The British Sign Language Bill is a private member’s bill that was introduced and taken through the House of Commons by Rosie Cooper (Labour MP for West Lancashire). The Government has given the bill its support.

The bill would recognise British Sign Language (BSL) as its own language in law in Great Britain and aims to improve the promotion and use of BSL.

The bill passed its House of Commons stages on 18 March 2022. It is due to have second reading in the House of Lords on 25 March 2022. It is being sponsored in the House of Lords by Lord Holmes of Richmond (Conservative).

A BSL explanation of what the bill would do has been prepared by the House of Commons Library. In addition, there is a BSL version of the bill’s explanatory notes.

What is the current status of British Sign Language?

BSL is the most common form of sign language in the UK. It is estimated to be used by around 250,000 people a day.

The Royal National Institute for Deaf People has stressed the importance of the language to the Deaf community:

British Sign Language (BSL) is the language of the Deaf community in Great Britain, which has its own set of social beliefs, behaviours, art, history and values. People in the Deaf community describe themselves as ‘Deaf’ with a capital ‘D’ to express their pride in their Deaf identity.

BSL involves a combination of hand shapes and movements, lip patterns, facial expressions and shoulder movements. It has its own grammar and is structured in a completely different way from English.

BSL was recognised as its own language in 2003 by the then Labour Government. However, this has never been set out in legislation.

The ‘BSL Act Now!’ campaign (led by the British Deaf Association) has called for full legal recognition of BSL. Annie Harris, advocacy officer at the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, has said that this is important so that BSL has official recognition as a language, and also to mark its cultural importance:

Achieving legal recognition for BSL is important to show the Deaf community that their language and culture are valued and respected, and to increase access for Deaf people […] If passed, a BSL act would increase both the official status and public awareness of BSL.

Campaigners have also argued that although the Equality Act 2010 requires service providers, employers, public bodies and others to make “reasonable adjustments” for disabled people, this does not go far enough in relation to the recognition and promotion of BSL use. For example, the head of policy at Disability Rights UK, Fazilet Hadi, states:

Deaf people are entitled to BSL being offered as a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act but far too often this isn’t happening. BSL being an official language will hopefully mean a change of attitude and a change of approach, forcing services to meet the language needs of their Deaf customers.

However, commenting on the approach taken by the BSL bill, Jeff McWhinney, former chief executive of the British Deaf Association (BDA), has described simply making BSL a legally recognised language “tokenistic”. He believes it will offer no new rights and may mean that the Deaf community will have to wait longer for “stronger legislation” relating to BSL.

What would the bill do?

The bill has four clauses and would apply to England, Wales, and Scotland.

Clause one would ensure BSL is legally recognised as a language of England, Wales, and Scotland. The bill’s explanatory notes explain that:

In recognising BSL as a language in law, the bill does not affect the operation of any enactment or rule of law. However, the recognition of BSL is linked with new duties on the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to carry out certain obligations.

The bill would not apply to Northern Ireland as there are two distinct sign languages used in the country (BSL and Irish Sign Language).

Clause two would require the Government to publish reports describing what government departments had done to “promote or facilitate the use of BSL in its communications with the public”. These would have to be produced at least every three years. The clause also sets out what communications the reports should cover; for example, public announcements and the publication of certain government documents (eg consultations). However, it would not include “communications with individual members of the public, or any other communications which the relevant government department does not intend to be shared with the public at large”. The explanatory notes state that the information is not intended to be “highly prescriptive (for example, the percentage of the total types of communication created)”, but could, for example, say how many press conferences did have BSL interpretation. The issue of having BSL at Government press conferences has recently been subject to a judicial review in relation to the Covid-19 briefings (for further information, see the British Deaf Association coverage of the case and the ‘Where is the interpreter?’ campaign website).

Clause 3 would require the secretary of state to ensure there is guidance issued on the promotion and facilitation of the use of BSL. This could include advice for departments on providing information for the reports required in clause 2, best practice advice for communicating with BSL users and case studies to illustrate the value of BSL communications.

Clause 4 contains miscellaneous provisions, such as the bill’s territorial extent and commencement dates.

What happened in the bill’s House of Commons stages?

Second reading

Introducing the bill at second reading in the House of Commons on 28 January 2022, Rosie Cooper stated that she hoped it would improve recognition of BSL and also improve the experiences of the Deaf community:

In bringing forward the bill, I want to finally recognise BSL in statute—not just a gesture but a law that requires positive action from the Government, with real progress to put Deaf people on an equal footing with those of us who hear. For every Deaf person, like my parents, who has been ignored, misunderstood, or even treated as unintelligent simply for relying on BSL, this recognition will be clear and a message that their language is equal and should be treated as equal.

Chloe Smith, the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, stressed the Government’s support for the bill, stating that it reflected the “goals and ambitions” set out in the national disability strategy. She also said the Government would be introducing other measures to promote BSL to complement the bill:

We are developing a suite of non-statutory measures that will help to promote and facilitate the use of BSL. That work includes examining how we might increase the number of BSL interpreters, reviewing how we might work in the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that the access to work fund helps BSL users, and aiming to update the national disability strategy to facilitate and promote BSL usage.

The bill was also supported by the Scottish National Party (SNP). Marion Fellows, the SNP Spokesperson for Disabilities, highlighted the Scottish Government’s current legislation to promote BSL, the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015, but accepted that UK-wide legislation was needed to legally recognise it as a language. She continued:

I am happy that that is now happening. It is an indigenous language of Scotland and the UK and, as such, deserves to finally have the legal recognition accorded to Gaelic and Welsh.

The bill provides a great opportunity to break down barriers; to begin to create a more inclusive, equal and fair society for Deaf people across the four nations; and for signers to be prominent in the public arena, as they are in Scotland. It is almost impossible for them not to be—even my party’s annual conference is signed front and centre, which is really useful and good. We need more inclusion across the public sector and I am pleased that the bill will do that.

The bill passed second reading without a vote.

Committee stage

The only amendment made to the bill during Commons committee stage concerned the bill’s long title. Rosie Cooper, who tabled and moved the amendment, explained that this was to update it in line with changes made to the bill between her initial draft (circulated in June 2021) and the version of the bill published at first reading. She said this had been done in consultation with the Government:

I have tabled the amendment to the bill to ensure that the long title reflects the changes made to the bill between its initial presentation in June 2021 and how it appears today. It is unfortunate that a few people have questioned the changes to the bill and misattributed them to a supposed weakening of the original bill. I would like to be clear with everyone here and anyone watching these proceedings that the minister and I have not been in a tug of war against each other. In fact, we have been on the same side throughout, seeking to make the bill stronger at every opportunity, notwithstanding the fact that that is limited by the legal and parliamentary realities of private members’ bills—it is as simple as that.

The amendment was agreed without a vote.

No other amendments to the bill were tabled or discussed and the bill passed committee stage without a vote.

Remaining stages

No amendments were tabled to the bill after committee stage, so it went straight to third reading on 18 March 2022 where it was passed to the House of Lords without a vote.

Speaking at third reading, the bill’s sponsor, Rosie Cooper, thanked MPs for their support for the bill. She spoke about BSL’s importance to the Deaf community and how the measures in the bill were targeted at the “complete and total inclusion of Deaf people”. She continued:

They should be able to watch and understand a national address by the prime minister. They should be able to go to a meeting at the jobcentre and talk freely with their adviser. They should be able to have a fully trained and registered qualified interpreter available for them at medical appointments. I have talked at length and could go on and on, but I will not. We are failing at all those things on daily basis, but with the support of members here today and members in the other place later, we can start along the road towards fixing such injustices once and for all.

However, she also addressed concerns from some Deaf campaigners that the bill did not go far enough in improving Deaf people’s rights. She accepted that the bill was not a “silver bullet” that would cure injustices “overnight”. However, she stressed that there were limitations on what a private member’s bill could achieve. She said she was proud of the bill and of the work she and the minister had put into it. She also believed the bill would “make such a difference to the lives of deaf people, and they will be proud of it too”.

Chloe Smith also thanked the House for its support for the bill and again emphasised the Government’s commitment to it. In addition, she flagged up some changes to the explanatory notes to further improve recognition of various aspects of BSL:

I wish to place on record that the explanatory notes of the bill will be updated to extend this recognition to tactile sign language, which is used and understood by some deafblind people, and to reflect the importance of BSL in deaf culture and community. We are all bound together by shared languages and that is especially so for BSL signers.

She concluded by stating she was also proud of the work done on the bill and looked forward to the changes it could bring.

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