It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I join other hon. Members in congratulating Jim Fitzpatrick on securing the debate. I was chair of the all-party parliamentary group on deafness, but was rudely interrupted in 2015 when something else happened. It is a pleasure to be back and to serve as vice-chair of the APPG under the hon. Gentleman’s excellent chairmanship.
I commend the previous speakers’ comments about cochlear implants. I remember 20 or 30 years ago, when they really began to take off. The difference between now and then is absolutely huge. That overlaps with what Kelly Tolhurst described of her mother’s experience. I thank her for that moving speech. Her mum will be proud of her, I am absolutely sure of that. I can relate to a lot of the things that her mum went through. I have been deaf for about 50 years of my life.
Cochlear implants have made a huge difference and the improvement is absolutely massive. The Minister is from the Department of Health—he is an old colleague from coalition days; it is good to see him—and I ask him to explore how cochlear implants can be ever more available, because they do much more now and they do it much earlier. They are a game-changer. For many years after they first came out, a long, long time ago, they really did not make that much of a difference. There was vigorous opposition from a lot of the British Sign Language community, and I understand why. That has changed a great deal over the years and cochlear implants are now, in many ways, the future for transforming deafness. I never really believed it in the old days, but now I do, because of the advances.
I would like to cover a few areas, a couple from the UK Council on Deafness angle and a couple specifically because we have a Health Minister here. British Sign Language is a different language. I am hard of hearing and have been since having measles when I was six. Sometimes, people might say to me, “Stephen, are you a member of the deaf community?” and I would say, “No, I am a member of the hearing community. I just don’t hear very well.” That is an important point, because they are completely different. The deaf community is a community. The BSL community is a completely different community, with cultural norms and a different language. BSL is not even a direct translation of my speech; it is different. Sometimes people do not understand that. They would say to me, “Why don’t you learn BSL?” and I would say, “Because I am a member of the hearing community, I just don’t hear very well, and it is a different language.” I am very supportive of profoundly deaf people trying to get BSL as a recognised language, as has happened, I believe, in Holyrood in Scotland.
I remember just before 2015 having meetings with a number of people down from Scotland and we were watching that development with great interest. Once it happens in one legislative House, it is very hard for other legislative Houses not to follow, so I say good luck with that up in Scotland, because it is a game-changer. It will happen eventually in Westminster. When it does, it is not just a label. When a nation says that a language is a statutory language, it means it is accessible and that public bodies have to provide information in that language, and that will make a huge difference for a lot of profoundly deaf people. I will tell hon. Members why and give one very good example.
I have been involved for many years in politics around deafness as a trustee of this or a patron of that, or what have you. I knew a lot of people who are profoundly deaf working in that area, including from the British Deaf Association. I just came from a statement this morning in which the Secretary of State for the Department for Work and Pensions mentioned that about 50% of disabled people are out of work. I tell you what, Mr McCabe, it is a hell of a lot higher than that for the profoundly deaf. I do not have the figures because no one really finds them. The DWP—it used to drive me crazy when I was here before—will not slice the different disabilities up. It just says “problems with deafness and problems with visual impairment”, which completely denies the separateness of deafness. Off the bat, though, I would say that profoundly deaf people have an unemployment rate of around 70%, which is just ridiculous. How can we possibly have 100,000 people—if not more—of adult working age and have such barriers that 70% are unemployed? It is a blooming outrage! Now that I am back in the House, which is wonderful for the people of Eastbourne—I thank them—I am determined to lobby hard to make BSL an accepted language.
I am also keen to join the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse in lobbying on Access to Work. The Government have done a great thing with Access to Work—I think it was John Major’s Government that started it. Access to Work is a good thing which has made a huge difference to a lot of people, and I am a big supporter or it, but there is a challenge. It has made a great difference for people who are in work and acquire a disability through illness, a catastrophic incident or what have you—it has been fantastic in helping them to stay in work. I want it to be improved, particularly in the small and medium-sized enterprises sector, so that SMEs understand that they can employ people with disabilities. Access to Work provides a lot of the money that will buy an induction loop, put in a ramp, or do whatever is necessary to help an employer take on a disabled person. That is really important. Corporates kind of get it—they are huge, and they have massive human resources departments and pots of money, so they try to do their best. It is much harder for an SME employing three people. If I were the director of a plumber working seven days a week, and someone with disability came to see me, it would be so much easier to say, “No, no,” and find an excuse not to employ them. Access to Work often provides the money that allows the SME to take on that disabled person.
I will let the House into a vast secret. I say this with authority, because I used to be a consultant in this area for years. If a business employs disabled people, they get lower churn.