National Audit Office reveals the scope of ALS/Capita interpreting contract failures
15th October is the day the Public Accounts Committee has scheduled for a hearing to look into the findings of the National Audit Office in their investigation of the Framework Agreement between the Ministry of Justice and Applied Language Solutions/Capita. It will be very interesting to see, indeed, what else can be uncovered in addition to the damning list of errors and examples of incompetence revealed in the NAO report this month:
Insufficient due diligence
The NAO considered that the MoJ’s due diligence was not thorough enough. ALS was a small company and the MoJ wanted to give it work up to £42 million a year. A report the MoJ had received prior to awarding the contract advised giving ALS contracts worth up to £1 million.
Lack of independent expertise on ALS qualifications and assessments
Some of ALS’s proposals about qualifications and assessments were novel, tiering and in-work assessments in particular, but the Ministry took ALS’s word that they were appropriate and did not commission any independent advice on this.
ALS did not tell the Ministry that it had no way to assess large numbers of rare languages. It did not tell the Ministry that its contract with Middlesex University was only for 32 languages, a small fraction of the total number required. Capita/ALS have now told the Ministry that it no longer believes some languages can be assessed in the way set out in the contract.
Believing ALS would increase the number of interpreters, while many strongly disliked ALS
ALS asserted that it would be able to increase the number of interpreters, but the Ministry was aware that some interpreters expressed a strong dislike of ALS and did not analyse the figure. Nor did the MoJ do any work to model the reduction in income that interpreters would experience as a result of the changes.
The NAO has particular concerns about the availability of interpreters. Many qualified and experienced court interpreters continue to boycott the new system. In May 2012, following many months when financial incentives were available to those agreeing to work with Capita/ALS, only around 13 per cent of NRPSI-registered interpreters (some 300 people) had agreed to do so.
Insufficient consideration of the interpreter community’s views
The Ministry continued talking to the interpreter community throughout 2011, but did not give sufficient weight to the concerns and dissatisfaction that many interpreters expressed, even though having sufficient numbers of skilled interpreters was essential to the new arrangements’ success.
The Ministry underestimated the project risks when it decided to switch from a regional to a national rollout. It allowed the contract to become fully operational before it was ready. It held to a January implementation date though ALS had not recruited and assessed sufficient interpreters in line with contractual obligations.
Not all signed up to Framework Agreement
Fewer police forces than originally anticipated decided to participate in the framework.
Misleading pilot run
The early implementation to courts in the North West in December 2011 did not truly test ALS’s ability to deliver on a bigger scale, because this was the area of the country in which the company was based, it had the highest numbers of ALS interpreters and it was where ALS’s previous largest public sector contract was located.
Project not ready
In the autumn of 2011 there was nothing to indicate that a single, national implementation would be successful. Despite difficulties with making sufficient interpreters eligible to meet the estimated demands of the courts and tribunals, ALS did not object to the Ministry decision to move to a national rollout, even though it knew that, on the basis of interpreter numbers alone, a faster rollout could not be supported.
Large numbers of the existing interpreter base continued to tell the Ministry that they would not work with ALS under any circumstances.
According to data supplied to the Ministry by ALS in mid January 2012, only a very small number of interpreters, around 280, had been assessed and marked in line with the contract and then assigned to one of the two top tiers suitable for court and tribunal work. The remainder had either not been assessed or had not had their assessment marked. The contract became operational with a large number of interpreters who had not passed a mandatory quality requirement.
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 system as a last resort.
On 18 January 2012 the Ministry decided to implement the language services project nationally on 30 January. The Ministry’s decision was influenced by the fact that Capita had purchased ALS on 23 December 2011, a development that gave it confidence. The Ministry’s project board was aware of continuing shortfalls in some languages, even after the inclusion of un-assessed and unmarked interpreters, and they had considered the risk of a boycott, though they did not expect it to be as big as it was. In interviews some members of the project board said they understood there would be substantial ‘teething trouble’ for the first two to three months, but others, including the senior responsible owner, expected no major issues.
The Ministry did not warn courts, judges, magistrates about the shortage of interpreters nor tell them to expect any other major problems. In the autumn of 2011 the senior responsible owner had told the HMCTS board and regional court managers that they would not implement the new system until it could be guaranteed to work. In the event of problems, contingency arrangements simply involved reverting to the old system.
There were other important contractual obligations with which ALS did not comply during implementation. ALS did not alert the Ministry to these until the NAO discovered them.
No proper checks
ALS did not tell the Ministry that in at least 50 instances it did not record interpreters’ qualifications and Criminal Records Bureau disclosures, and may not even have checked them.
The contract requires all interpreters to have enhanced Criminal Records Bureau checks. However, many interpreters gave ALS evidence only of standard clearance. ALS did not tell the Ministry about this. ALS did not check, even by sampling, the assertions individuals made about having prior public sector interpreting experience.
Inconsistencies established by the Ministry and Capita during July 2012:
In total, ALS put only 845 of the interpreters on its register through an assessment centre, and only 32 per cent of these had had their assessments marked.
Only 794 interpreters, who have done work under the contract, had the enhanced Criminal Records Bureau disclosure.
Confusion with terminology
Some staff in the Ministry said that they had initially misunderstood what ‘registered’ meant, when the term was used by ALS. Early in the preparation phase, ALS told the Ministry that it had around 2,600 interpreters registered to work with it on justice jobs. Under the old system a registered interpreter was someone who had been checked and entered onto the NRPSI register. But in ALS’s terminology, a registered interpreter was someone who had expressed an interest in working with the company but was still to submit documentary evidence and be assessed.
There was no clear distinction between lists of ‘interpreters’ and lists of ‘interpreter entities’. Confusion about this could lead people to conclude that an organisation had more interpreters than it actually had.
Performance on the contract was very poor for the first two months after transition. The main issues were Capita/ALS not meeting many requests for interpreters and the quality of some of the interpreters it provided. ALS’s management information shows that it met 58 per cent of bookings in February and 73 per cent in March. The actual performance was a little lower than this, as some of the bookings Capita/ALS recorded as customer cancellations were, in fact, only cancelled because the company could not fulfil them. In April the Ministry asked Capita and ALS to clarify to staff the difference between customer cancellations and unfulfilled bookings. The data that the Ministry published about the ALS contract in May 2012 therefore contained overstatements.
MoJ’s lack of information on previous system
ALS and the Ministry suffered from an interpreter boycott of the new system but also from their own inadequate preparations. Capita/ALS struggled to get interpreters for short-notice work and was unprepared for this aspect of the contract because the Ministry lacked information about the previous system. This meant that Capita/ALS did not know the volume of interpreters likely to be ordered at less than 24 hours’ notice.
Lack of quality control
There are no key performance indicators in the ALS contract relating to quality in the fulfilment of orders. Staff in courts and tribunals, judges, magistrates and others reported that, in particular, some interpreters undertook work without being familiar with the interpreter role in the justice sector or with the protocols of the system. Staff also said that other interpreters were not sufficiently skilled to do the job.
Court staff made some 5,000 complaints about Capita/ALS through the online portal during the first six months of the contract’s operation, the majority in the early months. Court staff said that initially they had not had time to register formal complaints about every aspect of the company’s poor performance. The Senior Presiding Judge said that he too had had many complaints from judges about the quality and availability of interpreters. Previously, he said he could not recall receiving any.
Insufficient operational staff
ALS did not have enough staff to deal with bookings and complaints, and some HMCTS calls were routed to the company’s Indian call centre, against the terms of the contract. ALS’s systems were not sufficiently mature to cope with demand.
Adverse impacts of poor performance on the justice system
Some trials and legal procedures were disrupted.
Some HMCTS staff saw increases in their workload immediately after transition. They found that after uploading bookings on the ALS portal, they were spending time trying to contact ALS and ultimately reverting to old methods to book interpreters locally.
Accordingly, each delay caused costs to HM Courts & Tribunals Service and others involved in the legal process.
Perceived problems were widely reported and, it seems likely, have adversely affected confidence in the justice system.
In an unspecified number of sensitive cases, the problems may have caused distress to victims, defendants and witnesses, as they were obliged to prepare for additional hearings or relisted trials.
Service credits not applied immediately
The Ministry did not deduct service credits from ALS, as it was entitled to, between January and April 2012, but since May it has been doing so. The Ministry said that it had considered Capita’s additional investment in the contract in deciding to waive penalties initially.
An estimated 15 per cent of courts and tribunal work is currently being done under the old arrangements.
Lack of record control
Under the new system interpreters can sometimes enter their own working hours onto the system, without them being double checked by HMCTS staff. Court and tribunal staff should electronically ‘complete’ interpreting and translation jobs by entering the hours worked on the Capita/ALS portal. When they do not do so within 48 hours, however, interpreters are able to enter the details on the system themselves, so that their payments are not delayed. Court staff did not always complete jobs within 48 hours and did not always subsequently check the data entered by interpreters. This created a potential weakness in financial controls.
Lack of audit
The Ministry is entitled to audit or investigate any part of Capita/ALS’s activities, to provide assurance that payments to Capita/ALS are correct and that services are of the required quality. Before July the Ministry had not used its right to investigate Capita/ALS’s activities, nor drawn up a schedule of the audits it planned to carry out.
Questionable value for money
It is too soon to conclude on the value for money of this contract. For the Ministry to achieve value for money in this area of its business, it must provide language services of the right quality for an appropriate price and in an efficient way.