MoJ's interpreter management ''appalling''
The Ministry of Justice's (MoJ) decision to award its £90m language services contract to a company that was out of its depth – and then not monitor this properly – has been described as "appalling".
In August 2011, the MoJ signed a five-year contract with Applied Language Solutions (ALS) – bought by Capita later that year – for interpretation and translation services. But the company immediately faced "operational difficulties".
So the National Audit Office (NAO) looked into the matter and concluded that while the old system was certainly inadequate in several respects, the MoJ's due diligence on ALS's bid was not thorough enough. Also, the ministry didn't give enough weight to the concerns and dissatisfaction that many interpreters had expressed.
What's more, the MoJ underestimated the project risks when it decided to switch from a regional to a national rollout, allowed the contract to become fully operational before it was ready (ALS had not recruited and assessed enough interpreters), and there were key contractual obligations that ALS didn't comply with (and the company didn't tell the ministry until the NAO discovered them.
On the operation of the contract, initially ALS's performance was "wholly inadequate", the NAO said, leading to missed performance targets and around a fifth of the interpretation work in courts and tribunals being done under old arrangements.
Although there have been improvements, various justice stakeholders continue to report problems with the quality of some ALS interpreters, including their familiarity with the justice system.
It's too soon to conclude on the value for money of this contract, the NAO said, pointing out that the MoJ reckoned it would make savings of £15m in the first year of operation. While the ministry was confident that the new contract had reduced costs once the initial level of disruption had gone down, there wasn't enough data to confirm this. Key stakeholders remain to be convinced that standards are appropriate and only once the MoJ and Capita/ALS had addressed quality concerns would it be possible to reach a conclusion on value for money.
The NAO said it had particular concerns about the availability of interpreters. Many qualified and experienced court interpreters continue to boycott the new system. And a late as May 2012, following many months when financial incentives were available to those agreeing to work with Capita/ALS, only around 13 per cent of registered interpreters (about 300 people) had agreed to do so.
Public accounts committee chair Margaret Hodge said: "It is appalling that the ministry awarded ALS a £90m contract to provide a service essential to ensuring the proper administration of justice that was clearly beyond this company's ability to deliver. The ministry overlooked its own due diligence process which showed ALS was simply too small to shoulder a contract of this value. Against a target of 98 per cent, ALS supplied an interpreter in only 58 per cent of hearings in February 2012."
She went on: "This unacceptably poor performance led to courtroom chaos. It forced court staff to interrupt their core duties to find interpreters at short notice and triggered a steep rise in the number of abandoned trials. Where interpreters were supplied, their quality was at times inexcusably bad. This resulted in poorly translated charges to defendants and incorrect evidence to juries. ALS could not even guarantee that interpreters had undergone mandatory criminal records checks. My concern is that the resulting delays and hearing cancellations caused distress for victims, defendants and witnesses, additional costs to the taxpayer and damage to the reputation of the justice system."
Hodge concluded: "The ministry must take immediate steps to strengthen its approach to conducting due diligence for complex contracts. ALS performance needs to improve and, importantly, the ministry must ensure that Capita completes checks on all interpreters working on the contract without any further delay."