PIA Meeting for Interpreters: Why you should Join the Boycott

I attended the PIA (Professional Interpreters’Alliance) meeting today in Birmingham along with seven other Sign Language Interpreters. We made an interesting little cohort at the back and everyone was pleased to see us. It felt a little bit like we came to the party late but at least we had finally turned up. I’m going to join too as it is only a tenner.

There is much worth repeating here for the benefit of those that could not make it and perhaps for Sign Language Interpreters this will help in being able to make an informed choice about whether or not to boycott the MoJ’s contract for interpreting and translation awarded to ALS now owned by Capita.

Firstly there was a reminder about how far court interpreting had come and how this contract has returned us straight back to a time when interpreting did not have rigorous standards in place.  The case of Iqbal Begum was quoted. She was a Pakistani woman who since arriving in the UK had suffered a torrent of domestic violence at the hands of her husband. One day when she could take it no longer she hit him over the head with an iron bar and killed him. Having learnt little English, she required an interpreter. This was in 1981. She had only answered one question to say she understood the charge against her. She had pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced accordingly without understanding the term manslaughter. She served four years in jail before an appeal. The details of which were only released in 1991 after pressure from the local community in Birmingham.

Whilst trawling the internet I found news of two publications released in 2004 highlighting standards within interpreting: An Equality Handbook for Judges and a guide to commissioning excellent interpreting services published by CILT. A mere eight years later and they may as well have not been written.

We then heard how David Cameron whilst speaking to voluntary associations, before the Coalition government came to power, said in a speech that they would distance themselves from large companies, that ministers would be encouraged NOT to outsource but rather that they should be more innovative and award contracts to smaller companies. The CEO of Capita, Paul Pindar was said upon the news that the Conservatives were in power that this was a good opportunity for them. They have since increased their turnover by 17%  to £2.6 billion. That is £325 million in pre-tax profits.

We heard that many linguists have been out of pocket by the time they have travelled and paid for petrol on the payments they have received. One man was even more out of pocket after non-payment.

We heard how the previous system may not have been perfect (what system is?) but that at least there was a system: courts could book direct using the NRPSI register of interpreters who had been trained and assessed through the Institute of Linguists and where the courts and associated services adhered to the National Agreement which was in place. What we have now of course is one company who has become the regulator, the trainer and assessor (though not many ‘linguists’ seem to have gone through any assessment at all) and there are few standards being upheld. There are many stories of ALS personnel sitting in the dock and not speaking a word to the defendant. There is clearly no interpreting involved here.

Next up we discussed how interpreting associations have not suggested a boycott but rather informed their members of the information and options available to them. Judges and solicitors have reportedly been impressed by the will of court interpreters to continue the boycott. This is impressive when you realise that many have been without work for over three months since this contract begun. That is the strength with which they fight this contract and the refusal to be denigrated into accepting less and having their profession torn apart.

So what of the future? We were urged to contact our MPs, to get questions asked in the Houses of Parliament. FOI requests are being ignored and the excuse used is that there are no centrally held records. As the cost would be prohibitive in collecting the data the FOI can then be dismissed. Getting your MP to ask questions is the only way.

We talked about the figures due to be released by the MoJ on Thursday which will cover the first three months that the contract was in place to the 30th April. Of course these are not the MoJ’s statistics. They are being collated by ALS. The stats are hardly likely to be unfavourable. How is that for public accountability?

The options for interpreters were discussed. As many now know, ALS are not filling this contract alone. Bookings are being farmed out to agencies (this is true in the case of Sign Language too with no less than four other agencies being handed out bookings, there maybe more).

Let us be clear, if you work for ANY agency doing a court (or police, or probation) booking you are helping this contract survive.

Courts are also now allowed to book interpreters direct. This is also true for Sign Language. There was much discussion about whether we should all boycott courts too. Although it is true that a contrast can be seen in quality when a properly trained and registered interpreter attends a booking it was whole-heartedly agreed that the boycott should continue.

The words that have been used are that this contract has created a ‘mixed economy’. It hasn’t. This contract is nothing more than a dangerous monopoly. Dangerous as it leaves a non-specialist in control of market conditions i.e. OUR terms and conditions. And do not think you are safe. In 2010 Sign Language Interpreters were hit by a tidal wave of outsourcing when the North West procurement hub handed over contracts to ALS thereby creating a local monopoly. Talk to any interpreter there and they will tell you what happened to standards, what happened to their terms and conditions.

What we had today was a room full of passionate interpreters who care about standards and access. Who have earned very little money in the last three months. Who understand that to work for this contract is to put nails in the proverbial coffin of our profession.

If you are a Sign Language Interpreter do not think you are safe. You are not. It is not that we are next, it has already happened. Our T&C’s are all ripe for the eroding now we have a monopoly and BSL and other spoken language agencies chomping at the bit to stay in business. One of whom stuck an unregistered signer in a courtroom.

Last week as I was a solicitors’ interpreter in court a BSL interpreter turned up for the first time. On the previous five occasions since this contract started… no interpreter. I could not bring myself to talk to her.

If you are an interpreter reading this, if you had been in that room today and you were aware of just what this contract has done, how the government has devalued interpreting, you saw the passion and commitment of the interpreters present and heard what the risks are of working for this company… No. You would be boycotting the framework agreement and any agency associated with the contract too.

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5 thoughts on “PIA Meeting for Interpreters: Why you should Join the Boycott

  1. I was one of those in attendance on Saturday and I have to say I gained a lot more strength and respect listening to our spoken language colleagues who are having a very rough time of it under the FWA. I would add that there are also BSL interpreters feeling the squeeze in many areas of community interpreting.

    The issue of Iqbal Begum being given an interpreter who did not share her language is laughable if it had not been for the fact that the case was allowed to continue. Many believe it is coming full circle again and it is only a matter of time before another huge injustice takes place. As indicated at the meeting, this may have already taken place – we just don’t know about it yet!

    What could be problematic for qualified and registered interpreters accepting direct bookings by the Courts or via an agency is that some of the ALS/Capita interpreters are themselves registered and therefore it would be difficult to contrast the two. The Court administration, not a Judge or a Magistrate, book interpreters and I have heard one or two stories where the Judge or Magistrate have thanked the directly booked interpreters believing them to be from ALS/Capita.

    I think it is a very sad reflection of the time that those small reputable agencies and indeed individual interpreters are being swallowed up by large corporations whose main aim in life is to make huge profits at the expense of Interpreters leading to Deaf and non English Speakers inevitably receiving a sub standard service.

    I strongly believe we should be joining with our spoken language colleagues on these issues.

  2. Interpreteranon said, “Let us be clear, if you work for ANY agency doing a court (or police, or probation) booking you are helping this contract survive”.
    ~~~~~
    I am very alive to the plight of my spoken language colleagues and understand and wholeheartedly empathise with the struggle that they face. I am 100% behind them in their fight for high quality interpreters, fair justice for service users and for a fair rate of remuneration which recognises their skills, expertise and training. If I were a spoken language interpreter I am in no doubt that I would be boycotting for all the compelling reasons that they are.

    However, the situation for Sign Language interpreters is VERY different. We are in the very fortunate position of finding that our worth IS appreciated within the MoJ Framework Agreement and we continue to receive acceptable rates and conditions of work. Whilst I do not condemn BSL interpreters who are boycotting in support of our beleaguered spoken language colleagues, I believe that rather than boycott, BSL interpreters are in a position to strengthen the argument for our spoken language colleagues by promoting a structure that is demonstrably successful and which validates the enhanced terms that we continue to receive. Good quality, reliable and professional BSL interpreters are in court every day and recently I have received direct comments from Judges, barristers and solicitors praising the standards that are being demonstrated by BSL interpreters whilst at the same time expressing their sympathy of the plight of spoken language interpreters and despondency/anger at the general service (or not) that is currently being provided. The comparison is stark – and is that not a wonderful way to hammer home the argument?

    Boycotting isn’t usually the best way to effect change as it works on the principal of holding people to ransom, which is in itself alienating. I accept that sometimes people have no other option, and I think our spoken language colleagues find themselves in this position, but I strongly believe that BSL interpreters (etc) do have other options and that they can do more to support the cause by bringing up the rear. No battle was ever won by employing one manoeuvre and I certainly don’t believe that the MOJ or the Government are going to allow themselves to be held to ransom. In order for change to happen the MOJ will need to have a lifeline, and the BSL terms within the current agreement may just be that lifeline!

    I can think of no better way to show the MoJ what works … and what doesn’t, and clearly the framework agreement as it stands for spoken language interpreters does not work! The success of our presence in courtrooms can be used as a tool to demonstrate the model that should define interpreting standards across ALL languages.

    • As a spoken language interpreter I have a question. Does it mean that the majority of sign language interpreters are happy to work for Capita/ALS/Clarion?
      And can you clarify what you mean by “acceptable rates and conditions of work”?

      T&C for spoken language interpreters are there in the open – 3 tiers – £22, £20 and £16 per hour, 1hr minimum payment, travel time only if longer than 1 hr and 25 miles calculated as the crow flies (not actual distance or time), mileage at £0.40 per mile, no other expenses, no cancellation fees. Ah, and £5 supplement if you accept your booking online. No provision for two interpreters if a booking eexceeds 1 hr (e.g. at crown courts trials).

      So if we are to show MoJ what works and what does not, let’s start with comparing our T&C.

      • Yes, the majority of sign language interpreters that do legal work are taking MoJ work via Clarion and the agency are achieving a very high fill rate. At this point I should make it clear that two weeks ago I was appointed ‘Head of Interpreting’ at Clarion, but that this response is a personal one and is not on behalf of the company. I’d also like to make it clear that I am a not a bureaucrat – I am a working interpreter having qualified 23 years ago and I have been working in the legal sector for over 17 years.

        The terms and conditions for BSL interpreters (and other deaf user services) are very different to those of spoken language interpreters, i.e. £30 ph (minimum 3 hours), travel expenses @ 40p per mile (or rail fare) plus parking. Mileage is calculated on ‘actual miles’, not as the crow flies. 100% cancellation fee is paid for less than three days’ notice but it is important to note that this is paid out of Clarion’s own coffers and is not covered within the Framework Agreement. It is sometimes possible to negotiate longer cancellation periods on an ad hoc basis.

        There are no tiers; this is the flat rate paid for all BSL assignments, but again, there is still some room for negotiation between the interpreter and Clarion.

        Court bookings of over 60 minutes duration will almost always utilise two interpreters and it is inconceivable that a trial would only have one interpreter. Indeed many cases require three or four court interpreters.

        I can also tell you that, contrary to suggestion, Clarion has absolutely no intention of lowering these terms – quite the opposite; if it is possible to increase the cancellation period, I will endeavour to make this happen.

        So, as you can see, the rates are not unfavourable which is why all but a small group of BSL interpreters are boycotting. I genuinely feel that to protest about these terms does not do us BSL interpreters NOR spoken language interpreters any favours and why we should be showing the MOJ that with these terms a successful, reliable, professional and high quality interpreting service can be reinstated. To do otherwise would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

        As I have already said, I believe the best way that we BSL interpreters can fight to ensure fair justice for deaf people, foreign language speakers and their interpreters is by demonstrating the stark comparison of a model that works – against a model that doesn’t!

  3. I am boycotting because I fundamentally disagree with the contract. I disagree with a large company having a monopoly, especially when they do not have the necessary expertise. Let’s look at the bigger picture: it is a monopoly and one which leaves us all in a dangerous position. We need only look at medical bookings where BSL agencies have been given sub-contracts only to be pushed out of the door once the spoken language agency feels it has gained the knowledge to be able to source the interpreters direct themselves or worse, get away with providing signers at a reduced cost. What happens then is said agency starts to push for ever more reduced fees.

    The company in question could not fill bookings itself so it went to what it calls a ‘mixed economy’ i.e. allowing courts to book direct. This has happened for BSL too as courts are so confused about the booking system in place. I have been to court where it appears the booking has been made but no interpreter provided. I have no doubt with a system of such chaos provided by the main contractor that bookings do not filter through in order to be fulfilled. I have seen this also. The promise was of efficiency, this has not been fulfilled. The promise was of huge savings. Due to many adjournments and failings, with BSL also, this has not been fulfilled. The promise was of only RSLIs being provided. Ditto, due to the mixed economy in place.

    The MoJ is not monitoring this contract. The company who has the contract is providing its own data, tomorrow. Just as with other statistics from the government I am expecting them to be skewed and not to reflect the reality we have all seen.

    As a British tax payer I am appalled at the lack of transparency and accountability, especially in the face of what we have seen over the last three months or so. BSL interpreting is a mere suggested 2% of the contract, albeit perhaps a slightly highly profile due to Deaf and disability rights. Sadly the Daily Mail attitude of the government means speakers of foreign languages are not afforded the same status it would appear. Nevertheless 2% it is. Do we really think change can be affected from within in the face of such a monopoly? I would say not quickly and not for all. If BSL interpreters were to stand their ground over this contract the whole thing would probably have failed by now and we would all be better off for it.

    And we’d still be able to hold out for our old cancellation charges, rates and rights. What we have now is NOT the same. No. BSL interpreters, whether they were the more inexperienced ones or not, who have accepted jobs under this contract have only proven that there are BSL interpreters who will work for less. I’d suggest that wasn’t a good strategy at all.

    This week at the Criminal Bar Association, 90% of Barristers, under pressure of changes from new tendering processes said they would strike. I have seen this same strength, courage and unity from spoken language interpreters. I have yet to see it from BSL interpreters.

    Jen

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