Employees in both the public and private sector who have customer-facing roles are will be expected to be able to speak fluent English to customers. However, how employers assess fluency can be controversial.
The government is planning to bring into force Part 7 of the Immigration Act 2016, which requires all public sector workers in customer-facing roles to speak fluent English. The stated intention is to increase standards in order to meet “the public’s reasonable expectation to be able to speak English when accessing public services”.
Earlier this month, the High Court rejected an attempt by a private sector company, the taxi firm Uber to challenge the requirements of a new English language test for taxi drivers. Transport for London (TfL) plans to introduce rules that mean all Uber drivers from non-English speaking countries will have to pass a reading, writing and listening test in order to obtain or renew their taxi licence. TfL says that the test is part of a range of measures designed to enhance public safety.
Uber had argued that the requirement was disproportionate and discriminatory. The High Court disagreed with Uber and has accepted the principle of the new test and the standard of English it will require. There may be some exemptions on a case by case basis.
The new rules will affect a significant number of public sector roles. Some positions, including many within the teaching and medical professions, are already subject to a language standard which is sufficient to meet the requirements of the new legislation. However, the government estimates that around 1.8 million public sectors workers in customer-facing roles are not currently subject to any formal English language standard.
Public sector employers will need make sure their managers and HR personnel are familiar with the new rules and the government’s code of practice. Policies and procedures, including those that relate to recruitment, will need to be updated.
Systems will need to be devised for assessing the language skills of existing staff in customer facing roles. Suitable training will need to be made available to those who do not meet the required standard.
In some cases it might be possible to make adjustments to a role, such as reducing customer contact or providing for communications to be supplemented with written material. The option of redeployment to another role will also need to be considered.
If all else fails, an employer could consider dismissing an employee who is unwilling or unable to meet the required standard.
Just what the appropriate standard of English is will be something that each employer will need to determine on a role by role basis. Difficult decisions may have to be made about what degree of fluency is required and how this should be assessed. There are legal issues too: a requirement to speak English to a certain standard could amount to indirect race discrimination under the Equality Act. It crucial for the employer to be able to demonstrate that the standard has been set at a level that is reasonable in the circumstances.