Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Topical Questions - 13th March 2012

13 Mar 2012
Topical Questions
Oral Answers to Questions - Justice

Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith, Labour)
Before the contract with Applied Language Solutions for court interpreting started this year, the Minister was warned that it would fail by almost every qualified interpreter, by Labour Members, by Back Benchers of all parties in a debate here last November, by the Lord Chancellor’s own constituents at his surgery—so they tell me—and even by ALS itself. The contract has failed, so why did he decide to risk £300 million of public funds with an untried, small-time company?

Crispin Blunt (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Prisons and Probation), Justice; Reigate, Conservative)
Even in the spendthrift days of the previous Administration, it was noticed that there was something wrong with the cost of interpreters in the
justice system. The previous Administration began the process that led to the contract being awarded to ALS. It is not a small company, because it is now backed by Capita. There was a pilot over six to eight weeks in the north-west, which gave no indication of the problems. Within two weeks of the national roll-out, when the problems became clear, the Ministry of Justice procurement people were across the problems at ALS and measures were put in place to put right the problems. Some of the problems, strangely enough, came from the interpreters who, on finding that under the new payment regime they could no longer earn six-figure salaries, as they could under the previous Administration, did not co-operate. They are now doing so.

Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith, Labour)
In his staggering complacency, the Minister fails to grapple with the fact that every day, when ALS interpreters fail to show up, defendants are being remanded in custody or released with no consideration of the evidence, trials are collapsing or being postponed, and the potential for miscarriages of justice is huge, as is the loss of public money, which dwarfs the alleged savings. Will he suspend the contract and order an immediate investigation into how this disaster happened on his watch?

Crispin Blunt (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Prisons and Probation), Justice; Reigate, Conservative)
I would be slightly more inclined to take lessons from the hon. Gentleman if he was even vaguely on the money. Within two weeks of the contract going nationwide, the Ministry of Justice was right across the problems and put in place an action plan to address them. The idea that we are not interested in the matter, when we are making £18 million of savings in the provision of interpreters under a process that was commenced under the previous Administration and after interpreters had been grossly overpaid and had taken advantage of the system that was in place under that Administration, is beyond belief.

Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East, Labour)
The Lord Chancellor will know that the ALS interpreters’ contractor has been an unmitigated disaster, and I can provide specific examples of cases in my constituency. If it is about saving money, will he tell us how many hearings have had to be adjourned or postponed due to the fiasco?

Crispin Blunt (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Prisons and Probation), Justice; Reigate, Conservative)
There will be a full presentation of all the statistics and evidence relevant to the matter. I assure the hon. Gentleman that matters are in hand and that ALS’s performance is improving significantly. Particular problems remain with two nationality groups of interpreters, who are causing difficulties, but plans are in hand for them, too. [Interruption.] I do not wish to name them at the moment. The matter was in hand within two weeks of the system’s going live. There are weekly reports to me and daily management oversight from the Ministry of Justice. The matter is improving.

Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire, Labour)
It is clear that the ALS contract is a disaster, but I would like to question the Secretary of State and Ministers about the impact on the deaf community. The resulting poor employment conditions have forced British sign language interpreters into other work, contributing to a trend of recruiting BSL interpreters who may not be fully qualified, which may lead to a miscarriage of justice. What safeguards are in place to ensure that deaf people—a protected group with protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010—and their officially recognised language, BSL, are afforded proper regard, enabling them to have fair and proper access to justice?

Crispin Blunt (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Prisons and Probation), Justice; Reigate, Conservative)
The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and I undertake to look into any actions that are happening with regard to deaf people. However, there are not necessarily comparisons and precise parallels to be drawn between ordinary language interpreters and translators for the deaf. I will consider her points and come back to her.

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