My Lords, performance under the language services contract with Capita is measured by agreed indicators, including the success rate for bookings. I am pleased to report that this improved from 66.5% to 95.3% between February and August 2012. Complaints during this period also fell significantly. The National Audit Office recommended that the Ministry of Justice obtained independent advice on quality standards under the contract and I am pleased to report that the Minister has already met umbrella interpreter organisations in this respect.
My Lords, I am delighted that constructive talks are finally taking place with the professional bodies following the damning reports from the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee. However, is the noble Lord aware that the success figure of 95% that he gives excludes the large number of short-notice requests from the courts, which would bring the fulfilment rate down to more like 56%? In any case, that figure tells us nothing about the competence of the interpreters who do turn up. Will the Government now agree to conduct a thorough, independent inspection of the service so that the quality of service can be improved and the number of properly qualified interpreters who are willing to work for Capita can be significantly increased?
The noble Baroness makes a valid point about short-notice bookings. In that respect, it is true that bookings for hearings with less than 24 hours’ notice were temporarily descoped from the contract in mid-February and the courts and tribunals reverted to previous arrangements. However, I can report to the House that a pilot to return these bookings has begun in selected criminal courts across England and Wales and will be phased back across regions and jurisdictions when the project board has continued confidence in performance.
Turning to the competence and qualifications of interpreters, the new contract allows for an increased range of acceptable qualifications and experience. Under the contract, all foreign language interpreters must show evidence that they have the required qualifications before they can undertake assignments. We have a tiering facility and all courts are encouraged to ensure that interpreters are qualified to tier 1 or tier 2 for all bookings unless otherwise agreed with the court or tribunal.
My Lords, there was also a requirement by the National Audit Office to ensure evaluation of the incentives provided for professionally qualified linguists, interpreters and translators that would encourage them back to the courts to work. What is being done on that score?
My Lords, can the Minister comment on how Capita is performing in asylum and immigration applications? Does he accept that good interpretation leads automatically to good first decisions and avoids masses of appeals or judicial reviews? Finally, will he do his level best to ensure that women interpreters are provided for women applicants?
The noble Lord makes important points in relation to immigration and women. In general terms, service volumes are in excess of 72,000 and involve 163 languages. I will write to the noble Lord specifically about immigration matters but it is important to note that complaints for this particular service have also decreased quite significantly, showing the growing competence of Capita. In criminal courts, for example, complaints declined from 9.9% in February to 1.4% in August. In civil and family courts, complaints declined from 5.8% to 0.6% and in tribunals from 17.1% to 5.2%. I am sure your Lordships would agree that booking success rates have increased, costs have come down and complaints are down, and that that is good news.
My Lords, given the difficulties and unhappiness that there has been with the contract with Capita, what lessons have been learnt for the future about tests for outsourcing professional services of this type before contracts are placed on other occasions?
I thank the noble Lord for his question. I think life is for learning and such matters apply to the granting of contracts. Reference has been made to the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office. As I have alluded, their recommendations are being looked at with a view to improving service. I again assure the House that the Government have taken on board the issues that were raised, and the statistics and the reviews are showing positive progress towards achieving the given targets.
My Lords, when I mentioned the descoping, it was with reference to short-notice bookings, as the noble Lord said, but, as I have already said, a pilot has begun to return these bookings to that contract. With reference to fines, specific credits can be put place, against which non-performance is measured, that are set at 98%. I am pleased to report to the House that from the middle of this year, they are being looked at and tallied. However, there was a period when that particular compensation, for want of a better term, was not used, but that was in light of the fact that Capita had provided £3.5 million in addressing the shortcomings of the service.
My Lords, in my noble friend’s reply to an earlier question, I think that I missed his comments on whether it is any longer lawful in this country for a woman to express the wish to have a woman interpreter. Is that not quite obviously a sexist attitude of the kind that our equality legislation should prohibit?
As ever, my noble friend’s contribution is well made and very eloquent. I assure the House that in the provision of interpretation services it is important that anyone in our justice system is given an interpreter with whom they can work—an interpreter who understands their need and who understands their language and all sensitivities. If, in a particular cultural or sensitive case, a woman interpreter is a preferred option, we shall seek to provide one. If a particular language is required, we will seek to provide it. That is the right way forward for this Government.