With the third reading reported to take place in the Lords on 27 April, there’s a real prospect we’ll have a British Sign Language (BSL) Bill ready to become law by the end of the month. It’s quite remarkable how far the Bill – which would finally give legal recognition to BSL – has come in the space of mere months. When Labour MP Rosie Cooper was selected in the Private Member’s Bill ballot almost a year ago, there were fears her Bill fail to pass in time – due to the position in which her name was called out.
Yet the Bill has sped through the legislative process since it had its second Commons reading in January – no doubt thanks to the unanimous, cross-party support for its proposals. With the exception of a change to the draft law’s ‘long title’, no MP or Lord – at the time of writing – has tabled an amendment. It remains pretty much unchanged, with the three main elements of the Bill concerning: legal recognition of BSL in England, Scotland and Wales (Northern Ireland is excluded with respect to devolved matters); regular reports from the Work and Pensions Secretary on the UK Government’s work to ‘promote and facilitate BSL’; and the issuing of BSL guidance. The Bill cleared the Commons on what was a monumental day for the Deaf community. On 18 March, 19 years prior, BSL was officially recognised by the UK Government. This year, however, it saw hundreds of Deaf people descend on Trafalgar Square to celebrate the language, and the fact MPs backed the Bill at its final stage in the chamber. So Ms Cooper then handed over the reins to Lord Holmes of Richmond to champion the Bill in the Lords, when some tweaks were made to its explanatory notes which gives background information and context about the Bill.
At this point, acknowledgement was finally given that “a range of forms of British Sign Language [are] used by Deafblind people in the UK”, and clarification around a non-statutory BSL Board was issued. The Board, it said, would advise on guidance regarding the “promotion and facilitation” of BSL, and “convey the perspectives and priorities” of BSL signers “across England, Scotland and Wales”. Details of who will be on the Board are to be confirmed, of course, but the organisations behind the BSL Act Now campaign have committed to it being made up of everyday Deaf signers. It’s just one discussion taking place ahead of the Bill actually becoming an Act, but there’s a few things to suggest it isn’t premature to get the ball rolling on long-term actions.
The third reading in the Lords this month could very well be its last stage before receiving Royal Assent – provided there’s no last-minute amendments. That’s unlikely, given just how much support is behind the Bill. When we celebrate its eventual passing, I hope we also commend the rare occasion of all parties coming together for change, but also question why it wasn’t done sooner.
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