Observations on the OCJR's 2009 Reports
We wrote earlier about internal OCJR reports that played a vital role in the MoJ decision making process and were recently obtained through an FOI request (click here for the original article and here to download the reports). Below is our colleague's observations on those reports.
The availability of interpreters:
‘…HMCS do not see it as a problem…’
…that’s because HMCS paid a reasonable fee with reasonable travel costs, with the result that interpreters were willing to work in courts in ample numbers. Agencies didn’t get a sniff (except at Snaresbrook).
‘…HMCS were praised for [using] properly qualified interpreters…for their part HMCS have concerns about interpreter conduct in some cases…’
…in general the report-writers were clearly uncomfortable with the absence of any substantive complaints from HMCS about the old system. It didn’t fit their agenda. So they include here an anecdote about a court interpreter’s misconduct to make it seem courts were as unhappy as the police.
‘…local police force and courts will know which of the languages they struggle to find interpreters for’
…sorry, I thought you just said ‘HMCS do not see [interpreter availability] as a problem’?
‘the police are adamant that there is a shortage (obviously varying geographically)…’
…that’s because some police forces are (still) outsourced to agencies who struggle to get interpreters to go to their North-Westerly police stations at 10pm when the rates of pay are so abysmal.
…it is the rarer languages in other areas (e.g.…the North West of England) that are causing the real problems.’
The Monday night shift at Penrith Police Station will be particularly ‘adamant’ about their ‘shortages’ precisely because they are with ALS, a company who couldn’t find a Polish interpreter in Luton, never mind a Twi interpreter in the Lake District. But that’s not the case with the Metropolitan Police area where interpreter supply is unproblematic. Plenty of interpreters, even during the Olympics. All shifts. Every day of the week. Why would that be? Well, it’s the sheer multiculturalism of London. Nothing to do with pay. Of course not. Furthermore, if the ‘real problems’ (the ‘nub of the issue’, as it were) rested with outlying languages in outlying areas, doesn’t that mean there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the system?
‘While some police forces use interpreters from the National Register many outsource to commercial agencies…This is often driven by the shortage of interpreters. Many registered interpreters are reluctant to work for agencies…Currently there are too few registered interpreters to meet the demands of the CJS... ACPO have described the current arrangements as ‘not fit for purpose’…many police forces are using interpreters not on the NRPSI and need to justify that usage’
Notice the circularity of the first argument. Police were unhappy with supply. So they outsourced to an agency which had access to (at best) two-thirds of the interpreters formerly available via the NRPSI. So now the Police were even more ‘adamant’ that shortage was a problem. The agencies were 2/3 less able to guarantee supply than the NRPSI. So how to improve the system? Eradicate the root of the problem, the NRPSI, from the HMCTS arena where - it is admitted - the NRPSI used to guarantee supply.
The reports are faced with a fundamental inconsistency. On the one hand they want rid of the NRPSI, & are unhappy with replacing it with their own, pointless ‘doppelganger’. In saying this they are effectively promoting the cause of the agencies. On the other hand they would not wish any new agency-based system to be denied access to the qualified interpreters that (a) will not work for agencies and (b) are in the gift of the NRPSI.
Incidentally, the word ‘currently’ here means ‘now that agencies have muddied the waters’, whilst ‘not fit for purpose’ means ‘we want to make further financial cuts by re-outsourcing under the guise of reforming the system, a system, be it noted, which we rendered unworkable by outsourcing in the first place’. Lastly, the police seem content with using unregulated interpreters through agencies (see last sentence above). This would presumably be because it increases supply & is cheaper for them. So why does the APCO call the system ‘not fit for purpose’? Are they satisfied with the cost & supply, & yet not satisfied, all at the same time? Maybe, having taken an inch, they now wanted to take a mile.
The MoJ has played the agency card (the ‘joker’) which has unbalanced the pack. But they now blame the rules of the game for the failure of the ‘game’ to work. They decide to rebalance the pack by including more ‘jokers’ though they realise that the integrity of the game depends fundamentally on the original deck. Thus does the game depart further & further from its principles.
‘…the interpreters are…adamant there [are enough of them] but they are being overlooked by police forces using agencies, due to NRPSI’s failings & inaccessibility…[the NRPSI] has been discredited & no-one appears to want to save it - not us, not the police, and not the vast majority of interpreters we have talked to’.
…so the NRPSI ‘s ‘failings’ (which turn out to be security concerns & lack of coverage in some areas for some rare languages) drove the police into the (waiting) arms of the agencies. Again, nothing to do with money. How reassuring. Note how the interpreters’ basic argument (‘we are all available but not through agencies’) is deliberately undermined by the last phrase. The police, it is claimed, only went down the agency route because the NRPSI was not providing good enough coverage or security guarantees. Yet agencies were the reason for the wholesale diminution of coverage & security guarantees (precisely, as it now turns out, in the HMCTS arena, where NO availability issues previously existed). However the word ‘inaccessibility’ is odd. The police were, by this time (2009) not paying for access to the NRPSI. It was free to them & therefore very accessible. It only became ‘inaccessible’ (in part) when a third of interpreters refused to allow their details to be made accessible to the agencies. The following non sequitur must be obvious to a dead duck: the police used agencies because the NRPSI became (partially) inaccessible as a result of the police’s use of agencies.
Note the way an implicit etymological connection between ‘discredited’ and ‘discreditably’ has been hijacked to support a slippery argument. The NRPSI management may have acted ‘discreditably’ in the eyes of some interpreters in formerly passing on interpreter details to agencies. But that does not mean it has been ‘discredited’ as an institution. The report-writers were desperate to leave the impression that the NRPSI was ‘unsalvageable’ in the eyes of the interpreters. In fact it was only the management of the NRPSI that was under fire from interpreters, precisely because they were suspected of being complicit in betraying the fundamental principles of the NR. This is analogous to Agamemnon’s treatment of Achilles in the Iliad. Achilles ( = the NR interpreter body) withdraws his support for the Greeks’ siege of Troy ( = public service interpreting through agencies) because he considers King Agamemnon (the NR management) to have acted in violation of the principles of the Heroic Code (the NR). Achilles is wholly supportive of the Heroic Code but not the way it is abused by Agamemnon. In criticising Achilles’ refusal to fight however, Agamemnon is declaring Achilles to be the violator of the Heroic Code. Ironically however, without Achilles (the professional interpreters), Agamemnon’s war, which was undertaken on the strength of the Heroic Code, cannot be won.
Clearly the use & abuse of English is alive & well. Power corrupts [the English Language] & absolute power corrupts [the English Language] absolutely. These report-writers are recycling words that have cropped up during their ‘investigation’. A cognate of a word which had had a specific meaning in its original context is [mis]used in a different context as the fundament of a self-serving argument (‘discreditable’ > ‘discredited’).
By the way, if the courts were well supplied with interpreters, how could it have been that the police were ill supplied unless the fault lay with the police?
The National Register & the DPSI:
‘the police & some interpreters are dissatisfied with the National Register…it is uncertain precisely how widely these views are held, given that interpreters are not represented by one organisation, but we believe them to be widespread’
Hang on; you just said ‘… [the NRPSI] has been discredited & no-one appears to want to save it - not us, not the police, and not the vast majority of interpreters we have talked to’. So the vast majority of nearly 120 interpreters who turned up at your road shows (‘in all we had about 120 attendees, the vast majority of them practicing [sic] interpreters’) has now become only some interpreters? At the same time complete disillusionment has become ‘dissatisfaction’. And if your uncertainty of the interpreters’ strength of feeling derives from the fact that you could only conduct a straw poll at a road show, why do you insinuate that this uncertainty derives from the divisions in interpreter organisations? Unless it is to insinuate [in a different sense] a cheap point that interpreters can be ‘divided & ruled’ [minister, please note].
’… speakers of the required languages … with training … would make perfectly acceptable interpreters … [the insufficiency of interpreters] ought not to be an issue since there would appear to be no lack of foreign language speakers around the country who would make good interpreters - the difficulty has been to get them to come forward & qualify… [unqualified interpreters are] not necessarily of concern to us - or to the police - as they may be perfectly competent to do the job … having someone is better than having no-one’.
…so these potential interpreters are just a bit shy, & feel awkward taking the DPSI. Probably best then to get rid of the DPSI if it’s making them so uncomfortable? While we are at it why don’t we let aspiring solicitors qualify without sitting their Law exams? In any case, anyone with a smattering of English will ‘do just fine’ as an interpreter. Any half-decent speaker of English will be ‘perfectly acceptable’, and ‘perfectly competent’. It’s only foreign languages we’re talking about here. It’s not as if quality matters that much. I mean we are not talking about concert pianists here are we? Take typists. Anyone with ten fingers can become a typist. Even if they only manage ten words a minute, that still makes them a typist. Or think of it like this. Just because a family doctor isn’t a qualified dentist, does that mean he or she is incapable of lancing a gum boil? Of course not. He or she can do the job ‘perfectly well’ without the help of any dentist. A jolly sight better (& cheaper) I shouldn’t wonder…
We native British have a reputation for ‘muddling through’ (‘someone is better than no-one’). However ‘muddling through’ can translate into ‘let’s not worry too much about stuff we don’t think is important’ (such as having a cast-iron guarantee that a defendant has understood the charge).
‘[it is likely that members of the Asian & African communities are deterred from obtaining qualifications] since the interpreters from this group who are used by the CJS are often members of the community who speak English as their second language’.
…one could be forgiven for thinking the writer means this: ‘As distinct from all other nationalities, Asians & Africans have a specific problem with getting the DPSI, namely that English is only their second language, not their first. For your information - in case you were unaware of the fact - interpreters from other continents are actually English natives, yes English natives, whose first language is English. That means they have an advantage when it comes to passing an English examination’. Obviously this would be nonsense, and, although arrant nonsense is not beyond the OCJR, we should be charitable & try to interpret what this person is really trying to say. What he or she may mean is that interpreters in other languages (not African or Asian) are likely to be better established in the UK and speak English natively (to ‘first’ language level, as it were, as though they were 2nd generation speakers in fact), whilst Asian or African interpreters are more likely to be ‘newer’ (i.e. only recently arrived) and - it is implied - poorer immigrants, who know English less well (as only a second language, as it were!) and may feel deterred from taking an examination which they may well fail. The author seems to be distinguishing Asians & Africans from other communities on the basis that the Africans & Asians are (likely to be) recently-arrived economic migrants whose priority is less to perfect their English than to manage to make a living. The coyness with which this sentence is phrased is frankly embarrassing. I wonder what fully-qualified Tamil, Singhalese, Urdu, Lingala, Hindi interpreters would make of this stereotype of Asians & Africans? In any case, aren’t Africans (such as the Ugandans) and Asians (such as the Indians & Pakistanis) amongst the oldest of all immigrant groups here? I used to watch cricket matches at Edgbaston in the late sixties & early seventies surrounded by West Indians, Pakistanis, and Indians. They are not people who are ‘just off the boat’ in 2012. Their communities are long-established. In any case, many of them are fluent in English before they even arrive in the UK. Many of them are educated in English for goodness sake. In that sense their competence in English is likely to be superior to other nationalities for whom English is most certainly ‘a second language’. And are we saying other nationalities are generally more ‘middle-class’ and ‘fluent in English’ than Asians & Africans? I sincerely hope not.
It is - at very least - demeaning to suggest Africans & Asians are likely to be worse at English than other nationalities, even if they are - in the MoJ’s elegant English - ‘newer’. Apropos of which, I seem to spend half my time these days trying to interpret gobbledygook coming out of the MoJ. Perhaps English is the MoJ’s ‘third language’.
‘the main European languages are not, generally speaking, a problem, especially in the big metropolitan areas’
…well, now they are a big problem, thanks to the Framework Agreement.
P.10 ‘NRPSI required just a basic CRB check until 1 October 2009 when the level was increased to enhanced disclosure. A basic CRB is widely felt to be inadequate … It will not cover terrorist links …’
Good. So the ‘discredited’ NRPSI has pulled its socks up & tightened its security procedures. Praise where praise is due? No, no. no. In the sentences which follow the above, the OCJR carries on lambasting the NRPSI for a whole paragraph as if the NRPSI were still demanding only a basic CRB.
It is as if one were to have failed the DPSI. After resitting it and passing it the second time, one is then banned from the register for having failed it the first time. The Ministry of Special Pleading wants to play the terrorist card (& the ‘Ian Huntley’ card) to the hilt. It therefore ignores the fact that the NRPSI now demands ‘enhanced disclosure’. Pretty sad stuff really.
‘…it may take some time for a person to be brought to trial & that during this period they may still be working as an interpreter. Anecdotal police evidence is that this frequently happens…’
If this ‘frequently’ happens, then there must be a load of anecdotes. But anecdotes are not ‘hard evidence’ anyway so how can you say ‘frequently’ however many anecdotes there are? This is tabloid stuff. ‘The country is awash with NRPSIs who are on bail’. Shock horror. Most shocking of all is the blithe assumption that people are guilty until proved innocent. Whatever happened to Magna Carta? Oh yes, I forgot, it’s de trop, and not just because Cameron does not even know what the title Magna Carta means, despite (or because of) his Eton education. Incidentally, how many ALS/Capita interpreters are on bail now (2012)? Anyone got any statistics? Thought not.
‘The biggest issue [even with ‘qualified’ interpreters] would seem to be poor spoken English’
The word ‘spoken’ is otiose here. If we are speaking about interpreters, then obviously we are speaking about ‘spoken English’. We don’t need to distinguish this from ‘written’ English. There would be no point. So why put it in? Possibly because the report-writer wishes to refer, at least in part, to the deficient ‘pronunciation’ of English in the mouths of foreigners. This is an important issue in my view, but it is not in the least specific to interpreters. There are many countries where English is spoken from birth, but with a local accent. When these nationals come to the UK, a percentage of them do not adjust their accent to take account of the ways English is pronounced, intoned, or accentuated. Nor do they adjust their speed of delivery. This is because, in assuming (correctly) that they are fluent in English, they also assume (incorrectly) that their oral production of English needs no refinement. There are a not insignificant number of professional people in the UK who are difficult for native British people to understand because they do not accommodate their oral delivery to local norms. In this sense, speakers of English who have learned it as ‘a second language’ have an advantage because they know they have to work on their accent.
Reports’ overview of Interpreters:
They are a gobby, opinionated, adversarial bunch (‘vociferous’ ‘criticised’ ‘blamed’ ‘antipathy’), with a prominent vanguard (‘several, highly vocal interpreters’). They want a closed shop so that no-one can steal their jobs (‘they do not…. want more interpreters to compete with’). In this respect they resemble other professions like solicitors, doctors, who are anxious that unqualified staff should not be able to steal their jobs by doing their work at cut-price rates. What an unhelpful attitude. Still, they are a principled lot (‘the majority of interpreters seem opposed in principle to the use of agencies’) and quite cohesive in their views (‘almost unanimous’). Nevertheless they are happy to compromise (‘willing to pay registration fees’) except on quality (‘[they] would like to see a new register [guaranteeing] quality’). They don’t seem to understand that quality costs money, nor do they grasp that when we talk about ‘efficiency’ what we really mean is ‘what is the cheapest option’. You’d think professional interpreters would know what ‘efficiency’ means! They are subject to knee-jerk reactions which drive them into the arms of the tabloids (‘interpreters will go straight to the press’) but we needn’t worry because no-one cares a jot about them in the wider world (‘we do not see this as an issue with a potentially high profile…Media interest would likewise seem minimal’). So we can safely ride roughshod over them (‘a public consultation is unnecessary, [it wouldn’t] justify the time & expense’). In any case they are organisationally divided (‘disparate interpreter groups’) so they won’t put up any unified resistance. A brief announcement on our website will be the most that’s needed but let’s not let it ruin our holidays (‘a wms would probably be appropriate in due course but not this side of Christmas’). Above all, let us remember who our real enemies are. And don’t forget who brought Hannibal down in the end. It was Fabius Cunctator (‘among the interpreter community the road shows have bought us time’).
Reports’ Overview of Costs:
In the July report, the estimated costs of providing an electronic database for an in-house MoJ interpreter register seem to be around £60,000 to £70,000 a year. By the November submission the running costs were £300,000 to £500,000 a year although that report-writer warns that ‘these figures are considerably higher than we expect but have been inflated to be on the safe-side’. Well, we don’t want you to imagine that a register could pay for itself if we charged interpreters a subscription (which they are all annoyingly willing to do). You might have thought that 2,380 interpreters paying £200 each a year in subscriptions would produce £476,000. Well, yes, it does, and that would almost cover even our most inflated estimates of the operating costs. But don’t forget the start-up costs of up to £1 million. For, basically, a website. A really, really good, state-of-the-art website, designed by the company that wins the (expensive) contract. And, yes, this website would just be a duplicate of the existing National Register (unless the NR refuses to let us have their database, in which case our register will be practically useless). In general I think the idea is too expensive & risky. Well, of course it’s true that ‘making registration mandatory for CSJ work will be a strong incentive’ for interpreters to sign up. And in that case we would not need to be in hock to the NR. Interpreters would willingly give us their details. So yes that would solve that problem. In fact you’re right, there are no good reasons to reject an in-house register. It would be the ideal solution to our security concerns as well. In fact I am not sure why we are reinventing the wheel. Why don’t we just tinker with the old NR system?
Incidentally how did Thames Valley save 30% on their Language Line contract when Bedfordshire, who piggy-backed onto the same contract, were reported to be paying a 100% more a year?
There is a poignant sense in which interpreters saw the situation in 2009 as the thin end of their own wedge which they hoped they could use in their struggle to wrest back their profession from the agencies. They seemed to see the MoJ as a potential ally in this process. In one sense the interpreters were right. It was the thin end of the wedge, but an entirely different wedge that was to open the door wide for agencies, or rather one agency, to flood in where they least expected (HMCTS). In that sense the last paragraph of the July report is unintentionally prophetic: ‘This option [a Government register of agencies] is overly restrictive. Interpreters in the CJS would effectively be compelled to work for agencies. This would be very unpopular with registered interpreters’. You said it.