Professor Graham Turner: 10 key issues relating to the Access to Work crisis (BSL)

Posted on October 30, 2014

While The Limping Chicken has made sure that Deaf people are appropriately stirred up about ATW, See Hear and William Mager have done the community a service by helping to drive this issue up the wider public agenda. Here are some of the key issues as I see them:

To see this article in BSL courtesy of Nicholas Padden, from our supporter, Signworld, who offer online BSL learning, click play below.

1. When did we start calling ATW a ‘grant’? That looks 100% like government spin to me, and this is why every schoolchild should be taught to analyse discourses critically: ‘Let’s just change the language we use to talk about ATW, and that will change everyone’s perception of what’s going on without us having to justify the politics of what’s really happening.’

How does it change perceptions? It makes the general public see Deaf and disabled people as ‘scroungers’, dependent on the generosity of others, instead of taxpayers and citizens who are ENTITLED to support as a form of social solidarity.

Despite Thatcher’s claim, there IS such a thing as a society – and a bloody good thing, too. (Here’s a thought for you: imagine that we started calling MPs’ expenses ‘grants’…)

2. Let’s not get the priorities mixed up. The fact that the ADMINISTRATION of ATW is in chaos – advisers not replying to letters for months; assessments no longer being done with an eye for detail; staff having no real clue about what Deafhood, deafness and disability mean – has everything to do with a Tory government trying to cut back on office costs, and nothing to do with a specific anti-Deaf agenda.

In other words, this aspect is not really ‘a Deaf issue’. It’s just Tories thinking public services can be delivered on the cheap. It is only anti-Deaf/disabled in the sense that it exposes the fact that the government believes these citizens are not politically important – basically, the government calculates that they can be treated with disregard because their votes won’t win or lose an election.

(Or, even more disturbingly, they reckon that making life harder for disabled ‘scroungers’ will actually WIN them more votes from others than it LOSES from ATW recipients themselves.)

3. The Sayce Report’s (2011) conclusion that for every £1 spent on Access to Work, the Treasury recouped £1.48 is an absolute killer statistic, and from a reputable source. Let’s use it, often. The Minister of State for Disabled People claims (Work & Pensions Select Committee 29/10/2014) – conveniently for him – that it is inherently impossible to produce a reliable figure of this kind. I bet he’d very quickly find a way if the outcome were in his favour.

4. There’s no question that a FEW Deaf people and a FEW service providers have taken advantage of the ATW system. We have courts to deal with this, and they are doing so. Those abuses DO NOT mean that the principles or the fundamental practices of the system are seriously flawed – some doctors get struck off for malpractice, too, but that doesn’t mean we should shred the entire basis of the NHS.

Everyone has rights and responsibilities within this relationship – I wrote about this in the mid-1990s (re-printed in the 2001 book ‘Interpreting interpreting’) – and both sides need to be mindful of the delicate social contract between them. There’s no getting away from the fact that interpreters and service users will always be interdependent.

5. The principle of ATW is supposed to be that it enables a Deaf person to do everything that a hearing employee could do in a comparable position. The BBC article gives the example of Jenny Sealey’s post-Paralympics experience. Would Sealey, were she hearing, have been able to take her company’s work into the international arena on the back of the massive acclaim resulting from the London 2012 games?

Of course – in fact, she would have been lauded as an entrepreneurial businesswoman developing a global brand. Did anyone tell the heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill that TeamGB funding wouldn’t support her in taking her career to the global level after her Olympic gold? It is manifest and insulting nonsense to suggest, as Sealey was, that taking on such work is mere ‘personal development’ – and it’s certainly not a line of argument that the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills would take in other contexts.

6. What about the legendary £100,000 interpreter salaries? There’s only one basic question here: where’s the evidence? Absolutely none seems to be in the public domain. So this is spin again. Someone is manufacturing provocation designed to turn Deaf people and interpreters against each other, and to give the tabloid newspapers ammunition for ranting red-letter headlines. Why is anyone falling for it?

It is irresponsible at best for community leaders and senior figures to allow themselves to be duped into parroting these myths. Think for one minute. We all did maths at school. Someone earning £50 an hour has to work for 40 hours per week for 50 weeks of the year to earn £100,000 gross. It’s poppycock to imagine that this is how real life works.

Possibly some AGENCIES are receiving this much money for 2,000 interpreter hours – but only a fraction of this goes into the interpreter’s pocket. Possibly some interpreters SOMETIMES get paid more than £50 an hour for some jobs (for example, I’d hazard a guess that my former student who stood alongside the Queen at the Paralympics opening ceremony probably ended the day better off than he started it – is that so terrible?).

But individual interpreters earning £100,000 per annum FROM ATW WORK? It’s scarcely believable, let alone commonplace – and, again, the system should be robust enough to prevent this from happening fraudulently.

7. The other part of the equation is that £50-an-hour figure. Firstly, it shouldn’t be accepted that this is typical. ASLI publishes a ‘fees and salaries’ survey periodically and the latest normal hourly rate given for qualified interpreters is £30-an-hour. (Notice that this makes the £100,000 figure even less plausible.)

Relative to comparable professions, are these disproportionately large sums? I’ve just had a £600 bill for replacing a couple of roof-tiles – a two-hour job with easy access via a skylight, done by a chap who ‘qualified’ at 17 via a one-year apprenticeship, never mind the 4+ years of university-level study that are par for the course for a decent BSL interpreter.

And what about plumbers’ notorious call-out charges? Is their work as critical to the social fabric as, for example, securing a fair trial for an innocent Deaf defendant in court? Yes, I’m sure we can all find instances when we feel that an interpreting fee has been a bit steep – but that’s again where the notion of the social contract comes into play, along with the vital role played by ASLI, SASLI and NRCPD in regulating the profession and ensuring practitioners maintain an ethical business stance.

If we accept that interpreting fees are about right (and I do say ‘if’, because this should be kept constantly under review by the relevant authorities), and an individual interpreter does a good job and grafts for hours to the benefit of others, has she or he not earned the resulting salary – even if it seems like a big number?

If we want more consistent interpreting costs – and, if I were the Minister, I would – the only way to achieve this is through putting the profession on a statutory footing. On balance, I believe on current evidence that that would be in everyone’s best interests, so I hope to see it much more carefully considered in the very near future.

8. We have also started to see a newer gripe. Is it fair for interpreters to earn more than those they’re working with? I must confess, this strikes me as nonsensical at best, and plain old-fashioned sour grapes at worst.

Should the heart surgeon get paid less for saving the life of a baby, whose salary is zero, or a roadsweeper, than she does for saving Roman Abramovich or Keira Knightley? Who would suggest such a thing?

9. No government can spend unlimitedly, of course. Budgets have to be managed: but remember two things. One, the limits the government puts on ATW spending are in its own control: they CHOOSE how much to spend on ATW, and they COULD always divert spending from elsewhere if they considered it sufficiently important.

Clearly, they don’t think it’s important enough simply to increase the sums available to meet demand. The best way to change their thinking on this is to lobby and take political action as citizens. Conveniently, there’s a general election coming next year in which the 30,000+ people in Great Britain who receive ATW support (Hansard, 11 Jun 2014) and their allies could make this a prominent issue.

And two, budgets have to be managed in an INFORMED way. It is plain that this government has tried to adjust ATW without consulting adequately with stakeholders. Even now, when the Minister, Mark Harper, appeared (29/10/2014) before the Work & Pensions Select Committee to speak on this issue, his first point of reference when he spoke about finding “creative” solutions to bring down the costs of support to Deaf people was his dialogue with Action on Hearing Loss.

Does any knowledgeable person in the field seriously think, in this day and age, that AHL are the most relevant, informed organisation to be consulting on BSL interpreting issues?

10. And finally: remember – the Sayce Report said that ATW generates almost 50% more money than it spends. So it doesn’t make sense to say simplistically that cutting ATW will save money.

That is EXACTLY the kind of naïve trap that certain elements within government and the media are inviting – expecting? – the public to fall into, so that they can appear to be acting in a fiscally tough and robust way. We should all be sporting “£1.00 ATW > £1.48 UKplc” t-shirts until the day this issue gets resolved in the way we’d expect of a civilised country.

I’d wear one.

Professor Graham Turner is Chair of Translation & Interpreting Studies at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh. He leads the team now running the first ever degree course in BSL in Scotland.

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