What did Margaret Thatcher know that the current government seems to have forgotten?
Back in the 1980s, the Conservative government under the redoubtable leadership of Mrs Thatcher set about the wholesale privatisation of state owned utilities such as telecoms, water, gas, and electricity. An essential part of the process was the creation of regulators to monitor and control the activities of these privately owned monopolies. Even Mrs Thatcher recognised what to most people is blindingly obvious; a private monopoly operating without restraint or competition will screw as much profit as it can from its captive customers by lowering quality and/or pushing up prices.
Fast forward 25 years, and a new government creates a privately-owned monopoly for the supply of Interpreting and Translation within the Justice sector which – for some bizarre reason – is considered not to require regulation. It’s not as though it would take a lot of effort to create a regulator, because one already exists in the form of NRPSI. This body has a simple, clearly defined function, which is to control a register of Interpreters, all of whom have met the minimum requirements for competence and experience deemed necessary to deliver a professional service within the public sector.
Complaints about Interpreters were also investigated by NRPSI, and those found guilty of professional misconduct or incompetence were removed from the register. If there is such a thing in the Interpreting world as a gold standard, then being listed on the NRPSI was pretty much it. The NRPSI is funded by a subscription paid by interpreters that meet the entry criteria and choose to be on it, and up until recently, by payments from public bodies wishing to have access to the register.
NRPSI has no loyalties towards particular agencies, interpreters or end users. It has no involvement in arranging bookings, other than to make available a register which facilitates direct communication between customers and suppliers.
Enter the Framework agreement, and the MoJ suddenly decides there is no need for NRPSI at all. Its preferred monopoly supplier Applied Language Solutions is given free rein to set whatever standards it chooses for the linguists it recruits. The qualifications and experience requirements of NRPSI are watered down, despite that fact that no evidence has ever been provided that NRPSI interpreters are somehow overqualified for the work that they do. The new linguists are supposedly assessed by a murky process undertaken by a person or persons unknown, and whose credentials cannot be independently verified. All that can be said for certain is that many of the linguists that have passed the assessment process have proved woefully inadequate. It has not been established that any independent monitoring of the quality of service is taking place, and if you want to complain, there’s no one to complain to other than ALS itself.
One can only imagine the sorts of exchanges that take place between MoJ and ALS. “I say chaps, I’ve heard some of your linguists are absolutely hopeless” “Really, Minister? Let’s have a look at our statistics. Hmmmm….nope, according to this we’re doing rather well actually.” “Good, that’s what I like to hear, carry on with the good work.”
The need for ALS wishing to lower standards is well understood. ALS is not paid according to the quality of service provided at the point of delivery, it has only to secure the attendance of a person that ALS claims to be a linguist. It is in ALS’s commercial interest to send a linguist with the lowest standards they can get away with, because they are paid less, hence the profit margin for ALS is higher.
In addition, there is the clear objective in the Framework Agreement that ALS must expand the pool of linguists available, and that the standards of the linguists will be higher. If ALS is able to achieve this at the same time as slashing the rewards available to those providing the service, it will be nothing less than a minor miracle. It is wholly illogical and counter-intuitive to suppose that by cutting wages, you will attract more people into a profession. Except, of course, that the terms imposed by ALS relegate it from a profession to casual work, and in return, those contracted by ALS seem to take their responsibilities in a similarly casual fashion, judging by the number of no-shows and late arrivals.
The sentiment expressed by Crispin Blunt that the Framework is being sabotaged by NRPSI refusing to work for ALS is one I find rather odd. What we are witnessing is, in fact, the free market in action, something which you would expect a Tory minister to applaud. When the market price for a commodity or service falls, the suppliers withdraw from the market place if they consider the price is no longer attractive enough to make it worth their while. They will go away and put their skills and expertise to use in a more profitable enterprise, leaving the void to be filled with new entrants with lesser abilities. This is elementary economics, although the concept of a market price is perverted when a monopoly is created.
I don’t know which school Mr Blunt attended, but when I studied for O level history, I was taught that Britain abolished slavery in 1833. Perhaps Mr Blunt was off-sick that day?