The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) pushed ahead with outsourcing court interpreter services despite warnings that the quality of court language services would be reduced, an inquiry by the Justice Committee has found.
The Chair of the Committee, Sir Alan Beith MP, said:
“The Ministry of Justice’s handling of the outsourcing of court interpreting services has been nothing short of shambolic. It did not have an adequate understanding of the needs of courts, it failed to heed warnings from the professionals concerned, and it did not put sufficient safeguards in place to prevent interruptions in the provision of quality interpreting services to courts.”
Evidence strongly suggests that the MoJ did not have a sufficient understanding of the complexities of court interpreting work, according to the MPs. Significant concern was revealed in the MoJ’s consultation process that quality standards could be diminished by the imposition of a tiered system to enable a wider pool of interpreters, and by the introduction of lower levels of pay. However, the Department pushed ahead with the contract and failed to properly anticipate or address the potential for problems with Applied Language Solutions’ (ALS) capacity to deliver on its promises.
Sir Alan Beith MP added:
“The evidence shows that Capita-ALS failed to deliver on many aspects of the Agreement and did not implement appropriate safeguards to ensure that the interpreters it provided were of sufficient standard.”
When Capita (which acquired ALS for £7.5m in December 2011) began delivering interpreting and translation services to HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) in January 2012, it faced immediate operational difficulties. ALS and more recently Capita have been unable to recruit qualified and experienced interpreters in sufficient numbers, leading to an inadequate volume and quality of interpreting services being available to courts and tribunals.
Professional interpreters have largely boycotted the new arrangements; contributing to the difficulties in levels of fulfilment, but not entirely explaining them according to the report. Capita-ALS clearly needed significantly more resources than it had at its disposal to deliver the service levels required. The company also paid lip service to the regulatory duties accepted under the Framework Agreement, yet did not have the capacity to cope with complaints or to implement basic vetting procedures.
Performance has undoubtedly improved markedly but this has taken a long time to achieve and Capita is not yet being asked to supply interpreters to meet the full demand of HMCTS. The MoJ has had to monitor Capita-ALS very closely to secure the level of improvement necessary to make the Agreement workable, and continues to do so. The existing arrangements may not be financially sustainable as Capita is propping up the continuation of the Agreement, which mean that the Department’s savings, originally projected to be £15million, are effectively being secured at the company’s expense.
The most important priority is for the MoJ and Capita to prove that the Framework Agreement is capable of attracting, retaining and deploying an adequate number of qualified and competent interpreters to meet the requirements of the courts and other justice agencies.
The Committee has also condemned the actions taken by MoJ which had the effect of hampering the inquiry. HMCTS issued an edict to its staff instructing them not to participate in the Committee’s online consultation, established to invite direct observations from frontline staff of the performance of ALS. The Committee considers that the actions of the Ministry in this case may have constituted a contempt of the House, but as it received sufficient evidence from other sources to make a reliable judgement, it has not asked the House to take further action on this matter.
Sir Alan Beith MP said:
“We have made use of online forums in the past to obtain the views and experiences of staff in probation and prison services, without any obstruction by the Ministry. We received an abundance of evidence from other sources about the quality of court interpreting services, so we are confident in the conclusions we have reached, but we deplore the Ministry’s ill-advised actions and there should be no repetition of them in the future.”