Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from Rekha Narula

1. I write to you regarding the outsourcing of interpreting and translation services by the Ministry of Justice, within the Criminal Justice System, to a company called Applied Language Solutions (ALS) via the Framework Agreement (FWA). I contend that the Framework Agreement with ALS is flawed and has failed for the reasons given below.

2. I write in my capacity as an interpreter on the National Register of Public Service Interpreters. I have been interpreting in the Criminal Justice System for over seven years, and in the health and local government sectors for over 10 years.

3. I take pride in my chosen profession; being an interpreter is what I have wanted to do since the age of 14 when I got my first taste of “official” interpreting for UN delegates. My sole aim and ambition from that time was to use my languages (I now speak six) and to use them on a daily basis. To that end, I studied for a degree in Modern Languages, graduating with an Upper Second with Distinctions in Spoken French and Spanish. I have added to my qualifications significantly, namely by gaining two DPSIs (Diploma in Public Service Interpreting); one in Law and one in Health.

4. When HMCTS (Her Majesty’s Court and Tribunals Service) implemented the Framework Agreement on 1 February 2012, I refused to join ALS, as did a significant number of my colleagues. I also refused to join ALS when West Midlands Police signed its contract with ALS on 28 November 2011, despite repeatedly being “encouraged” to do so. Correspondence from forces (Dorset, Warwickshire, West Mercia, for example) considering signing the Framework Agreement with ALS have also received replies from me—and my colleagues—indicating that we are not going to join their potential “preferred supplier” of interpreting and translation services.

5. Two of the reasons why I, among many, have refused to register with ALS is because a) it pays scant regard to the quality of the service it delivers and b) its appallingly low rates of pay to a professional such as myself, and one who is highly qualified. I am not alone in holding a degree along with further qualifications; these qualifications were/are based on courses and exams taken at the end of each course. On ALS’ own website, in its Linguists Lounge page relating to the “Quality Assessment” there is a Question and Answer section and where one question is “What is the pass mark?” The reply is “The QA test is a diagnostic test, not a pass or fail test.” http://www.linguistlounge.com/quality-assessment-test/

6. This then suggests that no matter how good or bad an “interpreter” is, he or she can register with ALS and, consequently, get work from them, simply by taking this QA test. This demonstrates a total lack of understanding of languages, the nature of interpreting, the work of a legal interpreter and is denigrating to my chosen profession. Exams are set to “sift the wheat from the chaff”; to see whether a student has the ability in that subject. If there is no pass or fail in ALS’ QA test, then anyone with little or no ability can work for ALS as a “linguist” as it terms its interpreters.

7. The tier system introduced by ALS is also flawed. Tier 3, the lowest paid tier, requires an interpreter to “Demonstrable experience in the public sector with appropriate linguistic background” and to have “Formalised basic interpreter training: http://www.linguistlounge.com/payment-structure/

8. This again demonstrates the total lack of knowledge of what is required to interpret in the criminal justice system, or any other area for that matter. As an interpreter in courts and for the police, inter alia, I needed to know the terminology used by all sides in a case, police vocabulary, court room terminology including the very specific phrases used by solicitors and barristers. Having “basic interpreter training”, whether formalised or not, is simply not enough. A legal term or phrase in English may not have an exact equivalent and so I have to be totally familiar with the terms in the languages being used in order to resolve this, and inform the parties involved. Requiring “basic interpreter training” would be akin to asking a health care assistant to do the work of a nurse, a doctor or consultant because the health care assistant has some basic clinical/medical training. Within a legal context, it would be asking a legal secretary or an unadmitted clerk to do the work of a solicitor or a barrister, even a judge.

9. I would contend that speaking more than one language does not an interpreter make. This requires some natural aptitude, to some extent, but becoming an interpreter also requires training, qualifications and experience in order to reach the level of competence required to work in a police station, a magistrates’ court, a crown court or immigration tribunal. As interpreters we have to switch between two different modes of interpreting; consecutive and simultaneous. Both require training and experience.

10. In the courts, the chaotic situation caused by ALS’ failures also have consequential financial costs which must be borne by the taxpayer, ie us. This is also not to mention the fact that defendants, suspects, victims and witnesses are not seeing justice being done if they do not have a competent interpreter:

“The jury in the trial were discharged this morning (July 11) after the defendant had a problem with his interpreter. The trial is due to start again on August 28.


And a trial at Snaresbrook Crown Court in April this year had to be halted at a cost of £25,000 due to mistakes being made by the ALS-appointed interpreter:


11. The Government has admitted that the controversial ALS interpreter contract will not save £12 million: http://www.lackuna.com/2012/07/12/government-admits-controversial-als-interpreter-contract-will-not-save-12m/

12. Furthermore, police forces which outsource their interpreting do lose control of costs. One force which outsourced (Bedfordshire) found that its interpreting costs exceeded budget by 100% in the first year. However, police forces which retain control of the interpreting resource also retain control of costs, and can make savings and efficiency gains. Examples are the Metropolitan Police, as well as Cambridgeshire and Welsh Constabularies.

13. I would refer you to the Professional Interpreters for Justice Campaign and responses to previous consultations: http://www.unitetheunion.org/sectors/community_youth_workers/unite_and_your_organisation/national_union_of_professional/professional_interpreters_for.aspx

14. I now wish to draw your attention to the myriad articles in the media and professional journals currently circulating, which describe the total chaos caused to Court and Tribunals by ALS’ abject failure to service their contract (for examples see http://www.linguistlounge.org/index.php/news).

15. I do not need to remind the Committee of the consequences of outsourcing to companies, however large, which are simply unable to fulfill their obligations. Apart from ALS/Capita, G4S is currently under very close scrutiny, including answering questions in Parliament, in relation to providing security guards at the recent Olympic Games in London and must answer for its lack of living up to the promises it made some seven years ago.

August 2012

Prepared 5th February 2013