December 14, 2012 by Helen Warrell
Outsourcing of court interpreting condemned
Justice ministers’ attempts to outsource court interpreting through a £42m contract with a private provider has resulted in “total chaos’’ while providing an “appalling” service, the spending watchdog has found.
A report published on Friday by the public accounts committee chastises the Ministry of Justice for its decision to award the interpreters’ contract to Applied Language Solutions – now owned by Capita – and not punishing the company for substandard delivery.
The department is accused of failing to question whether ALS could supply the required 1,200 specialist staff, when only 280 were available at the time the system went live in January. Given the staff shortages, the company was able to meet only 58 per cent of bookings against a target of 99 per cent. But so far, ALS has only been fined £2,200 for disrupted services and no penalties were levied at all during the first four months when the shortages were at their worst.
Margaret Hodge, chair of the committee, described the deal as a lesson in how not to contract a public service. “Almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong,” Ms Hodge said.
“Court officials have had to scramble to find qualified interpreters at short notice; 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,” she added.
Helen Grant, justice minister, responded that the department had “strong reasons” to change the old interpreter booking system, which the National Audit Office had judged to be inadequate in several ways.
“We have now seen a major improvement in performance – more than 95 per cent of bookings are now being filled, complaints have fallen dramatically and we are continuing to push for further improvement,” Ms Grant said.