Cuts threaten better services

19th January 2007 at 00:00

Axing English lessons for migrants could hit health and social care services, unions fear

EFFORTS TO improve public services could be derailed by cuts to adult English language teaching for migrants, unions have warned.

The Government is a large employer of migrant workers - in the health service, social care and school catering - who will lose the right to free English classes under reforms announced last year and which come into force in September, the public sector union Unison said.

It quoted, as an example, the NHS in London, where out of 600 people identified with training needs under the Government's reform programme for the service, 400 needed classes in English for speakers of other languages (Esol).

Christine Lewis, the Unison national officer, told delegates at a conference on Monday organised by the University and College Union to oppose the cuts.

"As far as the Government's concerned, they can't afford to meet the demand, so they are going to cut it," she said.

"The effect this will have on training programmes in the health service is obvious. There is an enormous amount of migrant labour in the residential care sector. But if you can't communicate with people, it's difficult to deliver effective and responsive care. Even improving school meals depends on Esol: many of the catering staff have English language needs."

The new rules mean only immigrants on benefits will receive free English classes. Those in work will have to pay, starting at pound;25 for 30 hours tuition. Esol teachers estimate that 80 per cent of students will be affected.

Adult asylum seekers will also be refused free tuition, although their children will continue to learn English, prompting concerns from children's charities that under-18s will have to deal with officials on their families' behalf.

The Department for Education and Skills says demand for English classes has tripled over five years and has become unsustainable.

Unions and other organisations involved in the campaign to save Esol teaching will be lobbying Parliament on February 28. More than 100 MPs had signed an early day motion calling on the Government to reinstate free provision.

Les Perkins, the Unison regional officer for London, said a private company providing cleaning, catering and portering services for the NHS with two-thirds of staff requiring English classes was not unusual in urban areas.

Under the Government's reforms of NHS staffing, appropriate training is a contractual right. Mr Perkins said it would cost tens of thousands of pounds for just a 30-hour course for each worker.

The NHS says trusts would ensure they had staff that were adequately trained for the job, which might mean helping to pay for training where private contractors could not afford English classes for their workers.

Mr Perkins also said he knew of two London authorities where 80-90 per cent of the staff working in street cleaning and refuse collection needed English classes.

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