Sir Mike Penning calls for GCSE in British Sign Language and for more access to hearing tests

30th November 2017

Speaking in a debate on deafness and hearing loss, Sir Mike Penning praises the disability confident campaign, calls for a GCSE in British Sign Language and for people to be tested when they leave industry of the armed forces.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe, and a pleasure to speak in a debate secured by my good friend the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick). We have been on many campaigns together over the years, not least in our previous careers.

I need to declare an interest at the outset. I have been honorary patron of the Hertfordshire Hearing Advisory Service—a fantastic charity that works not only in Hertfordshire but across many counties—for more than 10 years.

I disagree with hardly anything that has been said in this really positive debate. I think that people watching and others will realise that the House can work together not only for people who are hard of hearing, but for people who are hard of hearing and have other issues. We have not discussed the fact that people who are hard of hearing or deaf often have other ailments, which can be as difficult for them as being hard of hearing.

I can assure hon. Members from experience that Ministers usually do not like former Ministers to stand up and talk about things that they might know something about. For a short time, I was the disability Minister and responsible for Access to Work. Let me be positive about Access to Work and break some of the taboos about it. As we have heard, it is one of the great schemes for people across this great nation who had been left behind, ignored and told that they could not work. Employers told people that they could not employ them because it was not safe to do so. That was complete and utter rubbish. I do not have to take the hon. Gentleman’s word for it, because there is evidence in the Department for Work and Pensions that people with disabilities work harder, are more likely to turn up for work and are more dedicated and more committed than any other employees. That is a fact. We know that.

I went around the country as part of the disability confident scheme trying to encourage employers to take on people with all types of disabilities. That was pretty easy with bigger companies. There are some fantastic large companies out there—particularly Royal Mail. It gets biffed around a little at times in the House, but its commitment to people who either arrive with disabilities or acquire disabilities during their employment is fantastic. However, it is really hard with small and medium-sized enterprises. There is a myth that there is a risk: people say, “Health and safety prevents me.” I was the Minister with responsibility for health and safety, too, and I was happy to go around and dispel that myth. We have to work really hard with SMEs.

Access to Work was fantastic in helping thousands of people to get into work and have the confidence to stay. The cap was brought in just before I became the Minister responsible, and one of the first things I said was, “Where is the Department’s evidence that we need to do this and that the cap will work?” Let me put this on the record: there is evidence in the DWP, the Department knows exactly what it is, and it is continually reviewed. Ministers are taught always to say at the Dispatch Box, “The Government continue to keep under review” this, that or whatever. I assure hon. Members that the Department keeps that evidence under review.

It is a shame that my hon. Friend the Minister, who was my Parliamentary Private Secretary, is responsible for responding to this debate, but the DWP, which will see the record of this debate, knows whether the cap will work, is keeping it under review and needs to be open and honest about how it is working. If it is not working, it needs to be adjusted. As a former Minister, I will not have all that great work and all those people’s aspirations and commitment to work lost because of a cap that does not actually save a huge amount of money in real terms.

The right hon. Gentleman makes the same points that we have all made. Access to Work is a great scheme. It works. As I understand it, the logic for the cap is that there is only so much money in the pot—that is always the case for Governments—and therefore its purpose is to try to spread what is available as widely as possible. But for people with fantastic talent who could be advocates and champions for the deaf community by becoming chief executives and leaders of their professions and so on, the glass ceiling has been reinforced, because they can now get only £43,000. This is not a criticism—well, it is in some respects—but we need to ensure that the evidence is looked at regularly.

Governments need to be kicked and beaten up when they get things wrong and praised when they get things right. I was proud that a Conservative Government brought in Access to Work, which is massively important. There will always be examples of abuse in the system and so on, but that does not give the Government carte blanche to say, “No, the only way this can work is with a cap,” particularly if the evidence does not show that a cap will work. The Minister will have looked twice when he came into the Chamber and realised what this debate would mostly be about, which is not his responsibility but the DWP’s. I am more than happy to go across to my old Department and sit with my old officials and explain to them exactly where the evidence is in their cupboards.

Let me touch briefly on two other areas, and then on one thing that has not been touched on at all. I do not understand why, in the 21st century, a recognised language is not recognised in the House or across the country. I really do not understand why, all these years after I made a point of order in the main Chamber in 2005 to complain that a hearing loop was not available for my constituents when they were in the House—even when it was installed, it did not work properly—this is the first time a debate has been signed for our constituents. People will always go on about how that must cost more money. The cost is minimal compared with the benefit to our constituents of being part of the democratic process.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for kicking off about the induction loop years ago, because I could not function as an MP in the Chamber without it.

The things I do for everybody in this House. It was genuinely embarrassing. I remember it vividly. I said to the Speaker, Michael Martin, “My constituents have come to see this world heritage site and their Parliament at work. I took them on a tour, and frankly they got hardly any benefit apart from visuals, because they couldn’t understand or hear a word I was saying.” I seem to remember that there was the comment, from a sedentary position, “Well, they didn’t miss very much,” but I was trying to get across a point. This is the mother of Parliaments, and as we have heard from colleagues, we are way behind the loop again. I am sorry to use that terrible pun, but we are really behind. I hope that we will have a lurch forward. I have noticed all the Clerks coming in, and have heard that the Speaker will be reported to, and all that, and that is great, but it is absolutely useless unless someone actually does something. Then we can move on. I know this is a trial, but signing should be transmitted live.

Secondly, there should be a GCSE. I find it fascinating: we can see all the different courses that our young people do in schools and colleges, yet they are excluded in this way. If people do not want any more GCSEs, we could drop one of the ones that would not get used anywhere near as much as this. It would make people aware. In my constituency, people who are not deaf or hard of hearing have said to me that they want to be able to communicate like this; they want to do these courses as well. They want to have a GCSE, so that they can chat away with their mates in that sort of way. That is a simple thing, and I cannot see huge cost implications, so it should be moved on, as we have heard this afternoon.

Finally, I will touch on people whose hearing has been impaired by industrial injuries. That has not been mentioned at all in the debate, but not because people think it should not be. It is just one of those issues. People cannot see this type of industrial injury. It is not like the industrial injuries that my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse and I saw in our former jobs as firemen. There is something very wrong about how we measure industrial injuries, and hearing impairment industrial injuries in particular. So many people who have a hearing impairment do not admit it to themselves, their wives and their loved ones, even though their wives and loved ones are probably aware that there is an issue. They certainly do not talk about it to their employer or previous employers.

I can talk about this, because my eardrum is perforated. I did not know about that until I started to miss conversations that I thought I should be picking up. You just do not think there is something wrong. However, when I was a Minister at the Ministry of Defence, I had to have a medical before I was allowed to go into operational fields, and it was obvious that I had a perforated eardrum. It was almost certainly from live firing when I was in the armed forces—the specialists told me that—although it was not picked up then. That is not so important to me, but where industrial injuries are common, it is massively important that there be a level playing field on decibel levels. Completely different levels are used for hearing damage in the armed forces and what I call civvy street, and that cannot be right.

We must encourage people to come forward, not so much so that they can get compensation, but because, as we heard earlier, if we can pick this up earlier, it saves the state and everyone a lot of money, and also makes life much better for that person, who can start to accept the disability that they have and continue to live a happy life.

[Ms Karen Buck in the Chair]

When I had the hearing test that identified my audiological loss, as the right hon. Gentleman will know, the printout showed whether it was down to age or genetics, or whether it was industrial. Mine was at least partly industrial. I was told by my clinicians, “Your hearing loss is above the threshold for applying for industrial injury compensation.” I never did, because I had a great job here, so I did not have to, and it was not a matter of money. I have always felt a bit difficult about saying, “Well, I should have gone down as a statistic.” I am sure that, as the right hon. Gentleman says, there are a lot of us out there who have not registered and do not appear in the statistics. The base statistics are only of the people who absolutely needed to make sure that they registered.

Thank you very much—not Mr McCabe, but Ms Buck; I did a quick double-take. My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. It is not just about the money. Getting people in, whether at pensionable age or when they leave an employer or the armed forces, is vital. When I left the armed forces, my hearing was not tested. It was supposed to have been tested, but it was not, and if anyone can find a record of it being tested then, I can take them on about that. I am not raising the issue of whether people are entitled to compensation—that is someone else’s decision—but they are not entitled to compensation unless we get them tested. If we can get them tested, the specialists will know, as my hon. Friend said, the cause of the deafness. There are myriad reasons, but industrial damage is pretty well defined.

I am thrilled that there are so many people here on a Thursday afternoon—the other Chamber probably has half, if not less than half, the amount of people we have here. Perhaps my hon. Friend and I might go back to the Backbench Business Committee to get a proper debate on the Floor of the House on some of the specifics we have discussed. If necessary, that should be on Access to Work, because that is a life-changer and has been for many people. We must not lose that life-changing ability.

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