More than half of government departments have ignored new legislation that was supposed to boost the use of British Sign Language (BSL) in their communications, a new report has revealed.
The report shows how often each department offered a British Sign Language (BSL) version of government publications and announcements or a BSL interpreter for press conferences in the first year of the new British Sign Language (BSL) Act.
Although the act was introduced as a private members’ bill, by Labour’s Rosie Cooper, it was heavily supported by the government, which ensured it became law last spring.
Since it became law, ministers including Tom Pursglove – the minister for disabled people – have repeatedly highlighted the legislation as evidence of the government’s commitment to disability rights.
But critics, including many Deaf activists, have pointed out that the act provided Deaf people with no new rights as individuals, and that the government was using it “to look good without costing anything”.
A key part of the act was for the work and pensions secretary to publish a report on how government departments used BSL in their communications after it became law and up until the end of April this year.
But this report – published this week by DWP and the government’s Disability Unit – shows most government departments have provided almost nothing in BSL since the act became law.
In 10 months, 11 of 20 government departments did not provide a single BSL translation of a public announcement, publication or press conference.
The departments that ignored the new legislation include the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, headed by former work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey; the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities; and the Treasury.
The report also shows that only two government departments – DWP and the Cabinet Office, which are both responsible for implementing the act – produced a single public announcement about policy or changes to the law in BSL.
Only six out of 20 government departments used BSL in a press conferences, on social media or on their websites to publicise their activities or policies.
And 13 departments did not produce a single publication in BSL throughout the 10 months.
Lee Starr-Elliott, a Deaf trade unionist and disability activist, said the government “should be ashamed of its record”, which shows the act was a “token vanity project” and “continues to allow discriminatory behaviour towards BSL users’ access to information that as taxpayers we rightly deserve”.
He said he had opposed the legislation because of its tokenism and lack of “real accountability or funding to enable real progress in areas of BSL” and was “disappointed to see that my fears are coming true”.
He said: “As a Deaf person I am urging the BSL community to pressure the government and many invested groups such as the British Deaf Association, RNID, etc to prioritise the strengthening of the bill and look to mandate that at any level of government both locally and nationally that all communications be accessible with real accountability and funding in place to achieve results and improve service.”
Kerena Marchant, a Deaf film-maker and activist, said: “This is a betrayal of the Deaf community.
“The figures are abysmal and prove the worthlessness of this legislation and are evidence that the Deaf community were misled into expecting fuller BSL access.
“Eleven out of 20 departments failing to deliver and a smattering of BSL access across the rest shows the shocking extent of the betrayal.
“Will it improve in the next report? I doubt it.”
She said the government had “scored brownie points at virtually no cost” with the BSL Act and the government now had “little incentive to do more and will probably do less”.
The British Deaf Association (BDA), which supported the BSL Act when it became law, said it “acknowledges steps taken in advancing BSL recognition by the UK government but observes that the government, by its own admission, continues to fall short in adequately engaging with BSL users”.
A BDA spokesperson said: “The report is quite ambiguous in nature, presenting very shallow efforts to truly deliver for the BSL community.
“In order to make a genuine impact on the BSL and Deaf communities, the BDA is calling on the UK government to consult and work collaboratively with members of the BSL Alliance who know our audience, to effectively promote and preserve BSL.”
David Buxton, a former BDA chair who led the campaign for a BSL Act, said he was “disappointed” by how few government departments had taken any action on BSL.
But he said he believed that new funding for BSL-related projects – such as a proposed GCSE in BSL and allowing Deaf people to serve as jurors with support from BSL interpreters – would not have happened without the private members’ bill.
And he said he was “constantly fighting for a stronger BSL Act with extra rights” as he had originally proposed.
Pursglove this week failed to answer questions about the report.
A Cabinet Office press officer declined to say anything about the report, or respond to the questions, other than to point to a brief statement Pursglove made when publishing it.
In the statement, Pursglove said the report “highlights pockets of good practice” but that the government “can do better”.
He said the government would now publish an update report every year for at least the next five years.
Picture: Deaf people at a rally to support the BSL bill in Trafalgar Square, London, last year. Picture by British Deaf Association
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