18 January 2013 by Owen Bowcott
Private interpreting company received £8.5m for courts contract
Parliamentary statement by justice minister reveals month by month for income court interpreting services
Speaking in many tongues isn't always appreciated. Applied Language Solutions (ALS), the firm awarded a near monopoly to provide court interpreters throughout England and Wales, earned just £8.5 million from the deal last year.
Figures released by the justice minister Helen Grant show it also lost £1,464 through what are politely described as "service credits" — cash deductions imposed for failing to fulfil the contract.
Financial forfeits were exacted for five successive months because the company, owned by Capita, did not deliver the standard of service required. Grant insisted in parliament that "service credits" were "not penalties" but "remedies under the contract"; the Ministry of Justice called it "money withheld from payments".
The contract has been severely criticised in a National Audit Office report which pointed out that ALS did not have enough staff and as a result trials and hearings were being disrupted.
Hundreds of professional interpreters have been boycotting the privatised contract which began last February because hourly fees have been slashed and travel expenses severely reduced.
In a separate report shortly before Christmas, the Public Accounts Committee criticised the deal. "We heard of cases where individuals were kept on remand solely because of lack of interpreter availability and a case where the trial went ahead without an interpreter even though one had been booked," it said. Despite repeated failures, the committee says, the firm received only "risible levels of penalties".
Some names on the company's database were said to be fictitious and a pet dog had even been registered, according to Margaret Hodge, the chair of the committee.
Geoffrey Buckingham, chair of the Association of Police and Court Interpreters, who has led the campaign against the contract, said the latest figures raised doubts about whether Capita would make money from the contract.
The £8.5 million income was far less than projected under the contract, Buckingham added. "That's awful," he said. "Capita paid £7.5 million for ALS and have invested a further £5.4 million in the company. This month they have slashed the travel allowances paid to interpreters by 50%. Do they really think they will make any money out of this?"
Releasing the figures, Helen Grant said the service credits involved "low amounts due to increasing improvements in the service. She confirmed that there are "break clauses" in the five year contract for any "material breach".
The figures were released in reply to questions by Labour's Justice spokesman, Sadiq Khan, who has previously raised concerns about channelling all interpreter services through one company.
He told The Guardian: "Everything to do with this contract has been a failure. ALS have failed to deliver, risking miscarriages of justice, yet have continued to be paid millions of pounds of taxpayers' money. The government have failed from the start and are still failing. It simply beggars belief that the Ministry of Justice have docked only £1500 from ALS for contract failures, despite a catalogue of calamities and the fierce criticisms of the Public Accounts Committee."
Capita confirmed that it has recently cut the mileage rate for its interpreters. "The mileage allowance is 20 pence per mile after the first 10 miles of each journey," it said in a statement. "We have not seen any impact on the level of interpreter recruitment following this reversion to the originally quoted mileage rate.
"It was always expected that the first year of Capita's contract with the MoJ would not be profitable. As the vast majority of booking requests are fulfilled, we anticipate that 2013 will see us move into profit.
"The acquisition of ALS, by Capita, has helped to enhance and strengthen the delivery of its service, with the vast majority of booking requests fulfilled. We acknowledge that, as with the old system, there have been challenges but 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."