Deaf people have been warned that a new British Sign Language (BSL) bill – backed by the government – will not provide them with any new rights.
An online event held this week to discuss the controversial private members’ bill raised fresh concerns about the strength of the bill, and the lack of genuine consultation with the Deaf community over the last year.
It also emerged during Monday’s event that the government had forced last-minute changes that significantly weakened the bill put forward by Labour MP Rosie Cooper.
David Buxton, chair of the British Deaf Association (BDA), who has led attempts to secure a BSL Act, attempted to persuade those watching that even a weakened act would be better than no legislation at all.
He also warned that time was running out for the bill to be passed by both the Commons and the House of Lords in time for the end of the current parliamentary session next month.
He said this meant that it would be difficult to secure amendments to improve the bill.
Buxton said the bill had originally described BSL as an “official language of the United Kingdom” but after government advisers told campaigners that the UK had no official languages, they changed that to describing BSL as “the primary language of the Deaf community in the UK”.
But on the eve of its second reading in the Commons, he and fellow campaigners had been sent a new version of the bill that had this and other aspects of the bill removed.
Disability News Service (DNS) reported last week that the bill as it stands only appears to promise new guidance on the “promotion and facilitation” of BSL, and regular reports by the government on what 20 of its departments have done to “promote or facilitate the use of British Sign Language in its communications with the public”.
Buxton told Monday’s event: “I don’t think anyone has ever said this bill will be a silver bullet. It’s not going to cure all of the evils that Deaf people experience in everyday life.”
He said instead that the bill would provide “another tool with which we can advocate for our rights”.
He also suggested that if the Deaf community suddenly withdraws its support for the bill, it could “burn certain political bridges” with “key individuals within parliament” who have so far supported it.
Jeff McWhinney, a former BDA chief executive, who last week told DNS of his concerns about the bill, spoke again on Monday about those reservations.
He said the bill should be “more robust” and “should go further”, and that he was concerned that it does not mention individuals’ rights.
He said: “I wonder if we should aim higher, rather than accepting what we have in its current format.
“My concern is, is it a token bill, is it tokenistic, will it work? I think we should get it right at the first juncture.
“I appreciate we might run out of time in the current parliamentary session and hopefully this bill would be revisited by the government with government support.
“I feel it is weak and there are vulnerabilities in it. There’s an extra mile we can go, and I think we can achieve it.
“We need to review our strategy. We need to advocate to the government further.”
McWhinney called for an amendment to the bill that stated that having access in BSL should be a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act when accessing public services.
Buxton said BDA had commissioned a report to be submitted to the committee that will consider the bill at its next parliamentary stage on 23 February, which he hoped would make this point about the Equality Act and would explain Deaf people’s concerns about the bill as it stands.
But he said the bill should be seen as “a good first step” that creates a “mechanism” for “ongoing dialogue with the government” and allows Deaf campaigners to have “a foot in the door”.
But Dr Gearóidín McEvoy, a research fellow at the University of Birmingham on the legal recognition of sign languages internationally, said it was clear that the bill provided Deaf people with no new rights as individuals.
She said that a BSL act would offer a “symbolic step forward” but she also made it clear that the bill as it stands would offer no extra rights for individual Deaf people.
She said: “Because of the structure of the bill, essentially there can’t be rights flowing from this bill.
“I know it’s quite disappointing to the Deaf community.”
She said that removing the reference to BSL being the primary language of the Deaf community was “important” and “hugely disappointing”.
She said: “The bill, sadly for me, separates BSL from the users of BSL, from the Deaf community.
“How does the language exist without the community who use it? It doesn’t.”
When actor and television presenter Memnos Costi, who was chairing the event, spoke of the importance of “getting our foot in the door” with the bill and “having access to parliamentary mechanisms”, McEvoy said she would be “somewhat cautious” about this.
She said: “Based on research from other [countries], no change has happened.
“These bills, they get passed into acts and then that’s it.
“I would be cautious about suggesting that getting your foot in the door is a way to increase rights.
“It may well be, but from a research and data perspective so far that has not shown to be true in other places.”
There were mixed reactions to the bill from Deaf people who were watching the event.
BSL-user John Denerley told the panel that the bill could be a “first step” after which campaigners could “advocate for amendments”.
He said: “We can’t afford to wait. We need to move forward now to support this BSL bill and get it passed.”
But Deaf activist Kirsty Jade said: “A lot of people keep saying, ‘It’s a first step; I hope,’ but I do feel that that’s a bit of a privileged position because a lot of Deaf people are struggling.
“To say ‘hope’ and that this is ‘a first step’ is a bit of a disservice [to Deaf people].”
She asked Buxton why the bill had not been presented to the Deaf community in BSL over the last year so they could share their views “and be more actively involved”.
She said: “I just feel not happy and that this is quite last minute… I feel that our voice has not been heard.”
Buxton claimed that it was “quite extraordinary” that the government was supporting the bill, but he added: “I do agree with you that there should have been more by way of BSL delivery of what the content of the bill was, what we were proposing it should be, and there should have been a lot more consultation at that point.”
But he said that much of their parliamentary work had been “very delicate and trying to ensure the government stay on board”.
Meanwhile, concerns that the government and Conservative MPs would use their support for the bill as evidence that they are listening to Deaf and disabled people on rights issues appeared to have been borne out this week.
Both Chloe Smith, the minister for disabled people, and Conservative backbencher Jo Gideon, mentioned the government’s support for the bill in Commons work and pensions questions on Monday, with Smith saying that the bill, and the advisory board that will be set up if it is passed, show “that we are listening to disabled people”.
Picture: (From left to right) Gearóidín McEvoy, David Buxton and Jeff McWhinney
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