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Wednesday, 12 January 2022

PQs: Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill


Amendment 104FD

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - Report (5th Day) – in the House of Lords at 7:30 pm on 12th January 2022.

Baroness Coussins Crossbench

My Lords, I remind the House of my interests as vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Linguists and co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages.

I am very grateful indeed to the Minister for the interest he has taken in the issue of court interpreters and my concerns about the weaknesses of the present system, as well as for his willingness to meet several times and discuss candidly the detail of my amendment. This dialogue has been very constructive and leads me to be hopeful that we can reach a positive outcome.

My amendment seeks to establish minimum standards for court interpreters based on their qualifications, experience and registration with the National Register of Public Service Interpreters—NRPSI. Obviously, I am not going to repeat the detail of the case I set out in Committee, but perhaps I could just comment on the response I had at that stage from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart of Dirleton.

There seemed to be three main reasons for rejecting my amendment. The first was that the MoJ system is already fit for purpose. For example, the noble and learned Lord said:

“All interpreters are required to complete a justice system-specific training course before they are permitted to join the register.”—[Official Report, 22/11/21; col. 659.]

This refers to the MoJ’s register. My understanding, however, is that that course takes four hours to complete, which does not strike me as remotely adequate for such potentially demanding and specialist work. It remains the case that the current MoJ register will admit people who would not be considered sufficiently qualified or experienced to be on the NRPSI—nor, indeed, on the Police Approved Interpreters and Translators scheme. The DPSI at level 6 is considered by all the specialist professional bodies in the field to be the correct minimum qualification for any court interpreting work.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart, also claimed that the MoJ system is fit for purpose because the complaint rate is less than 1%. I had claimed that the failure rate following spot checks was 50% but, in our subsequent meetings and correspondence, the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, has clarified that the 50% figure I quoted in Committee applied only to referrals of quality-based complaints, and that the overall failure rate is actually 5% of all assessments. I still think that a failure rate of 50% after a referral from a court or mystery shop is unacceptably high. I would also contend that even an overall rate of 5% out of hundreds of thousands of assignments each year could potentially lead to a significant drain on the public purse through the costs of rescheduling adjourned hearings or keeping defendants in custody for longer—not to mention the avoidable stress and confusion for victims, defendants and witnesses.

Secondly, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart, thought that my amendment fell short because it would not be right to take a one-size-fits-all approach, given that there are various levels of case complexity. But I agree with that: the point is explicitly acknowledged in my amendment, which specifies that the number of hours’ experience required should reflect case complexity and, crucially, should be agreed between the department and “relevant professional bodies”. In discussions with the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, over the past few weeks, it has been repeatedly pointed out to those of us supporting this amendment that there are no fewer than 1,000 different types of assignment. The mind boggles—well, mine does anyway. I would certainly love to see a list spelling out exactly what those 1,000 different categories are.

Thirdly, the obstacle of the rules on public procurement was raised as a reason why my amendment’s provision for the NRPSI registration was unacceptable. I still find this a bit odd and confusing as an argument, as the NRPSI is not a membership organisation, nor a supplier. It is worth remembering that it was established at the request of the judiciary in the first place after the interpreting calamity of the Begum case. It is surely just akin to the professional registers in many other fields, such as teaching, medicine or law, from which we would always expect and require practitioners to be drawn. There appears to be at least one significant precedent in that the Metropolitan Police Service mandates that all its listed interpreters must have continuous NRPSI registration. Of its annual 25,000 face-to-face assigned interpreters, only 2.5% are not NRPSI registered, and then for a very good reason—for example, to do with the need for a rare language speaker or the need for a super-speedy appointment in highly urgent or dangerous situations.

I accept, of course, that this whole system is complex and that there are inherent challenges to any solution that I have not touched on today, such as the supply chain of interpreters. I also acknowledge that the wording of my amendment may not be perfect, although I have tweaked it since Committee to try to build in a transition period, as suggested in Committee by the noble Lord, Lord Marks. But I have been encouraged by the approach of the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, in our discussions in that he acknowledges that if there are improvements that could or should be made, it would be sensible for them to be made before the current contract is due to be retendered in 2023. The challenge, of course, is to get to the bottom of precisely what those improvements are, and I am extremely concerned that there should be no more delay in establishing and achieving them than absolutely necessary. The current contract expires in October 2023, so presumably a revised tender will need to be issued some months before that in order to achieve a seamless transition.

With this in mind, we raised with the Minister the possible option of conducting a detailed and independent inquiry into exactly what the standards of qualifications and experience and other matters should be. I am hopeful that the Minister might be able to say something about that proposal when he comes to reply today. Such an inquiry would need to be conducted on a genuinely independent basis and cover all aspects of the MoJ’s responsibility for interpreting services, with a commitment to apply its findings to the next contract. I believe that such an independent inquiry would also have the credibility to help attract back into public service the many hundreds of professional interpreters who have left because of low pay, bad conditions or a lack of acknowledgement of their professional status. This exercise would have the potential to make a long-term strategic impact on the service, as well as knocking into shape the terms of the next contract. I look forward to the Minister’s response and beg to move.

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice


This amendment would restrict the Ministry of Justice to appointing in our courts and tribunals only interpreters who are registered on the National Register of Public Service Interpreters and who possess a level 6 diploma in public service interpreting or comply with the national register’s rare language status protocols. I place on record at the outset my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, the noble Lords, Lord Pannick and Lord Hogan-Howe, and others for their time engaging with me.

This is a very important issue. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley of Knighton, noted that it goes to compassion, which is correct. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, said, it also goes to the heart of the justice process. Anyone who has done a case with interpreters knows how important their role is. Indeed, I remember one case where, when the witness answered a question of mine, it was interpreted through a language I knew, and I knew that it had been interpreted wrongly. The judge also picked up that the interpretation was wrong and the witness himself criticised the interpretation, thus illustrating that the presence of the interpreter was unnecessary, and they were dispensed with.

We currently commission the service of interpreters for our courts and tribunals through our contracted service providers, thebigword and Clarion interpreting. The contract has a clearly defined list of qualifications, skills, experience and vetting requirements interpreters must meet, which have been designed to meet the particular needs of the justice system. The highest complexity level has qualification criteria comparable to those set by the NRPSI. They are sourced from the MoJ register, which is audited by an independent language service provider, The Language Shop. All interpreters must have 100 hours of experience and complete a justice system-specific training course before they can join the register.

As the noble Baroness said, the overall failure rate of all quality assurance assessments remains low, at 5%. We believe that illustrates the effectiveness of the auditing measures. Complaints about quality are also carefully monitored and independently assessed by The Language Shop. The complaint rate remains low, at less than 1%.

I am confident that there are no systemic quality issues with the current arrangements. None the less, I discussed this in some detail with the noble Baroness and others and we want to improve the quality of the service we provide, if that is possible, right across the justice system. That is why I am commissioning a full independent review of our existing qualifications and standards and the requirements for each type of assignment our contract covers. There are over 1,000 of these—I do not have a list to hand. This will also consider experience levels and rare language requirements. The review will be completed in time to inform the retendering of our contracts in 2023. It will establish a detailed framework of the standards and qualifications required for all assignments covered by the contracts, with clear explanations and justifications for each. The aim is to ensure that our contracts continue to meet the demands of all our court users.

We will continue to consult external stakeholders, including the NRPSI—its input is highly valued. We will learn from other schemes, including the police-approved interpreter and translation scheme, which adopts a level 6 diploma in public service interpreting as a minimum qualification standard, but with safeguards to allow for exceptions as needed to ensure timeliness in progressing a case.

We understand that there are issues about the availability of NRPSI-registered interpreters in some parts of the country—40% of them are based in London. Under our current arrangements, we can control and direct recruitment for our register based on geographical and language needs. This is tied in to the supplier’s obligation to fulfil bookings and ensures that we can dictate recruitment trends to meet our requirements.

I cannot say at this stage whether the police-approved interpreter and translation scheme would be suitable for the Ministry of Justice. We are concerned not to have a one-size-fits-all approach; even within a court setting, interpreting in a criminal court is quite different from interpreting, for example, in the family jurisdiction. It is not only court settings; there is telephone interpreting for court custody officers, and service centres require interpreting assistance to support court users paying fines or responding to general inquiries. However, we will look at the outcome of the review. All the options we consider will need to be fully costed in accordance with government policy for large government procurements to ensure value for money for the taxpayer.

The review will be undertaken. We have already started some work; we want to establish the most appropriate and cost-effective solution, one which meets the current and future needs of the justice system and promotes the continued development and progression of new entrants into the interpreting profession. With renewed thanks to the noble Baroness for her time and the discussions we have had, including on the option of a full independent review, which I hope I have set out clearly, I respectfully urge her to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Coussins Crossbench

I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. I especially offer my thanks to the Minister and warmly welcome his decision to commission a full independent inquiry into the qualifications, experience and overall standards of all the different types of interpreters for court work. I look forward to seeing the terms of reference, the timetable and other details of this inquiry. I feel optimistic that professional bodies in the field will also feel encouraged by this development and welcome the decision. With that in mind, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Friday, 10 December 2021

PQ: 10 December 2021


Asylum: Interpreters and Translation Services

Home Office written question – answered on 10th December 2021.

Catherine West Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, if all refugees who seek asylum in England have access to (a) interpreters and (b) translators.

Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

The Home Office aims to provide interpreter and translation services for refugees and asylum seekers at public expense whenever and wherever necessary. Interpreters/translators engaged are required to operate to a high standard on a range of protection-based and human rights topics including (though not limited to) religious conversion, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), sexuality and gender-based claims, all types and forms of persecution, medical (physical and mental health) and political activity.

The Home Office has a proud, consistent, and sustained history of supplying interpreters and translators on demand to meet customer needs. Operational delivery over the last five years has been consistently above weekly service level agreements.

The Home Office Interpreter Language Services Unit (ILSU) holds overall responsibility for the delivery of interpreting and translation services on behalf of the Home Office. ILSU recruits and maintains a database of, to date, 1,759 independent freelance interpreters as well as having oversight of commercially procured language services to supplement the overall services. ILSU arranges appointments, manages invoices and payments and has a quality assurance role to ensure reliability and the consistently high level of interpretation and translation.

ILSU also works with other commercial providers and public sector bodies which provide interpreters and linguists (as well as the National Register of Public Services Interpreters) to ensure the best sector-wide standards are applied.

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

"lack of an interpreter"


30 November 2021

[…] Due to the nature of the case, magistrates believed Binkowski required the assistance of third party services, which he was not able to engage with previously due to the lack of an interpreter. [...]


Monday, 29 November 2021

"lack of a booked Polish interpreter"


29 November 2021

[…] Anita Zielinska turned up to court with her four-day-old son in plenty of time for her scheduled appearance before magistrates.

But owing to a lack of a booked Polish interpreter, the mum and baby were left waiting in the court corridors for over two hours before her case was finally handled. […]

Monday, 22 November 2021

PQ: 22 November 2021


Amendment 280

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - Committee (10th Day) – in the House of Lords at 7:15 pm on 22nd November 2021.

Baroness Coussins Crossbench

My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds, the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thomas, and my noble friend Lord Pannick for adding their names to my amendment. I am sorry that my noble friend has had to leave for another commitment, but he wanted me to confirm that he planned to speak in support of this amendment. I declare my interests as a co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages and the vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Linguists.

The purpose of this amendment is to establish in law

“minimum standards for qualifications and experience” of those appointed to act as interpreters in Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service. For the avoidance of doubt, let me clarify that, for the purposes of this amendment, I am referring only to spoken word interpreters, not sign language interpreters.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, for meeting me earlier in the year to discuss this and related issues. I very much hope that the Minister replying tonight will be able to facilitate another meeting between me, other interested parties and the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, between now and Report to look at my proposals more precisely. Obviously, my best-case scenario is the Government accepting my amendment or coming back on Report with a better-worded version to achieve the same, or a closely similar, end.

I will not repeat the detailed case that I set out at Second Reading. I will simply summarise the way in which the appointment of court interpreters as it is currently organised, using the Ministry of Justice’s register and delivered via outsourced private companies, is inadequate—often seriously so, leading at best to mistakes and, at worst, to miscarriages of justice. It is an easy way for fake interpreters to present themselves. Too often, hearings need to be abandoned and expensively rescheduled, sometimes with defendants on remand for longer—all at public expense.

My objective is to strengthen the MoJ register for interpreters, thereby improving the quality and administration of justice. I will explain each of the three elements of my proposed minimum standards in a little more detail, starting with the second, which relates to the qualifications that a court interpreter should have. I am sure all noble Lords would agree that, if they were having heart surgery or even having their tonsils out, they would expect the surgeon to have more than a GCSE in biology. If they were passengers in an aeroplane, they would not expect the pilot just to have a geography degree and know roughly which way was south. They would not expect their car to be serviced by a mechanic whose only proven competence was in the use of a tin opener. Yet you can get on to the MoJ’s register of approved interpreters simply by having a GCSE pass or a low-level two-week foundation course, or just by being bilingual, even if you have never set foot in a court before.

I know it is sometimes argued that many of the cases requiring the services of an interpreter are very simple and straightforward, and so do not need an advanced level of linguistic skill. Cases are indeed categorised according to three levels: namely, standard, the lowest or simplest level; complex; or complex and written. However, I would argue that even if a defendant were in court facing a charge over an unpaid parking ticket, which I would assume would be classified as standard, they would still want an interpreter who knew the difference between, let us say, stationery with “ery” at the end and stationary with “ary” at the end. The potential for confusion can be imagined.

Of course, the landmark case which first drew significant attention to the problems with court interpreters illustrated the far more serious and potentially life-changing implications of using an unqualified or underqualified interpreter in the most serious and complex cases. This was where a woman accused of murder found herself in court with an interpreter who did not know the different between murder and manslaughter. A qualified interpreter is doing professional, specialist and highly skilled work just as much as the heart surgeon, airline pilot or car mechanic.

As I said at Second Reading, there is consensus among the specialist professional bodies that the diploma in public service interpreting at level 6 should be the minimum standard for any court interpreting work. This is supported by the National Register of PSIs, the Chartered Institute of Linguists, the Association of Police and Court Interpreters and the recently launched Police Approved Interpreters and Translators scheme, known as PAIT. The DPSI level 6 is pitched absolutely correctly for all types of court interpreting and is a qualification registered with Ofqual. It enables accurate, procedurally and culturally informed, wholly accurate interpreting, whatever the level of case complexity.

Noble Lords will notice, however, that my amendment, at paragraph (b), includes the words

“or comply with NRPSI Rare Language Status protocols”.

The reason for this is that there are some languages that are not yet covered by the DPSI level 6 but are, nevertheless, sometimes in demand in our courts. Examples include Basque, Moldovan, Sinhalese and Yoruba. In these and similar circumstances, the National Register of PSIs has a matrix of competences and experience which, if met, would still guarantee the level of interpreting skill required for those languages.

Qualifications are one thing, but without relevant experience they could amount to misleading or false assurance for the defendant, witness, victim, lawyer, judge or juror concerned, who must of course depend on the interpreter’s competence. That is why my proposed minimum standards consist not only of the level 6 diploma but also, in paragraph (c), a number of hours of court interpreting experience

“commensurate with the category of case complexity”,

which, as I have mentioned before, could range from the contested parking ticket to charges of murder, rape or terrorism. I have not specified the number of hours in the amendment, because I think this is a professional matter to be negotiated and resolved by detailed consultation between the MoJ and relevant professional bodies, some of which I have already referred to. As an example, the Police Approved Interpreters and Translators scheme, PAIT, requires 400 hours of experience alongside the level 6 diploma.

The importance of experience as a crucial component of a minimum standard, rather than a qualification alone, has been starkly illustrated by the results of spot checks conducted on behalf of the MoJ. Of 118 interpreters subject to a spot check by the Language Shop, all allocated from the MoJ’s register, an alarming 50% failed the check’s criteria, and 39 of those 59 failures were people with the level 6 diploma, which demonstrates that what is needed is qualification plus experience. No court, defendant, lawyer, witness or victim should be satisfied with the poor standard of competence revealed by those spot checks.

The good news is that, thanks to the helpful dialogue I have had with the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, I am aware that there is already a stakeholders’ forum set up by the MoJ to discuss all these issues with the professional bodies and interested parties. This is just the right environment in which to thrash out an agreed position on the various levels of experience needed for different case complexities.

The third and last element of my proposed minimum standard, which appears in paragraph (a) is that interpreters should only be appointed from the National Register of Public Service Interpreters. This would not be a radical departure. Currently, the Metropolitan Police only uses interpreters from the national register, as do the Crown Prosecution Service, the National Crime Agency and the Northern Ireland courts. Again, such a requirement would be welcomed by the professional bodies in the field.

The national register represents the highest standards of appropriate qualification plus experience, as well as being an independent and not-for-profit body. It safeguards and regulates the quality and professionalism of public service interpreters who work across the criminal justice system as well as in the health service. There is a code of professional conduct, which has also been adopted by PAIT, the police interpreters scheme, and its disciplinary procedure is uninfluenced by any political or commercial interest. In other words, it is a framework which is far more reliable, professional and gaffe-proof than the MoJ register—what is not to like?

The noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, indicated to me in a previous discussion that one obstacle to this part of my proposal is that to appoint court interpreters only from the national register would breach public contract protocols. I hope the Minister this evening will be kind enough to explain what is meant by this. So far, all the people whom I have asked about it—lawyers and lay people alike—have confessed to not knowing what it means. Perhaps I have consulted the wrong people and the Minister will enlighten me. If the Metropolitan Police and the CPS, to name but two organisations, are using the national register and have not yet come a cropper over public contract protocols, is this really a legitimate barrier or just a needless worry?

My amendment would be a desirable and welcome step forward in improving the quality of the service for all concerned. It would be a logical development and progression from the existing MoJ system to a more tried and tested format.