11 Mar 2009: Column 131WH
John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): I am delighted to have secured a debate this afternoon on the use of interpreters by police forces in England after several weeks of trying. I am particularly pleased because earlier this week I had the opportunity to submit a petition to the House on behalf of 282 interpreters who are concerned about the prospect of police forces in the north-west outsourcing interpreting services to an agency and about the impact that would have on the quality of interpretation services.
The issue was brought to my attention by a constituent, Marc Starr, who is a registered public service interpreter of Spanish and Portuguese. He contacted me because he and his colleagues were concerned that Greater Manchester police and other forces in the north-west were considering outsourcing interpreting services to an agency. There was clear evidence that when that happened in other parts of the country, there was a massive increase in the use of non-registered interpreters, in contravention of clear guidance from the Association of Chief Police Officers. The recommended best practice is that qualified interpreters with a diploma in public service interpreting or equivalent should be used. The ACPO guidance is drawn largely from the "National Agreement on Arrangements for the Use of Interpreters, Translators and Language Service Professionals in Investigations and Proceedings Within the Criminal Justice System" as revised in 2007.
The agreement was issued by the Office for Criminal Justice Reform. It was produced in consultation with the interpreters working group, which includes representatives from ACPO, the Crown Prosecution Service, Her Majesty's Courts Service, the probation service, the Home Office, the Magistrates' Association, the Bar Council and the Law Society, and representatives of interpreter bodies, and replaces the national agreement issued by the Trials Issue Group in 2002 and a Home Office circular of 2006.
Paragraph 3.3.1 of the agreement states:
"It is essential that interpreters used in criminal proceedings should be competent to meet the ECHR obligations. To that end, the standard requirement is that every interpreter/LSP working in courts and police stations should be registered with one of the recommended registers, ie the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI)".
Importantly, paragraph 10.1 states:
"Police forces and other CJS agencies that are contemplating outsourcing the provision of interpreters must ensure that this does not compromise compliance with the standards set out in this Agreement. In particular, where the fees payable to interpreters—as distinct from those paid to the intermediary agency—are lower than those contained in the recommended Terms and Conditions for Interpreters in the CJS...they are likely to be unattractive to fully qualified interpreters who are on the NRPSI and CACDP Registers, with the result that the contractor resorts to unqualified interpreters who may not be competent. This is not acceptable."
Finally, annexe B states:
"Any interpreter used within the CJS should be able to prove a measurable level of competence and quality assurance. NRPSI registration provides this, which is why NRPSI registered interpreters are recommended."
For several sectors of the public services, the National Register of Public Service Interpreters acts as a database of interpreters whose competence is not in doubt. The move towards contracting out interpreting services by some police forces is a departure from recommended best practice, and information gathered through freedom of information requests has provided irrefutable evidence of a link between outsourcing and low levels of use of interpreters who are registered with the NRPSI and who hold the DPSI qualification.
The majority of police areas that have not outsourced have an almost exemplary record, and even in the South Wales police force, which uses the lowest number of qualified interpreters, as many as 61 per cent. of interpreters have a qualification. There are reasons why the South Wales police find it particularly difficult to find qualified interpreters.
We can compare that with figures for forces that have outsourced the work and have contracts with other organisations. The number of unregistered interpreters used by police forces that have contracts with Cintra, for instance, ranges from 51 per cent. up to 71 per cent.—the latter figure is for Lincolnshire. An average of 61.8 per cent. of unregistered interpreters are used in such areas. The range of registered interpreters in areas where other agencies have been used is from as few as 12 per cent. up to 49 per cent.—those are the figures for Northumbria and Sussex respectively. The most recent information available is for Cheshire and shows that 29 per cent. of interpreters used in 2007 had the qualification, and 38 per cent. in 2008.
Unfortunately, despite the overwhelming evidence that outsourcing results in non-compliance with the guidance, GMP has not been dissuaded from considering it. Superintendent Wilkinson wrote to me on 5 February. He stated:
"The North West Police Forces, led by GMP, have collaborated to explore the possibility of outsourcing the provision of interpreting services. We are aware of the standards required and will take steps to ensure that outsourcing the service does not compromise compliance with the standards set out in the National Agreement, before any contract is awarded. To date no company has been awarded any contract in respect of interpreter services for GMP...Managing companies will be expected to provide interpreters that are qualified and fully vetted for police work and use NRPSI as first tier. Only in exceptional circumstances would they be allowed to deviate from this specification."
Superintendent Wilkinson also explained that one reason why the force is considering contracting out is that sourcing interpreters is time-consuming and costly. He went on to say:
"Front line policing is supported by many other agencies and third party providers who are experts in their own fields. In respect of interpreting, a lot of police resource is deployed in accessing, engaging, checking, administering and paying large pools of self employed interpreters."
Engaging an agency is clearly about saving time and money, yet there is no evidence to back up the assertion that non-registered interpreters will be used only in exceptional circumstances. Evidence from all the other police forces points to the contrary. Unfortunately, GMP is ignoring that evidence for the sake of saving time and money. That will result in ACPO guidance not being followed. I am due to meet the assistant chief constable at the end of the month to raise my concerns about GMP's plans, and I hope that GMP will take notice. However, what is required is for the Government to intervene and strengthen the guidance or, if necessary, to legislate to ensure that police forces comply.
In fairness to the Government, in their response to me on 2 October last year, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Maria Eagle acknowledged that there was room for improvement and assured me that her officials were looking into the matter. That was five months ago, however, and I have heard nothing further. In her reply, will the Minister let the House know what progress has been made?
The Under-Secretary also acknowledged in her reply that the guidance was clear and that
"all police forces in England and Wales were recently reminded of the current guidance by the Association of Chief Police Officers. It is unambiguous, especially in terms of quality, and states that 'Forces that do or are considering outsourcing the provision of services to a commercial agency who act as an intermediary for booking and hiring interpreters, are reminded of the need to ensure this outsourcing process does not compromise compliance with the standards set out in the National Agreement. Consideration should be given to ensure that rates of pay and terms and conditions do not act as a disincentive for qualified and/or registered interpreters, preventing them from offering their services and thus damaging service quality'. The guidance makes clear that the agencies concerned should use registered interpreters and police forces are strongly encouraged to ensure that their contract stipulates the use of qualified interpreters."
Unfortunately, that is simply not happening. Pay and conditions are lower in agencies to which interpreting has been outsourced in other police authorities. That acts as a disincentive, preventing registered interpreters from offering their services.
In this short debate, I do not have time to go into the various examples of the problems caused by the use of non-registered interpreters. If the debate were about whether registered interpreters should have priority over non-registered ones, I would address those issues, but the Government have accepted the case for using registered interpreters. Unfortunately, the Under-Secretary made it clear that she believes that the decision to use agencies lies ultimately with chief constables and that it is not appropriate to legislate. That is where I disagree with her. If the use of agencies results in the guidance not being followed, surely it is the job of the Government to intervene. If the Minister is in any doubt about the evidence, I will happily supply her with more facts and figures.
The problem is not new, but the recent move by GMP and other north-western police forces has brought it firmly back on to the agenda. I urge the Minister to re-examine the impact of outsourcing on ensuring the use of registered interpreters and to introduce further guidance against the use of agencies and outsourcing. If that fails, I urge her to legislate against it. If she is not prepared to go that far, will she at least consider taking action where outsourcing and the use of agencies is resulting in a reduction in the use of registered interpreters? Will she also commit to discussing the implications of outsourcing with GMP and making it clear that if GMP's commitments to maintaining the use of qualified interpreters are not kept, the force will be expected to scrap the use of the agency employed?
In conclusion, my constituent Mr. Starr says:
"Interpreters are aware that it is a freelance industry and what is not expected is a guarantee of work—this depends on too many factors. All we are after is that if there are three interpreters in a region in which a region requires an interpreter five times, an NRPSI interpreter is contacted first on all of those occasions".
That just does not happen when police forces outsource to agencies.