Thousands of interpreter SMEs forced out in favour of ALS/Capita
I am a professional public service interpreter. On January 30th this year my professionalism, my hard-earned qualifications and my membership of the National Register of Public Service Interpreters, were all rendered of little practical value by the outsourcing of all court interpreting to Applied Language Solutions (ALS), a company which the government considers to be an SME. I cannot make a living from the rates, terms & conditions offered by ALS, nor do I consider the company to be a fit & proper vehicle for the provision of such a service nationwide. I & the majority of my professional colleagues have voted with our feet & refused to work as ‘agency temps’.
My colleagues & I are also refusing to accept assignments from courts even when they call us directly to offer better rates in a desperate attempt to plug the gaps left by ALS’s failure to provide. This is the practice to which Crispin Blunt is referring to when he says, ‘Contingency arrangements to minimise disruption to courts and tribunals will remain in place’. The phrase ‘contingency arrangements’ leaves the public with the impression that the government has its hand on the tiller while ALS tries to right the ship. But in fact, since we, interpreters, are refusing to cooperate with these contingency arrangements, they are effectively a dead letter. I live in Cambridge, yet I remember declining to go to Nottingham and Bromley Magistrates’ Courts. Their Listings Departments called me as part of these contingency arrangements. One can imagine the cost to the Exchequer of travelling such distances. Does this not smack of desperation?
Now the recent Police Procurement Consultation, ‘Obtaining Better Value for Money From Police Procurement’, advocates an extension of this outsourcing policy to cover all the police forces in England & Wales. The policy has already caused havoc in our courts, as ALS do not command sufficient resources or quality to meet demand. One now fears a similar scenario unfolding in custody suites from Penzance to Penrith.
I have an even deeper concern, however. The Business Link ‘Contracts Finder’ website (under ‘Language Service Framework Agreement; Awarded Suppliers’) has the following entry regarding the ALS contract: ‘Supplier [sic ‘ALS’] is a Small or Medium Enterprise: Yes’. Francis Maude himself considers ALS to be an SME if we can put any store by his remarks to the Daily Telegraph where he was was quoted as saying that the service failings [of ALS] were unacceptable but were not related to the company's size. ‘They clearly miscalculated,’ he said. ‘Look at what the consequences are: the service is still being provided; the failing company has been taken over by a competent operator that will put whatever is needed into it to make it work’. The ‘competent operator’ he refers to is Capita, the outsourcing giant. But Capita took over ALS in December 2011, well before ALS began rolling out the contract in late January. ALS was not an SME that was out of its depth & had to be bailed out. It was already part of a mammoth company when it began provision. And still it performed, & continues to perform, abysmally. And was it not the government who ‘clearly miscalculated’ at the very start in awarding the contract to ALS?
But a more important question suggests itself: ‘How does this ‘SME-friendly’ government compile statistics on the SME share of government contracts?’ Despite ALS patently not being an SME even when roll-out began, is its provision still being considered as that of an SME on the basis of that bald sentence in the Framework Agreement? The government wants to direct 25% of government ‘spend’ to SMEs by 2015. So will it log every penny spent on ALS under the heading ‘spend on SMEs’? And what about lower down the food chain? The police procurement consultation mentioned above contains an Impact Assessment document. On p.18 it states: ‘In the case of Translators and Interpreters, although the framework is awarded to a single supplier [sic ALS], SME’s, including individual translators and interpreters, can become suppliers to that single supplier’. Clearly public service interpreters are considered to be so many SMEs, even though they have no independent access to government procurements, no power to form consortia to bid for tenders, & no rights to sub-contract work from ALS on a negotiated basis. Nor are public service interpreters somehow able to mop up government contract work when they have spare capacity. They do not work for private clients. They are trained professionally to operate in police stations and courts, for the government. Now they are forced to take ‘bottom dollar’ from ALS, or nothing. But even that ‘bottom dollar’ can be legitimately logged by the government as ‘spend on SME’s’ as that is what the government considers public service interpreters to be.
Furthermore, is it rash to assume that direct ‘spend on ALS’ & indirect ‘spend on interpreters’ will not be double counted when statistics are compiled? Let us hope this is not the methodology by which the share of SME outsourcing has jumped from 6.5% to 13.7% in recent times. Or let us say that statistics are compiled ‘per contract’? I trust each individual interpreting assignment, that is, contract, will not be counted from both the interpreter-SMEs perspective & from the ALS-SME perspective. In fact, given what I have said above, not a single penny that is spent & not a single individual contract that is awarded within the terms of this framework should be logged as having anything to do with SMEs.
It is bad enough that an entire generation of talented public service interpreters has been forced out of the profession by the court service. It is bad enough that the police service is about to follow the court service’s lead. But for my colleagues & me to go down in Whitehall’s records as ‘SMEs’ - & all in the same breath as Capita-ALS - would be to add too much insult to injury. We fear an SME whitewash at Whitehall. Let us hope we are mistaken.