Open letter re: the reasons why the Ministry of Justice's Framework Agreement is running into difficulties
21 Hartington Road
Deputy Director of Crime (Crown)
HM Courts & Tribunals Service
Ministry of Justice
Dear Mr Jones,
Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) decided to book interpreters solely through Applied Language Solutions (ALS) under the new Framework Agreement from the beginning of this month. Yet only two weeks into the contract ALS's performance was so unsatisfactory that HMCTS decided to "revert to the previous arrangements" for certain last-minute bookings. A week later the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) admitted to the Law Society Gazette that there was an "unacceptable" number of problems with the new contract for court interpreting services (John Hyde's article dated 24/2/2012).
Despite clear evidence to the contrary from court rooms in recent weeks, the MOJ has repeatedly maintained to the press that:
"This new contract will save at least £18m a year on the cost of interpretation and translation, a reduction of almost a third, but will ensure that high quality interpreters and translators are still available to those in need."
The longer the MOJ believes this to be true and fails to realise that the Framework Agreement is unworkable, the greater will be the costs to the British taxpayer resulting from adjournments and poor interpreting.
The MOJ appears to believe that the cause of the problems is simply interpreters' resistance to accepting lower rates and that, given time, interpreters will be forced to accept the new arrangements. Those interpreters most capable of enabling smooth and effective communication in court have other options open to them and will - with great regret - leave this sector rather than work for a pittance under unacceptable arrangements. The MOJ also appears to believe that properly qualified and experienced court interpreters can easily be replaced by people without a legal interpreting qualification who have some knowledge of English and another language. ALS also appears to subscribe to this view but its system of so-called "assessment" has not guaranteed appropriate quality interpreting to courts in recent weeks. The current chaos proves good interpreters were undervalued and it is not so simple to replace them.
The problems the courts are currently experiencing are not teething problems; the roots of these problems are embedded in the Framework Agreement. The National Agreement gave the courts access to a pool of well-qualified interpreters at relatively low rates in return for using the approved registers as their primary source of interpreters. It was a very carefully crafted system of remuneration. The 3 hour minimum took account of the courts' need to have interpreters available in situ for at least half a day even though the actual interpreting time in the court room might be much shorter. This gave the courts flexibility so that other more expensive court resources could be used effectively. The payment for travel time balanced the low basic attendance fee and took account of the fact that travel often constitutes a significant proportion of the time taken to deliver an interpreting assignment. This is true for all short interpreting jobs and is also inevitable in the many instances where the demand and supply for a particular language and location requires an interpreter to travel significant distances.
The Framework Agreement is fundamentally flawed because it ignores these factors and implicitly assumes an unskilled, exploitable, local work force. By removing the 3 hour minimum, payment of travel time, payment of expenses and lowering the hourly rate, ALS has made most jobs financially unviable for trained interpreters. Yet even ALS has had to backtrack on some of these elements. Starting from a position of ridiculously low rates, which did not guarantee the equivalent of the national minimum wage, ALS has been forced to pay some travel time and also to pay some interpreters National Agreement rates in order to persuade them to go to assignments. In its desperation to keep the contract ALS has even recently offered interpreters in certain key languages and locations retainer fees of £75 per half-day availability for a period of one fortnight. Presumably the rates initially offered to interpreters were calculated by ALS to make a profit on the fee paid by the MOJ, so such incentives are unsustainable financially for ALS other than in the very short term.
In the long term paying decent rates is not financially sustainable for ALS and the absence of reasonable, guaranteed rates is unsustainable for qualified interpreters, who will be forced to leave this market. Put simply, this contract has been poorly structured and completely mis-priced both by ALS and the MOJ, so that ALS is not capable of delivering it in the short term, let alone the medium or long term. Considering that ALS's last two sets of published accounts show rapidly mounting losses (a £20k loss in 2010 and a £331k loss in 2011) one might well question the pricing strategy and financial acumen behind the whole arrangement.
In the light of the realities detailed above, I would urge you to review the situation carefully and abandon the Framework Agreement before yet more serious damage is done to the justice system, the interpreting profession and the public purse.
I would respectfully suggest it is time to start talking to interpreter organisations such as the Professional Interpreters' Alliance, the Institute of Translation and Interpreting and the Association of Police and Court Interpreters to agree arrangements for the immediate future, to regain some goodwill, and to work together towards a more stable and reliable system compliant with the EU Directive on the right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings.