Cost savings on court interpreting services are anything but

Professional interpreters are boycotting courts because of new pay arrangements.

Whenever I am woken up on Saturday morning by a phone call, I know yet another blow has been dealt to British taxpayers. For it's almost certainly a magistrates' court requesting an interpreter to replace a no-show. If you missed the (surprisingly few) headlines dedicated to the recent confusion in courts, here is the story so far.

Until this year, courts used to book registered public service interpreters directly. On 1 February 2012, a new agreement was put in place, supposedly to make the system more efficient. The contract privatising court interpreting services in England and Wales was won by Applied Language Solutions (ALS), owned by the outsourcing firm Capita, which has promised to cut the annual £60m interpreting bill by 20 per cent. This figure, £12m per year, however attractive in the current climate, has two flaws: no one can see how it was derived, nor how it can be achieved.

Geoffrey Buckingham, the chairman of the Association of Police and Court Interpreters (APCI), said of ALS' target: “We first heard about it in September 2010, in a meeting with the MoJ. It was given as a ballpark figure, based on nothing solid and arrived at without any consultation.” APCI presented a number of documents to the MoJ, indicating that the spending is likely to increase as a result of outsourcing. This prediction turned out to be correct. Keeping people in custody while hearings are delayed costs money, as do appeals caused by poor interpreting. Buckingham also spoke of “the weekly humiliation of the criminal justice system”, referring to a number of cases adjourned because of interpreters' unprofessionalism. That's before you start counting the human costs of what appears to be a classical example of privatisation gone wrong.

It's not only the opponents of the Framework Agreement that point out its downsides – the MoJ now admits the savings may not be as great. Justice Minister Lord McNally said ALS had made “a very poor start to this contract” and that “some of the original estimates of a £12m saving in this first year will probably not be achieved.” Baroness Coussins, an independent cross-bench peer, was sceptical about the data supplied by ALS: “These figures come without any independent verification or audit and they tell a very different story from the complaints we are hearing daily from judges.” Indeed, it's hard to see how the MoJ can effectively monitor the quality of these services. Working for courts, I often wondered if anyone could give me any post-assignment feedback and once asked a clerk to fill in an improvised form; he was unable to write more than “was of assistance to judge.” Proper assessment would be too costly, whereas a certificate issued by an independent body is at least some guarantee that the person sitting in the dock is not going to call the defendant, accused of perverting the course of justice, a pervert.

The chaos in courtrooms was initially put down to “teething troubles”. An MoJ spokesperson admitted: “There have been an unacceptable number of problems in the first weeks of the contract” – thanks to incompetent interpreters who have failed to turn up on some occasions and made irreparable mistakes on others. When a Romanian interpreter mispronounced a defendant's statement, saying “bitten” instead of “beaten”, a retrial had to be ordered at Snaresbrook Crown Court, after the error was admitted. This four-day case is estimated to cost taxpayers £25,000; another one, in Leicester, which collapsed after three weeks for a similar reason, will be even more expensive. That ALS uses unqualified “linguists” is no secret; to prove this, a frustrated professional successfully registered her dead pet with the company.

Previously interpreters received a flat fee of £85, a lower quarter-hourly rate after three hours and were paid for travel time and expenses. This has been replaced by an hourly rate of £16, often with no travel reimbursement. No wonder the majority of professional interpreters are boycotting the ASL contract. Their protest outside the Houses of Parliament in April was strong but fruitless; still, Interpreters for Justice campaign continues. To keep the MoJ under pressure, activists go on writing to their MPs, signing petitions and reporting substandard cases online. Yelena McCafferty, an experienced court interpreter, said on behalf of her colleagues: “We feel the new principles are both unfair and completely unworkable from the practical point of view. Many interpreters have left the profession to try their skills elsewhere.” Asked about the MoJ's response, she added: “Not only are they failing to monitor the performance delivered – or undelivered – by ALS, they are also turning a blind eye to everything we have exposed in the media and on our campaign website.”

APCI submitted their own proposal aimed at improving court interpreting services nearly two years ago, but got no answer from the MoJ. The ministry seems to be less interested in cost reduction than Cambridgeshire Constabulary, which shashed their interpreting expenses via better management rather than payment cuts. “The Framework Agreement is dying a painful death,” said Buckingham. “I think it should be put to sleep.”

Let's hope someone is going to listen to the voice of reason. This would mean less disruption in courts, and in my home at weekends.


The Scales of Justice on top of the Old Bailey. Photograph: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: will women bear the brunt again?

Time and time again, the Chancellor has chosen to balance the books on the backs of women. There's still hope for a better way. 

Today, the Chancellor, George Osborne, presents his Autumn Statement to parliament. Attention will be focused on how he tries to dig himself out of the tax credits hole that he got himself into with his hubristic summer budget.

He’s got options, both in terms of the sweeteners he can offer, and in how he finds the funds to pay for them. But what we will be looking for is a wholesale rethink from the chancellor that acknowledges something he’s shown total indifference to so far: the gender impact of his policy choices, which have hurt not helped women.

In every single budget and autumn statement under this Chancellor, it has been women that have lost out. From his very first so-called “emergency  budget” in 2010, when Yvette Cooper pointed out that women had been hit twice as hard as men, to his post-election budget this summer, the cumulative effects of his policy announcements are that women have borne a staggering 85 per cent of cuts to tax credits and benefits. Working mums in particular have taken much of the pain.

We don’t think this is an accident. It reflects the old-fashioned Tory world view, where dad goes out to work to provide for the family, and mum looks after the kids, while supplementing the family income with some modest part-time work of her own. The fact that most families don’t live like that is overlooked: it doesn’t fit the narrative. But it’s led to a set of policies that are exceptionally damaging for gender equality.

Take the married couple’s tax break – 80 per cent of the benefit of that goes to men. The universal credit, designed in such a way that it actively disincentivises second earners – usually the woman in the family. Cuts and freezes to benefits for children - the child tax credit two-child policy, cuts to child benefit – are cuts in benefits mostly paid to women. Cuts to working tax credit have hit lone parents particularly hard, the vast majority of whom are women.

None of these cuts has been adequately compensated by the increase in the personal tax threshold (many low paid women are below the threshold already), the extension of free childcare (coming in long after the cuts take effect) or the introduction of the so-called national living wage. Indeed, the IFS has said it’s ‘arithmetically impossible’ that they can do so. And at the same time, women’s work remains poorly remunerated, concentrated in low-pay sectors, more often part time, and increasingly unstable.

This is putting terrible pressure on women and families now, but it will also have long-term impact. We are proud that Labour lifted one million children out of poverty between 1997 and 2010. But under the Tories, child poverty has flat-lined in relative terms since 2011/12, while, shockingly, absolute child poverty has risen by 500,000, reflecting the damage that has been by the tax and benefits changes, especially to working families. Today, two thirds of children growing up poor do so in a working family. The cost to those children, the long-term scarring effect on them of growing up poor, and the long-term damage to our society, will be laid at the door of this chancellor.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the age spectrum, low-earning women who are financially stretched won’t have anything left over to save for their pension. More are falling out of auto-enrolment and face a bleak old age in poverty.

Now that the Chancellor has put his calculator away, we will discover when he has considered both about the impact and the consequences of his policies for women. But we have no great hopes he’ll do so. After all, this is the government that scrapped the equality impact assessments, saying they were simply a matter of ‘common sense’ – common sense that appears to elude the chancellor. In their place, we have a flaky ‘family test’ – but with women, mothers and children the big losers so far, there’s no sign he’s going to pass that one either.

That’s why we are putting the Chancellor on notice: we, like women across the country, will be listening very carefully to what you announce today, and will judge it by whether you are hurting not helping Britain’s families. The Prime Minister’s claims that he cares about equality are going to sound very hollow if it’s women who take the pain yet again.