Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from Amanda Clement

The following comments are of a general nature and are my own personal observations. I am unable to provide qualitative or quantitative evidence of the practical working of the contract drawn up with Applied Language Solutions and, therefore, I wish to contribute solely in terms of the rationale for changing arrangements for the provision of interpreting services.

My personal background is in languages and law. I have degrees in Modern Languages and Law, together with a Masters in Translation. From 1995–2011 I managed the interpreting and translation service for the Metropolitan Police Service, initially as head of Language Services branch and later as Head of Language Policy & Coordination for an expanded unit named Language and Cultural Services. In both roles I was responsible, amongst other things, for the recruitment, vetting and training of professional interpreters and translators, who provided services on a freelance basis to the Metropolitan Police Service. In this capacity, I served on various regional and national committees which set standards for linguists working in the legal sector and I also contributed to several projects funded by the EU Commission, which sought to implement equality of standards throughout Member States, in order to establish mutual recognition of linguists’ qualifications and training.

In November 2011, I took voluntary redundancy from the Metropolitan Police Service and I am now a freelance translator and language consultant. I wish to reiterate that the comments which follow are my own and must not be construed in any way as related to the Metropolitan Police Service.

In 1997, the Trials Issues Group, Witness Care Sub-group drew up the National Agreement on the Provision of Interpreters to Investigations and Proceedings of the Criminal Justice System. This document sought, for the first time, to establish a minimum professional standard for linguists working within the criminal justice system of England and Wales, in response to language-related miscarriages of justice.

The National Agreement cited membership of the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI) as the minimum, measurable standard appropriate for work in this field and the Interpreters Working Group (IWG) was set up to monitor and manage the National Agreement and to address any issues arising from it. The IWG was intended to have a rolling Chair, first held by the Crown Prosecution Service and later by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO).

The Agreement was not without problems, most notably the lack of qualified, NRPSI interpreters in some parts of the country in some language combinations mainly due to lack of funding for access to acceptable interpreter training courses. This resulted either in increased travel time and cost or in non-compliance with the National Agreement. Thus, other categories of qualification were annexed to the Agreement, to address these issues in the event of a NRPSI interpreter being unable to fulfil an assignment within a suitable time.

The drafting of the National Agreement, and its monitoring through the IWG was the result of a collaboration of UK criminal justice system agencies towards a common goal for over 10 years and, whilst not perfect, it was well on the road to providing a workable system of linguistic support, whilst recognising the interpreting and translation professionals with whom it transacted and which was hailed as a beacon of good practice across Europe.

My own concerns at the current arrangements are manifold.

Firstly, I consider the work put in over a number of years by committed professionals, in collaboration with each other and with the interpreting and translation providers and their registration and professional bodies was not recognised. Instead of improving a well-established working model, the current arrangements effectively deconstruct a great deal of work and threaten to extinguish a profession which the UK criminal justice system has a significant interest in preserving.

Justice in the UK is independent and must be seen to be so, not only for its own integrity, but also to comply with domestic and European legislation, notably the Human Rights Act and the European Convention of Human Rights. This places a responsibility upon judicial services to ensure interpreters and translators used within the legal processes in Member States are qualified and independent. Moreover, they must be seen to be so. I am not convinced that the current contract is sufficiently transparent on both these points.

The lack of an independent professional regulator within the current arrangement is of significant concern. Such a role cannot properly be performed by any organisation relying upon the government for the contract it holds. It must be independent of any party to the contract and is best performed by the profession itself, in order to maintain its own integrity. Much work went into the establishment of the National Register of Public Service interpreters with exactly this aim, and the NRPSI, then managed by the Chartered Institute of Linguists (the premier professional body for linguists in the UK), demonstrated responsibility towards its registrants and towards the profession it seeks to safeguard, whilst adapting flexibly, wherever possible, to the demands placed upon it by the criminal justice system. The inclusion of the NRPSI as the minimum standard (for spoken language interpreting) in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act Codes of Practice in 2008, was a short-lived milestone, as it was removed in the May 2012 revisions, a retrograde step. The NRPSI was the minimum standard, not the gold-standard, and the decision to withdraw even this standard marks a decline in the standard of legal interpreting that had previously been amongst the best in Europe.

A professional interpreter should be paid at a professional level. Undermining this level of earning in order to provide a service as cheaply as possible, whilst still making a profit for a commercial enterprise is not an economic strategy which will entice the professional, leaving the criminal justice system vulnerable to inexperience and under-qualification, when there are a significant number of qualified and experienced professionals who find themselves out of work, unwilling as they are to work for an unprofessional rate. Nor should the members of the legal profession ask them to, as mutual respect is a cornerstone of successful inter-disciplinary working relationships.

In summary, I am disappointed by the decision to throw the baby out with the bathwater, thus eroding years of good work by agencies of the criminal justice system and expert and professional linguists, in the hope of a commercial “quick fix” which, it seems, is not turning out to be so. And this to the near-destruction of a cadre of qualified and experienced professionals, the undermining of their professional standing and the overlooking of their well-established and hitherto respected professional bodies. There are surely better ways than this to address the issues in service provision which arose during the lifetime of the National Agreement? Working with the Chartered Institute of Linguists and the National Register of Public Service Interpreters would be a good start, rather than devaluing it and its registrants in such a catastrophic and cavalier manner.

August 2012

Prepared 5th February 2013