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Language: English / Gàidhlig


Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 24 October 2017

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Motion Without Notice, British Sign Language (National Plan), Unconventional Oil and Gas, Business Motion, Decision Time, Helicopter Safety (North Sea)


British Sign Language (National Plan)

We move to the next item of business. I assure members that the following statement from me is intentional and is not a reflection of our earlier microphone difficulties.

The Presiding Officer made a contribution in British Sign Language and provided the following translation:

Good afternoon. Welcome to the Scottish Parliament for a debate on the launch of the British Sign Language national plan.

The Presiding Officer continued in English.

I ask members who wish to speak in the debate—I am sorry; I mean those who wish to ask questions following the statement, as there shall be no debate, please—to press their request-to-speak buttons. I ask the minister to deliver his statement.


It is a privilege and an honour to introduce Scotland’s first British Sign Language national plan, which I launched this morning at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. It is the United Kingdom’s first and only BSL national plan, and it was particularly symbolic to meet students of the UK’s first and only degree in the performing arts that is run in BSL. The plan provides yet another example of the forward-thinking and progressive approach that we are taking to social policy in Scotland.

The chamber debated the draft plan in April, and I am delighted to share the final plan. It has been shaped by more than 1,000 individuals and dozens of organisations that participated in the consultation online in BSL or English or in one of nearly 100 events across the country.

When we debated the draft plan—and when we unanimously passed the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015—the public gallery was full of BSL users, as it is today. It is great to see so many of them here. In particular, I welcome members of the BSL national advisory group, which we call the NAG, and I recognise their important role.

The NAG is a collaboration of deaf and deafblind BSL users that has worked alongside Scottish public bodies for the past 18 months to help to shape Scotland’s first BSL national plan. A truly co-productive approach has been taken, and I thank the NAG members for their dedication and support.

Our long-term aim is ambitious. We want to make Scotland the best place in the world for people whose first or preferred language is BSL to live in, work in and visit. That means that deaf and deafblind BSL users will be fully involved in daily and public life in Scotland as active, healthy citizens and will be able to make informed choices about every aspect of their lives.

The BSL national plan sets out 10 long-term goals for BSL in Scotland, which cover early years and education; training and work; health, mental health and wellbeing; transport; culture and the arts; and justice and democracy. The legislation requires the plan to cover the next six years, but we are ambitious for change, so the plan sets out 70 actions that we will take in the next three years, and it will be followed in 2020 by the publication of a progress report that will include a further set of actions that we will deliver by 2023. Future plans, which we will publish every six years, will take us even closer to our 10 long-term goals.

I will say more about the goals and about some of the actions that we will take by 2020. We recognise the critical importance of language in the early years. We will ensure that families and carers with a deaf or deafblind child are given information about BSL and deaf culture and are offered support to learn to sign with their child. We will also increase the provision of information, advice and support services in BSL for deaf parents and carers of babies, children and young people from birth and throughout childhood and adolescence.

In education, the Scottish Government’s goal is that all children and young people should reach their full potential at school and beyond. The plan sets out more than a dozen actions that we will take to ensure that that applies equally to children and young people who use BSL. The actions in the plan will improve the experience of pupils and students who use BSL, enable teachers to provide them with a better service and encourage deaf parents to be more actively involved in their child’s education.

We want more children to be able to learn BSL in schools. My visit to Stoneywood primary school in Aberdeen over the recess showed me how much children enjoy learning BSL. We will work with the Scottish Qualifications Authority to develop new qualifications in BSL, which will make it a more attractive subject choice as part of the Scottish curriculum. When pupils approach the end of their school days, we will provide a wide range of information, advice and guidance in BSL to support their career and learning choices and the transition from school to college, university or the workplace. When they move into the world of work, we want them to feel supported to develop the necessary skills to become and remain valued members of the Scottish workforce and to progress in their careers.

I turn my attention briefly to the range of actions in the plan to improve the health and wellbeing of BSL users in Scotland. For example, we will increase the availability of relevant health information in BSL, which will include ensuring that information on national health screening and immunisation programmes is routinely translated into BSL and is easy to access. We will also develop a learning resource for national health service staff to raise awareness of BSL and deaf culture.

There are 70 actions in the BSL national plan and I have been able to mention only some of them. There are also actions to improve access to information and services in transport; in culture, leisure, sport and the arts; and in justice. There is a range of actions on participation in democracy and public life—in particular, I highlight our commitment to provide funding to enable deaf BSL users and people with disability-related costs to put themselves forward for election to the Parliament in 2021 through our new access to elected office fund. Perhaps, by the time we discuss Scotland’s second BSL national plan in 2023, we will have an MSP who uses BSL.

The BSL national plan covers all national public bodies that are directly answerable to the Scottish ministers. That means that we have been able to take a strategic, co-ordinated approach at the national level. Other public bodies—including local authorities, regional NHS boards, colleges and universities—and the Scottish Parliament will have to publish their own plans next year. We are keen to share our learning and to support public bodies to develop their own plans. We will do that through a series of roadshows across Scotland and through guidance, which will be uploaded to our new British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015 website.

Over the next three years, we will offer public bodies practical support through the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015 partnership, which was formerly known as the deaf sector partnership. The partnership, which includes the British Deaf Association, Deaf Action, Deafblind Scotland, the National Deaf Children’s Society and the Scottish Council on Deafness, has been awarded funding of £1.3 million to continue its important work. I take the opportunity to thank all those organisations, and others that work in BSL, for their contribution so far and for the work that they will do in the months and years ahead to help to ensure that the 2015 act makes a difference to people across Scotland.

Our approach to BSL has been warmly welcomed by the United Nations in Geneva, by our BSL communities and the organisations that represent them and by the Parliament. I hope that my statement will also gain the crucial cross-party support that the BSL legislation enjoyed so that we can work together across political parties, across Scotland and with deaf and deafblind BSL users to promote and support BSL and to support all those who use it.

I commend the BSL national plan to the chamber and look forward to taking questions from members.

We have around 20 minutes for questions.

I thank the minister for giving prior sight of the BSL plan and for his statement. I warmly congratulate the Scottish Government and all those who have helped to make significant progress on ensuring that all people who are deaf and who have a hearing impairment are much better served in education and by all the public bodies with which they come into contact. That is very good news indeed.

As the minister acknowledged, the changes are substantial and will continue well into the future. I ask him three things. First, what estimate has the Scottish Government made of the numbers of specialist staff who will be required throughout Scotland to implement the changes? Secondly, what efforts have been made to provide an accurate estimate of the continuing costs of training those staff? Thirdly, in light of some of the evidence that was originally presented to the committee, when young people expressed concerns about their experiences at colleges and universities, will the action in the BSL plan mean that changes will become part of the outcome agreements for further education and higher education institutions, or will the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council provide separate guidelines?

On Liz Smith’s initial question about the relevant numbers, we have not attempted to put fixed numbers in the plan, because we recognise that there will be varying needs in the different sectors across Scotland. We accept and understand that there are variations in interpretation services with the pool of interpreters who are already there and we will be ensuring that courses are available and that there is capacity across the colleges and universities that provide BSL qualifications to ensure that we have the throughput of interpreters that is required to support the work that we are doing.

On the budget, all the actions in the plan are being taken forward and the work that I have identified that the Scottish Government will be doing in relation to the actions over the coming three years is fully budgeted for.

On her question about colleges and universities, each college and university will be required to produce its own BSL plan under the terms of the legislation and we will be working closely with colleges and universities on that. We will also be looking carefully at their approach to widening access, and the work that is highlighted in the action plan in relation to colleges and universities improving people’s experience of and access to universities will be taken forward alongside that, with the aim of each college and university producing a BSL plan that reflects the experience that BSL users should have when they attend university or college.

I warmly welcome the publication of the strategy and the ambition shown within it. I thank the minister for giving me advance sight of his statement and of the strategy and for the volume of work that he and his officials have clearly put into producing the strategy. I also thank the BSL national advisory group for the work that it has done on the strategy, as well as everyone who responded to the consultation.

Through the strategy, what steps will the Government take to increase the number of much-needed BSL interpreters? How will it ensure that BSL users do not have to rely on a family member to interpret sensitive information during a medical appointment? Has the Government given any consideration to how it could support deaf BSL users who would like to participate in the Deaflympics?

I again put on record my thanks to Mark Griffin, who took the BSL legislation forward as a member’s bill in Parliament and worked in a collaborative manner with my colleague Alasdair Allan and with the wider BSL community. I said in my statement that the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015 is an example of the progressive approach that we are taking to social policy in Scotland and a fine example of the kind of cross-party approach that we can take on such issues to achieve positive outcomes.

On the points that Mark Griffin raises about interpreters, I mentioned to Liz Smith that we would be taking forward work to increase the number of interpreters out there, and over the next two years we are going to sponsor two new training programmes, one at Heriot-Watt University and one at Queen Margaret University, designed to support BSL interpreters to work in the specialist fields of health, mental health and justice. That perhaps addresses the second part of his question, about increasing the availability of interpreters to work in the field of health. As well as that, as the requirement for local plans rests with health boards, health boards themselves will have to give consideration to the point that Mark Griffin raises about ensuring that it is not just left to family members to interpret for BSL users at health appointments. As he rightly identifies, there might be sensitive information that they do not wish to disclose with family members present.

I will take away his third point, about support for participation in the deaf olympics, and discuss with my colleague, the Minister for Public Health and Sport, how we can encourage and promote participation in the deaf olympics. I will get back to Mr Griffin in writing about that.

In order to tackle the interpreter shortfall in the long term, we need to ensure that BSL interpreting is promoted as a career choice to young people, so I welcome the new qualification noted in the minister’s statement. Perhaps considering the short to medium term, will the minister advise what steps might be taken alongside that to restore pathways for deaf people to become tutors?

Yes, absolutely. We are looking not just at tutors but at positions throughout the education system. We have committed to exploring with the General Teaching Council for Scotland how we can remove some of the barriers that prevent deaf people from entering the teaching profession. We will look at how we can remove barriers, where they exist, to enable deaf people to access the opportunities that we believe they should be entitled to access. I give Graeme Dey the commitment that we will be exploring that line of work.

I call Michelle Ballantyne.

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Sorry, Presiding Officer, I just demoted you.

I welcome the content and sentiment of today’s statement. Last year, the National Deaf Children’s Society reported that 90 per cent of deaf children have hearing parents who have limited knowledge of deafness and are unlikely to be using any form of BSL. How will the Scottish Government ensure that parents are given the resources to help their children, to ensure that they are able to get the best start in the family home setting?

Action 10 is about improving access to early years services for parents whose child is diagnosed as deaf or deaf-blind, by developing information about BSL and deaf culture for service providers who support parents, such as health visitors. Action 11 is about assisting families of deaf and deaf-blind children, ensuring that they have access to BSL resources as early as possible in their child’s life. That will include consulting with BSL users and other stakeholders to assess the most appropriate platforms for signposting and disseminating information and working with partners to determine the best way of enabling families and carers to learn BSL, so that they can communicate effectively with their deaf or deaf-blind child in the crucial early years.

We will be coming back in 2020 with further actions to develop towards 2023. Some of the action points are about determining the best vehicle for delivering the outcomes that we want to see and once we determine that, we will take the work forward—either before or when we set out further actions when we report back to Parliament in 2020.

Therefore, a range of actions in the plan will address the points that the National Deaf Children’s Society and Michelle Ballantyne have raised about ensuring that support is available to parents when they need it.

Action 17 of the strategy commits the Government to undertake additional investigations into the level of BSL held by teachers and support staff who work with deaf and deaf-blind pupils in schools. Will the minister assure us that he intends that to be a precursor to moving towards a minimum required level of BSL for such teachers?

In the consultation, we heard about the variable nature of the qualifications and levels of BSL among teachers and communication support workers. This is about us undertaking a more comprehensive analysis of what the actual picture is. I give Iain Gray the commitment that I want to see people being supported to the most appropriate level. If that requires us to set a minimum standard, that is what the Government will do.

I want to ensure that if we do establish a minimum standard, we are able to put in place the necessary support for those individuals who do not yet meet it, lest we end up creating a shortage as a result of lifting the standard. That is what the work is about: undertaking the analysis to find out what the general picture is, then considering how best we can support individuals who are maybe not at the level that we would like them to be at, so that they can get to that level, to their benefit professionally and the benefit of the people they support.

Like everyone else in the chamber, I greatly welcome the national plan.

The minister will be aware of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee’s recent work on the budget, in which we looked at widening access to university for those who use BSL as their first language. The limited options for potential students to access a suitable application process were one issue that we uncovered. What will the national plan do to ensure that those who want to access higher and further education are able to do so through a contextualised application process?

There are a number of actions in the plan that relate to further and higher education, including ones to improve access and support. Application processes are matters for individual institutions and might be better taken forward as part of their local plans, which the Scottish Government and the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council will be working to support to ensure that application processes are as open and accessible as they can be. They are also part of our wider consideration of the approach to widening access.

I commend the good work that is taking place.

I return to the implications of the capacity issues, which have already been touched on. Often, young people have to rely on family and friends for support and there can be confidentiality and privacy issues, in particular in relation to medical appointments. What priority has the minister given to that? I appreciate what he has said about the role of the Government and health boards, but those are key issues for young people.

I accept that entirely and we need to look at that area very carefully in prioritising the actions that we take forward. As I have said, we recognise that there are gaps in the general interpreting capacity and in specific areas of Scottish public life in which there is not the level of interpreters that we want to see to support the kind of work that John Finnie has highlighted. That is why we are sponsoring new training programmes.

Before people come through those programmes, we need to look at how to address the issue in the here and now. We will give that careful consideration, but I cannot give a firm commitment immediately on what will happen. We have set out the actions, acknowledging the issue that was raised in the consultation, and we have put in place work to try to increase capacity, which will, I hope, address the point that John Finnie raises.

I warmly welcome the minister’s statement about the national plan and support Graeme Dey’s point about the desire that has been expressed by many people in the deaf community in Moray and elsewhere that tutors from the deaf community should be employed to teach BSL in local colleges. Does the minister feel that that would be good practice and, given his reference to local plans, could it be included in local plans?

I certainly think that the practice could be included in local plans, but I must be careful because I do not dictate or determine what goes into local plans. Where required, the Government will seek to support the development of local plans, which will be produced a year from now.

As Richard Lochhead and Graeme Dey highlighted, we want to ensure that opportunities are available for BSL users. On Iain Gray’s point, we also want to ensure that those who are involved in the teaching of BSL have the required qualifications and that they have access to the qualifications that would enable them to take up the posts that we want them to take up.

There are different actions across the action plan that will remove some barriers, and the local plans provide a vehicle for removing barriers at the local level.

The Liberal Democrats welcome and support the commitment from the minister to ensure that more information about treatment in the NHS will be made available in British Sign Language. Can he be more specific about the information that will be made available in BSL for those who are suffering from or seeking advice about mental health issues?

Action 45 states that we will

“Ensure that—in line with Scotland’s Mental Health Strategy 2017-2027—BSL users ... get the right help at the right time, expect recovery, and fully enjoy their rights, free from discrimination and stigma.”

It commits us to ensure that, by 2020,

“NHS Boards and Integration Authorities ... take action so that psychological therapies can be offered on a fair and equal basis to BSL users”


“information about mental health accessible for BSL users”

is developed

“through ‘NHS Inform’”.

It also states that

“NHS 24 will explore how telemedicine initiatives like ‘Breathing Space’ can provide counselling in BSL as an easy-to-access mental health support.”

Those are three specific measures in the plan to 2020. There will be a progress report in 2020 with further actions up to 2023, and we will continue to look at what we can to do to improve access to all levels of support for BSL users, in terms of mental health and general health and wellbeing.

I welcome the fact that the national plan includes the development of SQA awards in BSL as a long-term goal. Dingwall academy, which is in my constituency, is really keen—as am I—for there to be an accredited school qualification in BSL and for BSL to have the same status as other languages.

I will follow on from Mr Rumbles’s question. Partly because of social isolation, BSL users are disproportionately affected by poor mental health. How will the plan address that?

I look forward to visiting Dingwall academy next month. Maree Todd has, at every opportunity, assiduously highlighted the academy’s work on BSL, and I look forward to seeing its work.

I had the opportunity to see the fantastic work that is being done by Stoneywood school, which is in my constituency. It was quite inspirational to watch primary 4 children acting as teachers to teach other children BSL.

Maree Todd asked about poor mental health. As well as access to mental health support, we must also remember the root causes of mental health problems, which Marie Todd highlighted. The action plan as a whole should be viewed as a vehicle for improving the mental health of BSL users on the basis that many of the barriers and challenges that they face are contributory factors to poor mental health. If the consequence is that the plan tackles and addresses those barriers and challenges, we should, I hope, see improvement in BSL users’ mental health.

I, too, warmly welcome the launch of the British Sign Language national plan and applaud the effort that has been made in trying to improve the lives of deaf people. I note that BSL as a language choice will be offered in schools. Will the minister give details on how the Scottish Government will counter any issues that may arise from a lack of qualified teaching staff? What discussions are taking place with the General Teaching Council for Scotland to progress matters?

First, I cannot give a blow-by-blow account of the discussions that are being had, but we are committed to ensuring that the barriers that prevent deaf BSL users in particular and BSL users more generally from becoming teachers are addressed as part of our approach to increasing the number of people who are able to access the teaching profession. I hope that that will go some way to address Annie Wells’s point about ensuring that, if we want to create an accredited qualification in BSL, we have the teacher capacity to teach it. In addition, the creation of that accredited qualification will perhaps make it easier for people to gain access to routes into teaching, given that they will be teaching a subject that has an accredited qualification attached to it.

We will continue to discuss those matters with the Scottish Qualifications Authority and the General Teaching Council for Scotland. As I said, I cannot give a blow-by-blow account of those discussions, but Annie Wells should rest assured that they are on-going. When we can update members about them, we will seek to do so.

I, too, welcome today’s announcement. I take the opportunity to praise Holly Kinsella, a young woman from my constituency who has campaigned on BSL issues through the National Deaf Children’s Society in Scotland. I invited her to come along today, but she could not make it because she is at university.

How will the plan address unemployment and underemployment issues for BSL users? Will the plan also help to tackle the issues faced by those in employment?

First of all, I commend Fulton MacGregor for highlighting Holly Kinsella’s work. I know that he brought her to Parliament as his local champion on the basis of her work to raise awareness of and campaign for improvements in relation to BSL.

The plan sets out a wide range of actions on employment and underemployment. For example, we will look at working with Skills Development Scotland and the developing the young workforce programme. We will also look at awarding the highest level of modern apprenticeship funding for BSL users within their chosen framework and at promoting foundation apprenticeships for schoolchildren who use BSL to try to address the issues that Fulton MacGregor rightly highlights on underemployment and unemployment, as well as, perhaps, a lack of access.

We also want to ensure that we get the message out to employers. For example, we will work alongside others to raise awareness of access to work schemes, which can help to ensure that, once they have achieved access to the workforce, the parity of esteem that BSL users so often do not feel that they have achieved is there.