A Predictable Crisis
When I had my first inkling of the changes that led to the current crisis over court interpreting services – back in 2009 when several local police forces indicated an intention to outsource language services to Applied Language Solutions – I gathered 100 fellow professionals in a room in Manchester, together with my MP John Leech. I told them that our strength lay in the rarity of our skill and the quality of our qualification, the Diploma in Public Service Interpreting.
I argued that this, coupled with the protection, albeit a half-baked kind of protection, afforded by the national agreement (the next best thing to statutory professional status and which compelled the criminal justice system to use us) would make it difficult to force us to work under a monopolistic single supplier. We knew we would not be easy to replace and we could stand our ground.
Someone at the MoJ must have heard me. As part of the procedure, in a move parallel to outsourcing, the national agreement was withdrawn. By throwing the doors open to new, watered-down criteria for what makes a person ‘an interpreter’, the MoJ must have believed they had found the way round the inconvenient truth that the skill we have is special and impossible to replace overnight.
They have succeeded in achieving the exact opposite of their aim, as the stories that have been published in the last ten weeks demonstrate. The idea that moving the goalposts would not affect quality has been rubbished.
This dispute is about the risks of ignoring the standing of a profession that is an essential component for the smooth running of any legal process that involves people whose first language is not English.
Singling out rates of pay alone as the reason for the reaction of interpreters against the framework agreement is wrong and highly mischievous. Interpreters reached breaking point with the scrapping of the national agreement – the loose framework that compelled public services to use us. It included a payment framework set up in the late 1990s and which, in the case of the court service and many police forces, was last updated in 2007.
At a time we are all being told to tighten our belts, with full-time public sector workers taking a two-year pay freeze, the imposition of a far more draconian set of measures for language interpreters overlooked the fact that our own conditions had barely changed in a decade.
This dispute should be seen as the reaction of a profession that, for the most part, wanted to remain in position but who have other choices. Rather than threats of abandonment, the entire approach by interpreters has been to encourage the government to ensure that we remained involved.
A rigorous diploma
The NRPSI consists of just over 2,300 qualified professionals who have taken the Diploma in Public Service Interpreting. For readers who may not be aware, the DPSI consists of:
■ two interpreting modules each consisting of a roleplay lasting 25-30 minutes;
■ two written examinations, one into the target language and the other into the native language; and
■ two sight translations where the candidate is asked to read a document straight into another language.
You would imagine this qualification – a mental Krypton Factor assault course for language professionals – would secure a reasonable standing. It is high time the skills involved in attaining a professional level as an interpreter were recognised with statutory protection of title. Far from relishing the stories emanating from courts across the land, the mood among my colleagues is one of great regret.
Look at the demands of the Diploma and imagine being called on at 6am on a Sunday for a witness statement at a police station 200 miles away, or at a trial involving any crime you could care to name, or a PACE interview lasting six tapes followed by a drive home in the early hours. Then there is the emotional strain of a life of constant short-notice demands to drop everything.
It is understandable that the MoJ’s outsourcing favoured a company that thought a short assessment was sufficient as a replacement. If the MoJ believed becoming an interpreter was that easy, I would venture that that is perhaps because we made it look easy.
In an article for the legal affairs website The Justice Gap, the solicitor John Storer described how no other profession is involved as we are, and we are involved at every stage of the process. From the point of a suspect being arrested, an interpreter is on the telephone for the explanation of rights at booking in, and they assist the solicitor in conference through to interview. The interpreter stays when the solicitor leaves and is present if the suspect is charged. Even the police are involved only in the preparation of a trial, and once they have given evidence, especially when a case proceeds to sentence, their involvement ends. The interpreters are still required.
It is not realistic to expect someone to be available at short notice to speak Vietnamese in Carlisle or Lithuanian in Penzance. This unrealistic expectation is one of the causes of dissatisfaction. Interpreters do not have a Star Trek-esque ability to teleport themselves from A to B in an instant. We do not have a right to put a siren on our vehicles and speed down the fast lane of motorways, or pass through red lights, yet I have been asked by police officers in locations anywhere between 50 and 150 miles away to come to them, and their suggestions for my ‘E.T.A.’ have usually been about two thirds of the realistic travel time.
It is utterly unreasonable to single out this profession for a factor that affects many; if you want a plumber or a locksmith with four or five days’ notice, and you want them in the daytime, you pay a lot less than if you need one at 3am on Saturday morning. Likewise, if you want to book a train ticket two months in advance and you stick to a set timetable, you can have a cheap ticket. If you get onto a train ticketless at a peak time, you can expect to be charged a lot more. Interpreters should be seen as being perfectly within their rights to apply practices commensurate with not just their skills, but the circumstances in which they are called on.
But no, this was not good enough for the Ministry of Justice. It wanted a premium service – which I should point out it has received – but it wanted it at a fifth of the price it was paying when it was already getting it for a far more reasonable price than it should command.
The MoJ wants all combinations of all languages available anywhere at any time and in one hour. Even under the old system, someone living in a more remote area speaking a more infrequently used language might well live close to police stations and courts.
This may be the ideal for the MoJ, but the interpreter in question would never receive enough calls to remain available and their presence so close to the venues they were supposed to serve would become irrelevant. For the most part, languages required are available for the communities that need them because NRPS Iinterpreters are nearby.
It takes a complex combination of variants to produce each extreme, from the largely ready availability of a Spanish interpreter in central London to the comparatively scarce supply of Hebrew and Dutch interpreters, who I know regularly travel the length of the country because they are the nearest people available to cases in which they are required.
In March, Justice Minister Crispin Blunt spoke in the Commons of a system that allowed interpreters to earn ‘six-figure salaries’ and repeated his wildly inaccurate and misleading claim again two days later on BBC
Radio Four’s Today programme. He also attacked interpreters for ‘taking advantage’ of the old system.
Salaries are not paid to freelancers, nor do they receive any of the benefits Blunt – or a police officer – enjoys, such as paid holidays. The idea that anyone ‘takes advantage’ of something that is offered rather than demanded is laughable.
On the Today programme, Blunt claimed that fees were paid for jobs lasting five minutes. This, like his claim of interpreters earning six-figure sums, may be true for a tiny minority of instances but it is not the interpreter’s fault that some hearings are very short. However, even for a very short hearing, legal advice provided beforehand by solicitors takes up time and most of my attendances at court have lasted over two hours and often longer.
Sometimes cases come to court and are adjourned for reasons that are neither the defendant’s nor the interpreter’s fault. In practical terms, I cannot imagine how any public service interpreter could earn in excess of £100,000 in a year. A full week in a Crown Court pays around £1,000 and trials lasting a week or more that run to their full length are rare. Mr Blunt might be interested to discover that I have worked on three such trials in eight years.
The original estimated spend on language services was £60m for the entire justice system. If you divide
£60m by the 2,300 NRPSI qualified professionals, you get an average of just over £26,000. Interpreters make a living. We do not earn a fortune.
To even attain the dizzying levels of lavish living I am accustomed to, I have given up an entire Christmas
Day for a PACE interview with a rape suspect, spent entire weekends attending various police jobs, and I have been asked to rush from a court case in Wales in the morning to a police job in North Yorkshire going into the early hours before getting up a few hours later to reach another court.
The Minister’s comments have only served to underline what I suspected: that in the overall cost benefit analysis played out since 2009, any cost involved in securing our skills is seen as an inconvenience and has overshot any appreciation of the benefit we bring.
I reiterate that this is not about money per se – it is about recognition and the Ministry of Justice has not just devalued and demeaned us, it has insulted and smeared us.
Whatever the MoJ wants to misguidedly believe, the last ten weeks have vindicated my insistence to my colleagues that we did have a skill that was as rare and valuable as we believed. Interpreters do not want to be seen as concentrating on rates. The only way to resolve this is to recognise the standing of the profession, retain the talent there is, and build on it.
Marc Starr is a registered public service interpreter based in Manchester who works in Spanish and Portuguese.
The feature is an amended version of an article that originally appeared on www.thejusticegap.com.
1 At the time of writing.