Skip to main content

EU: Interpretation and Translation in Criminal Proceedings

Volume 738: debated on Monday 9 July 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they expect to be in compliance with European Council directive 2010/64/EU, on the right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings, by the agreed implementation date of 27 October 2013.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Linguists.

My Lords, the Government will take the steps necessary to ensure that the UK is compliant with the EU directive in good time for its implementation date.

My Lords, I understand that the company that the Government have, under the framework agreement, contracted to provide services to courts and the police is supplying performance data to the Government which suggest that it is doing a good job. However, these figures come without any independent verification or audit and tell a very different story from the complaints we hear daily from judges and others about the failure to supply interpreters, or the sending of unqualified people with no experience of simultaneous interpreting and some people who were simply incompetent—in one case not understanding the difference between murder and manslaughter. Does the Minister agree that the UK is at risk of expensive legal action over non-compliance with the directive, particularly Article 5 about the quality of the service, and that we should therefore review the framework agreement now?

No, my Lords, I do not think we are in danger of non-compliance. As I said in my Answer and, as the noble Baroness indicated, there are some months to go before the directive comes into play. In the mean time, the Ministry of Justice has a massive interest in making sure that Applied Language Solutions provides the quality and service for which it is contracted. We are making every effort to make sure that that happens.

Is the Minister aware of the extent of disruption and delay to criminal trials as a result of the serious inadequacies in court interpreting? Not only does it lead to considerable cost but concerns have been raised by judges across the country, particularly in London, Birmingham and Leeds.

My Lords, there have been individual complaints about performance and there was undoubtedly a very poor start to this contract. However, there have been improvements and we are talking about a system with some 800 requests a day for such interpretation. In the first quarter of its operation there were 26,000 requests in 142 languages. One has to get complaints and performance into perspective, although there is no doubt that a lot was left to be desired in the performance of the contract in its early stages.

Has the Minister revised the original estimate of a £12 million saving as a result of implementing the framework agreement because of all these additional costs? Have we not arrived at a situation that is no longer just succumbing to teething problems but is wholly poorly structured in the first place?

I do not agree with that. As I said, there were problems at the beginning of this contract but the performance has improved dramatically. I presume that the original estimate of a £12 million saving in this first year will probably not be achieved. That is common sense but this is not a solution for just this year. It is a long-term solution that we hope will, once it is bedded down, give the service and quality required.

No. However, there are a number of interpreters who speak more than one language. At the moment, there are about 1,500 interpreters under contract and they are equivalent to about 3,000 interpreter persons, which means that many of them speak two or more languages.

My Lords, will the noble Lord tell the House whether the nature, number and extent of complaints from the courts has gone up or down since the change was implemented? If it has, as we believe, gone up, what do the Government intend to do about it?

Has it gone up since the scheme was implemented? Yes, it has, because the scheme implements a single supplier that will pay interpreters less than they were being paid on an ad hoc basis. That combination of greater discipline in where and when interpreters are hired and at what fee is not likely to be welcome to the interpreting community. That I understand. But it was the previous Administration who initiated an inquiry into the efficiency and effectiveness of the old interpreter system. We have readily acknowledged that this new system has had teething problems, but there is no ministerial interest or MoJ interest in having questions such as this time and again about performance. The supplier has contracted to a high-quality performance, and we intend to keep it to that.

How is the performance of that supplier adequately monitored? Is there an independent monitoring system?

There is not an independent monitoring system—there is a client. We are the client, and we do not intend to pay good money for a shoddy service. As I have just said, as the client we brought this in because we intended to try to make substantial savings for the taxpayer on a system that we believed was slipshod and expensive in its running. When the new system gets bedded down, we hope that it will give high quality. The monitoring is done by the department concerned, the MoJ, and we intend to carry out our responsibilities to make sure that the taxpayer gets value for money.

My Lords, I understand my noble friend’s difficulties, about which he has been telling the House, with so many languages having to be covered. Will he tell us how many cases have had to be rescheduled because the right interpreters were not there, and whether that is being monitored by his department?

There has always been the problem of interpreters not being there, or the wrong interpreters being there. This is not something that has happened in the past 12 months. Indeed, one reason for bringing in a single supplier on a new contract with very precise contractual obligations was to try to remove that. I repeat that providing around 100,000 interpreters in 142 different languages is something of which our justice system should be rather proud. However, once you operate on that scale across that range of expertise, there will be mistakes, hiccups, wrong directions and wrong turn-ups. On the whole, we expect the contract to produce at least 98% performance success, and we intend to keep the contractor to that.