BBC: See Hear Interpreting Special

In the face of growing threat to the Sign Language Interpreting profession in the UK and the lack of access Deaf people are experiencing in the light of budget cuts, the BBC’s Deaf community programme, See Hear, has produced a special about Sign Language interpreting. Since 2010 the interpreting profession in the UK has been threatened with changing market forces, BSL agencies being squeezed out of that market and the subsequent loss of expertise. The changes have now filtered through to the rest of the UK with more devastating effects.

The programme features, in no particular order, an interview with me as owner of this blog; Kate Furby, an interpreter based in London; ASLI representatives: National Chair, Sarah Haynes and Working Group Chair, Bibi Lacey-Davidson; Paul Parsons from the NRCPD explaining interpreter registration and the complaints process; interpreting students from Wolverhampton University who are concerned about rising debts and whether they will be able to find work once they graduate; Terry Riley who is Chair of the British Deaf Association and feedback directly from the Deaf community talking about what they require from interpreters and their views on standards of interpreters.

Much of the focus is on a decrease in the standards of interpreters, the effect of one stop shop contracts with spoken language agencies and how community interpreting and Deaf access is in jeopardy by agencies’ use of unregistered, untrained signers.

The programme was first aired on Wednesday 23rd May on BBC2 at 1pm. It is available on the BBC’s iplayer until the 27th June 2012: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01j8chn/See_Hear_Series_32_Episode_8/

If you have any comments about the programme that you would like to share here please leave a comment on this blogpost. The effects of outsourcing have been affecting Deaf people’s access for over two years and interpreters are starting to leave the profession as some can not earn an income. The subsequent affects could make access even less likely. This is certainly an issue we all need to talk about more.

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.

When we resign ourselves to acceptance, do we desensitise ourselves to what is happening on the ground?

Have Interpreters resigned themselves to accept and even expect that level of access provided to the Deaf community, that they have trained to serve, to be as poor as it is in this current day?

I am not naive to the fact that the situation we find ourselves in today with ‘signers’ turning up to jobs parading themselves as Interpreters is anything new; it has been going on decades. However we are in 2012. We now have over 700 Registered Sign Language Interpreters (RSLIs) on the NRCPD register and many more Trainee (TI) and Junior Trainee Interpreters (JTIs) quickly following in their footsteps. Is it acceptable that at medical appointments people are still forced to accept ‘signers’ or worse still, use their parents, friends, children?

When the first video was published on Facebook from ASLI’s Professional & Consumers Working Group, urging the Deaf community to come forward with their stories of poor access to Healthcare, it did cause a stir in the Deaf community, but it wasn’t enough for people to come forward. It was perhaps that the Deaf community were just ‘used to’ the level of access they were being provided. Probably because in the areas where there is poor service, it is what they have received for years and so this has become expected. People have perhaps become resigned to their fate.

I believe that Interpreters may have resigned themselves to the same fate. We have become so used to hearing all these stories intermittently through our everyday working lives that we have become hardened to them. This may be a form of self-preservation, professional preservation even, but what does it achieve? The ‘signers’ are still out there, still taking on work, still causing upset and mayhem when they are unable to cope with the level of Sign Language or English used; and they are parading themselves as members of our profession. I’m sure we all agree that they are clearly not professional otherwise they would know and understand their limits and not take on such work in the first place.

But what are we doing about it? There are a few who are standing up to defend the profession, a few working on standards and awareness in an effort to prevent such harm, but a handful of 700 is hardly going to make waves. The ripples can only reach so far. If everyone sticks their head in the sand, or carries on thinking all is well because someone else is already fighting the cause, then we are not going to get very far.

We all need to do our bit, wear our NRCPD badges to EVERY job, even those regular bookings in that office we’ve been working in for years. Remind clients of the standard they should be expecting, so the next time they have a medical appointment they know to look out for the badge. It may even be an awareness exercise if someone had no knowledge of registration of Interpreters in the first place and just ‘liked your signing’; the excuse most often heard from ‘signers’ parading themselves as ‘good Interpreters’.

What will it take for the profession to unite and stand up for ourselves? Mistakes happen, they have been occurring for years. Are we not a large enough group of professionals now to make more noise about it and stand up for ourselves, the people we serve and prevent any more of a reduction in access and standards for the Deaf community?

Bibi Lacey-Davidson

Chair of the Professional & Consumers Working Group, ASLI

Unqualified ‘Signer’ used in Court

It is generally accepted that interpreting provision for the courts has been rather less than efficient over the last three months. It has borne a frightening situation and now an alleged breach of the contract.

As courts have given up with alarming regularity and taken it upon themselves to book interpreters direct. Many of whom on the NRPSI refuse to do so as they understand that working directly for the courts would give the Ministry of Justice an impression all was well. Courts have begged and pleaded for the old system to come back to no avail. We still have a stand off. The three month review period was up at the end of last month yet no information has been released.

It is clear that the main contractor is struggling to fill bookings. Requests for interpreters are being farmed out to other agencies.

I’ve seen three different Sign Language agencies filling bookings either from the main contractor or direct from exasperated court staff. This is aside from the main preferred supplier for Sign Language Interpreting who it would seem does not even get sight of all the bookings as the system is so inefficient.

Firstly if you are a Sign Language Interpreter and you do not wish to work for the main contractor, i.e. ALS, then taking any booking from any agency or court is nevertheless helping them fulfil the contract. You can make an informed decision. If you accept solicitors assignments be warned. The judge may get you to interpret anyway. I’ve had three of these bookings and in all three I was expected by all involved to interpret for the court. Once they purposely booked me to interpret for the court even though the booking came via the defence counsel as the judge explained they could not source an interpreter any other way.

Secondly it is not only BSL agencies that bookings have been given to in an attempt to get anyone in there last minute. One spoken language agency accepted a Sign Language booking for court recently and put in someone with level 3 BSL (British Sign Language qualification equivalent of high school), no interpreter training and who therefore could not have been on the NRCPD register. The Deaf relay interpreter stated they had to look at the solicitor and lip read them to relay this to the client as they had no hope of getting the information from the ‘signer’ in court. I have decided not to name the level 3 signer who runs his own company for unregistered interpreters and clearly does not understand the risks of interpreting in court before competent to do so.

It is clear this is a large contract and one that the contractor can not fill alone. As a result we have this situation: not only is the MoJ not monitoring the contract, it would appear the contractor cannot even monitor itself. Standards have suffered. The risks of using unregistered Interpreters in court whilst the most vulnerable of Deaf people are the ones most likely to be in the system do not bear thinking about. There was a promise that only NRCPD registered interpreters would used in court. A contract clause which has now been breached. Was a level 3 in court the first time it has happened under this contract? Who knows. More importantly will it be the last?

Interpreters: Undervalued, Under-respected and Under-employed

There are many reasons as to why I started this blog. Mostly it is because in the face of a changing market I felt interpreting had become undervalued. The profession was changing as a result and was affecting not only interpreters but also access for the Deaf community.

The hot topic between interpreters whenever they meet is usually are you getting enough work right now. Mostly, we’re not.

With spoken language agencies taking a lot of the health, council and legal contracts, there are interpreters out there who are now struggling to find work. It is not that the work has disappeared. Deaf people haven’t. It’s just a fact that Registered Interpreters are being used less. We are under-employed.

Over the years I have heard interpreters and Deaf people say community interpreting should be done by the best interpreters but is often done by the least experienced. Why do a GP job when you can interpret a conference? Of course all access is important for Deaf people but it is some of the most vulnerable Deaf people that need access to community interpreters. By ‘community’ I include medical, legal, mental health, social services, housing…

A community interpreter has to be prepared for anything. They need a large toolbox of skills to be able to give access to a Deaf person who may have minimal language skills, poor educational background, learning disabilities, mental health issues, a different sign language if a recent immigrant or maybe very little sign language at all. A Deaf relay interpreter is not always at hand.

Can an unregistered inexperienced signer have the confidence to know that the Deaf person left knowing how to take their tablets and that they understand their condition, symptoms or lack of them? Did they facilitate communication in a mental health appointment so that a Care Co-ordinator or Psychologist could do their job and know that their patient was safe? Is a Looked After Child really safe if a Social Worker does not get full access to what is happening at an appointment? Does the Deaf parents’ child get taken away if an Interpreter is not there to communicate for Mum and Dad? Do they then end up in court proceedings and would they have access to the justice system?

It takes years to train as an Interpreter and get the appropriate skills to deal with the above scenarios. The more you understand the intricacies of community interpreting the more you understand an experienced Interpreter is not an option but a necessity.

Why then have spoken language agencies been awarded some of these contracts? Do they really say they can provide interpreters for the unit costs that are being quoted? A colleague did some mystery shopping with some spoken language agencies and found, in horror, many were willing to accept her for work without seeing a police check, insurance or even any qualifications. Some were not only prepared to put someone with a level 2 (GCSE equivalent) or 3 (A-Level) qualification but some did not even ask for any qualifications at all. That is right. You can now be employed to be a Sign Language Interpreter without knowing any Sign Language. And get paid for it. This is how some NHS trusts and councils are spending their interpreting budgets.

I feel respected by other professionals for my skills. I think we rarely get this respect from Commissioners of services. Paying for a Registered Interpreter means other professionals can do their jobs properly and therefore safely. There is value for money in this alone. It is an utter waste of public funds that contracts are not effectively monitored, FOIs reveal some organisations are paying the same per interpreter booking but for people with GCSE language skills. Could you interpret a medical appointment with GCSE Spanish? On the other hand Registered Interpreters are struggling to find work. We are officially under-employed.

The implications of this are immense. We may see a profession that sheds its most experienced members, people may stop training (why pay for qualifications when you can get work at the hospital with level 2) and community interpreting will become community signing. Deaf people will not get access to services, including the most vulnerable Deaf people who need it the most.

Interpreters. We are being undervalued, under-respected and under-employed. But it isn’t just about us as Interpreters. We are just the ones that get to see most of these changes first. Sometimes that means we are the first to shout about it. Not just because we earn money from interpreting but because Deaf people are our family and friends. Most really good interpreters are part of the Deaf community too. With the really horrific stories that are coming out now about a lack of access, a lack of understanding by authorities and worse, mishaps, misdiagnosis and fatalities it is only a matter of time before all of this becomes more public. With community interpreting being decimated by commissioners and government policies what it really means is that Deaf people are being undervalued and under-respected too.

Police Procurement: Obtaining Less Value for Money for Interpreting Services

The deadline for the Home Office consultation is today. It is entitled Obtaining Better Value for Money from Police Procurement. This is the second consultation following on from the first which closed in September 2010. I did not necessarily have the knowledge I needed to fill out a consultation of this kind 18 months ago. I suspect many interpreters feel the same about this consultation. I suspect some interpreting agencies are too busy to consider responding to a consultation about the police when the tendering process for the framework agreement has long passed. And they may be trying to work out how to stay in business or whether to bother going for a NHS tender with a ridiculous unit cost per hour for interpreting services.

The consulation summary states that it will only be of interest to police authorities, unions and staff and businesses who contract to the police so has not been widely publicised. That sums up the attitude for me of a government ‘consultation’. It has become a byword for lip service, for pretending to listen, for ignoring the results whether it has been held locally or nationally.

Back to the consultation. There is already a framework agreement, there has already been pressure for police authorities to sign up to the agreement and many already have. The danger we have here is the consultation is about updating legislation. The proposed amendments to Regulations under Sections 53 (equipment) and Regulations under Section 57 (services) of the Police Act 1996 that would require specified equipment and services to be provided for police purposes through the use of specified framework agreements.

Translation and interpreters come under updates to the services part of the act. Other services include: some utilities, customer surveys, certain training services and certain consultancy services. Nothing else is so specialised as interpreting and no other involves ignoring other pieces of legislation namely: The Equality Act 2010, Article 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998 and EU directive 2010/64/EU 2010 on the right to interpretation in criminal proceedings. These laws state registered interpreters should be used, that no delays in provision should occur and interpreters should be of a sufficient quality or they must be replaced.

I have entered this legal argument into my consultation response alongside the explanation that this framework agreement does not obtain better value for money but rather reduces it. We have seen adjournments and delays in the courts and at tribunals. This is hardly going to improve no matter what precautions are put in place. It is an unsustainable contract and that is the simple fact of the matter.

Even though there is a perception that court work is the most important of all types of interpreting it is a myth. Interpreting at a police station is far more important. It has been drummed into me that ‘it all happens at the police station’. Having now done a smattering of police jobs and a lot of court work (before I started my boycott) I understand why the police station is far more important. It is where it all starts. It is where evidence is collected. It is where for cases it is make or break. If the interpreter makes mistakes at the police interview, whether this is for victim or suspect, it can mean abandoned court cases and expert witnesses being employed – do you really want another interpreter scrutinising your work and potentially having to agree in court that your work has been sub-standard.

Interpreting for the police can be the most important work you will ever do as an interpreter and where it has to be the most accurate. The proposed amendments to legislation means that the police have to use an agency which has not provided quality interpreters in courts and quite regularly does not manage to source one at all.

This is going to mean even more wasted public money. No, the Police Act 1996 should not be amended to regulate that police authorities should procure interpreting services. There is plenty of good practice and money savings initiatives by the forces who have resisted pressure to go over to the framework agreement, namely the London Met and Cambridgeshire Police forces.

What we need are best practice models, initiatives involving local interpreters, liaison with existing regulators – NRPSI and NRCPD. We need a way to future proof this profession and uphold standards in the face of a government who wishes to procure everything including specialist services to the now proven non-specialists and in the process waste millions of public money.