20 June 2013
Justice ministry outsourcing could lead to 'train crash', says watchdog
Justice committee chair criticises ministry's naivety over contracting out of court interpreters service
The contracting out of key services by the Ministry of Justice could end in a "multiple train crash" because the department displays naivety and lacks the capacity to understand what it is doing, according to a parliamentary watchdog.
Sir Alan Beith, the Liberal Democrat chairman of the justice select committee, said the "inglorious saga" of the court interpreters service was being swiftly followed by plans to contract out most of the probation service, court infrastructure and criminal legal aid representation.
Three damning reports – from the justice select committee, the National Audit Office and the public accounts committee (PAC) – have criticised the MoJ's decision to hand over all courtroom interpreting in England and Wales from February 2012 to the private contractor Capita.
In a parliamentary debate, Beith said the service "never reached a satisfactory level" and its performance had since slipped back. "This is a department which is putting out to contract about 70% of rehabilitation services, [court infrastructure and] a large part of criminal legal aid," he said.
"If things go wrong in the same way as they have in the court interpreter services, it will be a multiple train crash we will be facing."
The MoJ did not have the capacity to contract out all these services at once, he added, nor did it have a sufficient understanding of the complexity of court interpreters' work. "The MoJ's naivety seems to be matched by [Capita's] under-performance against the contract," Beith said.
The department's decision to prevent court staff from co-operating with MPs' research into the new contract, he said, could constitute a "contempt of the House [of Commons]".
Alan Johnson, the former Labour home secretary, said three reports had concluded there was no fundamental problem with the original court interpreting service.
ALS sold itself to Capita shortly after winning the £42m-a-year deal. The PAC report said the MoJ ignored an internal report warning that ALS should not be given anything worth more than £1m a year.
"The right to a fair trial has been seriously compromised," Johnson said. More than 600 court cases have been postponed or abandoned as a result of problems with Capita interpreters – a 100% increase on the previous year's figures.
Sir Gerald Kaufman, a Labour MP, described the new service as "shambolic". In one case a Bengali speaker was sent to translate for a Congolese defendant. On another occasion a Lithuanian speaker arrived to help a Slovak defendant. Kaufman added: "A sex trial failed to proceed because interpreters failed to appear. That cost £10,000."
MoJ figures suggesting savings had been made were condemned as misleading because they failed to take into account additional costs incurred from delayed cases. The Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn said the government had "an obsession with contract culture" because it distanced ministers from difficult decisions.
Replying to the debate, the justice minister Helen Grant said: "The old system was not ideal and did not provide value for money. There were teething problems with the new service.
"The government has made savings of £16.7m in the first year and invested £2.9m back into the system. We are satisfied with the quality of interpreters used."
Capita said: "There have been challenges regarding the delivery of this contract, but the business has invested in improving its performance. Processes have been put in place to get the service running efficiently and effectively which means the vast majority of booking requests are fulfilled and the volume of complaints has fallen."