PI4J Letter to Crown Commercial Service
Mr Brian Braid
Category Manager Professional Services
Crown Commercial Service
9th Floor, The Capital, Old Hall Street, Liverpool L3 9PP
By email: Brian.Braid@ccs.gsi.gov.uk
4 April 2016
Dear Mr Braid, Professional Interpreters for Justice (PI4J) is an umbrella group representing over 2,240 interpreters from both the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI) and the National Union of British Sign Language Interpreters (NUBSLI). Our aim is to work with government to ensure the quality of interpreting available to the Justice System and in the Public Sector.
Reliable communication provided by qualified professional interpreters and translators is an essential resource which ensures that justice and human rights are upheld for non-English speakers and deaf people. This is put at risk if standards are dropped and quality is sacrificed.
PI4J has been at the forefront of the professional interpreters’ campaign against the unacceptable lowering of standards and quality in public service.
Re: Crown Commercial Service (CCS) Language Services Framework Agreement (FWA)
On 25 March 2015 PI4J sent an email (copied below) to the CCS outlining our position with regard to the CCS Language Services FWA. To date we received no reply or acknowledgement from you.
We understand that the CCS has informed the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) that interpreters and their representative bodies are ‘on-board’ and support their FWA.
This is not the case.
Our correspondence made it very clear that we cannot support any arrangements or FWA which does not fully take into consideration all our submissions in respect of minimum professional qualifications for Public Service Interpreters (PSI) and BSL/English Interpreters, Deaf interpreters and Sign Language translators, mandatory NRPSI/NRCPD/SASLI registration, and independent regulation and quality and performance auditing – as well as sustainable rates of pay for interpreters.
This FWA has not incorporated all our suggestions and concerns into the specifications and we do not believe it will fulfil the language demand and standards requirements for the Police Forces and other agencies serving the Criminal Justice System.
The interpretation service for the Police Services must be professional, impartial, and of the highest quality. The expertise of these professionals should be used, and they must be compensated in relation to their performance and training.
Interpreters and the organisations representing them are fearful of the consequences for Equal Access to Justice and Fair Trial for non-English speakers and the deaf, which may be put at risk if quality legal interpreting or translation is not provided.
There are inherent dangers to the delivery of justice that can arise out of inadequate interpreting or failure to supply an interpreter at all. The potential cost due to failed prosecutions and appeals also cannot be underestimated.
The margins for errors are huge, with misunderstandings and miscommunications not only wasting a lot of time but also not providing members of the public with a fair representation.
It is often the victims that are overlooked in this and they too will suffer if the standards are dropped and quality is sacrificed for profit.
In this framework if a supplier is unable to book a qualified interpreter they are allowed to settle for less. As we have seen with existing contracts and framework agreements, that may be anyone with a basic qualification. With little monitoring of government contracts, the agencies can do as they see fit.
It further appears that public services, which include the police, whilst wishing to maintain quality of the provision, show no appreciation for interpreters' unique skills, which need to be remunerated properly.
The CCS FWA system of competitive tendering means a bidding war between agencies to get their places, followed by further competition for contracts (call-offs).
Price-competitive tendering will cause a race to the bottom. It is clear that lowest cost tendering incentivises suppliers to deliver the lowest level of service that they can get away with. It drives down the prices but cannot deliver real value or quality.
This in turn can only mean a significant reduction in interpreters’ payment rates and unacceptable terms of working conditions, decided upon by agencies concerned only with their own profits.
It is only a matter of time before there will be a gross miscarriage of justice on the basis of very poor interpreting if public services choose the cheapest rate over quality and experience.
The CCS FWA, whilst imposing a series of demands on the interpreters, ‘is not intended to set out the contractual terms between the supplier and the interpreter as this is an ‘umbrella agreement’ and fee rates will be set by the bidders via an open and competitive procurement exercise’. We contend that it is a matter for the CCS too, as they will be responsible for the disruption which may result when interpreters refuse to work for the low fees that are likely to be offered by the agencies tendering for these contracts.
Low rates and inadequate T&Cs will not be able to attract and retain qualified, experienced interpreters. It is implicit that the service is going to deteriorate because of the quality of interpreters who will work at low rates.
The vast majority of professional legal interpreters have refused to work for the low-paying agencies, since, apart from the derisory terms and conditions on offer they reject the apparent contempt for standards and quality shown by them.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) FWA for the provision of language services is one example of competitive tendering which omitted to consider that interpreters are skilled professionals, and not commodities. Rates for interpreters were slashed to barely subsistence levels overnight, leading to the vast majority of interpreters choosing to boycott the new contract rather than accept Capita’s pitiful pay and conditions. The changes in pay and conditions have led to an exodus of experienced and qualified interpreters from the courts.
The MoJ FWA was subject to a Public Accounts Committee (PAC) enquiry in 2012 and a number of hearings and reports. The MoJ seems not to have learned from that and we have learned that one major language service provider decided not to submit a PQQ for the current Ministry of Justice procurement process for language services due to the reputational damage any success may bring. Given that it is one of very few companies with a relatively trouble-free relationship with interpreters, we are concerned that they should reach this decision.
The MoJ FWA has already caused massive problems in the UK courts since it was rolled out in February 2012. This situation must not be extended to the police forces.
More recently, at the end of 2015, the Home Office (HO) decided to reduce their interpreters’ rates. Following a Fair Payment Campaign by the HO interpreters and their representative bodies, including the PI4J, the HO delayed and then reversed their decision. Interpreters made it very clear they would boycott HO assignments and not work for the proposed new rates. This debacle appeared on the front page of The Guardian newspaper.
An exit survey was recently conducted among the British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters, which shows many are considering leaving the profession. So are the spoken language interpreters.
Many of the skills held by professional linguists are readily transferrable to other occupations, which gives them great occupational mobility; if their needs are not met, they will simply choose to seek to earn a better living in other sectors. This exit of skilled and experienced interpreters from the profession will negatively impact upon the quality and availability of service provided.
The message is simple: unless interpreters are offered sustainable rates and T&Cs, they will boycott this contract too.
T&Cs need to be fair and not discriminate between spoken language and BSL interpreters.
Professional interpreters invest substantial time, effort and money to gain and maintain their skills. Their remuneration must reflect the fact that they are paid gross hourly rates as self-employed interpreters, liable to pay Income Tax and National Insurance, who have no pension, holiday or sick pay, and no job security. They further have to pay for professional registration and memberships, insurance, training and CPD. Furthermore, agencies are known to have transferred the burden of vetting costs to interpreters themselves.
It is important to point out that there has not been an increase in interpreting rates for many years now. They were further eroded by inflation and the growing cost of living in the UK, especially in areas such as London.
In addition, the cut-price employment terms imposed by all-encompassing frameworks and contracts usually fail to provide adequate reimbursement for travel time and travel expenses, making the rates even more unattractive.
The impact of the cuts places interpreters’ livelihoods at risk and will mean that public service interpreting will no longer be a viable career. Interpreters are losing all confidence in the continued recognition and protection of the interpreter in this outsourcing to commercial agencies whose main aim will always be to increase their own profits.
Full support of professional interpreters and sustainable terms & conditions are the only way forward to ensure the quality and success of any future arrangements for the provision of language services in the public service sectors and to avoid a market exit.
We maintain that there could be more savings in the long term by investing in the establishment of a central government agency, which is “not for profit” and therefore does not seek to gain a pecuniary advantage from interpreters’ work. This may achieve a streamlining of the system and thereby utilise interpreter services in a more organised and efficient way—dealing with the process of identifying and booking individual interpreters, as well as with the payment process.
It is our assertion that this FWA will lead to increased overall costs due to the additional management and supervision required to ensure the bare minimum requirement of the specification is fulfilled. Instead of focusing on short term financial savings, service providers must focus on performance and quality value.
Professional Interpreters for Justice (PI4J)