Motion to Consider
My Lords, the Government recognise that overseas healthcare professionals make a valuable contribution to our NHS, and we are keen to ensure that highly skilled professionals do not face unnecessary barriers to working in our health service. However, it is vital that all healthcare professionals practising in the UK have the necessary English language skills to properly communicate with and care for patients and members of the public. The department has consulted on proposals to introduce language controls for nurses, midwives, dentists, dental care professionals, pharmacists and pharmacy technicians, and the vast majority of respondents to the consultation—99%—were supportive of the proposals.
We have worked with the Nursing and Midwifery Council, the General Dental Council, the General Pharmaceutical Council and the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland to identify a system of language controls for EU nurses, midwives, dentists, dental care professionals, pharmacists and pharmacy technicians which provides greater safety for patients and members of the public. The draft order gives those regulatory bodies the powers to apply proportionate language controls so that only healthcare professionals who have the necessary knowledge of the English language are able to practise in the UK, together with an assurance that they can do their jobs in a safe and competent manner.
The draft order sets out to amend the Nursing and Midwifery Order 2001, the Dentists Act 1984, the Pharmacy Order 2010 and the Pharmacy (Northern Ireland) Order 1976 to strengthen the regulatory body’s powers to introduce proportionate language controls and to require EU applicants to provide evidence of their knowledge of the English language following recognition of their professional qualification—but before registration and admission on to the register. We also propose corresponding amendments to the fitness to practise powers of the NMC, GDC, GPhC and PSNI, so that they can initiate fitness to practise proceedings in cases where a healthcare professional’s knowledge of the English language may pose a serious risk to patient safety.
A new category of impairment relating to English language capability will be created. It will allow the regulatory body to request that a professional undertakes an assessment of their knowledge of the English language during a fitness to practise investigation where concerns have been raised—something that they are currently unable to do. Those changes will strengthen the regulatory body’s ability to take fitness to practise action where concerns about language competence are identified in relation to healthcare professionals already practising in the UK.
Our overall approach is compliant with EU law which clarifies, under recent changes to the mutual recognition of professional qualifications directive, the ability of national authorities to carry out language controls on European applicants where the profession has patient safety implications. Any language controls must be fair and proportionate. For example, there cannot be automatic testing for all European applicants, and any controls cannot take place until the applicant’s qualification has been recognised by the regulatory body.
The order makes amendments to the relevant legislation which will require the regulatory body to publish guidance setting out the evidence, information or documents which a healthcare professional must provide to demonstrate that they have the necessary knowledge of the English language in order to practise their profession. Any person who is refused admission on to the register on the grounds that they have failed to demonstrate the necessary knowledge of English will have a right to appeal. The process for determining whether a person has the necessary knowledge of English will be set out in the relevant regulatory body’s rules or regulations, which we anticipate will be amended and implemented before the end of the year.
These changes are a major step forward for quality of care and patient safety, and build on the language checks already in place for the registration of healthcare professionals coming to work in the UK from outside the EU. They further build on the amendments made last year, which provided the General Medical Council with the powers to introduce a strengthened system of language controls for doctors from within the EU.
Since the GMC’s legislation was changed in June last year, the GMC has required 1,956 doctors from Europe to provide evidence of their knowledge of English when applying for first registration and a licence to practise. Of these, to date 429 doctors have been registered without a licence to practise medicine in the UK due to insufficient evidence of language competence. This evidence shows that these proposals are essential to ensure patient protection and uphold the standards of care delivered. I commend the order to the Committee.
My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for explaining the order. Clearly, we support the order because we want to protect patients from the risk of avoidable harm.
My own view is that language testing of healthcare professionals from outside Europe is now entirely adequate as a result of last year’s measures—which, again, the Opposition supported. However, we accept that there may be a—one hopes—small number of European professionals whose knowledge of English is not at a level that we might reasonably expect, and indeed an even smaller number of UK nationals who do not possess the requisite knowledge of English and where there are concerns.
I wonder whether the Minister can spell out one or two things in relation to how this is going to be done. I note—the noble Earl said it and it is repeated at paragraph 7.5 of the Explanatory Memorandum—that:
“Any language controls must be fair and proportionate, for example, there cannot be automatic testing for all European applicants and any controls must not take place until the applicant’s qualification has been recognised by the regulatory body”.
Paragraph 7.10 cautions that, in relation to the requirements that can be imposed as to English language controls, the bodies concerned,
“must first request and consider any available evidence before requiring a test”.
Can the Minister explain a little further how it is expected that employing authorities will go about that?
I also want to ask the noble Earl about the implementation of the power to implement fitness to practise proceedings. I noted from the Explanatory Memorandum that there is currently provision for most of the relevant regulatory bodies to commission an assessment of performance where fitness to practise allegations have been made. I was not sure about the purpose of the extension in this order, given that the Explanatory Memorandum notes that there is already provision for most of the relevant regulatory bodies to do this.
I would like to ask the Minister about support and guidance for individual employers. This comes back to my first question about how you make the assessment that a test should be undertaken. I should have thought that human resources professionals within NHS organisations would need some careful advice and guidance on this—first, because this may be a sensitive area, and, secondly, because some consistency throughout the NHS would be appropriate.
Finally, there is the question of vexatious complaints, which we discussed in relation to the previous order. Clearly, we have to balance the public interest with that of the appropriate interest of medical professionals. We know that there are cases in which medical professionals have been subjected to complaints that have turned out to be unsubstantiated. Clearly there are political sensitivities around the ability of European immigrants to speak English; I refer the noble Earl back to our previous debate and the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. I want to be clear that the Government understand that, while this is undoubtedly the right measure for patient safety and the protection of the public interest, we have to have regard to ensuring that doctors and other professionals are dealt with fairly under these provisions.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his support of the order. The first point for me to make about what might trigger a language test is that European healthcare professionals currently provide a range of supporting information to accompany their application for registration and admission to the register. It is during that process that if a regulatory body had cause for concern, such as a poorly written application form, it would write to the individual to seek further evidence of English language competence. It is important to restate that the individual would still have their qualification recognised, but would not be admitted to the register until the body was satisfied that they met all the requirements for registration.
The draft order requires the regulatory bodies to publish guidance on the evidence to be provided by a healthcare professional where there is cause for concern about their English language capability. However, the regulatory body, as the independent regulator of the relevant healthcare professionals in the UK, will have the power to decide what the necessary knowledge of English is to practise safely in the UK. All the regulators subject to this order are in the process of developing this guidance. In recent discussions they suggested that, where there is a cause for concern, the evidence required could be the required score in the academic version of IELTS—the International English Language Testing System—or that the healthcare professional has a primary qualification taught and examined in English. In making that determination, the regulatory body will need to be mindful of EU law and ensure that such requirements are necessary and proportionate in view of their scope of practice.
As regards vexatious complaints, responses to the department’s public consultation highlighted the potential serious risk to patient safety posed by a professional practising without adequate English language skills. As I explained, these proposals would allow the regulatory bodies to take pre-emptive fitness to practise action, even if no actual harm has yet occurred, to maintain public protection. We accept that this could lead to a rise in the number of referrals but we are confident that if these are triaged correctly, any discriminatory or vexatious complaints can be identified early on and dealt with appropriately by the regulatory bodies affected by the order. The regulatory bodies will also be responsible for communicating the changes effectively to employers, which may be best placed to deal with issues at a local level. As I mentioned, there is a right to appeal if a person is refused admission on to the register, or is subject to fitness to practise proceedings and then found to be impaired on the grounds of defective English.
The noble Lord asked how we would ensure that the controls were fair and proportionate. Guidance will be published by the regulator on the evidence accepted on initial application for registration. If that has not been supplied, an individual will be sent a letter of recognition requesting further evidence. If it is not supplied at that point, a test will be requested.
The introduction of language controls at national level should not have the effect of requiring individual professionals to undertake the same English language test twice: once at national and once at local level. We agree that that would be disproportionate. However, it must be remembered that the regulatory bodies’ roles as the national regulators of the healthcare professionals affected by the order will be to ensure that all professionals have the minimum English language capability required to work as a practitioner. It will still be for the employer to assure themselves that the applicant has the necessary English language skills for a specific role, which may require more sophisticated language skills. I hope that that is helpful.
Committee adjourned at 5.46 pm.