21 March 2012
By Jane Bradley Investigation producer
Ministry of Justice translation firm accused of data theft
A company appointed to provide interpreters for courts has been accused of stealing the details of independent linguists to bulk up its database, BBC London has learned.
Applied Language Solutions (ALS) began a sole contract with the Ministry of Justice worth £300 million last month.
It is claimed the company is using interpreters' details to falsely claim dozens of linguists work for it.
ALS said it had legitimately bought interpreters' details three years ago.
Before the court and police interpreting service was privatised, courts in England and Wales hired freelance interpreters from a national register. Now they are solely provided by ALS which has promised to cut the annual £60m translation bill by a third.
The company admitted some initial problems but insisted it is fulfilling the vast majority of its 3,000 bookings a week. However, 60% of those on the National Register of Public Service Interpreters are refusing to work for ALS because of concerns about quality and pay.
BBC London has seen a document of more than 70 interpreters who claim their details are on the ALS database without their permission. It was compiled by Geoffrey Buckingham from the Association of Police and Court Interpreters.
"They feel as though they have been used like cannon fodder, with their details being bought and sold like some kind of commodity," he said.
"If any other company were doing this sort of thing then it would constitute potential breaches of the data protection act and it should be pursued."
George Serbanescu is one of the interpreters who found his details on the ALS website. He did not believe the company's claim that it had 3,000 interpreters working for it.
"We did our own checks and realised without our permission, they used our personal and professional details to falsely claim that they have this kind of figure working for them," he said.
"I was really furious and I felt that my own privacy had been invaded. They are doing this just to get the contract. We are talking about £300 million."
In response, ALS said it bought some interpreters' details three years ago from the Institute of Linguists. It claims this is the only historic data held and information is immediately deleted when requested.
Concerns go further than simply how many interpreters are working for ALS. Many interpreters are refusing to work for the company because of a cut in pay.
Previously they received a flat fee of £85, a quarter-hourly rate after three hours, and were paid for travel time and expenses - but this has been replaced by hourly fees in three tiers of £16, £20 and £22, plus no travel time and reduced expenses.
The Law Society fears this is leading ALS to employ linguists with no qualifications or experience. There have been incidents of interpreters not turning up to court, not speaking English, and even pets being registered as interpreters, BBC London has learned.
Some believe these failings mean ALS is unlikely to achieve its projected annual savings of £18 million.
"One questions how much money will be saved if cases are having to be adjourned, if people are being kept in custody, there are additional transport costs coming backwards and forwards to courts," said Ian Kelcey of The Law Society.