English language requirement for public sector workers

On 21 July 2016, the Cabinet Office and Home Office published a draft Code of Practice and an impact assessment on the English language requirement for public sector workers, as a result of recent immigration legislation.

The Immigration Act 2016 requires public authorities to ensure that public sector workers in customer facing roles speak fluent English (or Welsh, in Wales). It is anticipated that the "fluency requirement" will come into force with effect from October 2016, although this is yet to be confirmed.

Public authorities must have regard to the Code when fulfilling their statutory duty. The Code explains the appropriate ways in which public authorities can set a standard of spoken English (or Welsh) for customer facing roles; customer-facing workers will have to be sufficiently fluent for the "effective performance of their role".

The Code also outlines the complaints procedure that must be followed where complaints are raised by a member of the public under the fluency requirement.

Although strong communication skills are already assessed and required by many public sector employers, our recommendation is for  public-sector employers to review their HR policies and practices to ensure that the language requirements are incorporated (such as during the recruitment process) and reflect the Code of Practice .

In implementing these new requirements, employers must  be careful not to discriminate based on a worker’s race, nationality, ethnic origin or disability.

If staff do not meet the fluency requirements, the Code states that employers may consider additional training, redeployment to non-customer facing roles or, as a very last resort, dismissal from employment. There is a risk that dismissal or redeployment for failing to meet the language requirements could result in claims for unfair or constructive dismissal, which is why compliant policies and procedures are of utmost importance. 

This article was wrtten by Kirsty Cooke and Laura Wonnacott.

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