Brexit: Foreign Language Teaching and Public Service Interpreting - Question for Short Debate
– in the House of Lords at 7:42 pm on 23rd January 2019.
Baroness Coussins Crossbench
To ask Her Majesty’s Government how immigration policy post-Brexit will take account of the recruitment of European Union and other foreign nationals to jobs in teaching modern foreign languages and public service interpreting.
Baroness Coussins Crossbench
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?