Justice CommitteeCorrespondence between the Justice Committee and the Ministry of Justice


Letter from Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith MP, Chair, Justice Committee to Rt Hon Chris Grayling MP, Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor

As you will be aware, my Committee has been undertaking an inquiry into interpreting and translation services and the Applied Language Solutions contract. An important part of our inquiry has been to seek information which would allow us to make an assessment of the scale and nature of the acknowledged practical difficulties which have arisen in courts since the new Framework Agreement was rolled out nationally.

Early in our inquiry we heard that court staff might be unwilling to provide evidence of their experiences. Partly for that reason we recently set up an online forum in which people, whether court staff, lawyers, parties, interpreters or the public, were invited to submit their direct and personal experiences of interpretation services in court, and were able to do so anonymously if they wished. This method of obtaining information has been used by a number of select committees on sensitive subjects.

Before establishing the forum we asked your Ministry at official level if you would be willing to draw the existence of the forum to the attention of court staff, but we were told that the Ministry’s view was that this would be inappropriate. Nor were officials willing to provide us with contact details of courts. Subsequently we have also heard that court staff may have been actively discouraged by management in the Ministry and/or in HMCTS from making submissions to the forum.

Submissions to an online forum are not considered to be formal evidence to a committee, and so it is unlikely that any efforts to dissuade Ministry or courts and tribunal staff from making such submissions, if indeed such dissuasion did occur, could constitute a contempt of the House, as might be the case in respect of formal evidence. However if it is the case that pressure has been placed on court staff to dissuade them from making submissions to our online forum we would certainly wish to be aware of the fact, as it may have had a material effect on our ability to obtain a full picture of the current position in respect of the effectiveness of interpretation services in courts.

I would therefore be grateful if you would let us know whether any advice, guidance or other instructions have been issued to staff of the Ministry and/or HMCTS, verbally or in writing, on the subject of (a) providing formal evidence to us and (b) making submissions to our online forum in relation to our inquiry. Please could you let us know by 17 November as we would like to consider the contents of our draft report with full knowledge of the circumstances in which evidence and other information was submitted to us in our inquiry.

Letter from Helen Grant MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, to Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith MP, Chair, Justice Committee, 13 November 2012

Thank you for your letter to the Justice Secretary dated 7 November, raising the issue of Ministry of Justice (MoJ) staff providing evidence to the Justice Committee as part of its inquiry into the interpreting and translation services contract. I fully appreciate the seriousness of your query, and I have asked my officials for ah account of the messages sent to staff in HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS).

As you know, the MoJ provided its written evidence to the Committee in the form of a memorandum on 7 September. Additional evidence was provided at the request of the Committee on 11 October. This was supplemented by the MoJ publication of statistics on interpretation services on 18 October (covering the period 30 January to 31 August 2012) and an oral evidence session on 30 October. The evidence submitted was based on facts and figures that the Department has gathered over time, including performance figures, savings estimates, and explanations for decisions made.

As you have stated in your letter, we took the view that it would be inappropriate to invite court staff to submit further evidence to the online forum set up by the Committee. We took this decision as the Department was already giving its evidence to the Committee in written and oral form, as described above. The Civil Service Management Code and the Osmotherly Rules say that officials “should not take part in research projects or surveys designed to establish their personal views on Government policies”.

In the second half of October, we became aware of some interpreters contacting courts directly with the details of the forum, accompanied by a press release from an interpreters’ organisation which disagreed with the M0J’s evidence at the Public Accounts Committee. In light of these emails, we decided to email HMCTS Cluster Managers to give them some guidance on how to respond to these specific emails. A copy of the email we sent on 24 October and a sample email that had been received at a court are annexed to this letter. This was the only email issued to staff and there was no verbal instruction given. No email guidance was issued to the judiciary or other justice partners. In my view, this email was an entirely appropriate response to the contact from interpreter groups that staff received and did not interfere with the collection of evidence by the Committee.

I thought it would also be useful to answer another allegation that was made to you in written evidence on a similar issue. I am aware that one respondent claimed that HMCTS specifically forbade him from providing a copy of a local spreadsheet of issues with Capita-ALS. I understand that it is not possible for local spreadsheets to be checked against the data which we receive from ALS, and we would therefore suggest to respondents that they should not be submitted as evidence. In any case, I would expect any issues with the contract to have been raised through the established complaints procedure.

I hope that this letter reassures you as to the Department’s conduct during the inquiry into interpretation services.

Letter from Rt Hon Alan Beith MP, Chair, Justice Committee, to Helen Grant MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice, 22 November 2012

Thank you for your letter of 13 November concerning the approach of the Ministry of Justice and HMCTS to the submission of information by courts and tribunal staff to our online forum on court interpreting services.

My Committee has noted the points you have made, but has asked me to convey to you its continuing serious concern over this matter. You cite the Osmotherly Rules, which as you know are not endorsed by Parliament, as providing a basis for your actions. We would not equate a select committee inquiry with research projects or surveys; nor was our forum seeking views on Government policy. We were seeking examples of direct experience of the effectiveness of interpreting services within courts in recent months. This is a well-established mechanism for select committees, a number of which have used online forums in this way. We ourselves have done so in support of previous inquiries into the role of the probation service—which you will personally recall—and on the role of the prison officer. We can see no difference between these cases and this one.

We think in principle you were most ill-advised to use contacts received from interpreters to discourage court staff from participating in our forum. We would also take issue with the statement in the attached email saying that the Committee has been asked not to contact court staff. In fact, you refused to provide my Committee staff with contact details for courts. That is a different, though still regrettable, matter.

When we come to agree our draft Report we will consider the effects of this affair on our ability to assess the performance of Capita/ALS under the contract. You should be aware that we intend to publish this correspondence and to comment on the matter. If we come to the view that your actions have constituted a significant obstruction of our own work we may take further steps to seek to ensure that it does not happen again.

Prepared 4th February 2013