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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Q&A: What happened at Barnet's polling stations this morning?

Eager democrats who arrived early in the morning to vote in the London elections were turned away. 

What’s going on?

When polls first opened at Barnet’s 155 polling stations at 7 this morning, many registered voters found that they were not on the station’s voting lists, meaning they were unable to cast their vote. Many reports suggested that the overwhelming majority were turned away. Rules were later relaxed in some, but not all, polling stations to allow those who arrived with their polling cards (which explicitly state they are not needed to cast a vote) to vote.

Why is this happening?

It is, needless to say, unclear. But some reports have suggested that polling station staff only had the updates to the electoral register (that is, those who have newly-registered) rather than the entire register itself. Which makes you wonder why nobody realised before 7am that there might be rather more people wanting to vote in Barnet than the lists suggested.

Is this a conspiracy?

No, of course it’s not. And if you think it is, take the tinfoil hat off and stop watching Russia Today. Barnet is a Tory-led council. If this mess harms any party it is likely to be the Conservatives. We don’t know how Barnet voted for mayor in 2012, but we do know the votes of Barnet plus predominantly Labour-supporting Camden: Boris Johnson got 82,839 first preference votes while Ken Livingstone received 58,354. But remember London’s not just electing a mayor today. It is also electing the members of the Greater London Assembly – and one of them represents the constituency of Barnet and Camden. The incumbent, Andrew Dismore, is from the Labour Party, and is running for reelection. He won fairly comfortably in 2012, far outperforming Ken Livingstone. But Tory campaigners have been talking up the possibility of defeating Dismore, especially in recent days after Labour’s anti-semitism ructions (Barnet has London’s largest Jewish population). Again, if there are voters who failed to vote this morning and cannot to do so later, then that will hurt the Conservatives and help Dismore.

Is it the fault of nasty outsourcers?

Seemingly not. As we’ve written before, Barnet Council is famous for outsourcing vast proportions of its services to private contractors – births and deaths in the borough are now registered elsewhere, for example. But though postal votes and other areas of electoral administration have been outsourced by Barnet, voter registration is performed in-house. This one’s on the council and nobody else.

What has Barnet done about it?

The council initially issued a statement saying that it was “aware of problems with our voter registration lists” and admitting that “a number of people who had not brought their polling card with them were unable to vote”. Which was a bit peculiar given the polling cards say that you don’t need to bring them to vote and there were plenty of reports of people who had polling cards also being denied their democratic rights.

As of 10.40am, the council said that: “All the updated electoral registers are now in place and people can vote as normal.” There appear to be no plans to extend voting hours – and it is not possible to reopen polling tomorrow morning for the frustrated early birds to return.

What does this mean for the result?

It’s very hard to form even a vaguely accurate picture of how many voters who would otherwise have voted will not vote because of this error. But if the margin of victory in the mayoral election or the relevant GLA contest is especially slim, expect calls for a re-run. Frustrated voters could in theory achieve that via the arcane procedure of an election petition, which would then be heard by a special election court, as when Lutfur Rahman’s election as Mayor of Tower Hamlets was declared void in April 2015.

Some have suggested that this may delay the eventual result, but remember that counting for the London elections was not due to begin until Friday morning anyway.

Is there a dodgier barnet than this Barnet?

Yes.

 

Henry Zeffman writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2015.