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.

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?

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.

Second London Demo against the MoJ Interpreting Contract

The second London demonstration against the MoJ’s framework agreement for interpreters and translation was on 16th April. A mini-flurry of texts just before I arrived at Petty France outside the Ministry of Justice heralded the arrival of another six Sign Language interpreters (SLIs), a Lip Speaker and a big squeaky horn.

We shouted along with the 400 or so other interpreters gathered for about an hour or so. We then moved along the street to Westminster outside the Houses of Parliament to shout some more, wave placards and pass around the squeaky horn. There was an impressive array of MPs who came to speak to us and offer support. Last time one, Andy Slaughter (a long time supporter of the abolition of this contract, and now seven MPs. Most reported that their constituents had been approaching them with worrying stories of miscommunication at hearings and trials.

A couple of us networked furiously letting people know there were Sign Language Interpreters in their midst and there were some of us who were also boycotting the contract. We all shared information about what we had seen and experienced whether we were employed to use sign or any number of spoken languages. Regardless, everyone had a terrible story to tell of interpreters with no CRB checks, use of Google Translate, the general erosion of standards. It is quite odd to find people you have been emailing, tweeting and facebooking, to eventually meet them face-to-face. Strange how gratifying it is to meet for the first time, to congratulate each other on the work we have been doing, to swap hugs and handshakes like you’ve known each other for years, united with the same belief that this contract is fundamentally wrong.

Amongst all the camaderie there was a definite low point. There was absolute shame when I found out the majority of lip speakers via the Association of Lip Speakers are refusing to work under the contract. There are apparently only a couple of lip speakers ruining the boycott for the rest and the Deaf people who use them. Were it a 100% refusal to work under the framework agreement it would certainly strengthen the case. That clearly goes for Sign Language Interpreters too. Were there to be a blanket ban by us all by not working in courts and the police authorities who have signed up, for something so detrimental to our communities the contract would never have lasted this long. Three months in and we are only just hearing the real effects of the contract for Deaf people and I am sure it is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Later, there was a meeting after the demo with lawyers supporting the ban which was attended mostly by spoken language interpreters and two SLIs regarding a Judicial Review. The two of us worked hard to network and dispel some myths about SLIs. Although this contract seems better for us, it really is only a matter of time until our terms and conditions are eroded further. I say further as it has already happened. A slippery slope does not take long to get down and the effects will be felt by more SLIs sooner rather than later.

More worryingly it is not our T&C’s we should be most concerned about but the inevitable erosion of standards. Reports I have been receiving over the last few weeks only add to the examples with the most surprising received today. I had been wondering how long I would maintain this blog. It seems I will have to be here a while yet, there is more to be told and there will definitely be more to come.

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.

Inequality before the Law? It’s Reality

A Sign Language Interpreter has submitted, anonymously, this story for you all to read. Comment is made afterwards:

‘An interpreter was warned to attend court c/o ALS and its preferred supplier of Sign Language Interpreters.  The interpreter had little experience of court work generally and no knowledge of the defendant, no knowledge of the indictment and no knowledge of the type or stage in proceedings.  The booking had been made a mere two days earlier by the agency’s assessment that it was ‘straight forward, quick and well within the interpreters’ capability’.

The interpreter had been informed that a relay interpreter would attend also to facilitate communications.  They did not know the relay interpreter, had never worked with them before and actually had no idea why in fact a relay interpreter was required for the case…

The relay interpreter arrived not only late but also dressed most inappropriately for a court case.  They too had no idea of the indictment, defendant, stage of proceedings etc.  The relay interpreter immediately declared that they had never worked in a court before.  The defence lawyer had immediate and very serious concerns about the communication provision for their client.  Representations were made immediately to the court.  Meanwhile, as it is a small community, it was quickly discovered that the relay interpreter had a fairly substantial court career with a number of both recent and historic criminal convictions – with even further cases pending!

The relay interpreter admitted, to the hearing interpreter, that there were many reasons why they must not and should not work in court or other legal settings.  The relay interpreter stated it had ‘been a mistake’ to accept the job from the agency, but that no CRB clearance had been requested and no proof of experience had been required.  The relay interpreter, instead of reporting to the usher, decided to leave the building with no explanation to the court whatsoever.

The hearing interpreter entered the courtroom and explained to the judge that they had no choice but to withdraw from the assignment.  The withdrawal was put on the following grounds that: 1. they had been falsely warned to the assignment; 2. they were unable to function effectively alone; 3. they would not be able to perform the task satisfactorily unto the language need and complexity of the case and 4. that it would put justice in too greater jeopardy.  The interpreter further disclosed to the court the full details of the concerns pertaining to the equally inappropriate and dangerous relay interpreter.

The judge thanked the interpreter for their honesty and integrity.   They made a note of the necessary details to be referred to the court presiders regarding the enormous danger that the defendant had faced unto ALS and its’ preferred supplier.’

Some extrapolation from the above:
– Readers of this blog, be it sign language interpreters or users of services, may not fully understand the reality of outsourcing and the resulting situation we are faced with. This is an additional, and altogether more serious, example to the ones on the previous post.
– Many booking co-ordinators, especially ones at less than reputable agencies, can not necessarily be relied upon to have specialist knowledge.
– Interpreters should accept assignments for which they are prepared, skilled, ready… As the interpreter, the buck stops with you.

– Court or Police work is not glamourous and does not afford an interpreter extra status or kudos. Your work could be held up to account, may be examined by an expert witness, investigated by defence teams and you could find yourself in a situation where you are being called as a witness.

– It is highly likely that a three hour training course will not be sufficient to ensure you are fully competent to work in a court. Even if it contains in the title the word ‘Masterclass’. Try some shadowing first. And a mentor. Or better still don’t work for the company that everyone loves, with good reason, to hate.

If you are witness to anything, wish to write a guest blog post or wish to send something in for further comment please email to interpreteranon@gmail.com.

A big thank you to our anonymous poster.