My Lords, in begging leave to move Amendment 90—which I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, for trailing and which might, with advantage, have been included in the group containing the other amendments on speech, language and communication needs that we considered in Committee last Wednesday—I declare my interest as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Speech and Language Difficulties.
Since our considerations in Committee last Wednesday, I have studied in great detail the responses of the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, on some of which I shall now comment. The Minister said, inter alia:
“Those facing communication barriers are, arguably, some of the most vulnerable victims of domestic abuse … there is an important balance to strike between providing local authorities with the flexibility to meet particular local needs and … a consistent approach to the provision of support.”
He sought to reassure the Committee that
“the Bill already provides a framework to ensure that the speech, language and communication needs of victims are addressed.”—[
The provision of information in an accessible and inclusive format is one item that would benefit from a consistent approach to the provision of support. Because I am not reassured that the Bill covers this, I beg to move Amendment 90.
My Lords, following the helpful debate on the associated amendments last Wednesday, it is quite useful that we now have this debate on Amendment 90, specifically on how to support people with disabilities, particularly speech and language difficulties, with practical support for communication at the point at which they are seeking help.
With the best will in the world, there is little point in the agencies that are there to support them—whether they are specialist charities or local authorities—if those who are at greatest risk do not know, cannot follow or act on, cannot understand, cannot access and cannot make use of who can help them and how. The amendments debated last week had the powerful support of the UK Says No More campaign. This amendment is no exception, because it holds the key to getting help when it is most needed.
I am afraid the predictable response from government may be to say that information is available in different languages and sign language, but I say what the specialist groups in the field say: this simply does not go far enough. A leaflet, no matter how plain the language, would never be a substitute for the sort of help that can be provided only by a sympathetic advocate who takes the person by the hand along the pathway to safety. That is why we have given such priority to the service itself employing speech and language specialists.
We want to see any kind of communication in an easy-read format, obviously, but also made accessible on augmentation and alternative communication devices. But the idea that all problems can be solved by the written word, however plain the language—that is, of course, the first and most basic requirement—or even sign language, is simplistic and out of date.
Many people with speech and language difficulties are capable of—and even more dependent than the rest of us on—using technology, but emails, advice and all communications need to be jargon free. Where possible, signs and symbols can be used. It requires knowledge and empathy to get this right, but they are not in short supply and the Bill can benefit from them.
Last Wednesday, in rejecting the amendments, the Minister referred both to the wide remit of the Bill and the wide brief held by the independent designate commissioner which, he argued, rendered the amendments unnecessary. However, I am not convinced. He also referred to the Government’s intention to make it clear that local authorities should consider the additional barriers that might prevent access to support. I would argue that speech and language difficulties fall precisely and squarely into that area of additional barriers and that we would want to see the Minister’s expectations realised. This will happen in the statutory guidance that is anticipated only if those extra requirements are made explicit. I know that the Minister is sympathetic to the case we are making, so I ask him for some assurances on that point, recognising that women and children, who cannot defend themselves or seek protection because they cannot ask for it, or find it, easily, can themselves be easily overlooked and denied fundamental rights and protection.
These are serious issues that affect significant numbers of people. Help can be provided through explicit statutory protections, even in guidance, and we hope that the Government will give serious thought to this.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow my noble friends Lord Ramsbotham and Lady Andrews. In a response to a Written Question in June last year from Geraint Davies, the Member of Parliament for Swansea West, the Minister drew attention to the government website provisions and referenced different languages and British Sign Language. These are all welcome and laudable initiatives, but they require a person to be able to read, have reasonable IT literacy and be able to communicate to others. As chair of the National Mental Capacity Forum, my specific concern here is for those with learning difficulties.
I have become very aware of the startlingly high incidence of abuse of people with any type of disability, as we debated last week. For many, even easy-read format is not enough. I draw attention to Books Beyond Words, which explore topics in pictorial format. One example is Telling About Abuse: a Leaflet for Deaf Adults. These books can be used irrespective of any language. The Ask for ANI initiative is excellent and the easy-read information on the government website is easy to follow. It lays out the number 55 to use on dialling 999 in a way that is indeed easy to follow.
This amendment does not imply any criticism of all the Government have done so far. However, I suggest that they can build on it by including the spirit of this amendment in statutory guidance. The important 2015 report from Public Health England, Disability and Domestic Abuse: Risk, Impacts and Response, states:
“Effective domestic abuse services for disabled people should be accessible and barrier-free.”
Those with severe sensory, cognitive or communication impairments or mental health issues may be particularly at risk and unable to access support through any standard routes. Even having a severe stammer can make using the phone difficult, let alone if a person is aphasic or dysarthric. Some people may need augmentative and alternative communication devices or urgent speech and language and other specialist support.
People with an intellectual disability are at least 1.6 times more likely to experience violence. They may be less able to defend themselves or even to recognise, report and escape abuse. Impairment, such as traumatic brain injury or intellectual, learning or cognitive impairments, may limit a disabled person’s ability to understand and recognise the potential signs of danger and abuse. All this is compounded if people with sensory impairments miss visual or auditory warning signs of abuse.
NICE guidance on domestic abuse recommends that support is tailored to meet disabled people’s needs. In responding to this amendment, I hope the Government will be able to provide assurance that the guidance will require all domestic abuse services to stay up to date with advances in communication and information resources, including new technology.
My Lords, this is a small amendment but nevertheless it is definitely a point worth making. I was not privy to the debate last week, but my reading of the amendment was that it piggybacked on Clause 55(1)(b), on the requirement to prepare and publish a strategy for providing support. I read it as requiring the local authority to communicate the support available, as opposed to the strategy itself—so I was right there.
“Accessible and inclusive” is important too for people with communication difficulties. It is obvious that to have support available, you have to have potential recipients actually know about it. That means putting notices in accessible, everyday places where potential victims will see them. I have seen them on the back of toilet doors, and I would like to see them on workplace notice boards, buses, Tubes and billboards, and in shops and myriad other places. They must be accessible for everyone: in Urdu, Romanian, Greek, African—you name it. In order to be able to read or see a notice, people need it to be there in front of them.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, said, as well as ease of reading, it is important that we consider all kinds of disability and use more innovative, technical methods of communication. The message must be clear. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, also mentioned books without words, which is a very useful idea. That message, “you are not alone”, “help is at hand”, “dial this number”, “go to your pharmacist and ask for ANI”, and so on, could literally be a life saver.
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said, this short but important debate follows on from the similar issues we debated earlier in Committee on Wednesday. As I said then, we are absolutely committed to ensuring that victims of domestic abuse and their children get the right support to meet their individual needs. People facing communication barriers are, arguably, some of the most vulnerable victims of domestic abuse given the added difficulties and barriers they face in asking for help and accessing the support available, so it is welcome to have this opportunity to explore that further through this amendment.
I share the concerns of all noble Lords who have spoken and can, I hope, reassure them by saying that local authorities’ strategies will be published in line with the regulations on accessibility or, to give them their full title, the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018. These regulations provide guidance and accessibility requirements for public sector websites and apps for mobile telephones. As the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, said, it is important that public sector bodies keep pace with changing technologies and the variety of ways in which people can seek assistance.
Local authorities will also want to ensure that the information they provide is accessible in other formats for people unable to use websites or mobile devices, including providing information in languages other than English to reflect their local population, as noble Lords mentioned.
The noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, made a valuable point: it is all very well providing support for victims of domestic abuse with safe accommodation and all the rest of it, but some victims may not fully benefit from that support if they face communication barriers in accessing it. It is incumbent on tier 1 local authorities in exercising their functions under Part 4 to ensure that information about the support available is accessible to everyone who needs it. I am very happy to say that we will consider how the issues raised in this debate and earlier in Committee can be properly addressed in the guidance issued.
Having said that and given those reassurances, I hope the noble Lord will be content to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response and all noble Lords who spoke to this amendment. We shall carefully consider all that Ministers have said during the passage of the Bill and decide before Report whether it strikes a balance between providing local authorities with the flexibility to meet local needs and ensuring a consistent approach to the provision of support. Until then, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 90 withdrawn.