Over the last year, MPs have received large numbers of postcards from constituents calling on them to support the VRS Today! campaign.
This campaign is calling for equal access to telecoms for British Sign Language (BSL) users, an issue in which I have become increasingly involved. At first glance, you may think that Deaf people already have access to telecoms services: we have all seen the textphone numbers on our utility bills, and there was recently a high profile launch of a text service for emergency services.
However, many people don’t realise that for the majority of the estimated 50,000 BSL users in the UK, it is often difficult to communicate through written English. After all, English is their second language, and BSL is their primary mode of communication. In the United States Video Relay Service (VRS) has been universally available for over 8 years. VRS allows people to communicate with the hearing in Sign Language, via an interpreter through a video link.
In the UK however, BSL users do not have universal access to this service; it can be accessed through the Access to Work scheme at work, or BSL users could pay (a high price) to use it at home. In the States, VRS is funded by a levy on telecoms providers, so that Deaf people do not have to pay more for the service than hearing people.
As a Conservative, I do not like new taxes on business and I want to see economic growth. This is why I support VRS Today’s proposal for a voluntary agreement between industry and government which would allow for a fund to be set up by telecoms companies. This could then be used to fund a universal VRS service for BSL users. Ed Vaizey has already said he is keen to explore this voluntary route and has organised roundtables on the issue with VRS providers, Deaf organisations and telecoms companies. This is a real Big Society solution which should be embraced.
A new market would be created with major economic benefits. According to Europe Economics, an unrestricted market in VRS would create a net economic benefit of up to £550 million in the UK and generate 2500 jobs.
Meanwhile, in typical quango style, Ofcom (who hold responsibility for consumer telecoms) have launched over 11 consultations on the issue in a decade and have yet to come to a conclusion! Their proposal this year is for VRS to be introduced, but only available to Deaf people from 9am to 5pm, with a cap on usage of only 30 minutes per month. This, despite the fact that they acknowledge VRS as the only form of telecoms that meets the needs of BSL users. What an insult. Can you imagine being told you can only use your phone for 30 minutes a month?
Profoundly deaf people face disadvantage and discrimination, exacerbated by a lack of access to telecommunications. Ed Vaizey’s “voluntary” route is a free market solution that can be reached without any more consultations, any more regulations or any more legislation.
This is exactly the kind of pragmatic solution to problems our Government should be delivering, and which Conservative MPs should support. I congratulate Ed Vaizey for looking beyond the regulatory and legislative routes, and trust that he will continue to push this solution forward.
Meanwhile across the House there have been many signatories on EDM1438 calling for equal access to telecoms for BSL users – I would encourage more of my own colleagues to support this campaign. Unrestricted VRS access will not only greatly improve the lives of our Deaf constituents, but will boost growth, and prove that business and Government can achieve social policy goals without the need for interference from the Big State.