20 July 2012 by Owen Bowcott
MPs to investigate 'underperforming' firm awarded £300m court monopoly
Private interpreting contractor ALS faces investigation after cancelled court cases and complaints from judges and lawyers
The way in which a private contractor was awarded a £300m monopoly of court interpreting services throughout England and Wales and the firm's "underperformance" are to be investigated by MPs.
The House of Commons justice select committee has called for evidence about difficulties that have emerged since Applied Language Solutions (ALS), an Oldham-based company, took over responsibility for the work in February.
ALS was acquired by the public-service provider Capita after winning the contract but there have been complaints from lawyers, magistrates and judges about the service. The National Audit Office also said it was "looking into the matter" following requests from parliament's influential public accounts committee.
Court cases have repeatedly been cancelled, while hundreds of professional interpreters have boycotted the new contract because they refuse to work for reduced rates and lower travel expenses. In one case, it was said, a court had to resort to Google's online computer translation because no Lithuanian interpreter could be found.
A murder trial was halted for a day at Winchester crown court this month after an unqualified interpreter could not accurately translate questions from a barrister. The man arrived 45 minutes late and concerns were raised that he was not translating questions into Punjabi properly for a key witness. He later revealed that his wife – the interpreter supplied by ALS – was busy and he was filling in for her. He said he had taken the ALS interpreter test but not received his results. A second ALS interpreter had problems translating in the same trial the following week. ALS declined to comment on individual incidents.
Emily Thornberry, the shadow attorney general, has urged her opposite number, Dominic Grieve, to take contempt of court proceedings over the "failures of Applied Language Solutions to supply well-trained interpreters in a timely fashion to our courts".
In a House of Lords debate this month, the justice minister, Lord McNally, admitted the £12m savings envisaged were unlikely to be found this year. The firm, he conceded, had made "a very poor start" but insisted there had since been significant improvements.
Lady Butler-Sloss, a retired judge, asked McNally: "Are you aware of the extent of disruption and delay to criminal trials as a result of serious inaccuracies of court interpreting, which is not only leading to very considerable cost but also concerns have been … raised by judges across the country, particularly in London, in Birmingham and in Leeds?"
The justice select committee's concerns reflect heightened political anxieties about contracting out vital services to private firms, exemplified by G4S's Olympic failures.
The select committee's inquiry will be focused on six areas, including "the rationale for changing arrangements for the provision of interpreter services; the nature and appropriateness of the procurement process; and the steps taken to rectify underperformance and the extent to which they have been effective". It has asked for written evidence to be submitted by 3 September.
The founder of ALS, Gavin Wheeldon, an entrepreneur who has said he prefers Porsches to Ferraris, recently left the company "to pursue other interests", according to Capita.
Responding to the inquiry, a spokeswoman for Capita said ALS had not been called before the justice select committee. She said: "The Ministry of Justice [MoJ] awarded the contract to ALS to address the weaknesses, lack of transparency and disproportionate costs of the previous service.
"The recent release of the statistics from the MoJ concerning the contract show an improvement month on month in fulfilling requests for interpretation services (nearly 3,000 bookings a week) rising from 65% in the first month of the contract to more than 90% in April.
"This performance is continuing to improve. We are determined to get the service running at full efficiency, providing transparency of opportunity for linguists and fully supporting the MoJ, police and court service. The overall objective remains to work in partnership with the MoJ to ensure that a more efficient and effective service is in place than previous arrangements." ALS has in the past confirmed that the original MoJ tender document valued the five-year contract at £300m.
An MoJ spokesperson said: "There were an unacceptable number of problems at the start of the new contract in January but we have now seen a significant improvement in performance. We continue to work with the contractor to bring performance to the required level."
Interpreters for Justice, a campaign begun by the Association of Police and Court Interpreters (APCI) and the Society for Public Service Interpreting (SPSI) to oppose the new contract, welcomed the inquirytheinquiries by the select committee and the NAO.
Geoffrey Buckingham, chairman of APCI, said: "This outsourced contract bears all the same hallmarks as the outsourced contract for [Olympic] security hitting the headlines currently. ALS/Capita is consistently failing to meet the terms of its £75m annual contract agreement, which the professional interpreter bodies have refused to be a part of from the start. They can't recruit in sufficient numbers, the quality isn't there and there's poor management and accountability."
Guillermo Makin, chairman of SPSI, said: "Professionally qualified and experienced interpreters have valiantly upheld their ethical principles by not signing up for a system which cannot be sustained and which is degrading British justice and breaking the law on a person's right to a fair trial. We have a dossier of evidence which we will be providing to the justice select committee in response to their inquiry."
In May, the MoJ released figures showing there had been 2,232 complaints about language services in court since the beginning of the year.