UKIP leader Nigel Farage caused a stir this month when he said doctors with inadequate English language skills should be given the boot. What he didn’t mention is that, in fact, there are many controls in place to ensure doctors and other healthcare professionals can speak English to an adequate standard. All doctors, even those from within the EU, became subject to language controls last year.
And the Department of Health has indicated this will soon be the case for pharmacists, as it set out a consultation in November on giving pharmacy and nursing regulators the same powers in the UK.
In a nutshell, the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) is already able to carry out language controls on non-European pharmacists who wish to practise in the UK. However, if a European pharmacist applies to register in the UK, the GPhC does not at present have powers to require evidence of the applicant’s knowledge of the English language prior to registration.
The consultation proposes allowing the GPhC to put in place language controls for European applicants and take fitness-to-practise action where concerns arise regarding English language skills for those already on the register.
The consultation closed on December 15 and the responses will be considered before setting the plans in stone. However, it seems likely that language controls will be tightened, given that the GPhC has voiced its support. It is anticipated the proposed new restrictions will broadly mirror those introduced for European doctors last year.
What would the proposals mean?
Essentially, any language controls introduced by the GPhC would have to be fair and proportionate. Therefore, they could not introduce automatic testing for all European registration applicants, as this would impair the free movement of healthcare professionals within the EU. Furthermore, any controls to test for English language competency must not take place until the applicant’s qualifications have been recognised by the regulatory body.
It is also proposed that there will be a new category of impaired fitness-to-practise based on English language competency concerns. Interestingly, it is proposed that this new provision will apply to all professionals regardless of nationality, place of qualification or whether they were required to provide evidence of English language skills before registration.
What will EU pharmacists have to do to register in the UK?
It is proposed that there will be two distinct steps: qualification stage and registration stage, which will include some form of language control. At the qualification stage, applicants will have the option, but not be required, to supply evidence of English language knowledge with their application for registration. The registrar will then assess this information and, if sufficient, the applicant’s qualification will be recognised. It is proposed that the registrar would send a letter to the applicant recognising their entitlement to registration, subject to meeting other registration requirements.
The applicant’s language knowledge would then be examined and, if further evidence is required, it will be requested at that point. This may include a number of opportunities to sit an English language test which, if failed, may result in rejection of the application, albeit with a right of appeal.
The proposed changes also include a definition of “necessary knowledge of English”. This is intended to follow the definition already contained in the Pharmacy Order 2010 s.2(4), which states the pharmacist must have an adequate standard of proficiency in the knowledge and use of English.
The GPhC will also be required to publish guidance, which the registrar is obliged to regard when considering applications. The three- or four-month period during which a registration application must be determined – depending on whether it is an automatic recognition or general system application – will be suspended during the time that the English language knowledge investigation is undertaken. The GPhC is currently able to charge a fee for the examination of applications for registration from applicants from certain nations.
How will fitness-to-practise controls be used?
A new ground for impaired fitness to practise is proposed to deal with any allegations of inadequate English language ability. These cases will be referred to a professional performance committee and dealt with in the same way as other deficient professional performance cases.
During this process, the GPhC will have the power to direct a registrant to undertake an assessment of their knowledge of English in order to decide whether fitness-to-practise proceedings are necessary.
When considering an application for restoration to the register of a pharmacist whose name was erased on the grounds that it was fraudulently procured, English language assessments may also be directed.
It is clear that far-reaching changes are afoot. When these changes will become a reality is hard to say. The Health Care and Associated Professions (Knowledge of English) Order 2015 has been drafted and it is anticipated that it will be introduced later this year, although the forthcoming general election may delay progress slightly.
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Specialist healthcare law firm Hempsons is offering 10 minutes of free advice to pharmacists in need of legal advice or clarification. Call 020 7839 0278 and ask for the Pharmacy Advice Line