Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from Marc Starr

1. I am Marc Starr, a Public Service Interpreter registered with the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (hereafter NRPSI) under number 12389. I have been registered as an interpreter for Portuguese since January 2004 and for Spanish since January 2007 and I have a total of over 2,000 hours of interpreting experience.

2. My submission in its entirety is a response to Point One and Point Two the six questions: The rationale for changing arrangements for the provision of interpreter services and The nature and appropriateness of the procurement process.

3. These are the only two parts that are relevant to me because I am an interpreter; I do not work in a role where I can comment in a direct way on the issues that have arisen since the Framework Agreement (hereafter FWA) began. I view the two issues to be very closely tied together because the rationale for making the changes and the nature and appropriateness of the way it was then executed are so hard to separate that in reality they should be one single question. I should add that in my view it is not the “appropriateness” but “inappropriateness”, of which more later.

4. I nevertheless believe that every problem that has been caused by the FWA has occurred the supposed problems the FWA was aimed at solving were exaggerated, distorted and confused, and consequently the issues that have come up were because the rationale was based in the assumption that there were problems and the way solving them was tackled made a genuine mess where previously there was only a perceived mess.

5. I believe the supposed “problem” can be summed up as dissatisfaction with the methods of supply used up to the point that Applied Language Solutions (hereafter ALS) were allowed to take over. I believe that ALS were seen as a company that could solve a problem that in the view of the Ministry of Justice can be summed up at the simplest level as being primarily two-fold: (1) levels and speeds of availability of interpreters and (2) the back office resources used firstly to find interpreters and then to pay them once they had done the job.

6. The supposition was that provision of some languages in some geographical areas was patchy; the MOJ believed that some languages were in short supply and they felt that resources and time could be saved by handing over the booking and payment of interpreters to a centralised system run by a private sector supplier.

7. I do not believe that any of the solutions that rationale aimed to bring about have come to fruition.

8. The MOJ’s rationale was that by creating new qualifications, which although it insisted they were not a watering-down of the criteria, more people would become available and that by booking through a centralised system, the arrival times of interpreters would improve. I do not believe that either of these aims has been fulfilled but I am more concerned in exposing the folly of the belief itself and why it existed at all.

9. It was misguided in the extreme to believe that any supply issues would be solved by merely creating a larger field of lesser-qualified people masquerading as interpreters and I also assert that there are reasons, to be explained in subsequent points, why a centralised booking system has no inherent advantage over custody sergeants and listings officers booking interpreters directly themselves.

10. My reason for believing this is based directly on the experience I have had as an interpreter and the range of situations, times and locations in which I have been asked to interpret. These encompass everything from very short-notice calls and jobs booked in advance.

11. I will now attempt to illustrate the range, type, frequency and unpredictability of the spread of my work. It is highly relevant to your understanding of the perception at the other end of the telephone, where public service officials who want to use us are sitting when they require us.

12. In a letter dated 5 July 2011, Martin Jones, the Deputy Director for Crime for HMCTS wrote a covering letter to which a document was attached that in my view remains one of the key examples of the completely unrealistic set of expectations that were arrived at and to me they amount to expecting interpreters to be available in any language, anywhere, at any notice and to do so quickly.

13. From 2004, I was asked with various levels of regularity (several requests in a single day to once or twice a week) to interpret for Police stations and courts, in every type of hearing from plea hearings to full crown court trials, Police interviews and witness statements as well as VIPER identity parades and even occasional requests for written translations.

14. The three factors at play are: (1) the location requiring me, (2) the reaction times asked for and (3) when I was called. In other words: who needed me and how suddenly the requirement was, and whether it involved work at hours outside the conventional working week.

15. I am based in Manchester but I was asked to attend Police stations in West, South and North Yorkshire, Cumbria, Staffordshire, North Wales, Lancashire, Merseyside and even Tyneside, Avon and Lincolnshire.

16. The nature of the geographic range of locations I was asked to attend suggests to me that other options closer to those Police stations and courts had been tried and were not available.

17. A key fact you should consider carefully is that interpreters are freelancers and cannot be expected to know where and when they will be required to displace themselves for a job. That was never going to change whether the NRPSI system or the ALS system was used.

18. I do not believe that the idea that an interpreter can be available anywhere for any language at any time, within an hour, is reasonable, feasible or realistic in the first place. But the rationale for changing the arrangements was not only based on this idea but in my view it also blamed NRPSI interpreters themselves for factors that are simply beyond their control.

19. Interpreters have lives of their own. They largely do not want to miss jobs that they could be available for. They are happy to be offered work but it is naïve to think this does not involve a huge effort to make themselves available for the calls they take. I was in a multitude of different situations doing something else when I was called to jobs but I managed to react in countless ways. I would be on the way to see a football match and I would be called to a Police station in Leeds. I would be in the middle of a translation on deadline and receive a request to attend Oldham or Cheadle Heath Police Station. The same happened with courts on occasion. These calls came on Sunday mornings, Tuesday afternoons, Saturday nights—it would often not be possible to know how long they would last and the overall effect personally was often incredibly hard.

20. On some occasions, I would turn on my phone after coming out of a courtroom and I would find a call requesting me somewhere else. On other occasions, a call would come in where other interpreters had been contacted and they were not available, either for personal, professional or social reasons. The reason this is relevant is that while the ideal remains that the person closest to a job will be available, there is no way either the public service can ever expect to know when they require an interpreter, or for the interpreter to know when they will be required.

21. When a requirement existed in Cumbria, for instance, for a Portuguese interpreter, particularly at short notice, if no such interpreter existed in the nearby area, it was necessary to bring one in from further afield. This happened to me on several occasions. It is not my fault that I happened to be the interpreter closest to Northallerton or Carlisle or Anglesey on several occasions. I just happened to be the person closest to the place where I was needed. If I did live in one of those places, then the opposite would happen: on some occasions, I would perhaps be required in another location far from where I live.

22. I believe that interpreters have been made scapegoats for this in a way that no other trade or profession has suffered. Wherever and whenever a requirement exists for any tradesperson or professional, be it a Police officer, a solicitor or a locksmith, be it a gas engineer, a doctor or an electrician, their availability is always going to be in accordance with factors the tradesperson or professional cannot possibly expect to predict. Nor do they have powers to control the urgency with which they are required.

23. As such, the very idea that supply is “scarce” is a complete and utter distortion of the reality. This apparent scarcity formed part of the rationale for wanting to widen the pool of available interpreters but it overlooked another key factor: the infrequent and unpredictable nature of requirements I have mentioned means that it would be pointless and unfeasible for certain interpreters to live in certain areas specifically to serve an already unpredictable need. How many jobs would an interpreter for Tagalog be given if they did go and live within 10 miles of Norwich Crown Court?

24. The reality is that while some interpreters in some “rare” languages do live in regions considered more unlikely, it is the case that they happen to live there for whatever reason—birth, personal circumstances, simple choice—but many of the main clusters of interpreters serving major languages are in the areas they live in because they are in the midst of their own communities. And there are exceptions and anomalies.

25. The occasions on which (for instance) Hebrew interpreter may be needed in Newcastle or a Vietnamese interpreter is needed in Penzance are always going to be more infrequent than times when someone who supplies Urdu, Punjabi or Farsi will be needed in Manchester or a Portuguese interpreter will be called to a Police station in South London, if one looks at the reality of where languages are spoken and where, consequently, people that people who speak them are most likely to be found.

26. By widening the pool of available people, there is no difference to the fact that remains: people on any accredited list still have working and personal lives that mean that when they are contacted, even if they are available, the first available person has to go from where they are to where they are needed and the use of a single supplier does not change this.

27. That unpredictable mix of circumstances is something that no management system will ever fully cope with to the extent the MOJ FWA attempted. A kind overview might well consider FWA’s aims as admirable in theory, but the FWA’s mission, to get any language available to any location without affecting quality is simply naïve and unworkable.

28. I need to draw attention to a prior decision by Greater Manchester Police and other regional police forces to award contracts to ALS. Although the Justice Select Committee is looking at the MOJ FWA, which the deal by GMP and other Northwest forces isn’t part of, it is relevant because those Police forces took on the exact same ALS model as has been used by the MOJ FWA participant bodies.

29. In a letter dated 19 January 2009, Superintendent David Wilkinson of Greater Manchester Police responded to a letter I had written to him where I had warned I would withdraw my service from interpreting for GMP if they used an agency.

30. I quote: “There is a definite shortage of interpreters, particularly in the rare and most commonly used languages and Public Sector Authorities are requesting managing interpreting companies to identify the shortages and work with education institutes to design and accreditate [sic] appropriate training. There must be a huge amount of ‘untapped’ interpreting skills in our immigrant communities”.

31. That sentence alone displays a belief that GMP and the other forces wanted to achieve the same as the MOJ did with the FWA: to save time and resources and to have more interpreters available across a wider geographical spread and hence also resulting in shorter waiting times. I believe that my understanding of its true meaning has significance in direct relation to the MOJ FWA.

32. One of the parts of MOJ allowed a private sector company to design qualifications with educational institutes that in my view watered down the qualifications required to interpret and therefore the definition of an interpreter.

33. Evidence submitted by other parties will hopefully allow the Committee to take a view of whether there really is a “huge amount of untapped interpreting skills in our immigrant communities”.

34. The reason I believe this is relevant is because rather than look at more constructive ways to strengthen the field of available interpreters who had the full qualification required—the Diploma in Public Service Interpreting (hereafter DPSI)—the move to outsource by GMP and the other forces was a blueprint for what the MOJ later embarked upon.

35. If you combine the availability issue with quality and training, it becomes clear that the MOJ’s idea of a solution to the mythical supply problem was to loosen the criteria a person had to meet in order to become an interpreter. The new assessment and the ALS three-tier system was the MOJ’s misguided idea of a solution.

36. I will start from (and I rely on acceptance of) the premise that NRPSI membership is the gold standard. I require acceptance that the DPSI examination is the highest public service interpreting qualification and any of my evidence in my submission is based on that. It must be accepted—based on the evidence you will receive from other stakeholders in this investigation on the performance of unqualified fake interpreters—that the DPSI has been vindicated.

37. The DPSI is a very stringent test—there are two 30-minute interpreting tests, two translations (into and out of the candidate’s native language) and two sight translations. I have often compared it to a driving test—it assesses the candidate’s ability at the time of the test and beyond that, the person is classed as possessing the required levels of ability.

38. The element of the rationale that decided that replacing a gruelling and stringent five-part examination with an assessment was a good idea is one of the key reasons that I think the MOJ Framework Agreement has been catastrophic for all parties concerned. The MOJ asked qualified interpreters to prove their ability with an assessment that was akin to asking doctors to take a basic first aid qualification to prove their fitness to practice. The very idea is an utter affront to NRPSI interpreters and their achievement in attaining that status.

39. Aside from the qualified interpreters from the NRPSI, the assessment of people without a DPSI was never likely to “create” people with the required capability.

40. The annex document to the letter sent out to interpreters by Martin Jones of the MOJ on 6 July 2011 said the following about NRPSI interpreters: “The introduction of an assessment is a direct response to address collaborative authorities’ concerns that NRPSI registration does not necessarily guarantee quality. The evidence for this is anecdotal, but has been consistent enough to warrant action”.

41. This part of the rationale for making the change makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. How can the various collaborative authorities’ officials ever gauge “quality” in any meaningful way? Interpreting is based on trust and the whole point of there being a qualified professional who.

42. The other mystifying aspect of NRPSI membership being discredited in this way is that the MOJ contradicted itself by creating three tiers of interpreter where DPSI holders (in other words, largely people who were on the NRPSI) were the ideal candidates. So either the DPSI was a benchmark or quality or it wasn’t. The MOJ’s rationale has not just been riddled with flaws but the way it was implemented makes no sense and has no consistency at all.

43. The rationale of saving money via outsourcing to a private sector, profit-based intermediary: my concluding thoughts.

44. The rationale of the contract was that money was to be saved by bringing in a third-party intermediary to organise the distribution of skilled work among highly qualified professionals, whose rates had not gone up in any meaningful way since the early part of the 2000s, because any rise in 2007 from the court service was a classic act of giving with one hand and taking away with the other.

45. The MOJ has tried to insert a pointless intermediary that would claim its own portion of the budget for interpreting. The only outcome this would ever produce was to lower quality because well-informed warnings predicted this would do nothing but decimate a group of professionals, many of whom already felt somewhat taken for granted already. Lowering standards, altering benchmarks and slashing rates of pay was never going to solve issues that were exaggerated in the first place.

46. The MOJ has taken that existing group of professionals, it has trivialised their skills, mocked their qualifications and belittled their efforts and sacrifice. Many of these 2,300 professionals are leaving the profession and many have already left. I urge you to consider this and to conclude that if the way the changes were brought in was in any way appropriate, those existing professionals would not have reacted by withdrawing their service to the point where only 301 of 2,300+ joined the chosen intermediary supplier.

47. There is no time to waste and nowhere to go. The MOJ FWA must end immediately.

August 2012

Prepared 5th February 2013