The Government has issued an updated response to a Parliament petition to say they “cannot safely include” a British Sign Language interpreter in the room for their daily briefings on the coronavirus “without potentially putting them and others at risk”.
The latest reply comes after the Petitions Committee wrote to Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden to request a revised response, saying the Government’s initial answer “does not adequately respond to the petitioner’s request”.
In their second reply, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) said: “In line with Public Health England (PHE) guidelines, it is not possible to safely include a physical British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter in the room for daily briefings as this would require additional operations staff such as an additional cameraman to be present.
“At Downing Street the Government is working within the constraints of a historical site with limited space.
“Having an interpreter physically attend, along with any additional staff required to facilitate broadcast of the interpretation, contradicts the PHE guidelines, and potentially puts them and others at risk,” they said.
The Government went on to add that because of these reasons “it is right to limit the number of people present” at the briefings “to protect all those who must be present from additional risks”.
This response around social distancing measures preventing an interpreter from being present comes despite Scotland being able to provide in-person interpretation, with interpreters standing far behind First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to provide access whilst still adhering to the two-metre rule.
The reply from DCMS also goes on to mention the provision of British Sign Language interpretation on the BBC News Channel and iPlayer, however, Deaf campaigner Lynn Stewart-Taylor says “not everyone can access this [and] it’s not visible on every platform”.
The Deaf presenter started the #WhereIsTheInterpreter campaign online following the lack of an in-person BSL interpreter at the daily briefings, with campaigners recently launching legal proceedings against the Government due to the sign language provision not being available.
Update: Replying to the Government’s revised response, Catherine McKinnell MP, chair of the Petitions Committee, said that while it now meets agreed standards, “I know petitioners will be hugely disappointed that the Government does not intend to provide BSL interpreters for vital Covid19 announcements”.
“Whilst I appreciate your setting out of the practical challenges to providing this, as well as how you are working with broadcasters, I and the petitioners believe these are challenges which the Government should be seeking to overcome so that BSL users have the same access to the Government’s important announcements at source, rather than relying on broadcasters’ discretion.
“The Scottish Government have sign language interpretation at their daily press conferences and petitioners believe the UK Government should be striving to meet the same standard,” she said.
The MP concluded her message by requesting the committee is updated on progress relating to the Government’s engagement with broadcasters about sign language provision for future announcements.
Update: Several organisations have since responded to the statement from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
The National Registers of Communication Professionals working with Deaf and Deafblind People (NRCPD), a supporter of the #WhereIsTheInterpreter campaign, took to Twitter to say the response is “very disappointing and full of excuses”.
“If they really wanted to make it accessible for Deaf people, they’d find a way to make it happen, such as moving to a bigger room. Wales and Scotland manage it no problem,” they said.
Meanwhile, the Disabled Children’s Partnership, a group of over 70 disability organisations, shared the Government’s response and said: “We’re not convinced that this is in surmountable… [sic]”
At the start of May, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) wrote to the Prime Minister to raise concerns over the lack of a British Sign Language interpreter at the Government’s daily coronavirus briefings.
In the letter, Chief Executive Rebecca Hilsenrath writes: “We note your commitment on 16th March 2020 […] to provide a sign language service during official statements for the foreseeable future in line with the approaches of the Scottish and Welsh Governments at their daily briefings.
“However, the provision that has been made by your Government is only for an on screen interpreter on the separate BBC News Channel.”
They have been approached for comment.
Update: Chris Fry, from Fry Law, recently sent over 260 pre-action letters to the Prime Minister in relation to the UK Government not providing a British Sign Language interpreter.
In a tweet, the lawyer listed several questions in response and said: “What was the excuse for the first 9 briefings? 2) What was the excuse for the PM only briefings?
“3) I’ve been to [10 Downing Street] and I know there is room 4) Hold them somewhere else!
“5) Give is [sic] the Equality Impact Assessments,” he said.
Update: Commenting on the response, Lynn Stewart-Taylor, founder of the #WhereIsTheInterpreter campaign, said on Twitter: “I appreciate the response. What the excuse for the first 9 briefings? [sic]
“Switch to BBC1/move location? Problem solved,” she added.
Update: Responding to a request for comment, a spokesperson for the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said: “Government should take every opportunity to demonstrate an inclusive approach by recognising the rights and needs of disabled people – in this case deaf people.
“We’re disappointed to find out that, although BSL interpretation has been provided by broadcasters, the UK Government has not taken the opportunity to include live interpretation at daily briefings especially when the Scottish and Welsh Governments have done so.”
It comes after the commission’s chair David Isaac and executive director Melanie Field gave evidence to Parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee this afternoon, as part of their inquiry into the ‘unequal impact’ of COVID-19 on those with protected characteristics.
The EHRC’s written submission was also made public earlier today.
Mr Isaac told the committee that “as an organisation, we have been very agile and assertive” in engaging with the Government, adding that “we have tied to reach out” to the Prime Minister and ministers but “we’re not getting the traction that we would like”.
David went on to ask the committee for their support “to enable those meetings [with the Government] to happen”, saying that in relation to equality and human rights, “we’re not seeing this, currently, as being a top table issue”.
Photo: Pippa Fowles/No 10 Downing Street/Flickr.