Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from Dr Zuzana Windle

I write to submit evidence to the Justice Select Committee in support of its impending investigation into certain aspects of the contract between the MOJ and ALS Ltd, which was implemented in the Justice Sector from the 30th January 2012. The main focus of my evidence is my contention that the MOJ was aware that ALS was unable to deliver a similar contract in the North West as early as September 2010, and that they chose to ignore documentary evidence and relevant factors before and during the tendering process, which led to ALS being awarded the contract.

I am a professional interpreter and translator and a former director of the Professional Interpreters’ Alliance, PIA. In 2010, the PIA under my directorship, applied for a Judicial Review of the contract for the provision of interpreters between four North West police forces and ALS. During the execution of the Judicial Review, I became privy to evidence that ALS was unable to fulfil its contractual obligations, which led to the taxpayer incurring unacceptable costs and foreign suspects being subjected to breaches of Articles 5 and 6 of the ECHR.

The North West contract commenced on the 2nd August 2010 and involved Greater Manchester Police, Merseyside, Lancashire and Cumbria constabularies. It became obvious from the inception of the contract that ALS was unable to provide qualified interpreters within a reasonable time. As a matter of fact, ALS was often unable to provide any interpreters at all, which resulted in suspects having to be kept in custody unnecessarily, or being released on bail. Complaints from the North West Magistrates’ Courts also showed that ALS was failing to provide interpreters for defendants, who had been remanded in custody and brought to court afterwards. The situation in the North West displayed the same problems as are currently afflicting the Justice Sector as a result of the MOJ’s contract with ALS.

In my capacity as a director of the PIA, I contacted officials from the MOJ and those responsible for procurement and made them aware of all the problems and failings of ALS’s contract with the North West police forces. I submitted to the MOJ a large dossier of concrete incidents, which showed that ALS was unable to deliver in the NW. I attach some of these communications for your attention.

In 2010 I also submitted to the MOJ a petition of over 600 qualified interpreters registered on the National Register of Public Service Interpreters stating that they refused to work for ALS. I also made the MOJ aware that ALS was operating a racially discriminatory contract in the NW, where they afforded much less favourable treatment to foreign language interpreters than British Sign Language Interpreters. This included a difference in rates of over 70% as well as more favourable conditions for BSLIs in the way of travel expenses, cancellation fees, car parking etc. Regrettably the MOJ chose to ignore this evidence and implemented the same discriminatory conditions in the Justice Sector Framework Agreement with ALS. As a result, five professional interpreters issued legal proceedings against the MOJ alleging a breach of Sections 13 and 19 of the Equality Act 2010. I am one of them. The proceedings are ongoing and are currently sub-judice.

Prior to ALS being awarded the MOJ contract, I also submitted to them evidence that ALS was financially unstable and burdened by debts and other encumbrances. ALS’s credit rating in February 2011 was only six out of a 100 and its turnover far too low to accommodate a contract worth £60 million per annum. Indeed the size of the company made it unsuitable for a contract of this nature.

I would like to summarise my submission by stating that the MOJ was well aware that ALS would not be able to deliver the contract and that it was unsuitable for a contract of this nature before and during the tendering process. They had at their disposal abundant evidence, which should have alerted them to the inevitability of the problems and wastage of taxpayer money, which we are currently witnessing across the justice sector in England and Wales. There is no doubt that some of the other agencies, which took part in the tendering process, were far more suitable and much better equipped to deliver a contract of this magnitude. Agencies such as Language Line and Wessex Translations, which have an excellent record of supplying interpreters in the justice sector, would have been much more suitable as the suppliers of professional interpreters for the MOJ contract. It is in the interest of the taxpayer to establish exactly what criteria were used during the tendering process and why the MOJ rejected bona fide contractors with a proven track record in favour of an agency, which failed to deliver a contract of a similar nature on a much smaller scale.

Just like in the NW, ALS constructed its model on making savings purely by cutting foreign interpreters’ rates by over 70%. This unsustainable cut in rates is clearly set out in the FWA, as it was in the NW FWA. It should have been obvious to the MOJ that qualified interpreters would not accept such an unreasonable cut in rates and that ALS would not be able to provide a sufficient number of interpreters for the justice sector. I also invite the committee to examine the value of the contract and the sum ALS is charging for the provision of foreign language interpreters. Information obtained from the North West police forces during the Judicial Review revealed that ALS only charged £34 per hour flat fee for foreign language interpreters. I do not believe it is possible to deliver the contract successfully at such a low value and the MOJ had an obligation to investigate the feasibility of the contract, the value of which was clearly too low to sustain.

Whilst ALS clearly appears to be the cheapest participant in the tender on paper, the excessively low value of the contract leads to significant hidden costs incurred through unacceptable delays in court proceedings, cases having to be abandoned, unnecessary adjournments and delays in investigations into criminal offences.

September 2012

Prepared 5th February 2013