30 October 2012 by Francesca Kaye
Contracts and access to justice
Crime and sentencing always make the news. So it is not surprising that the shambles surrounding the court interpreters’ contract and its fallout made headlines. What’s worrying is what this and recent county court changes tell us about the approach that might be taken to forthcoming major civil justice reform.
On 1 February 2012 a small company from Oldham took over the national provision of interpreters. In keeping with government’s desire to encourage small and medium-sized enterprises the contract went to a small company whose financial standing was described in the credit check obtained by the Ministry of Justice before awarding the contract as having sufficient financial stability to undertake contracts to a value of £1m. The company, Applied Language Solutions (now Capita Translating and Interpreting), was awarded a contract which at that time government thought had a value of £42m.
Neither Peter Handcock, chief executive of HM Court Transcription Service, nor Martin Jones, deputy director sentencing MoJ, nor Ann Beasley, director general, finance & corporate services, MoJ, had read the report. In her evidence to the House of Commons Public Accounts Select Committee, Ann Beasley explained she was given a report that confirmed to her that Applied was a company with which government could do business.
The transcript of that session of the Select Committee is a depressing but unsurprising read. With no apparent clear picture of what it wanted to achieve, apart from an overall cut in costs, and no real understanding of the service it was buying a decision was made to create a centralised and nationalised interpreting service.
No one, not even those giving evidence to the Select Committee in support of the contract, could justify the debacle that followed. The evidence from the National Audit Office (NAO) is damning. Even the statistics issued by government concede that the level of performance in the first few months was poor.
On 29 October Andy Parker, joint chief operating officer of Capita, the company which acquired Applied, told the Select Committee that the level of demand for interpreting services was unknown at the time the contract went live. Applied was caught off guard by the level of short-term bookings required.
He explained that the Applied bookings system had been designed on the basis that most bookings would be online, with the call centre being be used as overflow. He admitted that with hindsight this had proved to be wrong. He thought that stakeholder engagement had failed, explaining that there had been little, if any, direct contact by Applied with the courts to determine their needs prior to going live.
Asked why the contract had not been rolled out regionally first (as had originally been discussed), he explained that after discussions with the MoJ team it was felt that the ‘big bang’ approach was the one most likely to be successful with reluctant interpreters expected to fall into line within a few weeks.
There was certainly a big bang but perhaps the wrong sort of bang.