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1.12 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Margaret Hodge): It is worth observing that there were nearly 500 Members in the House to discuss the Freedom of Information Bill that we have just passed to another place. There are now a bare half a dozen of us here to talk about an issue of key importance that provides freedom for a large minority group of those who are deaf or have a hearing impairment and for whom sign language is their first language. That is a sad reflection on the House, but even at this late hour there are many people outside following our debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt). He is well known for his commitment on disability issues, particularly his interest in deaf people. He is a trustee of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and undertook his Parliament Industry Trust fellowship with Leonard Cheshire. His contribution to disability causes is warmly acknowledged and recognised. I am grateful for the great support that he gave to my work on disability issues before he became a Parliamentary Private Secretary.

My hon. Friend has raised a number of important issues that I want to address. More than 8 million people in this country have a hearing impairment, of whom 670,000 are profoundly deaf. Of those 670,000, 50,000 use British sign language as their first language. The recognition of the language is crucial to facilitate communication for them and is a civil rights issue.

Since I have had ministerial responsibility for disabled people, there has been a strong lobby on the recognition of BSL, with particular focus on specifying the language in the Council of Europe's charter for regional or minority languages.

As my hon. Friend knows, officials and lawyers are arguing over whether we can give recognition to BSL and whether it can be classified as a minority language under the terms of the charter. I have assured my hon. Friend and others that the Government will explore the matter with other parties in Europe, once we have ratified the charter, and I repeat that commitment now.

The charter has now been signed. It will be ratified, by means of the processes of the House, in the near future, and then we shall open the discussions. A range of

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difficulties will have to be overcome, and this country's lack of a written constitution creates additional problems in the recognition of official languages, including BSL.

In preparing for this debate, I have gathered information about the action being taken by other countries. The Finns, the Swedes and the Danish are probably the most advanced in giving formally recognition to BSL, but other countries are also making advances.

The Dutch Government set up commissions in 1995 and 1997, and reports and recommendations have been passed to that Government. The federal Government in Germany is discussing the matter with the Lander, and Westphalia has commissioned a report on the legal implications. The Portuguese approved an amendment to the Portuguese constitution covering sign language in 1997. In Belgium, associations for deaf people are forming close links with political parties with the aim of speeding up the process of recognition. Although sign language is not recognised in Italy, a number of laws include a specific reference to the use of a sign language interpreter.

On reflection, therefore, I give my hon. Friend the undertaking that I will ask officials to look again at what we can do, outside formal recognition in the charter, to achieve the objectives that he set out--that is, the acceptance of the language's legitimacy, its systematic use by all authorities, and the willingness to allow submissions to be made in that language. I will also write to the Disability Rights Commission as soon as it opens its doors on 25 April, asking it to explore the issue further.

I can also tell the House that I recently wrote to all Government Departments to find out their views about what they might do with regard to sign language. Responses have started to come in, and I thought that my hon. Friend and the House would like to know what I have heard.

Progress is being made. For example, as my hon. Friend said, since April 1998 the courts have operated a system by which any form of communication support can be booked for parties involved in civil or family proceedings. I was also pleased to see that users of the electronic version of the community legal service directory--the "Just Ask" website--can select to choose an agency offering BSL as one of the search criteria. That directory contains more than 15,000 entries, and the site was launched on 3 April.

The Benefits Agency has set a standard for communicating with people who do not speak English or Welsh, and it applies to users of other languages, including BSL. When it is necessary to interview customers who need interpreters but cannot or do not wish to provide their own, the Benefits Agency makes arrangements within 24 hours for the provision of such an interpreter.

Further examples of which the House may be aware include the signed video magazine programme "Public Scene", which is produced and distributed by and on behalf of Government Departments by the Central Office of Information. In addition, the Department of Health produces BSL-signed videos when the information involved is particularly relevant to deaf people on issues such as direct payments and the long-term care charter.

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I was also pleased to learn from my write-around that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is currently cataloguing videos that include titles filmed in BSL. My own Department has produced a BSL version of the disability rights taskforce report.

My hon. Friend mentioned education. We believe that choice is crucial for deaf children and their families in connection with special educational needs. We are strengthening the process, as my hon. Friend knows, and emphasising inclusion in legislation that we intend to introduce later in the Session.

It is for local education authorities to decide on the provision in the light of local circumstances and the child's need. However, we have established 11 special educational needs regional co-ordination projects covering the whole of England. Their aim is to establish a more effective co-ordination across local education authority boundaries, in particular for low-instance disabilities. A number of those projects are studying sensory impairments such as deafness. The aim is to ensure some consistency of provision throughout the country. I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that we want to ensure that we provide a choice that suits the needs of children and their families.

My hon. Friend mentioned disability legislation. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 is having an impact. The code of practice that we published on the changes in the provision of goods and services, which was published in October, contained a number of examples showing where BSL would be an appropriate adaptation that should be made to ensure that people were not discriminated against. For example, a hospital would be expected to have a BSL interpreter for an appointment. That would be considered a reasonable step in a large hospital, although it might not be reasonable in a doctor's surgery.

My hon. Friend spent some time talking about interpreters. There has been a shortage and in my desire to do something practical to ensure that BSL can become a real language to many more people, without getting involved in the legal niceties of what we can or cannot do under particular charters, I am trying to tackle that shortage.

We have undertaken some research, which I have been anxiously awaiting. Again, in preparing for this debate, I asked for the results of the research but was told that it had been delayed because of the illness of one of the academics undertaking it. The purpose of the research was to identify the gaps and whether we could take action to ensure that existing interpreters were better used. I will ensure that my hon. Friend has access to that research as soon as it is with me and has been published.

In the meantime, I have been talking to both the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and the Council for the Advancement of Communication for Deaf People. I propose to try to find a shorter-term solution to the undoubted shortage of interpreters and to set in place a longer-term solution that will provide us with a steady stream of interpreters to meet what will undoubtedly be a growing demand.

Whatever we do, it will not have a totally immediate impact, simply because, as my hon. Friend knows, it takes

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time to go through the long training and qualify to become an interpreter. I can assure the House and my hon. Friend that, by Easter, which is not too far away, thank goodness, I hope to be able to announce funding to provide an urgent boost to the number of trained BSL interpreters. That will be the first step. In the second step, I hope to announce the first stages of the longer-term strategy and how we go forward.

Those are some examples of the progress that I have been able to make since I have been the Minister responsible for disabled people. We still have some way

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to go. I am sure that this debate has helped to raise awareness of the issues and has helped me, officials in the Department and those in the community at large to concentrate minds.

I very much hope that, working together with those in the community for whom this matter is important, and with my hon. Friend and others who have an interest in the issue, we can make real progress so that we can break down the barriers that prevent those deaf people whose first language is BSL from taking a full part in civil society.

Question put and agreed to.

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