What exactly was the rationale for the changes? Does anyone know?
One of the key conclusions of the National Audit Office report on the language services contract with Applied Language Solutions stated:
“On the rationale for the new contracts, the Ministry had strong reasons for changing the old system, which was inadequate in several respects (see paragraphs 1.4–1.7).”
Let’s then examine those paragraphs and those ‘strong’ reasons.
Paragraph 1.4 describes the past arrangements in a fair way – most interpreters were sourced from NRPSI, if clients were unable to source interpreters from NRPSI or they chose not to, they relied on local arrangements. In that case they did not have any assurance of quality.
How does it prove that the old system was inadequate? So if someone is selling a bootleg copy in the market, does it mean that all shops selling the legitimate stuff should be closed because the system that allows bootleg copies to be circulated is faulty?
Paragraph 1.5 concludes: “On a day to day basis, the old system was mature and stakeholders understood it well.” - OK, great, so why change it?
Then paragraph 1.6. says: “The OCJR produced an internal briefing document for Ministers and senior civil servants in November 2009, which highlighted a number of issues and concluded there was a need for change. The case for change was strengthened further, from the Ministry’s perspective, after a critical internal audit report in January 2010.”
Neither document is appended to the NAO report. I have asked for them under the Freedom of Information scheme. The deadline was 11th October. I have not received any reply yet.
Next in paragraph 1.6 NAO report proceeds to lists in bullet point conclusions of the two documents. But how valid are these conclusions if we do not have access to the original documents? These are not NAO’s conclusions, these are MoJ’s conclusions, NAO simply repeats them.
The first 4 bullet points tell us that the system was inefficient because: court staff had to phone and book interpreters, each court had standalone arrangements for paying interpreters and there was no central management information. It is all true but how decreasing interpreters’ terms and conditions was ever going to solve these problems?
Second bullet point states: “some interpreters who worked in the justice sector did not have the quality and security guarantees that NRPSI was supposed to provide.” What is the basis of this assertion? When they say some – how many exactly? Are we into collective responsibility?
Another outrageous conclusion, which undermines the reliability of the entire argument made by MoJ, is stated in bullet point no 5: “Although there had been no increase in rates since 2007, the Ministry came to believe in 2010 that some of the terms interpreters were operating under were overgenerous.” “Overgenerous” is a relative term – in reference to what? The NAO report seems to suggest that if a court hearing was shorter than 3 hours and interpreters got paid for three hours this was ‘overgenerous’.
This reasoning is based on hourly fees paid by the Legal Services Commission for legal aid to lawyers. Those fees are in the public domain, I am no expert, but in comparison the payment structure for interpreters under the NA looked incredibly simple and fees were quite low. Now, ALS and MoJ complicated it to such a degree that it is no longer transparent. And as we all know the payment structure in the private market is completely different. So when MoJ says: “Language specialists’ pay and benefits were agreed under the existing arrangements but not with reference to any market benchmark”, it is absolutely right. Nobody knows what criteria were used in setting the previous and the present fees. Maybe we should reference them to the LSC fees for QCs?
Next bullet point: “In the Ministry’s view it was also difficult, and slow, to get interpreters removed from the NRPSI when there had been problems with their performance.”
When is it easy and quick to remove people disciplinarily from anything? “Quick and easy” are not adjectives that go very well with discipline, disciplinary proceedings should be fair and transparent and the interpreter should be able to argue their case rather than being simply ‘removed’.
Anyway, professional standards are very important, so the MoJ should make its case on this point more transparent: how many cases are we talking about, what was the nature of the alleged offence and what timescales were involved? What is meant by ‘difficult’ and ‘slow’? This argument is far too general, if MoJ wants to persist with it, they should really provide some more detail.
Next bullet point: “In a small number of cases there was evidence that people had even impersonated interpreters in court, and security arrangements had failed to pick this up.” OK, so what has MoJ done to tighten security arrangements?
Next bullet point: “In 2010-11, 18 Crown Court and 373 magistrates’ court cases were ineffective because of problems with interpreters.” OK, so what? What percentage do 19 crown court and 373 magistrate court cases constitute of all the cases where interpreters were used? The numbers 18 and 373 are completely meaningless without any reference to anything. After all, the Framework Agreement says that ALS’s target (so far – as far as I know – unattained) is 98% fulfilment rate so the MoJ itself is aware that the success rate can never be 100%.
FOI reply no FOI/72857 states that in 2010 interpreter problems in crown courts amounted to 0.32% of all ineffective trials (there were over 43K trials and over 5K of them were ineffective) and 1% in magistrate courts (almost 180K total number of trials out of which over 32K were ineffective). The number of all trials requiring an interpreter was not available for comparison.
None of the 18 (or 0.32%) of 373 (or 1%) ineffective trials in 2010 involved a cat, a rabbit Jajo or a husband masquerading as a wife.
Next it says: “However, the existing arrangements had failed to address this, for instance there were acknowledged shortages in some Eastern European and Far Eastern languages”. Who acknowledged the shortages, where and when? Is there a study/report/anything we can consult? Or is it just again ‘anecdotal’ evidence – the standard of proof favoured by the Ministry of “Justice”? But even if the above assertion was true, if there is a lack of something that a customer really, really wants, then what usually happens is that the customer ups the price. That is how the market supposedly works, does not it? So I would agree that the existing MoJ’s arrangements failed to address the shortages by failing to increase payments to interpreters.
And then we have the killer paragraph:
“In our opinion, taken together, these reasons represented a persuasive case for change. However, we have not audited them all in detail and we are aware that the Ministry did not have the same level of evidence behind each one. Particularly important, from our perspective, are the systematic inefficiencies and poor controls of the old system and the shortages of interpreters in some languages.”
So ‘systematic inefficiencies, poor controls and shortages of interpreters’. That is what the rationale boils down to. The first two are surely administrative matters, nothing to do with interpreters T&C. There is a shortage of English native speaker conference interpreters working for the EU – let’s dismantle the whole EU interpretation service, outsource it to a small translation company set up in a back bedroom somewhere in Sicily and that will solve the problem.
At least the NAO admits that it has based its opinion solely on what the MoJ had told them and that they have accepted MoJ’s word at face value. But would you believe the people who sent us a “letter to stakeholders” on 2nd December 2011 stating “A very significant numbers [sic] of interpreters have already signed up to the new arrangements.” Now we know that in fact the number of interpreters who signed up by January 30, 2012 was 280.
Well, “significant” is a relative term –280 likes for this post will be indeed significant, but 280 out of 2200?