As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on deafness, it is a great privilege to speak in this debate and to support the British Sign Language Bill. It has been a long road to get to this point, and the success of this Bill comes down, as has already been said, to some tireless campaigners.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) on her work to bring forward the Bill and to win such wide cross-party support for it, and on her wonderful speech. Her contributions to the all-party parliamentary group have always been informed by her experience as a child of deaf adults. She has made no secret of how she was captured by the deaf community, as hon. Members have heard today. Her passion, knowledge and determination have underpinned the Bill and the negotiations to secure Government support for it. As the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) and my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) have said, she has done her parents and the deaf community proud; I am sure many of my constituents who are members of Nottinghamshire Deaf Society will have been cheering her on.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire, I pay tribute to the British Deaf Association, particularly its chair David Buxton. The BDA has campaigned for decades in support of sign language legislation. Its work is a major reason not only that we are discussing the Bill but that the Scottish Parliament has already legislated in favour of British Sign Language. Similar proposals are at different stages in the Welsh Senedd and Stormont.
I also thank Rob Geaney and RNID for their support for the APPG and the campaign, which of course is supported by many other organisations and charities that support the deaf community and advocate for better communication, including SignHealth, the Royal Association for Deaf People, Black Deaf UK, the Institute of British Sign Language, the National Deaf Children’s Society, Signature and the National Registers of Communication Professionals Working with Deaf and Deafblind People.
Through my time as chair of the all-party group I have heard numerous and devastating examples of the barriers that we place in front of deaf BSL users. We have heard about the failure to think about accessibility in the design of public policy and public services, and how that limits the opportunities and life chances of BSL users. That is why I am pleased to support the Bill. I do so not just because it gives the deaf community and their language the status and recognition they deserve, although that is vital, but because the Bill provides sensible mechanisms to help Departments and public service providers overcome the barriers they create.
I wish to give a couple of examples that relate to accessing healthcare, the first of which is the refusal to provide a video relay service to contact the NHS. A VRS would have allowed BSL users to speak to health professionals remotely through a videocall with a registered BSL interpreter. But rather than commissioning a national service, the NHS failed to make provision, leaving many BSL users without access to their GP during the pandemic, when remote appointments became the default. At best, deaf BSL users were reliant on charitable support, provided by organisations such as SignHealth. Access to core NHS services should not be left to charities;
those services should be provided as a right. My hope is that the guidance required by clause 3, designed and informed by lived experience through the non-statutory board mentioned in the explanatory notes, will provide both NHS England and local health commissioners and providers with the obligation they need to provide such a service, as well as the support and information on how to make it work for deaf people. The guidance across the NHS can help empower deaf people to manage their own health and improve the way they do so.
I also hope that the guidance supports the delivery of specialist mental health services. Through the all-party group, we know that too many commissioners think that providing interpretation for mainstream mental health services is sufficient. This guidance can make commissioners aware of the evidence showing that specialist services, delivered by those who understand deaf culture and the impact that being cut off from the hearing world has, are best for outcomes. There are countless examples of these barriers and how we fail the deaf community. The guidance should help us to remove the barriers we create across society, particularly in health and education services, and in the support we provide to deaf BSL users through jobcentres. That will really make a difference to their life chances and to outcomes.
I also hope the transparency and accountability created on accessible communications by clause 2 can drive a huge increase in the volume of accessible information in BSL, as that is another area where the deaf community are being let down. The high-profile failure to provide BSL interpretation at the initial covid press conferences is just one example, but there are many others. Deaf BSL users are forced to navigate complex information in their second language. How many of us who speak a second language would want to use it to apply for a passport, check our entitlement to benefits or arrange childcare vouchers on a site such as gov.uk? Why do we demand that nearly 90,000 of our citizens deal with these routine interactions with government based on an ability to use their second language? This needs to change, and information in BSL can empower deaf people to manage their own affairs and lead confident, independent lives. I hope that the required BSL report set out in clause 2 spurs on all Departments to meet the basic need to provide accessible information to the deaf community. Ministers can certainly expect to be held to account for their performance.
Today will be a momentous day for the deaf community when this Bill passes, as it is a really important step forward in the equality and equity that deaf citizens should be entitled to expect from their Government. Many people are out there in Parliament Square following this debate and waiting for news. I know that Members across the House will support the Bill, which will give the deaf community the recognition they deserve and the Government the tools—through the BSL report and the guidance—to improve the services provided to them. I hope the Minister and her Department will commit to a genuine process of co-production in how she works with the advisory body announced in the explanatory notes, empowering the deaf community to lead the change and create the society they deserve. As Craig Crowley, the chief executive officer of Action Deafness, commented this morning, “The principle of ‘nothing about us without us’ is the right one.”
The Bill should matter not just to the deaf community —we all benefit from creating a more inclusive and accessible society where everyone can fulfil their potential. I was reminded of that recently on a visit to Mellers primary school in my constituency, which, since September, has been home to Nottingham city’s focus provision for deaf pupils. It has benefited from having deaf students and ensuring that BSL is an integral part of school life. It was a real pleasure to hear that the whole staff team are learning BSL and that hearing pupils are becoming fluent in BSL, and to see the school choir singing and signing together. That inclusion should be the norm. The World Federation of the Deaf tells us that legal recognition of sign language promotes understanding in society and, in turn, better promotion of human rights for the deaf community. Today is a really important step on a journey towards a better and more equal society.