The Deaf community relies heavily on qualified British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters to communicate with statutory bureaucracies, especially for NHS-related appointments. Interpreters were commissioned by charities for Deaf people, including the South West Wales Interpretation Agency at Swansea (which was taken over by the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID)), the Wales Council for the Deaf, and the British Deaf Association.
The system operated by the charities was easily understood by their Deaf clients. One would contact the charity for an interpreter to attend an NHS appointment. The charity would discuss this with the health board concerned, agree payment, and inform the client that a named BSL interpreter would be present for the appointment. Although the system was not foolproof, it was Deaf-friendly, fairly bureaucracy-free, and easily understood by Deaf users. But then everything changed.
Welsh Interpreter and Translation Service
In 2009 a bureaucratic triarchy comprising Gwent Police, Cardiff Council, and the Cardiff and Vale University Health Board instigated an initiative to provide an interpreter service for foreign-born nationals who needed access to statutory services like the NHS and the courts. This well-intentioned initiative was designed to save public money and reduce bureaucracy.
It was titled the Welsh Interpreter and Translation Service (WITS) and was based in a Gwent Police station, managed by senior police officers. Until 2014 it was managed by a chief inspector of police and then, until 2016, by a police superintendent. Obviously, a low crime rate in Gwent meant that its police force had the spare time to effectively run a business.
However, those involved with WITS decided to include BSL interpreting for Deaf people within its provision. There was no consultation with the Deaf community about this seizure of Sign Language services. Gwent Police and WITS unilaterally and undemocratically took control of the well-tried and trusted services away from the charities providing Sign Language interpretation for Deaf people.
Gwent Police administered WITS even though, as was later admitted, “it had no powers to trade” and was effectively acting illegally. In 2010, Welsh Government minister Carl Sargeant, launched WITS and brushed aside concerns about providing BSL interpreter services within it. The Welsh Government abandoned its duty of care to the Deaf community.
Effects on the Deaf community
WITS drove a wrecking ball through the BSL interpretation system the Deaf community was comfortable with and relied upon, and took away its control over interpreter appointments at hospitals. Control for booking interpreter appointments was handed to NHS bureaucrats. Instead of reducing bureaucracy, this increased it.
Worse yet, those who now had responsibility for booking interpreters received no training on how to deal with requests from Deaf clients. As a result, when Deaf patients arrived for an NHS appointment they sometimes found that no interpreter had been booked for them. The BSL interpreter system became mired in red tape. Yet Deaf people were refused permission to book interpreters directly through WITS; the bookings had to be made through NHS bureaucrats.
This situation imposed, and imposes, additional stress on the Deaf community. Deaf people who want confirmation of a WITS booking have to contact WITS or their health board for this purpose. People should automatically receive that confirmation, as was the case with the pre-WITS system.
The problems caused for the Deaf community by WITS were exposed in a recent book, A North Gower Sojourner. The Cardiff Deaf People’s Support Group helped to secure a five-figure sum in compensation from a health board for a Deaf patient failed by the Welsh Government-approved WITS system. The group has asked the Cardiff and Vale Health Board to amend its Service Level Agreement with WITS, to allow deaf people to book an interpreter directly in an emergency situation, avoiding the bureaucracy and uncertainty that is otherwise involved.
Welsh Government apologies for failures
In a recent letter to a Senedd member, minister for social justice Jane Hutt MS gave long-overdue “apologies if consultation with the D/deaf community was not undertaken in 2010 prior to the setup of WITS”. The belated apology is confirmation that the WITS system as devised is flawed. It also acknowledges that the Welsh Government failed to ensure the interests of the Deaf Community were safeguarded.
The support group has asked Cardiff Council, the Gwent Police Commissioner, and the Cardiff and Vale Health Board to endorse the minister’s apology. In January Cllr Chris Weaver, Cardiff Council cabinet member for finance, wrote to say, “I apologise if consultation with the D/deaf community was not undertaken in 2010 prior to the setup of WITS.”
In 2018, the chair of the Cardiff and Vale Health Board, Maria Battle, said to a meeting of Deaf people: “I am so, so sorry for the experiences that you have endured over many, many years.” This has been reiterated by its present chair, Professor Charles Janczewski, who also apologised for the health board’s failure to consult. Gwent Police alone, shamefully, remains silent.
The introduction and operation of the WITS system for Sign Language interpreting has some parallels with the Post Office Horizon system issue. In both cases there was no consultation with those affected, and concerns were brushed aside. There is no doubt that the health of some deaf patients deteriorated because of failings within the WITS system. But WITS does not keep records of such failings; these are held by the health boards.
So, as with Horizon, it’s impossible to know the full extent of the harm caused to Deaf patients and the wider Deaf community. And belated apologies are insufficient.
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