Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from Peterborough Magistrates Court

1. The Rationale for Changing the Arrangements for the Provision of Interpreter Services

Magistrates were not told why this change happened apart from the saving of £18 million from the translation budget. As far as I can work out there was no projected service improvement in terms of provision or quality in the contract. The detail of the contract has not been available to the Judiciary.

2. Nature and Appropriateness of the Procurement Process

Magistrates have not been made aware of the process that was carried out select Applied Language Solutions. One can only surmise that the “cheapest” bid was accepted. This is a common but serious error in Government procurement. Given the service quality that has been delivered it is likely to be a false saving but the additional costs will be buried in other budgets. No one is familiar with the penalty clause aspects of poor delivery. We are told there are such clauses but no one will tell the users what they are and who has the accountability for pursuing them.

3. The Experience of the Courts

Prior to the ALS contract for North Cambridgeshire the service was sourced locally. There are a significant number of cases involving translation services due to the high number of East Europeans and others working in the agricultural businesses around Peterborough. When these people commit offences they usually require translation services. The local court staff had local contacts for almost all the locally spoken languages. They used agencies for the more eclectic needs. I cannot recall a case ever where a case had to be adjourned to another day for lack of an interpreter.

As Bench Chairman I receive a monthly report of ALS failures. Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service have specifically forbidden me from passing that data to this enquiry! However what I can tell you is that the initial service was truly appalling. Day after day interpreters did not arrive. This resulted in many cases where defendants were kept in custody unnecessarily and much money was being expended over transport and prison costs. This of course does not account for wasted court time let alone the quite unfair detention of a defendant in many cases. Others were just incompetent. A Russian speaking Justice had to correct some of the translation in court as it was just wrong! Others were very unfamiliar with court phrasing and processes, so much so that the progress was dreadfully slow.

We still get cases where no interpreter is present and we are not permitted to use local contractors which might get round the poor level of service provided by ALS. Many of the previous excellent interpreters will not work for ALS and will not substitute for them when they cannot provide their own contractor. The blanket ban is unnecessary as that would in certain circumstances provide an acceptable solution.

In summary on performance there are fewer problems now than in February. As the problem level in February was truly catastrophic I would be seriously concerned if this were not the case. Of the figures I have seen and some anecdotal evidence, bearing in mind I am not allowed to quote precise detail, the numbers remain at an unacceptable level.

4. The Nature and Effectiveness of the Complaints Process

My bench members and the Court Clerks complain to HMCTS as and when a problem occurs. These are logged on the spreadsheet that contains the detail of performance and as I understand it they are forwarded to Ministry of Justice staff in London. What happens after that is a mystery to me and the Court Clerks. We rarely get feedback on individual cases and when it is provided it usually goes along the lines that “there was no resource available”.

5. The Steps Taken to Rectify Underperformance and Have They Been Effective

We examined whether a “wasted costs order” against ALS might make them sit up and take notice. We were advised that that such an order was unlikely to succeed. We know the Peterborough Crown Court Judges have summoned ALS executives to their courts to supply explanations. ALS promised a dedicated Magistrates Court translator for one of the common languages but I do not think that materialised. As it has got better in some ways they must have been effective. As we do not know the penalty clause mechanisms (if any!) we do not know if there is a budget saving. Magistrates have to put up with this poor service as do defendants, prosecutors and defence solicitors and we are powerless to do much about it. Local HMCTS are similarly frustrated. HMCTS believe the contract was imposed by Ministry of Justice staff and they too are powerless do much about it.

6. Monitoring of the Contract Including Service Quality and Cost Effectiveness

I am told that there is a new logging system for ALS and other service provider failures. This will only record the amount of court time lost due to such failures. This will seriously understate the real cost but will look good when Whitehall reports to Parliament. You should regard such reports with the greatest scepticism. It will not show extra costs for prosecutors, defence lawyers, secure transport services and custody costs. What may look like 10 minutes lost in court will run into many hundreds of pounds, even thousands.

I and many other magistrates believe Whitehall want this swept under the carpet. Just a few teething problems. I believe that outsourcing is fundamentally misunderstood in Whitehall. You outsource the operation not the responsibility. Trying to find anyone in HMCTS or the Ministry of Justice to put their hand up to say “this is my problem and I will fix it” I fear is a lost cause.

September 2012

Prepared 5th February 2013