The contract to supply court interpreters to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is facing its toughest test yet today, as hundreds take to the streets of London to protest. Meanwhile, the story has finally received the attention of the national press, and discussions in parliament are underway to address the issues.
Members of the Professional Interpreters Alliance (PIA) and many others are angry that the MoJ chose to outsource all interpreting assignments to one firm, the Manchester based translation agency Applied Language Solutions (ALS). They believe that ALS is mismanaging the contract, cutting interpreter pay and hiring unqualified staff. But is this true? And if so, is the outsourcing model inherently flawed? Let’s look at the facts.
Last year, the MoJ agreed a deal with ALS to provide all court interpreters through one firm. The contract was thought to be worth around £300m, but the MoJ claimed that savings were estimated to be up to £18m a year. As part of the contract, all interpreters were forced to sign up with a new national database on a website called Linguist Lounge, scrapping the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI). The new system was initially trialled in Manchester, and despite significant problems resulting in Greater Manchester Police ripping up the contract, the system remained on course to be rolled out nationwide.
Before the five year contract had even officially begun on 1 February, thousands of professional interpreters had decided that they would not work for ALS under the current conditions. This is because the new pay model stipulates that the highest fee an interpreter can earn is £22 per hour, with some being paid as little as £16 per hour. In addition, travel expenses would no longer be covered. When compared with previous earnings, a flat rate fee of £85 plus a quarterly rate after three hours with expenses included, it resulted in a 60-80 per cent pay cut for nearly all qualified interpreters.
Around 60% of the 2,300 people on the NRPSI boycotted the contract, and two weeks in, ALS admitted that it was struggling to meet requirements. They confessed that, in some cases, tribunal hearings had to be cancelled or postponed because they were unable to find interpreters. On rare occasions, foreign suspects had to be released without questioning as interpreters were not available. A spokesperson for ALS said: Unfortunately that has been true in some cases which is something that we are working extremely hard to resolve.
Mirela Watson, an interpreter with 15 years experience, witnessed this with her own eyes. She told The Guardian: “ALS is supplying a lot of unqualified, unvetted interpreters – myself and my colleagues have been visiting the courts randomly to monitor ALS’s work and the standard is absolutely unacceptable, it could lead to a serious miscarriage of justice.” Many others observed that ALS were hiring unqualified interpreters, and the process by which interpreters are vetted was shown to be fundamentally flawed after an interpreter registered her pet rabbit on the Linguist Lounge website.
At this point, the private contract was put on hiatus, and as a temporary measure, the MoJ instructed all courts and tribunals to find interpreters from other sources in urgent cases. An internal email seen by The Guardian said: We have decided that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service [HMCTS] must take urgent action to mitigate the number of hearings that are failing as a result of the contractor’s difficulties with sourcing interpreters at short notice.
With immediate effect HMCTS will revert to the previous arrangements for all bookings due within 24 hours at the magistrates’ courts we will revert to previous arrangements for urgent bookings required for bail applications, deports and fast track applications in the first tier tribunal immigration and asylum and urgent bookings in the asylum support tribunal.
The email went on to say: We understand that some staff and judiciary have sympathy with existing interpreters. We must however do all we can to encourage sign-up to the new arrangements the new contract has the potential to bring significant benefits to both interpreters and the justice system as a whole.
A number of MPs began to express their concerns with the contract. Sadiq Khan, the shadow justice secretary, reiterated initial worries about the consequences of hiring all court interpreters through one firm when he wrote to the justice minister Kenneth Clarke in February. He said: Ensuring value for money in delivery of translation and interpretation services is clearly important, he said, but this must not be to the detriment of the quality of the service in such a critical area of justice.
Labour’s justice spokesman Andy Slaughter agreed, and slammed the MoJ for awarding the contract in the face of clear warnings and opposition from the interpreter community and that hard-pressed taxpayers will have to foot the bill not only of delayed and abandoned court hearings, but of unnecessary remands into custody, appeals and judicial reviews.
He added: There is a genuine risk of miscarriages of justice because of inadequate or unsuitable interpreting and translation services, and breaches of the right to a fair hearing under the Human Rights Act.
In the past week, problems have worsened for ALS after they were landed with several wasted costs orders from Sharma Law Solicitors in London, who have experienced a number of instances where hearings have been repeatedly adjourned due to absent interpreters. One order has already been granted by the Magistrates Courts, and another is currently pending approval. Each adjourned hearing costs around £300, and solicitors like Sharma do not receive any payment or compensation.
When confronted about the issues, the MoJ would only acknowledge that they were working with ALS to resolve the problems: The Ministry of Justice is working with Applied Language Solutions to closely monitor the operation of the new contract.
The government is determined to ensure that taxpayers get value for money across the whole of the justice system. This new contract will save at least £18m a year on the cost of interpretation and translation, a reduction of almost a third, but will ensure that high quality interpreters and translators are still available to those in need.
Recently, ALS has sought to rectify some of the problems by offering a cash incentive to interpreters who recommend a friend, and CEO Gavin Wheeldon came out to declare that interpreters would be paid for court waiting time and that the allowance for mileage had been doubled, from 20p per mile to 40p for any travel over 10 miles each way. He also confirmed that ALS does offer interpreters £10 an hour for commuting after the first hour of travel each way. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Justice minister Crispin Blunt agreed that the contract had suffered problems, but accused the old system as so inefficient and so decrepit that the MoJ was forced to find a better solution. He reaffirmed his faith in ALS and holding company Capita, and expressed his belief that they were rapidly improving the delivery of the new arrangements.
As a language services provider, Transcription Global understands the benefits and the challenges of the outsourcing model. We work with plenty of large clients that outsource interpreting or translation services to us on a regular basis, and although it’s a difficult balancing act, it is possible to reduce costs and improve service provision. But ALS has not gone about things in the right way. They made their first mistake when they failed to maintain communication with the NRPSI, and even after things had started to go downhill, they should have come out and addressed the PIA’s issues sooner. Rule number one: always value your staff. We have spoken to many interpreters throughout this whole fiasco, and by listening to them, we have managed to gather a more objective view of the situation. ALS should have done the same.
Outsourcing offers most businesses greater flexibility and control, and in the private sector, this allows them to increase profit margins. In the public sector, and on such a large scale, we would never advise the government to outsource all work to one company, as regardless of the company’s size or success, they would never possess the capacity to manage such a large contract. Although the MoJ’s cost-cutting motivations were sincere, it just wasn’t possible to save £18m a year without impacting on quality. Trying to convert a system that allowed courts to hire their own interpreters, working on a freelance basis for a rate that is justified and reflective of their profession, into a system that forces all courts to wait for interpreters to be allocated, unqualified interpreters being paid the same as highly qualified interpreters suffering a 60-80 per cent pay cut, was just never going to work.
Ryan Owen Gibson is the Online Marketing Manager for Transcription Global, who are a leading transcription and translation services provider based in the UK.