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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 23, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 23 March 2017

Agenda: Presiding Officer’s Statement, Business Motion, General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Justice for Yazidi People, Early Learning and Childcare, British Sign Language (Draft National Plan), Standing Order Rule Changes (Acting Conveners), Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


British Sign Language (Draft National Plan)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-04789, in the name of Mark McDonald, on the consultation on the draft British Sign Language national plan. I call Mark McDonald to speak to and move the motion. Minister, you have 13 minutes—and a little bit more, if you wish.


The Minister for Childcare and Early Years (Mark McDonald)

Oh my. Thank you, Presiding Officer.

I am pleased to open this debate on Scotland’s first draft British Sign Language national plan, which we published for consultation on 1 March.

I am sure that many members will remember the historic day back in September 2015 when the Parliament unanimously passed the British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill. On that day, the public gallery was full of BSL users, as it is today. I welcome, in particular, students from Heriot-Watt University and other members of the BSL community.

When the British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill was passed, there was a spontaneous eruption of joy in the gallery. It was a day that many deaf people had campaigned for and will never forget; indeed, I will never forget it. I pay tribute to Mark Griffin for introducing that bill back in 2014 and to Cathie Craigie, who was instrumental in developing the initial proposals for the bill. I also recognise the significant contribution of my colleague Alasdair Allan, who worked with Mr Griffin during the parliamentary process to make the legislation as strong, focused and action oriented as possible.

In fact, it is worth recognising that that legislation demonstrated the Parliament at its best. Not only was it developed through constructive and—mostly—consensual debate, but it encouraged the full involvement of deaf and deafblind BSL users and it gained cross-party support. I am proud to have been asked to take over responsibility for British Sign Language as part of my portfolio and to present Scotland’s first draft BSL national plan to the chamber.

Our long-term aim for the plan is ambitious. We want to make Scotland the best place in the world to live in, work in and visit for people whose first or preferred language is BSL. 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 plan covers the whole of the Scottish Government, its agencies and non-departmental public bodies, as well as a number of other national public bodies that are directly answerable to the Scottish ministers. That means that we have been able to take a strategic and co-ordinated approach, which we feel will have a positive impact across a wide range of national public bodies. Other public bodies, including local authorities and regional national health service boards, will have to publish their plans next year. The draft national plan that we are debating today has been described by Dr Terry Riley OBE, chair of the British Deaf Association, as

“testimony to the Scottish Government’s commitment to ensure the BSL (Scotland) Act is deliverable for Deaf Sign Language users in Scotland”.

The draft plan responds to the priorities of the BSL users the length and breadth of Scotland whose views were used to inform the work of the BSL national advisory group, which we call the NAG—I can assure members that it is an affectionate acronym. Before I give a flavour of the content of the plan, I will take a moment to recognise the contribution of the NAG. It is a collaboration of deaf and deafblind BSL users, working alongside Scottish public bodies. It is a remarkable group, not least because two of the deaf members are also visually impaired and three are young people under the age of 18. The group is co-chaired by a senior civil servant and a deaf BSL user. I mention that because it demonstrates our genuine commitment to inclusive and open government.

I offer my sincere thanks to the NAG, whose hard work over the past year has made it possible for us to publish a plan that I believe will make a real practical difference to the lives of our citizens who use BSL. I also thank the deaf sector partnership, which has supported the NAG and the many discussions around the country that have contributed to the draft plan.

The plan is framed around 10 long-term goals, which represent our collective dream for BSL in Scotland. They include goals relating to early years; education; employment; health, mental health and social care; transport; culture, leisure, sport and the arts; justice; and democracy. We know that it will take longer than six years to reach those goals, so the first draft plan will set out the steps that we think we can realistically achieve in the next six years. Future plans will take us even closer to our goals.

I want to highlight some of the most significant actions that we have included in the draft plan. We recognise the absolutely 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. In education, our goal is that children and young people who use BSL reach their full potential at school. We are already looking at the qualification level of BSL that teachers have and at how to remove barriers to teacher registration for deaf people whose first language is BSL.

We will also take specific steps to increase the availability of BSL as part of the language offer in schools under our one plus two language policy. One of the first steps will be to gather information on where BSL is being offered in schools, to gather and share examples of best practice and to develop guidance to support BSL being offered as an option alongside other languages.

We will work with schools, colleges and universities to ensure that BSL users have a much more positive experience when they make the transition to post-school education, and that they receive the support that they need to do well in their chosen subjects when they move to college or university.

When young people who use BSL move into the world of work, we want to ensure that they are supported to develop the necessary skills to become valued members of the Scottish workforce. During the lifetime of this first national plan, we will take steps to ensure that BSL users have fair and equal access to employment opportunities, including apprenticeships, internships and employability programmes, and receive appropriate support to find and sustain work, as part of the new Scottish employability programme.

We recognise that access to health and social care services is particularly problematic for people who use BSL. We are determined to address that in a number of ways. For example, over the next six years we will ensure that information on national health screening and immunisation programmes is routinely translated into BSL and is readily available and easy to access. Similarly, we will ensure that information about people’s rights to direct their own social care and support is provided in BSL. We will also improve availability of and access to professionally approved health information in BSL.

According to the charity Signhealth, deaf people are twice as likely as hearing people to experience mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. What makes that worse is that deaf people find it harder to access support. Over the lifetime of the plan, we will develop a national source of mental health information, advice and support for BSL users, to address that significant health inequality.

The draft plan includes a number of important actions, which apply across all public services. We recognise that there is a shortage of BSL English interpreters, particularly with the advanced skills that are necessary to work in specific settings, including the justice and healthcare systems. We will take steps to remedy that.

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

Is it also important that we recognise the variants of BSL? Of course, I highlight the variant that expresses Doric.

Mark McDonald

At the risk of giving the interpreter at the back of the chamber some difficulty, I say aye. We recognise that there are variations in BSL, and we are more than happy to consider that in the context of our approaches.

We know that there are significant variations in access to information and services in BSL across the Scottish public sector. To address that, we will develop, test and promote a set of guidelines for all Scottish public services. We will also explore how we can develop and deliver BSL awareness and training that can be accessed quickly across all front-line public services.

There are more than 50 actions in the draft plan. Although you have been gracious, Presiding Officer, in affording me so much time to speak, I am not sure that time is sufficiently on my side to enable me to go through all the actions in detail. In addition to the key areas that I have mentioned, a range of actions will improve access to information and services in the areas of transport, culture, leisure, sport and the arts, and justice.

The publication of the draft plan for consultation marks a number of important firsts for the Scottish Government. This is the first time that the Scottish Government has produced a bilingual consultation in BSL and English; we are the first Parliament to pass legislation to promote and support BSL; and this is our first national plan, as required by the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015.

I remind members and everyone who is observing the debate that the BSL national plan is a draft. The consultation is now live and will remain open until 31 May. Responses can be made in BSL and in English via a number of avenues, including a dedicated Facebook group.

Yesterday evening, I had the privilege of attending the first of our consultation events here in Edinburgh. There are to be around 30 such events in total. At the event yesterday, a number of interesting and constructive suggestions were raised and I am sure that more will emerge over the next couple of months. It would be fair to say that, although there was significant welcome for the plan and the actions that it contains, there were also a number of suggestions and challenges to which we as a Government will need to give careful consideration when we come to deliver the final plan in October this year.

Today is an opportunity for members in the chamber to take part in the consultation and I look forward to what I am sure will be a constructive debate as we continue to take forward our shared goal of delivering the best services and support for the BSL community.

I move,

That the Parliament welcomes the consultation on the first draft BSL National Plan; expresses its thanks to the BSL National Advisory Group whose knowledge and experience have informed and influenced the content of the plan; acknowledges the support and input from across the Parliament to develop and pass the British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill in 2015; recognises that this is the first time that the Scottish Government has published a bilingual consultation in BSL and English; encourages people whose first or preferred language is BSL to respond to the consultation, and looks forward to the publication of the final version of the plan in October 2017.


Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

I am pleased that we are debating the BSL national plan for Scotland. The Conservatives will support the motion. I congratulate the minister on lodging a motion for a Thursday afternoon debate that does not mention Brexit. I also pay tribute to Mark Griffin for all the work that he did in the previous session of Parliament. I was not a member in that session, but I have looked at some of the work that he and others did and it is a remarkable achievement, of which he and all members can be very proud.

It is right and proper that the BSL national advisory group, which is made up of deaf and deafblind BSL users and parents of deaf children, has been working to help develop the draft plan. I hope that others will engage with the consultation over the next couple of months and submit responses. The plan will benefit deaf children and young people, their families and the wider community, and will close the existing gaps in provision, particularly in the early years and education. Ultimately, it will help deaf people to take maximum possible control over living as independently as possible.

The most reliable data on BSL use in Scotland is based on the 2011 Scottish census, which found that around 12,500 people use BSL at home. That includes people who have no hearing problems but who use BSL to communicate with family members who do. It does not include professional BSL users such as interpreters. People who have BSL as their first language consider themselves part of the deaf community—a minority group that, like any other minority group in Scotland, has a shared language, culture and identity. For members of the deaf community, English is a second language. Too often, we forget that.

The demand for sign language services is set to become much higher as a result of the raised awareness brought about by the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015. With the implementation of the act under way, and consultation on the first BSL national plan for Scotland open, it is expected that there will be a much higher demand for sign language interpreters. The Scottish Association of Sign Language Interpreters maintains a register of the number of interpreters. Currently there are only 66 operational interpreters in Scotland, which means that, for each interpreter, there are around 200 BSL users, around 100 of whom have BSL as their first or preferred language. One of the challenges that we face is how to meet that demand. I serve on the Equalities and Human Rights Committee, which is taking evidence on disability and access to higher education. It is striking that there is good provision in lecture halls for those who go to university, but what provision do those students have in the union or coffee bar, or in discussions outwith the lecture hall?

I am not suggesting that there are easy answers to those questions, but they are questions that we in Scotland have to look at. There is currently no qualifications framework or regulatory framework in relation to use of communication support workers or interpreters in education settings. That means that there is inconsistent provision and disparity in the quality of support that is provided to deaf learners. The role of communication support workers is critical in ensuring that children and young people who rely on signing to access teaching and learning receive accurate interpretation of what the teacher is saying and what is going on in the class.

The same point that I made about university provision often applies to school as well. A constituent approached me recently to tell me that, although their child gets good BSL use in class, their interpreter needs to have a break at break time, so the child often feels isolated in the playground or the lunch hall. We need to ensure that there is provision not just for academic activity at school or university but for social activity as well. Ensuring that CSWs in schools and colleges have a minimum level of BSL qualification, so that they can effectively fulfil that role, is fundamental. The national plan is an opportunity to strengthen consistency in relation to qualifications for those working with deaf learners, and I would be interested to know how the minister plans to bring that forward.

When I was growing up, too often deafness was seen as a learning disability, but it is not a learning disability. With the right support, there is no reason why deaf young people should achieve any less than their hearing peers. However, the latest Scottish Government data shows that, last year, 11.8 per cent of deaf learners left school with no qualifications, compared with the average of 2.6 per cent. That gap in achievement at school goes on to affect deaf young people’s life chances not only with regard to unemployment and poverty, but in relation to leisure activities and many other things that we take for granted.

I welcome what the minister has said about promoting positive experiences around the early years. Most deaf children are born to hearing families. The Scottish Government does not currently cover the costs for families to learn BSL. Often, because of the family budget, only one family member gets the lessons, with other family members getting by. Relationships with siblings and parents are often distorted, or are not as full as they could be, because of language and communication barriers, and developing age-appropriate language is challenging for deaf children because of communication barriers that can impact on attainment and life outcomes.

I welcome the funding that the National Deaf Children’s Society has secured from the Big Lottery Fund Scotland to deliver the everyone together project, which will see around 350 families receive unique early years support over three years. Its family sign language element will offer families and early years professionals the chance to take part in family sign language courses in group and one-to-one settings.

I welcome the steps that are outlined in the national plan, which include the development of information about BSL and deaf culture for parents whose baby is diagnosed as deaf. I remember someone coming to me a few years ago whose child had been born deaf. Their doctor had almost immediately painted a completely negative picture, with no positivity at all. I hope that the culture has changed, and that we can see that a child who is born deaf can still live a completely fulfilling life.

Overall, my party welcomes all the aims that are set out in the national plan. However, we are concerned about how some of them will be put into practice, especially those that relate to the training of front-line staff such as teachers and health professionals. Teachers of the deaf are a lifeline for many deaf children, but services are being squeezed and a lot of teachers are due to retire within the next 10 to 15 years. For a while, I had the privilege of being a governor of Donaldson’s School, when it was based in Edinburgh, and I saw the expertise of many of those staff.

We believe that the issue extends to all people with communication difficulties, such as those who have had a stroke, those who come to deafness later in life and those who simply need help to communicate with family members.

We call on the Scottish Government to carefully consider all the responses to its consultation in order to develop a robust and well-thought-out national plan to support deaf people across Scotland.

I look forward to hearing the views of other members in the debate.


Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I am truly delighted to speak in the debate today, and thank the Scottish Government for bringing forward the debate and for the comprehensive consultation document, the proposals in which will meet and exceed many people’s expectations when they are fully implemented.

British Sign Language is the first language of many deaf people in Scotland. BSL is a visual-gestural language that uses space and movement—the hands, face and head are used to communicate. It has a different grammatical structure from English. Across Scotland, BSL is the indigenous manual language in the same way as English is the indigenous spoken language. Deaf people who use BSL are part of a recognised cultural and linguistic minority and, unlike people who speak other minority languages, many deaf sign language users cannot learn to speak English, as they cannot hear the language.

The origins of forms of signed language can be traced back to the seventh century. In 1886, “Doctor Marigold’s Prescriptions”, a short story penned by Charles Dickens, was published. The story is about a deaf girl called Sophy who is rescued from her violent father by a man who adopts her and then devises a form of sign language to enable him and Sophy to communicate with each other.

Even though the history of sign language goes back a long way, there remains a lack of awareness and understanding of BSL among the hearing population, although I think that that is being addressed. That lack of awareness means that deaf people have less access to the same information and services as hearing people, which can often lead to their feeling marginalised, shut out, misunderstood and isolated. By the same token, society is missing out on the contribution that deaf and deafblind people can make, because they do not have the same access to education and the workplace as hearing people do.

Scottish Government figures show that only 36.4 per cent of deaf pupils attain highers or advanced highers, compared with 60.2 per cent of hearing pupils, and that only 26 per cent of deaf school leavers go on to higher education, compared with 39 per cent of hearing school leavers. That comes down to the language skills of the teachers. We will need to address that in order to reduce the attainment gap, and I am delighted that the Government consultation gives a commitment to investigate the BSL qualification level that teachers have and to review how the General Teaching Council for Scotland’s professional update and standards could inform guidance for teachers of pupils who use BSL.

In the previous session of Parliament, the Education and Culture Committee undertook an inquiry into this issue, and collected evidence on the matter. It is not difficult to see why there is an attainment gap when a BSL user can be taught complex subjects such as maths, physics or chemistry by a teacher whose language skills are lower than theirs. A teacher with a level 1 BSL qualification trying to teach advanced higher physics to deaf pupils is just not going to cut it. Teachers of the deaf really should have a level 3 qualification in BSL, which is the equivalent of a higher.

Another key point on the subject of education is the commitment to discuss with the Scottish Qualifications Authority the potential for developing SQA awards in BSL. That is key, because a lot of students in Scotland study and learn BSL in primary school or in the early years of secondary school but then drop it as a subject because of the pressure in high school to get the qualifications that they need to go on to college or university or for their CVs. If we can develop a recognised SQA qualification, which gives a young person Universities and Colleges Admissions Service—UCAS—points, we will boost the number of non-deaf BSL users, reduce the feelings of isolation within the deaf BSL community at that key time at school, and potentially increase the number of much-needed interpreters.

Dialect was mentioned earlier. I spoke at an event in Edinburgh for which no sign language interpreter was available in Scotland so an interpreter was drafted in from England. There was a variation in dialect and some of the audience did not understand everything because of the word differences between English BSL and what they were used to from a Scottish interpreter. The low number of interpreters is an issue that needs to be addressed.

Another area that could be improved on is access to leisure and sport. There is a commitment in the consultation to

“Support professional pathways and advocate for BSL users to consider culture, leisure, sport or the arts as a potential career choice”.

I have been contacted by a deaf BSL user who hopes to participate in the Deaflympics this year in South Korea. However, he is having to fundraise to cover his own costs to attend the Deaflympics, along with a number of Scottish deaf athletes, and he is having real difficulty in doing that. We have funding available for our Olympians and Paralympians, so perhaps we should look at that area. I have written to Scottish ministers about the situation and I have included it in my consultation submission, so I hope that the minister will keep in mind the funding of deaf athletes.

During the progress of the British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill, I said that I was under no illusion that the bill was anything more than a starting point—that it was the first positive step towards putting BSL on a firmer footing and that it would make a positive difference to the lives of BSL users. I am delighted that the Government has taken the next step and if the commitments in the consultation document are realised, that will be warmly welcomed by the BSL community.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We move to the open debate. I can be a little bit generous with time—isn’t it nice to hear that? I call Fulton MacGregor.


Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

First, I echo what others have said over the past 24 hours and offer my sympathy to those who were affected by yesterday’s events in London.

It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate. I will start by telling the story of my local hero, Holly Kinsella, who I am delighted to say has joined us in the public gallery today. I met Holly during my recent election campaign and, as anyone who has met her will know, she is a confident and outgoing young adult. Holly sits on the youth advisory board of the National Deaf Children’s Society and is an avid campaigner for the advancement of sign language.

However, when we learn about Holly’s story—one that will not be unique to her—we learn that she was not always as confident and outgoing as she is today and that that was down to a system that failed to support young deaf people. Holly was born deaf but was not diagnosed until she was five. Because of the delay in diagnosis, her language skills were behind those of her peers. At the time of diagnosis, those involved in her healthcare pushed her to speak as opposed to encouraging a shift to signing.

Holly went to a school where there were no other deaf children, and certainly very little support for her—she had absolutely no access to signing. She was in her first year at high school before she had contact with other deaf children and it was then that she learned about, in her own words, the rich and amazing deaf culture. She started to become involved in campaigning and is now an outspoken advocate for deaf children.

Many colleagues have met Holly; she is not at all shy about approaching MSPs and others to let them know exactly what they should be doing to make life better for young deaf people and their families. I include the Deputy First Minister in that, at a recent event here in the Parliament. I am sure that the minister, Mark McDonald, will be firmly on Holly’s radar now. Stories such as hers reinforce just how important the consultation is, and I am pleased that all parties in the chamber have come together to support it.

There are many other inspirational people who are helping to make progress on BSL. Katie Slavin, who is also from my constituency and who I also first met during my campaign, runs the shining stars group in Coatbridge, which helps children with additional needs, including those with hearing loss. She, too, uses BSL and believes that it should be rolled out in the curriculum.

Both of those young people are doing an amazing job locally. They have told me that they were inspired by their recent political engagements. It is significant that—as I mentioned—they both felt confident enough to approach me during my election campaign, as they approached all the MSP candidates and developed relationships thereafter. Over the past couple of days, I have been genuinely surprised by talk of political debate and discourse being divisive. The two individuals whom I have spoken about are examples of how community engagement and empowerment can come out of political discussion.

Sign language absolutely must be considered a mainstream language in Scotland, and support must be in place for deaf people, and for parents and the extended families of deaf children. That was covered in the minister’s speech and by other members. According to the 2011 census, as other members have said, there are 12,533 people who use sign language in Scotland, including 828 in my local authority area of North Lanarkshire. I thank Action on Hearing Loss for the briefing that it provided for the debate.

I am delighted that this important consultation has been made fully accessible to those who sign. However, I was concerned to hear that there are currently just 66 BSL interpreters in Scotland. In Finland, which is comparable in size to Scotland, there are 750 interpreters, which allows for a ratio of one interpreter for every six people who use sign language. In Scotland, the ratio is one in approximately 167; that point was made by Jeremy Balfour.

I therefore welcome the commitment to bring in more public bodies to be covered by the BSL legislation, which will increase the number by almost half, and to increase the number of people who use BSL. I encourage the Government to increase the number of registered interpreters. BSL is a language in its own right that enables many of our deaf citizens to learn, work, parent, be creative, live life to the full and make their contribution to our communities, our culture and our economy.

Much has already been said about the Scottish Government data from 2014-15. I think we would all agree that the statistics are not good, and I commend the Government for starting the process to address that.

The National Deaf Children’s Society believes that, with the right support and early identification, deaf children can do anything that other children can do, and I agree. The Government’s aim is to close the attainment gap, which includes overcoming all sorts of barriers. However, in order to achieve that, it is critical that children are supported in their early years, which are a crucial time for cognitive and language development. As has been said, 90 per cent of deaf children are born to hearing parents, which can create a barrier in communication in the early years, so it is crucial that parents are supported in communicating with their children.

I welcome the consultation and proposals to expand access and support for BSL, and I encourage all my constituents to take part. I offer my apologies to the interpreter if my Glaswegian accent has meant that I have spoken too fast today; I have tried to slow down.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That is a timely reminder that members should pace their delivery. I call Graham Simpson. You always pace your delivery, Mr Simpson.


Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

I will do my best, Presiding Officer.

I welcome the debate today, although it is not so much a debate given that I suspect we will all agree that helping those who have hearing difficulties or no hearing at all should be a priority.

I echo the comments that have been made about Mark Griffin and the work that he has put in. I do not know Mark very well, but he should be congratulated by all of us on his sterling efforts. I also thank the BSL national advisory group for its work so far.

The consultation is certainly necessary, and the Government has until October to produce a plan. That is needed, because deaf people encounter in their day-to-day lives myriad problems that those of us who are lucky enough to be able to hear do not think about that often. I will focus on some of the challenges that deaf people face.

Earlier this month, I was delighted to meet Action on Hearing Loss. Its moving on service offers support to help businesses to become more accessible and deaf aware for job seekers or employees who are deaf or have hearing loss. The moving on service is funded by the Big Lottery Fund Scotland and provides communication tips as well as information about the access to work programme and how to book communication support such as BSL/English interpreters. The charity’s employment advisers, who sign to a high level of BSL, support young deaf or hard-of-hearing people aged 16 to 25 into employment, training, education and volunteering opportunities. The employment advisers also provide key practical advice on preparing CVs, interview training and getting ready for college or work.

The moving on service is excellent, but it highlights the real issue for deaf people of finding employment. That was also highlighted to me when I recently visited the Lanarkshire Deaf Club in Motherwell. It set up its own job club in January this year and has already seen members start work in Lanarkshire as a result. People who are deaf or hard of hearing can find it difficult to attend the JobCentre or job interviews without interpreters who can use sign language to communicate for them. There is a general issue across Scotland of there not being enough interpreters. The national strategy and any local strategies that follow on from it need to address that.

The ratio of interpreters to BSL users in Scotland is about 1:167, but in Finland it is 1:6, as Fulton MacGregor and Jeremy Balfour mentioned. Strangely, the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015 does not compel the Scottish Government to conduct an audit of the current provision of BSL interpretation, but it should do—perhaps the minister could take that up. The public sector can do more and I am pleased to hear that it will be getting guidelines, but private employers could be encouraged to help, too. For example, what about having a deaf-accredited employer scheme? Perhaps the minister could consider that—he can take that as a consultation response. Another idea is that shops and reception desks in businesses could be encouraged to install hearing loops.

I visited Lanarkshire Deaf Club to congratulate the club on receiving £5,000 from the Big Lottery Fund to host a day of celebration this coming Saturday under the banner of “Loving Lanarkshire Deaf”. The club will have a child-friendly event during the day to provide information about local organisations and deaf organisations to the wider community. At night, there will be a party for over-18s, with a buffet bar and disco, for both the deaf and hearing communities—it is all about breaking down barriers in the community.

Ian Galloway, who is the project manager at the club, told me:

“I feel it is important that local business, services and the wider community are more aware of the needs of the deaf community. I would like to see Lanarkshire as a place of excellence where hearing and deaf people are able to access services and communicate freely with each other. British Sign Language is our first language and not English as many people mistakenly think.”

That is the point, is it not? BSL is a language all of its own. Just as we would find an interpreter for someone who walked into a police station who could speak only French, we should do the same for deaf people. Most of us take for granted being able to go outside, shop, get on a bus, go to work and communicate with everyone, but the reality is so different for people who are deaf.

When I met Ian Galloway, he told me about something that we could and should tackle here. He visited the Scottish Parliament to give evidence to a committee and found that there was no BSL interpreter. We can make a start close to home.

I hope that the consultation and the forthcoming national plan will break down the barriers that I have mentioned and raise awareness.


Tavish Scott (Shetland Islands) (LD)

I am with Fulton MacGregor, as I begin by apologising to the interpreters—possibly not for my accent, although I will try to avoid going into the depths of the Shetland dialect, but for my pace of speech. This is an occasion when we should consider such things carefully.

About now, President Clinton will be speaking in Northern Ireland at the funeral of Martin McGuinness. If I have heard one person whose use of pauses is utterly dramatic, it is Clinton. There is something in that for us to remember in the debate. We should recognise that how we speak is as important as what we say.

I appreciated the remarks that the minister made at the beginning and the reasoned tone with which he expressed them. The conciliator is on good form today. I pay tribute to Mark Griffin for the work that he did in the previous session of Parliament and for his thoughtful speech today. I did not know the historical perspective that he gave earlier, but we are the better for having had that put on the record. I also thank Jeremy Balfour and others for providing intensely thoughtful contributions on this really important area of public policy.

I apologise to you, Presiding Officer, for having to leave before the end of the debate. The Loganair fight to Sumburgh waits for no man or woman and certainly not for the Shetland Islands MSP, so I am afraid that I will be away.

Improving services for British Sign Language users is a worthy public policy goal, and the national plan that the minister set out is to be welcomed for its commitment to ensuring that BSL users feel supported from their early years into employment and beyond. The plan is a positive step for non-BSL users, too. By integrating British Sign Language into schools, workplaces and public services, we all benefit from working towards a more inclusive society, which is one of the aspects of this place that we hold dear.

I was particularly taken by the section in the plan on education, not least because of the work—Mark Griffin referred to it—that was done in the previous session of Parliament and by previous education committees. I thank my colleague and friend Liam McArthur for his role in that. We rightly invest much attention in and give much debate to the funding of education to ensure that pupils from all backgrounds thrive in school—indeed, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills made a speech on that very subject this morning—and it should be no different for pupils who use BSL. More teachers being qualified in BSL will undoubtedly help those for whom the language is their primary means of communication, but it may also help the wider school. The plan notes that we should take advantage of children’s appetite to learn, and bringing BSL into the classroom will increase tolerance and understanding and at least help to remove the sense of isolation that many people with hearing loss feel.

The plan’s emphasis on health and mental health is to be commended and pushed. No individual should be left feeling that they cannot access important services or left confused about their care because no one is available who is qualified to tell them what they need to know in the right language.

Proper funding is crucial if ministers are to meet the ambitious plans that have been set out today. Currently, my Shetland Islands constituency has no BSL interpreter, which limits the opportunities that are available to those who are deaf or hard of hearing in the islands. Remote videoconferencing could help to address that but, without the necessary investment in broadband connections, supporting BSL users who are older or less confident with technology may be a great challenge. Improved broadband services are now required for many of our public services, particularly in rural and island areas.

Similarly, helping more BSL users to access university and achieve a degree and helping more of them into sustainable employment requires the resources and the commitment of those who provide support services.

My party is happy to support the Government’s motion and we welcome the consultation. All too often, politicians are accused of telling people how things should be, without seeing what works. It strikes me that the BSL community has, rightly, been a part of the plan’s formulation—I took on board the minister’s point that there will be 30 more meetings to discuss the on-going work. I am sure that BSL users will provide their thoughts on the draft plan over the coming weeks and months.

Creating a more equal place for BSL in Scottish life requires us all to work together, across all sectors. One of my constituents who is a BSL user told me that his dream was to one day be Prime Minister—I apologise to the minister, as he said “Prime Minister” and not “First Minister”, although that might just have been a constitutional slip of the tongue. However, because he is deaf he thinks that it

“sounds like an impossible dream”.

He has urged us all to take action to improve the position and provision of BSL. In that way, he said,

“I might have a chance”.

That seems to be the right ambition for not just my constituent but all of Scotland.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

You paced yourself with admirable restraint, Mr Scott. Your delivery is usually much faster.

I call Maree Todd.


Maree Todd (Highlands and Islands) (SNP)

Thank you, Presiding Officer. As you will have seen by my saying thank you in BSL, I am determined to include a few signs in my speech today. I welcome—in BSL—the students from Heriot-Watt University who are here today, including my constituent Caitlin Bogan, who is studying for an MA in BSL.

Thursday 17 September 2015 was the most important day in the history of BSL in Scotland. On that date, the British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill was passed unanimously by all parties in the chamber. The bill became the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015. We should all be proud of the leadership that the Parliament has shown on equal rights for deaf people, and proud of the work of Mark Griffin, as members have said.

Scotland was the first part of the United Kingdom to recognise signing for the deaf as an official language. Thanks to the 2015 act, the Scottish Government and public bodies now have a responsibility to promote the language and make public services accessible for BSL users. However, that is just the start. The consultation that we are debating today is a key part of the policy-making process and is an opportunity to ensure that we get it right for BSL users in Scotland.

Another first that is worth celebrating is that this is the first time that the Scottish Government has produced a bilingual consultation in BSL and English.

We want to make Scotland the best place in the world for BSL users to live in, work in and visit, and we celebrate and recognise the value, richness and diversity of BSL. In Scotland, BSL is the first and preferred language of many deaf people. It is definitely a language in its own right: it has its own grammar, structure, syntax and regional variations, as we have heard. Each country has its own national sign language and, like any language, each has a cultural significance.

Language is vital for all of us. The ability to discuss politics might not always be welcome, but the ability to say I love you—I just demonstrated it in BSL—is part of who we are as human beings.

As a society, we should recognise the cultural and linguistic identity of deaf people who use BSL to communicate and we should adapt our services. That involves removing the barriers that deaf people face to accessing public services, employment and education services. There are many examples of deaf people being unable to access crucial information, such as when they go to the doctor or the dentist. When individuals feel excluded from public life and the national conversation, that has an impact on their mental health. It is therefore critical that BSL users and young people feel supported. That is especially so for young people, as the impact of deafness in childhood can be significant.

Ninety per cent of deaf children are born to hearing parents, and there is a general lack of understanding of deafness and its impact on a child’s life. There are definitely challenges for BSL users in school, but I will take the opportunity to tell members about the great things that my local school is doing.

We should all be proud of what has been done in the Highlands. Dingwall academy is one of the very few schools to deliver a BSL unit; all students in first year, including my son Gregor this year, take BSL classes as a taster along with other modern languages such as Spanish, French, Gaelic and German. That is where Caitlin Bogan first had the opportunity to study BSL, and for her and other children at the school, that has led to further education and—hopefully—career opportunities. The school is keen for BSL to have an accredited school qualification and have the same status as other languages, and I support it in that.

Dingwall academy sees the value of BSL. It recognises that deaf students need to study their own language as much as English speakers need to study English. Deaf children’s literacy skills tend to be poorer, and they struggle with deconstructing sentences. As a result, the school’s approach is definitely all about raising attainment.

Every young person in the school is valued and recognised as having needs, and the school wants to be inclusive. Dingwall academy does not want BSL to be just an add-on; it wants BSL to be embedded. That is all about tackling social isolation and the mental health problems that deaf students face. When they can communicate, the challenges are lessened. Parents’ feedback is that they really value that; indeed, some parents talk about the value of having kids who can now communicate with deaf siblings.

Dingwall academy is a shining example of what deaf and hearing children can achieve with the right support in BSL, but what it is doing goes beyond qualifications to social life, family life, inclusion and reducing stigma. I am sure that we can all agree that deaf children must be given the same opportunities to flourish as others.

Finally, I say in BSL: thank you.


Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

Like others, I welcome the consultation and look forward to the changes that will ensue from it. First, I pay tribute to Cathie Craigie and Mark Griffin. Cathie Craigie campaigned on the issue, and Mark Griffin took up the work when he came to the Parliament—he pursued it doggedly and achieved a real change in our perception of BSL. His member's bill raised awareness, and its enactment is what brings us together today to discuss the consultation. Getting a member’s bill through the Parliament is not easy, but his work and determination have made a lasting change for those who communicate through BSL.

The consultation is right to focus on access to education and services. It is shocking that attainment levels for deaf people are so low, which harms not only their schooling but their life chances and access to a career. Given that their ability to learn is being hampered by inadequate communication, I would like greater awareness raising of BSL, and I welcome the fact that the consultation is looking at its inclusion as a language on the school curriculum. That alone will mean that more people will be able to communicate through BSL.

I did a short BSL course that was run by trade union learning. The basics were surprisingly easy to learn—as Maree Todd has shown, the language is to some extent intuitive—but, because I have not used it since, my knowledge and ability have pretty much gone. It is therefore important that BSL is used more often to ensure that people can build up their skills and be able to sign when the need arises.

The statistic has been mentioned that 90 per cent of deaf people have hearing parents. If those parents have no knowledge of BSL at their child’s birth, they will be playing catch-up throughout its life. We all know that babies and young children learn at a phenomenal rate—much faster than adults. A child’s influences and learning come from its parents. Therefore, if the parents have some prior knowledge, that will keep them ahead of their child and help them to deliver support.

The National Deaf Children’s Society tells us in its briefing for the debate that it has obtained Big Lottery funding for its everyone together project. That project gives early years support to 350 families and professionals who are working with deaf children. The family sign language project offers families BSL language courses in group and one-to-one sessions.

The society flags up to us the challenges and omissions in the consultation. It highlights the lack of interpreters. Given that the consultation is geared towards education and service delivery, it is difficult to see how 80 interpreters can adequately meet demand. According to the society, there are about 3,850 deaf children in Scotland and 3 per cent of them use solely BSL. If those numbers carry across to the adult population, the number of interpreters is surely inadequate for deaf people to be able to access even the most basic level of services.

The society flags up the minimum levels of qualification in BSL that are required for professionals who work with deaf learners and feels that increasing the qualification level is something that is missing from the plan. I understand that we need a lot more people who are fluent and qualified in BSL to be able to meet demand, so if we need to raise the qualification levels, we need more people to be trained. That needs to be an aspiration to ensure that young deaf people have the same educational opportunities as their hearing peer group.

A worrying statistic is that 40 per cent of deaf children experience mental health difficulties, compared with 25 per cent of hearing children. To an extent, that is not surprising. I led the members’ business debate on Tuesday on loneliness. It is clear that loneliness and isolation lead to physical and mental health problems. Even someone who is surrounded by people will be lonely and isolated if they cannot interact with those people. There might be an interpreter in the classroom, but there will not be one in the playground. The only way in which we can address that is by making sign language—BSL—more widely used.

There has recently been a lot of concern about access to child and adolescent mental health services, which is challenging for all children, who have to wait long periods and travel to access services. That is even more difficult for deaf children, since access to services that they can communicate with is even more challenging.

We need language to communicate, and BSL—like any other language—is used to pass down culture and history through the generations. The rich and famous have their history and culture written down in history books, while the masses depend on their stories being handed down through the generations. Language is hugely important in that process, which is why we value the languages that all our communities use and why we must take steps to preserve and promote them.

Much of the debate reminds me of the early years of the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005, and there are many similarities over the ability to communicate and with regard to culture and history. I remember someone saying to me at that time that, while having more Gaelic taught in schools was a good thing, the real gauge of success would be to have it spoken in the playground. If we are to be inclusive, that must be our goal for BSL, too.


Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

I welcome the publication of the consultation on the draft BSL national plan. The national plan comes from the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015, the passage of which was an important step in ensuring that, just like hearing people, deaf and blind people can communicate and be communicated with in their first language. I, too, pay tribute to Mark Griffin, who introduced the legislation as a member’s bill and worked tirelessly to promote it.

I welcome the consultation on the draft plan. It is essential that we take this opportunity to challenge ourselves to be sufficiently ambitious, given the barriers that we know that deaf and deafblind people face in playing a full role in society. In some regards, however, the consultation may fall short of the intentions of the section of the act that requires the Government to produce such a plan. In examining some of the issues, I will focus particularly on BSL in our education system.

As the consultation says, 90 per cent of deaf babies are born to hearing parents. As we know, a secure attachment between child and parent is hugely important for the child’s wellbeing, yet parents in that situation face great challenges in getting the support that they need to communicate with their child. A friend of mine who has a deaf son—a lovely young man who is now working—told me how she felt when she found out about her son’s condition. She told me:

“I was totally petrified and felt helpless. I had never met a deaf person in my life and here I was staring into the face of one.”

We need to make sure that all hearing parents of deaf and deafblind children get the support that they need from the earliest point. That is why I welcome the Government’s aim that, by 2023, families and carers with a deaf or deafblind child will be given information about British Sign Language and deaf culture and will be offered support to learn to sign with their child.

The consultation refers to a range of steps that we should take to achieve that, and some are encouraging. I was really pleased to see a focus on developing key materials in BSL about play, so that deaf children are able to enjoy the same play activities as hearing children. Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child guarantees all children in signatory states the right to play, and that is a welcome step towards achieving that right for deaf children.

However, although I welcome the commitments that the Scottish Government is making to the improvement of access to resources for hearing parents of deaf children, I believe that we can make them even more specific. For example, although it is great to see a commitment to continuing the support for families and carers with deaf and deafblind children to learn BSL to a level that is appropriate for communicating with nought to five-year-olds, that commitment could be stronger. I would like to see a pledge that all hearing parents of deaf and deafblind children will have a right to access BSL learning opportunities and gain BSL qualifications.

I now turn to how we can improve the experience of school for deaf and deafblind pupils. In 2012-13, Scottish Government figures showed that some 10 per cent of deaf and deafblind pupils left school with no qualifications, compared to 0.9 per cent of pupils with no additional support needs. The figures also showed that hearing-impaired pupils were about half as likely as pupils with no additional support needs to enter higher education, and, for both those measures, there was a worsening rather than improving trend. We need to do better for deaf and deafblind students in our schools, and the better training of teachers should be one of the most urgent areas for improvement.

Members may be surprised to learn—I certainly was—that there is no single national standard to which teachers of deaf children must be qualified in British Sign Language. The Scottish Qualifications Authority offers five levels of qualification in BSL, but many teachers of the deaf are qualified only to the most basic level. Mark Griffin highlighted that point, too. Deaf students can find themselves significantly more advanced in BSL than their teachers, which will clearly have a detrimental impact on the education of deaf and deafblind children and young people. I realise that the minister recognises that as an issue and has pledged to investigate the level of BSL qualifications that teachers of the deaf have. I welcome that. Nevertheless, I question whether merely investigating that by as late as 2023 is sufficiently rapid action.

That work could be supported by clearer routes into deaf education. Although several Scottish universities offer undergraduate degree courses in deaf studies, British Sign Language and interpreting—such as those at Heriot-Watt University, in Lothian—no universities currently offer courses in the teaching of deaf children and young people. Therefore, I encourage the Government to ensure that such a degree is available in Scotland in the near future. Increasing the number of appropriately qualified teachers is an important step, but having more teachers who are deaf themselves could make a huge difference, as the presence of a deaf role model can be hugely important for deaf children and young people.

I was pleased to see that the consultation mentions working with the General Teaching Council for Scotland to remove barriers to registering deaf people who want to become teachers. I would like a specific pledge to increase the recruitment of deaf people as deaf teachers to be in the final version of the plan.

Jeremy Balfour touched on the issue of wider school inclusivity. Making the formal classroom environment more inclusive and accessible is a good start, but we also need to ensure that the wider school environment is wholly inclusive of deaf pupils. Deaf pupils often report that they are excluded from breaktime activities, so it is essential that we have a wraparound model of support.

Maree Todd talked about the initiative that Dingwall academy has shown. It has been a pioneer in using BSL teaching to create a more inclusive school environment for deaf pupils by offering BSL as a language option, sitting alongside the traditional languages such as French, German and Gaelic. Some 87 pupils out of 240 applied for 20 available places during the first year that the course was offered. Over the following three years, the numbers requesting to study the course were three to four times the allocated number of places. Margaret Kinsman of Dingwall academy said:

“As well as opening doors for hearing children, the development of BSL at Dingwall has been little short of a revelation for deaf pupils in mainstream classes.”

She said that it has enabled barriers to be broken down and new friendships to develop. It is hugely transformative and has great potential. Will the Scottish Government go further and encourage other schools to follow the example of Dingwall academy?

I welcome the pledge that by 2023 education authorities and schools should know that BSL can be part of the language offer and that data will be gathered on how many schools are offering BSL as a language-learning opportunity. I ask the minister to consider what else could be done to enable more schools to offer BSL.

The fact that we are having this debate says a lot about how far we have come in making Scotland a more inclusive place for deaf and deafblind people. I very much welcome the draft national plan. It is clear that we can do more. We have a real opportunity to do more together and I look forward to working with the ministers and other colleagues to achieve that.


Gillian Martin (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)

I am pleased to contribute to today’s debate on Scotland’s first-ever British Sign Language national plan. Although I have no BSL users in my family, I have family members with severe hearing loss. I am pleased that we are tackling issues and formulating a plan around communication for all, across our society. My thanks go to Mark Griffin for his work in getting his member’s bill passed.

The issue here is that we all have the right to communicate, no matter our circumstances. BSL is a language, but not enough people have access to it. There are adopters who would like to be able to communicate with deaf friends, family or clients and BSL users who find themselves unable to communicate with those with whom they interact throughout their lives.

I want to talk about a constituent of mine who will be very pleased that we are having this debate and will be doubly pleased that there are BSL signers in the chamber translating our spoken words for BSL users. Her name is Rosemary Mitchell and she lives in Ellon. Last year, Rosemary found herself in a situation that would be tremendously difficult for any daughter: her mum was terminally ill with cancer and was receiving palliative care. The family, who thought that they had experienced every possible difficulty in communicating throughout their lives as a family using BSL, were experiencing something new. Most of the time, Rosemary had to be her mum’s 24-hour interpreter because there simply were not enough interpreters in the north-east of Scotland to meet the demand.

There is not enough knowledge of BSL in society, or training available, for enough of us to know even the basics and to be able to ask how someone is feeling or whether they need assistance. I am one of those people; I cannot sign one single word. I am—try not to act too surprised—a child of the 1970s. At that time, there was no such thing as the BSL training that, as so many of my colleagues have mentioned, happens in schools these days.

None of the carers, the volunteers or the fantastic Marie Curie nurses who worked with Rosemary’s parents could communicate with Elaine without the help of Rosemary or her father. Rosemary is now campaigning and fundraising to get BSL training for Marie Curie nurses. I have met Action on Hearing Loss and Marie Curie together to look at joint working for solutions to communications issues that deaf patients find themselves with, and I am very excited about seeing what they, working with Rosemary with a little bit of help from me—I thank them for including me in their work together—will come up with. I look forward to that. Rosemary has made a wonderful tribute to Elaine Mitchell.

I was particularly pleased to see the section of the plan that looks at how BSL interpreters can develop their skills to work in healthcare and justice settings, and moves to get more BSL training into the school curriculum as a language offer. The commitment in the plan to roll out BSL awareness training for health and social care staff throughout Scotland is most welcome.

I would like deaf awareness training to include making people aware of how they can assist lip readers. With a little awareness—such as that which we have from the instructions that we were all given today—of the need to speak clearly and at a moderate pace and to always keep our faces visible to the person who is reading our lips, we can make a substantial difference to a person who wants to be able to communicate with us in any situation. Deaf awareness is as important as all the BSL measures in the plan, and it is easily included in training for people who are going into work in any sector.

Communication is a right, and BSL awareness and training are a huge part of delivering on those rights.


Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

I am pleased to take part in this debate, which provides a good opportunity for members’ views to feed into and inform the current consultation on the BSL national plan, which will cover the period up to 2023. I, too, pay tribute to Mark Griffin for the work that he has done in the area, especially with regard to his member’s bill.

The plan rightly enjoys broad cross-party support—that has already been demonstrated today—as the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015 did, of course. That was a significant landmark for BSL users in Scotland.

Like Maree Todd, who has left the chamber, I have been keen to learn some BSL. Members of the Health and Sport Committee have been given the opportunity to do that, and that has shown me what a wonderful, rich language BSL is. I recently met some young BSL signers in Edinburgh, and it really struck me then how the language is developing. One thing that I took away from that meeting was the new international sign language sign for President Donald Trump. Members can see from my demonstration what it is. That sign is part of a rich language and I will never forget it.

I urge constituents across the Lothian region, which I represent, to give their views during the consultation period, which runs until the end of May. I especially urge members of the deaf community, BSL users, those who support BSL users and young people to do so. It is vital that they give their opinions on the draft plan and suggest improvements and amendments ahead of the publication of the final plan in October.

I pay tribute to the organisations in Scotland that campaign on behalf of deaf people and those with hearing loss. Their views are very important in the consultation process, and I hope that they will all be listened to and taken into account. Those organisations include the Scottish Council on Deafness, the British Deaf Association Scotland and Action on Hearing Loss. There are also a number of fantastic local organisations throughout the country that work to support BSL users. In my Lothian region, for example, we have the Lothian deaf counselling service, which offers counselling in BSL, and groups such as the West Lothian BSL group, which offers deaf and hearing BSL users the opportunity to socialise, make new friends and meet old ones in a relaxed and informal setting.

I agree with the points that my colleague Jeremy Balfour made about BSL support in the early years and those that Graham Simpson made on employment issues.

I will focus most of my remarks on section 8 of the draft plan, which covers health, mental health and social care. Equal access to information is a major theme of the section, as it is in other parts of the draft plan. To me, that is really important and something on which we should aim for Scotland to have a gold standard. I fully agree that all information on national health screening and immunisation programmes should be routinely translated into BSL and that that should be readily available and easily accessible. I welcome the minister’s commitment on that today.

More generally, high-quality health information and advice in BSL should also be much more readily available. I support the suggestion that it should be collated and located in a central online resource that BSL users can access. As the draft plan suggests, there should also be a national source of mental health information for BSL users. I hope that the Scottish Government’s new mental health strategy will include that issue. The resource should be comprehensive and user friendly and it should direct BSL users to mental health services and appropriate local support groups, as happens with ALISS—a local information system for Scotland—which is used in GP practices. It should also build on the good work of the Scottish mental health service for deaf people, which is hosted by NHS Lothian.

Clear and concise BSL information should also be made available for BSL users who wish to direct their own social care and support. I look to local authorities to take that forward and to make sure that BSL users can choose self-directed support if they want it. We should also consider carefully the specific needs and requirements of deafblind BSL users in accessing health and social care services. BSL awareness training for health and social care staff is another important consideration. I would be grateful if the minister could give more details on how the Scottish Government can support local NHS boards and local authorities to ensure that their staff receive such training, particularly given that there are time pressures and, in many cases, budget restraints.

We have not really touched on technology, although Tavish Scott mentioned it. I recently went through Heathrow airport, where there were welcome screens in BSL. It would be interesting to see how we could develop that in our public services in Scotland.

I want to end on the issue of loneliness and isolation. People who lose their hearing often go through a very difficult and isolating period. Last September, the Scottish Government committed to bringing forward a national social isolation strategy, and I hope that that presents an opportunity to look at innovative and creative ways that we can support our deaf community in Scotland. In this day and age, we need to ensure that people with hearing loss are given the support that they need so that they realise their potential and so that we prevent isolation and loneliness.

I again welcome today’s debate and I look forward to many constituents and organisations making their views known on the draft plan during the consultation period. The draft plan is positive, but the key will be the delivery of the proposals on the ground across all our public services. I urge ministers to provide the leadership and support that are required to ensure the effective implementation of the plan. Many of our fellow Scots will be watching, and they expect the Government to deliver.


Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

The fifth of May 2015 was a very important day in the life of the Parliament, as it was the day that the Parliament was awarded a charter mark from Action on Hearing Loss. The charter mark is a nationally recognised accreditation for organisations that offer excellent levels of service and accessibility for people who are deaf or who have hearing loss. Perhaps more important is that it was also the day when we started the parliamentary debate on the British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill. Mark Griffin came to Parliament on that day to propose that we adopt the general principles of the bill, which we gladly and unanimously did. I was happy to speak in that debate and to support Mark Griffin’s proposals.

Sign language is not simply limited to people who use BSL; we all have our individual sign languages. I have just exchanged signs with the Presiding Officer in order to establish for how long she wants me to speak, and I am quite convinced that I saw her say that I have 27 minutes, although it might be that my ability to read her signs is somewhat incomplete. When we wink, the context makes it clear what we are likely to mean. If I am winking at an attractive young lady—well, members can work out that message. In other circumstances, a wink means something different. If I slap my forehead, I am saying, “I’m being stupid; I’ve forgotten something.” If I wave my hand, it is “Hello.” We are all familiar with the concept of sign language, even if we do not know a single gesture of BSL.

I have one phrase of BSL—let us see whether members know what it means. I am signing, “I am ZS”, which merely leads members to another puzzle. When I worked as a software engineer, the engineers used two letters to represent themselves, and Sammy Stein had stolen SS before I got there, so I became ZS. To this day, my intimates from that period of my life continue to know me as ZS.

There are one or two things about the Government’s consultation that I have not seen before—they are particular to the consultation. First, I very much welcome the fact that people can respond to the consultation by submitting a YouTube video or a Vimeo clip as a GIF—graphics interchange format—file. Given the nature of BSL as a visual language, that is right and proper, but I would not have thought of it myself. It is something that I will try to remember.

In my intervention on the minister’s speech, I mentioned Doric BSL. I was told at the back of the chamber that I had forgotten about the Weegies. I have no idea what that means, of course, coming from somewhere else, as I do.

The consultation document is impressive, but it is also challenging. It contains 55 commitments—members can see that I am using my hand, almost unconsciously, to reinforce my message. I particularly approve of commitments 20 to 22, to which several members referred and which are about offering BSL as a second language. The one-plus-two language initiative in schools is very welcome, because people who learn two languages create in their brains neural pathways that raise their overall academic achievement. I can see that in my family: I have a Danish great-nephew and great-niece whose father is Scots and their mother Danish. They are bilingual, and I can see how that helps their intellectual development.

Commitments 23 and 24 are about support during post-school education, which is also important. A close family member of mine is dyslexic. She had the right support throughout her career, including at university, where someone was able to help her to understand the questions that she could not read properly on exam papers. She graduated with an honours degree and is now a very successful manager of a pharmacological laboratory. She has put her disability, or condition, behind her, simply by getting the right kind of support.

It is worth saying that aspects of this city are relevant in respect of support for people who are deaf. Thomas Braidwood, who lived from 1715 to 1806, founded what is thought to have been the first school for the deaf, here in this city. When Dr Samuel Johnson visited Edinburgh in 1773, he said:

“There is one subject of philosophical curiosity in Edinburgh which no other city has to show; a College for the Deaf and Dumb”.

Dr Joshua Reynolds, the world-famous portrait painter, was deaf, but it did not prevent him from creating an international reputation that endures to this day. John Goodricke, who died in 1786 at the age of 21, was elected to the Royal Society right at the end of his life because he was the first person to spot the periodic nature of illuminations from particular stars and identify the reasons for that. He was a scientist par excellence who was also deaf.

It has been a matter of public policy to take an interest in deafness, and I know that it has also touched democracy. As far as I am aware, there has been only one deaf member of the UK Parliament, Jack Ashley, and he was a special case because he was elected hearing and became deaf.

Let us hope that we can continue with the Government’s excellent document and support people to engage with BSL and, as a wider issue, support people who are deaf.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We move to the closing speeches. I have a couple of minutes in hand. You may have up to eight minutes, Mr Griffin.


Mark Griffin

It has been a good debate this afternoon and I hope that it will assure members of the deaf and deafblind community who communicate using BSL of the strength of support in their Parliament from their Government and MSPs, and of the importance of their language, culture and the contribution that they make to society.

It is worth while reminding Parliament, as the minister did in his opening remarks, how we got to this point. Although I thank members for their kind words, it was the cross-party group on deafness that started the work on a BSL bill. Today marks more than a decade of its hard work. The process was an excellent advert for the openness and accessibility of our Parliament and democracy on a day on which we should treasure it. What has happened is a fantastic example of members of a minority group in our society coming together to form a cross-party group, setting out their priorities, and lobbying MSPs to the point at which the Government progressed provisions in a bill that was passed unanimously almost two years ago. That was a direct result of the cross-party group’s dedication and hard work, so it is only right and proper that we show our appreciation and thank the members of that group.

Maree Todd talked about the fact that Scotland was the first country in the UK to officially recognise BSL as a language in its own right and, even though it predates my time as an MSP, that was also down to the hard work and lobbying of the cross-party group.

I joined the cross-party group on deafness when I was elected in 2011 because of my family history of deafness. Two of my great-grandparents were deafblind and, although they died before I was born, I grew up hearing about some of the struggles that they faced in growing up and raising a family. When I joined the group, I was shocked to find that, generations and decades later, deaf BSL users were facing the same barriers and challenges, which pushed me to start to work and support those people by introducing the British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill.

As I said in my opening speech, British Sign Language is the first language of many deaf people in Scotland. BSL is a visual-gestural language that uses space and movement, and the hands, face and head are used to communicate. It has a different grammatical structure to English. Across Scotland, BSL is the indigenous manual language in the same way as English is the indigenous spoken language. As Graham Simpson said, BSL is not simply a signed form of English; it is a distinct language in its own right with vast differences from English.

Stewart Stevenson

Does Mark Griffin think that we should start training the Presiding Officers to recognise rude words in BSL so that members can be hauled up if they use them?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We should have very limited use of BSL in the chamber unless it is for someone who requires it to communicate properly.

Mark Griffin

I hope that we will see more and more sign language in the chamber, but not using signs of such a nature that they would require the Presiding Officer’s intervention.

Deaf people who use BSL are part of a recognised cultural and linguistic minority. Unlike people who speak other minority languages, many deaf BSL users cannot learn to use English because they cannot hear it. Mention is often made of the Equality Act 2010 and its effect on people who use BSL to access services, but it is important to put on the record now—as I did during the passage of the British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill—that deaf BSL users do not see themselves as disabled. They are as intellectually and physically capable as any member here, and they resent the fact that they have to define themselves as disabled in order to access services that we take for granted. We do not go to a foreign country where we do not speak the language and define ourselves as disabled. It is simply about people using a different language to communicate.

We must recognise that there is a minority in Scotland who use a different language and who have no opportunity to learn the indigenous spoken language. It is up to us to address that and to adapt our services accordingly, which is something the Government clearly understands and is committed to doing, going by the consultation document that it has produced.

A number of members have mentioned the lack of BSL interpreters. Fulton MacGregor, Jeremy Balfour and Gillian Martin mentioned the figure of 66 interpreters, compared with 750 in Finland, whose population is similar to that of Scotland. As Gillian Martin pointed out, the result of that is that family members often translate for a deaf relative. As we can imagine, people will feel an obligation or a duty to help out where they can, but it is not appropriate in certain situations. If someone has a particularly sensitive medical appointment, for example, it is not appropriate for their son or daughter to be signing what could be a difficult diagnosis to their parent.

Tavish Scott and Rhoda Grant pointed out the benefits to non-BSL users of the work that the Government is doing. That enables us as a society to benefit, and our economy benefits from enabling BSL users to make that vital economic, social and cultural contribution. Rhoda Grant talked about measuring the success of BSL and of seeing BSL spoken in playgrounds. I would see the legislation as successful if that visibility was extended to include BSL being spoken on the train and the bus, in the workplace and in pubs and restaurants.

Alison Johnstone quoted the well-known statistic that 90 per cent of deaf children are born to hearing parents. A commitment was made in all political parties’ manifestos in 2011 to address the issue of parents and siblings not automatically having access to learning BSL when a deaf child is born into the family, and I look forward to the Government addressing that.

Dingwall academy was mentioned—I point it out to the minister as an exemplar of work on BSL in a school. The SQA would do well to visit Dingwall academy if it is developing a qualification in BSL, because the school has a ready-made curriculum that it would be good to see being rolled out right across the country.

As for the signing that Stewart Stevenson talks about, I think it is fair to say that my winks to beautiful women are strictly reserved for my wife, and I advise Mr Stevenson, for his own safety, to do the same.

Mark McDonald

Not at your wife!

Mark Griffin

No. Certainly not at mine.

I again thank the Government again for showing its commitment to British Sign Language and for lodging the motion for debate. I encourage all members to support the motion at decision time and, crucially, to respond to the consultation and encourage their constituents to do so, too.


Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

In closing this debate for the Conservatives, I start by thanking everyone who has given us excellent briefings not only in advance of the debate but over a period of several years. I also put on record my thanks to Mark Griffin and the Scottish Government for the extraordinary work that they have done to get us to this stage. Collectively, as well as being outstanding ambassadors for the deaf community, everyone involved has done a huge amount to help those of us who were previously not very well informed about the matter.

This afternoon, we have heard many insightful, thought-provoking and constructive speeches about the way forward for British Sign Language in Scotland, including some compelling anecdotes from Fulton MacGregor, Maree Todd and Gillian Martin, which brought home to all of us what this issue means to many people on the ground.

As several members have said, the greatest focus must be on how we can improve the educational experience and academic attainment of deaf learners, no matter what their background is. As the National Deaf Children’s Society has pointed out in its briefing for the debate, that is currently being hampered by the absence of a complete data set on deaf pupils. That issue needs to be addressed in order to guarantee that we have appropriate BSL resource provision across Scotland for the purposes of assessing academic achievement. I will come to that in a minute.

If there is a criticism of the plan, it concerns the relative weaknesses that some believe are in the sections on improving the educational experience of deaf people. In that respect, Alison Johnstone had some good points to make.

It goes without saying that every child should have the opportunity to excel in life. However, as my colleague Jeremy Balfour said, too often, our schools, colleges and universities can be challenging environments for deaf people. If we are to get it right for every child, users of BSL should not be excluded.

Parental involvement is highlighted in the plan, and rightly so. I welcome that very much, because I believe that it is essential that parents who use BSL should have the same opportunities to be involved in their child’s education as other parents. We all know that parents should have the right to be heavily involved in their child’s school and the decisions that it makes about their education.

However, the key issue in all this is the attainment gap—a point that was powerfully enforced at a meeting of the Education and Culture Committee in the previous session of Parliament, when we took evidence from deaf learners and teachers, and when visits were undertaken to Windsor Park school in Falkirk and Forth Valley sensory centre. In its calls for the gap to be closed, the NDCS quite properly focuses on resources and the fact that specialist education services for deaf young people have, in some cases, been squeezed, and that there is therefore a diminishing workforce to ensure that pupils’ needs are met. We know from the work of the committee that, between 2011 and 2015, the attainment gap between pupils with hearing impairments and those without increased by 2 percentage points in terms of those achieving at least one higher. Even more worrying, as a couple of members have noted this afternoon, data also shows that 11.8 per cent of deaf learners leave school without any qualifications. Mark Griffin has pointed to the work that the SQA can do in that regard, perhaps taking note of the examples that Maree Todd spoke about in her eloquent speech.

I think that we are all of the opinion that a national BSL plan will go a long way towards improving the future of pupils with hearing impairments, provided that there is an effective mechanism to measure performance and outcomes on a regular basis. A couple of years ago, the Education and Culture Committee heard the concerns of some local authorities about lines of accountability, with regard specifically to some of the existing legislation such as the Equality Act 2010, the legislation on parents’ rights and the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004 and Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2009. I think that a lot of those concerns have been addressed by the Government in this plan, but we must not lose sight of the fact that those pieces of legislation include responsibilities to help youngsters with hearing impairment.

There is an important link with our Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 and Finland’s sign language act of 2015, which the Education and Culture Committee considered. From the example of those acts, we can see that legislation is not enough in itself, as the better outcomes are also about recognising the intrinsic culture in the deaf community. That is something that has been mentioned by several members this afternoon—including, I may say, in relation to the unique ZS language, which we have heard on several occasions in this Parliament. Perhaps Mr Stevenson could inform us a little bit better about some of the basic principles of that ZS language from time to time. Nonetheless, he makes an important point by raising that.

The NDCS’s call for a minimum qualification level in BSL for those professionals working with deaf learners to ensure that deaf learners have the same standards of teaching is clearly a good one. It would go a long way to narrowing the attainment gap. However, it would also be helpful to have further debate in this area, as other staffing issues are being discussed by the Education and Skills Committee around various aspects of minority learning, including for some ASN groups. There are implications for costs and the recruitment of the right staff. That debate is on-going in the committee just now and we should not lose sight of the fact that it must include BSL.

Of course, the attainment gap does not stop at school; it impacts on the positive destinations that deaf young people seek in later life, as we have heard from several speakers, including Graham Simpson. On average, 22 per cent of pupils with a hearing impairment go on to higher education, compared with 44 per cent of those without. The traditional system of lectures, seminars and tutorials at university can at times be a major obstacle to deaf students, although considerable improvements are being made. It is difficult for those who have hearing impairment to communicate with other students in group discussions, so the benefit of sharing knowledge and ideas is not always being extended to them.

Likewise, in a social setting, after the lectures and coursework are over for the day, the student experience can be one of exclusion for students who use sign language, so it is vital that student unions recognise the role that they can play in making sure that deaf students are represented and have exactly the same chance as others to fully participate in university or college life. To give them credit, some of the student unions have done a lot of work to make sure that that happens, although there is clearly more to do.

Mark Griffin made some excellent points about the extracurricular dimension. We need to think about that in a wider context too, because the ability to be included in the extracurricular activities that take place is important. Such activities are very much an intrinsic part of the educational experience and I would worry greatly if too many BSL pupils are losing out because they feel that they cannot contribute to those activities. We need to work hard on that.

I am conscious that I will be getting a sign from the Presiding Officer in a minute to conclude. To sum up, for far too long the deaf community has had a very raw deal, which has undermined the right of deaf people to do the best they can in their educational institution, whichever they find themselves in, and which has sometimes had serious implications for their ability to gain suitable employment and to participate fully in life in a way that we all take for granted when we are in a non-deaf community.

The BSL plan is a huge step in the right direction and that is why we warmly welcome the progress to date and why we will most certainly be voting for the Scottish Government’s motion at decision time. I end by complimenting Mark Griffin on all his work on what is clearly a very important issue.


Mark McDonald

I begin by thanking our two interpreters at the back of the chamber, Andrew and Yvonne, who have spent the afternoon trying valiantly to communicate the messages that members have been putting across in the chamber to BSL users watching this debate. I thank the interpreters very much for the efforts that they have put in to ensure that the debate is as accessible as possible.

I mentioned at the beginning of the debate the membership of the national advisory group and three of the group members are in the public gallery today—Natalie Greenall, Amy Dawson and Debra Wherrett. In particular, I want to thank Debra, who is a deafblind BSL user who has co-chaired the national advisory group alongside a member of the civil service.

I will take a moment to go through some of the points that members raised in their contributions to the debate. A number of members on all sides of the chamber, including Graham Simpson, Fulton MacGregor and Rhoda Grant, raised the issue of the shortage of qualified and registered BSL interpreters. We acknowledge that shortage, and the draft plan recognises that we need to consider ways to boost the profession and to increase the pool of qualified interpreters who are needed to work in specific settings such as health and justice. We will strive to increase the numbers of interpreters and to improve the quality of interpretation.

That brings me to another theme running through the debate—it was highlighted first by Jeremy Balfour and mentioned by other members—which is the level of qualifications among not only teachers of the deaf but communication support workers who support deaf pupils in schools. We recognise the concerns that exist, some of which were raised at the consultation event that took place in Edinburgh yesterday evening and focused specifically on education. We are clear about our expectation that appropriately qualified and skilled staff must be employed to fulfil duties under the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004 by providing support to pupils. We will carefully consider how we can support individuals who require upskilling to be able to do that. I am sure that members on all sides of the Parliament would echo that aspiration.

Jeremy Balfour also raised the issue of support for families who have a deaf baby or child. By happy coincidence, the statement that I made earlier this afternoon on early learning and childcare has flowed through to the BSL debate. Our aspiration for all Scotland’s children to have the best start in life extends to deaf children. We are committed to ensuring that families and carers with a deaf or deafblind child are given information about BSL and are supported to learn to sign to their child. That is one of the goals in the draft plan.

A number of members highlighted constituents in their contributions. It is great to know that there are so many individuals out there in communities who are doing great work and pushing forward to promote and encourage greater uptake and understanding of BSL. I commit the Government to working to achieve some of the goals that have been highlighted by Gillian Martin, Fulton MacGregor and Maree Todd, among others, in speaking about the work in which their constituents are engaged.

I turn to a point that Tavish Scott made. I am slightly worried that twice this afternoon he has referred to me as the great “conciliator”, which I suppose is better than some of the things I am often called in the chamber. I now realise that he was not championing the fact that I have brought two consensual items of business to the chamber this afternoon—it is merely that he knows that we will rally round the motion this evening, so he was able to get away for his flight to Sumburgh. I am sure that he will check the Official Report of the debate later on.

Tavish Scott mentioned a constituent of his who has high aspirations to become the first deaf and BSL-using Prime Minister. I point out that the Scottish Government’s access to elected office fund is a means by which his constituent and others who wish to seek elected office can do so. In the previous session of Parliament, our great friend and colleague Dennis Robertson was the first blind MSP to sit in the chamber, so I hold out hope that it will not be long before we have our first deaf MSP, and possibly our first BSL user, in the chamber.

I turn to other points that have been raised in the debate. Graham Simpson asked about the audit of interpreting services. We have committed to taking forward a landscape review of interpreting services, which will look at skill levels, training and regulation. On the issue of the committee inquiry into attainment that Liz Smith and other members raised, the Scottish Government has set up a working group to address the inquiry’s recommendations, which we are confident we can deliver on. We have already established a survey of local authorities to determine the level of qualification that BSL teachers have.

Liz Smith

The minister makes a good point. With regard to Mark Griffin’s earlier question on the issue, can the minister confirm that he is having discussions with the SQA? The SQA is important for giving the BSL qualification the credibility that it deserves.

Mark McDonald

I will certainly go back and check what discussions have been had with the SQA and look at what we can do in relation to the point that Mark Griffin raised. Dingwall academy was highlighted as a positive example of using BSL that we should look at and Alison Johnstone said that we should look at how more schools could use BSL. I will take this opportunity, because ministers do not get such an opportunity often, to highlight the example from my constituency of Stoneywood primary school, which has established a BSL club that meets at lunch times and is led by one of the school’s pupil support assistants, Mr McRobbie, who is a BSL user. Currently, 20 to 30 children attend the club and are learning BSL. There are therefore good examples out there. Members asked about how we can formalise such activity and ensure that children have appropriate opportunities to learn BSL and gain appropriate qualifications that would flow on from that, which is a point that merits consideration.

Miles Briggs asked how we can support local delivery in relation to the national plan. There will be a requirement on local authorities, health boards and further and higher education institutions to produce their own plans in relation to the 2015 act and how they will deliver on some of the wider national aspirations. There will be an on-going dialogue in relation to that so that the high-level aspirations that we have outlined in the plan can be delivered at a local level.

Stewart Stevenson highlighted the fact that people can respond to the consultation via a YouTube video or a Vimeo clip and said that he will take note of that for future reference. I am sure that we all look forward to Mr Stevenson becoming a YouTube star as a consequence. Liz Smith invited Mr Stevenson to expand on the etymology of the ZS language, and I am sure that members will want to thank Liz Smith in their own way for that constructive suggestion and input to the debate.

It has been a very consensual debate on a very important issue. The Parliament came together in a fantastic way to pass the British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill, which Mark Griffin introduced to Parliament. This debate is another example of the Parliament working in the best possible and most collective way to ensure that we deliver the most positive outcomes for BSL users in Scotland.