13 December 2012 by Frances Gibb
Court interpreters service in chaos
The Ministry of Justice made almost every mistake in the book when it set up a new court interpreters’ service, causing “total chaos” in the justice system, a MPs’ spending watchdog says today.
The department awarded the contract for court interpreting services to a private company which was “clearly incapable of delivering”, it said.
Despite warnings that the company was too small to shoulder a contract worth more than £1 million, the Ministry went ahead and handed it an annual £42 million contract covering the whole country.
Since then, the company has been fined a “risible” £2,200 for a series of failures but much tougher penalties were needed if such firms were not to get “away with it”, the Commons public accounts committee said.
In a withering assessment of all involved, the MPs said that the Ministry had not understood its own basic requirements, such as how many interpreters it needed or in what languages.
It awarded the contract for providing translators across England and Wales to ALS, which was then taken over by Capita, from the start of the year to replace a previous piecemeal system.
But the MoJ failed to carry out “due diligence” before signing the deal and had so little understanding of what was needed that bidders were able to lead the process, MPs said.
It failed to check the firm could supply the required 1,200 specialist staff — only 280 were available when the system went live — and was unable to confirm they were qualified and security cleared.
Margaret Hodge, committee chairman, described the result as “total chaos”. She said: “This is an object-lesson in how not to contract out a public service.”
She said there has been a “sharp rise in delayed, postponed and abandoned trials, individuals have been kept on remand solely because no interpreter was available and the quality of interpreters has at times been appalling”.
Yet fines totalled just £2,200 so far and none were levied during the first four months when the shortages were at their worst.
Mrs Hodge said: “Interpretation services are vital for ensuring fair access to justice. Yet when the Ministry of Justice set out to establish a new centralised system for supplying interpreters to the justice system, almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong.”
She said that Capita, which took over ALS in late 2011, “had no hope of recruiting enough qualified interpreters in time to start the service” and criticised the MoJ for rolling out the new system nationally in one go.
“Many of the ‘interpreters’ it thought were available had simply registered an interest on the company’s website and had been subject to no official checks that they had the required skills and experience. Indeed, we heard that some names were fictitious and one person had even successfully registered their pet dog.”