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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, February 28, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 28 February 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, World Hearing Day and Hearing Awareness Week 2019, European Union Exit (Impact of United Kingdom Immigration Policy), Devolved Benefits (Delivery), Point of Order, Census (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Standards Commission for Scotland (Appointment of Member), Decision Time


World Hearing Day and Hearing Awareness Week 2019

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-15226, in the name of Alexander Stewart, on world hearing day and hearing awareness week 2019. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Before I call Mr Stewart, I say that we have signers here, so it would be helpful if he spoke clearly and more slowly. I know that he will set the bar high.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament acknowledges World Hearing Day on 3 March 2019 and Hearing Awareness Week, which runs from 2 to 9 March 2019; notes the view that hearing access needs to be a priority if there is to be greater public involvement and participation in many varied events; accepts that noise and poor acoustics can often be a significant cause of discomfort, distress and exclusion when it comes to group activities for older age groups and people with conditions such as hearing loss, dementia and autism; considers that there are opportunities for employability schemes to emerge from initiatives that manufacture affordable noise-absorption panels, which could be installed into community venues to help tackle noise and acoustic issues, in addition to others that design and manufacture hearing enhancement devices, and commends all groups, companies and charities that work to benefit the lives of people who live with hearing loss and the stigma that can be associated with the condition.

I am delighted and grateful to have the privilege of opening this members’ business debate on world hearing day and hearing loss awareness week. I welcome the guests who have joined us in the public gallery.

The motion and the debate are something of a double-edged sword, as they create awareness of two separate events with the single thread of hearing awareness. World hearing day takes place on 3 March each year to raise awareness of how to prevent deafness and hearing loss and to promote ear and hearing care around the world. This year, the World Health Organization plans to draw attention to the importance of early identification of and intervention for hearing loss. Many people live with unidentified hearing loss; they often fail to realise that they are missing out on certain sounds and words. Merely checking one’s hearing regularly would be the first step towards addressing some of the issues.

Hearing awareness week, which runs from 3 to 9 March, has been fully adopted in Scotland. It provides an opportunity to reflect on our collective actions, practices and environments to support good hearing experiences. Poor acoustics can often be a significant cause of discomfort, distress and exclusion, and individuals with conditions such as tinnitus and sensitive hearing are at a disadvantage when it comes to employment and enjoying a normal lifestyle. It is therefore only right that we should work to create much more awareness of how well and to what degree people can hear.

Some 11 million people in the United Kingdom have hearing loss. For them, attending meetings and events and making trips to the cinema and concerts can be terribly stressful and frustrating. Common issues such as poor acoustics, a presenter whose script is hard to understand and even background noise can all act as barriers to participation. Other people’s reactions to someone with hearing loss can be a source of stress, as many people react inappropriately to and are impatient with those who cannot hear well.

I recently received an invitation to an event from a highly innovative company called Ideas for Ears, which is based in Dunblane, in my region. It is headed by its director, Sally Shaw, who is in the gallery today. Last year, the company launched the UK’s first hearing access protocol at GO LIVE! at the Green in Glasgow. As an MSP, I was delighted to attend that event, which I found extremely motivating and interesting.

The initiatives that the company has identified involve a number of protocols. Meetings and events should be accessible to everybody, no matter what their hearing level is. A basic principle is that hearing access is influenced by the venue, the facilities or equipment made available and the way in which the meeting is run and structured.

Poor hearing access can be difficult or impossible for an individual to overcome through their own actions and deeds alone, so the hearing access protocol is designed to enable organisers of work-related meetings and events to arrange their own organisational policies and procedures around access and inclusion in a way that recognises access to our language and communication as a fundamental human right. The protocol sets out objectives in a clear and practical way, and it covers everything from speaking clearly and facing the audience to installing hearing loops and having support from British Sign Language interpreters. That is especially important for public consultation and community engagement events.

The Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland, Disability Equality Scotland and deafscotland have welcomed the protocol. They recognise its importance not only as an essential framework but as a way in which we may contribute, collaborate and communicate to our full potential. I echo the hope of Ideas for Ears that the protocol will be adopted across Scotland and the UK as good and proper practice for all meetings and events that will bring about substantial change for the millions of individuals who have hearing loss.

There is massive variation in how people hear, which very much needs to be recognised and responded to. I commend and congratulate all who are playing their part to assist and support individuals and groups as they move forward with hearing loss. I also pay tribute to the cross-party group on deafness for the work that it has undertaken; I wish it continued success with its endeavours to assist people who suffer from deafness or hearing loss.

We all have a duty to do all that we can to ensure that there are opportunities for people who are hard of hearing or deaf to participate. I look forward to seeing and hearing about the protocols being developed. I am delighted to have had the opportunity to throw my weight behind many fantastic initiatives this afternoon.

People in Scotland have only to attend their general practitioner or private hearing adviser to find out what their hearing situation is and have it checked. We know that hearing loss among working-age individuals can contribute to feelings of isolation as well as to communication difficulties, which in turn mean that employees do not achieve their full potential.

Employers are urged to introduce employees to practices and procedures that ensure that individuals with hearing loss are supported. All staff—especially those who work with colleagues who already suffer from loss of hearing or deafness—are encouraged to attend awareness training courses.

I look forward to hearing from the minister about how the Scottish Government will play its part in the process and what initiatives it will bring forward. Government has a duty to provide support and funding, and to drive the necessary change, in co-operation with the many leading charities and groups that play a vital role in assisting individuals who have hearing loss or deafness.


At the outset, I apologise to the Presiding Officer and to the chamber for the fact that I might not be able to stay for the duration of the debate, because the Scottish Government will be giving us early sight of the statements that will be discussed later this afternoon, which I will be involved in.

I thank Alexander Stewart for lodging the motion for today’s debate and ensuring that world hearing day and hearing awareness week 2019 are celebrated in this Parliament. As convener of the cross-party group on deafness, I am hugely grateful to Ideas for Ears and deafscotland for working with Mr Stewart to allow us to debate the issue of hearing access in public and community spaces. The cross-party group on deafness is always looking for new members and I encourage all members present to come along to our next meeting.

There is a particularly acute need to support hearing access for the community of more than 1 million people who are either deaf or hard of hearing, but hearing loss can, and does, affect all people in Scotland. As the motion details,

“noise and poor acoustics can often be a significant cause of discomfort, distress and exclusion when it comes to group activities for older age groups and people with conditions such as ... dementia and autism.”

Some members in the chamber might be aware that I use a hearing aid. Prior to having it fitted, I experienced frustration at being unable to hear discussions clearly, including, on some occasions in the chamber when there were interventions from sedentary positions. Sometimes that meant that I missed out on key debating points. I might be able to manage such situations and speak up when I experience them, but others—such as deaf and older people and people with dementia and autism—might be less able to, and might be less comfortable about doing so. We are all undoubtedly diminished by losing out on their participation. It is therefore vital that we consider how hearing access is prioritised to ensure greater public involvement and participation in many and varied events.

As deafscotland points out,

“communication is a two-way process.”

If a person’s ability to communicate is affected, the contribution that they can make to their society and culture is entirely impeded. A person’s being unable to communicate, and the isolation that can result from that, therefore really puts their mental and physical health at risk.

At the cross-party group, during the passage of the British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill, the issue at the heart of the debate was how being unable to communicate creates barriers to accessing services, including health services, and to educational attainment. As I said then, BSL users and deaf people are often marginalised and misunderstood.

We recently debated how social isolation is increasingly a social and public health epidemic; it is one area on which all parties are agreed that action is needed. In my speech in that debate, I spoke about how yet more cuts to local government will only dismantle and undermine services that keep communities together. Taking into account those cuts and how a lack of hearing access adds to social isolation, we get a picture of how isolation is created.

I know first hand how much we need to improve the infrastructure and make it more inclusive. Today, we are talking about managing noise to aid hearing. During the passage of the BSL bill, I spoke about how few BSL interpreters there are in Scotland. At that time, there were only 80. Last summer, I organised a series of meetings that required interpreters, which highlighted to me again how difficult it is to source interpreters and secure funding for them, along with other associated costs.

That is why the proposal in Alexander Stewart’s motion that we should look at the employability opportunities that exist in rolling out noise-absorption panels and enhancement devices that tackle noise and acoustic issues should be particularly thought provoking for Government.

I thank Ideas for Ears, deafscotland and Mr Stewart for their work in bringing the debate to the chamber. I hope that, ahead of world hearing day and hearing awareness week 2019, we will leave the debate thinking about how we can make public spaces more inclusive and free of noise, and how we can encourage healthy communication.


I am pleased to have been called to speak today to mark world hearing day and hearing awareness week, and I congratulate Alexander Stewart on securing this important members’ business debate.

I recall that, when I spoke some years ago in a debate that marked a similar occasion, my colleague Dennis Robertson, who used to sit just to the left of me, intervened within one sentence of my starting to speak to ask me to speak more slowly. I hope that I achieve that today. If Dennis is listening, he will know that I listen to what people say.

As we have heard, the focus of this year’s hearing awareness week is the importance of the early identification of and intervention for hearing loss. Its strapline is “check your hearing”.

I recognise the excellent work that is done on behalf of deaf people by a range of national and local organisations and individuals around Scotland. They all work unstintingly to improve the lives of those who are deaf or suffer hearing loss, and to challenge the removal of the barriers that still remain for the more than 1 million individuals who are deaf or suffer hearing loss.

It is recognised that we have made significant improvements in Scotland in a number of areas, such as the development of quality standards for national health service audiology services. There are regular meetings of NHS audiology heads of service to co-ordinate and share best practice—I understand that one of those meetings is taking place today at Perth royal infirmary. There has been an increase in the provision of lip-reading classes and the national joint sensory strategy has been launched.

As Mark Griffin said, this Parliament passed the historic British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015, and the Scottish Government launched its first ground-breaking national plan for BSL in October 2017. To remind members, or inform those who do not know, the national plan is to run until 2023 and sets forth 70 discrete actions that the Government must take in the plan’s first three years, with a progress report to be published in 2020. It was shaped by the input of more than 1,000 individuals and dozens of organisations and covers many aspects, including the important aspects of early years and education.

Parliament will no doubt wish to ensure that the progress report that is expected next year is subject to full scrutiny to ensure that the action points that were promised are being delivered on the ground. As far as the BSL national plan and other service issues are concerned, it is necessary to ensure that improved services are available to people in their communities. That is what will make the key difference in ensuring that those who are deaf or who have suffered hearing loss can access their rights as full and equal citizens. In that regard, Action on Hearing Loss Scotland did a power of work through its comprehensive report, “Hearing Matters”, which was published a few years ago. A number of important issues were raised at that time, and I suspect that some of those challenges are still present and need to be overcome.

I recognise that a number of the issues are dealt with across Government portfolios. However, it would be helpful if, in closing the debate, the minister could clarify—or, if she cannot do so, refer this to the relevant minister—the current position with respect to hearing loss research, because the ask was for that to be a strategic priority. I would also like the minister to clarify whether the number of BSL interpreters meets the demand for them—Mark Griffin raised that point—how deaf young people have fared in participating in programmes such as the hugely successful modern apprenticeship programme, which is run by Skills Development Scotland, and what progress has been made on ensuring that all transport is fully accessible, including through the important provision of information.

At the same time, perhaps the minister can clarify the Scottish Government’s response to the call from Action on Hearing Loss Scotland, Age Scotland and Scottish War Blinded for the timely screening of veterans, to add to the excellent joint initiative that they have been working on to compile the combating sight and hearing loss guide booklet, which was launched last month.

I stress that if those practical issues are resolved that will make a key difference to the lives of deaf people and people who suffer hearing loss. As parliamentarians, we have a duty not to take our eye off the ball but to persist with our questions and our ambitions to change lives for the better.


I add my thanks to Alexander Stewart for bringing this important debate on world hearing day and hearing awareness week 2019 to the chamber.

In Scotland, more than a million people have some degree of hearing loss, of whom approximately 546,000 are over the age of 60. In the 2011 census, deafness or partial hearing loss was listed as a long-term health condition for more than 350,000 members of the Scottish population aged three or over. Those numbers are challenging, and I welcome any progress that groups, companies and charities can make to raise awareness of how to prevent deafness and hearing loss.

I am sure that we all know someone who is affected by hearing loss and know how it impacts on his or her quality of life. My mother has hearing loss and I am aware that she sometimes misses out on conversation and information at family gatherings because she finds it difficult to hear. That can affect her enjoyment of an event or prevent her from paying the bill. [Laughter.]

Activities that hearing people take for granted can present challenges for people with hearing loss. An example is passengers having conversations with taxi drivers. Recently, I contacted local authorities across Scotland, and only one of the 30 that responded to my request for information requires taxis to have hearing loops, while no local authority requires private-hire cars to have them. That is hardly an example of inclusive communication.

Deafblind Scotland wants communication to be acknowledged as a human right. It believes that systemic failures such as the one that I have cited remain a significant problem in Scotland that leads to everyday breaches of human rights for the deaf community.

Ideas for Ears is a community-led social enterprise that provides consultancy support to help businesses and organisations to meet more successfully the needs of customers, staff and other stakeholders who have hearing loss. It advocates for hearing access, which is about the application of practices that make hearing and following conversation and audible information more possible for more people. Hearing access needs to be a priority, and I support Ideas for Ears’s view that the majority of people in Scotland who have hearing loss can hear and follow what is being said well or adequately as long as the environment is right.

Sadly, however, the environment in many workplaces—including this one—is still not right for people with hearing loss. Research that Ideas for Ears has done among employees identified that 74 per cent of respondents with hearing loss sometimes, regularly or always experience difficulties hearing at work meetings. For many who acquire a disability during their working life, the development of an impairment will bring about a crisis point in the workplace, putting their future into doubt. According to Deaf Action, one deaf person in four has left their job due to discrimination.

The number of people with hearing loss is at an all-time high and is increasing as the population ages. With 40 per cent of the working-age population being predicted to have a long-term health condition by 2030, this is a critical moment to address what good work means for a large section of the population.

A recent report by Leonard Cheshire Disability about inclusive employment identifies the need to adapt workplaces so that we can build a more resilient workforce. The report emphasises that, in order to enable disabled people to participate in the labour market, we need to ensure that they have access to reasonable adjustments and assistive technology that supports them to carry out their job. For a person with hearing loss, that could be an electronic note-taker service or a hearing enhancement device. That could be funded through the UK Government’s access to work scheme, which provides financial support to ensure that people’s disabilities or health conditions do not hold them back at work.

We also need to challenge entrenched attitudes in the workplace. Leonard Cheshire Disability’s report identifies that 24 per cent of employers say that they would be less likely to employ someone with a disability, with employers citing the cost of workplace adjustments and concern that a disabled person would struggle to do the job as reasons not to employ them.

If we create the right environment for deaf people, they can make a positive contribution. I therefore welcome initiatives, such as hearing awareness week, that raise awareness of hearing loss and encourage us to think about good hearing health and work collectively to ensure that we create a more inclusive society for people living with hearing loss.


I thank Alexander Stewart for lodging his important motion. As we have heard from members across the chamber, there is support for improving care and opportunities for people with hearing loss. This year, world hearing day focuses on the importance of early identification and intervention, because many people live with unidentified or hidden hearing loss.

I, too, want to ensure that adults and children with a sensory impairment have the same access to services and opportunities as everyone else. That is why our see hear strategy focuses on children and adults and covers deafness, sight loss and dual sensory loss. Partnerships and communication are critical to the effectiveness of the see hear strategy. The strategic framework recommends that local partnerships between statutory and third sector bodies should consider options for introducing basic sensory checks at agreed times in care pathways. I am delighted that those have been introduced in care homes in some local areas and hope that that continues to expand.

We have also been working with partners to explore the delivery of enhanced community audiology services in a general practice setting. Initial pilots in NHS Ayrshire and Arran and NHS Tayside, linking with third sector providers, commenced this month and will run over the next 12 months.

The see hear strategy also enables training and development. For example, more than 200 people have accessed the sensory champions training programme, which is a bespoke training course that was created in partnership with the Royal National Institute of Blind People and Action on Hearing Loss. It provides core training and skills across key aspects of sensory loss and rehabilitation. In addition, three e-learning modules that focus on the awareness of communication strategies will be available to all on the NHS training website Turas.

I am grateful that the see hear national co-ordinator has worked closely with partners to support and promote the Ideas for Ears hearing access protocol to ensure accessible meeting spaces throughout the country.

I know of the difficulties that people who live with sensory impairment face. Recently, I met staff from deafscotland to discuss the issues that people with hearing loss face, and I appreciate that each person has their individual, unique communication preference. That links directly to individual communication strategies and language acquisition. If a person’s hearing loss is congenital, they will almost certainly have learned British Sign Language as a first language, with English being a separate and second language. I am proud that this Government funds contactSCOTLAND-BSL, which is the UK’s first publicly funded online BSL video relay service. It enables deaf and deafblind BSL users to contact and interact with Scottish public sector bodies and third sector services. That allows users to self-manage their calls, live as independently as possible and retain a level of privacy. They no longer have to rely on family and friends to make calls for them.

The World Health Organization confirms that, as people live longer, the prevalence of disability will increase. It follows that, in Scotland, the risk that people will have or develop a hearing loss will increase. They might also have other primary conditions such as dementia, autism or learning disabilities, and their hearing loss might be a hidden condition that exacerbates their primary condition.

People with sensory impairment who develop dementia face additional challenges including an increased sense of disorientation and risk of social isolation. The onset of dementia might be more difficult for family and carers to detect. Equally, it might be difficult for the person with sensory impairment to communicate what is going on. In 2017, we published our third three-year national dementia strategy, which continues our national focus on dementia health, social services and housing and workforce development by implementing the national dementia skills and competencies framework, “Promoting Excellence”, and the national allied health professionals dementia framework.

NHS Health Scotland’s report on dementia and equalities issues identified dementia and sensory impairment as a key area where improvements are required, and we are undertaking national work through the two dementia workforce programmes to improve service in those areas. Integrated dementia support packages will include attention to the recognition or identification of sensory issues. For example, every person in Scotland who is newly diagnosed with dementia is entitled to be offered a minimum of a year’s worth of dedicated post-diagnostic support. A named and trained key worker will co-ordinate the individual’s dementia care with other elements of their care and support, including those elements that address sensory impairment.

People whose primary condition is autism can have a range of sensory issues, including over and undersensitivity to noise, light and smell. That was highlighted to me during my recent visit to REACH Lanarkshire Autism in my constituency of Rutherglen. Our priorities for the next three years are to ensure that we provide high-quality training to all health, social care and education staff so that they can better understand the impact of being autistic. That should cover the measures that need to be taken in various environments to reduce the impact of sensory sensitivity and to ensure that people with autism and learning disabilities have choice and control over the services that they receive and are supported to be independent and active citizens.

In December, we launched “A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People: employment action plan”, which sets out our commitment to at least halve Scotland’s disability employment gap by 2038 and an initial range of actions to support that. Implementation of the plan is now under way across Government and our partnership with the sector will continue as we drive the plan forward. It contains five longer-term ambitions and 93 actions to make meaningful progress towards achieving those ambitions, which are support services that meet disabled people’s needs, decent incomes and fairer working lives, places that are accessible to everyone, protected rights, and active participation.

I thank members for the valuable contributions that we have had from across the chamber, including from Jeremy Balfour, Mark Griffin and Annabelle Ewing. I undertake to come back to her with answers to the questions that she asked and the challenges to the Scottish Government. I reassure her that veterans, including those who have served as reservists, receive priority access to NHS primary, secondary and tertiary care for any condition that is related to their service. That is based on clinical need and it includes audiology and hearing aids. I hope that that gives her a level of reassurance.

Everyone should feel valued, included and accepted by society. Only then will we live in a fairer Scotland, a more equal Scotland and a Scotland for everyone.

13:21 Meeting suspended.  

14:00 On resuming—