Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from Sitta K Sittambalam

Specifically we will seek to explore six areas:

1.The rationale for changing arrangements for the provision of interpreter services.

2.The nature and appropriateness of the procurement process.

3.The experience of courts and prisons in receiving interpretation services that meet their needs.

4.The nature and effectiveness of the complaints process.

5.The steps that have been taken to rectify under-performance and the extent to which they have been effective.

6.The appropriateness of arrangements for monitoring the management of the contract, including the quality and cost-effectiveness of the service delivered.

The deadline for submissions is Monday 3 September 2012.

The Rationale for Changing Arrangements for the Provision of Interpreter Services

In this part it is clearly understood the purpose of the exercise is to reduce costs to the government, which is very important and perfectly reasonable.

But prior to getting into that one has to look at how interpreters have been treated by such government agencies over the past decade and proportionality of the measures taken by different departments, in particular the Home Office, The Ministry of Justice (including the Prison Service). There are several others who buy these same services such as the NHS, Local Authorities, solicitors etc.

There are some three professional bodies, which accredit interpreters/translators (by reviewing their examination qualifications and work experience) in this country, as I can recall, the CIoL, ITI, APCI. I am certain they would have submitted their own evidence to you for consideration.

All interpreters, except those in British Sign Language, (BSL) are almost entirely of foreign origin. It is clear and patently obvious that such biased treatment has been served upon interpreters as they are predominantly of foreign origin.

Firstly there has been a complete failure of the various govt depts. in talking to each other in the acquisition of the above services and setup a properly organised unit to provide these services. These services have been purchased for over 20 years as far as I am aware. So in effect no one in authority has been seriously thinking about such issues, for a very long time, at least 10+ years, yet these are people employed at expensive salaries and perks to manage such functions among other matters. However what they have done successfully over the same period is to keep rates of payment to interpreters, unchanged for more than 10 years, including the car mileage allowances, while they had their regular annual pay rises for cost of living and merit/promotion. One of the best cost savings that can be achieved in this respect is to put all the civil servants back to their salaries in 2002–03 or thereabouts. Also the govt is ripping off the public in huge sums in vehicle, road and fuel taxation, under various pretexts of polluter pays?!

The Home Office and the MoJ have an annual budget expenditure around £20 billion, of which perhaps some £150 million at a very generous estimate would be the spend on interpreters. The proportionality of the cost reduction exercise being applied so drastically and without any proper independent monitoring, validation and verification is a scandalous waste of tax payers’ money.

In addition it must be mentioned that out of the 40 or so constabularies, there are several different variations of pay rates and terms despite many of the forces claiming that this is in line with ACPO policy. However some of these forces when asked to provide a copy of the detailed terms and conditions of engagement of interpreters do not provide them, and a few of them would merely send a single sheet of pay rates!

The Nature and Appropriateness of the Procurement Process

This is an area very difficult for any person to comment upon, without suitable knowledge of the entire process, particularly as many Government Departments maintain an excessive level of confidentiality under numerous and varied pretexts to avoid timely warnings and criticisms of their actions. Besides they the govt employees get away with whatever they do as there are virtually no sanctions of any consequence applied to them, for their serious and significant failures. They all absorbed under “we must learn from it” umbrella. By now many should have multiple Ph.Ds. and even D.Sc.s for “what has been learned”. Further examples are numerous Defence contracts with massive underestimates/overspends, The infamous NHS Database project, The PFI initiative in which many hundreds of million £s have been lost, to name but a few.

However in this case of award of the contract to the eventually successful bidder, ALS, it was clear that this agency had failed miserably in the provision of the same services with a number of the North West constabularies over the preceding two years and lost a judicial review brought against them by a group of interpreters sometime in 2010–11.

So what due diligence did, the so called govt. staff evaluating this bidder amongst other competitors, apply in arriving at their decision, to award this contract to ALS. Furthermore this successful bidder had an extremely low and unacceptable credit rating at the time they were awarded the contract. Is this how public servants should protect govt contracts and resources!

A proper scrutiny of how the govt staff believed the so-called savings, and what if any sanctions they imposed on the bid winner, along with what clear, transparent and independently accessible and verifiable recording system for bookings, attendances, costs paid out was in place, prior to award of contract, particularly as one of the reasons given for the award of the contract was that the MoJ had no real idea of costs incurred in the employment of interpreters. Also needed is how the staffs awarding the contract were gullible to believe the “con” sold to them on cost savings by the winning bidder and how senior staff in govt who would have previewed the contract before sign off also believed such claims of savings. These are extremely serious issues where govt employees paid to do a job fail to do it miserably and continue to remain in employment without any sanctions or penalties and many even get promoted and another person of similar competence arrives in that chair.

What basic critical parameters did the tender demand that the supplier must meet in providing interpreters, and what penalties were in place for failure to meet such standards! It has become quite clear now that many of ALS supplied interpreters are neither qualified nor are CRB cleared, in addition to not being evaluated for competencies although they(ALS) claimed they want to evaluate many of the accredited interpreters, before taking them on.

The Experience of Courts and Prisons in Receiving Interpretation Services that meet their needs

This is best answered by courts and prisons. In my experience some courts are very good at administering the bookings and managing them, yet quite a few are very poor at it, and I can say this with some authority as I have worked in over 40 different courts and prisons across the country.

The Nature and Effectiveness of the Complaints Process

This is yet another failing by the govt staff awarding the contract and the courts are not interested in receiving complaints, so long as they have an interpreter supplied to them by ALS, who are CERTAINLY not impartial to monitor the complaint process and respond, despite having the responsibility to take corrective action.

The Steps that have been taken to Rectify Under-performance and the Extent to which they have been Effective

These are clearly more than likely to be based on information provided by ALS and unless independently verifiable cannot and should be given only minimal credibility.

One of the key reasons why matters have improved is because many professional interpreters are solely dependent upon this occupation for their main and only source of income. After a few months of waiting have gone to work under ALS, as they cannot afford to be without income.

I have had several calls from both Police forces as well as courts to serve as ALS had not been able to meet their needs. Some I have reluctantly served, but many I have refused to serve even if they paid me the pre ALS contract rates. I have told them clearly you r organisation and you have chosen an option now you have to face the consequences of that option, even though I have added to them that I sympathise with their position as the decision imposers are entirely different. I am more fortunate and can and will only serve at a fair price. Only last Saturday, 1 September 2012, I was called to attend a police Station some 110 miles away. This Police authority had a policy of not paying for travel time to interpreters, and I said I would not be able to attend unless I was paid for travel tine and they agreed and attended. Another force which arbitrarily imposed no payment travel time is GMP, despite no such ACPO policy/guideline. I got stung by them once the first time I attended. Thereafter I got their agreement for payment before attendance.

In some forces the officers take it upon themselves to include the travel time in the attendance time, and I simply say that it is improper and can be interpreted as fraudulent practice, in the event of an audit! As such I ask for special authorisation of such payments from a senior police staff, before accepting an assignments from such forces.

The Appropriateness of Arrangements for Monitoring the Management of the Contract, including the Quality and Cost-effectiveness of the Service Delivered

It seems the larger part of govt machinery is fully shrouded in secrecy, unnecessarily. It does not require an Einstein to have a simple database of attendances/bookings, venues, languages, claim paid (separated into travel costs and work costs) with case number for access and review. There is no reason why this cannot be in the public domain. We all familiar with how many people argue why numerous pieces of information should not be divulged, claiming security (thanks to one of our former PMs). This utter and complete nonsense to hide their incompetencies.

Now going on to some irresponsible comment by some parliamentarians and especially one member of the Justice select committee, please take into consideration the following:

1.Many MPs are out of touch with reality, have an excessively and unduly glorified perception of their status. They take an exception of a professional and state it as the norm when it suits them. They have done this with GPs as well previously. Mind you many people do not rate many GPs very highly. The reference here is to some interpreter earning over £100,000 p.a. The MP making such statement cannot know what part of those earnings are from the public sector and how many hours that interpreter had to travel and at what unsocial hours they had to work! As much as getting paid for work, the interpreter is foregoing a lot of quality time. As comparator it worth stating here how many MPs came forward to open up their expenses or spoke strongly that all should be revealed in the House of Commons. None that I recall. In fact quite the opposite many were doing their utmost to stop the publication revealing of detailed expenses. Not only are the MPs on a fancy salary bit also on exorbitant expenses—can they truly be in touch with reality or the life a normal average person in Britain not most of them?

It would be good if the number of MPs is reduced to 500–525 and their salaries adjusted to 25–30% above the national average wage, after all they are on truly enhanced expenses!

2.It is high time that proper punitive sanctions are introduced for govt staff and contractors who agree such miserably failing contracts and treat a part of this country’s own society in such a biased and prejudicial manner.

You may know of product liability legislation in the public domain, where not only the manufacturer but also any dealer and seller is liable for dangers harm and failings of the product, the above suggestion is in harmony with it.

3.The MP in the Justice select committee who said at one of its hearings (around March, April this year) in comment that he too thought that interpreters were paid too much, I understand is a Barrister. Well I have seen many of them in action in several tribunals and courts, and many of them are seriously lacking in competency, many grossly overpaid and I have also seen judges punish barristers with costs against them for not complying with court orders. So he is best keeping his opinion private. It is well known the 80–20% rule applies to any profession.

4.Extracts from your committee recent report for reminder.

129.As well as having good financial control over what it has spent, the Ministry also needs to have detailed knowledge and budgetary control of its future spending plans. This is particularly the case as the Ministry is susceptible to shocks in demand as seen following the riots in the summer of 2011. The steps the Ministry has taken in this area should help to mitigate this risk.


130.In 2010 the MoJ created a new Operating Model Blueprint (OMB). The aims were to ensure that:

all policy was undertaken in a single Business Group and focused on ministerial priorities or changes required by delivery bodies;

wherever appropriate, corporate services were provided on a shared or combined basis, including to ALBs;

there was a small strategic core that supported ministers, provided a strategic framework and ensured governance; and

delivery bodies could focus on their core mission of leading the delivery of services.

138.The MoJ has taken the correct approach by focusing the highest proportion of job losses in senior management grades in order to safeguard frontline jobs. We call on the Ministry to go further in removing unnecessary layers from their management structures in order to free up resources for the front line.—how did this come about? Where has good governance been hitherto?? Competence shortcoming or empire building!

142.Concerns have been raised with us that the Ministry does not have the skills in place to meet the increased demands of commissioning and contract management. This places the Department, and the public purse, in a dangerous position when it enters into negotiations with private sector firms. We call on the Department to demonstrate in its response that it has the necessary skills to deliver its plans in this area, and to set out the steps it has already taken and will be taking to ensure its workforce has the necessary capabilities.

I am putting this at the end of my statement, as I would like the committee to peruse the above before forming a view, quite often influenced, by who says it.

Finally a bit about myself, I am citizen of this country and resident here for some 43 years arriving here on an open work residence permit. At present I live in Warwickshire. I am educated to tertiary level and speak three languages. I am retired from my main occupation as an Engineer, having worked in research and development, Manufacturing, and in Aftersales Technical Service and Marketing, having managed a region of Dealerships for a multinational truck manufacturer. Although interpreting was not my main occupation I got into it part time in the mid-1990s and became full-time from 2004. I have worked for some 15+ constabularies and a much greater number of courts and tribunals across the country. Even though I say it, I am reputed to be one of the best interpreters in my language and have been told so by many solicitors, barristers and judges. I am also an examiner and moderator of Chartered Institute of Linguists Diploma examination. I am willing to attend the select committee hearing and give evidence, if necessary.

August 2012

Prepared 5th February 2013