Court interpreting update…

The latest instalment of the largest interpreting contract ever awarded in the UK and its disastrous consequences:
As a result of the Justice Committee Report last year Capita announced that from 1st May rates would be raised for:
Cancellations – an interpreter, rather than receiving nothing previously, will be paid £21 for a cancellation of up to 24 hours. This includes multi-day bookings.
A mileage payment of £0.20 (twenty pence per mile) for the entire distance travelled per assignment including the first ten miles (which was not paid previously).
The minimum payment of one hour is unchanged: £16 for a tier 3 interpreter. (check!!). Extra payments will be made for 15 minute blocks which amount to an extra 7 minutes pay or £2.56.
An incidental fee of £7.50 to cover any additional costs. In Capita’s announcement there was no explanation to what this may cover and when it would be paid.
In a parliamentary announcement by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), it was stated that these incentives would increase the take home pay of interpreters by 22% but the feeling is too little, too late.
How have this incentives been paid for? From savings of £16.7 million the MoJ have stated they are reinvesting £2.9 million back into the contract. This neither makes sense nor is practical. Were the contract working it would not need further investment by the MoJ. Essentially this is taxpayers’ savings that are being reinvested, except the supposed savings still do not add up when you factor in the costs of delays, adjournments and mistrials. One figure suggests it costs £110 per minute to run a courtroom with a jury. Any interpreter delay, and there are many, makes a mockery out the purported savings.
Has this reinvestment worked so far? Quite simply, no. Direct calls from courts to interpreters with training, i.e. NRPSI registered interpreters still remains high. This is the true indication of the appalling nature of awarding a contract via a competitive bidding process where the lowest bidder wins regardless of quality. Capita are only filling 80% of bookings when the contract target is 98%. Still MoJ is not dishing out penalties and courts are filing few wasted costs orders. It seems that when it comes to this contract, Capita can do what it likes.
The interpreting contract is now 18 months in and whilst this mess has continued, lawyers are now in the firing line. The MoJ has proposed price-competitive tendering (PCT) for legal aid work, the ultimate aim of which is to slash budgets along with consumer choice and quality of work.
Where are British Sign Language Interpreters in all of this? Reports suggest one agency involved is attempting to slash rates even further despite original recommendations. Key personnel have left leaving court work more bereft of the most skilled and those doing the work are, also reportedly, not the best anymore. With no consistency in how BSL interpreters wish to move forward, NRPSI interpreters and campaigns are left without little representation from us. Meanwhile government decisions effecting NRPSI are having a knock on effect on BSL interpreters with many of us being none the wiser. It is time we took more notice of what is going on in the wider field of interpreting as it affects us all.
Recent Commons debate on 20th June 2013
Analysis and comment from spoken language interpreters

One Year on: The Ministry of Justice's Failed Interpreting Contract

The latest on the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) contract, which is approaching its one year anniversary, is that the contract holders, Capita are still hanging on. From 8th January the travel costs are being slashed to 20p per mile. Travel costs were the only benefit for people accepting a job as a ‘linguist’ (their term for an untrained interpreter and insulting to real linguists). There are already grumblings.
Any clued-up interpreter knew this was due to happen and it is why the boycott has been admirably sustained by all those that are professionals and know their worth. Here follows a summary of what has happened over the last year:

  • Key interpreter organisations object to a monopoly contract and point out what should be the minimum standards as already set up in the National Agreement.
  • ALS awarded contract by promising unsustainable savings despite protests.
  • ALS offers interpreters greatly reduced payments for working in courts.
  • Professional interpreters refuse to work under these conditions for ludicrously low payments.
  • The courts are thrown into chaos with many bookings unfilled and courts experiencing many adjournments and delays.
  • Bonuses are paid to entice anyone to accept work (£5 extra for accepting an online booking) and mileage and payments are increased to entice ‘linguists’ to court.
  • Untrained, unqualified speakers of other languages, sometimes those who do not even speak the languages they say they do, start to work for the contract.
  • Reports are numerous amongst interpreters and reach the UK media of linguists travelling miles to rack up travel payments.
  • Courts continue to experience severe delays.
  • Capita takes over ALS and pays £7.5 million and invests a further £5.4 million.
  • Several ALS and Capita personnel leave including ex-Chief Executive Gavin Wheeldon.
  • Parliamentary hearings confirm what everybody knew: the contract holders know nothing about interpreting or the standards that were put in place before the contract removed them.
  • From instructions set out by the Public Accounts Committee, Capita start to CRB check the ‘linguists’ registered on its database, check whether they actually have qualifications and start to tighten up checks. These were fairly non-existent until this point.
  • A year after the contract starts mileage rates slashed to 20p per mile and effort is made to find local personnel, the contract promised that interpreters would be sourced from within a 25 mile radius, but with the payments originally offered this did not happen.

The next chapter in this story will surely be that no-one will work for Capita at the proposed rates. £16 – £22 per hour for a court job, with many being classed at the £16 per hour level – if someone paid out more than they were allowed to claim and travelled far to attend a job, Capita’s so-called linguists would be working for less than the minimum wage. The MoJ surely could not expect professionals for those prices and professionals it does not get. The courts have seen a parade of second-jobbers standing in for professional interpreters including hotel staff walking out of courts before hearings are finished to get back to their real jobs, reports of mis-interpretations abound and ‘linguists’ who do not speak their stated languages.
Capita’s website reveals no mention of standards, of registration (NRPSI or NRCPD), of minimum levels of qualifications, of CRB checks, Codes of Conduct or professional indemnity insurance. The only word they use is ‘qualified’. In what exactly, it is not clear. Perhaps anything other than languages or even interpreting, going by the personnel they are still sending to courts.
And what of Sign Language Interpreting? The contract has changed the face of interpreting mainly due to how the booking system works. The Capita monopoly just does not work. With patches of evidence of lowered standards in place it ticks over, many afraid to report bad practice due to confidentiality. More job requests are issued directly from courts and are being farmed out to agencies who have never been heard of and who may never have booked a Sign Language Interpreter. Worrying as they will not be aware of our standards of registration. With no monitoring of the contract by the MoJ this leaves us in a risky situation that has already seen influent sign language users, who are not yet registered interpreters, working in courts, despite promises by the MoJ.
There no longer seems to be a preferred supplier as the jobs that are released by Capita go out to a myriad of sign language interpreting agencies and some spoken language ones. Let us remember whenever there is a monopoly situation, the larger company inevitably uses competition between sub-contractors to drive the price down. We have seen this with another large spoken language agency and their numerous public service contracts leaving us in a situation where the least experienced interpreters are doing jobs that should be done by the most experienced such as mental health, child protection and probation.
In the courts it has been reported that some newly registered interpreters are accepting court or police work, often without any additional training. Why? Some agencies like to reassure interpreters they are capable. Less scrupulous agencies will tell an interpreter anything to fill the job. It is not their decision whether an interpreter should do the job but it is up to the interpreter in question. This practice by agencies has happened for years but newer interpreters are left ever more vulnerable by a changed economic landscape and an unwillingness to pay for support networks such as ASLI. This is how many of us learned to be professionals and to see ourselves as a collective. Let us all remind ourselves of the NRCPD’s Code of Conduct for competence: You must recognise and work within the limits of your competence, and if necessary, refer on to another proficient professional.
Although there are still experienced court interpreters working for Capita. Many are not or state they are experienced but actually are not up to the job. One of the most important skills a court interpreter should have is an ability to monitor their own output and enter into discussions about their work. If you see bad practice in courts please report it to the NRCPD. Often the Deaf clients, if vulnerable, will not be able to do so. It is our duty.
Stories abound of clients not understanding court interpreters. Perhaps interpreters are not insisting on Deaf relay interpreters when it is needed, perhaps when one is not present they do not have the skills to deliver the court proceedings in a way that the Deaf people present will understand something, no matter what their level of language or conceptual understanding. Court work is often not the same as working with a Deaf person who has such good language skills that even if you are not that good an interpreter they will do the processing for you whilst you sign something vaguely relevant to what is going on.
One reader of this blog reports: One client stated they had not understood the interpreters in court and she did not know what she had been there for, what the charge was and what the outcome of the proceedings were. When pressed by the solicitor she could not answer. The interpreter states they interpreted in more or less international sign as this was not a native user of BSL. Her companion eventually stated the charge, that she was found guilty but had not yet been sentenced.
Unfortunately this is more common than it used to be. Will our situation get worse if we too are subjected to a further drop in terms and conditions? Capita will be looking to make savings somewhere as they can not drop the rates of spoken language interpreters any more than they have. With a flat rate of £34 per hour that is not a margin that screams profit, especially not when they are being subjected to wasted costs orders by judges. With no mention of standards of BSL/English interpreting stated presumably they are covered to send anyone who can pick up their hands and pretend, much like the linguists who speak Bulgarian but interpret in Russian and which ever language they can get away with.
This is not access to justice for Deaf people and especially not for speakers of other languages. The British justice system is often seen as the fairest in the world. Just not anymore if you speak another language.