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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How austere will Philip Hammond be?

The Chancellor must choose between softening or abandoning George Osborne's approach in his Autumn Statement. 

After becoming Chancellor, Philip Hammond was swift to confirm that George Osborne's budget surplus target would be abandoned. The move was hailed by some as the beginning of a new era of fiscal policy - but it was more modest than it appeared. Rather than a statement of principle, the abandonment of the 2019-20 target was merely an acceptance of reality. In the absence of additional spending cuts or tax rises, it would inevitably be missed (as Osborne himself recognised following the EU referendum). The decision did not represent, as some suggested, "the end of austerity".

Ahead of his first Autumn Statement on 23 November, the defining choice facing Hammond is whether to make a more radical break. As a new Resolution Foundation report notes, the Chancellor could either delay the surplus target (the conservative option) or embrace an alternative goal. Were he to seek a current budget suplus, rather than an overall one (as Labour pledged at the last general election), Hammond would avoid the need for further austerity and give himself up to £17bn of headroom. This would allow him to borrow for investment and to provide support for the "just managing" families (as Theresa May calls them) who will be squeezed by the continuing benefits freeze.

Alternatively, should Hammond merely delay Osborne's surplus target by a year (to 2020-21), he would be forced to impose an additional £9bn of tax rises or spending cuts. Were he to reject any further fiscal tightening, a surplus would not be achieved until 2023-24 - too late to be politically relevant. 

The most logical option, as the Resolution Foundation concludes, is for Hammond to target a current surplus. But since entering office, both he and May have emphasised their continuing commitment to fiscal conservatism ("He talks about austerity – I call it living within our means," the latter told Jeremy Corbyn at her first PMQs). For Hammond to abandon the goal of the UK's first budget surplus since 2001-02 would be a defining moment. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.