Letter to Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee
Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee
11th October 2012
Re: Hearing into the National Audit Office report on the Ministry of Justice’s language services contract
Further to the hearing planned for the 15th October, I would like my submission to be considered, if there are any points I have raised which have not yet been considered for investigation.
The ‘official’ view of both the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and the contractor Capita is that the problems with the implementation of the contract under the Framework Agreement (FWA) have been ‘teething’ problems, and these are being progressively resolved such that the performance of the contractor is getting close to meeting the levels required by the contract.
The performance of the contractor is being measured primarily by the ability to fulfil pre-booked assignments, with little regard to the quality of service being provided. The gathering of data showing fulfilment rates is, of course, necessary for the contractor to receive payment.
The intention of the MoJ is to widen the scope of supply under the FWA by migrating more stakeholders such as individual police forces to booking interpreters using Capita. If the assurances of the MoJ are taken at face value, these stakeholders may believe there is minimal risk in migration. They may believe that after migration, it will be ‘business as usual’ except that the booking and payments system will be greatly simplified, with a significant reduction in costs.
Stakeholders intending to migrate to booking interpreters through Capita do not have the true facts regarding the number of interpreters available to Capita to fulfil assignments, nor of the quality of service those interpreters can provide. Based on the continuing high number of complaints from those stakeholders that have already migrated to the FWA, and the observations of interpreter performance in open court, it is highly probable that stakeholders intending to migrate to the new system will see a marked deterioration in the quality of service. Instead of being able to use the local, qualified and experienced interpreters with a proven track record, they are likely to find they are supplied with unqualified linguists that have to travel greater distances. Once these risks are considered, a stakeholder may decide that the alleged benefits of migrating to the FWA are not justified when the reduction in service quality is taken into account, given that they may incur consequential costs which they are unable to recover from Capita.
The concerns regarding Capita linguist quality is primarily due to the introduction of so-called Tier 3 linguists, who do not have to have any formal qualifications or experience in interpreting within the legal sector. In essence, Tier 3 linguists are certified by Capita itself, with no independent assessment of their capabilities. It is not clear what the function of Tier 3 linguists is intended to be. At a meeting with the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI) on December 29th 2011, Graham Anderson of the MoJ insisted unequivocally that Tier 3 linguists would not be used for Court and criminal justice assignments in any circumstances. However, as the NAO report exposes in sec 2.9, ‘…Some staff in the Ministry…had agreed with ALS in December 2011 that, on a temporary basis, un-assessed and unmarked interpreters could be used in the justice sector as a last resort..’ It is widely believed that Capita has used, and continues to use Tier 3 linguists to fulfil court bookings as a matter of routine, which accounts for the perceived drop in standards.
In the NAO report, sec 2.22 Fig.3, the list of Capita linguists at May 2012 showed that 1340 individual interpreters were on it, of whom only 305 were also on the NRPSI register. This means that only 305 Capita linguists could be confirmed to have the necessary qualifications and experience to merit being placed in Tier 1 or Tier 2. Of the remaining 1035 linguists, there are undoubtedly some who are suitably qualified to be in Tier 1 or Tier 2, but who have not chosen to register with NRPSI. However, without clarification from the MoJ, it is impossible to determine how many of these linguists are Tier 3, and should not therefore be working in the Court and criminal justice environment.
In June 2012 I made a FOI request to the MoJ asking how many linguists had been placed on the LIT register by the contractor, and to identify the numbers in individual tiers. The MoJ did not respond to my request for almost 3 months, and eventually refused the request citing ‘commercial confidentiality’. I have made a new FOI request asking what proportion of interpreter assignments fulfilled under the contract were assigned to linguists in Tier 1 and Tier 2, and I am not hopeful that the response will be any different.
Given the lack of transparency over the numbers of qualified Capita linguists, I would urge the committee to use whatever influence it has to prise this information out of the MoJ and into the public domain, so that stakeholders are able to make a more informed decision as to whether or not to migrate to the new booking system.
As Capita is already struggling to fulfil its contractual requirements with the limited number of linguists it has at its disposal, it is counter-intuitive to think that it will cope any better when the scope of supply is widened to include more police forces and magistrates court bookings at very short notice.
Section 3.18 of the NAO report includes the following statements. ‘….We have particular concerns about the availability of interpreters……Attracting further interpreters may be difficult and will require creativity on the part of the Ministry and Capita/ALS, but it is essential if progress is to be made..’ I would submit that no great creativity is required, only an understanding of basic economics. The root cause of the problem in recruiting qualified interpreters is that the rewards being offered are insufficient to attract or retain the right calibre of person.
Amongst the reasons identified to justify the need for a new FWA was a perceived lack of interpreters, and a perception that interpreters were over-paid. In the context of a free labour market, these views seem somewhat paradoxical. There is no guild of interpreters which restricts entry into the profession in order to maintain a high level of income for a privileged few that are already in it. Any would-be interpreter that had the raw talent and was prepared to study hard could gain the necessary qualifications and experience to join the NRPSI. Common sense dictates that the solution to increase the numbers of interpreters would have been to make it a more attractive career by improving terms and conditions. The notion which MoJ shares with Capita that the solution is to cut payments for interpreters is perverse, and has proved to be so.