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The British Sign Language Bill was introduced to the House of Commons on 16 June 2021 by Rosie Cooper MP. The Bill is a Private Members’ Bill, a type of bill introduced by backbench Members of Parliament.

This briefing explains the clauses of the Bill, looks at the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015 and summarises the Bill’s passage in the House of Commons.

What would the Bill do?

The Bill has three main clauses.

Clause 1 would provide legal recognition for British Sign Language (BSL) as a language of England, Wales and Scotland.

Clause 2 would create a duty for the Government to prepare and publish BSL reports, describing what government departments have done to promote the use of BSL in their communications with the public. The first of these should be published by 30 April 2023. Subsequent reports should be published at least once every three years.

Clause 3 would require the Government to arrange for guidance to be published about how to promote and facilitate the use of BSL. This guidance could, for example, include advice for government departments on best practice for communicating with BSL users.

How many people use BSL?

The Census produces some estimates for England and Wales of BSL users. The 2011 Census recorded that 15,487 people in England and Wales said that BSL was their main language. However, the Census only asks about people’s main language, so it is unlikely to capture all users of BSL. Data from the 2021 census is not yet available.

More widely, it’s been estimated by advocacy groups that 151,000 people use BSL in the UK, of whom 87,000 are Deaf.

The Equality Act requires service providers, employers, public bodies and others to make “reasonable adjustments” for disabled people, and public authorities must have “have due regard” to various equality considerations. However, campaigners argue that viewing BSL through the lens of reasonable adjustments fails to recognise it as an indigenous minority language with a rich cultural heritage.

The law in Scotland

The new Bill’s purposes are similar to those in Scotland’s British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015, which requires Scottish Ministers to promote the use and understanding of BSL. Under a national plan, the Scottish Government has 70 actions it plans to take to promote BSL by 2023 (PDF).

In October 2021, the Scottish Government’s progress report said that while several aims had been achieved, many were wholly or partially incomplete, partly due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Government support

The British Sign Language Bill was introduced to Parliament following the ballot process. At the start of the new parliamentary year, backbench MPs are invited to enter their names into a ballot and 20 names are drawn. Each MP whose name is drawn may present a bill of their choosing. Only the top seven are guaranteed any debate.

The most recent ballot was held on 20 May 2021 and Rosie Cooper came in twentieth position. This would normally suggest that her bill would be unlikely to become law. The last time an MP in twentieth position presented a ballot bill that went on to became law was 15 December 1999 (the Protection of Animals (Amendment) Bill.

However, the British Sign Language Bill has now attracted cross-party support. This has been attributed partly to the awareness of BSL raised by Rose Ayling-Ellis, a deaf actress and BSL user who won the television dance competition, Strictly Come Dancing, in 2021.

The Minister of State for the Department for Work and Pensions, Chloe Smith, confirmed “the Bill has the Government’s full support”. The Government helped draft the Bill and prepare its explanatory notes (PDF).

In view of the Government backing and cross-party support, the Bill is very likely to become law.

Second reading

On Friday 28 January 2022, MPs across the House voted to support the Bill at its second reading. During the debate, Rosie Cooper told MPs:

I want to finally recognise BSL in statute—not just a gesture but a law that requires positive action from the Government, with real progress to put deaf people on an equal footing with those of us who hear.

[…] this recognition will be clear and a message that their language is equal and should be treated as equal.

At second reading, the Government also committed to creating a non-statutory board of BSL users to advise the Government on matters relating to the language. At committee stage, the Minister, Chloe Smith, said the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) hoped to confirm further details and nominations for the board by the summer.

Committee stage

The Bill was considered at committee stage on 24 February 2022. Only one amendment was proposed, to change the Bill’s long title. It was brought by Rosie Cooper, who argued this change was to bring the title into line with the Bill as it is now drafted. The amended Bill received unanimous support.

Rosie Cooper MP also raised the duty of the Government to prepare and publish reports on what each government department had done to promote BSL in their communications with the public. She said this would be a “valuable tool” for the public to hold the government, and public bodies such as schools and hospitals, to account.

Chloe Smith said communications could include public announcements, publication of strategies, plans and consultations, and press conferences promoting a department’s work.

Report stage and third reading

Report stage was held on Friday 18 March 2022. This gave MPs an opportunity to consider further amendments on the floor of the House of Commons. No amendments were proposed, and all speakers spoke in favour of the Bill. Third Reading was held on the same day, and the Bill was passed without a vote.

The Bill has now gone to the House of Lords, where it will receive further scrutiny and debate. The second reading debate in the Lords was on 25 March 2022. Both the Department for Work and Pensions Minister, Chloe Smith, and MP sponsoring the Bill, Rosie Cooper, called on the Lords to pass the Bill without amendment.

The House of Lords Library published an article on the British Sign Language Bill before it was considered by the Lords.

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