It is a pleasure, as always, to see you in the chair, Mr McCabe. I thank my hon. Friend Jim Fitzpatrick for securing this important debate. The contributions so far have been fantastic.
There are two issues in particular that affect deaf and hard-of-hearing people that I wish to raise today: the accreditation of children’s hearing services, and the cap on the Access to Work scheme grants, which have already been mentioned. There are more than 50,000 deaf children across the UK and an estimated 794 deaf children in the Bristol area alone. For those children, high-quality audiology services are vital to carry out tests, fit and maintain hearing aids and provide rehabilitative support. Despite that, the Government have stopped mandatory inspections of services, instead replacing them with the improving quality in physiological services accreditation programme. Since the voluntary programme started in 2012, only 15% of children’s audiology services have achieved IQIPs accreditation. That means that 85% cannot guarantee that their service is good quality. That lack of transparency is unacceptable and leaves far too many families in the dark about the quality of their child’s audiology service. Obviously, it is of immense importance to parents that their children have access to good services. Some services have stepped up to the starting blocks by signing up to the scheme, such as St Michael’s Hospital in Bristol which serves my constituents, and a few are nearing the finish line and accreditation, but too many are not taking part at all.
The National Deaf Children’s Society, through its Listen Up! campaign, is calling on the Government and NHS England to make assessments of children’s audiology services mandatory and for information from these assessments to be publicly available. I support that campaign and implore the Government and NHS England to implement changes to help ensure that deaf children get the quality of service they deserve. That could make so much difference to their future life chances.
The second issue is the cap on Access to Work grants. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse, Access to Work enables many disabled people to overcome work-related obstacles by providing practical advice and support, and grants towards extra employment costs that cannot be met by employers as reasonable adjustments. A Government review in 2004—some time ago—suggested that for every £1 spent on Access to Work, £1.48 was generated for the Treasury. I am deeply concerned about the effects of the cap on Access to Work grants that the Department for Work and Pensions imposed for new claimants in 2015 on the career prospects of deaf and hard-of-hearing employees. That cap is due to come into force for existing claimants in April next year. It is currently set at £42,100 per year, which is one and a half times the national average salary. Although that may be enough support for some people, for others it is not.
I was contacted about this debate by a deaf constituent who uses British Sign Language and works as a disability adviser at an education establishment. Access to Work helps him participate fully and equally at work by paying the cost of communication support—namely, British Sign Language interpreters. Such support is inevitably expensive —it is necessary to pay people’s wages—so it is unlikely to be classed as a reasonable adjustment for his employer. At the moment, he can access those interpreters’ support throughout his working week. The cap means that he will be able to book interpreters for three days a week at most, leaving him with two days when he will not be able to communicate with his colleagues and clients. That means he will be unable to do his job effectively.
Access to Work revolutionised deaf people’s career opportunities, shattering the glass ceiling that previously limited them to manual jobs. It is largely due to Access to Work that deaf people have progressed as far as their talent allows. There are now deaf chief executive officers, deaf intermediaries working at the Ministry of Justice, deaf theatre directors and deaf social workers. Yet research conducted earlier this year by DeafATW found that the cap on Access to Work grants is already having a detrimental effect on the deaf community. We heard the figures from my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse. On behalf of my constituent and all those in the deaf community who have benefited or stand to benefit from that scheme, I implore the Minister to listen to what is being said, remove or raise the Access to Work cap, and once again lift the ceiling on the career aspirations of those who are deaf or hard of hearing.