Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from the Ministry of Justice

Executive Summary

1. This response relates to both Framework Agreement of Language Services and, more specifically, to the MoJ’s contract which was signed under the terms of the Framework Agreement and addresses the Committee’s Terms of Reference.

2. Due to shortcomings, inconsistency and inefficiency in the way in which language services were provided to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), the Department introduced a change to the provision of interpreter services. Interpreters are now booked through Applied Language Solutions (ALS1) via a call-off contract under the Framework Agreement which went live on 30 January 2012.

3. During the initial stages of the contract there were significant difficulties with the provision of interpretation services to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS). Interpreters used to the old system have been concerned about the changes, and this has led to fulfilment difficulties.

4. Since then performance has improved; statistics published in May 20122 show that just over 90% of bookings (excluding short notice bookings) were filled in April, compared to an original fulfilment rate of 65% in February. There was also a drop in complaints from 11.95% of completed requests to 4.85%. The Department accepts that there is more work to be done to achieve an acceptable level of performance for HMCTS but despite the difficulties encountered with the contract the Department is on track to achieve £15m savings in the first year. A greater level of savings is anticipated in future years.

5. In order to continue to improve the levels of performance HMCTS has established a project, working in partnership with ALS, to focus on a number of areas of concern. The Department closely monitors the performance of ALS under the contract, in particular the number of interpreters available to ALS and their vetting and skills.

6. In April The Right Honourable Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee commissioned the National Audit Office (NAO) to investigate the language services contract. The NAO is due to publish its report shortly. The NAO investigation has helped us to focus on the areas of concern, both within the Department and ALS.

7. We remain of the view that the approach we have taken in outsourcing the booking of interpreters is one that works, and can provide savings to the public. While the contract is still in its early stages, indications thus far are that it is working; costs have been reduced and the service is improving.

The Rationale for Changing Arrangements for the Provision of Interpreter Services

8. Interpreter services in the justice sector cover a variety of different services, including face to face and telephone interpreting, written translation, and language services for the deaf and deaf/blind. The previous system was inconsistent across the justice sector, including the different delivery areas of the Department, meaning that similar services were being provided in a variety of different ways. There were fundamental and long-standing issues with quality and efficiency. The services did not represent value for money and the use of different booking systems meant that security and quality checks were inconsistent and in many cases unreliable. This exposed the Department and others in the justice sector to unacceptable risks.

9. An MoJ internal audit report in January 2010 highlighted some of the deficiencies of the interpretation and translation services. This report found that:

there were no systems in place to provide accurate financial information in respect of the amount spent on interpreters’ fees and disbursements and as a result the amounts spent on interpreters across the different parts of HMCS (now part of HMCTS) were not known because of different accounting systems;

control systems were not sufficiently robust to identify and prevent duplicate payments or to identify errors;

the sourcing of interpreters varied across the courts and tribunals. Guidance stated that HMCS should source interpreters from the National Register of Public Sector Interpreters (NRPSI), however specialist agencies, panel arrangements, and ad-hoc local arrangements were also used and were used by the then Tribunal Service. Qualification and security checks were not consistently performed; and

governance and control arrangements were not sufficiently developed to provide management with sufficient assurance.

10. Concerns had also been expressed anecdotally by police forces and others that complaints were not adequately followed up in a timely and efficient manner. In some instances interpreters who were the subject of complaints were allowed to work while being investigated.

11. Inefficiencies with the system included a time consuming booking mechanism which required staff to contact individual interpreters to check availability, and the lack of interpreters in some languages and in some areas of the country.

12. When taken together, the inefficiencies with the system, the concerns raised by the audit report, and the difficulties with language supply in some languages demonstrated the need for change.

The Nature and Appropriateness of the Procurement Process

13. As a result of the problems with the previous systems Ministers decided to engage with the market to see how services could be better and more efficiently delivered. This led to a procurement competition using the competitive dialogue approach, carried out in accordance with EU procurement rules.

14. The pre-tender engagement exercise included over 200 suppliers to raise interest in the project and to raise awareness with existing language providers and those suppliers with the possible scope to diversify into this market. 126 suppliers were invited at the pre-qualification stage; 77 accepted the invitation and 58 fully completed a pre-qualification questionnaire. 12 suppliers were invited to participate in further dialogue.

15. Using the competitive dialogue process the Department set objectives and invited suppliers to explain how they would meet them. This was refined over several stages of dialogue, to ensure that all mechanisms for provision of the service could be explored fully with the market.

16. This iterative process, through which bidders come up with potential solutions, allowed the Department to gradually refine the requirements and the terms of the draft framework through a series of stages, eliminating bidders at each stage. This allowed maximum scope for efficiency and innovation in the delivery of the service. The process was led by MoJ Procurement working closely with policy leads and representatives from the Police, HMCTS, the Crown Prosecution Service and the National Offender Management Service (NOMS). The breadth of involvement was important to ensure that the needs of the business were met and the project has credibility with users.

17. The award of the Framework Agreement was on the basis of the most economically advantageous tender. The non-price criteria (set out below) and the affordability and price were evaluated. The Department would accept the lowest priced, affordable and non-price criteria compliant tender. This threshold was set at 80% (representing an “acceptable” tender standard). Any tenders received which did not meet this level following Invitation to submit Detailed Solution were rejected.

Criteria

% Weighting

Service

30

Innovation

10

Quality

25

Assurance of Supply

30

Sustainability

5

18. As part of this process officials undertook a consultation exercise on the model which arose out of the competitive dialogue with a wide range of stakeholders including individual interpreters and their various representative groups, service users and the judiciary, which yielded over 140 responses. This led to refinements in the model then under discussion.

The Experience of Courts and Prisons in Receiving Interpretation Services that meet their needs

19. Under the previous arrangements MoJ delivery areas were often receiving interpretation services that did not meet their needs for a number of reasons which have been set out.

20. The framework agreement offers benefits over the previous arrangements as it is intended to provide a national prime contractor with a single point of contact, available to staff 24/7, through which the provision of face-to-face interpreting, telephone interpreting, written translation and language services for the deaf and deaf/blind3 can be obtained, Management information collected under the framework allows analysis of trends.

21. It is important that interpreters have the right skills and qualifications for the job and the appropriate security checks. The framework enables the Department to specify a more stringent security check than had been used in previous arrangements—under the contract interpreters are required to have an Enhanced Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check. In the course of the recent NAO investigation, it became clear that some interpreters on the ALS register had not confirmed their (CRB) record status. The Department requires a full audit trail for security checks for all interpreters, therefore, those interpreters who had not supplied documentation were removed from the register until such time as an audit trail could be provided. Interpreters with Enhanced CRB checks in place were asked to provide further evidence of this; those without Enhanced CRB status submitted evidence to gain it. ALS is confident that a full audit trail for Enhanced CRB clearance will be available for all interpreters assigned to MoJ jobs by early September 2012.

22. In relation to qualifications and skills, the contract requires all interpreters to undertake assessments to establish their competence in their language or dialect. This process has been challenging because of difficulties between ALS and its independent contractors in marking assessments, and a lack of qualifications for some of the rarer languages. The Department is working with ALS to resolve this.

23. Whilst a number of interpreters used by ALS are new, it should be noted that this is not the case for all interpreters. Some have previous experience of working in the justice sector and some are NRPSI registered4. All interpreters used by ALS, whether new to the sector or not, are required to confirm their Enhanced CRB status and qualifications and be evaluated.

24. During the first month (30 January to 29 February 2012) of the contract ALS was only able to fulfil 65% of requests for translations services; this caused significant difficulty for the justice system and steps were immediately taken both by the Department and ALS to improve this. Overall performance increased to 82% in March and just over 90% in April, although there was variance across regions and jurisdictions.

25. HM Prisons Service has been using the services of ALS for interpreting (face-to-face and telephone) and translation requirements since 30 January 2012. The main requirement for prisons is for telephone interpreting, followed by translations, with a small need for face-to-face interpretation. Apart from a small number of initial service transfers issues there have been no problems or difficulties of any significance or concern reported to NOMS HQ by prisons about the ALS service.

The Nature and Effectiveness of the Complaints Process

26. The Framework has a robust complaints mechanism by which justice sector staff record complaints about the quality of the service provided by ALS on the booking system. The complaints system allows HMCTS staff and judiciary to communicate any concerns as soon as they arise, and to monitor the progress of a complaint. Any complaint or issue is acknowledged by ALS within one hour of receipt.

27. Some complaints, most often related to the quality of the interpretation require an independent check. Where this is the case feedback is provided within 24 hours and the proposed resolution is discussed with the body making the complaint within three working days. This is documented in writing with the resolution confirmed via email to all relevant parties within 24 hours of agreement. All parties are kept informed of progress throughout the investigation, which normally takes one working week from the time the complaint is raised until the resolution is formalised.

28. The Department receives data on all complaints on a weekly basis and identifies and discusses any trends in regular performance review meetings with ALS. This was not possible under the previous arrangements where there was no centralised complaints mechanism.

29. Between 30 January and 30 April 2012, there were 26,059 requests for interpreters covering 142 different languages, 18,719 requests were delivered against. There were 2,232 complaints relating to completed requests within this time period, a complaint rate of 11.95%. The complaint categories cover attendance, quality and other issues.5 The Department responded swiftly to the initial problems and demanded improvements in performance from ALS.

30. Overall, there has been a downward trend in the level of complaints since the start of the contract. The overall complaint rate has reduced over the first three months of the contract and in April 2012 it was 4.8%. Further statistics are due to be published on 13 December 2012 and will provide an opportunity to look at the data for nine months of operation.6

The Steps that have been taken to Rectify Under-performance and the Extent to which they have been Effective

31. The HMCTS project board ensures that there is formal project governance in place, ensuring the continuing accountability of both ALS and HMCTS, and the proper assessment of risk and change management. ALS is represented on the project board as a Senior Supplier and partnership working is an important principle for improvement.

32. In response to the Department’s actions ALS has provided additional staff to deal with bookings, targeted their recruitment of interpreters in key languages and made improvements to the call handling and complaints process. ALS continues to recruit new interpreters and is working with the Department to address those languages where the number of interpreters remains low, particularly with rare languages. In a small number of languages, the number of registered interpreters has already increased in comparison to the former arrangements.

33. HMCTS directed magistrates’ courts and tribunals to revert to the old booking system for short notice bookings where ALS was unable to provide an interpreter for these, in order to ensure courts and tribunals had ongoing provision and to allow ALS to focus on improving its service and resilience. However, a pilot involving a number of criminal courts in different regions has returned these bookings to ALS, with success. Overall, the courts have been happy with the communications that they have been receiving throughout the pilot and the interpreters that were sourced for the bookings attended the courts on time and conducted themselves appropriately within the court setting. Learning from the implementation of the contract, the project board is currently considering how best to roll back the provision of short notice bookings to ALS over the coming months.

34. Service credits have been applied by the Department from June 2012, according to the terms of the contract. ALS has invested additional resources into service improvement and MoJ took the view that prior to June the emphasis should be on improving service performance at that stage. This outweighed the likely applicable penalties under the contract of approximately £11,000 in service credits. We are now aware that Capita supported ALS with investment of approximately £3.5 million.

35. In order to help improve performance, HMCTS and Capita-ALS have committed to looking at the end to end business process to see if changes could help improve the implementation of the contract. This includes looking at the different models of booking short notice interpreters with a regional or location approach, for example, whilst acknowledging that the same system might not work across all jurisdictions. Any queries which have been raised by either MoJ staff or ALS are being collated to incorporate into new editions of guidance.

The Appropriateness of Arrangements for Monitoring the Management of the Contract, including the Quality and Cost-effectiveness of the Service Delivered

36. The contract management for this service is monitored by MoJ Procurement. Detailed management information is received on a weekly basis from the Contractor which includes fulfilment of assignments, complaints data, and general management information on face to face and telephone interpretation, as well as transcription and translation services. The weekly summary report shows:

venues with performance below 90% and action taken;

top five problem languages for that week and action taken;

top three areas for complaint and action taken;

performance against complaints overall;

performance against complaints on interpreter quality; and

performance against failures to attend bookings.

37. MoJ Procurement also receives a daily email with the overall headline performance figure, including a commentary on languages where performance failed. Additional reporting is available on demand. All business areas are encouraged to highlight any particulars areas for concern, including unsatisfactory complaints resolution and urgent, high profile requirements and notify MoJ Procurement.

38. All billing information is available with a breakdown of management information for business account holders, by site. The contract has provided visibility of spend across business areas and jurisdictions that was not available to the MoJ under the pre-framework operations. The contract management is robust, performance driven and pro-active.

Conclusion

39. The previous system for booking interpreters was inefficient and risky. The MoJ was right to seek changes to the system and has been supported in this view.

40. We accept that there have been problems with the service; any process of reform will face challenges. Interpreters used to the previous system have been concerned with the changes and this has led to fulfilment difficulties.

41. Performance levels were inadequate when the contract commenced, and while the service is not yet where we would like, the service has made sustained improvements over a relatively short period and complaints have fallen. This view is fully supported by our most recent management information. However, we are committed to remaining vigilant, and will continue to work with our supplier very closely until we are content with the service provided.

42. We remain of the view that this is an approach that will work and can provide savings to the public.

September 2012

1 ALS is now part of Capita.

2 http://www.justice.gov.uk/downloads/statistics/mojstats/language-stats/language-service-stats-jan12-april-12.pdf

3 This term encompasses not only interpreters using British Sign Language (BSL) but also lip speakers (who convey a speaker’s message to lipreaders accurately using unvoiced speech), speech to text reports (who produce verbatim record of what is said, using a phonetic keyboard, to be shown instantly on a monitor or screen) and deafblind manual Language service professionals (who, through the deafblind manual alphabet, relay at an appropriate speed, what is said by a third party to a deafblind person).

4 There were around 300 NRPSI interpreters on the ALS register in July 2012.

5 Complaint categories: interpreter did not attend; interpreter quality; interpreter was late; no interpreter available; operational issue; other interpreter issue; time sheet error; unknown.

6 See MoJ publication schedule at http://www.justice.gov.uk/statistics/statistics-publication-schedule; further statistics will be published on 28 March 2013 for the first year of operation of the contract.

Prepared 4th February 2013