When participants in the justice system do not speak English as their first language, it is essential for justice that they are provided with interpretation services. The Ministry of Justice (the Ministry) provides translators and interpreters to defendants at particular stages of the justice process. Before January 2012, the Ministry generally booked interpretation services directly with individual interpreters, many of whom were listed on the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI). This approach was administratively inefficient; for example, individual Courts booked and paid interpreters separately. The Ministry decided to set up a new centralised system for procuring language services intending the new system to be better quality, cheaper and more efficient.
In August 2011, the Ministry signed a four year Framework Agreement for language services with Applied Language Solutions (ALS), under which all justice sector bodies could enter contracts with ALS. It expected the Framework Agreement to be worth up to £42 million a year. In October 2011, the Ministry signed a five year contract under the Framework Agreement which went live nationally on 30 January 2012. The Ministry expected the contract to cost £18 million a year. In December 2011, after the Ministry had signed its contract with ALS, ALS was acquired by Capita.
The Ministry was not an intelligent customer in procuring language services, despite the risks posed to the administration of justice and to the Ministry's reputation. It is not clear how consultations with interpreters in late 2009 fed into the process after the 2010 General Election. In one consultation, held in Cardiff in 2009, there were no more than 20 attendees and the question of who assessed interpreters was raised but there was no feedback. Yet this was one of the issues that caused problems with the contract when it was let. The Ministry started the process without basic management information on language services, including the cost of interpreters or what languages were required in which locations and at what notice. Its use of a competitive dialogue process meant that it selected a single national provider rather than using a number of regional providers which could have had a better chance of meeting demand.
The Ministry failed to undertake proper due diligence on ALS's winning bid. It did not heed financial and other advice that ALS was too small and would struggle to scale up to meet the Ministry's requirements in time. The Ministry also ignored strong opposition from the interpreter community. Interpretation is a specialised service. The procurement and later implementation might have been more effective had the strongly held views expressed by experienced interpreters and trade bodies during the Ministry's consultation been given greater weight. The contract did not include a strong enough incentive for ALS to meet the requirements of the contract right from the start. ALS was acquired by Capita just before the contract started.
The Ministry went live with the contract when Capita-ALS had only 280 interpreters, available to work under the contract, compared to the 1,200 that the Ministry estimated were required. Capita-ALS struggled to recruit interpreters and make them available. As a result, Capita-ALS used interpreters who had not been properly assessed as required by the contract and this impacted on the quality of service and the quality of justice in the courts The Ministry did not conduct a proper pilot or a phased roll-out to ensure a smooth transition.
When the contract went live, Capita-ALS only met 58% of bookings and there was a sharp rise in the number of ineffective trials due to problems with interpreters. Postponing proceedings and delays which resulted in individuals beign held in custody for longer periods creates an unnecessary extra cost to the Ministry. The Ministry was unable to quantify the additional cost to them of the failure. However Capita has only been fined £2,200 to date for failing to meet the terms of the contract.
Capita-ALS is now fulfilling more bookings, but it is still struggling to fulfil all and we are concerned that it may not be doing enough to recruit interpreters or to incentivise interpreters to take jobs in rare languages and covering all geographical locations. The Ministry cannot be sure that all interpreters working under the contract have the required skills, experience and character, partly because it is not yet inspecting Capita-ALS as it has the right to do under the contract. Too many courts are having to find their own interpreters which means that the purpose of the policy, to provide one centralised system, has not been met.
On the basis of a Memorandum by the Comptroller and Auditor General, we took evidence from the Ministry of Justice, Capita and the Association of Police and Court Interpreters.