Question for Short Debate
My Lords, first, I declare my interests as co-chair of the All-Party Group on Modern Languages and vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Linguists. We have a small but expert group of speakers this evening, and I would like to put it on record that many others have contacted me to say that they would have liked to take part but could not—notably the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds, who used to work as an interpreter and a GCHQ linguist.
In this short debate I will focus solely on how a future immigration regime must be finely tuned so that would-be immigrants to the UK, or people who are being specifically targeted for recruitment here to work as teachers of modern languages or as public service interpreters in our courts, police stations and health service, are not denied entry because of a salary threshold they cannot possibly meet, or because they are not regarded as sufficiently highly skilled to qualify.
We need to get this right for three big reasons. First, modern languages—already precarious throughout our education system—will suffer a body blow if schools and universities cannot recruit foreign nationals. An estimated 35% of MFL school teachers are non-UK EU nationals, with a similar proportion in the HE sector. Until we have a long-term strategy to produce enough linguists who will go into teaching, we need to be sure of the supply chain from abroad—mainly from France, Germany and Spain.
A salary threshold of £30,000, as proposed by the Migration Advisory Committee, would be a devastating barrier. The MAC acknowledged this in relation to education in general, but the problem is particularly acute for linguists. The National Association of Head Teachers said earlier this month that modern languages were among the subjects already most at risk from the drop in applications by EU nationals. The shortfall will only get worse with a salary threshold of £30,000. Government figures show that only 88% of the target number of MFL teachers were recruited in 2018, yet the demand is set to rise further, not least because of the Government’s own admirable policy that 90% of pupils should be achieving the EBacc by 2025. To do that requires them to do a language GCSE. This policy is doomed to failure unless the crisis of MFL teacher supply is urgently addressed. In the short to medium term, that cannot be done without overseas recruitment.
The salary range outside London for the first four years after qualification is £26,700 to £29,800. In the HE sector, staff need to be at spine point 28—more than half way up their pay scale—before they break the £30,000 barrier.
Classroom language assistants are also crucial for MFL in schools, and no fewer than 85% of them are currently from the EU. Many of them—the British Council estimates about 10%—are keenly recruited by their schools to convert from classroom assistant to trained teacher status. This is hugely beneficial to the MFL teacher supply chain, and would be threatened if the individuals could not meet new immigration conditions with which they would then have to comply. So I ask the Minister to give specific consideration to this point when formulating the new rules.
The second reason we must get this right is that the administration of justice and the quality of healthcare will suffer if the shortage of public service interpreters—PSIs—gets any worse. These are the people who are called out every day to police stations, courts, GP surgeries and hospitals to translate and interpret for defendants, witnesses, patients and their families. A few days ago, in answer to a Written Question I was told that the Government have “no plan currently” to alter the provisions of the EU directive which gave the right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings, which was transposed into UK law in 2013. But I am slightly suspicious about that word “currently”, so I ask the Minister to state categorically tonight that after Brexit the Government will not remove or water down those rights.
Around one-third of PSIs are EU nationals and, as with teachers, we need to continue to recruit them, not just look after the ones who are already here. A salary threshold of £30,000 would be even more of a barrier for them than for teachers because most are freelance, on an average hourly rate of around £15. An interpreter working solely on jobs paying the highest rate of £20 an hour, paid for six hours a day of face-to-face interpreting and working for 48 weeks a year, would still be earning only £28,000. Many are earning far less than that. Yet their work is highly skilled, often requiring technical and specialist vocabulary, and knowledge of the justice or healthcare system. Without enough properly qualified PSIs, we would undoubtedly see more of the kinds of cases reported in the Times last week, in which unqualified so-called interpreters were used by one agency for police interviews, resulting in such unprofessional behaviour that a criminal trial collapsed. This not only affects people’s rights but results in unnecessary public expenditure if a retrial or further detention is involved.
The All-Party Group on Modern Languages heard evidence recently from police and researchers working on transnational crime. They told us that terrorism and trafficking in people, drugs and firearms are becoming ever more sophisticated and complex across borders and languages, and that without linguists the police simply cannot do their job. Languages commonly required include Farsi, Kurdish and Nepalese, as well as EU languages such as Polish and Portuguese.
The current Immigration Rules include a shortage occupations list, which has a category for secondary school teachers of maths, physics, computer science and Mandarin. I ask the Minister to amend this to cover teachers of all modern languages. We need competence in Mandarin, of course, but we also need traditional European languages more than ever. Schools have just as much trouble finding teachers for these. Will the Minister add to the shortage occupations list a new category for the professionally qualified translators and interpreters who will be working either in public services, as I mentioned, or in the private sector, where their language skills will help build export growth and competitiveness?
That brings me to the third reason for making sure that we get this right: it is in the national interest, by which I mean the economy and our capacity to play our part on the world stage through soft power, international organisations and diplomacy—in other words, everything that is often rather crudely summed up as “global Britain”. We need dramatically to boost the numbers of school leavers and graduates who can speak more than one language proficiently, yet since 2000 more than 50 universities have scrapped some or all of their modern language degrees. We must not add to this erosion by depriving the sector of the foreign nationals who make up around a third of its language staff. Lack of language skills is a serious constraint on employability; the UK loses 3.5% of GDP every year in missed contracts because of a lack of language skills in the workforce.
Language education, as I hope I have shown this evening, is currently heavily dependent on the body of teachers we are able to recruit from overseas. A strategy which could, over time, produce enough homegrown linguists must be the subject of another debate. My key message tonight is that in the short to medium term, we would be shooting ourselves in the foot as a nation if we allowed language skills to suffer by knowingly placing unnecessary obstacles in the way of some of the very people who we need most to attract to the UK to help us redefine our place in the world. Will the Minister take the opportunity to state explicitly that MFL teachers, translators and interpreters are highly skilled people who will not be screened out by any new Immigration Rules on the basis of income or a blinkered definition of what constitutes skill?
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for securing this debate. It is a great pleasure to follow her impressive and convincing speech. I will put a slightly different spin on the debate and hope that I do not overlap too much with what we have heard. This debate goes right to the heart of our education process, as well. We need to improve the teaching of languages and need foreign nationals to teach them, but why do foreign language skills matter?
It is easy for us to be lazy—and we are criticised for this—when others often speak English. I read in the excellent Library briefing that under the Erasmus programme, twice as many students choose to come to the UK to study than to go to Germany or France, which are the next two preferred destinations. Our MFL learning is consistently poor compared with other countries, as we have heard, and there are regular calls from industry and educational bodies to raise attainment levels. Both for soft reasons of intellectual development and for hard reasons of commercial heft, we should not allow our schoolchildren to miss out on foreign languages.
Looking at the softer side, an organisation called Bilingualism Matters is based in Edinburgh and forms part of Edinburgh University. It provides research-based study on the benefits of language learning. I have read some of its work and spoken to one of its directors. Both indicated that research confirms the great benefits of language teaching. It gives students much more than an additional language. It is beneficial for children’s development more generally: they become aware of other cultures and other points of view. They also become better at multitasking and focusing their attention. Many become precocious readers. These are all powerful learning benefits, which put them at an advantage to their peers. It certainly gives them much more than two languages.
The harder aspects are visible in the professional and commercial worlds. I add to the comments of the previous speaker. Having worked in the global property market for 30 or 40 years, I understand the important role that languages play in business. The wheels of commerce benefit from these skills. Yes, English is considered the language of international business and banking and, yes, the majority of the deals we see done occur in our language. But we must take into account the rise of Mandarin, Spanish and Arabic in the business arena and the importance of being able to speak another’s tongue when it comes to developing co-operation and trust—the grounds on which good business is done. In the Brexit context, as we consider potential trade deals and reassess our place in the global economy, we must equip our young to make the most of the business opportunities that we will make available to them when we get through this confusion.
To support my views on commerce, I refer to an article I saw in the Times yesterday. It said that Highlands and Islands Enterprise in Scotland is encouraging the learning of Mandarin for the hospitality industry there. I could not believe it but it is even organising China-ready workshops, while expecting an influx of Chinese visitors following the introduction of a direct Beijing-Edinburgh flight. It is not a joke; it is really doing it.
I understand that a combined universities report of May 2016 on the value of modern languages said that business is lost to UK companies due to the lack of language skills. The UK’s soft power and effectiveness in conflict and matters of national security are limited by the shortage of strategically important languages. The UK is under-represented at internationally important institutions such as the EU’s civil service and the United Nations’ translation services.
Considering the importance of foreign language skills across intellectual development and in the professional and commercial world, it should go without saying that we need good-quality foreign language teaching staff. As an interesting indicator of the need for foreign language teachers, in Scotland two languages have been taught at primary level since 2014; this will be extended to all schools in two years’ time. It does not take one long to find evidence of language teacher shortages, as we have heard, across British schools. TES, the online hub for the teaching community, tells us that there is a shortage of some 31% in MFL teaching. While we may agree on the importance of promoting language learning, we cannot meet demand in language teaching, let alone hope to increase that demand.
The answer must be to attract foreign nationals as teachers and classroom assistants. Currently, an estimated one-third of foreign language teachers are European nationals. I believe that legislation is being put in place to secure their jobs here in the UK, but we need to do more. We need to positively attract more foreign teaching staff. The Migration Advisory Committee has recommended that the shortage occupation list of professions, which we have heard about, be fully reviewed. While Mandarin is on the list, as we have heard, that is not nearly enough. Let us not forget that these foreign teachers earn much less than the £30,000 visa threshold. Furthermore, they will put most of they earn back into the economy.
As an outward-looking global nation in which we pride ourselves on educational excellence, and as a nation looking at possibly a decade’s worth of re-establishing our global trade position, we must support language learning through ensuring that post-Brexit immigration policy encourages the recruitment of foreign nationals. My request to the Minister is to convince her colleagues to offer special treatment to these teachers from the EU in the related immigration Bill. The UK will be better off as a result.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the first two speakers, and I thank my noble friend Lady Coussins for launching this debate. This is a subject that is seemingly not big on the horizon, but actually it is crucial. I thank her also for the marvellous work she has done over the years as a chairman of our All-Party Group on Modern Languages, which has achieved great things. The emotional, marginal nature of foreign languages in Britain—which is really a curse—might suggest that we would not have very frequent meetings, but we do. We have interesting and varied meetings, full of content, with lots of outside participants, such as members of the Institute of Linguists. It is a very inspiring group. I am therefore grateful that today’s debate has been led by my noble friend Lady Coussins, and for what she said to raise the alarm on this issue.
We are dealing here with yet another miserable piece of Brexit legislation, and what a sad time this is for the country. One has to speak broadly about Brexit, because it is the background to all these matters. Today, in Committee on the Trade Bill, things were dealt with that would not have been necessary if the Government had handled the events subsequent to the election on 8 June 2017 more intelligently, in a way that would have led us to a different and more constructive channel of recovery and a rethinking of the nightmare that is affecting this country. It has made people thoroughly miserable. Youngsters feel fed up and have lost their morale as a result of what the senior citizens in the Government and politics have done, seemingly on their behalf but potentially causing only damage and destruction. This may seem a small segment of the Brexit background, but it is a very important one.
In recent years, the language background in Britain has been depressing. It is good to see the expansion of Spanish and Mandarin in British state schools and others, particularly for younger children, and to see how well and intelligently they deal with it and what they achieve. Learning Chinese is very difficult for older people, but children can cope with it. Other languages, however, are now in decline in universities and schools—German is a good example of this—but there is absolutely sacred evidence of their importance.
Years ago, I went to Dusseldorf to speak to the 50 officials at the British trade office who were promoting UK exports. Their first grumble—a familiar one in this country, which is spoiled by English being the dominant international language—was that so many British companies would not produce their pamphlets in German because of the extra expense, saying, “Why bother? Aren’t the Germans good at speaking English?” Many years after that visit, specific research showed that 9% net of business was lost by British exporters in Germany because we would not put our documents into German. German has really faded now in this country, and I hope that will not be so in the future.
I am spoiled by providence and my origins of birth. For some reason, I have always found languages very easy: I enjoy speaking and reading European languages, as well as Russian, but that is rusty because I have not used it in recent years. Due to finding it easy, I have a natural enthusiasm for language learning and teaching, which does not affect the ordinary citizen. I quite understand that. I am not criticising the ordinary citizen in this country for not feeling that way or for supporting the idea that they do not need to bother because “they all speak English”.
If it is unfair I will apologise to him immediately, but I was told on good authority that the previous Prime Minister, David Cameron, could just about manage to say “bonjour” and nothing else when he was at the Council of Ministers. But look at what our foreign friends in the EU can do. Some years ago, I had the great privilege of visiting the European Parliament, which has become increasingly important now. I heard the then President Barroso make a speech in five different languages, with several paragraphs in each. We could do that as well. There is no reason that British people should not be intrinsically just as good at foreign languages as anybody else, if they put their minds to it. I have spoken on this at great length because I wanted to focus on the background and on how this curmudgeonly attitude in Britain about languages has affected government policy.
On the Immigration Act, I was very impressed with the two documents, by Nicola Newson and James Goddard, that we in the House of Lords were given. They were very helpful in giving us the background on this. The second paragraph on page 72 of the first one deals with how this all started. It says:
“The shortage of teachers is not limited to a few subject-specialisms as in the past. The ASCL survey of January 2016 asked about the subjects found to be difficult. As might be expected the existing shortage subjects of maths and science head the list, but they are now joined by significant numbers of schools having problems recruiting teachers of English, modern foreign languages”—
which is the subject of this debate today—
“geography, history and other subjects”.
Later in the same document we get a Written Answer from the Minister, then Nick Gibb. He said in September 2018:
“The Government has commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee … to provide independent advice … to help develop a future immigration system. The Department welcomed their interim report in March and the contribution it makes to the immigration debate. Their analysis is incomplete and it would be wrong to pre-empt their final report. The Government will take account of the MAC’s advice when making decisions about the future immigration system”.
As my noble friend Lady Coussins quite rightly mentioned, the salary figures are usually below the threshold anyway, so the problem is intrinsic and it has to be tackled. I hope that will be so, because the Immigration Act is only a part of this. Regulations will follow later when the second stage of this exercise gathers momentum, and I am very sceptical about the Government getting it right.
I will refer briefly to the second document, Foreign Language Skills: Trends and Developments. I mentioned earlier the damage that is done, particularly to younger members of our society, if these things are closed down, reduced, not properly funded and so on. On page 9, paragraph 4, I was struck with the definition of “multilingualism” in the EU. Let me remind everybody of the idea that all 27 sovereign countries in the EU are happy with sovereignty and happy working together as a club in a succession of treaties. Why cannot Britain be the same? The definition states:
“Under the subsidiarity principle, member states of the EU are responsible for language rights and education. However, the EU is empowered to promote language learning and linguistic diversity among its members”.
That is one of the great attractions of the EU and another reason why we should stay in.
My Lords, it is a splendid initiative of my noble friend Lady Coussins to have this on our Order Paper. It is a little bit sad that not one single person on the Back Benches of the three main party groups in this House is present for this debate. The immigration White Paper, which is the focus of this debate, seems just about the greenest White Paper I have ever seen. I draw some hope from that because I really hope it is not set in concrete, particularly not that figure clutched out of the air of £30,000, which we have already heard from my noble friend presents serious problems in the two sectors that she has identified. I hope the Minister will confirm that there is plenty of scope for further consultation and change.
On interpreters, the extremely welcome statement by the Government a couple of days ago that they were going to waive the charge on EU citizens who wish to have settled status simply underlines the fact that we in this country are going to have 3 million or more EU citizens for the foreseeable future and, although a lot of them speak such good English that they put some of us to shame, many of them do not. Some of them will find themselves within the courts system or dealing with other forms of law enforcement or inquiry. It really is essential, if we believe in the rule of law in this country, that they should be given the services of interpreters who are genuinely able to help them explain how they got into the position they got into. The point about interpreters being able to come here is very important, because it is wider than a purely European one.
On language teaching, it is a cause of some despair, I think, to those of us who have lived much of our lives abroad and who understand that it is not any good believing that just because English is the lingua franca of the world of the 21st century we can just ignore other people’s languages and do business around the world without bothering to understand their culture or their languages and it will be all right if we just speak a bit louder—it will not. The journey on which we are setting out, or which the Government would like to see us setting out on, outside the European Union is going to be pretty rough and it will be a lot rougher if we are not able to educate businessmen, the military, diplomats—anything you like—to speak other people’s languages. It is quite clear from the figures that my noble friend has given that if the rules suggested in the White Paper are put in place, there will be an even greater shortage of language teachers, since such a high proportion of them are from the European Union. That is another extremely serious matter and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I join in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for introducing this debate. She is a tireless supporter of modern foreign languages and has campaigned for the public sector interpreters in their attempts not to be undercut by cheaper but far less qualified people. I thank those who have sent us briefings for this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Dykes, mentioned the Library briefing, and we also heard from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages about its views. It is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, who speaks with such expertise on these matters. I agree with absolutely everything he said.
We know that translation can increasingly be done online—sometimes with some rather bizarre results, I have to say, but nevertheless it can be done. But the very specialist task of interpreting, particularly for such people as court interpreters, cannot be so easily mechanised. They need to have a knowledge of legal procedures as well as language skills. We shall continue to need skilled interpreters, in very many diverse languages, to ensure that people who do not speak English are fairly represented. But we have not sent out messages of welcome for these specialist professionals and many have returned or are returning to home countries. People have a right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings; their very freedom may depend on fully understanding court procedures and their case being fairly put.
As we have already heard, as transnational organised crime becomes ever more sophisticated and complex across borders and languages, the police need interpreters and translators—not all thugs are British. So does the NHS, where communication issues can have consequences for health outcomes and fundamental rights such as patient confidentiality and consent. We certainly cannot rely on foreign nurses being there to help with translation, because the latest figures from the Nursing and Midwifery Council have shown that the number of new nurses coming from the EU to work in the UK has dropped by 87%, from 6,382 in 2016-17 to a mere 805 in 2017-18. This poses a real dilemma for the NHS and British citizens are unlikely to fill the gap.
I declare an interest as an honorary fellow of the Chartered Institute of Linguists. I read French and Spanish at university, lived in France as a child, in Spain as a student and taught in a Gymnasium while living in Germany with my RAF husband. That required a rather speedy learning curve to make sure I could understand at least enough German to know what the students were saying about me in class. I have always considered myself European, I am distraught by Brexit and I have always had a fascination with languages. Like the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, I enjoy learning them and do not find it too difficult, although when I became a member of the UK-Japan group I went into Waterstones to buy Teach Yourself Japanese in Three Weeks and the man selling it looked at me and said, “You won’t, you know”, and he was dead right: I have found that Japanese is a challenge too far.
It is deeply disturbing that the numbers studying modern languages have declined dramatically in recent years. In 2002 76% of students took a language. This was down to 47% in 2017 and, as we have heard, universities are closing their language departments. In both schools and universities, we are increasingly dependent on foreign nationals, particularly those from the EU, filling teaching posts. We have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and others that we have a recruitment crisis in modern foreign language teaching. As the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, said, we need to attract native speakers of languages to come and fill those posts in our schools. How can young people be enthused by languages if there are not enough enthusiastic linguists to inspire them? We will end up in a vicious circle: there are not enthusiastic teachers, so the children do not get enthusiastic and do not go on to learn languages, and so the decline happens. This is really not helped by the perception that it is more difficult to get a good grade in languages than in other subjects.
As the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, said, young people’s horizons can be broadened by learning languages. In doing so, they learn about other cultures and communities. The EU has stated that foreign language skills are important for citizens’ social cohesion and employability, and for the continent’s competitiveness and economic growth. If that is true for the EU, it is certainly also true for the UK. The education sector is extremely concerned about barriers to recruiting from abroad. Higher education institutions are particularly concerned about the risks to international mobility and co-operation for teaching and research. Of course, they derive immense benefit from EU funding and collaboration.
Foreign nationals contribute to the UK economy and help create the UK’s vibrant and world-leading research and innovation system. In universities and colleges, it is not just in the language departments: we read that in economics alone 64% of academic staff are non-UK nationals. There are real concerns that, post Brexit, there will need to be a significant increase in the number of visas to be issued, bringing increased cost and administration. There are currently just under 50,000 EU academic and non-academic staff employed by universities. Not all may need visas; certainly not all will be earning the threshold salary of £30,000, already referred to, which the Government are proposing; but all are doing jobs which may not be easily filled by native British people. There are many laboratory technicians and language assistants, for instance, whose work is invaluable. What plans do the Government have to issue visas and what guidance will be given to those who have not needed visas hitherto but who may in the future? Speed and simplicity will be of the essence. What about the threshold salary, which will be an enormous barrier to so many in the education world?
If we do leave the EU, it will be more important than ever that we can speak the languages of the neighbours we have turned our backs on. Why should they bother to speak English if we are no longer in the club? If or when the UK leaves the EU, only 1% of the EU population will speak English as a first language—little incentive for it to keep its dominance. French and German are waiting in the wings to resume their rightful place. As Willy Brandt was reported to have said: “If I am selling to you, I will speak your language, but if I am buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen”. I will not insult the House by translating that. How will our trade deals look if we insist on speaking English loudly?
The Government’s ambiguity about the status of EU nationals has added to uncertainties and encouraged more of them to return to their countries of origin. A head teacher recently told me that a brilliant Polish physics teacher had decided to return to Poland so that her job could be given to a British teacher. Some hope! Physics teachers are like gold dust and the prospect of a replacement was a dim one.
Moving slightly away from teaching and interpreting, another sector which would be profoundly affected is the hospitality sector, which would be lost without foreign workers. British people, it seems, are not prepared to work in industries which require late hours, weekend working and hard physical work. I was talking to the owner of a West End restaurant recently who said he could not find any British people to come and work there because they did not like the hours. We enjoy eating in restaurants and staying in hotels but our choices will be severely limited if there are no foreign nationals to staff them.
We have wasted precious time in leaving EU citizens in uncertainty. The Government are now trying to make up for lost time, but for some it will be too little and too late. What is the Government’s long-term plan? What steps are they taking to ensure that EU citizens and other foreign nationals who are such a crucial part of the workforce and the community will be warmly encouraged to stay, with any administration as simple, friendly and cheap as possible? We have very real concerns about the future of our country without the very many foreign nationals who contribute so greatly. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, on initiating this debate on a subject of some urgency. For that reason, I share the dismay of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, that so few speakers have been motivated to participate.
For the UK to succeed outwith the EU, international awareness and skills, such as the ability to connect with people globally beyond English, are more vital than ever. However, the UK is currently facing a languages deficit, as other noble Lords have said. At the end of 2017, the British Council published a report on modern foreign language teaching in our schools and universities which listed Spanish, Mandarin, French, Arabic and German as the languages the UK will need most once we depart the EU. But recent research has shown that the percentage of 18 to 34 year-olds who can hold a basic conversation in those languages is 14% in French, 8% in German, 7% in Spanish and just 2% each in Mandarin and Arabic. This comes at a time when language learning in UK schools is facing what the British Council rather kindly described as a “difficult climate”, as the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, said.
That is despite the introduction of the English baccalaureate which was, in part, designed to promote greater take-up of French and German, but does not seem to have made any meaningful impact. In part, that is due to a lack of suitably qualified teachers of languages for schools, and cuts to school budgets mean that there are fewer teacher education opportunities, especially in the lesser-taught languages.
The decline in the number of young people studying languages is hardly likely to have been lessened by much of the Government’s rhetoric since the referendum, fostering negative impressions of people who are “not like us” and hence of their languages. Such hostility has caused foreign nationals to leave the UK while deterring others from coming here. That policy is particularly demonstrated by the Government’s senseless determination to include overseas students in the immigration figures, when in fact they make a decisive net contribution to this country.
There is already a shortage of modern foreign language teachers, yet the Government seemingly ignore the fact that currently around one-third of those in post are non-UK EU nationals. We need more of them, particularly from France, Spain and Germany, as the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, said, to plug the gap, but the generally inhospitable atmosphere—perceived or real—since the referendum makes that much more difficult.
The effect is also serious concerning the ability of young people to prepare themselves for the fast-changing demands of the economy in the years ahead. At a time when global connections matter more than ever, it is worrying that the UK is facing a languages deficit, because that restricts access by young people to overseas work experience, which is a vital part of preparation for them to develop a career in international business.
The threat to the ability of UK students to access the Erasmus+ programme after we leave the EU is an issue that the Government claimed that they would resolve through negotiation. We know all too well how those negotiations worked out, and now the country faces hurtling over a cliff edge in only nine weeks.
Failure to reach agreement with our EU neighbours can only lead to a reduction in the demand for undergraduate language courses at UK universities. What do the Government intend to do to ensure the supply of modern language teachers in our schools and universities? Although it is not within the ministerial remit of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, I imagine she will have had advice from DfE officials for this debate.
The Government finally published their much-delayed immigration White Paper last month, and we know that free movement of EU nationals will end on 29 March. That will leave us with a single immigration system for all nationalities, with no cap on the number of skilled migrants. But what is a skilled migrant? It is a positive step that the Government have not followed the Migration Advisory Committee’s recommendation to retain the £30,000 salary threshold. But with the matter out to consultation, it seems that a salary threshold at some level is inevitable.
A threshold of £30,000 will not help to fill many of the skills gaps in the UK economy, not least the need for essential workers such as health and social care staff. The noble Baroness, Lady Garden, has just added several other skills, particularly hospitality. Newly qualified teachers can expect to earn around £23,000 outside London and around £26,000 in inner London—so, without doubt, language teaching and interpretation can be added to the list.
Highly skilled people from around the world contribute to the UK economy and help to create the UK’s vibrant and world-leading research and innovation system. As the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, said, currently almost 50,000 academic and non-academic staff from other EU countries are employed by universities. A supply of native speaker language assistants is crucial to the quality of higher education provision in modern foreign languages—a subject that is increasingly strategically important to national needs as the UK looks to engage more closely with the rest of the world.
Of disciplines which have the largest proportion of academic staff from the EU, modern languages, with 35%, is second only to economics with 36%. This raises the crucial question of salaries and how these people will be affected by the Government’s new immigration regime when it is introduced in 2021. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 42% of all staff at universities earn less than £33,000 and 38% of academic staff earning below that figure are not UK nationals.
Analysis by the University and College Employers Association estimates that around 42% of technician roles in total fell below the tier 2 experienced worker threshold salary of £30,000 in 2016-17 and that the median basic pay of a language assistant in higher education is £26,000.
These figures lay bare the extent of the damage that the Government’s new immigration rules could have unless the arbitrary £30,000 threshold is lowered significantly. A supply of native speaker language assistants is crucial to the quality of higher education provision in modern foreign languages—a subject which is important to national needs as the UK looks to engage more closely with the rest of the world. Such native speakers inevitably come from outside the UK and are often on termtime-only contracts, which makes it even more likely that their salary will fall below the threshold as currently proposed.
The translation industry will also be forced to make some major changes to its recruitment process post EU. In the past, translation companies, many of which supply the public sector, have been able to take advantage of the mobility of workers between EU states to employ highly skilled staff from these countries. Freedom of movement is of particular importance to the language sector, as many services require their translation staff to be native speakers, which means that many current translators are not UK citizens. The result will be that the British language industry will have limited access to a skilled workforce. Despite the difficulties, those that do still wish to work here may well be deterred or prevented from doing so by the bureaucracy that will accompany visa and work permit applications.
In closing, I want to put some questions to the Minister. What is the position of EU nationals who want to come to the UK between 30 March 2019 and 1 January 2021? Are teachers of modern languages to be included in occupations that would qualify as tier 2 general visa applications? Otherwise, the salaries paid to newly qualified teachers will prove an insurmountable barrier. If they would not be regarded as being in suitable tier 2 general visa occupations, what will be the process for recruiting modern language teachers?
As in so much of the fraught debate around our departure from the European Union, it is a case of so many questions, so little time. I hope that the Minister will be able to answer at least some of them—but, if not, perhaps she will write to me.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, on securing this debate and thank all noble Lords who have spoken in what has been my second non-fractious debate of the week. It seems that your Lordships have again taken a very measured and thoughtful approach.
First, the Government are in no doubt of the extremely valuable and positive contribution that our close European neighbours and other international workers have made—and, I hope, will continue to make—to support and contribute to the well-being of this country. International workers have enriched communities, brought new perspectives, expertise and knowledge, stimulated growth and made us the tolerant, outward-looking nation that we are today. Of course, teachers play a very important role in this by inspiring our young people and preparing them for the future—as do public service interpreters, as noble Lords mentioned, who ensure that otherwise vulnerable members of this society are able to access services. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, mentioned the courts, which are a very good example of that.
In the post-Brexit landscape, we recognise that the focus on languages will naturally increase rather than lessen. We are clear that all children, regardless of background, should have a broad and balanced education that prepares them for adult life and success in the modern economy. Noble Lords have shared their examples of the various deficiencies in their multilingual abilities. My language skills amount to poor French and poor Italian, whereas my brother’s children, at the age of two, speak several languages and can change between them depending on who they are speaking to. I agree with the noble Lords, Lord Dykes and Lord Hannay, that we fall behind our European neighbours in our multilingual abilities. As they said, it is no good just shouting louder and hoping that they will understand us.
The Government are committed to ensuring that schools can recruit appropriately to fill their vacancies and that key front-line public services are supported by interpreters for all our diverse communities. We support organisations accessing the international talent they need through the immigration system, and we make special provision for certain occupations recognised as being in national shortage by the independent Migration Advisory Committee. In 2016, as noble Lords will know, the Government commissioned the MAC to undertake a review of the shortage occupation list to assess all teaching professionals in primary and secondary education, with a view to concluding whether they ought to be recognised on the list.
In 2017 the MAC published its findings. It identified that there was a case for modern foreign language teachers to be recognised as a shortage. However, it found no evidence to indicate that most foreign language teachers were recruited from outside the EU. Given that the immigration system currently applies only to non-EU nationals, the MAC considered, and the Government agreed, that it would not be sensible for most modern foreign language teaching occupations to be included on the shortage occupation list. However, the MAC considered that there was a clear case for Mandarin teachers to be added to the list, given the upward pressure on demand for Mandarin in schools—and they were duly added. Mandarin teachers also receive an exemption from the usual salary thresholds for tier 2, meaning that experienced Mandarin teachers can be recruited earning a salary of £20,800 instead of the usual £30,000.
The Government recognise that two years have gone by since that last review. We want to make sure that our immigration system keeps pace with the rate and scale of changes in the labour market. That is why last June we commissioned the MAC to undertake a review of the shortage occupation list. This time we asked it to look at the entire composition of the list, which comprises occupations across the economy; noble Lords mentioned various occupations, which I will include. The review is currently under way. The call for evidence, which I understand has elicited many responses, closed only last week. It is right that the Government await the outcome of that review before making any changes to the list. The review, which is intended to report in the spring, will include full consideration of modern foreign language teaching occupations within its scope. I am sure that the MAC will take due account of the fact that we are considerably closer to the UK’s departure from the EU and will be moving to a single immigration system in which EU citizens no longer receive automatic preference.
As noble Lords pointed out, on 19 December 2018 the Government published a White Paper setting out our proposals for the United Kingdom’s future skills-based immigration system, which will be implemented after the UK’s exit from the EU, following the planned implementation period. As part of those proposals, we proposed a new route for skilled workers. In line with the MAC recommendations, we will lower the current skills threshold to medium-skilled occupations at A-level and above; we will not cap this route and there will be no requirement for employers to carry out a resident labour market test for highly skilled roles. Teachers and public service interpreters, like other skilled occupations, will naturally benefit from these changes. To answer the question of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and a similar question from the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, although the MAC recommended a minimum salary threshold of £30,000 for skilled workers to enter via this route, the Government have been clear that we want to engage with business before taking final decisions on that.
As my right honourable friend the Immigration Minister said recently, this is the start of the conversation as opposed to the end. We have also been clear that businesses and organisations will need time to digest the proposals, which is why we have launched a year-long programme of engagement with a wide range of stakeholders across the UK. We are clear, however, that immigration must be considered alongside investment to improve the productivity and skills of the UK workforce, including innovation, automation and technology. Accordingly, we are working to grow a strong domestic pipeline of teachers and have a package of measures in place to support both the recruitment of trainees and retention. We have set aside funding to develop our domestic pipeline of modern foreign languages teachers, including offering scholarships and tax-free bursaries typically worth up to £26,000 for trainees in modern foreign language initial teacher training. We are complementing national initiatives by working in partnership with the Spanish Government to recruit visiting teachers from Spain through Spain’s visiting teachers programme to teach modern foreign languages in England.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Coussins and Lady Garden of Frognal, and the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, talked about wanting the Government to confirm that teachers, interpreters, et cetera, will not be screened out of the future immigration system through skill level or salary. I can confirm that language teachers, nurses and interpreters will meet the skills definition within the future immigration system. Posts on the shortage occupation list can benefit from this lower salary threshold, as I have said, and we will await the advice of the MAC on the composition of the list.
The noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, asked what plans the Government had to simplify the visa system and what advice we could give to EU citizens in the UK who had not previously needed visas. The immigration White Paper makes absolutely clear our intention to speed up and simplify the visa system through the greater use of technology. We have made it clear that we want EU citizens who are here already to stay. We have put in place a simple-to-operate settlement scheme, not a visa requirement, and this week we announced that they could use the scheme free of charge.
The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, asked about the operation of the EU directive on access to interpreters. I do not know the answer to that and I will have to write to her, because I am not sure whether that has been transposed into UK law. I shall respond to noble Lords in writing on any questions that I have not answered. I again thank all noble Lords for their commitment to this, in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and everyone who contributes to our world-leading institutions, whether they are schools, universities or the workplace.