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Criminal Justice: Interpretation and Translation Services

Volume 787: debated on Wednesday 29 November 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have revised their target for annual budget savings on the cost of providing interpretation and translation services in criminal proceedings, following the allocation of the latest contract for those services to thebigword; and if so, what is their new target.

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

My Lords, the ministry’s suite of language service contracts was designed to ensure value for money and affordability of the services provided by its suppliers. Given the importance that the ministry attaches to the provision of court interpretation, we have not felt it appropriate to set a target figure for cost savings for the provision, which is a demand-led service. Fulfilment of interpreter bookings is currently around 98%.

My Lords, that sounds encouraging, but there has been a long-standing concern that the quality and qualifications of some of the interpreters sent to our courts do not match up to the demands of the job, which results in cases needing to be rescheduled. Is the Minister satisfied that the new contract for quality assurance can provide much useful information when it scrutinises only 1% of assignments, and can he say whether interpreters’ pay and conditions have improved under thebigword contract? Poor employment practice was one of the reasons why large numbers of high-level interpreters boycotted the service previously.

My Lords, the new contracts came into place on 31 October 2016. They include a contract in respect of quality assurance, which has proved extremely effective. Indeed, the number of complaints about the service provided has dropped quarter by quarter. As regards the numbers of interpreters available, 4,660 have now registered with the new contractors. We are proceeding on that basis; it is at present a success.

My Lords, may I support the noble Baroness in her remarks? Does my noble and learned friend agree that the provision of honest and professional interpretation in criminal courts is absolutely central to the proper construction of many cases? Does he also agree that that applies to many civil cases as well, particularly family work and immigration? What public provision is now made for those classes of case, and if none, would he consider the position further?

I agree with both the propositions advanced by my noble friend. We have no difficulty at present with the provision of interpretation services in respect of these matters.

My Lords, this month there have been at least six reported instances of cases being adjourned for lack of an interpreter, and there may be more. This is part of a continuing pattern which disrupts court business and wastes resources. Does the MoJ have any new proposals to ensure that needs for interpreters are identified and arrangements made for their attendance earlier and more efficiently?

We have no proposals to alter the present system, which works effectively. I point out that there are around 500 to 550 bookings for interpreters each day, so the number he refers to—six—is a very small proportion of the overall interpretation service.

My Lords, will we be able to see that justice is being done without providing proper translation services, either in criminal or other proceedings?

It is clearly critical to the administration of justice and to the issue of access to justice that full and adequate interpretation services should be available to the courts and to those who have recourse to them.

My Lords, there is clearly a difference between interpretation and translation. I speak as a former professional linguist. What about quality control? Will the Minister comment on that? Being able to deal with a language is not the same as being a competent interpreter, sometimes of very delicate matters.

I entirely agree with the observation made by the right reverend Prelate. That is why the present contract provision includes a quality assurance provision by the Language Shop, to ensure that not only are the appropriate levels of qualification available but also the appropriate skills.

Does the noble and learned Lord agree that there is a great deal of anxiety about people’s experiences with interpretation? It is not just a matter of making sure that an interpreter is there—the quality of the interpretation is essential. Surely with the whole principle of the quality of justice, and of justice being seen and felt to be done, one cannot overestimate the importance of interpretation and its quality. That must apply to civil law as well as criminal law and certainly to the immigration sector.

We are confident about the quality of the translation and interpretation services provided to the courts at present, which have been provided under the present contractual regime since 31 October 2016.

My Lords, the Minster will know that this is an obligation of an EU directive. I was a rapporteur in the European Parliament; the UK Government chose to opt into this. Not only do we maintain standards that help standards across the whole EU but, if we Brexit, we will obviously want to keep up those standards so that we can operate such things as the European arrest warrant without our operation of it being called into question.

Of course, that is one of the objectives of the withdrawal Bill, which noble Lords will have the opportunity to pass in the near future to ensure that we maintain our legal obligations in that context. Over and above the European regulation—I believe it is a regulation and not a directive—there is of course the convention right under Article 6 and the common-law right of access to justice.