THE storm over whether foreign doctors should have to speak English reveals the truly frightening extent to which political correctness is distorting public policy. One would have thought that, in an area where lives are at stake, the question of whether foreigners might be offended would take second place to the effective treatment of ill people. But not a bit of it.
The row began when a survey indicated that the GMC was registering --and upholding -- a disproportionate number of complaints against foreign practitioners. Some of these complaints turned on the fact that overseas doctors were poorly qualified, others on their rudimentary grasp of English.
Faced with the evidence, the Tory health spokesman, Liam Fox, himself a former GP, came up with an eminently reasonable set of proposals aimed at raising standards. Dr Fox suggested that the background of foreign doctors should be checked (there have been horrendous cases involving physicians who had been struck off for malpractice in their home countries), and that their linguistic ability should be rigorously assessed.
One might have expected these ideas to be wholly uncontroversial. Indeed, it is astonishing that anyone should need to propose them. Yet Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians have been howling with rage, accusing Dr Fox of coded racism.
If there is racism here, it is actually Labour's. For Dr Fox's proposals would primarily have affected practitioners from the rest of the EU, who, under single market rules, are exempt from the linguistic tests that are applied to the nationals of other countries. Although Britain is required, under the European Treaties, to recognise the qualifications of European doctors, Dr Fox has pointed out that there is nothing to prevent individual employers from imposing an additional, linguistic, test on them.
Yet Labour jumped to the conclusion that any reference to foreigners must be to people who are not white. In fact, the problem is not with doctors of Commonwealth origin whose English is usually excellent, but with Europeans. It is a vivid illustration of how powerless we are before Brussels that we cannot subject EU nationals to the same tests that we impose on other foreign professionals.
So patient care must take second place, not only to conventional political correctness, but also to the new strain of Euro-correctness which is flourishing under this administration. Dr Fox has bravely refused to allow the Left to place this matter off limits. It is intolerable that a senior politician in a major democracy should be prevented from speaking out on his own 'portfolio. By breaking the taboo, Dr Fox has done us all a favour.
From The Daily Telegraph, London. 29 September, 2000