Benefits staff in 'English only' row

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) is being asked to investigate alleged illegal discrimination against London civil servants from Asian backgrounds who have been told to address colleagues only in English.

Staff at the Benefits Agency offices at Harrow and Uxbridge who are employed for their translation skills are being reprimanded if they address each other in Urdu, Gujarati or Punjabi. They are told speaking in a foreign language destroys 'good team spirit.

Officials from the Civil and Public Servants Association say Asian workers feel intimidated by the policy, and suspect it could be used to harm their promotion prospects. The union is referring the case of one woman who received a written warning to the CRE.

A letter circulated among senior Benefits Agency officers from John Jackson, deputy manager at Harrow, says staff may talk in a language other than English when dealing with clients, on the telephone, in the canteen, or when otherwise away from their section.

All other conversations in the office should be conducted in English, he states. Transgressors should be told that their actions 'could cause ill-feeling because colleagues who are unable to understand a conversation may consider there may be an ulterior motive in excluding them from it.

Mr Jackson adds that failure to respond would lead to the matter being discussed at staff reviews, with people being warned that their behaviour can be noted in their appraisal report.

Since the policy was introduced in April, a number of workers have complained to the West London branch of the CPSA. Secretary Chris Ford believes the ruling constitutes a clear breach of race relations legislation, as well as the Benefits Agency's equal opportunities commitment.

'I am consulting a lawyer prior to raising this with the chief executive of the Benefits Agency. I will make a submission that this is racial discrimination because it's official policy, said Mr Ford.' I cannot understand what they were thinking of; it appears they think they can get away with anything. A lot of the workers this is aimed at are women who are part-time and often not in the union.

'The Benefits Agency promotes its translation services and yet forces everyone to talk in English. It's not exactly equal opportunities.

A spokeswoman for the Benefits Agency declined to comment on the situation in West London. 'As a customer service organisation we expect staff to operate within effective teams, she said. 'Inevitably, this means that any staff unable or unwilling to communicate effectively with other members of the team may be less effective within the team.

'There is no suggestion that speaking in languages other than English will necessarily have a negative impact on their assessment of performance. There is no question of disciplinary action being taken.