6 February 2013 by Owen Bowcott
Trials collapsing thanks to 'shambolic' privatisation of translation services
Ministry of Justice and Capita-owned interpreting firm condemned by MPs as courts count the cost of no-shows
The privatisation of court interpreting services has been "shambolic", MPs warn saying it has caused more trials to collapse and suspects to be remanded unnecessarily in custody.
In a damning report on the decision to hand a near-monopoly of courtroom interpreting in England and Wales to the company Applied Language Solutions (ALS), the justice select committee criticises the Ministry of Justice for failing to understand the complexity of the service.
The extent of the "very poor performance" had been partially concealed by the MoJ's failure to provide complete statistics, the committee's report says.
Its inquiry, it says, has also been hampered by the ministry's "extremely unhelpful" attitude; court staff were instructed not to co-operate with the committee's investigation and take part in an online survey.
The contract awarded to ALS, which went live last February, has been fraught with controversy. Hundreds of professional interpreters are boycotting ALS, now owned by the service provider Capita, over what they say are low fees.
The report says that though there might have been "administrative inefficiencies" under previous arrangements for hiring individual interpreters directly, there were no "fundamental problems" with the previous service.
"The Ministry of Justice's handling of the outsourcing of court interpreting services has been nothing short of shambolic," Sir Alan Beith, chair of the committee, says. "It did not have an adequate understanding of the needs of courts, it failed to heed warnings from the professionals concerned, and it did not put sufficient safeguards in place to prevent interruptions in the provision of quality interpreting services to courts."
The contract was awarded to ALS, the report says, despite a credit-rating report commissioned by the department that concluded the firm should not be given any work worth more than £1m a year. Court interpreting costs had been running at £4m a year.
"We are seriously concerned about the increase in ineffective trials as a result of non-attendance of interpreters, particularly in magistrates courts," the report says. "We will monitor the quarterly statistics on ineffective trials for the remainder of the year to see whether this is an ongoing trend."
In one case, the committee heard, a defendant with no previous convictions [was] remanded in custody on three consecutive occasions for lack of an interpreter, then granted unconditional bail.
The MoJ's financial assessment of the problem had been inadequate, the committee says: "The ministry was unable to provide information on the additional costs to the department of the delaying of trials because of the failure to provide interpreters.
"There has been an extra cost both to the courts and to prisons caused by the postponement of judicial proceedings. In the future, the ministry must undertake comprehensive cost and benefit analysis of its new policies."
It also adds: "Performance figures clearly do not reflect the company's fulfilment against 100% of the requirements of [the court service] and they should be altered, retrospectively and in the future, to indicate this."
Despite putting in a "very poor performance", the MoJ is criticised for penalising ALS by the sum of only £2,200. It was fined nothing at all "for the first four months, when performance was at its worst".
ALS, the report claims, "paid lip service" to many of its regulatory obligations. The need for interpreters to have appropriate qualifications and criminal record checks were "flagrantly disregarded".
Justice minister Helen Grant said: "There were significant issues at the start of the contract in early 2012 but we took swift, robust, action and have seen dramatic improvements, as the justice select committee highlights.
"The vast majority of interpreter bookings are now being completed and complaints have fallen considerably. The changes we have made have led to major savings for taxpayers, totalling £15m in the first year, and we continue to monitor the contract on a daily basis and demand continuing progress."