Using a Professional is the Only Safeguard – Part 2

This blog is part 2 of 2. Following on from part 1, where the term profession was discussed, let’s go back to why interpreting is being outsourced in the first place.
Services are being outsourced to save money. Services that are deemed as being a ‘Back Office Function’.
This phrase is being repeated by the Ministry of Justice, by commissioners nationwide, by Ministers and by David Cameron.
Back Office Function. What is a Back Office function? Logic dictates it is a function that exists back of house probably in an office. This would include administration, IT, facilities management, ordering of equipment say.
Any intelligent being would surely not class interpreting as a Back Office Function. No. Surely it is a specialism. To be done by people who know how to do so. People. Wait… professionals who have been trained and have experience before being let loose in a courtroom.
Interpreting as a Back Office Function? It’s illogical.  Outsourcing is now going way beyond what would normally be termed Back Office Functions.
Strange given the track record of disasters whenever the British government attempt to outsource. Capita got the name Crapita for good reason after disasters such as people nearly getting evicted when systems failed and did not pay out housing benefit claims in time. And bear in mind this is the company that has bought ALS and where the buck currently stops for interpreting services for the MoJ. As one publication has pointed out Capita should stick to back office business functions.
So why is the government taking the risk of outsourcing for areas others than more traditional business functions?
1) Crony capitalism.
This is endemic and epitomised in the coalition government’s support of big business over small or medium enterprises. This is despite what is touted in its reports. None of the framework agreements or procurement hubs now favoured by statutory organisations make it easy for the smaller enterprise to win contracts. Where the small enterprise is the specialist sign language agency, they lose out.
Sign Language interpreting services are becoming sub-contractors to the bigger spoken language agencies. Assignments are regularly being sub-sub-sub-contracted. By the time the interpreter is paid there is little left. Everyone up the food chain needs to make their buck. The result of which, at the other end, is that the statutory organisation comes away with little savings and interpreters travel the breadth of the country when there was a registered interpreter next door to the hospital sat at home unpaid.
2) Back door privatisation.
We have the Conservatives in government. They wish to privatise everything.
3) Ministers and senior civil servants need answers.
Outsourcing is an easy answer to coming up with savings rather than appropriately conducted research and consultation, with the caveat that information gleaned from consultation should be heeded. The word consultation has become a misnomer in the UK. It has come to mean you will speak up then be ignored.
Ministers have often said they lack skills in running large departments. One author suggests this is indicative of an eroded civil service with an overreliance on expensive consultants or specialist advisors rather than looking inward to creating those skills and utilising them.
As Peter Handcock CBE, Chief Executive, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) before the Justice Select Committee said so eloquently:
“So it is partly the process of letting a new contract and putting it in place, but, but we need to do, frankly we need to do much much better understanding the potential risks before we roll these things out.”
An admission of the lack of understanding. Has the government taken any advice on the subject of interpreting services? It seems they have ignored much of what interpreters have been telling them through the various consultations.
Therein lies the explanation of why interpreting is now being seen as a Back Office Function. And what of the effect of this policy, why does it go so horribly wrong, especially where professions are concerned?
Unit costs get ever cheaper in the bidding war for a contract. Unless there are safeguards and standards in place enforced upon the contract provider the temptation is to employ the cheapest personnel and disregard quality.
Sign Language interpreters have seen it happen already in most NHS trusts around the country. Chaos caused by large scale employment of untrained interpreters by sub-standard agencies (usually spoken language ones, though some sign language specialist agencies are also to blame). Yet the NHS and the MoJ are paying for these services.
A colleague did some mystery shopping amongst some new agencies that had won NHS contracts in and around London. Scarily, they wanted to accept her on their books without checking any qualifications, any registration. They did not even ask for insurance or a police check. Some didn’t even care if she actually knew any sign language.
When contracts are awarded to these agencies, the provision of interpreters then becomes tokenism, paying lipservice to the Equality Act 2010. These are specialist services that are commissioned, monitored and evaluated by non-specialists without the necessary in built safeguards, which you would have if professionals were employed. Services commissioned from those that call themselves specialists but are not. Of course outsourcing interpreting services was bound to fail. And fail it has.
The government, local and national, has made a categoric error in outsourcing interpreting services across the public sector. With regard to the MoJ, when this is the kind of service you are paying for you are not saving £18 million. You are losing £300 million.

Using a Professional is the Only Safeguard – Part 1

This post is part one of two. The first part will explain generally what a profession is and make distinctions between what some may consider a profession and what is truly a profession. The second post will consider the current comments of government surrounding the MoJ and other contracts to further highlight the fallacy behind outsourcing for those that should be considered professionals and the risks the government are incurring with this strategy.
The term profession is often bandied about. Anyone can call themselves a professional: marketeers, IT personnel, plumbers.
Let’s be clear. There is something beyond these albeit worthy roles. This is about a professional. One who has a Code of Ethics or Professional Conduct, a CRB check, has a high level of training, alongside specialised knowledge and skills, belongs to an organised regulator and has responsibility to a community and is concerned with its welfare above all else.
Teachers will tell you the supply teacher is all but gone in the UK. Rather than employ a qualified teacher to plug any gaps in timetables it is the new employee at the front of the class: one who is on a Registered Teacher Programme (RTP), who is not as yet qualified to teach. Or worse, sometimes it is the Teaching Assistant who is left holding the fort.
Psychologists will tell you that work previously done by highly qualified and trained Psychologists is now being done by those trained in IAPT: Improving Access to Psychological Therapies. You now need to pass a one year course to deliver CBT.
Nurses will tell you a lot of their work is now done by Health Care Assistants.
There are many similarities between the above three professions and interpreting, whether spoken or for sign language. You should be bound by a Code of Ethics or Professional Conduct, have an enhanced CRB check, professional insurance, be accessing supervision and be registered with the appropriate professional body in order to work. In fact all the criteria mentioned at the start of this article.
What is different with interpreting and what Sign Language interpreters have been discussing for a long time is the lack of legal protection. Were interpreters to be legally protected, it would be illegal to work as an interpreter unless you were a registered professional in the same way you can not legally work as a doctor if you are struck off the medical register held by the GMC.
Why? This goes back to the list of what it is to be a professional and the responsibility we have to the community we serve. Over the last 25-30 years we have witnessed and heard terrible stories of what happens when you do not have a registered interpreter. We have fought as a profession to raise and safeguard those standards and to continue to develop the profession.
We have heard about the level 2 ‘signer’ work in a court room (the equivalent of conversational French). We have heard about the police tape that got pulled apart by the defence team due to the sub-standard interpreting causing the eventual collapse of a case. We know the all too familiar stories of mishaps, misdiagnoses, even deaths. We all know the students who leave schools and colleges without qualifications because they didn’t understand the ‘communicator’. These aren’t the stories of yesteryear, the bad old days before we had a register and better qualifications, though both of those points are moot. These are fast becoming today’s stories.
You would not allow a Health Care Assistant to draw blood or dispense medication. You would not allow an IAPT practitioner to diagnose someone with schizophrenia. You would not allow a Teaching Assistant to deliver A Level Physics or PSHE. This creates rather than mitigates risk. Risks to standards, to service delivery, to people.
When you allow an untrained, unregistered interpreter to work in a hospital, a courtroom or a police station you play with risk, you create risk. And nobody present can monitor that.
It is why we have Codes of Ethics for professionals. Interpreters, in the same way as other professions, cannot always be monitored. They are responsible for monitoring their own actions and behaviours, to be responsible for themselves and those they serve. Codes of Ethics were borne out of the Hippocratic Oath, the fundamental principle of which is do no harm.
Employ someone who is not a professional, you no longer have those safeguards. No matter what monitoring has been added to the contract the commissioner is not omnipresent. Even if they were they would not be qualified in assessing whether that person was competent and had successfully completed their duties. Does the commissioner, judge, solicitor, doctor, nurse have access to the languages the ‘interpreter’ purports to know? Is someone unregistered really someone you can trust?
The only safeguard is simply to use a professional, one who is appropriately trained and registered. In the UK, where a framework agreement exists for interpreting that safeguard has been all but removed.