Public Service Interpreting: are we going round in circles?
Apologies to all fellow interpreters, supporters and all our well-wishers. Those of you in the interpreting community who know me personally are all aware that due to an illness within my family, my contribution to this campaign at a time when we are fighting to save our profession has been small compared to my past involvement.
However, as I have mentioned in a previous post, I have continuously followed the story and its developments and very much hold an informed view of the story so far. But I have to ask myself and put this question to you all - Are we all going around in circles?
The interpreting profession has gone through tough times, but never times like the present. For those of you who have been in the profession long enough will remember the story of the Home Office and the Central Interpreters Unit (CIU). The late 1990s and early 2001-2003, the Home Office, following a nationwide recruitment drive, claimed to have 5000 Interpreters on their panel. At the time Immigration was perhaps 'the hottest political topic' of public debate prior to the rise of Tony Blair and the Labour government.
That figure of 5000 was reduced to under 2000 following assessment by the IND. Around the same time the AIT also held their assessments. The IOL was commissioned by the various government bodies to undertake those assessments. Soon after, between 2002-2003 the rates of interpreting and the allowances made it financially unviable to work for the Home Office. Just one reminder! Travel time will only be paid after 3 hour of travel. There was a mass exodus of interpreters declining IND work, due to the rates and terms and conditions. I would be incorrect if I were to state that the Home Office Interpreters Panel collapsed. Alternatively, I don’t think that I would be incorrect if I were to describe the current panel of interpreters who continue to work for the Home Office only do so if they are local to a particular installation. I have often found Immigration Officers who have come to court and openly and candidly admitted that they have not been able to secure the services of a HO interpreter who had been prepared to travel from London to perhaps Southampton. Hence, the suspect could not be interviewed, and therefore had to be released. The Home Office has been left with a skeleton workforce of the Interpreters. The quality of interpreting can perhaps be best described as reverting back to what it was in the late 1990s. During this period, Home Office managers paid no attention to the thousands of complaints from immigration practitioners and organisations such as Immigration Advisory Service and the Refugee Legal Council (both were funded by the Home Office).
The next part of this story was that between 2003 and 2007 there was a huge drive by the IOL and the NRPSI (whilst they were joined at the hip). Between them they "looted" interpreters out of £1000s just to grant entry on to the register. The IOL received money from left, right and centre, contracts worth millions for the assessment of government panels of interpreters (IND and IAA), training staff within the court service, examination fees from would-be interpreters etc. The NRPSI received subscriptions from both government organisations, police constabularies, local governments, and not forgetting us 'the interpreters'.
This chapter of the story became a bitter pill to swallow for the NRPSI following the revelations by Information Commissioner of the sale of our data. We have not forgotten that the sale of this data provided agencies with a chance to claim that they had x number of qualified interpreters on their books to secure various contracts from police constabularies. Remember CINTRA! We, the interpreters, suffered.
Forgive me, if I can’t remember all of the names of the individuals who have been campaigning since then, but Professor Makin, Mr Cunningham, Farid Arada, Zuzana Windle, who all set up the GMB Interpreter and Translators Branch. One of the targets was to go after 'statutory protection', whatever happened to that campaign?
No court in England and Wales or Scotland for that matter would allow a Solicitor, Barrister, Police Officer, Doctor, Psychologists to practise without proper qualifications, without proper criminal record checks, and professional training. All of the above play a part in criminal or civil proceedings. In the context of investigations and court proceedings interpreters are being engaged to collect evidence.
That's the word I was looking for EVIDENCE! EVIDENCE! EVIDENCE! Everybody needs evidence! The police and the courts require evidence to charge a suspect. A charging decision made by a CPS lawyer, a conviction following trial. We have all heard read and reported, and continue to document incidences of the 'quality of interpreting' taking place in our current justice system. What if an interpreted statement or PACE interview or testimony under oath could not be relied on upon as EVIDENCE! The house of cards comes tumbling down!
Could a judge, prosecuting, a defending barrister rely on that interpreted evidence as an accurate and faithful translation of the utterances of a witness or a defendant? In recent times, it's only because of the army of Interpreters who have earned their positions as 'legal interpreters' through sheer hard work over the years of working the most unsociable hours and travelling thousands of miles to deliver a public service in the belief that they were playing their role in the administration of justice have policed the courts and brought to the attention of the courts that misinterpreting is taking place. In other words, a miscarriage of justice in the happening!
For the past few weeks I have been working at Snaresbrook Crown Court, one of the busiest courts in the UK. To my horror the discoveries I made were brought to the attention of the trial judge. The rape trial had to be stopped whilst I examined the ABE interview conducted through an Interpreter. It took 23 hours to correct a transcript which could not have been relied upon as accurate in the context of the 'evidential value'. Now here is an interesting acronym 'ABE', Achieving Best Evidence? By using an interpreter who was not qualified for the language of the complainant. What was even more worrying was the fact that this was the third trial. The trial Judge expressed concern as to why and how this was not picked up in the previous two trials.
This is where ALS makes its entrance, and leaves its hallmarks of contaminated evidence. What was even more shocking to hear was that Interpreters of good professional standing in fear of losing a 2-3 week trial were and have been turning a blind eye to such discoveries as they did not want to lose work. Which brings me to a closing, and leave you with something to think about. We have all suffered and continue to suffer, with no end in sight. However, abandoning our professional ethics aside from the codes of practice of either the IOL or NRPSI to which we have stood by for all the time that we have been practitioners.
It is demoralising to learn and digest that people like Brooke Townsley having been the Chair of the NRPSI for a number of years didn't have the courage to challenge the IOL that he, Brooke Townsley, was of the opinion that the IOL examinations were not necessary and that he had an alternative which he has sold and has been lapped up by ALS/CAPITA as this was a route to mass subscription onto their register and a quick fix route into legal interpreting via the monopoly contract.
Those 2300 individuals who formed the NRPSI and funded its existence for so long are now at a risk of being disbanded into splinter groups. It has become a jungle out there. Interpreters who had boycotted the MOJ/ALS for as long as they have, only brought to heel as there is no other choice but to join ALS. Interpreters report that if they keep turning down jobs which are not viable by any stretch of the imagination; they are further punished by not being offered jobs that could be viable i.e. lengthy trials. Alternatively being seduced into accepting a number of one hour jobs in the hope of receiving better offers.
I hope that my post has not been a depressing read. My aim was to bring to the forefront of our minds lessons from the past. These are the same experiments which have been tried and tested time and time again. Each time it has chipped away at a structure which we all have collectively participated in building over the years. For all the negativity of the NAO report; it states that ALS/ CAPITA have improved. But have they? I would simply ask that those giving evidence in the forthcoming enquiries bring to the attention of those committees the chronology of anomalous position of the courts and the constabularies. On the one hand they complain of 'quality of interpreting' and introduce initiatives such 'Achieving Best Evidence' techniques? And at the same time actively reducing the number of professional interpreters when there is very clear evidence that more interpreters are required. Are we going round in circles?