Thousands of Public Sector Workers Don’t Speak English Well Enough to Do Their Jobs

As many as 7,400 migrants working in customer facing jobs within the public sector may not be able to speak English well enough to do their jobs, a government report has found.

The report, undertaken by the Cabinet office ahead of the introduction of new regulations in the autumn, has found that potentially thousands of staff working in schools, hospitals, councils, job centres, and other public sector organisations don’t speak English well enough to perform their duties.

By analysing census data they suggest that anywhere between 3,700, and 7,400 public sector staff by their own admission do not speak English well, or at all. However, the report notes: “These figures are based on self-reporting and it is therefore possible that the proportion of people without fluency in English could be higher.”

The figures do not include doctors, nurses, midwives, dentists, dental care professionals, pharmacists, and pharmacy technicians, as these public sector workers are already subject to English language regulations.

They also don’t include IT workers and street sweepers, among others, whose jobs don’t bring them into contact with members of the public on a regular basis.

And it warns that the situation could be far worse in “unregulated professions” in health care, particularly within adult social care “where a significant proportion of the workforce do not speak English as a first language, and employers are increasingly struggling to fill recruitment gaps”.

The problem is particularly acute, the report notes, as “often the public sector is a monopolist provider of services, so there are no market forces to influence quality and regulation of service. Without intervention the Government cannot ensure that a sufficient standard of spoken English is maintained across all public services.”

In order to comply with the new rules being introduced in the autumn under the Immigration Act 2016, the Cabinet office has released guidance to employers on how to deal with staff in public-facing jobs whose language skills aren’t up to scratch.

The guidance booklet notes: “This Code should be simple to comply with: nothing is required of anyone already fluent in English. The aim is to bring standards up to the best.”

It suggests they be moved to other roles within the organisation and give them a “reasonable opportunity” to improve their English language skills. But it makes clear that, under new powers introduced in the Immigration Act, employees can ultimately be sacked if they are unwilling or unable to improve their knowledge of English.

In a written statement to his colleagues in the House of Commons, Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer said the Act “places a duty on all public authorities in scope to ensure that their customer-facing staff can speak fluent English, or in Wales fluent English or Welsh. This will assure citizens that there is not a language barrier that might prevent them from contacting or using public services or inadvertently put them at risk.”

He added: “The Government believes that the public should expect that all those with whom they interact, within the sphere of public services, have the language abilities required to respond to their needs.”

The report comes just days after the President of the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS), Clare Marx, called on the government to take advantage of Britain leaving the EU to place much stronger language requirements on the 8,500 foreign doctors within the NHS.

Although foreign doctors taking up roles with the health service are assessed on casual language skills, EU rules prohibit health bosses from setting a technical language test, despite evidence that fatal errors have been made by foreign locum doctors thanks to their poor command of English.

Miss Marx said: “We are concerned that the current testing remains insufficient and risks patient safety.”

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