An Open Letter to Enfield Council
As a deaf journalist (Stephen) and a deaf counsellor (Pauline) living in Enfield, we write urgently to ask you as council leader to reconsider your imminent funding cut to a lifeline for some of the borough's most vulnerable people.
At last week's Deaf Forum meeting at Community House, attended by several of your fellow councillors, the local deaf community was caught unawares by the decision to cease funding - in just three weeks' time - of the Deaf Project's information and advice work.
When questioned at the Deaf Forum, each and every one of your six councillors present conceded that they were unaware of this decision's potentially devastating impact on local deaf British Sign Language users. Many deaf people who use British Sign Language as their first or preferred language also lack sufficient fluency in English as a second language to engage non-specialist information and advice services.
In this context, your Head of Strategy Performance and Policy Doug Wilson's proposal to outsource the service to Community Barnet is a grave risk. Community Barnet is a generic service provider that does not have specialist staff with deaf awareness or British Sign Language skills. It does not provide an equivalent service to Enfield's Deaf Project and merely signposts enquirers to other information services (who in turn also lack these specialist skills).
Neither do the Council's website or telephone services address the issue. These are English language-based and inaccessible to those reliant on British Sign Language. Last night, many of Enfield's Deaf Project users testified to the positive impact of the information and advice service. From health to social care, financial to legal matters, the service plays a generally unacknowledged role in pre-empting individual client situations from deteriorating to crisis stage. In doing so, it effectively reduces workload on other already hard-pressed borough services.
We do empathise with the predicament that the council faces, due to central government funding cuts, and the dilemma that you face of prioritising services within a shrinking annual budget.
However, we fear that on this occasion councillors have been poorly advised. The proposed cuts will represent a false economy due to worsening of local deaf people's health and social outcomes and the resultant increased pressure on other borough services.
Indeed, Mr Wilson's proposal will potentially increase costs within the borough. If and when deaf people present to Community Barnet, or to other information and advice providers, they will only be able to access such services through the provision of sign language interpreters, working on fee-basis. And under the Equality Act, you will be legally bound to provide dramatically increased fees paid to enable sign language interpreter access - or face potential legal action for failure to do so.
In the final analysis, we fear Mr Wilson has overlooked that it is far more cost effective to maintain a specialist information and advice hub, even on a modest scale as currently provided by Enfield's Deaf Project, than to offload hidden costs onto other borough services.
We now have just three weeks before the Deaf Project's information and advice service closes. Over a decade of accumulated deaf-specific relationships and insight will be lost. May we urge you, Doug, to intervene and halt this funding cut before it is too late?
Stephen Iliffe and Pauline Latchem