In August 2011, the Ministry of Justice signed a four year Framework Agreement for language services with Applied Language Solutions (ALS, now Capita Translation and Interpreting). From 30th January 2012 when ALS subsequently began delivering interpreting and translation services to HM Courts and Tribunals Service it faced immediate operational difficulties. ALS and more recently Capita have been unable to recruit qualified and experienced interpreters in sufficient numbers, leading to an inadequate volume and quality of interpreting services being available to courts and tribunals. This has resulted in numerous hearings being adjourned or severely delayed and, in criminal cases, unnecessary remands into custody, with potential implications for the interests of justice.
Professional interpreters have largely boycotted the new arrangements; this has contributed to the difficulties in levels of fulfilment but does not entirely explain them. There was significant concern revealed in the consultation process that quality standards could be diminished by the imposition of a tiered system to enable a wider pool of interpreters, and by the introduction of lower levels of pay. This suggests to us that the Ministry of Justice was determined to pursue the new arrangements in the face of evidence that there would be some reduction in the quality of language services to the courts.
The Ministry of Justice has steadfastly defended its decision to procure language services from ALS, and has remained publicly confident that the operating model set out in the Framework Agreement can provide the service that the justice sector requires. Nevertheless our evidence strongly suggests that the Ministry of Justice did not have a sufficient understanding of the complexities of court interpreting work and failed to properly anticipate or address the clear potential for problems with ALS' capacity to deliver on its promises. In our view the evidence shows that ALS failed to deliver on many aspects of the Agreement and did not implement appropriate safeguards to ensure that the interpreters it provided were of sufficient standard. In particular, ALS clearly needed significantly more resources than it had at its disposal to deliver the service levels required. It also paid lip service to the regulatory duties accepted under the Framework Agreement, and did not have the capacity to cope with complaints or to implement basic vetting procedures. For the organisations that represent professional interpreters the operational difficulties confirmed their concerns about the new arrangements and the company chosen to operate them.
Performance has undoubtedly improved markedly but this has taken a long time to achieve and Capita is not yet being asked to supply interpreters to meet the full demand of HMCTS. The Ministry of Justice has had to monitor ALS very closely to secure the level of improvement necessary to make the Agreement workable, and continues to do so. The judiciary, magistracy and legal professionals were concerned about the quality of interpreting services that Capita were providing, but noted some improvement. The most important priority is for the MoJ and Capita to prove that the Framework Agreement is capable of attracting, retaining and deploying an adequate number of qualified and competent interpreters to meet the requirements of the courts and other justice agencies. We are concerned that existing safeguards of quality may not be fit for purpose, and consider it likely that without an independent review and subsequent revision of the tiering system, the confidence of important stakeholders, including the judiciary, magistracy and legal professionals, will continue to be undermined. The existing arrangements may not be financially sustainable as Capita is propping up the continuation of the Agreement, which mean that the Department's savings, originally projected to be £15million, are effectively being secured at the company's expense.
The new Minister told us that she had initiated discussions with representatives of the professional interpreter community and we will monitor the outcome of these. Making progress will also require the professional interpreter community to work flexibly with the Department in seeking to find an acceptable way to restore their services to the justice sector. Concrete safeguards will need to be negotiated and we consider that there is a strong case for a review of the rates of remuneration, particularly for highly qualified interpreters.
Our efforts to obtain a full picture of the current effectiveness of interpreting services were hampered by the absence of any substantiation from frontline staff. In the course of our inquiry it became apparent that HMCTS had issued an edict to its staff instructing them not to participate in our online consultation, established to invite direct observations of ALS performance, an approach which we had found productive in previous inquiries. We consider that the actions of the Ministry in this case were unhelpful and contrasted with the approach they took in our previous inquiries. We consider that their actions may have constituted a contempt of the House, but as we have sufficient evidence from other sources to make a reliable judgement, we have not asked the House to take further action on this matter, although we gave serious consideration to doing so.