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.

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.

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.

Survey Launched for BSL Users on Access to Healthcare

Following on from the back of hard work done by ASLI‘s Professional & Consumers Working Group, more organisations have joined in to create a campaign: BSMHD, BDA, Action on Hearing Loss, Sign Health and Signature.

There is a survey for BSL users on their access to health care (deadline 20th April): http://www.surveymonkey.com/BSLHealthcareSurvey

Please do let any Deaf people in the UK know about the survey. Deaf people have felt the effects of the government’s mission to outsource interpreting services over the last few years. Many Deaf people have never had adequate access to health care for years which outsourcing has certainly not helped.

This survey aims to collate the experiences of Deaf people on the ground, those who are really effected by the drive for profit, the deterioration of standards, the loss of work for registered interpreters and ultimately the reduction in access for Deaf people.

Whilst this blog reports on issues generally from an interpreter’s perspective of the effects of outsourcing, what the organisations involved need is hard evidence of what the reality is for Deaf people in the UK trying to access health care. If you have good feedback about your local service please fill out the survey too. In the post code lottery of outsourcing and who your local interpreting contract ends up with, it is more likely you have experienced less than adequate services.

Please fill out the survey today. Have your say and pass it on.

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.

Using a Professional is the Only Safeguard – Part 2

This blog is part 2 of 2. Following on from part 1, where the term profession was discussed, let’s go back to why interpreting is being outsourced in the first place.

Services are being outsourced to save money. Services that are deemed as being a ‘Back Office Function’.

This phrase is being repeated by the Ministry of Justice, by commissioners nationwide, by Ministers and by David Cameron.

Back Office Function. What is a Back Office function? Logic dictates it is a function that exists back of house probably in an office. This would include administration, IT, facilities management, ordering of equipment say.

Any intelligent being would surely not class interpreting as a Back Office Function. No. Surely it is a specialism. To be done by people who know how to do so. People. Wait… professionals who have been trained and have experience before being let loose in a courtroom.

Interpreting as a Back Office Function? It’s illogical.  Outsourcing is now going way beyond what would normally be termed Back Office Functions.

Strange given the track record of disasters whenever the British government attempt to outsource. Capita got the name Crapita for good reason after disasters such as people nearly getting evicted when systems failed and did not pay out housing benefit claims in time. And bear in mind this is the company that has bought ALS and where the buck currently stops for interpreting services for the MoJ. As one publication has pointed out Capita should stick to back office business functions.

So why is the government taking the risk of outsourcing for areas others than more traditional business functions?

1) Crony capitalism.

This is endemic and epitomised in the coalition government’s support of big business over small or medium enterprises. This is despite what is touted in its reports. None of the framework agreements or procurement hubs now favoured by statutory organisations make it easy for the smaller enterprise to win contracts. Where the small enterprise is the specialist sign language agency, they lose out.

Sign Language interpreting services are becoming sub-contractors to the bigger spoken language agencies. Assignments are regularly being sub-sub-sub-contracted. By the time the interpreter is paid there is little left. Everyone up the food chain needs to make their buck. The result of which, at the other end, is that the statutory organisation comes away with little savings and interpreters travel the breadth of the country when there was a registered interpreter next door to the hospital sat at home unpaid.

2) Back door privatisation.

We have the Conservatives in government. They wish to privatise everything.

3) Ministers and senior civil servants need answers.

Outsourcing is an easy answer to coming up with savings rather than appropriately conducted research and consultation, with the caveat that information gleaned from consultation should be heeded. The word consultation has become a misnomer in the UK. It has come to mean you will speak up then be ignored.

Ministers have often said they lack skills in running large departments. One author suggests this is indicative of an eroded civil service with an overreliance on expensive consultants or specialist advisors rather than looking inward to creating those skills and utilising them.

As Peter Handcock CBE, Chief Executive, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) before the Justice Select Committee said so eloquently:

“So it is partly the process of letting a new contract and putting it in place, but, but we need to do, frankly we need to do much much better understanding the potential risks before we roll these things out.”

An admission of the lack of understanding. Has the government taken any advice on the subject of interpreting services? It seems they have ignored much of what interpreters have been telling them through the various consultations.

Therein lies the explanation of why interpreting is now being seen as a Back Office Function. And what of the effect of this policy, why does it go so horribly wrong, especially where professions are concerned?

Unit costs get ever cheaper in the bidding war for a contract. Unless there are safeguards and standards in place enforced upon the contract provider the temptation is to employ the cheapest personnel and disregard quality.

Sign Language interpreters have seen it happen already in most NHS trusts around the country. Chaos caused by large scale employment of untrained interpreters by sub-standard agencies (usually spoken language ones, though some sign language specialist agencies are also to blame). Yet the NHS and the MoJ are paying for these services.

A colleague did some mystery shopping amongst some new agencies that had won NHS contracts in and around London. Scarily, they wanted to accept her on their books without checking any qualifications, any registration. They did not even ask for insurance or a police check. Some didn’t even care if she actually knew any sign language.

When contracts are awarded to these agencies, the provision of interpreters then becomes tokenism, paying lipservice to the Equality Act 2010. These are specialist services that are commissioned, monitored and evaluated by non-specialists without the necessary in built safeguards, which you would have if professionals were employed. Services commissioned from those that call themselves specialists but are not. Of course outsourcing interpreting services was bound to fail. And fail it has.

The government, local and national, has made a categoric error in outsourcing interpreting services across the public sector. With regard to the MoJ, when this is the kind of service you are paying for you are not saving £18 million. You are losing £300 million.

Media Reports Chaos: Interpreters, Make Your Stand

In a previous post there was a description of the sheer number of spoken language organisations and campaigns and the resulting lack of unity. What is impressive now is the amount of interpreters taking a stand against the MoJ contract, whether individually or as part of these groups. The results of which have now started to filter down to the press with the rightful backlash causing chaos.

The ALS contract rolled out on 30th January. In the last two weeks there has been report after report of mismanagement, cases being delayed, defendants held in custody overnight as there is no interpreter, court staff being harangued by ALS staff, Indian call centres not being able to fulfil requests. That’s a short summary of what has happened and these events have happened repeatedly around the country.

Before each roll out of a contract, whether it was NHS, Police (CPS) or courts, there would be a local press report detailing the horrific expense. The worst of it has been in the national press with the xenophobic Daily Mail amongst others asking why all the foreigners can’t just learn how to speak English?

We’ve seen what the government’s media machine has done to Disabled people, labelling them as benefit scroungers to the point where they have been attacked in the street.

A piece in The Evening Standard pointed out, ‘There is nothing wrong in stopping fraud or imposing cuts at a time of austerity. But it is revolting to see politicians and the media collude to target people who just want to join society.’ The same applies to those who need interpreters whether they are ‘foreigners’ or Deaf. We have an EU directive 2010/64/EU, the UNCRPD and specific to the UK the Equality Act 2010, all of which are being willfully ignored.

Disabled people are less likely to speak out just as users of interpreters can often not speak out, for obvious reasons. The provision of an untrained interpreter is hardly going to help. Would it be so cynical to suggest this is why these groups have been targeted by the government?

So in the case of this MoJ contract, it is left to the interpreters to make the first stand. Congratulations should go to those that have refused to work under the contract over the last few weeks. Lawyers, barristers, magistrates and judges are now seeing the effects. Where we had reports of the expense of interpreters, the media tide has turned. We now have reports of chaos with the Beeb and The Law Gazette picking up the news too.

Furthermore there have been postings on blogs by lawyers and magistrates about their concern.

The MoJ are sticking to the theory that these are just teething problems. They are not and this contract is costing the taxpayer more:

Cost to hold defendant for 24 hours in custody: £769

Average daily cost of a magistrate trial: £800

Average daily cost of a crown court trial: £1,700

(figures from The Daily Mail and The Guardian)

Justice is not cheap. When you introduce delays into the system costs escalate. Rather than paying £85-£150 (half day) for an interpreter so the case can be dealt with as quickly and efficiently as possible, the actual cost starts to run into the thousands. What exactly is the chaos surrounding this contract?

  • More than half of trained and registered interpreters have refused to work under the contract – most people ‘interpreting’ are not trained or NRPSI registered (in my view*).
  • This has left some regions devoid of an interpreter – the agency is asking interpreters to travel further distances, which without travel costs many are refusing to do so.
  • There are some language groups with no trained interpreters willing to work.
  • Interpreters were asked to undergo a £100 assessment and CRB check – as so few did, the agency is now using ‘interpreters’ – speakers of other languages who have not undergone any interpreter training, have not been independently assessed (as promised) and have had no police checks (as promised).
  • Agency staff have asked exasperated court staff, when a booking is not fulfilled, to enter a cancellation on their systems rather than a failure to provide – this will skew the monitoring information for the MoJ’s review of the contract or any future Freedom of Information requests made.
  • There are reports of basic interpreter errors – ‘perversion of the course of justice’ becoming ‘charge of being a pervert’ and ‘charged by the police’ as owing the police money (BBC).

The above points show that the contract is not only nonsensical but also fundamentally wrong. It goes against legislation, against human rights. It has caused and will continue to cause delays, inefficiencies and extra cost to the taxpayer albeit hidden rather than included in the cost of the interpreting contract. There are huge risks being taken of a mistrial and a lack of access to justice. We have seen two weeks of chaos so far. The Sign Language Interpreting part of the contract is reported to be completely rolled out from March.

If you haven’t been affected yet, you will be. We saw what happened in the North West as a Procurement Hub was set up and later as part of this set up ALS took over interpreting services with police forces. Work disappeared for trained and registered interpreters, including sign language interpreters or was offered at a ridiculous and unsustainable rate. Work was taken up by those untrained and unregistered as the cheaper though unsafe option. Some interpreters had to leave the profession or take on second jobs to survive. One police force eventually terminated their contract with ALS as they could not carry out proper investigations.

As the contract and the chaos continues to roll out will you stand up for your profession? As a Sign language interpreter you may think you have been unaffected. You are wrong.

Reports are already coming out of an erosion of standards (there is evidence of interpreters booked for part trials/tribunals), there is a reduced cancellation fee (from 7 to 3 days) and you will effectively be contributing to the possible demise of the profession especially if you are not experienced in this type of work. SLIs have RSLI as standard. Don’t be fooled. Spoken Language ‘Interpreters’ did not even get assessed, it may only be a matter of time before this standard slips along with the others.

Rather than collude with the providers of this contract, whether you are being sub-contracted or not, like spoken language interpreters we should be sticking together and voting with our feet. If you don’t make this stand, you will see what happened in the North West coming to an area near you…

*added after threat of defamation from ALS, see comment.

Interpreter Cost Cutting: A False Economy

In these times of fiscal belt tightening funds have to be cut. It’s a given. For statutory bodies it must be hard. So where does the funding get cut and how can they save money?

Cut the stationery budget. There will be fewer pens. Don’t provide sandwiches at meetings. Staff and visitors will feed themselves. Take away the water cooler. There’s a tap.

Say you’re a nurse or a doctor within an NHS trust. Or you are staff in a local authority, the police or the courts. How about trying the following options. What would happen if you did?

Don’t provide an interpreter:

We know the US has a more litigious culture. Here’s what happened there:

Failure to use an interpreter ended in a $71m malpractice lawsuit in the U.S where a Latino boy was suspected to be a drug user but actually had a brain aneurism. A late diagnosis left him a paraplegic.

£400k was awarded to a Deaf woman who was not afforded an American Sign Language Interpreter and could not understand the side effects of her Lupus medication.

Last year, a Sheriff was sued for keeping a Deaf man in custody for 25 days without an interpreter.

What about here in the UK?

In 2004, Mr Tran Quang Tung died at Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre. He hung himself. There was a continued lack of interpreters used by doctors and other members of staff even though they could have done due to systems that were in place.

In summary, a professional is breaking their own code of conduct if they cannot communicate with their patient or service user. Guesswork does not amount to being able to care, treat or diagnose them. Crossing your fingers will not work either. Primum non nocere is the benchmark of medical ethics: “First, do no harm”. If you are court staff, justice is unlikely to be achieved. Local authorities, you are not filing your statutory duty.

Use an unqualified or unregistered interpreter:

It is quicker and cheaper to get someone who you think can do the job but is not qualified or registered. Perhaps use someone’s spouse or another member of family?

In 2000, in an A&E department, the wife of a profoundly Deaf man, Sarwat Al-Assaf, was used to interpret questions to her husband such as do you have thoughts of harming your wife or children? Mr Al-Assaf was suffering from severe mental illness. He later went on to kill his wife’s new partner.

Perhaps you get someone who says they have some sign language qualifications or in the case of a spoken language get in, say, the Polish-speaking porter.

One interpreter points out that “The English translation for the word ‘hit’ in Punjabi and Hindi is ‘maar’, but it also means ‘to kill’,” she explains. “So if I’m in court I have to ask the person: are you saying ‘I’m gonna hit you’, or ‘I’m gonna kill you’?” You don’t want to mess around with that distinction, whether it’s in court, for the local authority or a medical appointment.

Every registered interpreter has a tale of how there was an ‘interpreter’ booked but they got called in a week later to sort out the mess, usually to find out that the ‘interpreter’ was someone unregistered who took the payment because they could. It is obvious that in these cases, the service provider has to pay out more. Like getting in a cowboy builder, it ends up costing twice as much to get the mess sorted out afterwards.

It is illegal to employ an unregistered nurse or doctor who will not have to adhere to a Code of Ethics. It is not yet illegal for an unregistered ‘interpreter’ to work as one. Still, it stands to reason that if you use someone who is untrained and unregistered there is no legal recourse when it all backfires as it did in the cases above.

Commission an agency to do it for you:

Perhaps you are an NHS trust, a council or the MoJ and your commissioners are responsible for purchasing interpreting provision. In times of financial austerity, commissioners of services generally tend to care more about costs than quality. In that case, allow them to award an agency a contract or framework agreement with built in standards to ensure quality but ultimately, said agency will not follow them. The agency can not, as it is too costly to get in the appropriate practitioners, i.e. registered interpreters. In order to win the contract, they had to go in too low. The unit costs, if too cheap, can not add up to someone who does the job right and in a professional manner.

So what do you end up with? See the first two options. Rather than not providing the interpreter or getting in someone who is untrained and unregistered, the agency will be doing that instead. You’ll still be paying for it anyway. Freedom of Information requests show agencies are charging the cost of a registered interpreter but not necessarily providing one.

Not much of a cost saving then. Unless the commissioner chose a reputable agency. They normally charge more though so the likelihood is the statutory organisation or commissioner did not make that choice.

The Solution:

Pay for a trained and registered interpreter to:

Avoid – malpractice, misdiagnosis, wasted time, wasted cost orders, being sued and the distress of those to whom you are supposed to be providing a service.

Ensure – you are abiding by the code of ethics of your profession, you are providing the service you are supposed to, you are getting value for money, and you are able to complain or simply to trust that the proper communication is taking place.

How to save money:

Book and pay for a trained and registered interpreter.

How to check if an interpreter, from an agency or one that is booked direct, is registered:

Check the interpreter’s name against the lists held by NRPSI (spoken languages) or NRCPD (sign language). On their arrival ask to see their ID card.

These registers have been in existence for a while for good reason. Avoid the cowboy, avoid the lawsuit, avoid paying out twice.