Later today Ed Miliband is going to talk about integration. He may say a lot of sensible things but what is making the headlines is that public sector workers should speak fluent English. The trouble here is a definition of fluent because speaking easily and accurately is often difficult to assess and we don't have pass or fails when we speak with others. I can get my points across in French. You may think that makes me fluent but others may not. There are many words in French that I cannot translate. Conversely there are many words in English that I don't understand.
It would not be difficult to trip up anyone regarding their command of English. The main problem is not a definition of ease and accuracy, and we are all on a sliding scale of ability, but how the general public feel about immigration. The first reaction will not be whether you have a stutter or whether you have a wide enough vocabulary to deal with the public. It will be that foreigners are coming here, they can't speak English and they are taking our jobs. If this is Ed's intention then he has succeeded. The trouble is that these 'foreigners' may well speak a better standard of English than many who are born in this country.
Everyone will have a story where they have had trouble communicating with someone whose first language was not English. Ed is tapping into this difficulty and may well win votes. He won't improve racial tensions.
The answer is firstly to treat people on merit and to ensure that people in a public sector role have all the essential skills for that role. The second answer is to treat people as you would wish to be treated. I was a physiotherapist for many years and if I had wanted to work in France then I would have to ensure that my language skills were good enough. I was not barred but if Ed had powers over Europe then he may well want to put a stop to my freedoms.
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