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Interpretation Services (Ministry of Justice)

Volume 533: debated on Monday 10 October 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Bill Wiggin.)

I am delighted to have secured this end-of-day Adjournment debate on the proposed outsourcing of interpretation services by the Ministry of Justice. I wish that it had not been necessary and that the coalition Government had recognised the mistakes made by the previous Labour Government in not taking action to stop police forces around the country outsourcing interpreting services to agencies, which has resulted in a poorer level of service not only to defendants but to police forces and the criminal justice system around the country. This is not the first time that I have raised this issue in Parliament. Back in March 2009, I secured a Westminster Hall debate in response to the north-west police forces planning to outsource their interpreting services. Unfortunately, it fell on deaf ears; I hope that it will not do so this time.

I would like particularly to thank my constituent Marc Starr, who originally brought this issue to my attention, and Geoffrey Buckingham, the chairman of the Association of Police and Court Interpreters, for providing me with a lot of information for the debate, and to recognise colleagues who have contacted me about this issue, including my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), who is in his place.

A framework agreement to regulate the supply of police and court public service interpreters has been brokered by the Ministry of Justice. Its intentions are to endeavour to ensure that interpreting services to the judiciary and police are delivered to a high standard via qualified interpreters in a way intended to save about £18 million annually against the current £60 million budget. The Ministry of Justice has decided that the best way to do so is to let a contract to a single self-regulating commercial organisation that will book interpreters, individually or through agencies, to service the police and courts; determine a rate for the job; and monitor not only the quality of the interpreters’ work and need for further training and review, but its own performance. However, it is highly questionable whether this framework agreement and Applied Language Solutions, which is the agency that will provide interpreters, will be able to meet the Ministry of Justice’s requirements.

The plans introduce three tiers of interpreters, and the intention is to rank interpreters into one of three categories, with a rate of pay of £22 for tier 1, £20 for tier 2, and £16 for tier 3. Interpreters will be ranked according to their qualifications, but also subject to the agency’s own assessment, to which already fully qualified interpreters would be expected to subject themselves at their own personal cost. These rates of pay, along with severe restrictions on travel expenses and an end to travel-time payments, will result in interpreters refusing to sign up to the agency, or to take specific jobs, because of the low rates of pay. I have received evidence from one interpreter in Greater Manchester whose current net pay after travel expenses for a typical magistrates court job in Greater Manchester is £103.75 for anything up to a three-hour job, whereas under the proposed framework agreement it would be £10 for a one-hour job or £50 for a three-hour job, which equates to £4.44 per hour for one hour, rising to £11.76 per hour if the job lasts three hours.

Perhaps an even starker example is that of a Lithuanian-speaking interpreter who sometimes has to travel to Plymouth Crown court from Surrey because of a lack of qualified Lithuanian-speaking interpreters. Under the current agreement, they would receive £246.25 after travel costs for the 11.5-hour return trip. Under the new framework agreement, this would be minus £65.10 after travel costs. Does the Minister seriously think that that is acceptable, and does he really think that this will be an incentive to accept that particular job?

I assure my hon. Friend that the worries that he has outlined are shared by interpreters in Wales, whose concern is not so much the finance but the fact that the service is going to deteriorate because of the quality of interpreters who will work at these rates.

I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. That is a common issue that has been raised with me by interpreters around the country, in England and in Wales.

When one adds in the additional disincentives of no pension, holiday pay or sick pay, as well as no job security and no increase in interpreters’ rate of pay since 2007, it is unthinkable to assume that these proposed rates of pay and costs are suitable. It also seems perverse that the new framework agreement encourages the use of an interpreter’s car rather than public transport. Currently, standard-class fares are reimbursed in full, while the car mileage rate is 25p a mile. A higher rate of 45p a mile, which is more in line with the true cost of running a car per mile, along with parking costs, is payable only if the interpreter can show that there was no public transport option. However, under the new arrangements all calculations will be based on the use of a personal car and public transport costs will not be covered—not much of an incentive for interpreters to reduce their carbon emissions and travel on public transport.

One of the stated aims of the framework agreement is increasing the number of suitably qualified and vetted interpreters to meet the demand. There are currently around 2,300 interpreters registered with the national register of public service interpreters. Applied Language Solutions claims that 1,000 linguists have signed up to its Linguist Lounge recruitment website. That means a cut of around 1,300 qualified interpreters available to the courts system, assuming that all 1,000 are NRPSI-qualified. If they are not, the cut in qualified interpreters will be even greater. The failure of ALS to reach agreement with at least 1,300 qualified interpreters shows the level of opposition to the proposals, in spite of evidence to suggest that ALS has sought to pressurise interpreters into signing up, with thinly veiled threats that the registration is closing soon. Does the Minister think that that is appropriate behaviour for a company purporting to implement the legal interpreting and translation register, which surely must be consistently open to applicants as a public resource?

Does the Minister also think that closing the list when more than half the NRPSI-qualified interpreters have refused to sign up will increase the availability of suitably qualified and vetted interpreters? Of course it will not. We should look at the evidence from where outsourcing has already taken place and at its impact on the quality and availability of interpreters. The Ministry of Justice claimed on 6 July that “collaborative authorities” had

“concerns that NRPSI registration does not necessarily guarantee quality. The evidence for this is anecdotal, but has been consistent enough to warrant action.”

I would prefer to rely on hard evidence, and there is significant evidence that the outsourcing of interpreting services by police forces has resulted in the use of unqualified interpreters.

When Cheshire constabulary outsourced to ALS, only 34% of the interpreters provided by ALS were on the NRPSI. In Lincolnshire, outsourcing led to a reduction of registered interpreters from 68% to less than 30%. Where outsourcing has taken place there has been a significant reduction in the number of registered interpreters being used—clear evidence that the quality and availability of interpreters is reduced.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree with my constituent Svetlana Clark who is a member of the Chartered Institute of Linguists and a public service interpreter on the national register, that the potential cost to the judiciary of adjournments, mistrials, appeals and failed prosecutions as a result of inadequate interpreting cannot be overestimated and does not serve the interests of justice?

I do agree with the hon. Lady’s constituent. There is lots of evidence to suggest that where unqualified interpreters have been used there have been delays in police and court action, resulting in additional costs. I have been handed pages and pages of examples of unqualified interpreters being sent to police stations and courts by agencies, or interpreters proficient in the wrong language. One example that made it into Private Eye was ALS providing a Czech-speaking interpreter for a Slovak-speaking suspect. ALS’s explanation was that

“it is fair to say that most people from Slovakia essentially speak Czech.”

Is this really the sort of organisation that we want in charge of ensuring that justice is done?

Other questions have been raised about the suitability of ALS to fulfil the role. The Minister has already assured me that the Department’s procurement specialists were satisfied by the company’s stability and probity, but the fact remains that more than 50% of qualified interpreters do not and will not work for it. The company has been found to be in breach of the Data Protection Act 1998 on three occasions since 2007. Can the Minister assure me that potentially highly sensitive data are safe and that is it appropriate for them to be handled in non-UK call centres?

Finally, will the Minister explain why foreign-language-speaking interpreters are being treated differently from British sign language interpreters, who will retain their existing terms and conditions? Surely that contravenes sections 13 and 19 of the Equality Act 2010, by providing less favourable terms to foreign-language interpreters? The Ministry of Justice also intends effectively to re-test foreign-language interpreters, but not British sign language interpreters. Surely it is a contradiction that the Ministry accepts BSL qualifications as valid but rejects foreign-language interpreters, even though they have the same level of accredited qualification.

These proposals have not been properly thought through. The MOJ has failed to look at the evidence from outsourcing, and failed to treat all interpreters equitably. I hope that it is not too late for the Government to take a step back and review this decision. If they cannot do that, I would at the very least strongly urge the Minister closely to monitor the performance of the service, paying close attention to the delays and additional costs that will undoubtedly occur when cases are delayed as a result of a lack of an available interpreter, or when mistakes are made when under-qualified interpreters are used.

I should like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech) for raising the important issue of the outsourcing of interpretation services by the Ministry of Justice. I want to raise the case of a local company, Sign Solutions, which is based in my constituency and which specialises in interpretation services for British sign language. It was formed in 1998, following the retrial of the case of R v. Smith, Smith and Sams. This murder trial had been running in the Old Bailey for seven weeks using an unskilled, unqualified BSL interpreter. The interpreter errors eventually became so great that the judge had to stop the trial.

My constituent Sean Nicholson and his friend Gloria Ogborn were interpreters of known expertise, and they were approached by the Ministry of Justice to undertake the retrial. Their company, Sign Solutions, went on successfully to tender for civil and family court work for more than 10 years. Since then, it has helped to streamline interpreting services, and introduced cost savings by reducing the number of interpreters booked for cancelled hearings and supplying the right number of interpreters for each case. It has also suggested cost-saving ideas to the MOJ, such as using a web-based video system that could cut pricing by up to 50% without compromising quality. Sign Solutions is an award-winning national vocational qualification centre that offers post-qualification training in police and court work. It employs apprentices who are training to become the next generation of BSL legal interpreters. Its services encompass all languages and telephone interpreting, in order to be able to compete for one-service tenders.

During the recent MOJ tender process, Sign Solutions was rejected on the basis of having insufficient turnover, despite being one of the most experienced BSL court interpreters in the country, with more than 12 qualified interpreters in house, four of whom have more than 20 years of legal experience each. Small and medium-sized enterprises such as Sign Solutions are just the kind of business that this Government are committed to supporting, so may I ask the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice to look carefully at the MOJ procurement process, to see how a more level playing field could be created so that companies such as Sign Solutions have a better chance of winning Government business?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech) on securing this debate. I understand his concerns, and this debate gives me a welcome opportunity to address them. There are two points I would like to clarify before turning to his key concerns. The first is that the Government’s reforms do not limit in any way the circumstances in which relevant parties to proceedings are entitled to the services of an interpreter. An interpreter is made available as soon as practicable once an apparent need is identified, irrespective of the language involved. That will not change.

Secondly, I believe that we need to take care in our use of the word “outsourcing”, which has characterised this debate. I am referring not only to this Adjournment debate, but to the wider debate taking place on this matter outside the House. Interpretation and translation services are not currently provided in house; they have always been outsourced. The difference is that, in future, the Government will be outsourcing to a single supplier rather than to individual freelance interpreters and translators.

There is no doubt that, at a time when we are striving to make savings across all public services, there is an opportunity to make savings in this area. Currently, the annual spend on these services is in the region of £60 million across the justice sector, so it is by no means insignificant. We estimate that moving over to the framework agreement will result in savings of at least £18 million a year—significant savings.

The decision to move to a single supplier is not a snap decision. Officials in the Ministry of Justice have conducted a lengthy, thorough and robust procurement process, as required by EU law, engaging with a range of bidders to ensure that we get the best possible service for the best possible price. The single supplier with which we have signed a framework agreement is Applied Language Solutions. ALS will provide a single point of contact, available to staff 24 hours a day, seven days a week, through which the provision of face-to-face interpreting, telephone interpreting, written translation and language services for the deaf and deaf-blind can be obtained.

Under the framework agreement, the Ministry of Justice will sign a contract on behalf of MOJ central functions, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service and the Prison Service. Other organisations—for example, individual police forces and the Crown Prosecution Service—can also sign contracts with ALS, but the MOJ cannot mandate this. It is important to be clear that a wide range of justice organisations support the need to make these changes.

The changes will primarily affect England and Wales. However, it will be open to justice organisations in Scotland and Northern Ireland to sign contracts under the framework, although the Scottish Court Service already has its own contract with a commercial supplier.

The Minister has said that the tendering process is robust. Will he assure us for the record that he is clear that what he is doing in the single tendering to ALS will conform to the directive on the right of interpretation in criminal proceedings?

My understanding is that it does.

Some of our stakeholders—primarily interpreters and their representative organisations—oppose the new model. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington has eloquently set out some of their concerns. They suggest that our proposals will reduce the quality of interpreters and translators working in the justice sector to the detriment of justice itself. Interpreters have suggested that there will be breaches of articles 5 and 6 of the European convention on human rights with, for example, suspects spending longer in custody, collapsed trials and miscarriages of justice. I do not accept that these are valid claims.

Let us first remember that the current system does not meet our needs. We already have the unacceptable position that approximately 400 magistrates court trials and a number of considerably more expensive Crown court trials cannot go ahead as listed because the interpreter does not attend court.

Let us consider the following scenario. A member of court staff receives notification that a defendant due to appear in court for a pre-trial hearing the following Monday morning requires an interpreter. That member of staff accesses the register and starts to make phone calls. Interpreter 1 is not available. Interpreter 2, despite repeated call-backs, cannot be contacted. Interpreter 3, who lives some considerable distance away, is available and takes the booking. At around the same time, the Crown Prosecution Service needs to book an interpreter in the same language for a prosecution witness due to give evidence in a trial. The witness is due to give evidence on Monday afternoon. The interpreter originally booked has pulled out. The CPS accesses the register and starts to make phone calls. Interpreter 1 is not available; interpreter 2 answers the phone and accepts the booking. After 20 minutes of phone calls, we now have two interpreters in the same language travelling to the same court building on the same day. Under the current arrangements, we would pay each of them a payment equivalent to a minimum of three hours work and possibly travel time on top of that.

Does the Minister accept, though, that where services have been outsourced to an agency to arrange interpreters rather than directly to the registered interpreters, there have been more rather than fewer problems?

I do not accept that the problems my hon. Friend describes will characterise the new service we are setting out under the framework agreement. The difference with our new framework agreement is that the court staff and the CPS each make a single phone call or send a single e-mail to ALS. ALS then not only contacts the interpreters, but its infrastructure means that it knows about the two jobs and can ensure that one interpreter is used for both jobs—saving on costs for the justice sector and providing a more worthwhile piece of work for the interpreter who is booked.

Ensuring that interpretation and translation are of the appropriate quality and widening the available pool of interpreters are fundamental elements of this reform and have always been so, and the Government believe that they will be delivered. The framework agreement is clear about the quality standards that are expected. It requires detailed and meaningful management information and comprehensive key performance indicators, and it will be properly managed. In addition, all interpreters and translators will be required to abide by a comprehensive code of conduct, which emphasises that they should accept only assignments that they are competent to undertake.

Clearly, in any system for the provision of such services there will be exceptional cases in which it is not easy, or always possible, to find a person with the specified qualification requirements within the time scale sought. That happens under the present arrangements, and—we must be realistic—we cannot rule it out entirely under the new arrangements. Such cases are currently managed as well as possible on the ground by the police and courts as appropriate, and that will continue. The new arrangements will help to mitigate the problems with a tiered approach, and, perhaps most crucially, with objectives to promote the recruitment and training of new interpreters, particularly in certain areas of the court or in certain languages.

Our proposals constitute a reasonable and sensible response to the need to improve efficiency in our spending on interpreters, drive up standards and reduce burdens on the justice system, while ensuring that we maintain quality standards. We believe that when, for example, a defendant or witness needs an interpreter, he or she should be entitled to one. We do not want police officers, court staff and other workers to spend time telephoning and booking interpreters. We do not believe it is acceptable that the taxpayer can pay hundreds of pounds in fees and travel expenses to an interpreter who will deal with a 10-minute traffic hearing in a magistrates court which results in a fine of less than £100. We want interpreters to spend more time interpreting than travelling, and we believe that positive benefits will result from the introduction of more competition.

We have considered carefully what interpreters have told us. What they have said has influenced this project, and has, I believe, resulted in a more robust model. The fact that we have decided to adopt a framework agreement that is opposed by some interpreters does not negate that consultation. The alternative models that they suggested would clearly have led to some savings—we acknowledge that—but they did not meet all the objectives that we sought, and did not offer us the controls that we needed. As I said earlier, we were looking for the best possible service at the best possible price. The Government are satisfied that the framework agreement will ensure that the justice sector continues to have access to quality language services, while ensuring the provision of value for money on behalf of the public.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of the pay that interpreters will receive under the new arrangements. We have always been aware of the claims by interpreters that lower pay will cause them to seek alternative work. As a result, bidders involved in the procurement process were tested to ensure that rates of pay would be sufficient to attract and retain linguists with the appropriate quality standards. ALS has now published the rates that it will pay interpreters. We know that making that information available has not eased the concerns of some foreign language interpreters. We have seen calculations by interpreters which suggest that revised terms and conditions would lead to a reduction of between 40% and 60% in remuneration, and would drive them from the profession. However, the situation is not as simple as those calculations suggest.

It is not possible at this stage to produce a detailed analysis of how individual interpreters will be affected, because the whole model is being changed, not just the hourly rate, but we believe that the improved technology available to ALS will enable interpreters to be given work in a more efficient and co-ordinated manner. For instance, an interpreter may be given a series of assignments on the same day and in the same general location. We also know that a large number of interpreters have registered with ALS. Ultimately, the framework agreement offers the opportunity to any linguist, irrespective of race or other protected characteristic, to perform services for the justice sector if appropriately qualified.

My hon. Friend also expressed concerns about the company, and concerns have been expressed by others about the competitive process. During a dialogue that was robust and rigorous, ALS satisfied the procurement specialists at the Ministry of Justice of its financial stability and probity. Failure to satisfy officials in that regard would have resulted in its elimination from the process. I am satisfied that my officials took all the necessary steps to ensure the financial probity of ALS such that the framework agreement was properly awarded to that company. My officials were aware of the criticism that had been made by some interpreters of ALS. The selection of questions and criteria used for the procurement process was influenced by the issues that had been raised. In particular, the process focused on relationships with interpreters, market rates and quality issues. This process was applied equally to all bidders, including ALS, in line with procurement law principles.

This is nothing new. Many goods and services are provided successfully across the justice sector by commercial entities, and in many cases this ensures a continued improvement in quality and standards. Opportunity for, and creation of, profit can be a useful tool in establishing greater quality standards. We are not creating a monopoly. The UK market for language services is worth about £940 million annually and the justice sector currently represents about 7% of that market.

My hon. Friend also asked why language services professionals for the deaf and deaf-blind are treated differently from foreign language interpreters. While there are differences in the detail and operation of the frameworks for foreign language interpretation and language services for the deaf and deaf-blind in tiering and assessment, we do not accept the suggestion that this constitutes unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. Ultimately, the framework agreement offers the opportunity to any linguist to perform services for the justice sector, if appropriately qualified.

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s concerns about these issues, but I hope I have gone at least some way to allaying his concerns about the way in which this framework agreement will operate, in particular by emphasising not only the importance of ensuring quality in relation to interpretation services, but the significant savings that can be made in this sector of the justice system.

The public finances are under great pressure. We have to deal with the deficit, so we have to make savings in the criminal justice system, where costs have risen very substantially over recent years. This is one way in which we can make those significant savings. We cannot dismiss an £18 million a year saving in this sector. That is a substantial sum, which is why we think it is important to maintain our commitment in this regard.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.