An open letter to Helen Grant MP
Helen Grant MP
Ministry of Justice
Cloud Cuckoo Land
Dear Ms Grant,
The phrase ‘…a week is a lifetime in politics..’ is generally attributed to Harold Wilson. It’s a little over a week ago since you stood up in the House and stated in response to questions from Grahame Morris and Nick Smith ‘….I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but we are working very closely with Capita. Our success rate is good, but it can, of course, improve, and it will improve. The British taxpayer will save some £15 million per annum as a result of this contract, and I am fully convinced that the new contract will be more accountable, transparent and effective than the old one….’ and ‘…I think that I have made the position clear, but I will repeat it. The contract is operating at a very good success rate, but further improvements can be made. Having worked as a solicitor in the old regime, I can say that it certainly was not perfect. I am satisfied that the new regime will not only save the taxpayer a considerable amount of money, but be more effective, transparent and accountable than the old regime…’
I can’t help noticing that - in contrast to what you’ve said on previous occasions - you have dropped any reference to the 95% success figure, and no longer claim to be making improvements. No doubt you were made aware of the latest statistics from your ministry on the performance of the Interpreting services contract with Capita, which show that since you took over ministerial responsibility, the performance of the contract has done nothing other than decline, slowly at first, but now with gathering pace as the success rate for January 2013 plummets to 86.4%.
As someone that has always worked in private industry, I find the concept of dealing in so-called ‘success’ rates somewhat bizarre. In the real world, it is taken for granted that anything less than 100% delivery is frowned upon, which is why we are more concerned with the failure rate. If you are a train operator, and you have a target that 98% of your trains will depart within 5 minutes of the scheduled departure time, then you might give yourself a pat on the back if you manage to get 95% of the trains leaving on time. On the other hand, if you’re an airline operator, and you have a target that 98% of passengers will be re-united with their luggage in the baggage hall, you would not take comfort if only 95% of passengers left the airport with their bags. It would mean that your failure rate was 5% against a target of 2%, in other words, performance was 250% worse than expected. Even the 98% fulfilment rate given to ALS was pretty lax, it’s probably 4 to 5 times worse than was been achieved by NRPSI interpreters under the old system.
Only in the public sector is it possible to get away with allowing contractors to underperform, for simple reasons. Firstly, there is no competition in publicly-provided services, Joe taxpayer has no choice but to accept whatever level of service is being provided, no matter how poor. Secondly, Joe taxpayer cannot choose not to pay whatever price is being demanded by the government, even if he believes it to offer poor value. Failing to pay taxes could see poor old Joe banged up in the chokey, unless, of course, he’s wealthy enough to pay for a few smart accountants.
Let’s not forget that the dismal performance of the Framework agreement was a key factor in the decision to remove Cuddly Ken Clarke, Nick ‘where’s my pie’ Herbert, and the clown prince of justice Crispin Blunt from the ministry. This was your chance to shine, a rising star in the Conservative party, new blood to invigorate a lack-lustre government. Unlike your predecessors, you weren’t party to the decision to award the contract to ALS, so you entered the ministry of justice with no baggage. You could’ve made the decision there and then to terminate the contract, and begin to rebuild the damage that had been caused to the interpreting profession. But no, you decide to carry on ploughing the same old furrow. What no-one would have predicted, or indeed, even thought possible, was that you would make a bigger hash of it than the three amigos.
I’m sure that even now, you will be concerned about your political career, and where you may end up after the next reshuffle. Are your superiors going to review your performance and think ‘hmmm, maybe she isn’t the smart cookie we thought she was’ and ‘is Helen Grant a safe pair of hands’. Are you now destined to serve out your days in back-bench obscurity, a promising career cut short by ill-thought gaffes?
To be fair, it’s not that you haven’t been working hard, it’s just that your efforts have not been directed at tackling the root causes of the current predicament, but rather at concealing the consequences and perpetuating the myth that everything is working just fine. This is why we’ve seen the Interpretation Project team thinking up ever more inventive ways of frustrating Freedom of Information requests, quarterly performance statistics morphing into six-monthly reports, and court staff being gagged and instructed not to co-operate with parliamentary enquiries.
No-one believes that the framework agreement is actually saving money. Sure, there is a budget that you can point to and claim it’s now lower that it would otherwise have been, but everyone that works in the justice arena knows that these savings are more than outweighed by the collateral costs of interpreting failures. Everyone knows that keeping prisoners in custody is expensive. Everyone knows that having them brought to court in a big white van is not cheap, especially when it’s all done for nothing.
The cost of wasted time in the courts is not as insignificant as you claim it to be. Yes Ms Grant, you can stick your hands over your ears and yell “la-la-la-la, I can’t hear you” but however much you would like to, you can’t wish these costs away, and you are going to have to pay for them. All of which explains why the budget deficit is stubbornly refusing to decline, in spite of all the projected ‘savings’ George Osborne is supposed to have harvested. It’s why he’s going to come back to the MoJ with another £142m of budget cuts for you to implement. How many more courts are you going to have to close? How many more court staff will be losing their jobs? How many more police hours will be spent hanging around in courts waiting for interpreters to turn up, when they could be out on the streets dealing with crime?
One final point is this: why are you so nice to Capita? What is this hold they have over you that you feel unable to punish them for their abject failure to deliver the level of service that they promised? When the Court of Appeal recently overturned a wasted order made against ALS, a key point of the judgement was that the failure to provide an interpreter should not be considered as ‘serious misconduct’ because it was an isolated incident. Why did the MoJ not send counsel along to oppose the appeal? Why was no-one present to stand up and say ‘May I point out to your honours that this is not an isolated incident? It is, in fact, only one of 2,395 instances over the last 12 months where the contractor has failed to provide an interpreter for a confirmed booking.’
Could it be that in your many dealings with Capita you’re getting an opportunity to see how much their corporate lawyers are being paid? Could it be that you’re looking ahead into the not-too-distant future when your political career is over?