In the last Parliament I secured a Westminster Hall Debate on plans by police forces in the North West to “outsource” their interpreting service to an agency. (By outsourcing I mean paying an agency to provide interpreters, rather than booking them direct.) There is a lot of evidence to show that such outsourcing led to a lowering of standards of interpreting, with lots of unqualified people being sent, instead of those with interpreting qualifications. The debate fell on deaf ears. Unfortunately the Government hasn’t learnt from the previous Government’s mistakes and now the Ministry of Justice has decided to put the provision of interpreting services into the hands of one company – Applied Language Solutions, who are one of a number of agencies that have come in for criticism in the past.
Last week I secured an “end of day of adjournment” and once again argued against outsourcing –
Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): A framework agreement to regulate the supply of police and court public service interpreters has been brokered by the Ministry of Justice. Its intentions are to endeavour to ensure that interpreting services to the judiciary and police are delivered to a high standard via qualified interpreters in a way intended to save about £18 million annually against the current £60 million budget. The Ministry of Justice has decided that the best way to do so is to let a contract to a single self-regulating commercial organisation that will book interpreters, individually or through agencies, to service the police and courts; determine a rate for the job; and monitor not only the quality of the interpreters’ work and need for further training and review, but its own performance. However, it is highly questionable whether this framework agreement and Applied Language Solutions, which is the agency that will provide interpreters, will be able to meet the Ministry of Justice’s requirements.
The plans introduce three tiers of interpreters, and the intention is to rank interpreters into one of three categories, with a rate of pay of £22 for tier 1, £20 for tier 2, and £16 for tier 3. Interpreters will be ranked according to their qualifications, but also subject to the agency’s own assessment, to which already fully qualified interpreters would be expected to subject themselves at their own personal cost. These rates of pay, along with severe restrictions on travel expenses and an end to travel-time payments, will result in interpreters refusing to sign up to the agency, or to take specific jobs, because of the low rates of pay. I have received evidence from one interpreter in Greater Manchester whose current net pay after travel expenses for a typical magistrates court job in Greater Manchester is £103.75 for anything up to a three-hour job, whereas under the proposed framework agreement it would be £10 for a one-hour job or £50 for a three-hour job, which equates to £4.44 per hour for one hour, rising to £11.76 per hour if the job lasts three hours.
Perhaps an even starker example is that of a Lithuanian-speaking interpreter who sometimes has to travel to Plymouth Crown court from Surrey because of a lack of qualified Lithuanian-speaking interpreters. Under the current agreement, they would receive £246.25 after travel costs for the 11.5-hour return trip. Under the new framework agreement, this would be minus £65.10 after travel costs. Does the Minister seriously think that that is acceptable, and does he really think that this will be an incentive to accept that particular job?
When one adds in the additional disincentives of no pension, holiday pay or sick pay, as well as no job security and no increase in interpreters’ rate of pay since 2007, it is unthinkable to assume that these proposed rates of pay and costs are suitable. It also seems perverse that the new framework agreement encourages the use of an interpreter’s car rather than public transport. Currently, standard-class fares are reimbursed in full, while the car mileage rate is 25p a mile. A higher rate of 45p a mile, which is more in line with the true cost of running a car per mile, along with parking costs, is payable only if the interpreter can show that there was no public transport option. However, under the new arrangements all calculations will be based on the use of a personal car and public transport costs will not be covered—not much of an incentive for interpreters to reduce their carbon emissions and travel on public transport.
One of the stated aims of the framework agreement is increasing the number of suitably qualified and vetted interpreters to meet the demand. There are currently around 2,300 interpreters registered with the national register of public service interpreters. Applied Language Solutions claims that 1,000 linguists have signed up to its Linguist Lounge recruitment website. That means a cut of around 1,300 qualified interpreters available to the courts system, assuming that all 1,000 are NRPSI-qualified. If they are not, the cut in qualified interpreters will be even greater. The failure of ALS to reach agreement with at least 1,300 qualified interpreters shows the level of opposition to the proposals, in spite of evidence to suggest that ALS has sought to pressurise interpreters into signing up, with thinly veiled threats that the registration is closing soon. Does the Minister think that that is appropriate behaviour for a company purporting to implement the legal interpreting and translation register, which surely must be consistently open to applicants as a public resource?
Does the Minister also think that closing the list when more than half the NRPSI-qualified interpreters have refused to sign up will increase the availability of suitably qualified and vetted interpreters? Of course, it will not. We should look at the evidence from where outsourcing has already taken place and at its impact on the quality and availability of interpreters. The Ministry of Justice claimed on 6 July that “collaborative authorities” had “concerns that NRPSI registration does not necessarily guarantee quality. The evidence for this is anecdotal, but has been consistent enough to warrant action.”
I would prefer to rely on hard evidence, and there is significant evidence that the outsourcing of interpreting services by police forces has resulted in the use of unqualified interpreters.
When Cheshire constabulary outsourced to ALS, only 34% of the interpreters provided by ALS were on the NRPSI. In Lincolnshire, outsourcing led to a reduction of registered interpreters from 68% to less than 30%. Where outsourcing has taken place there has been a significant reduction in the number of registered interpreters being used—clear evidence that the quality and availability of interpreters is reduced.
There is lots of evidence to suggest that where unqualified interpreters have been used there have been delays in police and court action, resulting in additional costs. I have been handed pages and pages of examples of unqualified interpreters being sent to police stations and courts by agencies, or interpreters proficient in the wrong language. One example that made it into Private Eye was ALS providing a Czech-speaking interpreter for a Slovak-speaking suspect. ALS’s explanation was that
“it is fair to say that most people from Slovakia essentially speak Czech.”
Is this really the sort of organisation that we want in charge of ensuring that justice is done?
Other questions have been raised about the suitability of ALS to fulfil the role. The Minister has already assured me that the Department’s procurement specialists were satisfied by the company’s stability and probity, but the fact remains that more than 50% of qualified interpreters do not and will not work for it. The company has been found to be in breach of the Data Protection Act 1998 on three occasions since 2007. Can the Minister assure me that potentially highly sensitive data are safe and that is it appropriate for them to be handled in non-UK call centres?
Finally, will the Minister explain why foreign-language-speaking interpreters are being treated differently from British sign language interpreters, who will retain their existing terms and conditions? Surely that contravenes sections 13 and 19 of the Equality Act 2010, by providing less favourable terms to foreign-language interpreters? The Ministry of Justice also intends effectively to re-test foreign-language interpreters, but not British sign language interpreters. Surely it is a contradiction that the Ministry accepts BSL qualifications as valid but rejects foreign-language interpreters, even though they have the same level of accredited qualification.
These proposals have not been properly thought through. The MOJ has failed to look at the evidence from outsourcing, and failed to treat all interpreters equitably. I hope that it is not too late for the Government to take a step back and review this decision. If they cannot do that, I would at the very least strongly urge the Minister closely to monitor the performance of the service, paying close attention to the delays and additional costs that will undoubtedly occur when cases are delayed as a result of a lack of an available interpreter, or when mistakes are made when under-qualified interpreters are used.