Baroness Coussins stands up for court interpreters in the House of Lords
My Lords, I rise with some trepidation as the only non-lawyer to speak in this debate. I am most grateful to my noble and learned friend Lord Woolf for providing the opportunity for me to draw attention to one particular specialist aspect of the resources available to our courts. I refer to the right to interpreting services and the way in which these services are provided. I declare an interest as a vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Linguists and put on record my sincere thanks to my fellow vice-president, Professor Tim Connell, for his invaluable help with background research on this topic. I am also grateful to the National Register of Public Service Interpreters for its briefing.
The right to interpretation is currently enshrined in EU law under Article 2 of the directive of the European Parliament dated 20 October 2010. This is several clauses long, so I shall quote just the first and last to summarise the key points. Article 2 reads:
“Member states shall ensure that suspected or accused persons who do not speak or understand the language of the criminal proceedings concerned are provided, without delay, with interpretation during criminal proceedings before investigative and judicial authorities, including during police questioning, all court hearings and any necessary interim hearings”.
The article concludes:
“Interpretation provided under this Article shall be of a quality sufficient to safeguard the fairness of the proceedings, in particular by ensuring that suspected or accused persons have knowledge of the case against them and are able to exercise their right of defence”.
I know that Her Majesty’s Government regard themselves as in compliance with this directive, although in practice the service has been less than satisfactory. In 2012, the MoJ awarded the contract for court interpreting services to ALS, later Capita TI. This met with fierce controversy, with 66% of qualified interpreters refusing to work under the new system because of reduced pay rates and lack of professional recognition. The MoJ’s objective was to make savings of £18 million a year and to rationalise provision, but as an article in the Law Society Gazette pointed out, this was a false economy because of the costs of rescheduling court hearings after inadequate interpreters had led to magistrates and judges deciding they could not continue. Problems included unqualified or underqualified interpreters and people with no experience of courts or the judicial system and its language. In one case, the so-called interpreter did not know the difference between murder and manslaughter. People with the wrong language turned up: in one case, a Lithuanian interpreter arrived for a Slovakian prisoner; fortunately, they both spoke Polish so they muddled through. Often no one turned up at all because of a flawed booking system.
An investigation into the service by the National Audit Office revealed serious and systematic problems, many of which were then addressed by the Government. In fairness, this did lead to improved performance by Capita, although many, particularly the organisations representing professional interpreters, have pointed out that the performance measures used mask significant variations in quality. I am not convinced that the savings we are told have been made as a result of modifications towards the end of the Capita contract take into account the true cost of court delays, case adjournments, repeated remands in custody for offenders, and other related expenses of underperformance.
A debate in the other place in June 2013 queried the £15 million savings that had been claimed and revealed that the courts themselves had made nearly 6,500 complaints about poor interpreting standards, and that in 2012 alone 608 magistrates’ court cases and 34 Crown Court cases were recorded as ineffective because interpreters were not available. Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division, criticised Capita TI for its “lamentable” failure to provide interpreters seven times in the course of a single adoption case between 2012 and 2014, as a result of which Capita TI was ordered to pay £16,000 in costs. In another example, district judge David Taylor in Bristol had to delay a hearing twice because Capita TI was unable to supply a Polish interpreter, even though there are more than 300 of them on the national register.
The MoJ’s own statistics reported that in 2015 there were 2,100 complaints about Capita’s service, the most common of which was “no interpreter available”. I was surprised to learn from a Written Answer in April this year that the costs for rescheduling cases are not recorded, so how the MoJ is actually monitoring any target savings is beyond me.
There are other important supply and resource issues to which I would like to draw the Minister’s attention. One concerns residency, an issue that was debated in more detail earlier today in this Chamber. This is a very good case in point: 27% of interpreters on the national register are non-UK nationals. If their residency status is not preserved as part of Brexit negotiations, this could have a dramatic negative impact on the availability of court interpreters for European languages.
Another issue is security clearance, where the MoJ and the Home Office appear to be at odds. In October 2012, the MoJ stated that all interpreters used by Capita TI were security vetted up to enhanced DBS level as a minimum. But the DBS, which comes under the Home Office, has told the National Register of Public Service Interpreters that it can see “no circumstances” under which an interpreter would qualify for enhanced clearance. As freelancers, interpreters have to face the additional hurdle of not having an employer to sign off the application, so some simply give up trying to square the various security circles on clearance and leave the profession. A solution to this impasse, recommended by the national register, would be to amend the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) Order 1975 by adding “interpreting in the public services” to the excepted professions in Schedule 1. Will the Minister commit to looking seriously at this proposal, or urge his successor to do so?
The recent announcement that the MoJ has awarded new contracts from this autumn to a different company, thebigword, is welcome, certainly in principle, as is the fact that a separate contract is to be awarded for monitoring quality. However, I would like the Minister’s assurance that a range of factors concerned with performance, quality and standards have been fully taken on board, in particular: the exclusive use of suitably qualified interpreters; sustainable terms and conditions of employment; independent auditing of quality and performance; and statutory protection of title. I would also like an assurance from the Minister that the Brexit negotiations will ensure there is no departure from, or diminution in, the right of anybody to interpretation in the criminal justice system, as currently guaranteed under the October 2010 directive.