundly disabled with a debilitating neurodegenerative disease, so he really relied on the support of people, taxis and so on. I humbly suggest to my colleagues that when we talk about the Bills we are considering today, we need to talk about them passing both the mum and the dad test.

Photo of Rosie Cooper Rosie Cooper Labour, West Lancashire

Absolutely; I will come on to my mum very soon. As with all those things that happened in the ’60s and ’70s, my dad took pole position; my mum took care of home affairs. As Members will see, she played just as much of a role in me being here today as my dad did, but he was more vocal. People would say that I am my dad’s daughter. He did not care; he would just bowl on and try to get what he needed. My mum would be more diplomatic—go it slowly and get there eventually. Sadly, I got too much of the former and a lot less of the latter, but we are who we are.

Before I discuss the incredibly positive things that I believe this Bill will do, I want to address what could not be included in it. Some campaigners have made the fair point that this Bill does not give specific legal rights to deaf people, or feel it does not go quite far enough. To be absolutely clear, this Bill is not a silver bullet for the deaf community that will cure overnight all the injustices they face. As Members of this House will appreciate, this is a private Member’s Bill, one that has been brought forward by an Opposition MP and was drawn 20th out of 20 in the ballot. There are limitations on private Members’ Bills that have to be accepted, but I am pleased to say that working together with the Minister for Disabled People, we have pushed for this Bill to be as strong as it can be. I am proud of the Bill and proud of the work we did. It is going to make such a difference to the lives of deaf people, and they will be proud of it too. They might want it all today, but they can have nearly all of it soon.

Deaf people have long felt that the one-size-fits-all disability legislation that should have given their language the protection it needs is inadequate and disregards deaf culture and heritage. In bringing forward this Bill, I knew that we could not rewrite or replace legislation; instead, we are opening the door for deaf people to have their voices heard and their language protected. With this Bill, we are planting our feet firmly in an open doorway. There are those in the deaf community who used another analogy—they said, “It’s like being in a lift. We’ve gone in the lift on the ground floor; the only way is up.” I really quite like that analogy, too.

The requirements on the Government to produce guidance created by clause 3 of the Bill will be carried out in direct consultation with a non-statutory advisory board. This will be an essential mechanism for deaf people to say, “This isn’t working. This is what would help. This is what needs to change”—and we all accept that a lot needs to change. Since introducing the Bill, I have been contacted by hundreds of deaf people from all over the country, telling me about situations in which a public service has failed them, and I have shared some horrific stories with the Minister. Those stories are truly unbelievable, yet a significant portion of the population faces those issues every day. These are issues that have shaped deaf culture and consequently, I totally admit, make me the person I am today.

Deaf culture is important because it allows individuals to be who they are and live in a way that is unique to them. People who have not been exposed to deaf culture may not know what I mean by that. A simplistic way of starting to talk about it is to say, for example, that deaf people look at each other when they are communicating, but in our hearing culture it is common to look away—to break eye contact. Try keeping up with that if you are trying to lip read! It is impossible. In deaf culture, it is absolutely acceptable to tap another person to gain their attention; it is marked by physical proximity, directness, even thumping on tables and floors—I am not going to go on about that because I will start to recognise my own behaviour. Deaf culture is all about challenging injustices—fighting to be heard and understood through whatever means necessary.

People on the edge of the deaf community sometimes think deaf people are demanding and unreasonable, and sometimes they are, but they need to be—they have to be; they have to challenge in order to be heard. As we know in this place, it is the people who challenge the system who change things, and I am proud to come from a community that does not sit back and complain, but that gets up and challenges perceived injustices again and again and again until they are rectified. That shows why the BSL Bill will be so powerful: if we remove the barriers restricting the potential of deaf people it will be truly amazing to see how much they can and will achieve.

Many years ago my four-year-old niece explained to her young friends, who had never seen people sign before, that her grandparents were actually just the same as them except their ears did not work. When we accept that some people are deaf and accommodate that, rather than just trying to ignore it, deaf people will be able to make so much more of a difference; but before they can make that difference, we must tackle the precise details of the problems deaf people face, and we will tackle that in the guidance accompanying this Bill.

One important matter the guidance must address is the lack of forward planning for BSL use. We must not continually have a system that creates a service for hearing people and then retrospectively and half-heartedly attempts to add the provision of BSL. BSL needs to be a consideration when services are being designed, not an afterthought. This will cut out huge amounts of wasted time and money, because public services have had to scramble to throw some sort of BSL provision together, or, even worse, many do not bother at all. Through this guidance we will start to see the Government becoming proactive in considering deaf people and the need for BSL, specifically with increased and improved interpretation and a wider understanding of BSL as a language.

In every aspect of public service there are failings; I have so many examples to draw on from my own life growing up with my parents, from years of doing casework for my constituents, and from the hundreds of letters I have been sent since introducing this Bill, and, sadly, a lot of these problems are things that a hearing person would never have considered.

In prisons, for instance, frighteningly little is done for deaf people. The isolation a deaf prisoner might experience from not having any other BSL users to talk to, and not being able to watch subtitled TV or make telephone calls, is absolutely terrifying. I have read reports of deaf prisoners committing suicide because they simply could not bear the isolation. This cannot be allowed to happen again and we need to do all we can to stop it. Mental health provision in prisons is already an area of great concern to me; if we add to that the difficulties a deaf person in prison would experience this could be considered a crisis.

As I have said, these are problems that a hearing person would not consider, but a BSL advisory board would be able to draw on its members’ own life experiences to ensure the guidance the Secretary of State issues is much more than just a vague commitment to do more—and it has to be. It will target problem areas and say how they need to be addressed and what needs to be done differently.

I know that a huge focus of the guidance will have to be on education. When I speak to deaf people about what they feel needs to be prioritised, education is more often than not the first thing they mention. Deaf people currently have little faith in the education system. On Second Reading, I explained how my mum would give her three children lessons every day at home, before we were even pre-school age. She would explain, “Because we’re deaf, they’ll think you’re daft.” We had to do those lessons. We had to learn to read and write and to do our sums, and we had to be absolutely proficient before we got to school.

A tale is told that, having had the bit drummed into me that people would think we were not capable because my parents were deaf, when I got to school and found that my classmates could not read and write or do sums as quickly as I could, I came home and expressed, “And they thought we were daft?” I genuinely do not remember that, but the tale is that, when I got home, I could not wait to tell my parents, “It’s not us.” There it goes.

My mum did not trust the system to treat hearing children of deaf parents as capable. I think that, sadly, at the time, she would have thought that deaf children would have even less of a chance than us. That was so very wrong. Of course, that was a long time ago, but while things have improved, many challenges remain. People will simply assume that a deaf student is learning more slowly or struggling when most of the time that is not the case.

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

My hon. Friend is making a powerful contribution. The nub of what she is saying is that this is a battle for equality: equality of opportunity for children and young people going through education; equality of treatment for deaf people, ensuring that they are treated with respect; equality of access to public services, with deaf people treated like everyone else; and equality of language through communication. Alongside English—the spoken word—British Sign Language is how deaf people communicate. Is it not all about equality?

Photo of Rosie Cooper Rosie Cooper Labour, West Lancashire

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That runs right through the Bill and through my comments. Given an equal opportunity, deaf people can achieve so much. This will make my hon. Friend’s case: I was told about a deaf student whose class was visited by a specialist interpreter. At the end of the day, the teacher told the interpreter that he was amazed, because he had never seen the student talk so much. When the specialist interpreter asked the student why that was, he found that the so-called communicator whom the school employed had only the most basic BSL qualification, so he could not do the job. He could not transmit to the deaf student what the teacher was saying; ergo, the student had the ability but no chance to prove it.

We take simple things like that for granted, but deaf people have to battle that day in, day out. It would be outrageous to think of a hearing person being taught history by someone who had taken only the most basic English lessons, so why do we accept that for deaf people? Why are we allowing deaf students to receive information from their teachers through people who know the bare minimum of BSL and who are not qualified interpreters? We are wasting both taxpayers’ money and the untapped potential of that student.

In the past year alone, we have seen a seismic shift in understanding and acceptance of deaf people and BSL. Continuing to fail them over and over is just not right, and it cannot be ignored any more. It never was right, but at least now people are starting to understand the situation.

With social understanding of the need for BSL inclusion, we must address some shameful and frustratingly obvious oversights.

Throughout the covid pandemic, deaf people have been met with a constant reminder that we are not treating them as equals. Every statement made to the nation, every change in lockdown policy, and every announcement of a support scheme was done without a BSL interpreter on many channels. In fact, interpretation was available on one channel only. We had a simple way to include a sizeable proportion of the population and to prevent people from being left behind, but we failed to do so and must ask ourselves why.

Clause 2 requires the Secretary of State to publish a report on what each Department has done to promote or facilitate the use of BSL in its communications with the public. Any public announcement made without an interpreter or any White Paper released without BSL translation will be reported to the Secretary of State, and that failure will be published for everyone to see. That will be another powerful tool by which each Department will be held to account. Deaf campaigners will be able to compare the guidance from the Secretary of State directly with the published reports. Hiring a registered qualified interpreter for a briefing or to create a BSL translation is an easy commitment with such a minimal cost, so we will soon see Departments make their services and announcements accessible.

That aim is the Bill’s central point: the complete and total inclusion of deaf people. They should be able to watch and understand a national address by the Prime Minister. They should be able to go to a meeting at the jobcentre and talk freely with their adviser. They should be able to have a fully trained and registered qualified interpreter available for them at medical appointments. I have talked at length and could go on and on, but I will not. We are failing at all those things on daily basis, but with the support of Members here today and Members in the other place later, we can start along the road towards fixing such injustices once and for all.

As a nation, we cannot afford to waste the talents of our deaf population. When this Bill becomes law, as I hope it will, I say to the deaf community, and to all those watching at home or in Trafalgar Square or wherever, “Now it is over to you to achieve your potential and to live your best possible lives. That will enrich us all.” I thank the Minister for everything she has done to get Bill legislation through, and I hope that we will agree to give it its Third Reading today, and that it whizzes through the other place. I hope that today will mark the end of the campaign to recognise sign language as a language and the start of the campaign to liberate the potential of every deaf person in this country.

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

It is a privilege to be here on a Friday to listen to a fantastic speech from my friend Rosie Cooper. This place, as you know Madam Deputy Speaker, can be quite confrontational at times, but at other times we come together to right a wrong, and that is what this House has been doing over the past few weeks and today. As a former Disabilities Minister, I congratulate the Minister, because we tried to make this change several times. Promises were made in 2003, and we got things partly in writing, but did it go anywhere? Not really. The Equality Act 2010 did not even mention BSL. When I was Minister, people were worried about costs and this and that, but at the end of the day we are finally here today.

I say to the campaigners in Trafalgar Square, around the country and, indeed, around the world—what we are doing here today will set a precedent for other countries—that disabled people who are deaf or hard of hearing have dreams and aspirations just like anyone else, but those have been held back because we did not understand their language, but expected them to understand ours. No one who is deaf or hard of hearing wants to be deaf or hard of hearing, although I fully understand the community spirit among those people: it has made them what they are today. It has certainly made my friend the hon. Member for West Lancashire who she is today, thanks to mum and dad, I suggest.

We are lucky: we are the ones who can do something about this. As we talk about the different ways in which the Bill will help and will bring BSL more into the open, I have to say not just how amazing it is that in 18 years I have entered every private Member’s Bill ballot and never got anywhere—some would say “Thank goodness for that”, perhaps not least the Front Benchers—but how astonishing it is for a Member to come 20th in the ballot and to bring a Bill that has been tried before, indeed tried by Ministers before, to this point. That has happened because Members on both sides of the House and on the Treasury Bench have worked to make it happen. I have been on the receiving end of some of the lobbying that has suggested that we could have gone further, but we have gone further than I ever dreamt we could go in a private Member’s Bill. We are right on the line between what we can get and what we could not get, and this has been achieved because our efforts have been co-operative.

Perhaps at this stage there is a message for the other House, because the Bill will clearly proceed to the other House. That message should be “Do not delay it, do not try to amend it, do not play party politics with it—just get the damn thing through so it can be given Royal Assent”—a subtle hint from, probably, every Member in this House.

Those who are watching the debate here today may be wondering, “Where is everybody?” This is a day for private Member’s Bills, and this Bill will go through today. Many Members had to be in their constituencies for important events to which they were committed, and I fully understand that: indeed, I shall have to disappear to my own constituency after the debate. The fact that not many Members are here does not mean that other Members are not interested. This Bill is going to go, thank goodness, to the other House, and I say again, subtly, “Hurry up, get this Bill through, because we do not want to lose it.”

I want to say a little about why the Bill is so important. My friend the hon. Member for West Lancashire touched on education. Like Fleur Anderson, I have spoken to young people in colleges. They want to learn BSL. When I asked some of them whether, if I came back in two years, they would like me to find that they had taken an O-level or an A-level in the subject, they answered yes, to a man and to a woman. Why has it taken so long for this place, and the education system, to acknowledge the existence of a whole group out there who want to communicate with deaf people? We are not talking about a one-way street.

We all know the figures. About 80,000 people who are deaf or hard of hearing use BSL, and a total of about 180,000 people use it, but for many more people it could open up many new experiences, and the ability to communicate with a community that they may not really understand at present. They could start with basic BSL, and then progress further. As MPs, we can communicate with our constituents in that way. I sent a message out on Facebook the other day. I had an interpreter for my—half a minute? Five minutes? Who knows? It probably seemed a lifetime to anyone who was watching it. The feedback from people who were not from that community was fascinating. They did not understand why people were not lipreading, for instance, or they asked, “Why do people not look at you more carefully?” or “Why do you not speak more slowly?” The answer to that is “Because they are deaf.”

I have spoken before, on Second Reading, about the military community. Sadly, back in the days when I was in the service, hearing defenders were almost unheard of, which is probably why one of my ears is defective—it was affected by all the explosions that went off when I was in the armed forces. The community has said, “We want to learn”, but they have been prevented from doing so. They could not take up the subject, because there was nothing in the curriculum that allowed them to do so—hint, hint to the Education Department, which, I am sure, will be listening.

As the hon. Member for West Lancashire mentioned, we have also gone through covid. When covid hit this country and the world, deaf people not only could not understand what the Prime Minister was saying, depending on what channel they were on, but had to go for their vaccinations. I was lucky enough to be able to volunteer at my local vaccination centre, and several people who were deaf came in. Some of them had interpreters with them—normally family—but others were completely lost in a service that was theirs, free at the point of delivery. They were being vaccinated to protect them, and they were just petrified because no one had taken the time to think whether they needed that extra bit of support. I do not think of it as an extra bit of support—I have banged on about this for years and years, perhaps not quite as much as the hon. Lady, but I have banged on about it, and it is great that we have got to where we are today.

I am due to go to an out-patient’s appointment next week. No one has asked me whether I am deaf or visually impaired. These things are not asked of people. I find it astonishing that we are, quite rightly, offering services to people, whether it be in education, in the jobcentre or in any other Government-run service—forget about the private sector—and we are just missing the target.

Photo of Rosie Cooper Rosie Cooper Labour, West Lancashire

I just want to endorse the comments of my friend, the right hon. Gentleman, by making a very quick point. My father, who is profoundly deaf—born deaf and with no hearing whatsoever—was in hospital and was seen by a senior registrar, who said, “Mr Cooper.” The lady who was visiting my dad said, “He’s deaf”. The registrar raised their voice and said, “Mr Cooper!” The lady said, “He’s deaf”. The doctor walked right up to his ear, leaned in and said loudly, “Mr Cooper!” Now, if medical professionals themselves are not joining the dots, we have an awful lot of work to do.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

My hon. Friend has touched on a very good point. This Bill is not the silver bullet; it is a method of getting somewhere. The hard work will start once the other place gets its finger out. I will, if I may, come back to that story in a second.

We are concentrating on Government Departments, but there is a whole private sector out there, on which the hon. Lady touched, that is missing out on some profits and on people enjoying their services. Clearly, that consultant was not dim, which is what I was described as when I was at school, because I am dyslexic—apparently if you were dyslexic back in the early ‘60s and ’70, you were dim. He was not dim, but he is ignorant—ignorant of what the condition is all about. Clearly, by the sound of it, he was not an ear, nose and throat specialist. I think the House will understand where I am coming from when I say that it is not a lack of intelligence, but a lack of understanding and compassion. “Compassion” sounds like an old-fashioned word, but I thought that was what the health service was supposed to be about. Interestingly, my mother, who was a nurse for some 40 years, would tell me that, in many cases, compassion was the best healer, compared with some of the other methodologies.

As we look at the Bill, we should say to ourselves, “We must draw a line in the sand.” That is quite important and it should have happened years ago. We can talk about the 2003 Act, and about leaving BSL out of the 2010 Act, which I have already done, but, as I have said, we need to draw a line in the sand now. Some of the stars of stage and screen have needed to help us increase public awareness, because, sadly, that is the sort of society in which we live. As everyone here can see, I am an expert in ballroom dancing—I think not! But even I watched “Strictly Come Dancing” towards the end because it sent out such a fantastic message to society that we all have the same dreams and aspirations, which I alluded to earlier.

The hard work starts now—I am sorry, Minister, that I am no longer on the Front Bench; I truly wish that I was sitting there now to support the Bill as it goes through. The Minister and I have had many a conversation about the Bill and, as I have said, this is where the hard work starts. The expectation from the deaf community, which will cheer you to the rafters when you go to the rally later today—sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker, not you, although I am sure they will be cheering you to the rafters. I have only been here for five minutes so you will have to let me off. The deaf community will cheer the Minister to the rafters later, but they will not cheer us if we do not deliver. It does not matter who is in Government; this is a long process. It has taken us this long to get here, but they expect us and the panel to deliver.

Let me touch on the membership of the panel, which is massively important because it will be the voice of the deaf community. I said, I think in Committee or perhaps on Second Reading, that this process should not be completely one-sided. It is absolutely right that the deaf community expect to be on the panel so that we can hear from them, but we have to try to get the balance right so that expectations can be measured and so that we can try to fix this when it goes wrong, although we will not be able to do so there and then. The membership of the panel is very important and should include not just the Minister and members of the different charities and the deaf community.

In conclusion, I am as proud as punch that the Bill will pass through this House today—I am somehow convinced that it will. It has taken a while and the expectation will be high, but let us meet that expectation and allow these people to live their dreams.

Photo of Vicky Foxcroft Vicky Foxcroft Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 12:31 pm, 18th March 2022

I congratulate my hon. Friend Rosie Cooper on all her work in this area. We heard her speak so eloquently today, on Second Reading and in the Bill Committee about her deeply personal connection with British Sign Language. As I said in Committee, she should be proud of the Bill and the progress that has been made in this area, which will support many young people who shoulder responsibilities well beyond their years.

I also place on record my thanks to the BSL Act Now! campaign and the many disabled people, disabled people’s organisations and charities involved for their tireless work and commitment to this campaign. We all know that getting a private Member’s Bill through Parliament, let alone after being No. 20 on the list, takes resourcefulness, dedication, passion and perhaps some table-thumping sometimes. We can all agree that those qualities have all been shown by my hon. Friend and all those involved. She said that she will not get an Oscar soon, but many people would say that she deserves one.

As we all know, British Sign Language is a primary form of communication for approximately 90,000 UK residents, with around 150,000 users in total. Its vocabulary and syntax do not replicate spoken English and many deaf citizens have a much lower reading age than the general population. Sadly, too many deaf people in the UK continue to face barriers to communication, which affect employment, education and access to healthcare. The Bill will begin to tackle some of those significant issues.

If the Bill becomes law, it will achieve legal status for British Sign Language as a primary language of the deaf community in the United Kingdom. Achieving legal recognition of BSL through an Act of Parliament would be a huge step forward in improving deaf people’s quality of life, their inclusion and autonomy in British society, educational and professional opportunities and even their health outcomes.

I strongly welcome the fact that the Bill also contains provisions for Government Departments and certain public service providers to publish and adhere to guidance, setting out the steps that need to be taken to meet the needs of BSL users. I believe this guidance will include the delivery of many public services and help BSL users overcome the current limitations of the Equality Act that sadly mean that many providers do not know how to make “reasonable adjustments” for them, as so eloquently put by my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire.

As I said, while I welcome the positive strides that this Bill makes, I know many of my colleagues will, like me, see it as something to build on. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire said, it is not a silver bullet for everything, so I want to retouch on a few crucial areas that I hope we can explore further in the future. I would appreciate it if the Minister outlined whether she agrees with them.

The first issue is around data. As it stands, the Government do not capture sufficient data to give us a clear picture of the deaf community. Current statistics capture people based on terms such as “difficulty in hearing” and “hearing impairment”. The use of the word “impairment” is itself unhelpful and outdated and may impact negatively on how BSL users respond. In short, the Government need to know how many deaf people use BSL. This is concerning as the Government use this data as their evidence base for making decisions about how to support BSL users—a group of people who we all know face some of the biggest barriers in society, whether in employment, education, health, wellbeing or other areas.

Secondly, I wish to focus on the non-statutory board of British Sign Language users and associated persons that will advise the Secretary of State. While I warmly welcome the commitment to consult deaf people, why is the body advising on such an important issue a non-statutory board? Does that mean Ministers do not have to listen to or act upon its recommendations? Ministers also need to be clear about how the body will be recruited. It is my sincere hope that it should be made up largely of disabled people and disabled people’s organisations. I cannot stress enough that the experts by experience must have a clear line to the Secretary of State. It is also vital that that body is fully transparent and that it communicates clearly with the deaf community. Will the minutes and recommendations of the body be made public?

Finally, I hope to see improvements in strengthening the interaction a future BSL Act will have with other legislation and Government strategies. Hon. Members will know the Government’s national disability strategy was recently found to be unlawful by the High Court, as the consultation process failed to engage correctly. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire said, we had no BSL interpretation at important press conferences, as I raised with the Prime Minister on several occasions. Sadly, at times the Government have a poor record when it comes to doing the right thing by disabled people, so it would be remiss of us not to consider strengthening Bills with adequate checks and balances.

As I have said before, when I read the draft Bill I noted with concern that clause 1(2) states:

“Subsection (1) does not affect the operation of any enactment or rule of law.”

Trust in this Government is low among disabled people and provisions such as this will not fill the deaf community with hope. Future improvements must strengthen the Act and give it more power.

In conclusion, I once again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire and the BSL Act Now! campaign on the progression of the Bill. It is a good start, but I hope the Minister will agree that we can and should go further in the future.

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland 12:39 pm, 18th March 2022

It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate. I too wish to pay tribute to Rosie Cooper. It is great to sit in this Chamber and learn about things from someone with such enormous experience and expertise. I very much enjoyed listening to her speech introducing this Third Reading debate.

This Bill is important because BSL is important. It is the primary language for up to 90,000 of our fellow citizens and residents of this country and it has up to 150,000 users. It is important to re-emphasise the point that has been made a couple of times today: BSL is not a direct translation of English; it is its own language. We cannot assume that BSL users have equivalent comprehension in English, or in fact any other language. If we ask whether BSL users should have the same right of access to Government services as everyone else, the obvious answer is yes. If we can support access to Government services for BSL users, we should and for that reason, I wholeheartedly welcome the Bill.

The impact of the Bill will be to encourage increased work to promote and facilitate the use of BSL across Government Departments. The heavy lifting is undertaken by clause 2(1) and (2), which place a duty on the Secretary of State to report what progress has been made by the 20 Departments named in the schedule to facilitate and promote the use of BSL.

At first glance, that seems a rather odd way to achieve the desired result, but from my previous career as a businessman, I know full well that we get what we measure. The requirement to measure and thereafter to report every three years as a minimum on the progress that those Government Departments are making will, in effect, be a very good prod to encourage further work. I note in passing that it is a GB-wide Bill. By focusing on GB as opposed to the United Kingdom, it takes account of the sensitivities of communities in Northern Ireland, which is sensible.

Clause 3 requires the Secretary of State to provide guidance to the Departments on how best to promote and facilitate BSL. Every bit as important as that statutory duty is the creation of the non-statutory advisory body, which will provide a voice for BSL users and people with real expertise on how the language is being used in our community. It will give them access to the heart of Government decision making and will give the right kind of advice to the Secretary of State and, by extension, the 20 named Departments.

Photo of Neil Hudson Neil Hudson Conservative, Penrith and The Border

I rise to congratulate Rosie Cooper on this fantastic Bill about equality of access. It is such an important Bill and I wish it well in the other place. I agree with my right hon. Friend Sir Mike Penning that this House is at its best when it unites to right a wrong. That is important. On the point that my hon. Friend Jerome Mayhew was making about the requirement for Government Departments to have that guidance given to them, does he agree that the fact that the guidance in the Bill goes across Government will provide equality of access?

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland

I agree with my hon. Friend. The large scope of Departments affected by the Bill—all 20 named in the schedule—shows that its intention, and I hope effect, is to provide the promotion and facilitation of BSL use across the arms of Government.

We need to consider the Bill’s impact on the taxpayer. The assessment is that the financial impact will be almost negligible, because it works on the attitude and focus in Government. It does not require a large expenditure of money; it requires effective use of the approach that Departments take to BSL use. As the hon. Member for West Lancashire made clear in her opening remarks, it is about not thinking of BSL as an also-ran or an afterthought, but applying forethought to every announcement and all the work of Government. It is about taking BSL into account as part of business as usual, not as a secondary consideration.

It is 19 years since BSL was recognised as a language, and I want to take this opportunity to celebrate this further small, but important, step in support for BSL users. David Buxton, British Deaf Association chair, has said:

Deaf people in Britain never gave up hope that their language would one day be not only recognised in law, but also protected and promoted so that deaf people are finally able to access information and services and achieve their potential on an equal basis with their fellow hearing citizens.”

I am very proud to support the Bill.

Photo of Julie Marson Julie Marson Conservative, Hertford and Stortford 12:45 pm, 18th March 2022

I am privileged to have a second bite at the cherry, because I was extremely proud to support the Bill on Second Reading. I again congratulate Rosie Cooper on her Bill. She used the word “momentous” and I think it is. I also congratulate the campaigners that she mentioned. After Second Reading, I saw all the campaigners in Parliament Square, and it was joyous to behold them, feeling as they did that tangible progress had been made. I hope that those in Trafalgar Square today feel that further progress has been made today and that, with this Bill, we are taking one of the final steps on this journey.

The Bill has wider implications. Many tens of thousands of people in this country use BSL as their preferred language, and that has a wider implication for society at large. The hon. Member for West Lancashire mentioned equality, and it is of course an issue of equality. It will have an impact on up to 12 million people in this country who suffer from some kind of hearing loss, 50,000 of whom are children. As we have a greater life expectancy—I think it is now up to 82 in the UK—we can expect millions more people to experience some hearing difficulty or loss in the next decades. The hon. Lady movingly mentioned her father, and on Second Reading I mentioned my father, who suffers from hearing loss. The lines between the hearing community and the deaf community are increasingly blurred by people like my father, who uses subtitles and hearing aids. That attitudinal shift to “We are all one people and we can suffer from various degrees of hearing loss at any time, and it could affect anyone” helps to unite and give us that equality of opportunity and experience.

I have joined in a campaign run by a constituent of mine called Turn on the Subtitles. It is interesting to realise that we can learn from the experiences of people with hearing difficulties—the campaign recommends turning on subtitles to help children with their literacy, especially as we come out of the pandemic. It is another example of the symbiosis between our different communities.

By legally recognising BSL as an official language, it will become part of our institutions and a normal part of our society. That is a really good thing to do today. Improving education for children is also important. We invest in this initiative for children with hearing difficulties and hearing loss, and that inclusion will last a lifetime. I could not be more proud to be part of that process. As humans, we should always remember that we do not just communicate in one way. We communicate in many different ways; our gestures and body language have much more of an impact than we realise on a day-to-day basis. As human beings, we can communicate in a variety of ways—we can give thumbs up, thumbs down or the peace sign, for example—and they are all an intrinsic part of our communication. What we are doing today brings BSL and some of those other ways of communicating into the mainstream, and I repeat that it is part of the fundamental imperative for people in this place and outside it to strive for equality—equality of access, equality of opportunity—at every possible opportunity.

Protected language status has already been granted to six languages in our country—Welsh, Scots, Ulster Scots, Scottish, Irish Gaelic and Cornish. Amazing as they are, more people currently use BSL than any of those British languages that already have legal recognition. As has been mentioned, 87,000 people have BSL as their preferred daily language, but on any given day up to 250,000 people could be using it. It is a very important part of our culture and our cultural heritage.

It is also worth mentioning one of the longer-term impacts that the Bill might have. A study by Johns Hopkins University in America found that even mild hearing loss can double a person’s risk of developing dementia. The risk is expected to increase fivefold as people experience more and more severe forms of hearing loss, particularly with our ageing population. That is because hearing loss contributes to social isolation, which is a major factor in the development of some of the most heart-wrenching and difficult illnesses, such as dementia. Reducing social isolation may help us to limit some of those wider impacts.

I mentioned on Second Reading that we have two formidable women driving the Bill—the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend Chloe Smith, and the hon. Member for West Lancashire. I know that they are both committed to taking it forward, but also to going further. I congratulate them both—and if this is the revolution, then up the revolution! I am proud to be part of it.

Photo of Craig Williams Craig Williams Conservative, Montgomeryshire 12:52 pm, 18th March 2022

I jump on with the revolution. It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Julie Marson—[Interruption.] I see the Minister getting a bit excitable, so perhaps I will tone it down a touch.

It is a real pleasure to contribute to the debate, as it was to take part in the Bill Committee, and to see such great consensus. I say to Rosie Cooper: more power to your elbow! She came 20th out of 20 in the ballot, yet by the looks of it she has pipped most people to the post in getting her Bill through to the other place.

I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Sir Mike Penning—he has long championed this issue, from both the Treasury Bench and the Back Benches—and to the Minister. I echo the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead: I hope that those in the other place hear this House loud and clear today, and that when this important Bill arrives on their desk—hopefully soon—they ease it through at pace and we do not lose it.

We went into much detail in Committee. Although the hon. Member for West Lancashire—she is my hon. Friend on this occasion—made the point that it is not a panacea or a silver bullet, it is a landmark, and we should be celebrating this significant step forward. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford alluded to the six indigenous languages. Of course, Welsh is one of them, and I am sure that you, Mr Deputy Speaker, will allow me a quick “da iawn”—“very good”. This is a good step forward. We will have to pick up the figures that my hon. Friend mentioned in the Tea Room later, because the Welsh language is quite significant, but today is about British Sign Language and getting it legal status.

In Committee and in our wider debates, it has been clear that those on the Treasury Bench—in particular the Minister—and the hon. Member for West Lancashire have absolutely worked together. I welcome the non-statutory measures that the Government are introducing at the same time. Significant steps are being taken today, and it is a real pleasure to be in the Chamber. There are no party divides on this Bill, and both statutory and non-statutory measures are going through—it is incredibly significant.

I have to declare my interest. I have not got my hearing aid in my left ear because I have run out of batteries—it is the hearing aid that has run out of batteries, Mr Deputy Speaker, not me—so I find myself part of the 12 million people, or 1.2 million people with a particular level of hearing loss; I am not quite sure of the decibel level of loss in my left ear. The work that the RNID and the British Deaf Association have done to champion day-to-day rights, accessibility, education and skills, and to champion this Bill with the hon. Lady, is terrific. I pay particular tribute to the RNID, because I see through my constituency casework and my engagement with the organisation the very real difference it makes.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

I concur with my hon. Friend’s congratulations to the RNID. I should have declared an interest, in that I am a patron of the Hertfordshire hearing advisory service, which also does a fantastic job.

Photo of Craig Williams Craig Williams Conservative, Montgomeryshire

I had no doubt that my doughty champion on this issue would have such an illustrious position, and I pay tribute to the Hertfordshire hearing advisory service.

I know that there are other Bills, and that other Members want to speak in this debate, so I conclude by paying tribute to the Bill. We have gone into the details and our additional asks of the Government. I echo what my right hon. Friend has said: we wish this Bill well when it reaches the Lords. We wish for speed and very little amendment, and I look forward to Royal Assent.

Photo of Alicia Kearns Alicia Kearns Conservative, Rutland and Melton 12:56 pm, 18th March 2022

This Bill matters, and the discussion that we are having matters, so I thank Rosie Cooper for introducing the Bill. I suspect that too often, our deaf and hard of hearing constituents wonder how often we in this place think of them, and how often we consider the challenges they face and the opportunities, which we perhaps do not appreciate, in their communities. It matters that we can stand here today and say that we are listening, talking and learning, and that we want to do so.

I really enjoyed listening to the hon. Lady, and I think that this is such a tribute to her parents. I hope that they are still with us; if they are, I am sure that they are incredibly proud. If not, what an amazing tribute. The hon. Lady should be congratulated for bringing forward this private Member’s Bill. As many of us have said, it is very difficult to do so and to get one to this stage. I do not think that has happened since 1999, and it is testament to her hard work.

I thank the Government for their work, because the legislation would not be making progress if the Government had not given it their full support. I thank all our constituents, and particularly those in Rutland and Melton who have written to me to give their full-hearted support and to ask me to speak in support of the Bill.

There is another reason why I thank the hon. Lady for introducing the Bill. We in this place can sometimes feel quite helpless, because we cannot pretend to be experts on all issues and we cannot always make a difference when we want to. That is particularly true in the context of what is happening in Ukraine, when so many of us are sitting here wishing we could do something meaningful to make a difference and protect lives. I am grateful to her for enabling us to give recognition to such a big community by doing something that shows them we are listening and we will make a difference to their lives. I thank her for giving us this moment of hope.

Recognising British Sign Language as a language is so important. I cannot believe that we are only just having this conversation, or that until the start of this campaign, I spent my entire lifetime not knowing that that was not the case. It is great that the hon. Lady’s work will result in Government being held to account, and that the 15,000 people who use this language every day will know that she has championed their cause and the Government are supporting them.

The hon. Lady spoke beautifully about deaf culture. A number of times in my lifetime, I have found myself captivated watching a beautiful conversation between two, three or four deaf people. The first time was when I was about nine years old, in an airport in Sweden. I had never seen such a conversation before, and it was beautiful to watch, and mesmerising in its own way.

Although the hon. Lady has rightly said that this is not a silver bullet and more can be done—I am sure there will be attempts to do so—I would like to see British Sign Language taught in all schools. It makes me sad that off the top of my head, the only piece of BSL I know is how to say thank you. [In British Sign Language: “Thank you.”] At least I know something, but I would love to know more. We should be teaching it in all our schools. I am sure that the Minister, my hon. Friend Chloe Smith, wants that, too, because she has been taking lessons in British Sign Language. It is also important to look at how we create an opportunity for children in our schools to experience a day in the life of a deaf person. How can they truly understand if they have not had the opportunity to do that? As an MP I, like many of my colleagues, have been blindfolded for the day and we have spent a day being blind. Let us look doing the same for our kids in our schools.

I also look back to when my right hon. Friend Penny Mordaunt gave an address from the Dispatch Box solely in British Sign Language and how important that moment was. I know my hon. Friend the Minister has also done videos solely in British Sign Language.

I make one further plea, having already set the context of Ukraine: this country does a lot well for deaf people. There is much more we can do, as we have said, but I urge the Minister to reach out to the Home Office and Foreign Office to see what we can do to support deaf individuals and families in Ukraine. For them, this will be an incredibly difficult moment. Perhaps we can provide support for the Ukrainian Government on how to ensure that the alarms, alerts and sirens going out hourly across the country are able to reach those who are hard of hearing and deaf, because they are the most vulnerable at this time.

Today does matter. I hope it says to the deaf community that we are listening and they are heard, and that today will make a monumental difference. I finish by thanking the hon. Member for West Lancashire again for her campaigning and for giving us the opportunity to do something meaningful in the darkest of times.

Photo of Rob Butler Rob Butler Conservative, Aylesbury 1:01 pm, 18th March 2022

I start, as all my colleagues have, by congratulating Rosie Cooper on introducing this Bill and for her powerful, passionate and personal speech explaining everything that has led to our being here today. I wholeheartedly support declaring British Sign Language an official language of the United Kingdom and, from that, providing the improved guidance to public services and Departments on its use.

Effective communication is surely essential to building a more inclusive society. We have heard that in the UK there are 12 million adults with at least mild hearing loss, according to the RNID, equivalent to one in five adults. For those with more profound hearing loss, BSL plays a key role. I suggest it is no exaggeration to say it offers a lifeline to those who rely on it, and as many as 250,000 British people use it on any given day.

The current lack of legal protection for BSL means that people who rely on the language do not have access to the vital information and services that are available to hearing people, and that we just take for granted. As I understand it, the only place someone is guaranteed a qualified interpreter is in the courts, so by contrast I was very concerned to hear the hon. Lady’s comments about the additional difficulties that deaf people face in prison.

I speak as a former non-executive director of Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, and I wonder whether the hon. Lady would be interested in meeting me and perhaps even my hon. Friend Julie Marson, who is a parliamentary private secretary in the Ministry of Justice, to see whether together we might be able to do some work at the MOJ or with HMPPS to make it more straightforward for those who have hearing impairments and are in prison. She raises an important issue of which I was not aware, despite having spent 15 or 16 years involved in the criminal justice service.

BSL users are, after all, equal citizens who deserve an even playing field and access to the same quality of services as everyone else. They should be able to be heard and to speak and be understood in the language of their choice. As the RNID has pointed out, deaf people possess a wealth of talent that they can and do bring to society, yet so often there are obstacles for BSL users that mean their talent is left locked up, preventing them from fulfilling their potential. I am pleased that this Bill will mean that that can start to change, at least in part.

I pay tribute to Mr Speaker and the staff of the House of Commons for launching a BSL interpreting pilot scheme, which has been in place for Prime Minister’s questions since February 2020. It is also entirely appropriate that, for this particular debate, BSL interpretation is being provided.

It is also good that there has been progress in schools in providing BSL users with greater means to communicate with one another. Many teachers now learn the language, and schools sometimes offer sign language in their curriculum. I am delighted that in my own constituency, Stoke Mandeville Combined School, a primary school, has special facilities for hearing-impaired pupils, but, crucially, they are an integral part of the school community. I have been to assemblies there and joined in with them as they take part fully in the songs and everything that is going on, using BSL. There is even a BSL choir at the school. It is incredibly moving to take part; to see how those children play a full part in the life of their school and, more importantly, that all the other children who are not hearing impaired recognise that this is just a normal part of life—a different way to communicate with different people who have different needs but, ultimately, are all exactly the same as they are. I am also pleased to say that there are other support services for BSL across my constituency of Aylesbury. Buckinghamshire Integrated Sensory Service, run by the council in partnership with Action for Hearing Loss, offers a range of services to support people with hearing, sight or dual sensory loss. That includes access to a specialist staff team of BSL speakers, and there are other special services across the county offering courses in BSL.

I will take this opportunity to highlight another fantastic charity in my constituency that helps people who are hearing impaired. That is the charity Hearing Dogs for Deaf People, which has its headquarters and training centre in Saunderton. It does amazing work, training dogs to alert deaf people to life-saving sounds that they would otherwise miss, sounds that many of us take for granted—things like a doorbell—or danger signals such as a fire alarm. Those dogs make a real difference to deaf people’s lives, helping them to regain confidence in everyday life. That is what we are talking about today, because that is what BSL does, too. It is therefore absolutely right that it gains the legal status that we are all confident it will gain after it completes its passage through this House and the other place.

To conclude, I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for West Lancashire on introducing this incredibly important Bill, which has the potential to do so much.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington 1:06 pm, 18th March 2022

I congratulate Rosie Cooper on bringing forward this hugely important Bill. I know only too well what a privilege it is to come out of the ballot, and I commend her on expertly guiding this piece of legislation through the House. It is a hugely commendable Bill that deals with an important issue for many people across the country; I thank her for promoting it, and am proud to be here today to support her. As we heard from my hon. Friend Alicia Kearns, not since 1999 has a Member who drew No. 20 in the ballot got to this stage in the legislative process. I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her efforts.

I also know that this Bill relates to an issue that is very personal to the hon. Lady. At all stages of this Bill’s passage, she has delivered powerful and heartfelt speeches, and today was no different; the fact that her speech drew on her personal story has only made her words more moving. I also pay tribute to the contributions made on this issue over many years by my right hon. Friend Sir Mike Penning. [Interruption.] It seems that my right hon. Friend has crossed the Floor. I think that demonstrates the commitment in this House to cross-party working, particularly on Fridays.

In an earlier debate, I mentioned Darlington Association on Disability, which was established in 1986 as a voluntary and charitable organisation led by disabled people. I know they will warmly welcome this Bill, just as they will welcome the Taxis and Private Hire Vehicles (Disabled Persons) Bill. The steps taken to legally recognise British sign language as a language will be welcomed by them.

Photo of Alicia Kearns Alicia Kearns Conservative, Rutland and Melton

I recognise that I am taking liberties on a Friday, but I am essentially going to direct my question to Mr Deputy Speaker via my good and hon. Friend. Do we provide BSL tours of Parliament, and if we do not, is that something we could do? It is wonderful to see people in the Chamber today signing to one another, and it would be wonderful if we could ensure we had a BSL tour capability that could be provided to all schools around our country. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington

Having just looked up to the Gallery and cast a wave, I can see that many in the Gallery are waving back. It is fascinating that a Friday debate is receiving so much attention, and my hon. Friend’s point is important; if we were able to introduce that capability, it would be of benefit to deaf people across the country. I am sure Mr Speaker will take that point up.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the Head of Steam museum in Darlington. You may wonder why that is Mr Deputy Speaker, but only yesterday it announced a whole new series of British Sign Language films to illustrate our heritage in Darlington. As we see investment going into our rail heritage quarter, I hope that we will see more of that so that people who are deaf who visit Head of Steam can get that help to see the history and heritage of Darlington—we hope to be the home of Great British Railways, subject to the current competition—and see those films. That is truly tremendous, and I am grateful to Darlington Borough Council for ensuring that that happened before this debate.

For many people, British sign language is a vital lifeline that ensures that they are not isolated from society and can reach their full potential. British Sign Language has been used for hundreds of years. It has adapted over time, and up to 250,000 people are using it at any one time on any day. We have already heard about how the vocabulary and syntax of British Sign Language does not exactly replicate spoken English and that, for individuals who have been deaf from birth or early childhood, subtitles or written English are not an adequate alternative as it is not simply a signed version of written or spoken English. The Bill will help to ensure that deaf people in the UK can lead fulfilling and independent lives.

The UK Government already give protected status to six indigenous UK languages: Welsh, Scots, Ulster Scots, Scottish, Irish Gaelic and Cornish. However, despite being recognised as an official language by the UK Government since 2003, British Sign Language—another indigenous language—has not yet been accorded that same legal protection and status. The Bill will mean that British Sign Language receives the same legal status and protection as our other six languages.

Today, we are making clear to deaf people up and down the country that they are equal members of society and that their language will get the status that its long history and usage in the UK deserves. I commend my friend the hon. Member for West Lancashire once again for her efforts and wish the Bill well.

Photo of Brendan Clarke-Smith Brendan Clarke-Smith Conservative, Bassetlaw 1:12 pm, 18th March 2022

I join everyone in thanking Rosie Cooper for bringing the Bill to the House. A great many people feel very passionately about it. It touches on many people’s lives, and it is the start of a process that will hopefully lead to real change. As we not only look at the Gallery but think of the other people watching our proceedings, we see how that reflects the importance of the Bill and how thankful the wider public are to her for it.

I will re-emphasise the point that, of course, being deaf is not a choice and, at times, there is a lack of empathy and understanding about what is involved—it is not as simple as learning other languages. I will come to personal experiences in my life and from my family in a moment. Of course, we in the UK are not renowned for being great at learning other languages. I am a fairly well travelled person, and my linguistic skills are appalling. In school, we did not have much of a choice. We learnt French, and I am generally limited to telling people about the weather—they would say, “Il fait beau?” and I would say, “Non, il pleut”, because that is generally how our weather is—or basic things such as asking someone how to get to the bank or how many brothers or sisters they have. I never really saw the use in that, and I really struggled to get motivated. It would have been fantastic to have had the option of something such as BSL back then.

My travels have taken me to various places. When I lived in Sweden, I pretty much gave up at the difference between “ö” and “å”. I could not tell, but apparently there is a subtle difference there. I would have a conversation with somebody thinking that I had just about nailed it, but I normally got the response, “So, where in England do you come from?” I tried the same with Norwegian, which sounded like a bubblier version, but again I did not really get anywhere. At the moment, I have been trying to learn a bit more Romanian, as my wife is Romanian. She speaks about four or five languages and puts me to shame. My little boy thinks it is hilarious how bad I am at that.

Continuing on the theme of family and why today is particularly important for me from a personal perspective, my aunt is deaf and I have an uncle who is deaf, too. Interacting with that has been a big part of my family’s life—we have seen a great deal of changes over the years, and I really hope things will get better in terms of the support available and how society includes people. They grew up in the ’60s and ’70s in inner-city Nottingham with all the challenges of life, but on top of that having those communication difficulties with the rest of society and trying to be included. It is a great regret for me that I have not really learned BSL and been able to have that level of communication with my aunt and uncle, but I will be looking at developing it now. My mother learned BSL and is a qualified signer, so she has been teaching me a little bit and I am kind of just about getting there. I must admit that the first thing I asked was, “What rude words can you teach me?” I tend to learn those a little bit quicker, as I do in other languages.

We really need to recognise BSL in particular, as has been mentioned, when we have 87,000 people in this country using BSL as their language of choice. That recognition is there, but until it has legal status it is maybe not quite the recognition it has deserved. That, for me, is the crucial point. The Bill puts the wheels in motion and a lot more will come of it afterwards.

As I mentioned, I am from a schools background. I have been a teacher and a headteacher, and was teaching right up until I was elected to Parliament. There are many people with hearing impairment in mainstream education, and I would like to see that factored into teacher training more, along with more workshops with those people. With dyslexia, we would sometimes only get a day’s worth of training and the support was not really in place, so I would like to see that support in future.

Schools can choose to offer sign language as part of their extra-curricular activities or put it into the actual curriculum. What is missing, however, is an actual qualification. I mentioned that doing French was not an option—I was forced to do it—but if I had been given a set of options and seen BSL on there as a GCSE, or even been able to take it further as an A-level, I would have been absolutely delighted to do it. The Minister for School Standards, my hon. Friend Mr Walker, is nodding on the Front Bench. I know the Department for Education is working to introduce that—with Ofqual, I believe—and personally I very much endorse it. It would be a fantastic option that would hopefully get more people to learn BSL, not necessarily because they have family members who are deaf but because it is a fantastic skill to have and it enables us to communicate with more people in society. I wholeheartedly endorse it.

Finally, I once again thank the hon. Member for West Lancashire for bringing the Bill to the House. It is so important and it means so much to all the people watching who currently use BSL and their families. I wish the Bill the very best and thank her again. I will very much support it.

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

Just before I call Simon Baynes, I would like to say that I have been informed that BSL tours of Parliament are available if people want them. That is great news.

Photo of Simon Baynes Simon Baynes Conservative, Clwyd South 1:19 pm, 18th March 2022

It gives me great pleasure to speak in this debate in support of the Third Reading of the important private Member’s Bill of Rosie Cooper. Like other colleagues on both sides of the House, I was profoundly moved by her speech, particularly as it was the testimony of the child of deaf parents; it was a revelation for me to learn more not only about her personal voyage but about the general situation pertaining to people who are deaf in this country, and I thank her very much for that.

I am also very pleased that the Government have supported the Bill ever since Second Reading and that the Minister has engaged with the hon. Member for West Lancashire and stakeholders including the RNID and the British Deaf Association. Such a degree of co-operation across the House is, I am learning as a relatively new Member, a welcome feature of private Member’s Bills, and today’s debate and the way in which it has been approached shows Parliament at its very best. The House has looked for consensus rather than division, and discussed in a temperate and knowledgeable way issues that are profoundly important to many in the House, in the Public Gallery and watching within the House and outside. I cannot thank the hon. Lady enough for that.

I too have had experience of this issue in my family from my grandmother’s deafness; we were brought up with that and it has affected my view of the issue and made me much more aware of it. Indeed, I too have been for hearing tests and now have to wear a hearing aid, although I am not wearing it today as I find the audibility to be very good in the Chamber. So I too have had experience of learning about how deafness comes to us, in my case with maturity of years.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

My hon. Friend makes an important point that perhaps I did not stress fully enough in my contribution. There are two groups of people in the deaf community: those born profoundly deaf, and those, like my hon. Friend and myself, who have developed hearing loss during the course of our lives. That is understood in the community but is not fully understood outside it, and this Bill will help tremendously in that.

Photo of Simon Baynes Simon Baynes Conservative, Clwyd South

I thank my right hon. Friend for his contribution and for that observation, which he has made far more eloquently than I was struggling to just now. That is absolutely right, and I will address another point he made shortly, because I was struck by his contribution to the debate.

In my constituency there are many organisations that help people who are deaf, such as the Wrexham and Denbighshire Deaf Children’s Society, AVOW—the Association of Voluntary Organisations in Wrexham—and the Rainbow Foundation. I pay tribute to them, and want also to quote the British Deaf Association:

“This Bill has been 19 years in the making. Deaf people in Britain never gave up hope that their language would one day be not only recognised in law, but also protected and promoted so that deaf people are finally able to access information and services and achieve their potential on an equal basis with their fellow hearing citizens.”

Indeed, equality has been an important theme of the debate, and I perhaps did not fully appreciate its importance when I was preparing my speech. It is strikingly clear from everything everybody has said that this is not only about helping people who are deaf, but about ensuring equality among all our citizens. The provisions for users of BSL accessing services are covered by equalities legislation and the public sector equality duty.

The Bill seeks to recognise British Sign Language as a language of England, Wales and Scotland. I make that point as a Member of Parliament with a Welsh constituency because for me, it is important that it is a GB-wide initiative. It also requires the Secretary of State to report on the promotion and facilitation of the use of British Sign Language by Government Departments, which, again, is a crucial point that has already been made in the debate.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington

I am grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for outlining that BSL tours are available in Parliament. It is all very well for the Government to have new responsibilities with regard to BSL, but will my hon. Friend allude to how helpful it would be for the deaf community if Members of Parliament had BSL training and BSL interpretation in our surgeries to provide services to our constituents?

Photo of Simon Baynes Simon Baynes Conservative, Clwyd South

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I fully endorse training of that nature. I was struck by what my hon. Friend Brendan Clarke-Smith said about the educational process, and I was pleased that the Minister for School Standards was nodding in assent to what he said about putting it in the curriculum. We need to set an example here, so my hon. Friend Peter Gibson is correct that we need to set an example in what we do in our constituencies to help people in that regard.

The Bill will also ensure that the guidance is created in direct consultation with deaf BSL users to ensure that it truly reflects the needs of the deaf community. In the speech of my right hon. Friend Sir Mike Penning, I was struck by the fact that he has been working towards that for many years and by his point about methodology, which is incredibly important.

It strikes me that the Bill is part of a process—a point that was movingly made by the hon. Member for West Lancashire when she talked about the experience of her father in hospital. With no disrespect to the consultant she mentioned and so on, it is shocking that that took place and it illustrates how the Bill is important not only for ensuring that British Sign Language is widely used and has an important place in the structure of our government and the way we do things, but for changing people’s minds, views and behaviour. The point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead about methodology is profoundly important in conjunction with the Bill.

The Bill also introduces a suite of non-statutory measures, which have already been commented on, so I will not go into detail on them. I have touched on the issue of education, which was mentioned by many hon. Members, such as my hon. Friends the Members for Hertford and Stortford (Julie Marson), for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew) and for Bassetlaw. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford made the point that it is important for British Sign Language to become a part of children’s lives. We all know that if we start with children, they have no preconceived ideas and they can see that it will help with their own deaf friends, which is the way to change things in the long term. I strongly support that.

I have made the point that the Bill has a GB-wide impact on BSL users. As a Welsh MP, I cannot stress strongly enough how much I support that. I fully back the Bill because I am committed, as are the Government, to supporting all people with a disability, including deaf people, to lead fulfilled and independent lives.

I end with what Rose Ayling-Ellis, the winner of “Strictly Come Dancing”, who has already been referred to, said of the Bill:

“I’m backing it because this is my language. The fact that my country doesn’t see it that way is really sad and means we don’t get the respect we deserve and the language deserves. 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 thought that that very vividly made the point. Hopefully, the outrageous element, which is rightly alluded to, will come to be something of the past when this Bill is passed in this House and in the other place.

I end by warmly congratulating the hon. Member for West Lancashire on her private Member’s Bill, which is indeed inspirational and vital for everybody in this country.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions 1:30 pm, 18th March 2022

May I again congratulate my new friend, Rosie Cooper, on bringing forward this important Bill, and on the commitment and dedication that she has shown, and that she has role-modelled to us all, in championing British Sign Language? I want to emphasise that the Government are not only committed to this Bill, but proud to support it.

Today, Trafalgar Square is filled with BSL signers and members of the deaf community. They have gathered together to celebrate Sign Language Week and mark the 19th anniversary of the recognition of BSL as a language in its own right by the UK Government and in joyful anticipation of the Bill reaching its successful final stage in this House. They want to be part of the symphony.

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of seeing a rehearsal from Deafinitely Theatre, the first deaf-launched and deaf-led professional theatre company in the UK, producing bilingual theatre in both BSL and spoken English. It was so inspiring to meet the directors and the cast and to see the welcoming space that they have created for deaf people and the bold space that they are challenging audiences with.

Last weekend, we saw sign language elevated again at the BAFTAs, with the film “CODA” winning two awards; the first film with a predominantly deaf cast to win an award, including the first BAFTA, as we have discussed, to go to a deaf actor. That film portrays some of the very challenges that we have been discussing during the passage of this Bill, including children stepping into an adult world to interpret for a parent. It also puts deaf people at the heart of a story about family and community.

Such moments are important. They raise awareness of the challenges faced not only by deaf people and the deaf community, but by deaf workers, in the form of actors, as well as by the sign language interpreters consulting for the film. Cast members learning sign language provide role models for young deaf people throughout our society. Recognising deaf culture in this way sends an important message to the deaf community: we see the challenges you face; we care about what you have to say; and you are a valued part of our society.

The theme for this year’s Sign Language Week is “BSL Bring Us Together” and it certainly does. I am delighted to see how Members across this House have come together to put the recognition of this rich and vibrant language into law and to pass a number of measures that, hopefully, will see an increase in the use of BSL across society.

I wish to place on record that the explanatory notes of the Bill will be updated to extend this recognition to tactile sign language, which is used and understood by some deafblind people, and to reflect the importance of BSL in deaf culture and community. We are all bound together by shared languages and that is especially so for BSL signers.

I wish to thank right hon. and hon. Members for the further issues that they have powerfully raised today, including, for example, that of prisoners and also some points very ably made about the current humanitarian crisis by my hon. Friend Alicia Kearns.

Alongside the Bill, we are also developing a suite of non-statutory measures that will help promote and facilitate the use of BSL. These include: establishing a non-statutory advisory board of British Sign Language signers to advise the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on matters relating to BSL; examining how we might increase the number of BSL interpreters; reviewing how we might work in DWP to ensure the Access to Work fund better helps BSL signers; and considering how the Government can further facilitate and promote BSL usage.

As my hon. Friend Brendan Clarke-Smith mentioned, I am also working with colleagues at the Department for Education to see what more can be done to accelerate the introduction of a BSL GCSE. As my right hon. Friend Sir Mike Penning, an absolute stalwart supporter of this work, said, this Bill is a means of doing more, and he is so right in that.

I would like to take a moment to deal with the four points put by Vicky Foxcroft. To begin with, she asked about data: what do we know about BSL signers.

The Government collect a variety of data on disabled people who have difficulty hearing, and their outcomes, drawing on the definition of disability as understood in the Equality Act and impairment type as collected in available data. The Office for National Statistics announced that it aims to publish the first results of the 2021 census this summer, which will have updated figures on BSL use. In addition, the Government have set out a comprehensive approach to improving its evidence on disabled people, including the BSL signing population. That encompasses: improving administrative and survey data across Government to ensure they reflect disabled people's needs and the barriers they experience; an annual survey to collect robust information on disabled people’s lived experience; monitoring of public perceptions towards disabled people; and building expertise on disability related evidence.

Moving on to the hon. Lady’s point about the board being non-statutory, that was covered in Committee, but I am happy to reiterate it here. As the hon. Member for West Lancashire made clear in Committee, a private Member’s Bill cannot create new public expenditure, so it is not possible for this Bill to create a statutory board, yet she and I agree wholeheartedly that BSL signers have a key role to play in advising the Government on how we can support them to lead fulfilling, independent lives. That is why, in spite of the constraint, I have pledged to create a new non-statutory board of BSL signers to make sure their views are central to progressing practical improvements—there I go, Mr Speaker, banging on the Dispatch Box as the hon. Lady has told us to do.

The new board will advise the Government on matters relating to BSL and of particular pertinence to deaf BSL signers, which will include helping to formulate the guidance under clause 3. I have instructed officials to consider the composition and remit of the board and will confirm the details by summer this year, when I hope to be able to seek nominations for members, who will be appointed by the Secretary of State for the Department for Work and Pensions. We are yet to determine the board’s terms of reference for the board, which might include publishing minutes and recommendations and we will involve the board of BSL signers in that process.

The third point of the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford touched on interpretation at covid press conferences. To be clear for the record, a judicial review on the matter found that the Government were meeting their obligations under the Equality Act for the covid briefings and have complied with the public sector equality duty. The court ruled that our policy of using on-screen BSL interpreters was lawful during the pandemic. There have been over 175 covid briefings to date, and only two were questioned because BSL was not provided on screen. The judge ruled that it is not a legal requirement to provide an in-person BSL interpreter, but we will continue to ensure provision of an on-screen interpreter. Our priority, like everyone’s in this Chamber, was to reach the largest-possible audience with important public information, and we will continue to ensure that BSL is made available in that regard.

The hon. Lady’s final point was about the particular wording of clause 1(2). I am a little disappointed that this matter has been brought up again on Third Reading as though it had not been dealt with in Committee and, indeed, on page 6 of the explanatory notes. It important to get it on the record today—in case we have to do this again—that we do not want to upset the balance of provisions in the Equality Act. I caution the hon. Lady about inciting anybody to tear down the Equality Act. Of course, I do not think that that is her intention, but that is where that line of logic could lead were she to use it again.

We must remember what a private Member’s Bill can achieve. The scope is limited, but none the less this is what such a Bill can achieve, and I do not think that someone would seek to tear down the Equality Act with a private Member’s Bill. Through the hon. Lady, I emphasise to Members of the other place who may be considering amendments that, at this stage in the Session, there is no time for amendments before Royal Assent. Without Royal Assent, there will be nothing, and I think our common aim is to pass this Bill and achieve something really important.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

Perhaps I can say something on behalf of the House. It is not just those on the Treasury Bench who are saying to the other House, “Please do not table amendments—they will wreck the Bill”; it is this House that is saying that. We want this Bill on the statute book. If we delay it, it will not get on to the statute book, and that would be criminal.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I entirely endorse the point that my right hon. Friend has just underlined, which was made very clearly by the hon. Member for West Lancashire. It took an enormous amount of hard work, passion and perseverance to get us to this point, and we want to finish the job.

I am grateful for the constructive spirit in which everyone in the Chamber has worked to build cross-party consensus for the Bill. It will make real improvements to the communication options, and the lives, of deaf people. As has been said, however, even harder work is ahead of us. At this point I should thank my hon. Friend Peter Gibson for reminding us that there is a head of steam behind the Bill.

Finally, let me thank all the campaigners—including those involved in the BSL Act Now! Campaign—who have worked tirelessly to get us to this point, alongside the hon. Member for West Lancashire, and thank Members on both sides of the House for their support. I hope we can all agree that today has been a victory for everyone involved, and also that there is more work to be done. I am proud of what we have achieved together with this Bill. We wish it well in the other place, and we look forward to the change that it will bring.

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

Before I put the Question, I am sure that we would like to hear once more from Rosie Cooper.

Photo of Rosie Cooper Rosie Cooper Labour, West Lancashire 1:41 pm, 18th March 2022

With the leave of the House, I should like to make a few very short remarks.

A Bill similar to mine failed in 2014. Deaf people have waited for this for so long. We are on the point of delivering a huge difference for each and every one of them. For goodness sake, I can almost feel deaf people across the country, and in Trafalgar Square saying, “We are here, we are at the point, stop nitpicking and move on! Please, House of Lords, no amendments—there is no time for them! Give us our voice! for God’s sake, please stop it—just move on!” This is not quite British Sign Language, but it is very simple. On behalf of all those deaf people, all those organisations for the deaf, all the individuals who have helped this House and, please God, the other place—thank you. [In British Sign Language: “Thank you.”]

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

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

Congratulations, Rosie. You rightly have your place in history for providing a brighter future for many generations to come.