What really needs changing in the Criminal Justice System re: interpreters
On 12th October I published this analysis of the alleged rationale presented to all of us first by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and then parroted in the report by the National Audit Office (NAO).
It really boils down to two things: systematic inefficiencies and poor controls.
Poor controls we can all understand and agree with. It has only now been made manifestly clear that the MoJ did not have any audit trail and did not know how interpreters are used, how much they cost, what percentage of bookings are last-minute – etc. In short, the MoJ introduced these massive changes based on ‘anecdotal evidence’ and now tries to laugh off our evidence based on years of professional experience coupled with months of careful volunteer monitoring as ‘anecdotal’. I am afraid, MoJ has no leg to stand on this and the only thing that remains for them to do is not only to listen to us but also to process the information they receive. Martin Jones proved in front of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) enquiry that while he is able to listen, he will certainly need years of training to learn how to process the information he hears so that he can produce a cohesive, coherent and cogent analysis even in his native tongue, let alone in a foreign one.
Anyway, administrative controls are not interpreters’ remit. We can help provide the analysis, solutions, suggestions and we certainly need to be consulted but it is the MoJ that is fairly and squarely responsible not only for coming up with changes, consulting them in a meaningful way but also for implementing them. Interpreters (who are also British taxpayers and constituents who keep contacting their MPs) pay for all this through their taxes so any attempt to finance administrative reforms by cutting interpreters’ meagre pay for their professional services, that has not been inflation-indexed for years, is simply outrageous.
Next thing that we all agree needs changing is system inefficiencies. What are they? No-one so far has defined what those alleged inefficiencies are. The MoJ and NAO seem to focus on the way interpreters have been booked under the old system. How ludicrous this argument is has been skilfully shown by RH Margaret Hodge MP, PAC chair, when she challenged Ann Beasley to explain what exactly it was that this senior civil servant was procuring.
Ann Beasley explained that she procured a booking service that works like this: Capita now needs to recruit subcontractors, register them, check their credentials, assess them and assign to an appropriate tier, set up a portal and a call centre so that service users could contact them with their requirements, commission interpreters with work by phone, email or text message, check claim forms and attendance sheets signed by service users, issue pro-forma invoices, deal with queries by interpreters when the pro-forma invoices are incorrect, establish a complaint procedure for service users, establish a code of conduct, issue guidelines, conduct disciplinary procedures, organise CPD events such as ‘court craft’ classes, validate the CPD points and presumably issue CPD certificates and most importantly for them – issue invoices to the MoJ for all those services while also dealing with service credits MoJ executes in case of Capita’s failure to fill in a booking. Ann Beasley classifies it all as a booking service – well as the NAO uncovered the MoJ already has had some problems in the past with the understanding of such basic English terms as ‘registered’ so we can all see the pattern by now. (Just proves the point what a disaster it has been to cut language learning from the national curriculum – no knowledge of foreign languages impedes understanding of your own).
The PAC inquiry showed where real inefficiencies are: in areas where there is heavy usage of interpreters those services certainly can be streamlined and economies of scale can be used. Hence – back-to-back assignments. On the face of it, it looks an attractive proposition but there is a flipside to it. If an interpreter – even as a subcontractor – works 5 days per week, 7 hours per day, for the same agency – this interpreter is no longer freelance – they become employees and all legal requirements kick in – national minimum wage, holiday pay, sick leave etc. etc.
Once MoJ has all the statistics they need to carry out a careful analysis, they can start modelling and see in what languages and in what areas exactly it would be cost-efficient to engage interpreters as full or part-time employees. The MoJ – as evidenced in their recent statistical report – needs interpreters in over 150 languages, four languages – Polish, Romanian, Urdu and Lithuanian – are most frequently requested but the MoJ needs a careful breakdown by region. Even if Capita employs 20 Polish, 20 Romanian, 20 Urdu and 20 Lithuanian interpreters in London or East Anglia, public services will still need Polish, Romanian, Urdu and Lithuanian interpreters in areas where usage is not as heavy as in London or Peterborough but where distress to victims and damage to the justice system will be as severe as in the Old Bailey.
With employment comes the question of independence, neutrality, confidentiality – I will not make this argument here but maybe barristers who oppose the idea of the CPS employing their own prosecutors can help with this. After all, many QCs prefer to work both as defence and prosecuting counsel which – they claim – gives them a broader insight which they can then use in the interests of justice.
The above (heavy usage = back to back assignments) is just one example of what ‘inefficiency’ really means. Without publishing a thorough analysis of interpreters’ usage in the criminal justice system (courts, tribunals, prisons, probation, police), it is futile to present any models as we do not have all the facts.
In Part 3 I will present my perspective on what interpreters are able to offer to the Ministry of Justice.