4 April, 2013
Ursula Brennan, Permanent Secretary at the MoJ, is interviewed about the HMCTS Framework Agreement:
This brings us to the MoJ’s last substantial outsourcing project: the commissioning of a private company to manage the provision of interpreters in law courts. The National Audit Office, the Justice Select Committee, and the Public Accounts Committee have all published highly critical reports on the interpreters scheme, with the Justice Committee chair Alan Beith condemning it as “shambolic” (see CSW 20 February). Here, Brennan is uncomfortable again: “It’s a really good example of how difficult it is to get across the story about something that isn’t necessarily straightforward,” she says, with an awkward laugh.
The service was in urgent need of reform, she argues: courts were commissioning interpreters “locally, without a lot of obviously-enforced quality standards. We started with something that wasn’t a good place to be, and said: ‘We need quality standards; we need consistent understanding of our costs; and we need to make sure we’re not paying over the odds’.”
The MoJ’s solution was to commission the private company ALS to provide a single portal through which all courts would hire interpreters. Cheaper, less qualified interpreters would be used in less sensitive cases, and the payment system was changed so that, for example, interpreters wouldn’t be paid for the time spent waiting for their cases to come up.
The department also decided that it would get the new scheme in place to an ambitious timetable: “Interpreters were going to get less money, and they understandably were really opposed to the changes we were going to make, so the people here had to make a judgement about how swiftly we flipped over to the new regime,” Brennan explains. “The longer we carried on debating and discussing, the more the interpreters thought: ‘The MoJ will probably change its mind and not make these changes.’ So we needed to move reasonably swiftly.”
Not surprisingly, the MoJ’s relationship with its freelance linguists quickly deteriorated, and they mounted a boycott of the new system which meant that, as Brennan acknowledges, “the first months of the new system were a real problem. There were places where it was difficult to get interpreters in court, they didn’t turn up on time, and so on”. Brennan argues that the new system has now settled in. “If you ask staff in courts now, they say the portal is much better than it was before,” she says. “That contract is an example of something that had an unhappy introduction, but has stabilised into a much better place. It has saved us money and introduced quality standards – but somehow it’s been difficult for us to get that message across.”
The various highly critical reports have certainly not made it easy for the MoJ to defend its project. The Justice Committee, for example, said that the MoJ “did not have a sufficient understanding of the complexities of court interpreting work”: is that a fair criticism? “We knew how the system worked,” she replies, arguing that the problem lay elsewhere: “Initially you had a bunch of people who didn’t want to join a system in which they’d be paid less money, and there was a hiatus around that.”
Okay. How about some of the other criticisms? The Justice Committee found that the MoJ hadn’t conducted proper due diligence tests on the provider, and complained that the consultation had resulted in only minor changes to the plans. “I don’t think we do believe that messages from the consultation weren’t received,” Brennan responds: the interpreters had called loudly for a delay, and “we took a very clear view that said: if you’ve got a group of people who are not going to make as much money out of the new system, delaying it creates an opportunity for further confusion and the belief that we weren’t determined”. She argues that “the most important thing was to demonstrate that we were going to get on and do this. We took the judgement that we were better to crack on and do it than to have a haemorraghing of interpreters who’d think that if they held out, we’d change our minds.”
But surely that single-minded concentration on pace left little room for trials, pilots, or development of the market so that the MoJ could choose from a range of providers? At this point the press officer interjects to suggest that we move onto a different topic – but this issue involves capabilities which, Brennan has said, are crucial to the department’s strategy, and CSW is reluctant to let it go.
Once again, though, Brennan gives pretty much the same answer: “The critical thing was convincing all the interpreters that this was the way we were going to go, and that they needed to log on and join the new system,” she replies. “If we’d postponed the start date, it appeared to us that it would be incentivising the interpreters not to come on board.” She adds that the MoJ did have emergency measures allowing courts to “go off-contract” if the ALS portal drew a blank, and points out that courts interpreters now receive similar rates to those employed by the NHS. “It just wasn’t right for us to carry on paying over the odds,” she says.
In 15 minutes of discussion on this topic, Brennan only gives an inch of ground on errors that the department might have made when asked what lessons the MoJ has learned from the experience. “We’ve tightened up our governance so that emerging problems get surfaced very quickly,” she says. “There were lessons about the messages we gave out to people in those early months, when things were difficult.”
In essence, Brennan argues that the need to move fast over-rode every other consideration, and that the initial chaos was a worthwhile sacrifice in order to get the new scheme in place. Hopefully, though, the courts interpreters scheme does not foreshadow future outsourcing projects – for now the MoJ is embarking on a new scheme that is much bigger, much more ambitious, and potentially much more dangerous.