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14 April 2021updated 23 Jul 2021 1:36pm

Boris Johnson challenged on lack of sign language at press conferences – in sign language

Vicky Foxcroft, Labour's shadow minister for disabled people, made history at PMQs with a question in sign language.

By Ailbhe Rea

Vicky Foxcroft has made history by asking what is thought to be the first ever question at Prime Minister’s Questions in British Sign Language (BSL) – and she used it to draw attention to the continued lack of sign interpreting at the government’s coronavirus press conferences. 

The shadow minister for disabled people first asked her question (“Why no interpreter in-room briefings, why is this not sorted?”) in BSL, leaving the Prime Minister unable to understand her. 

Foxcroft added: “If the Prime Minister doesn’t understand, imagine how those who rely on British Sign Language feel at his press briefings: £2.6m spent on the new press room, yet still no interpreter. What message does he think this sends to disabled people?” 

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She told the New Statesman: “The Prime Minister has been asked several times why his press conferences continue to exclude disabled people who rely on British Sign Language. His continued failure to answer is completely unacceptable.  

“The Conservatives have failed at making essential communication inclusive, despite spending £2.6m of public money on a new press room.

“I really just want to see this sorted out now,” the shadow minister added. 

The Prime Minister’s announcement of the first national lockdown on 23 March 2020 had no BSL interpretation and his letter to every household in the UK was not initially available in any accessible formats. There has been no BSL interpreter in the room for the daily television briefings by ministers, meaning that while the BBC News Channel includes a BSL interpreter in its broadcasts of the press conferences, other broadcasters and the live stream from Downing Street do not. Mark Drakeford, the Welsh First Minister, gives briefings accompanied by a BSL interpreter.

Foxcroft asked the Prime Minister in October last year if he could commit to BSL at government press conferences and in November asked if he would meet with a group of disabled people about the lack of BSL provision at press conferences. He has yet to meet with the delegation. 

The Labour MP for Lewisham Deptford, who has been shielding throughout the pandemic, has been learning sign language since taking on her role as shadow minister for disabled people. She planned her question with the support of the “Where is the interpreter?” campaign, which has called for BSL interpretation at government press conferences since last year.  

It is one of only a handful of times that sign language has been used in the House of Commons. In recent years Labour MP Dawn Butler has won praise for signing a question about legal recognition for BSL in 2017, while Penny Mordaunt became the first government minister to sign in parliament in 2018. Former MPs Tom Levitt, of Labour, and Malcolm Bruce, of the Liberal Democrats, also both used sign language.

[see also: Covid-19 crisis disproportionately affecting disabled people, ONS survey finds]