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We all know that employers are under a duty not to discriminate unlawfully. Discrimination can take the following forms:

  • direct discrimination – treating someone with a protected characteristic (gender, age, race, nationality etc) less favourably than others; or
  • indirect discrimination – putting rules or arrangements in place that apply to everyone, but that put someone with a protected characteristic at an unfair disadvantage

If you have an under represented group in your workforce you can take positive action to encourage people with different protected characteristics to apply for jobs. This is different to positively discrimination which is unlawful in the UK i.e. selecting someone because of their protected characteristic. Positive action can be used where an employer reasonably thinks that:

  • people who share a protected characteristic suffer a disadvantage connected to that characteristic
  • people who share a protected characteristic have needs that are different from the needs of people who do not share it, or
  • participation in an activity by people who share a protected characteristic is disproportionately low.

The Metropolitan Police recently started an experimental recruitment campaign to increase the number of police constables able to speak and understand some of the languages used across London, causing some comments that they are discriminating against English speakers in consequence. Are they?

For many years a largely white, male, UK national establishment, the Police have been making sustained efforts to attract and recruit a far more diverse workforce. Positive action has definitely been taken there – I have seen adverts for police offices in a number of women’s magazines over the years. This recruitment tactic is used to generate more applications from an under-represented group in conjunction with all the usual recruitment processes, ensuring a wide trawl.

But this campaign isn’t about positive discrimination. It’s about recruiting officers who meet 21st century policing needs. Policing has changed enormously in the last 30 years because the world that it polices has changed too. Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, said: “We know that almost 300 languages are spoken in the capital. We need to recruit and deploy officers with second languages in areas where those languages are spoken.”

Immigration for Recruiters: Right to Work in the UKIt’s fairly clear that the Dixon of Dock Green officer type would be hopelessly out of his (almost certainly a man) depth in parts of London these days and would be unable to meet current policing requirements. That being the case, it may well be justifiable to add a requirement for an additional language to be spoken in metropolitan areas where many different nationalities tend to congregate.

Having this criterion will make getting a job in the Met for people who only speak one language and the question will be whether this requirement is a proportionate way of achieving a legitimate aim.

The Met’s pilot scheme requires all new candidates to be able to speak one of 14 languages commonly used in London to conversational level, in addition to English. This is in addition to meeting the rest of the eligibility criteria. The languages listed are as follows:

  • Yoruba (Nigeria)
  • Hebrew
  • Arabic
  • Hindi
  • Punjabi
  • Italian
  • German
  • Turkish
  • Greek
  • Spanish
  • Polish
  • Portuguese
  • Sinhali (Sri Lanka)
  • Bengali


The candidates’ language proficiency, both written and spoken, will be tested after applications have been sifted, but before the first interview stage. At the end of the one-month pilot, the campaign will be reviewed.

The move follows last year’s introduction of residency criterion, which requires all candidates to have lived within the Metropolitan Police Service area for at least three of the past six years. The aim is to ensure candidates have a strong understanding of the capital’s diversity and cultures.

After some of the policing disasters of the last 20-30 years, it’s clear that police officers have to be representative of, understand and be able to communicate with the public they’re serving. Bernard Hogan-Howe believes it will help boost confidence, help solve crime more effectively and support victims and witnesses.

It’s an interesting idea. I suspect that if the process is adopted, the Met may very well have to have preparatory language training classes for potential English candidates to ensure they have the skills to be considered.