Plans to restrict ESOL to benefit claimants on a language course were yesterday slammed as "risky" with the Government being accused of "hypocrisy".
Minister of State for Employment and Welfare Reform, Jim Murphy, set out the Government's proposals, but was immediately faced with a growing backlash.
He said: "There has been a new prioritisation of learners for whom lack of language skills is a barrier to getting a job or to improving life chances. Free English provision is and will continue to be available to those in receipt of Jobseekers Allowance and other income related benefits, targeting support for our most disadvantaged client groups".
"I have asked Jobcentre Plus to put a much greater emphasis on helping people to address their language barriers. From April this year, in England, there will be new guidance on making sure we help people with very poor language skills start to tackle the problem, as part of the Jobseekers Agreement".
However, Roger Kline, Head of Equality and Employment Rights at the University and College Union (UCU), accused the Government of "utter hypocrisy", in light of tighter ESOL regulations.
He noted: "It is utter hypocrisy for the Government to watch waiting lists grow for English language courses and plan measures to make it tougher for people to get on a course, and now threaten to remove benefits from those who are not studying. If this is joined up thinking it is joined up like a plate of spaghetti".
"If the Government was getting anywhere near to satisfying demand for ESOL it could have a case for pressing any reluctant unemployed people to take courses, but there is not a shortage of willing students - there is a shortage of provision".
He added: "It's not rocket science: provide enough affordable courses and the thousands on the waiting lists will do them. In the meantime, cutting interpreting services would be irresponsible".
Senior Policy Officer at the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education (NIACE), Alastair Thomson, agreed with the Government's notion for teaching people English rather than paying for translation services, but noted the "bizarre" situation should the changes be put into effect.
"It would be premature if changes were to be introduced before there are enough properly-qualified teachers to meet the demand and bizarre if we start teaching people while they are unemployed but then do not have affordable courses for them to progress onto once they find work. We need to ensure that once people are in work they can carry on learning".
He urged greater co-ordination between Government departments and that its implications be considered "before moving too quickly".
Liberal Democrat Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, David Laws MP, said: "It makes sense to ensure that people seeking employment have the basic skills necessary to get jobs, including speaking the language. However, it is ironic that the Government is seeking to introduce this change at the same time as education ministers are cutting back on the provision of classes for those without English as a first language".
"What is happening here seems to be the perfect example of un-joined up government. If these changes are going to be introduced then there needs to be free or low cost language training available in a way that's not presently planned".
What do you think about the proposals?
Related FE News articles: