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.