Chair of Council Tony Bell assesses the impact and implications of the MoJ's new interpreting arrangements
On 5 July 2011 a parliamentary statement was made on the provision of interpretation and translation services across the justice sector, the declared intention being 'to cut the cost and make more efficient provision while safeguarding quality'. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) stated that a 'framework agreement' was to be set up with a single supplier, which would save about £18 million on an annual budget of £60 million. Applied Language Solutions (ALS) won the contract.
The arrangements are not quite as comprehensive as portrayed, however, since not all the justice services are obliged to sign up: individual police forces, and the Crown Prosecution Service, for example, may make - or continue with - separate arrangements. The Metropolitan Police has, indeed, announced its intention to remain outside the new system.
Nevertheless, the impact of the arrangements for the supply of professional linguists is huge.
There was an adjournment debate in Parliament on 10 October, at which John Leech MP (Manchester Withington) brought to the attention of Parliament the concerns of interpreters who work in these areas and the problems that are likely to be created.
Baroness Coussins, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages placed an Oral Question in the House of Lords on 1 November, 'to ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the provision of translation and interpreting services for the legal system in the United Kingdom'.
Readers will also be aware of articles and letters in the press, the representations made by a number of concerned organisations, and the actions taken by individual interpreters and groups of interpreters. The adjournment debate in October focused strongly on the remuneration and allowances announced, which represent a significant reduction in the terms and conditions for the freelance professionals working in the judicial sector. It is evident that the reduction from current levels (under the Terms and Conditions of the National Agreement) will be a major disincentive to the recruitment of qualified linguists and, it has to be feared, a major incentive for the provision of sub-standard or minimally qualified interpreters willing to work for the reduced rates.
While it is recognised that all professions share the burden of the current economic circumstances, the CIOL is concerned that the extraordinary reductions proposed by the new provider will put the supply of qualified interpreters and translators at risk and threaten seriously the sustainability and development of the profession. There are also considerable doubts about the viability of the 'triage' system, with interpreters allocated to different categories of jobs according to assessed levels of expertise. The proposed system, which is now in the early stages of implementation, does not appear to have been tested.
There are several aspects of the situation that are of great concern to the Institute, in addition to the serious impact it will have on individual practitioners. Throughout the period of review leading up to the MoJ's decision, the CIOL said at all opportunities that combining commercial provision and professional regulation in one body is wrong in principle. A clear separation between the regulation of a profession and the organisation of practitioners is fundamental, and is seen across the board in the delivery of professional services. Examples are the General Medical Council, the Solicitors Regulatory Authority and the Healthcare Professionals Council.
The provision of language services in the criminal justice system is just as critical to public well-being as these other professions. It is a retrograde step to reverse the progress of more than a decade by re-combining the regulatory function with commercial provision. This is particularly so given that the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI) has recently re-organised itself - now as an independent body - to take fully the role of a regulatory body working to regulate the profession in the public interest.
It is not possible to see how re-combining the regulation of language service provision and commercial interest can be in the interests of justice or the public or, indeed, meet the requirements of the October 2010 EU Directive on the right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings,
NRPSI has more than 2,300 registered interpreters. ALS claims that it has already registered large numbers of interpreters. The number quoted in the adjournment debate was 1,000. An immediate substantial shortfall is apparent the framework agreement insists, properly, on quality. It is not possible to imagine that the MoJ will allow such an essential criterion to be breached. So far, at least, it is not clear that this aspect of supply has been thought through.
The uncertainties around the qualification framework intended by the MoJ must be resolved. A system of unaccredited assessments is being introduced, which all legal service freelance interpreters must undertake in order to register with ALS. The Diploma in Public Service Interpreting (DPSI) has been the basis of qualification for the profession up to now. It is stated that it will remain so. The DPSI is, and will remain, entirely independent, and is a nationally accredited and widely recognised qualification. A recognised qualification and independent regulation are essential elements of a profession.
The arrangements are intended to save money, reflecting current public sector financial difficulties. There is a real danger, however, that they will be detrimental to the sustainability and development of the profession, to the supply of qualified interpreters and translators, and, ultimately (even, perhaps, immediately), to the delivery of justice.
Pages 6 and 7, The Linguist, December 2011/January 2012, Vol/50 No/6 2011.