HL Deb 09 September 2003 vol 652 cc140-1

2.45 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the English language tests, required to be taken by foreign doctors intending to practise in the United Kingdom, are to be abolished.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Warner)

My Lords, we have no plans to change the legal requirement for a person to satisfy the General Medical Council that he has the necessary knowledge of English before he is allowed to practise here.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply. While foreign doctors are making valuable contributions in our health service, is it not very important to avoid any verbal misunderstandings that might endanger the lives of patients?

Lord Warner

My Lords, as I said, the GMC does not have any plans to make changes in this area. We all accept that it is essential to good patient care and relationships of trust that doctors have a high standard of language proficiency.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister is as baffled as I am by the report of the Sunday Telegraph on this matter. The GMC consultation document to which the report referred states that the GMC considers that: A high standard of language proficiency is essential for good communication". All the GMC is opening up is the question of whether those who have qualified in countries where English is a first language—namely, some of the Commonwealth countries and others—should be exempted from the international English language test which seems to us on these Benches to be perfectly sensible.

Lord Warner

My Lords, the noble Lord is exactly right, and I share his bafflement at the newspaper report.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, are EC nationals required to pass this test?

Noble Lords


Lord Warner

Wait for it, my Lords. EU doctors do not have to take English language tests through the GMC, but NHS employers must ensure that these doctors have English language competence to ensure that they can practise safely, and they may require them to undertake language assessments. The law was changed in this area by the previous government to stop infraction proceedings.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, am I not correct in recollecting that the law was changed by the previous government because of a European Union directive which required that it should be so and that the standards would be set by the profession, not by the employers?

Lord Warner

My Lords, as I understand it, the law was changed because the previous government were concerned about infraction proceedings being taken against them. We are, however, looking to see if case law makes it possible to reopen the issue.

Baroness Greengross

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, given the EU directive, it would be preferable if the department itself required that its employees could speak English to the required standards of the GMC?

Lord Warner

My Lords, there is a clear obligation on NHS employers to ensure that the doctors they employ can actually communicate satisfactorily with their patients. As I said, they can require these doctors to undertake an English language test.

Earl Howe

My Lords, can the Minister say when the Government are likely to reach a conclusion as to their scrutiny on recent case law?

Lord Warner

As quickly as possible, my Lords.