SignCo.io: Why do we need a #platformcoop to deliver interpreting services for Deaf people?

This article was first posted on SignCo.io’s blog publication via Medium on 24th July. I’ve been rather quiet on this blog and elsewhere due to the ongoing work building this organisation and the platform that will go with it. If you are interested please read on, follow us on social media and sign up for our newsletter.


Our user-led platform coop has been borne out of a need to fix a broken system of how services like the NHS buy and agencies deliver (or rather don’t deliver!) interpreting services.

Ask any Deaf person about their access to health around the country and you’ll get a postcode lottery of answers. Ask anyone on Merseyside and you’ll find a shocking lack of provision and, where there is some kind of service in place, it’s generally not a very good one. A long list of agencies have been given contracts across the area but are mostly not specialists, the interpreters won’t work for them and the Deaf community do not know if there’ll be an interpreter there when they turn up for an appointment or even which agencies hold contracts.

There are some shocking stories where Deaf people are left without any interpreter at all and zero access to information. This is despite the NHS Accessible Information Standard now being in place. This impacts upon patient outcomes and can lead to serious implications such as misdiagnosis and treatment, and worse case scenario, preventable deaths (Sign Health’s Sick of It report, 2014).

When a Deaf person attends a medical appointment without an interpreter, they are not able to gain sufficient information to give consent, therefore any healthcare professional that carries out medical or surgical procedures without consent, could be charged with the crime of assault.

We’ve all been involved in different Deaf community organisations, interpreting organisations, the interpreters’ Union, NUBSLI, and been involved in campaigns work. We’ve had those conversations with national and local statutory organisations about the problems with the system and know that the best way of fixing this is by creating an alternative that can deliver, that provides social impact and that works for all users involved.

The only way an alternative will work is by creating a co-operative with both Deaf people and interpreters as members, and by working with services to co-create a digital platform that works for all three user groups.

Digital platform co-operatives have been gaining in popularity since 2015 as a way to use technology for good, to reinvent the internet and use platforms that serve workers and users rather than shareholders and provide better value for money for services and communities.

Our aim is to improve interpreting access to health for Deaf people. The long-term aim is to use profits after maintenance and development of the platform to improve standards and support within the interpreting profession. So as we improve access to health for Deaf people, the access they get will continue to get better and interpreters will be better supported.

Co-operatives UK and The Hive logos

We have been successful in getting support from The Hive via Co-operatives UK to get our governance, membership structures and finances in order and get incorporated. We are so passionate and excited about this venture. If you are too, you can show your support by sharing on social media, sign up for updates or send us a message.

Jen Smith, Nicky Evans, Kate Boddy and Wes Mehaffy

The SignCo.io Team

Privatisation chaos… contd.

Privatisation has hit the news once again. There was some news a year ago that Carillion, private provider of 450 public contracts providing school dinners, hospital cleaning and prison maintenance, had unashamedly collapsed.

By September, it was realised that the taxpayer bill would top £150m as Freedom of Information requests from Unite the Union showed redundancy payments alone would be £65m.

There were 5 profit warnings issued by Carillion in the lead up to the collapse and other companies are issuing their profit warnings and yet in January 2019…

The lifetime value of outsourcing contracts awarded in 2017-18 “rocketed” by 53% from £62bn to £95bn in the past year, according to the GMB union, which pointed to nearly £2bn in contracts awarded to Capita and Interserve despite both issuing profit warnings.

The Guardian, 15th Jan 2019 “Surge in outsourcing after Carillion collapse ‘staggering’, unions say”

So outsourcing by this government is escalating despite the inability (or unwillingness?) to monitor, regulate and properly oversee the spend of public money.

And in the world of interpreting and translation?

This month in the North East, ITL were found to be providing unqualified interpreters for police interviews with one Czech “interpreter” telling the suspects not to say too much and conducting his own type of interview. They hold £1.1m worth of police interpreting contracts.

Back in October 2018, Language Empire were caught trying to steal business from The Big Word by diverting traffic to a website they owned. Desperate times then at a cost of a £240k fine.

We already know Pearl Linguistics went bankrupt in 2017. The stock market value of Capita dropped by a whopping £1bn after those profit warnings and outside of interpreting Interserve shares dropped to an all time low and they’re trying to avoid a “Carillion-style” collapse. Labour MPs have asked that companies heading into a downfall spiral do not get awarded new contracts as, surprisingly, Carillion were.

We all know the appalling quality that we’ve seen since 2010 when privatisation of the sector became rife and this blog started and it continues unabated. All of these contracts have caveats in them. Can’t find a qualified interpreter? Use whatever you can find.

The HMCTS responses on Twitter were indicative of how these caveats work and the government ethos on the leeway it gives companies. When consulting with government, NUBSLI heard time and time again about how the government were monitoring and regulating to ensure quality and service whereas the reality is far from that. It is a government in defence of a broken privatisation policy that is widely recognised as failing workers and the people who need an interpreting service. Quality assurance is baloney. It is done by yet another company only interested in playing the privatisation and profits game. And the contracts stipulate lower standards to be reached with only random sampling of quality. Hit and miss at best. Dangerous at worst.

So of course the companies say they have fulfilled contracts, get better profit margins at using less qualified people, the government gets to say the companies are fairing well, this ethos works as we save money and all the time this lowering of standards is funded by your tax pounds.

Amongst a backdrop of increasing fares but failure of rail services, increasing costs of utility bills, and a largely complicit media, it looks like the only thing that will stop the ongoing omnishambles is a new government and a new paradigm in the provision of public services.