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Recruiters warned that public sector customer service workers must be fluent in English

The new practice will be effective from Monday 21 November 2016

There will be a new requirement for public-sector workers employed in customer-facing positions to be fluent in English, according to changes in the Immigration Act 2016.

To ensure high performance and increase the effectiveness of people in public sector roles, the government has issued a new code of practice. Under the new requirements, anyone with a customer-facing role must have a good level of English if working in England or be proficient in English or Welsh if working in Wales.

The new code of practice is designed to help employers meet language standards across the country. This change highlights that workers must demonstrate the standard of English or Welsh determined by the topic of conversation, the length of verbal interaction, the frequency and the significance of the spoken word in their role, and the service the speaker is tasked to deliver.

The new legislation, which was published in July, brings the changes to the Immigration Act 2016 into play as early as 21 November and will play a huge role in recruitment from this date. HR departments will need to ensure they are aware and have made policy and practice changes to accommodate the update and incorporate these language-specific requirements into their everyday practice.

A variety of sectors will be affected, ranging from councils and local government bodies to the NHS. The police and armed forces will also have to adhere to the new legislation, as will workers employed in state-funded schools and other non-departmental public and government bodies. Central government roles will also be affected in delivering the expected raised standards in the spoken English word.

Workers in the voluntary sectors and the private sector delivering public services have escaped the new legislation, as they do not have to apply these requirements to their teams.

Qian Mou, an employment law editor at XpertHR, reiterated that the new code was expected to come into practice in October, leaving many public sector employers pushed for time to introduce such measures within their HR departments. The new code is applicable to agency staff and self-employed contractors who work closely with public bodies to deliver effective customer-facing services.

With the employers being required to apply the new language requirements strictly to meet the standard for each position, it is a tricky path to tread. Employers must also be mindful that they do not discriminate against any worker based on their race, disability, nationality or indeed their ethnic origin.

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