Who Benefits from the Privatisation of Public Sector Interpreting?

Three recent blog posts from Aisha Maniar, a human rights activist and writer, are absolutely brilliant. They’re informative, comprehensive and offer us an insight into the whole history of the pitfalls of privatising interpreting services and the government’s incessant drive to do so.

For BSL/English Interpreters it is so important that we understand the context and politics of what happens to the contracts we are booked under, that we join a union (NUBSLI) and support our counterparts: spoken language interpreters.

I re-blog the articles here for anyone who may not have seen them yet. They really are worthy of your time, please read.

Who Benefits from the Privatisation of Public Sector Interpreting? Part I

Who Benefits from the Privatisation of Public Sector Interpreting? Part II

Who Benefits from the Privatisation of Public Sector Interpreting? Part III

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One Year on: The Ministry of Justice’s Failed Interpreting Contract

The latest on the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) contract, which is approaching its one year anniversary, is that the contract holders, Capita are still hanging on. From 8th January the travel costs are being slashed to 20p per mile. Travel costs were the only benefit for people accepting a job as a ‘linguist’ (their term for an untrained interpreter and insulting to real linguists). There are already grumblings.

Any clued-up interpreter knew this was due to happen and it is why the boycott has been admirably sustained by all those that are professionals and know their worth. Here follows a summary of what has happened over the last year:

  • Key interpreter organisations object to a monopoly contract and point out what should be the minimum standards as already set up in the National Agreement.
  • ALS awarded contract by promising unsustainable savings despite protests.
  • ALS offers interpreters greatly reduced payments for working in courts.
  • Professional interpreters refuse to work under these conditions for ludicrously low payments.
  • The courts are thrown into chaos with many bookings unfilled and courts experiencing many adjournments and delays.
  • Bonuses are paid to entice anyone to accept work (£5 extra for accepting an online booking) and mileage and payments are increased to entice ‘linguists’ to court.
  • Untrained, unqualified speakers of other languages, sometimes those who do not even speak the languages they say they do, start to work for the contract.
  • Reports are numerous amongst interpreters and reach the UK media of linguists travelling miles to rack up travel payments.
  • Courts continue to experience severe delays.
  • Capita takes over ALS and pays £7.5 million and invests a further £5.4 million.
  • Several ALS and Capita personnel leave including ex-Chief Executive Gavin Wheeldon.
  • Parliamentary hearings confirm what everybody knew: the contract holders know nothing about interpreting or the standards that were put in place before the contract removed them.
  • From instructions set out by the Public Accounts Committee, Capita start to CRB check the ‘linguists’ registered on its database, check whether they actually have qualifications and start to tighten up checks. These were fairly non-existent until this point.
  • A year after the contract starts mileage rates slashed to 20p per mile and effort is made to find local personnel, the contract promised that interpreters would be sourced from within a 25 mile radius, but with the payments originally offered this did not happen.

The next chapter in this story will surely be that no-one will work for Capita at the proposed rates. £16 – £22 per hour for a court job, with many being classed at the £16 per hour level – if someone paid out more than they were allowed to claim and travelled far to attend a job, Capita’s so-called linguists would be working for less than the minimum wage. The MoJ surely could not expect professionals for those prices and professionals it does not get. The courts have seen a parade of second-jobbers standing in for professional interpreters including hotel staff walking out of courts before hearings are finished to get back to their real jobs, reports of mis-interpretations abound and ‘linguists’ who do not speak their stated languages.

Capita’s website reveals no mention of standards, of registration (NRPSI or NRCPD), of minimum levels of qualifications, of CRB checks, Codes of Conduct or professional indemnity insurance. The only word they use is ‘qualified’. In what exactly, it is not clear. Perhaps anything other than languages or even interpreting, going by the personnel they are still sending to courts.

And what of Sign Language Interpreting? The contract has changed the face of interpreting mainly due to how the booking system works. The Capita monopoly just does not work. With patches of evidence of lowered standards in place it ticks over, many afraid to report bad practice due to confidentiality. More job requests are issued directly from courts and are being farmed out to agencies who have never been heard of and who may never have booked a Sign Language Interpreter. Worrying as they will not be aware of our standards of registration. With no monitoring of the contract by the MoJ this leaves us in a risky situation that has already seen influent sign language users, who are not yet registered interpreters, working in courts, despite promises by the MoJ.

There no longer seems to be a preferred supplier as the jobs that are released by Capita go out to a myriad of sign language interpreting agencies and some spoken language ones. Let us remember whenever there is a monopoly situation, the larger company inevitably uses competition between sub-contractors to drive the price down. We have seen this with another large spoken language agency and their numerous public service contracts leaving us in a situation where the least experienced interpreters are doing jobs that should be done by the most experienced such as mental health, child protection and probation.

In the courts it has been reported that some newly registered interpreters are accepting court or police work, often without any additional training. Why? Some agencies like to reassure interpreters they are capable. Less scrupulous agencies will tell an interpreter anything to fill the job. It is not their decision whether an interpreter should do the job but it is up to the interpreter in question. This practice by agencies has happened for years but newer interpreters are left ever more vulnerable by a changed economic landscape and an unwillingness to pay for support networks such as ASLI. This is how many of us learned to be professionals and to see ourselves as a collective. Let us all remind ourselves of the NRCPD’s Code of Conduct for competence: You must recognise and work within the limits of your competence, and if necessary, refer on to another proficient professional.

Although there are still experienced court interpreters working for Capita. Many are not or state they are experienced but actually are not up to the job. One of the most important skills a court interpreter should have is an ability to monitor their own output and enter into discussions about their work. If you see bad practice in courts please report it to the NRCPD. Often the Deaf clients, if vulnerable, will not be able to do so. It is our duty.

Stories abound of clients not understanding court interpreters. Perhaps interpreters are not insisting on Deaf relay interpreters when it is needed, perhaps when one is not present they do not have the skills to deliver the court proceedings in a way that the Deaf people present will understand something, no matter what their level of language or conceptual understanding. Court work is often not the same as working with a Deaf person who has such good language skills that even if you are not that good an interpreter they will do the processing for you whilst you sign something vaguely relevant to what is going on.

One reader of this blog reports: One client stated they had not understood the interpreters in court and she did not know what she had been there for, what the charge was and what the outcome of the proceedings were. When pressed by the solicitor she could not answer. The interpreter states they interpreted in more or less international sign as this was not a native user of BSL. Her companion eventually stated the charge, that she was found guilty but had not yet been sentenced.

Unfortunately this is more common than it used to be. Will our situation get worse if we too are subjected to a further drop in terms and conditions? Capita will be looking to make savings somewhere as they can not drop the rates of spoken language interpreters any more than they have. With a flat rate of £34 per hour that is not a margin that screams profit, especially not when they are being subjected to wasted costs orders by judges. With no mention of standards of BSL/English interpreting stated presumably they are covered to send anyone who can pick up their hands and pretend, much like the linguists who speak Bulgarian but interpret in Russian and which ever language they can get away with.

This is not access to justice for Deaf people and especially not for speakers of other languages. The British justice system is often seen as the fairest in the world. Just not anymore if you speak another language.

National Audit Office Report on the MoJ’s Interpreting Contract

There was a hearing by the Public Accounts Committee on Monday 15th October following the recent publication of a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) on the Ministry of Justice’s contract for interpreting and translation which was damning. Firstly comments on the NAO report dated 10th September.

Spoken language interpreters have done an impressive job in collecting a dossier of evidence to present to the NAO and the Justice Select Committee, whose hearing is due on 23rd October.

The NAO has done its own research into the contract and thought the failings in the contract were apparent. Those in the know from the reality on the ground, know it is much worse than the already awful picture portrayed by the NAO’s report.

Other have commented on the report already. Here are some more including links to other reports:

It is stated that on the 22nd Feb the MoJ threatened to rescind the contract (a mere 22 days into it). Why it was allowed to continue is a mystery. The mayhem continues and this includes BSL with no interpreters provided, bookings at short notice and a multitude of agencies now being used to fill the contract. ALS/Capita have continued to throw money at it including having to pay wasted cost orders issued by judges. Those fines do not include the obvious costs of having to haul your Barristers in front of a bench quite regularly. Do not think wasted costs have stopped. They continue.

The report quotes (section 3.8) that interpreters had a pay drop of 8%. This rather modest figure has been checked and recalculated. It’s not true. If it were 8% why would linguists have been travelling the country accepting assignments just to make a profit on the travel? Klasiena Slaney has worked out the figure is actually in the region of a 60-80% drop leaving interpreters earning below the minimum wage.

Stats of 98% fulfilled bookings had been quoted for ‘some days’. This begs the questions: filled with what kind of quality of interpreter when only 13%, some 300 NRPSIs are working for this contract (3.18). The MoJ say ALS are currently filling 95% of bookings. The overall 98% target seems to have been forgotten by the MoJ. It could be claiming service credits worth thousands but is not because it is not holding the contractors to account.

A particular favourite was section 3.12 – payments for linguists could be entered on the portal by the linguists themselves. Considering this was allowed by people employed without CRB checks, coupled with reports of ex-criminals working as interpreters to help get their partners-in-crime let off, it is a serious matter.

ALS/Capita now says it can not assess some languages as set out in the contract, section 3.16. The interpreting organisations did forewarn the MoJ.

Overall apart from these findings, the NAO report appears to still support the contract. It states (2.17) that Capita’s review in July of ALS shows that there is now less risk. That is a given. It could not be any worse than it was.

The report excuses the MoJ: they just were not aware of how interpreting was arranged and the true costs involved. Indeed. There should have been proper research done before awarding a national contract on the basis of guesstimates to a relatively small company.

At the end of the day the MoJ were given a report stating they should award a contract to ALS of no more than £1 million as this posed a risk. The MoJ wanted to award them a contract worth £42 million. The NAO criticises the MoJ for a lack of due diligence on this point. It is quite clearly outsourcing gone mad. Even thatcher wouldn’t have done that.

For further analysis of the NAO report see the excellent and often quoted LinguistLounge.org.

The MoJ Interpreting Contract Fiasco: Is It Over?

Anecdotal reports over the past few weeks have pointed to continued failures of provision of interpreters to the MoJ. Interpreters are still travelling from Birmingham to London for a morning’s work then failing to stay for the afternoon leaving courts stranded as the only way a ‘linguist’, i.e. untrained interpreter, can make a living is by increasing their travel expenses.

The ‘linguist’ who caused a collapsed trial to the tune of £25k was seen working in courts again despite the collapse being in the papers.

West Midlands Police are letting suspects out on bail as it is taking days to get someone to come to the station, once this reportedly included witnesses in a murder case.

Criminals who have not been CRB checked are working in courts as ‘linguists’ and are reportedly ‘helping their mates stay out of jail.’

Other reports suggest some courts have given up using the national framework agreement (FWA) altogether and are back to sourcing their own interpreters. This would be one reason that would explain, amongst others, why many more court bookings are coming through a variety of agencies for Sign Language Interpreters.

Key ALS executives, David Joseph and Richard Loyer, amongst others, who were in charge of interpreting have reportedly left and joined a translation company called Language Wire and Gavin Wheeldon no longer has ALS as current on his LinkedIn profile and is now working for a catering company.

The misinformation that has been coming out from Minsters, namely Crispin Blunt, that interpreters earned six figure salaries, that the old system was a complete mess and that the new all-singing, all-dancing systems were going to save millions was always going to be hard to counteract.

The problem for government has always been that the figures the proposed savings were calculated on were created out of thin air. This is why FOI’s have gone unanswered. There are no figures. The only figures we have were created by the company themselves. Rather than proper research, a comprehensive scoping exercise with well thought out recommendations, what really happened was the contract was given to the lowest bidder and we were left with a mess.

It may seem quiet. It isn’t. It is just that the media is waiting for the outcome of the political fight which is happening behind closed doors and about to come to fruition. Hats off to the Professional Interpreters for Justice, Unite the Union, the Professional Interpreters’ Alliance, APCI, SPSI and all the interpreters who have held firm and boycotted the contract at risk of losing their livelihoods, their homes. What we have now is stalemate.

MP Magaret Hodge took the concerns of interpreters to the National Audit Office and the contract is being investigated. Dossiers of the many failures observed by interpreters monitoring the courts when they had no work have been produced as evidence. The Public Accounts Office have been alerted. So too the Justice Select Committee. A parliamentary event for MPs is being organised.

In the contract, failure to supply results in penalties. Judges who are minded to do so when cases have been adjourned have charged ALS with wasted costs orders. The barrister costs for each time a wasted costs order is brought must be substantial. The other penalties in the form of service credits as stated in the FWA can not be profitable. The proposed figure that Capita is losing on this contract that I have heard from three difference sources is a hefty sum. Per week. Capita can afford to take the loss but why keep a contract that does not and cannot perform?

The original business model was to supply language speakers within a 25 miles radius cheaply to courts having made these potential ‘interpreters’ pay for their own assessments at £125. That got dropped within weeks of the start of the contract to ‘free’ when noone would work for this company, then the assessment was dropped altogether. ALS are reportedly now saying that they will insist their interpreters are properly qualified and they should have passed the DPSI exam. The weekly updates of proposed service improvments mean that the original business model barely exists. It can not be profitable any longer and with growing political pressure it is surely only a matter of time before talks with interpreting associations will resume and alternatives to this fiasco will be tabled.

We are looking at a real opportunity. No longer do the media label interpreters as scroungers, the courts can recognise an interpreter of quality and work can be done with government on ensuring trained, registered interpreters are in court working for fair pay, and being respected for it. And the government could save money if it learns its lesson and works with the interpreting associations rather than against. They’ll be a lot of people soon saying I told you so.

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.

How to save money on Court Interpreters: Don’t book them

We are approaching the end of April, the time at which the contract between ALS and the MoJ for provision of interpreting and translation is due to be reviewed. To mark this occasion the spoken language interpreters have organised another London demo.

Without monitoring information being made public we do not know the real effect of this framework agreement. In fact neither do ministers. A recent question in the House of Commons to the Attorney General highlighted this problem. When asked what the cost was of delays and adjournments due to late or non-attendance of interpreters the answer was the cost of collecting data would be disproportionate.

This lack of centralised data is, of course, why the contract was awarded and why savings are not materialising in the way they should have been. The figures the government have used were based on estimates and extrapolations. The result has been an unworkable agreement and a refusal by NRPSIs to work under the contract. Interpreters are being sent miles to work (the promise was interpreters would come from a 25 miles radius, the reality is up to a 564 round trip, 366 miles, you can find many more examples on LinguistLounge.org). And the personnel are not necessarily, also as promised, qualified interpreters either but anyone who says they can speak another language with speakers being sourced from the streets outside of court, pizza delivery boys and Google Translate being used in emergencies.

The more worrying trend is that due to this debacle courts have just given up trying to book an interpreter. An irony as the new system was supposed to make it all easier. A Sign Language Interpreter sent in this experience:

‘I attended a Crown Court the other day having been booked by the defence. I have already, last month, been to a family court where I was the only interpreter booked when there should have been four and had strong suspicions that there would be no court interpreter present.

On arriving in Crown Court I discovered quickly there were indeed no court interpreters and I was expected to interpret all consultations outside of court for the defence as well as the court proceedings. In my previous experience the court books interpreters and for a pre-sentencing hearing such as this a court interpreter can interpret consultations for defence too or there would be two interpreters present, especially for a difficult case such as the one I was there to do. After five hours of interpreting inside and outside of court the defendant was sentenced. The judge addressed the defence Barrister and thanked him for the use of his interpreter and explained to the court that since the new contract had come into force the court was finding it was nearly impossible to get an interpreter through this new system. The judge then thanked me for my hard work and left the court.’

With the three month review period approaching and a government who is only concerned about cutting costs it would not be surprising if the MoJ states how the new framework has saved them rather a lot of money:

– When interpreters are booked by Counsel, rather than by the courts, the cost is covered by Legal Aid. These are still funds from the public purse but as the costs will not show up under the framework agreement the MoJ will assume they are spending less.

– When court cases go ahead with Google Translate there is no cost to the public purse. But unlikely a fair and just result will occur.

– When speakers of other languages are dragged in off the street, are they paid? Probably not.

– When adjournments and delays occur there is great cost to the public purse. As these are not centrally recorded there will be only anecdotal and no statistical evidence. And, again, they will not be reflected as costs under the framework agreement.

– There are reports that the booking system which is supposed to provide a one-stop shop is not working and courts can barely get through to talk to someone. Oh and the call centres are in various parts of the world where they do not understand geographical distances. If courts can not use a system to book an interpreter the MoJ, again, saves money.

In reality this framework agreement maybe appearing to save the MoJ costs but this is unlikely to be the case. Instead of making interpreter bookings more efficient it has made more work for court staff, reduced efficiencies for court personnel including barristers and judges and has taken away good quality access by trained and registered interpreters in favour of a hodge-podge of workarounds when a qualified interpreter is not sourced. Which is more frequently than not. No, this framework agreement is surely saving the MoJ money. They are no longer booking Court Interpreters.

A Demonstration of Solidarity

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A belated update on the demonstrations by spoken language interpreters:

I attended the demo in my lunch hour on 15th March. As far as I know I was the only sign language interpreter who attended the London demo and there was one other interpreter in attendance at the demo in Manchester.

There are more sign language interpreters in support of terminating the MoJ’s disastrous framework agreement but who couldn’t attend.

Nevertheless at the demo I witnessed great solidarity, a sense of community, a clarity of direction. All of which I have, sadly, not witnessed for some time with sign language interpreters in the UK.

I take my hat off to the interpreters who have stuck together and I sincerely hope this farcical agreement is scrapped. When, not if, it does, sign language interpreters and Deaf people will have you to thank for that and I am humbled and grateful.