The government yesterday accused the Tories of propagating "fear and prejudice" with plans to subject all foreign doctors working in the NHS to a tough new English test.

The government yesterday accused the Tories of propagating "fear and prejudice" with plans to subject all foreign doctors working in the NHS to a tough new English test.

John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister, led the criticism after Liam Fox, shadow Health Secretary, suggested public safety was being put at risk by overseas doctors with inadequate language skills.

Dr Fox called for a stricter test to ensure foreign doctors could meet basic standards in spoken English. "You can go into almost hospital in the country and people will give you examples of where they have had difficulty in communication," he said. "Their English-language skills are not up to scratch and patients are suffering as a result. Correcting this is an issue of public safety."

More than a quarter of the 53,000 consultants and GPs in the NHS qualified overseas, but current tests on their English required only "minimum levels" of competence, he said. No language test is required for doctors registered within the European Union. The Tories also said an increasing number of complaints were being upheld by the General Medical Council against doctors who were first registered overseas.

Dr Fox said the Tories would introduce tougher tests, with remedial English for those who failed and tougher medical exams to test the professional skills of foreign applicants. They would also oblige all foreign applicants to declare if they have been found guilty of misconduct abroad.

The Liberal Democrats accused him of "thinly veiled racism" but Dr Fox denied any suggestion of pandering to prejudice. "In potential life-and-death situations, having a minimum standard of proficiency in English can be fatal. Offering remedial English classes is hardly racist."

But Mr Prescott said the Opposition was gearing up to fight the general election on such hardline issues. "[They] stand for everything the Tories normally do: fear, prejudice and not delivering," he told the BBC's World This Weekend.

John Hutton, health minister, said that Tories were seeking to hide their real agenda of cutting £16bn from public services and privatising the NHS.

"It is sad that the Conservatives have sunk to this kind of tactic. Today's attack by the Tories is a slur on the reputation of the vast majority of hard-working staff in the NHS," he said. "The Tories did not raise or address this issue in their 18 years in government. Labour have already taken action by introducing for the first time annual appraisals of doctors, so if there are communications difficulties between staff and patients, NHS trusts can sort them out locally."

Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrat health spokesman, said Dr Fox's comments were a "disgraceful and a slap in the face" for the many hard-working doctors who came from abroad. "First their attack on asylum-seekers, now this - the Tory party is getting nastier as it gets more desperate," he said.

The Department of Health said that it was for NHS trusts to ensure doctors had adequate English and that the new system of annual appraisals should show up any weaknesses in language.

An estimated 25 per cent of NHS doctors - around 13,000 GPs and consultants - qualified overseas. Among junior doctors the proportion from abroad has risen to 38 per cent.

Recent research for the University of Manchester indicated that 63 per cent of white patients believed that poor communications with overseas doctors could endanger their safety.