Mind your language

PRACTICES in England and Wales are being advised to review their recruitment policies and practices to incorporate new language fluency requirements that come into force in October.

The government recently published a draft code of practice on English language requirements for public sector workers as part of the Immigration Act 2016. The code aims to help employers ensure staff members who deal with the public can speak fluent English (or fluent English or Welsh in Wales).

It outlines what will be expected of employers in the NHS when recruiting staff for patient-facing roles. The Welsh government has launched a consultation regarding the possible exemption of GP surgeries. However, these new requirements cover public sector organisations which include NHS bodies.

There are four areas which impact on the required standard of language proficiency:

  1. The frequency and duration of spoken interaction
  2. The topics of conversation
  3. If professional-specific language is required in technical roles
  4. The significance of the communication and whether it is repeated or supplemented by written communication

All customer-facing staff should be made aware of this new duty. Employers will be expected to ensure that an individual has the necessary level of fluency appropriate for the role they will be undertaking, whether an existing or a potential new member of staff.

Fluency levels will be based on the employee’s ability to converse with patients and to provide advice in accurate English. If an employee fails to meet the requirements then extra support and training should be provided and where necessary, a suitable alternative role.

However, practices will also have to comply with the Equality Act 2010 which prohibits discrimination on the grounds of race. This makes it illegal for candidate selection to be linked to nationality.

The code clearly states that dismissal should be a last resort and should only occur if the member of staff has unreasonably refused to undertake training, has not been able to attain the standard of fluent English within a reasonable amount of time or no other suitable post without customer-facing duties can be made available for that individual.

Doctors are already subject to guidance from the General Medical Council which states that “all doctors who practise medicine in the UK must have the necessary knowledge of the English language to provide a good standard of practice and care in the UK.”

The GMC also has the power to require European doctors to undergo a language assessment and can refuse to grant them a licence if they cannot demonstrate they have the necessary knowledge of English.

The General Dental Council introduced similar English language checks in April 2016 which apply to all dentists and dental care professionals, including those from the European Economic Area.

The government’s intention is to bring these new requirements into force in the autumn of 2016.