Public-sector fluency duty: workers must speak fluent English


Public-sector employers will have to ensure that workers in customer-facing roles speak fluent English, the Government has confirmed.

The Conservative party manifesto promised to “legislate to ensure that every public-sector worker operating in a customer-facing role must speak fluent English”.

The requirement is being introduced via the Immigration Bill, currently before Parliament.

The Government is consulting on a draft code of practice on the English language requirement for public-sector workers until 8 December.

The draft code provides guidance for public services to ensure that workers who have contact with members of the public “have a command of spoken English or Welsh which is sufficient to enable the effective performance of their role”.

The “fluency duty” will apply to existing staff, as well as to new recruits, in most public-sector workplaces, including local and central government, the NHS and the police.

Matt Hancock, cabinet office minister, said: “Our aim is to deliver on this commitment without a significant burden on employers. We will not require any further action from those who speak English fluently, and will police the duty through complaints, not direct action.”

XpertHR principal employment law editor Stephen Simpson said employers in the public sector will have to be extremely careful about how they adapt their recruitment practices without discriminating on the basis of race.

“It will open a can of worms if interviewers start making recruitment decisions on the basis of fluency in English, say favouring a UK native over a foreign worker whose English isn’t perfect,” he said.

Simpson also warned that disability discrimination could arise: “There may issues, for example if a worker has a speech impediment or learning difficulties. Employers will still have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for individuals with a disability.”

The requirement will apply to customer-facing workers who are directly employed by the public sector, but one of the questions in the consultation asks about the impact of extending the code of practice to voluntary and private sector suppliers that have contracts with public-sector organisations.

Public-sector fluency duty: employers’ recruitment practices

The draft code of practice says that public-sector organisations will have to review their HR policies and practices to ensure that they reflect the fluency duty by:

  • making all customer-facing employees aware of the new duty and explaining the possible actions if their proficiency in spoken English or Welsh is found to be insufficient;
  • ensuring existing recruitment selection practices refer to compliance with the duty and informing those responsible for evaluating candidates of the spoken language requirements;
  • stipulating in contracts of employment the standard of fluent English or Welsh required as an occupational requirement for the role;
  • ensuring that their recruitment processes do not contravene the Equality Act 2010;
  • making clear in adverts and job descriptions the necessary standard of spoken English or Welsh required for the role;
  • ensuring consistency when advertising for similar types of customer-facing roles; and
  • briefing interviewers so they understand the language requirements for the role and provide an objective method of evaluating candidates against clear criteria set out in the job specification.


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