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Tuesday, 14 September 2021

PQ: 14 September 2021


Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - Second Reading

– in the House of Lords at 3:28 pm on 14th September 2021.

Baroness Coussins Crossbench 7:16 pm, 14th September 2021

My Lords, I want to raise some concerns about the provision of interpreters in our courts and to suggest a way in which this Bill could improve the service. I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Linguists.

I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, for meeting me after I raised these concerns in the debate earlier this year on the Queen’s Speech, and for his subsequent helpful and encouraging correspondence. I am sorry he is not in the Chamber today, because he has assured me that the MoJ is already addressing some of the shortcomings. I want to flag up a possible amendment to the Bill which I believe would help.

Part 12 already acknowledges the potential role of British Sign Language interpreters for jurors. Sign language is not my area of expertise, but it is not too much of a stretch to see that this part of the Bill would be the logical place for a simple amendment to lay down a specific requirement for minimum standards in the quality and qualifications of the spoken-word interpreter. Their role is already established in court proceedings, but all too often there is serious detriment to defendants, victims or witnesses—not to mention the taxpayer—when an unqualified, underqualified or inexperienced interpreter causes confusion rather than clarity, often leading to costly re-hearings or even the wrong verdict being overturned on appeal. I gave some examples of such cases in the debate I referred to earlier and will not repeat them here.

The question is: how can the current MoJ system be improved so that only competent and appropriately qualified interpreters are engaged? The criteria for inclusion in the MoJ’s list of approved interpreters currently fall short of either the requirements for the National Register of Public Service Interpreters or the excellent, more recently formed, police-approved interpreters scheme.

The noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, has kindly briefed me on the stakeholder forum which HMCTS and the MoJ have been holding. I would be grateful for an update on these discussions. In particular, is there any good reason why the MoJ should not adopt the same practice as the CPS and use only interpreters from the National Register of Public Service Interpreters, which would guarantee an appropriate level of qualification and significant experience of the court and justice system?

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, alongside requirements for experience which acknowledge the variation in complexity of cases. The level 6 standard is supported by the National Register of Public Service Interpreters, the Chartered Institute of Linguists, and the Association of Police and Court Interpreters. There is also support for the National Register of PSIs to be the officially recognised register for court interpreters. Are the Government willing to look at these aspects of a proposed minimum standard being incorporated into the Bill, which I believe would improve trust and confidence in the system?

I have two more brief but connected points. First, I am aware of concerns that the supply chain for court interpreters might not be robust enough to meet the minimum standard requirement that I have outlined. It is true that well over 1,000 public service interpreters have abandoned court interpreting over the past few years because of poor and declining terms and conditions, not least the derisory pay rates. However, a determined campaign could bring these highly skilled professionals back into public service, not just with better pay but also much greater recognition of their status and skills, and could attract more new linguists into the field. Does the Minister agree?

Finally, it has been reported that an American venture capital firm recently took a majority stake in thebigword, the company contracted to provide language services for our courts. What, if any, impact assessment or due diligence was undertaken by the department, HMCTS or thebigword on any changes in service delivery that this change in ownership is likely to have?

I look forward to the Minister’s reply and hope that, if all my questions cannot be answered this evening, either she or her colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, will be able to write to me.

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