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All-Party Parliamentary Group on Deafness

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LOOK AT ME' Deaf Awareness Week Reception - 4th May 2004

Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Broad Sanctuary, London. SW1P 3EE

Introduction by Ruth Myers, Chair of UK Council on Deafness:

UK Council on deafness is to support the establishment of an All-Party Group on Deafness for which we will provide the secretariat. I assure you that this important initiative has attracted considerable interest from both Houses of Parliament. Malcolm Bruce has been instrumental informing the group and I fill now ask him to tell you more about it.

Speech by Malcolm Bruce MP:

Thank you very much indeed for that, can I say that I have not been the only one instrumental in setting up the group because at the end of the day an all-party group of any kind depends on all parties wishing to be involved. What has been magnificent is two things, one is the UK Council on Deafness and many other organisations who have worked with my office to support the initiative, and the remarkable numbers of members of Parliament and peers in the House of Lords that have expressed positive interest in supporting this move. I should point out that there is an all-party group on deafness in the Scottish Parliament, in the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland assembly but not one in Westminster. The interest that has been shown is such that we will be able to constitute it formally within the next 2 to 3 weeks and I am really appreciative of my colleagues in both houses who have responded so enthusiastically. The great thing too is that issues relating to deafness are not party political issues. They really do bring together politicians of all parties and who just simply want to work with deaf people to advance their interests. And to give deaf people access to the decision making processes both to hear what is being proposed and enable them to say what they want.

There are 2 or 3 areas which I think we certainly want to address early on. There is no doubt at all, for example, that there is a very live interest in the issue of subtitling. Subtitling in both television and subtitling of movies. The Communications Bill has a long term objective that at least 60 per cent of television should be subtitled but unfortunately the dates by which that is to be achieved is rather more in the future than many of us feel is reasonable and for those of my parliamentary colleagues, certainly from the House of Commons, that are here I call on you to sign the Early Day Motion which is to ensure that the subtitling is advanced in the fastest possible way.

Subtitles in cinemas. Most deaf people that are interested in cinema have said to me its all very well giving us the subtitled version of Lord of the Rings or Matrix 2. But normally by the time it comes round, if we notice the advert and if we can attend it because we are not working at that time, its after all our hearing colleagues have stopped talking about it because its finished. They want to be in at the same time as every body else is talking about the latest release. Modern technology makes that possible and we want to ensure that it is available in as many parts of the country as possible.

I have a particular interest in communication. I think we all do really, you would not be in politics if you were not into communication, though at the moment politicians are not performing as good as they should on communicating. But clearly if you are involved in the community of deaf people the real issue is to enable deaf people to communicate with each other, to enable deaf people and hearing people to communicate and understand each other. What is really good for me is when I go to events, organised by the RNID or the National Deaf Children's Society or the UK Council on Deafness, where the overwhelming majority of people are deaf, then the roles are reversed. I am the one that is having communication difficulties, I am the one that does not understand the jokes, I am the one who does not know what is going on. That is a very good piece of education for me. To understand those frustrations.

Its one of the reasons why I am a supporter of communication of all kinds but also particularly of Sign Language for those deaf people for whom its a major, and in some cases their only, form of communication. And I have campaigned long and hard for its recognition, I can give you a little update. A year ago the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a report to call for the legal recognition of Sign Languages. Across all of the Member States of the Council of Europe, which is now 46 countries. Last week I asked the Dutch Foreign Minister who is currently the President of the Committee of Ministers what progress was being made. He told me 2 things. Firstly, after receiving the report the Committee of Ministers asked for expert opinion and concluded that there should be a legal instrument to give recognition to Sign Languages and that the next step was to consult Sign Language users to ask them what form this instrument should take. And I was advised that the first step in that process is to be a conference of Sign Language users organised in the UK. under the sponsorship of Maria Eagle. I wish to thank her for taking that responsibility forward in conjunction with the Council of Europe. And obviously what I hope is that we will deliver in time some real progress.

I just quote this, I always do because it simply got the message through to me as to what the disparities are. When I was preparing that report I visited Scandinavia and as a member of Parliament for a Scottish constituency it struck me that when I was in Finland the population of Finland and the population of Scotland are pretty equal. I think there is a few hundred thousand more people in Finland but they are fairly equal, but in Finland there are 6 hundred working interpreters serving the deaf community in Finland. In Scotland there are 27.

Indeed I get people coming to me saying we can't get access to interpreters when we need them so we don't ask. I also get people saying I am a fully trained interpreter, but I can't get employment. That clearly is not a satisfactory situation, and I hope that we can do more to close the gap between the very high degree of achievement in Scandinavia compared to the UK. And one interesting static is about bilingualism, in Scandinavia you are required to learn your own language and English. English is a compulsory second language, but you are also encouraged to learn another language that is why Scandinavians are so good at languages. But one of the languages you can choose to learn is Sign Language, as your second additional language, and in Sweden at any given time there are ten thousand hearing people learning Sign Language. Which means there is just a greater acceptance and understanding.

So, I think I would want to conclude by saying this. We are establishing an All-Party Group on Deafness. It will address all of the issues relating to all of the people who have issues with deafness. It will deal with issues relating to hearing aids, to education, to subtitling, to new technology, to Sign Language, and indeed I should point out the role of Cued Speech and the role of other forms of support. It will fundamentally be about helping deaf people to access the political process to tell us what they want, and to team up with Parliamentarians of every persuasion who are prepared to campaign to deliver better conditions for deaf people. You are all here and that proves there is a vibrant campaign in this country for deaf people. Parliament is only one place that is important but I certainly take the view that the coordination of that campaigning requires a parliamentary dimension and I know there are a number of Parliamentarians here and have been here, that you have a lot of friends in Parliament who will, I am absolutely convinced work with you. I am just catching the eye of Jack Ashley at the back there who I have had the privilege to serve in the House of Commons before he was elevated to a higher place.

Perhaps Jack will not mind me saying this but for many of us in Parliament our commitment to deaf people is due to personal experience. Very personal to Jack. Second personal to me, I have a deaf daughter. It does not therefore mean that we are all, although I think many of the colleagues that supported the campaign possibly are, totally unselfish deputies of your interest. We are confronted with it and we try to understand the frustration and the problems, so I hope you understand that those people who are signing up to this are friends, are colleagues, are supporters and you will feel able to contact us and communicate with us. We are not here to tell you what you need, we are here to listen to you and try to deliver what you want. And even if we can be a little bit effective then we will, I hope, have helped to serve your cause. So please go on looking at us, talking to us, communicating with us, telling us what you want, I promise you our ears are open, our eyes are open and our minds are open and we are here to help.

Ruth Myers:

Thank you very much Malcolm, that was inspiring. Great news for us all. We wish the group every success.

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