10 Oct 2011: Column 154
Interpretation Services (Ministry of Justice)
Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): 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?
Jonathan Evans (Cardiff North) (Con): 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.
Mr Leech: 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.
Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): 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?
Mr Leech: 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.
Sajid Javid (Bromsgrove) (Con): 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?
Watch the debate: http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=9067
(starts at 10:13 pm)