Companies should pay for immigrant workers to learn English, Hazel Blears said yesterday.
Language skills have been made a central plank of the Government’s immigration policy, with anyone intending to stay more than a short time expected to learn English.
But there is a big demand on the present £300 million budget for teaching English as a second language, Miss Blears said.
“I feel quite strongly that employers should be taking a significantly bigger role in helping to fund some of the essential English language classes,” she said.
“The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills [DIUS] are very keen to say to employers: ‘Look, you are getting the benefit of some of these people coming in and doing the jobs, working hard, making you more productive; you have got a responsibility to make a contribution to the costs of learning English and to do much more of it on site, in a more flexible way’.
“I think that’s the way forward.”
Asked if companies could be made to pay, she said: “DIUS are currently in dialogue with employers and they hope they will get a positive response. I don’t think they have ruled out the possibility of legislation if absolutely necessary.”
Employers’ groups said they would “strongly oppose” plans to force companies to pay for language training.
Susan Anderson, the director of HR policy at the CBI, said: “Forcing firms to pay for language lessons for migrant workers would be strongly opposed as this would not recognise employers’ individual circumstances and would not necessarily be the best use of their resources.
“Migrant workers have brought many benefits to the UK and employers are committed to helping them integrate and thrive in the workplace. Many employers help with the costs of English classes and see the advantages of doing so, particularly on morale, staff turnover and productivity.”
Sally Low, the director of policy at the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “Legislation that forces businesses to fund migrants’ language lessons seems extremely unfair.
“Migrants have protected the economy from the more damaging effects of a skills shortage and the majority of businesses have only used them because of the inherent failings of the UK’s education system.”
• Governors at a secondary school in Peterborough that has had a rapid influx of Polish children are facing the sack for failing to protect the pupils from bullying.
St John Fisher Roman Catholic School has been issued with a formal warning by Peterborough city council after complaints from parents.
Just over half the school’s 730 pupils are from an ethnic minority, including 40 from Polish families.
They have suffered physical assaults, verbal abuse and intimidation, the council’s education department said. The Education and Inspections Act 2006 gives the council a range of powers including sacking the governors, unless action is taken.
The council also believes a police presence is necessary at the school.
Education leaders said yesterday that they had tried without success to get the governors to improve the situation since last November.
St John Fisher declined to comment yesterday, while the Diocese said it hoped the school would respond.