To ask Her Majesty’s Government what practical support they plan to provide to enable the establishment of a nationwide video relay service for users of British and Irish sign language.
My Lords, video relay services are currently available from organisations that buy into the service. It should be possible for these privately operated services to be extended to allow deaf people to communicate with friends and family, but the end user would have to pay. BSL users already have a well-established VRS network, allowing accessible communication with a range of private, public and voluntary organisations. These bodies purchase the service from several established providers to enable their deaf customers to access their services.
My Lords, the Minister’s answer falls far short of what deaf sign language users feel is their right—both what they are entitled to and what they actually need. This is their preferred technology and can give them access to interpreters any time, anywhere. At the moment, its availability is time-restricted and, as the Minister said, it is a chargeable service. VRS is available for free in Scotland for access to public services nine to five, Monday to Friday. But sign language users want access 24/7 for all purposes—private services and public services at work, and contacting their family and friends. The US provides this, as does Australia, Canada, France, Switzerland and even Thailand: why can Britain not do the same?
My Lords, first, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Bennachie, for the enormous amount of work he has done in this area over many years. It is important to recognise that access to assisted hearing is available in a number of ways. We have assessed that of approximately 2 million people with hearing impairment, about 25,000 use sign language. Where VRS is not provided, we are ensuring bespoke support—for example, through the disabled students’ allowances and our Access to Work support, whereby the cap on grants for every individual who qualifies for Access to Work has just been increased to £57,000 per person per year to ensure that more people can receive the support they need in a bespoke way to help them stay and progress in work. There is always more to be done. However, we do not believe that enshrining this in statute and focusing all our resources in one area would be right, given the speed of technological advances.
My Lords, I declare my interest in the register as a trustee for about 20 years of the Ewing Foundation for deaf children, a registered charity. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that communication of every form is vital to deaf people of every age but that the majority of people who have hearing loss are elderly and do not use sign language? Does she agree the great work of the NHS in fitting cochlear implants to deaf babies and children, together with the expensive training that is required to make full use of them, and the development of new high-tech digital hearing aids enable a large number of people to use their residual hearing effectively? Does she agree that the new technology of cameras fitted to smartphones and Skype calls enables the creation of what is in effect a worldwide video relay service, not only for the users of British Sign Language but for all deaf people and at far lower cost?
My Lords, I thank my noble friend. I entirely agree with him that in supporting access to communication for everyone, the exciting work of the NHS in fitting cochlear implants to babies and children is one example of why, as the Minister of State for Disabled People has said, it is clear that there is now a wealth of technological solutions with the power to make a real difference to someone’s ability to progress in education and also to find and keep a job. This means that we can use more of our devices. It offers more opportunities and a wider range of ways in which people can break down the barriers of hearing impairment. Of course, the majority of people with a hearing impairment are elderly and for the most part they do not use sign language.
My Lords, I am sure the Minister would not in any way mean to suggest that people who use BSL should be thinking about other ways of communicating. I want to bring her back to the fact that in 2016, the Department for Work and Pensions introduced VRS for some of its services as a result of a recommendation from the DWP Select Committee that the department ought to be more accessible to BSL users. The Government said at the time:
“In the future, it is hoped that VRS can be rolled out across DWP’s complete range of services”.
I have had a look at the website and some services, such as applying for ESA or PIP, do seem to be available via this mechanism. But I looked on the universal credit website and could find no reference to it at all. Are the Government now saying that they no longer wish to do this at all and will therefore not be rolling it out, or that they will be rolling it out but have not got round to it yet?
I assure the noble Baroness that there is no question of our not supporting the use of BSL services. In fact, good, accessible services are the best way to remove or overcome barriers that BSL users and people with hearing loss face. We have worked closely with deaf people and their organisations on delivering improvements across a wide range of services, including those provided by the Department for Work and Pensions and across much of the public sector; this is also the case in private companies such as Barclays, Lloyds, Sky and Virgin Media. The reality is that a growing number of organisations in the private, public and voluntary sectors are providing access to their services for deaf BSL users via the video relay services. With respect to the Department for Work and Pensions, I reassure her that there is no question of our not considering this service for UC rollout, but I will certainly take that point back to the department to ensure that that is the case.
My Lords, BSL is a devolved matter so, with regard to Wales and the Welsh language, there were no particular recommendations on the provision of BSL. However, a parliamentary Statement in 2003 recognised BSL as a language and the Lords Select Committee was clear that this should be extended to the devolved regions. It is also important to make it clear that there are a number of different sign languages, not just one particular sign language.