Deafness and Hearing Loss — [Steve McCabe in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 1:48 pm on 30th November 2017.

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Photo of Iain Stewart Iain Stewart Conservative, Milton Keynes South 1:48 pm, 30th November 2017

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe.

I start by congratulating Jim Fitzpatrick on securing this debate and on setting out his case with his customary courtesy and passion. He has been a champion of these issues for many years, so I pay him heartfelt tribute for that.

As the hon. Gentleman said, this is the first debate in the House to be transmitted via British Sign Language. Unfortunately, news of that came too late for one of my constituents, Christopher Jones, who wanted to attend, but decided not to travel down from Milton Keynes because he did not think that this facility would be available. Mr McCabe, perhaps you could report back to the Speaker and the Panel of Chairs that we should consider providing this interpretation not only during debates on this subject, but during general debates more widely, so that we are as accessible as possible to all our constituents.

I will focus on the introduction of a nationwide telecommunication relay service—something that Mr Jones came to see me about a few weeks ago. In most advanced economies, a nationwide TRS provides functionally equivalent telephone transmission services to deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. A TRS is a telephone transmission service that allows an individual who is deaf or hard of hearing to have the same telephone availability as someone who is of good hearing. As telephone services and technologies evolve, so does the scope and achievement of functional equivalence. At one time, typed text communication was considered the functional equivalent of voice communication, but in the 21st century, captioning, video and other technologies have changed what equivalency means. The gaps between what is available to hearing individuals and those with hearing deficiency are growing. Sadly, the UK, which was the first to introduce such systems, now lags well behind other countries such as the USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

The issue of functionally equivalent telephone services must be addressed. It includes, but is not limited to: the unrestricted availability of relay services 24 hours a day, seven days a week; emergency preparedness and response, to ensure the delivery of relay services in the event of disruptions to telecommunications services; international capacity; and access to the full array of existing telephone services offered by telecommunications companies. Competition, innovation and choice are important, so that users can access a wide range of services. What works for some people in some circumstances might be different from what others need. There are different facilities available, and it is important that each user can choose the system that works best for them at any one time. That might mean one individual having different things at different times. My constituent said that he would use one means to communicate with his family, and a different one for business conversations. Many other issues need to be considered.

While these may seem like lofty goals, they are being delivered in the countries I mentioned. For example, Australia provides the following relay services: textphone to voice and voice to textphone; textphone voice carry-over; textphone hearing carry-over; speech to speech; video relay services; internet relay; mobile text relay; mobile SMS relay; captioned telephone for phone and web; and captioned telephone to Braille display. In Australia, the system has operated as a national service since 1995 and is available to every Australian at no additional cost, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

A number of studies since the system’s introduction have looked at its impact. We might think some of the findings are obvious, but it is important to mention them. Access to enhanced relay services is positively associated with reductions in feelings of frustration with telephone use. It gives individuals a much higher quality of life. It not only allows access to work, as the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse mentioned, but is proven to reduce the wider health consequences that can arise from isolation, such as mental health issues. The cost saving is likely to exceed the cost of introducing the service. I think I heard him mention that £30 million annually could be saved from the health and social care budget if many of these feelings of social exclusion were dealt with.

Ironically, my constituent was involved in designing and setting up such a system many years ago. It had to close down in 2008 as he could not make it work, and part of the problem was bureaucratic muddle and delay. The issue is often cross-departmental. We have a Minister from the Department of Health here, but the matter is as much for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Work and Pensions. The potential benefits of the system my constituent introduced could not be realised because there was buck-passing and delays, and the approach was not joined up.

My call today is for the Minister to take away these points and discuss them with his colleagues in DWP and DCMS, and to drive forward the introduction of a nationwide service in this country. It is embarrassing that while we were one of the first to introduce such systems, we have fallen back over a number of decades. Other countries are now way ahead of us. I urge the Minister and his colleagues to look at the evidence, particularly from Australia, on what can be done cost-effectively. This is not just about money; it is about quality of life. We owe it to all our constituents to give them as much access to the world of work and public services as anyone else, and my suggestion is a fairly straightforward way to do that. I urge the Minister to look at the evidence from other countries and discuss it with his colleagues.