Dame Ursula Brennan should account for the comments she made
Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee
18th November 2013
Re: Update on the Ministry of Justice’s language services contract, and NAO follow-up investigation. Dear Committee,
I do not wish to duplicate the wealth of comments that you have received from the various bodies representing professional interpreters, but I would like to add a few comments for your consideration which I do not think others have expressed.
During the previous Parliamentary committee hearings into this contract, the view was repeatedly put forward by both the Ministry of Justice and Capita that the root cause of the problems experienced in rolling out this contract was a lack of management information. The framework agreement was supposed to rectify this by gathering the relevant information for analysis by the MoJ. I have found, as have many others, that Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to the MoJ have largely been frustrated, with the stock response that the Ministry does not possess the information and/or that it would be too costly to obtain the information. This applies to data which is specifically mentioned in the framework contract. When I have appealed these decisions, it had been explained to me by the MoJ that whilst the contract gives the MoJ the right to ask for this data (at zero cost), it is entirely at the discretion of the MoJ what data they wish to receive from the contractor. It appears that the MoJ is asking for a bare minimum of management information. May I suggest that the remit of the NAO is extended to find out why the MoJ chooses to ask for so little data?
Register of Legal Translators and Interpreters
It has been established by FOI responses that MoJ has failed to create such a register, in contravention of Article 5(2) of the EU Directive on the right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings. Coupled with the fact that most of the management information remains within Capita, this is likely to be highly prejudicial to any other bidders that may wish to tender for the contract when it is due for renewal. It also gives Capita more leverage to extract concessions from the MoJ because if Capita chooses to pull the plug on delivering the contract, the MoJ would find it very difficult to migrate to a new supplier.
Amendment of Contract terms
The MoJ has refused to disclose the contract changes it has agreed with Capita, but no-one would argue with the assertion that Capita is now being paid more for delivering less. It makes competitive tendering processes meaningless if a contractor wins a government contract by submitting the lowest price, but is then able to renegotiate the terms of the contract. I would urge the committee to use whatever powers it has to compel the MoJ to make the revised contract public, so that taxpayers can see what they are getting for their money.
The budget ‘savings’ arising from the contract
The MoJ has argued that the contract has delivered significant savings, but when the losses sustained by Capita Translation and Interpreting (CTI) are taken into account, it is clear that the overall cost of delivering the service is roughly the same as it was before. The savings to the MoJ are largely as a result of CTI subsidising the service by sustaining hefty losses, and I question why an organisation such as Capita would continue to operate loss-making contracts. It is my view that the large number of public sector outsourcing contracts which Capita has allows it to cross-subsidise loss-making contracts such as the language services contract, using excessive profits from other contracts. In particular, I am concerned with the announcement on 29th August naming Capita as the preferred bidder for the offender electronic monitoring contract, as this is being handed to Capita on a plate as a quid pro quo for not pulling out of the language contract. The ability to cross-subsidise contracts is highly prejudicial to small and medium enterprises, as the larger players such as Capita are able to ‘buy’ outsourcing contracts.
Recent comments by Dame Ursula Brennan
On 22nd October Dame Ursula appeared before the Justice Select Committee and made the following comments on the Languages framework contract;
‘…The interpreters are, in a way, a good example. We absolutely have saved money through the interpreters’ contract, but it was not the intention to worsen the service. We did have a problem, which we have acknowledged and put our hands up about, when we introduced that contract, but it is, in a way, a very good example. The service we were giving before was really poor and was bad value for money. We had a not well-functioning service. We entered into a contract to reduce the cost of the service and to ensure that we could have assurance about the quality standards, which we did not have before, about interpreters.
We had a real problem when we launched it. It is now operating at 90% fulfilment, the number of complaints has absolutely plummeted, and we have decided to reinvest some of the savings in order to put some more money back into the system so that interpreters can see more financial gain in some circumstances because we have recognised that the savings we were making enabled us to do that. It was not, “Let’s change the interpreters’ contract and save money and have a worse service.” It was, “We have a not very well-functioning service; we can improve it and do it at lower cost.” That is actually what is happening…’
Some of the comments made are flatly contradicted by the statistics which the MoJ itself has published. The latest statistical bulletin published on 31st October contains the following statement in the introduction;
‘…Data are not centrally held for the number of completed language requests under previous contracts and therefore it is not possible to say whether performance levels since 30 January 2012 are higher, lower or similar to those under the previous arrangements….’
There is, therefore, no evidence to support Dame Ursula’s assertion that the service has improved since the contract was rolled out in February 2012.
She also claims that complaints have ‘..absolutely plummeted..’ whereas the published statistics show that the level of complaints has risen steadily from August 2012 onwards. The only period during which the level of complaints shown a significant reduction is the first 3 months of the contract.
The statistics also show that the vast majority of complaints are associated with an inability to obtain an interpreter when required, and interpreters that are booked turning up late or not at all.
Dame Ursula further claims that ‘…we could have assurance about the quality standards, which we did not have before, about interpreters…’ This is simply untrue, there were well established quality standards in place, overseen by the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI), and it was a conclusion of the Justice Select Committee report into the contract that;
‘….Notwithstanding clear administrative inefficiencies within the variety of previous arrangements for the provision of interpreting services to the courts, we conclude that there do not appear to have been any fundamental problems with the quality of services, where they were properly sourced i.e. through arrangements that were underpinned by the National Register of Public Service Interpreters, with interpreters qualified in the Diploma in Public Service Interpreting, and under the terms set out by the National Agreement…’
It follows from this that most of the problems that the justice system experienced with interpreters arose from circumstances where court staff chose to ignore the National Agreement. I should like to point out that the MoJ has given Capita carte-blanche to sub-contract as much of the contract as it pleases, and as a result of an FOI request, the MoJ has confirmed that it makes no checks or audits on sub-contractors used by Capita, even though there are provisions in the contract that allow it to do so.
Dame Ursula also refers to the ‘…90% fulfilment rate…’ whilst making no mention of the fact that the contract KPI is to meet a 98% fulfilment rate. Members of the committee may recall that at the time of the evidence sessions last October Capita seemed to take some satisfaction at exceeding 95% fulfilment rates during August and September 2012, as though it would only be a matter of time before the contract KPI was met. It would appear that the expectations of the MoJ have been significantly lowered.
Finally, I would urge the Committee to use whatever powers it has to bring Dame Ursula before it so that she may account for the comments she has made.
Yours sincerely, Brendan Pells