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6 Mar 2007 : Column 432WH—continued

There are several ways to get the relevant information to Parliament, even in an abridged form. The Joint Committee on Human Rights, which deals with human rights issues in the UK, could cover matters on which
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the UK is in control as an occupying power. We could also get the information through the Foreign Affairs Committee or the Defence Committee, or through parliamentary or Government websites. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office probably has several websites that could be used. Parliamentary questions could be answered more frankly, there could be parliamentary debates and the Library’s facilities could be used.

I fail to see how denying that information to Parliament and MPs, even in an edited form, serves any useful purpose in our mature democracy. I urge the Minister to reconsider.

1.16 pm

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) for raising this important subject. No other part of my brief at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office requires such a fine balance between the needs for confidentiality and for complete transparency in all matters of governance, in which I am totally in favour. That is a difficult balance to strike, and it is interesting that he is the only Member ever to ask about the nature of that confidentiality. That says something about the House of Commons.

My hon. Friend is very enthusiastic about pursuing such matters, and I am glad that he has pursued this. He is right to quote the FCO’s belief that we judge civilisations and societies on their attitudes to crucial issues such as human rights. However, all other right hon. and hon. Members seem to agree with my written answers that we have to maintain the confidentiality of our relationships regarding the reports and articles that we receive from the International Committee of the Red Cross. I shall try to explain why.

The debate is timely because there is a new ICRC representative to London, who may or may not be in the Chamber, and because I shall meet its president, Dr. Jakob Kellenberger, on Thursday, when he will also meet the Secretary of State for International Development.

Before I address the issues that my hon. Friend raised, let me express how much the Government value their constructive and co-operative relationship with the ICRC, which is a unique organisation. It is impartial, neutral and independent. Its humanitarian mission is to protect the lives and dignity of victims of war and internal violence, and to provide them with assistance. It directs and co-ordinates the international relief activities conducted by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in situations of conflict. It also endeavours to prevent suffering by promoting and strengthening humanitarian law and universal humanitarian principles. It is worth recalling that its mandate is conferred by international humanitarian law, notably the four Geneva conventions of 1949, the additional protocols of 1977 and the statutes of the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement.

The United Kingdom is a committed and active state party to the Geneva conventions and additional protocols. We seek at all times to support the work of the ICRC through our work to promote effective application and strengthening of international humanitarian law, and by supporting its humanitarian work through our financial contribution, which is administered by the Department for International Development. The UK contributes £20 million annually to the ICRC.

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My hon. Friend referred to provision of information to Parliament on representations to the Government by the ICRC. That is at the heart of this debate. The effectiveness of the ICRC’s work depends on its impartiality, neutrality and independence. It has unrivalled access to those it assists, to responsible authorities and to belligerents in situations of conflict and humanitarian need.

At the moment, we are worried about our diplomats who are on holiday in Ethiopia and who have been kidnapped. We are not sure where they are or who is holding them. So often, the International Red Cross knows belligerents with whom state parties have no contact. It has unrivalled knowledge and, more importantly, it is trusted. I shall return to that.

The ICRC treats information that it receives or gathers as confidential, and it expects its interlocutors to do the same. That confidentiality is the customary practice of the ICRC, and is accepted and expected by states and victims alike. We do not want to break with that customary practice because we would risk undermining the ICRC’s work, not only with the UK Government, but in other countries.

That principle of confidentiality allows the ICRC to remain impartial, to gain repeated and unrestricted access to prisoners, and to urge detaining authorities to make necessary improvements. The ICRC stresses the confidential nature of its reports on visits to places of detention and expects that to be respected by those to whom representations are made. I shall return to that, but I want to remind my hon. Friend that this country, this Minister and this Department have nothing to hide in that respect. I shall try to expand on that.

The ICRC is clear that neither an entire report nor any part of it may be divulged to a third party or to the public. It does not want reports or representations disclosed, although it is well known that it conducts visits that may result in such reports and representations. As well as preserving the ICRC’s neutrality, the principle of confidentiality also helps to preserve the safety and security of ICRC staff and those who assist it by talking freely to it. Without that, the ICRC would not be able to provide the assistance that it does.

It is in nobody’s interests for third parties, including the Government, to take action that would risk undermining the effectiveness of the ICRC and its work. For that reason, the Government accept and respect the confidentiality of information required by the ICRC, and will continue to do so.

I want to refer to an article in the “International Review of the Red Cross”, which the ICRC published in June 2005. It is headed, “Action by the International Committee of the Red Cross in the event of violations of international humanitarian law or of other fundamental rules protecting persons in situations of violence”. It is a long title, but it describes precisely what the article does. Section 2 spells out the ICRC’s requirement for confidentiality, and we have drawn conclusions from that. We regard the content of ICRC’s reports and representations made to us as confidential unless the ICRC itself says otherwise. It represents the victim, so it should take the lead, and we do not believe that third parties should make that judgment. That is important. I would be worried that a consequence of us making such a judgment might jeopardise its ability to visit the most difficult
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places—for example, Guantanamo bay, and many others, such as those mentioned by my hon. Friend.

We do not disclose the fact that the ICRC has reported or raised an issue with us, which is clearly in line with what is set out in the article. We have regular contact with the ICRC on a range of issues and we consider respect for the confidentiality principle by both the ICRC and states as fundamental to the exercise of its functions. We may be able to disclose information when we are asked more generally about a humanitarian issue when we are aware of the ICRC’s public position or when we have been briefed in accordance with its publicly available lines. Such situations are distinct from those in which the ICRC has reported specifically to us, or made representations to us on specific issues.

The Government have nothing to hide in terms of how we treat prisoners in any country, including Afghanistan and Iraq. Those countries have become my second home, and I make a point of visiting prisons, holding facilities and so on. I have seen the new prison at Pol-e Charki outside Kabul, which is probably the best public building in Afghanistan. At the heart of its architecture and design and the way in which it functions is a concern for human rights that is the most sophisticated and the best that I have come across in the world. We have nothing to hide on that front. There is no question but that some terrible things have happened in Afghanistan and Iraq, and my hon. Friend was right to raise them, but the Government are determined that that will not fall within our bailiwick. We look after prisoners because that is a mark of civilisation.

My hon. Friend knows that there are many ways and means by which Members of Parliament and Ministers can obtain information on alleged abuses of human rights and the status of people who may be held in any part of the world. I have never known this Parliament to be backward or quiescent in searching for answers to and the truth about the most opaque and difficult questions. I have pursued them many times. The Government judge that the ICRC’s work in its totality is so important that we must respect its demand for confidentiality, and we shall continue to do so. We will not jeopardise its ability to go to places where Governments cannot go and to do work that Governments cannot do. That is extremely important. I know that it is irksome to my hon. Friend, and I share his desire for transparency in all things, but I hope that he accepts my answers to his written questions, and that they will protect the ICRC’s ability to do its invaluable job in the future in some of the most dangerous places in the world, where its work is so necessary.

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Sign Language Support

1.30 pm

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): I am very glad to have the opportunity to debate this issue. I have campaigned on it over many years, and I shall be intensifying the campaign, because sadly we have been going backwards rather than forwards.

Although I have no commercial interests in the issue, I have many personal interests that I should like to record. I am an honorary vice-chairman of the National Deaf Children’s Society, a trustee of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and chairman of the all-party group on deafness, and I have a grown-up deaf daughter, who of course has been the driving force behind my interest in the issue. She has just celebrated her 30th birthday, but I worry that if I had a deaf daughter today—and I have small children—she would not receive the same quality of education as my daughter did, because the provision of support for deaf children and their parents, particularly in the sphere of sign language support, has gone backwards rather than forwards.

There have been significant advances. There are much earlier diagnoses of deafness and much improved technology, with digital hearing aids and cochlear implants, providing extra support for deaf people—both children and adults—but there is no cure for deafness, and still three deaf children are born every day. Many will benefit hugely from sign language support, but for many other children and parents in many parts of the country, it is simply not available.

I attend many events, and there are many active and lively young signers in their teens and twenties in the population who complain to me vehemently about the lack of access to interpreters, and about their consequential exclusion from many activities in the hearing world.

During previous Parliaments, I was a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and during my time there I was honoured to be rapporteur on sign languages. I was particularly pleased when the Assembly overwhelmingly supported my report calling for legal recognition of sign languages, on a par with other minority languages, which in UK terms include Welsh, Gaelic and even Cornish. I am sorry that in spite of such support from parliamentarians throughout 46 European countries, the Council of Ministers has been extremely dilatory in introducing a legal instrument that would provide such a guarantee.

I find it interesting that the countries that most proactively support the role of sign language are those where bilingualism is well embedded in their society. The trailblazers are by far and away the Scandinavian countries, where in mainstream education children have to learn English as well as their mother tongue, as a curriculum requirement. As a result, those countries have no difficulty persuading the parents of deaf children to learn sign language and the mother tongue as their equivalent of bilingualism.

Although the debate and my questions are about England, examples elsewhere in the UK are important. In Wales, where bilingualism between Welsh and English is well established, the Assembly has recognised that another minority language in Wales is British sign language. It has undertaken a radical programme—radical for the UK, not across the piece—to raise the provision of sign
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language interpreters to the European Union median, which is one in every 45,000 of the population.

At the programme’s outset, there were 12 sign language interpreters in Wales; at its end in 2008, they hope that there will be 64. In Scotland, there are fewer than 30 interpreters, and we would need to train more than 80 to meet even the Welsh aspirational standard. In England, 700 additional interpreters would need to be trained to meet the Welsh standard, which is the EU median. We have not met that—and it is nothing like the ideal standard. We must treble the number of interpreters in the UK simply to deliver the European average of support for deaf children and their parents.

Those are some practical facts. If you want to know the aspirational best, Mr. Amess, I shall point you in the direction of Finland, which with a population of 5.5 million has more than 600 interpreters. If the UK were to aspire to the same level of performance, we would need 6,500 interpreters, compared with the present estimated total of 435, which is a huge deficit.

I shall begin with education and schools, because that is where support is vital. Will the Minister recognise that the right of deaf children and their parents to learn and be supported in sign language should be fundamental and guaranteed? Will he acknowledge that it is a function of his Department at least to monitor and possibly to require delivery, not simply to say that it is up to local education authorities to deliver? It is absolutely clear that many authorities neither deliver nor even aspire to do so.

There are 35,000 deaf children in the UK, and we must address what happens when a child is diagnosed as deaf, and what support the parents receive. Then we can ensure that the child is granted the maximum opportunity to attain the communication skills that will give them the best chance of making their way in life.

First, parents should be advised about the role that sign language can play—I do not seek imposition—in their children’s education. They should also be given the right to learn sign language—a right that they should be able to exercise without having to pay for it. It should apply to the immediate family, too, because they will give the closest support to the parents.

Indeed, under the Every Disabled Child Matters aspirations, the service that a deaf child requires is access to sign language for them and their parents whenever they wish. That, I am afraid, is neither a Government target nor even an aspiration.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who very much wanted to attend this debate but is away on Select Committee business, has tabled his own early-day motion on lip reading and sign language services. It has attracted many signatures, and it speaks for itself about the growing frustration in many parts of the country. People have to pay for support, and more often than not classes are over-subscribed, and the number of interpreters available to provide teaching and support is nothing like adequate.

Indeed, sign languages interpreters and other communicators for the deaf often have to travel 200 or 300 miles to support a meeting, because communicators are not available locally. It creates huge extra expense and delay, and it indicates the shortness of supply.

I have received from many sources examples that amount to a catalogue of frustration. People have been
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unable to access classes or obtain support for sign language education, they have been actively discouraged from the idea that sign language should be used in the education of deaf children, and they have found that provision is patchy across the UK.

In London, for example, Frank Barnes school for deaf children in the borough of Camden provides access to the national curriculum for deaf children through the medium of BSL. Camden is in the process of redeveloping the site, and although no decision has been taken, there is a concern that the service, which is provided to boroughs right across London, may no longer be available in the future.

I want to try to anticipate some of the Minister’s replies in the hope that he will not go down that avenue. Yes, it is a matter for local education authorities to determine provision and they have discretion in that, but it his Department’s responsibility to monitor what is provided, set minimum standards and ensure that deaf children throughout the country get access to the sign language support they need. If necessary, it should intervene where that is not happening. My challenge to the Minister relates to the fact that it is not happening, and there is no evidence that his Department is prepared to intervene.

For 30 years, I have been involved in many discussions on this matter, and it disappoints and distresses me that a debate I thought we had dealt with 30 years ago seems to be reasserting itself. There was a school of thought in this country that suggested not only that deaf children should not be taught sign language but that it should be actively suppressed. The oral tradition was a very vigorous school, which regarded sign language as an obstacle to learning and held that because the hearing world did not use it, deaf children should somehow be forced to learn to speak and lip-read. If the outcome had been that every child was able to speak and lip-read, the method would be totally applauded, but that was not the outcome. Many deaf children are simply not able to acquire that degree of speech and lip-reading understanding, and they rely on sign language.

I contend, perhaps more controversially, but I have no evidence to the contrary, that sign language gives profoundly deaf children access to an understanding of speech and communication much more effectively than the lack of it would. I profoundly believe that, so to deny them sign language is to deny them the means to acquire the best possible understanding of the spoken and written language. My own daughter would certainly have had considerable difficulty in acquiring the level of speech and linguistic understanding she has without sign language support. Incidentally, she often says to me, “I don’t really use sign language.” She tries not to, and has to do without it in most circumstances, but when I see her with deaf friends, it is suddenly all sign language, and speech goes out of the window, which is true of many young deaf people.

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