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10.47 pm

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): For four years before I became a Member of Parliament, I worked as an adviser to local government on how to make mainstream council services accessible to people who are deaf or hard of hearing, of whom there are about 9 million in the UK. My work started well before Parliament passed the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, and 10 years before it was extended to cover goods and services.

Tonight’s debate is, however, prompted not by my experience, but by research carried out in shops in Buxton by my constituent, David Law. Mr. Law has a profound hearing loss and wears two powerful hearing aids. His experience in recent months has turned him into a committed campaigner on the issue of hearing induction loops in shops. More of Mr. Law later. Let me explain some of the background.

There is no precise figure on the total number of people who wear hearing aids. The number of digital hearing aids provided by the national health service is not centrally collected, and some people pay privately for their hearing aids outside the NHS. About 2 million people use hearing aids daily. The unmet demand, however, is massive. There are between 5 million and 6 million people who would benefit from wearing a hearing aid. The good news is that the NHS now provides cutting edge digital hearing aids, which until just a few years ago were available only to people who could afford to spend up to £2,000, from a private dispenser.

Hearing aids alone do not solve every problem for hearing impaired people, especially in noisy environments. Many people benefit from amplified telephones, door bells or other devices linked to their hearing aid. Above all, it is the induction loop, used alongside the hearing aid, that has brought the most widespread benefit. Induction loop systems can greatly help deaf and hard of hearing people who wear a hearing aid, as they can reduce or even cut out background noise. An induction loop therefore ensures that the hearing aid user hears only what he or she wants to hear.

Some deaf and hard of hearing people use loops in their homes, to hear their television or telephone better. Induction loops are now widely used in theatres, cinemas and places of worship to help people better understand performances and services. Closer to home, many Members of Parliament and the public find the induction loop systems in this Chamber and in our Committee Rooms to be of immense benefit.

An induction loop is simply a cable that goes round a specific listening area. The area can be as small as a single listener at an underground station ticket office, for example, or as vast as a theatre auditorium. The system can be fixed or mobile. An electric current is fed to the loop by an amplifier, and the signal is generated by a source of sound. That sound can be from a sound system, a TV set or any microphone placed in front of a person who is speaking. The resultant current in the loop produces a magnetic field that simulates the
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sound. A hearing aid set to its “T” position can pick up that magnetic field, if it is within loop. Most hearing aids, and all hearing aids that are provided by the NHS, have that “T” position.

Induction loops involve relatively straightforward technology. They are not hugely expensive, and every hearing aid user can benefit from them, if their hearing aid is compatible. However, despite all those promising factors, all too often too few hearing aid users benefit from induction loops in commercial and public premises. For a start, induction loops are often not advertised properly. Poor signage is a very common problem. That is fundamental, because if a hearing aid user does not know that the induction loop is present, they will not switch their hearing aid to the “T” position. The coverage of an induction loop needs to be displayed, and if there is no sign indicating its availability, it is obviously impossible to work out where the loop is.

David Law surveyed the shops in the main shopping areas of Buxton. He confined his research to those which advertised the presence of an induction loop through the universal symbol—a white ear shape and the letter “T” against a maroon background. These are some examples of what he was told: “Yes, we have a loop system, but you have to ask us to switch it on for you”; “Yes, we have a loop system, but it hasn’t worked for ages”; “Yes, we have a loop system, but the person who knows about it isn’t here today”; “Yes, we have a loop system, but no one on the staff knows how to use it, or how to tell whether it is working or not”; or even “No, we don’t have a loop system any more, even though the sign on the door still says that we have.” Unfortunately, he found precious few examples where people said, “Yes, we have a loop system, it is permanently switched on, regularly tested and all our staff know how to use it. Welcome!”

When he wrote to the stores in question, Mr. Law invariably found that the regional managers who replied to his letters were more aware of the importance of loop systems than shop workers and managers. In some cases, the replies directly contradicted what he had been told: “All our staff are aware of the loop system and have been trained to use it”; “The loop system is regularly tested and is in full working order”; or, more helpfully, “Thank you for drawing this to our attention. The problem with the loop system has been addressed, and it is now in full working order.”

My research, which I conducted 12 years ago with local authorities, showed an alarming use of inappropriate technology. In one case, users of the induction loop fitted at a council’s housing department customer services counter could be heard by hearing aid users throughout the whole building, as the device was many times too powerful for its designated use. As a result, hearing aid users in other parts of the building could not use their local loop systems without interference, because the council had paid well over the odds for a device of a far higher specification than was needed.

Those problems were also highlighted in a national study of the retail sector in 1998 by the Grass Roots Group, a mystery shopping organisation. In its report, “The Challenge of Disability”, it found that less than a
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third of the outlets that it visited in the financial and high street market sectors had induction loops at the customer service desks, but even when induction loops were in place, they were often of little benefit. Of the induction loop systems tested by deaf and hard of hearing people, 61 per cent. in shops were found not to be working properly. In the past nine years, I recognise that many large retailers and the main banks and building societies have invested heavily in the provision of induction loops, often in response to the full implementation of the Disability Discrimination Act 2004, but have they invested well if the facility is not being used? The Act requires providers of goods and services to make reasonable adjustments to provide those goods and services to people with disabilities in a manner equivalent to that provided to others. From Mr. Law’s research and from discussing the matter with organisations such as the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, of which I was a trustee for several years, I believe that probably little, if any, improvement has taken place in the performance of induction loops over those years. For example, a recent survey of London Underground ticket offices found that fewer than half the loop systems at ticket offices were fully functional.

In taking matters forward, I want to set out several simple steps by which the retail sector could dramatically improve access to goods and services for almost 2 million people. First, induction loops are only part, albeit a vital one, of what we might call the communications solution. Staff need to know what an induction loop is, what benefits it can bring and, most fundamentally, how it can be turned on.

Secondly, induction loops must be regularly tested and maintained, in the same way as a security or fire alarm system would be. It is not acceptable for retailers to assume that their induction loops are working up until the time that they receive a complaint from a customer. Relying on customers to complain is not an acceptable testing method, not least because many people with hearing impairments do not have the confidence to complain; they will assume that their hearing aid is not working rather than the loop system. Testing of induction loops is vital and should preferably be carried out once a month. Loop listeners, which replicate a hearing aid set to the “T” position, are inexpensive and easy to use.

Thirdly, shops and service providers must recognise that not every hearing aid user will understand the benefits of an induction loop. Sadly, too many new hearing aid users come away from their visit to the audiologist without an essential knowledge of these systems. Fourthly, there should always be clear signage indicating the existence of each and every induction loop. Fifthly, different retail situations suit different types of induction loops. Expert advice should always be sought when installing loops to British standard BS 7594.

I hope that every retailer, however large or small, will take more seriously the needs of deaf and hard-of-hearing people. It is not often that the retail sector has the opportunity dramatically to improve its customer service to 2 million people at such relatively little cost. For the smallest retail premises, just one mobile induction loop and a listening device together will cost under £200. Such an investment could make a dramatic improvement in access, reflected in a dramatic improvement in sales.
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For larger premises, the real challenge is not so much the necessity to provide the induction loops, although in some cases it clearly is, but instead to ensure that all their staff properly understand how they work and how to maintain them. That is a far from onerous task—it is just a requirement to have clear policies and procedures that staff are expected to follow. Making good use of existing equipment is not just the right thing to do—it is good business.

In summary, if, where the installation of an induction loop is a reasonable adjustment to make—I can think of very few customer interfaces where it would not be—will my hon. Friend the Minister ensure that standards of installation, staff training, customer awareness, testing and maintenance are high enough to ensure that the aim of the 2004 Act is achieved in respect of equal access to goods and services for people who use hearing aids? I hope that the retail sector will not turn a deaf ear to the needs of millions of hearing impaired customers and will not pay lip service to lip readers—but that is another story.

10.59 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) on securing the debate on hearing loops, which, as we have heard, play a valuable role in enabling hearing-impaired people to gain access to goods and services. Through the debate, my hon. Friend helps to raise the profile in the House and beyond of the exclusion that deaf and hard-of-hearing people can face. I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the debate and set out the Government’s commitment to overcoming the barriers that hearing-impaired people face. I also hope to show the way in which we are fulfilling that commitment.

First, let me pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s personal record of supporting deaf and hearing-impaired people. In positions such as trusteeship of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and membership of the all-party parliamentary group on deafness, he has supported hearing-impaired people to achieve their goal of full and active participation in our society. By promoting the RNID’s telephone hearing check, he highlighted the impact of deafness and the importance of its early detection.

The debate is further evidence of my hon. Friend’s commitment to championing the inclusion of those people who regard themselves as severely or profoundly deaf. The RNID’s figures show that there are 700,000 such adults in the UK. My hon. Friend mentioned his constituent, Mr. David Law, who conducted a survey in Buxton. Like many of those 700,000 adults, he faces significant barriers in his everyday life. Those people also experience the isolation that comes from having an impairment that hinders communication with others, yet they have a right to enjoy the activities that non-disabled people take for granted.

In the debate, we are considering many hundreds of thousands of severely hearing-impaired people, such as Mr. Law, who have a right to a full and fulfilling life. The Government are achieving that for all disabled people. We promised to establish a comprehensive set of civil rights for disabled people and, as my hon. Friend
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knows, we achieved that by significantly extending and improving the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, to which he referred, culminating in the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, which gained support from hon. Members of all parties. The Disability Discrimination Act, as amended and strengthened by the Government, requires service providers to make reasonable adjustments to overcome the barriers that disabled people face when accessing goods and services. Those wide-ranging duties mean that the service provider may have to consider a variety of adjustments for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

My hon. Friend has focused on hearing loops in shops, but I am pleased that he mentioned the hearing loop on the parliamentary estate. Like him, I know from colleagues that it is a first-class system, which benefits Members, staff and visitors to the Palace of Westminster. I fully acknowledge that hearing loops are an important technological development and that they pull down barriers for disabled people. They help many hearing-impaired people access services, and I support their use whenever possible.

My hon. Friend made some valuable points about the use of hearing loops. Clearly, as he said, it is not sufficient simply to install a hearing loop. Retailers and other service providers must also ensure that customers are aware that the loop is available, that staff are fully trained in its use and that, as he said, it is maintained in full working order. I have some personal experience of that. For a meeting with constituents I got the portable hearing loop from my local authority, only to find, much to my embarrassment, that it did not work on that occasion. I assure my hon. Friend that such factors are recognised in the way in which the duty of reasonable adjustment operates. That is made clear in the code of practice that the Disability Rights Commission published. The code provides practical guidance and advice for service providers on how to fulfil the duty of reasonable adjustment.

The code also has statutory status. That means that a court that is considering a claim of discrimination in accessing goods and services has to take account of any parts of the code that are relevant to the case. The code is relevant to many points that my hon. Friend made. For example, it explains that training employees is an important factor in providing reasonable adjustments. Paragraph 6.12 makes it clear that staff

The code also points out that service providers should ensure that any auxiliary aids they provide are carefully chosen and properly maintained. It uses the example of a person who is told that a theatre has a hearing loop, but on the day he or she cannot enjoy the performance because the loop is out of service. Although the theatre provided an auxiliary aid, it failed to check that the loop was working properly. That means that the theatre is unlikely to have taken reasonable steps to enable disabled people to use its services.

I should point out that the installation of a hearing loop may not be affordable or practical in all cases, in spite of the fact that my hon. Friend quite rightly raised the issue of costs, which are quite insignificant in
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some respects. However, even if installing a loop is not possible, it does not mean that the service provider should do nothing. Duties under part 3 of the Disability Discrimination Act require the service provider to anticipate the range of barriers that a disabled customer might face—and there is almost always something that they can do. We need to build a better understanding among service providers of the variety of hearing impairments and the range of adjustments that they can make. That way, we will encourage service providers to think more creatively about the adjustments that they can put in place and we will further improve access to goods and services for people who are deaf and hard of hearing.

Of course, the DDA recognises that service providers may not be in a position to make every aspect of their service accessible. Its duty of reasonable adjustment aims to balance the rights of the disabled person and the interests of the service provider. The Act requires service providers to make whatever adjustments are reasonable in the particular circumstances. They need to consider factors such as the cost and practicality of making the adjustment and what resources they have available.

Service providers need to understand that not all adjustments need to be complicated. Simply training staff to speak slowly, clearly and directly to the customer will help people who can lip-read and communicating by writing things down on a pad will help other deaf people, but that does not mean that a small retailer should ignore the wider options, including whether it would be practical and affordable to provide a hearing loop. Of course, for the larger, well-resourced retailers, reasonable adjustment means that a far greater range of adjustments should be achievable. They should be better placed to include more significant adjustments such as the installation of hearing loops.

Since introducing the new duties, we have regularly monitored how service providers are responding to them, and I would like to advise my hon. Friend that the position is encouraging. Although we do not have figures specifically on adjustments for deaf people, research published earlier this year showed that the majority of businesses—indeed, nearly 90 per cent—had made or planned adjustments to the provision of their services. There is also increasing evidence on the high street of adjustments such as signs offering assistance to disabled people and signs showing hearing loops in place, although I appreciate my hon. Friend’s comment that more establishments with loops could make that more obvious.

Overall, the evidence shows that service providers are taking a more positive attitude towards serving disabled people, but I am sure my hon. Friend will appreciate and agree that legislation is not enough in itself to achieve a fairer society. Our aim is to stimulate the creation of a society where changes are made because it is the right thing to do for disabled people and not just because the law requires it. Our research findings show that we are moving in that direction. The majority of service providers who had made adjustments said, interestingly, that they would have made at least some of them even if the DDA had not
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been in place. That links into my hon. Friend’s comment about it being good for business.

We have a long way to go to ensure that service providers automatically design accessible services. In the meantime, we need to encourage service providers to meet their DDA duties. In our most recent campaign, we worked with trade organisations and business intermediaries, because small businesses are the most likely to turn to these sources for business advice. We worked closely with them to boost the expertise and capacity of such organisations to provide advice on DDA issues. We also have information on reasonable adjustments—including adjustments for deaf and hard of hearing people—available on the Department’s website. A clear message in our campaigns has been that making adjustments need not be expensive or burdensome. That is borne out by all the research findings. Nearly three quarters of those providers who had made adjustments had found no problem putting them into place.

The Government alone cannot ensure the effective implementation of the legislation, however. We all have a role to play, and we need to work in partnership with other organisations. I particularly commend organisations such as the Royal National Institute for Deaf People for work in this area. Through its websites, the RNID provides advice on the duties of service providers and the types of reasonable adjustment that may be made.

Disabled people themselves can improve implementation of the law through enforcement of it. That does not necessarily mean formal enforcement through the courts. That is only meant to be used where other routes fail. Instead, disabled people might want to consider an informal approach. I know from one correspondent how successful such an approach can be. When he drew the attention of a large retailer to the barriers at his local branch, and mentioned the DDA, the company made significant access improvements. Disabled people can also seek advice from the Disability Rights Commission—or, from October, the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights—if they believe that a service provider has discriminated by failing to make a reasonable adjustment.

I thank my hon. Friend once again for this opportunity to highlight an important issue and to explain the Government’s record in promoting equality for disabled people. His constituent, Mr. David Law, deserves a vote of thanks for carrying out the research not only on his own behalf but on behalf of other members of the community in Buxton and elsewhere who suffer from a hearing impairment and find that they cannot participate in the way that non-disabled people can.

I am confident that we have achieved a strong framework of disability rights to support our aim of enabling hearing-impaired people—indeed, all disabled people—to become full and active members of society. Through highlighting these issues, as my hon. Friend has done, we will continue to work towards achieving our vision that, by 2025, we will have true equality for all disabled people in this country.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes past Eleven o’clock.

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