The Immigration Bill 2016, which is working its way through Parliament, contains a requirement on public authorities to ensure that their workers (including agency workers) who are in customer-facing roles speak fluent English (or Welsh in Wales). Customer-facing roles are described as those which require workers to speak to members of the public (both face to face and on the telephone) as a ‘regular and intrinsic’ part of their role.
The Bill also requires all public authorities to have regard to a Code of Practice which is intended to aid and assist them in complying with their obligations. In October last year the Government launched a consultation on a draft Code of Practice which was open to all members of the public including public authorities, trade unions and organisations that champion equality.
The findings from this consultation have now been published and almost all respondents agreed that the ability to speak fluent English (or Welsh in Wales) to a sufficient standard was vital to ensuring the quality of public service delivery. This would seem to lend support to the Government’s position that the requirement is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim and thus does not fall foul of the Equality Act 2010.
However, respondents did raise concerns over possible discrimination, in particular, they queried whether any complaints procedure (established to monitor compliance with the duty) may lead to vexatious complaints made on the basis of accent, speech impediment or other communicative disability or national or racial identity. There were also concerns that employers may impose more stringent tests on workers and job applicants of non UK origin and/or those educated outside the UK to determine fluency. The Government has stated that the final Code will make clear that accent and dialect should not be taken into account in relation to the duty and will remind public authorities of their responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010 to ensure that no group or individual worker is subject to discrimination.
A number of changes have been proposed to the draft Code as a result of the consultation. Additional guidance is to be provided in respect of potential role adjustments for workers failing to meet the fluency requirements, such as reducing the frequency of communication or supplementing communication with written material provided to customers. The final Code will also emphasise that public authorities must take account of applicable considerations for workers with a disability (such as for those whose first or only language is a signed language), so they are not prevented from a customer-facing role in a public-sector working environment, in line with the duty to make reasonable adjustments.