The Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:
"Interpretation services are vital for ensuring fair access to justice. Yet when the Ministry of Justice set out to establish a new centralised system for supplying interpreters to the justice system, almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong.
The Ministry awarded the contract to a company, ALS, that was clearly incapable of delivering. The Ministry had been warned that ALS was too small to shoulder a contract worth more than £1 million, but went ahead and handed them an annual £42 million contract covering the whole country.
The Ministry did not understand its own basic requirements, such as how many interpreters it needed or in what languages.
And it ignored the views of interpreters, who were clear that they had serious concerns about the contract and were adamant that they would not work for ALS.
Capita took over ALS in late 2011. They had no hope of recruiting enough qualified interpreters in time to start the service. The Ministry needed access to 1,200 interpreters when the contract went live; the company had only 280 properly assessed interpreters willing to work for it.
Matters became even worse when the Ministry decided that the new service would go live nationally in one go. Many of the ‘interpreters’ it thought were available had simply registered an interest on the company’s website and had been subject to no official checks that they had the required skills and experience. Indeed, we heard that some names were fictitious and one person had even successfully registered their pet dog.
As a result, the company was able to meet only 58% of bookings against a target of 98%.
The result was total chaos. Court officials have had to scramble to find qualified interpreters at short notice; there has been a sharp rise in delayed, postponed and abandoned trials; individuals have been kept on remand solely because no interpreter was available; and the quality of interpreters has at times been appalling.
Despite this, the Ministry has only penalized the supplier a risible £2,200. This is an object-lesson in how not to contract out a public service."
Margaret Hodge was speaking as the Committee published its 21st Report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from the Ministry of Justice, Capita and the Association of Police and Court Interpreters, examined the Ministry of Justice’s language service contract.
When participants in the justice system do not speak English as their first language, it is essential for justice that they are provided with interpretation services. The Ministry of Justice (the Ministry) provides translators and interpreters to defendants at particular stages of the justice process. Before January 2012, the Ministry generally booked interpretation services directly with individual interpreters, many of whom were listed on the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI). This approach was administratively inefficient; for example, individual Courts booked and paid interpreters separately. The Ministry decided to set up a new centralised system for procuring language services intending the new system to be better quality, cheaper and more efficient.
In August 2011, the Ministry signed a four year Framework Agreement for language services with Applied Language Solutions (ALS), under which all justice sector bodies could enter contracts with ALS. It expected the Framework Agreement to be worth up to £42 million a year. In October 2011, the Ministry signed a five year contract under the Framework Agreement which went live nationally on 30 January 2012. The Ministry expected the contract to cost £18 million a year. In December 2011, after the Ministry had signed its contract with ALS, ALS was acquired by Capita.
The Ministry was not an intelligent customer in procuring language services, despite the risks posed to the administration of justice and to the Ministry’s reputation. It is not clear how consultations with interpreters in late 2009 fed into the process after the 2010 General Election. In one consultation, held in Cardiff in 2009, there were no more than 20 attendees and the question of who assessed interpreters was raised but there was no feedback. Yet this was one of the issues that caused problems with the contract when it was let. The Ministry started the process without basic management information on language services, including the cost of interpreters or what languages were required in which locations and at what notice. Its use of a competitive dialogue process meant that it selected a single national provider rather than using a number of regional providers which could have had a better chance of meeting demand.
The Ministry failed to undertake proper due diligence on ALS's winning bid. It did not heed financial and other advice that ALS was too small and would struggle to scale up to meet the Ministry’s requirements in time. The Ministry also ignored strong opposition from the interpreter community. Interpretation is a specialised service. The procurement and later implementation might have been more effective had the strongly held views expressed by experienced interpreters and trade bodies during the Ministry’s consultation been given greater weight. The contract did not include a strong enough incentive for ALS to meet the requirements of the contract right from the start. ALS was acquired by Capita just before the contract started.
The Ministry went live with the contract when Capita-ALS had only 280 interpreters, available to work under the contract, compared to the 1,200 that the Ministry estimated were required. Capita-ALS struggled to recruit interpreters and make them available. As a result, Capita-ALS used interpreters who had not been properly assessed as required by the contract and this impacted on the quality of service and the quality of justice in the courts The Ministry did not conduct a proper pilot or a phased roll-out to ensure a smooth transition.
When the contract went live, Capita-ALS only met 58% of bookings and there was a sharp rise in the number of ineffective trials due to problems with interpreters. Postponing proceedings and delays which resulted in individuals being held in custody for longer periods creates an unnecessary extra cost to the Ministry. The Ministry was unable to quantify the additional cost to them of the failure. However Capita has only been fined £2,200 to date for failing to meet the terms of the contract.
Capita-ALS is now fulfilling more bookings, but it is still struggling to fulfil all and we are concerned that it may not be doing enough to recruit interpreters or to incentivise interpreters to take jobs in rare languages and covering all geographical locations. The Ministry cannot be sure that all interpreters working under the contract have the required skills, experience and character, partly because it is not yet inspecting Capita-ALS as it has the right to do under the contract. Too many courts are having to find their own interpreters which means that the purpose of the policy, to provide one centralised system, has not been met.