Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Austin. I am grateful to the Petitions Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) for the opportunity to debate the issue. I am very pleased to see that the proceedings are being broadcast live with full British Sign Language interpretation.
I should record that I wear two hearing aids, because my hearing was damaged during my time in the London fire brigade, although I am sure age is contributing as well now. I am also chair of the all-party parliamentary group on deafness.
The previous debate, secured in Westminster Hall by the all-party group, was on 30 November, and excellent speeches were made by many colleagues. It was signed, if not live, but that too was a parliamentary first. This is the first debate with simultaneous translation for the live feed, although I understand it has been something of a challenge to make it possible, so I congratulate the House authorities and the Petitions Committee on ensuring that it happens today.
The 30 November debate was wide-ranging, whereas today’s is specific to British Sign Language and making it part of the national curriculum. The APPG has been trying to identify which Minister in which Department we should speak to about this important matter. On 11 September last year I submitted a parliamentary question to the Cabinet Office to ask just that, but the answer was not clear. Subsequently, we chased not only the Cabinet Office but the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Education, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and the Department of Health and Social Care for clarification. It now seems to be clear that the Department for Work and Pensions is the lead Department because deafness is a disability, which has some logic.
I therefore need to ask the Minister what discussions he has had with his ministerial colleagues at the DWP about the prospects for a British Sign Language GCSE. As he knows, the DFE has already piloted a GCSE and has it ready to go, but the Government will not give it the green light. One has to ask why not. Perhaps the Minister will explain in the wind-ups whether that is a DWP decision or a DFE one.
Scotland has led the way with the passing of the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015. In 2016 Northern Ireland launched its consultation, and now the Welsh Government are consulting on introducing BSL into their curriculum. England seems to be lagging behind. In 2003, in UK terms, BSL was officially recognised as a language in its own right by the Department for Work and Pensions. In 2009 the UK Government ratified the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, which states, among other things, that we should uphold such rights by:
“Recognizing and promoting the use of sign languages.”
Having said that, however, I think there is a small conflict between the title of the petition and what people were being asked to sign. The title states, “Make British Sign Language part of the National Curriculum”, but the wording asks why BSL is not taught in schools. The National Deaf Children’s Society has reiterated its position on a BSL GCSE: the society does not believe that it needs to be a mandatory part of the national curriculum, but that it might be easier for the DFE simply to approve the GCSE in British Sign Language that has already been piloted. That would make it an option for schools, should they deem it appropriate, but the DFE appears to be refusing to give the go-ahead due to a blanket policy on no new GCSEs.
The NDCS reinforces its view with a variety of points. On equality, if we can teach Turkish, Japanese and Russian—the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) came up with some even more obscure examples—but not British Sign Language, the implication is that BSL has a lower status and importance. Surely that could be demonstrated to be discriminatory if it came to the courts. On denial of choice, thousands of young people, whether deaf or hearing, would choose the subject, but they do not get the chance. On discouraging the teaching of BSL, having no GCSE deters teachers because it has reduced status. On reducing options for young deaf people and supporting wider Government initiatives, as we have heard, the DWP accepted in a 2017 report that we have a shortage of registered deaf interpreters, resulting in higher costs for such services and making it harder for deaf people to enter the workforce.
My questions for the Minister include the following: if the Department has a ready-to-go GCSE, why not authorise it? Why encourage schools to teach BSL without affording them the chance to benchmark their performances? Why offer GCSE equivalents in the form of national vocational qualifications but not a GCSE? I think—I suspect the NDCS does too—that the strongest of those points was the first: the question whether the decision not to support a BSL GCSE is discriminatory. The society promotes the issue first as a matter of law and, were a case to come before the courts, the Government could be forced to act.
I do not think that the Government should be forced to act; I think they should do so voluntarily. They should not be embarrassed or shamed by Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast for dragging their feet on the matter. In my view, that is doing not only a great disservice to deaf English schoolchildren but much more—it is tantamount to insulting them. Parliament is saying to the thousands on thousands of youngsters for whom British Sign Language is a primary method of communication with each other and the world that Turkish, Japanese, Russian, Chinese, Greek and Portuguese are more important than their language.
The Minister is held in high regard throughout the House for his integrity and honesty, but I have to ask him, are we sure about this? I am sure that he will not want to give a negative response to that question but, equally, I will be very surprised if he can say anything positive today. No, I will be more than surprised—I will be delighted if he can say something more positive on the subject. The least I hope that the Minister can do, however, would be to agree to take the matter back to the Department, to discuss it with ministerial colleagues and to try again. The officers of the all-party parliamentary group and deaf organisations have a meeting with the Minister on the subject, as he knows, next Monday afternoon. We will press our case before him again then.
In conclusion, I am grateful for another opportunity to raise this issue. I am sure that the Minister knows it will not go away. The Government, I think, recognise not only the inconsistency of their position, not only the unfairness in the provision, but the positive opportunities a change of policy would offer. I look forward to the day when we hear of such a change. Today would be great, next Monday would do also, but soon, Minister, please—soon.