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Wednesday, 26 January 2022

PQ: 26 January 2021


Courts: Interpreters

Ministry of Justice written question – answered on 26th January 2022.

Thangam Debbonaire Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

To ask the Secretary of State for Justice, what criteria are used to assess the suitability of an interpreting agency for use in court work; and how that work is assessed and monitored against those criteria for individual providers.

James Cartlidge Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice)

As per the Public Contract Regulations 2015, the suppliers with which we have contracts in place were assessed against the publicly published evaluation criteria for that tender. Please find evaluation criteria attached.

Ongoing quality is maintained in a number of forms:

  • Monitoring of key performance indicators including, but not limited to, attendance, security and complexity uplifts on bookings, portal availability, helpdesk, complaints, data provision;
  • Inclusion of comprehensive audit rights and open book accounting clauses allowing MoJ to check the supplier maintains financial stability and their obligations under the contract;
  • Use of sub-contractors is quality assured by an on-boarding approval process and quarterly reviews and audits to ensure compliance from the sub-contractor in accordance with supplier obligations in the contract.
  • A quality assurance contract provides independent spot checks of interpreter performance against a predefined checklist, linked to the standards in the contract, in a consistent manner. Those that fail are removed from the approved register until an in-person assessment has been conducted by the QA provider, and that assessment has subsequently been passed and the QA provider is confident that the Language Professional can be reinstated to the register. The language professional will then be mystery shopped again within 6 months of reinstatement.

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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.