Serving Edinburgh’s deaf community

The council has come to the right decision in commissioning services for deaf people, says Gavin Corbett.

Over the last month I’ve spent a lot of time looking at and discussing services to deaf people in Edinburgh.

The backdrop has been a tendering exercise to provide interpreting services to deaf people over the next 4 years, part of a bigger exercise to provide language services to a huge range of citizens. In the case of deaf people the service covers interpreting for people when, for example, they need to attend a GP appointment, or a discussion with a housing officer, or to attend a meeting about school matters.

However, back on November 3, when the Finance Committee first looked at this I asked that we defer the decision on British Sign Language (BSL) services because it did not feel like the process had sufficiently considered the needs and views of the deaf community.

The committee agreed to that deferral so, today, on 1 December, the final decision had to be made. The proposal in front of councillors was to approve a new framework contract which named three providers, none of which were local to the Edinburgh area. Nor were any of the three providers deaf-led organisations or accountable, organisationally, to the deaf community.

But this was not a decision about the respective merits of the potential different providers – it was about the process which led up to it. Unfortunately, the key staff now charged with setting up and implementing the new contract (all of whom were professional, conscientious and responsive) had not been involved at the start of the process 18 months ago, which was led by the council’s then Interpretation and Translation manager who has since left the council and not been replaced. In that process, it was clearly difficult for the staff now to be sure that they had all the information they needed.

And one of the main faultlines which emerged was the lack of proper dialogue with the deaf community. My own conversations with Deaf Action and with individual interpreters has deepened my understanding that BSL is not just another language. The way into services is different and you have to think about services differently. That needs a fairly extensive consultation with deaf people and with service users to better understand how the service should work. People with direct experience of using BSL should be involved in setting the criteria and maybe even judging the providers.

Sadly, however, that had not happened here, where consultation was limited to one focus group, in summer 2015, involving 6 deaf people and ostensibly about data protection and privacy arrangements (in other words, a much narrower focus).

That is why I brought the amendment below to committee today. It is one thing to be able to defend the legal probity of the process (I have not questioned that); quite another to be satisfied that it represents where the city council wants to be. Bear in mind that the contract is in relation to a community of service users whose experience of public services is often to be left out in the cold. So we owe it to deaf people to show that council services can do it better.

That is why I argued that the only option today was to re-tender, to wipe the slate clean and carry out a fuller and more meaningful dialogue with service users and interpreters prior to commissioning the service afresh.

It feels like an arduous step today but I really believe that the council will look back and say it was the right thing to do. That is why I was so pleased the committee unanimously backed my proposal. My huge thanks to them and to EVOC, Deaf Action, SASLI and individual interpreters for the help along the way.

Green amendment agreed 1 December 2016

Delete current recommendations and replace with:

  1. Committee notes the hard work carried out by staff in seeking to put the provision of BSL services on a firmer contractual footing.
  2. Committee, however, also notes that the process over the last 18 months has been difficult, with departure of key staff with service knowledge, leaving weaknesses in the transfer of information in the run up to the tendering process.
  3. Further, committee notes that the dialogue with the service user group has been unsatisfactory, involving only six service users, and for a purpose other than the tendering exercise to be undertaken.
  4. Committee notes that the service user group – the deaf community – has faced, and still faces, significant barriers in accessing and engaging with public services; and therefore recognises the expectation that the council should meet the highest possible standards in setting out new ways of delivering services.
  5. Taking all of those factors into account the Committee feels that it has no other option but to re-tender lot 4, following in-depth consultation with service users and other stakeholders such as BSL interpreters.