The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care (Seema Kennedy)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I will begin with the observation that I was wondering how to include square sausage in my speech. I do not think it will fit in anywhere, but I am very much looking forward to speaking to the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) and finding out more.
I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for securing the time for this important debate. I know that she has wanted to raise the matter for some time. As last week was Deaf Awareness Week, the debate could not be more timely. What a pleasure it is that we have two interpreters here today; we welcome them. I know that Mr Speaker is committed to making Parliament accessible to all. It was great to see that one of the senior Clerks was present just now. Let us hope that she takes what was happening back to the Speaker. I am sure that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper), and I can speak to the House authorities about the possibility of a pilot in Westminster Hall. We have discussed whether we might ask even a team of interpreters to interpret busy sittings in the main Chamber—I do not think that some interventions deserve interpretation anyway, but this is an important issue, and it is wonderful that we have subtitling and interpreters here today.
Ensuring fair and equitable access to public services, including but not limited to the NHS, is of critical importance to disabled people. I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North for all the efforts that she has made in her constituency to use BSL to be more accessible to her constituents. I will definitely reflect on that with my team. I also want to thank the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) for his careful stewardship of the all-party parliamentary group on deafness, and for the group’s work. It has done a lot of work to raise awareness and improve the way that we support people with hearing loss or deafness.
I shall attempt to answer several points raised by hon. Members, but I hope they will bear with me if I do not answer them all, in which case I will write to them. I am afraid there was nothing on the Department’s website about Deaf Awareness Week, but if I am still in post next year, I and the Minister for Care, who was due to respond to this debate, will ensure that that is no longer the case. NHS England highlighted Deaf Awareness Week on social media, including advice on how the NHS can help the one in six people who are estimated to have hearing loss. On Twitter, the NHS Business Services Authority published a video highlighting how its technology team have been learning BSL to support deaf colleagues.
The Government consider that current legislation is sufficient—I will speak more about that issue—but the challenges raised by hon. Members today mean that I will look carefully at what more we can do to communicate obligations under existing legislation to individual NHS trusts. The issue of BSL as a language is probably a matter for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport rather than the Department of Health and Social Care, but all Departments have a responsibility to create inclusive communities. I will take away the comments made by hon. Members and discuss them with ministerial colleagues in other Departments.
The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North brought up a distressing example of the gentleman in Essex, and mentioned issues of deafness and mental health—of course, we are thinking about mental health this week. The Government are committed to that issue, and addressing mental health is at the heart of the long-term plan. We are investing £2 billion over five years to improve mental health services, and NHS England commissioned specialist mental health services for deaf people, including in-patient and outreach services. The hon. Lady and the shadow Minister asked me to ask NHS England to look at health services for deaf people, and I am happy to raise those points and look at what the Care Quality Commission is doing. The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse set me several challenges, and I will attempt to address the performance results later in my remarks. If I do not, I will be happy to talk to him after this debate or hold a meeting, and I would also be happy to speak to the Minister for Disabled People.
I was asked how we can help more people to know about British Sign Language—indeed, the hon. Gentleman mentioned that his grandchildren are learning it at school. The Department for Education has confirmed that it will begin working with experts to develop subject content for a British Sign Language GCSE, and that will be assessed against the rigorous subject content criteria that apply to all GCSEs. Ofqual will also need to consider the proposal against its assessment criteria. Schools have asked for a period of stability to provide them with a chance to embed the extensive reforms to GCSEs and A-levels, and in March last year, the Education Secretary confirmed that the Government will not introduce further reforms to GCSEs or A-levels beyond those committed to during this Parliament. However, if a British Sign Language GCSE can be developed in line with GCSE requirements, the Government will consider making an exception to their rule on stability, and introducing it this Parliament, and I hope hon. Members will be encouraged by that.
As hon. Members have said, British Sign Language is the primary form of communication for many deaf people and fundamental to the way that they communicate with their families and loved ones. I thank everybody—interpreters, teachers and users of BSL—for their work, which helps people with hearing impairments to lead fulfilling lives in our communities. About 24,000 people in the country have BSL as their first language, and it is essential that they can communicate with NHS staff and services to access the best possible healthcare.
This Government are committed to a truly world-class health service that must be equally available to all. People must be able to communicate their needs and access the information, advice and support that they need to complement the hands-on work of health professionals. Some people may need additional support or to be supported in a different way. We must take proactive steps to provide support for reasonable adjustments —hon. Members highlighted examples of where that is perhaps not happening, and I will take note of that.
Let me focus on the robust framework that we have in place to ensure that reasonable adjustments are made to permit access to NHS services for those with hearing impairments and those who use BSL. Existing equality legislation means that employers, service providers and public bodies must provide services in BSL when it is reasonable for them to do so. That was underpinned by the Equality Act 2010, which places a duty on all public bodies to make reasonable adjustments so that disabled people are not put at a disadvantage compared with those who live without a disability. Commissioners of NHS services must pay due regard to the needs of their population, including those living with a disability, when planning and commissioning services.
Service providers must consider what disabled people who use their services might need and make reasonable adjustments accordingly. That includes, where appropriate, access to BSL services. The Health and Social Care Act 2008 (Regulated Activities) Regulations 2014 further expand on how the NHS should implement the Equality Act and make reasonable adjustments. Such provisions help to ensure that people are treated at all times with the dignity and respect that they deserve. A key part of that is the accessible information standard, which is essential for an effective high-quality health service. It was introduced in 2015 and clarifies what health and care services must do under the Equality Act to make reasonable adjustments so that people with additional communication needs are not put at a disadvantage.
All organisations that provide NHS care or publicly funded adult social care are required to comply with the accessible information standard, which sets out how patients and service users—including carers, where appropriate—should receive information in a way that is accessible to them. The Care Quality Commission, which monitors how the standard is put into place, specifically highlights that that includes users of British Sign Language. One wonderful example of that is the fact that BSL users can use the NHS 111 BSL language service, which provides telephone advice on when to seek further medical help, advises on medication use and provides tips on self-care. BSL users can download an app that enables them to connect to an interpreter via a webcam, and the interpreter then relays the conversation to the 111 adviser. Such technology is a great passion of the Secretary of State, and I will take away the comments that have been raised about that during the debate.
For standards and duties to be effective, compliance must be monitored and action taken where needed. When it inspects a service, the CQC uses five steps to identify whether it is complying with the accessible information standard to ensure that people with disabilities can access health and care services. Those five steps focus on how services identify and assess needs and how they are planned, how services clearly record identified needs, what steps are in place as part of the assessment and care planning service, and how services flag information and communication needs and their records, given that the method used must make it possible for all staff to be quickly made aware of and work to meet those needs. Finally, the CQC assesses whether services meet an individual’s needs, ensuring that people receive information in a way that they understand. That might mean arranging communication support if people need it, and it could include access to a BSL interpreter or lip reader, or using a hearing aid.
Organisations are required to publish an accessible communications policy and establish a complaints process. It is important that organisations support users to provide feedback and help to improve those services. In 2017, NHS England led a post-implementation review of the accessible information standard, which provided an invaluable opportunity to assess its impact and ensure that it remains fit for purpose. Following the review, a revised specification was issued. Although there were no substantive amendments, there were changes to the definition of some terms, and clarification of requirements regarding the Mental Capacity Act 2005 and data sharing. The review showed that there was widespread support for the aims of the standard and that patients and carers were clear that receiving accessible information is essential if they are to receive high-quality, safe care.
More generally, there is an action plan on hearing loss, which sets out key objectives including prevention, early diagnosis, maximising independence—a point the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North made—and enabling people to take part in everyday activities, such as gaining access to work. There is already a commissioning framework published as part of the action plan, and a joint strategic needs assessment for local authorities and NHS commissioners is expected this summer.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence published “Hearing loss in adults: assessment and management” in June 2018, which will form the basis of developing a quality standard for adult onset hearing loss that clinical commissioning groups can use to support commissioning. The action plan on hearing loss consortium is led by NHS England, which works with stakeholders across a system to tackle this important issue and galvanise action, given the rising prevalence of hearing loss.