Perhaps Crispin Blunt MP spent the first two weeks of February on holiday on the moon.
Maybe the justice minister was too busy perfecting that unnerving stare that gives him the air of a Stalinist henchman who’s been giving the task of breaking bad news to Uncle Joe. Whatever it was, he wasn’t listening to interpreters. How else to explain his extraordinary statement, made in a written answer in the House of Commons this week, that ‘ministers were made aware of difficulties with the service provided by Applied Language Solutions (ALS) on 14 February 2012’.
For those unaware, ALS is a private company that was awarded exclusive rights to supply interpreters to our courts and tribunals, starting on 1 February. The Valentine’s Day news may have come as a shock to Blunt and his chums in government, but the rest of us were miles ahead of them. In fact, excuse us blowing our own trumpet, but a glance at the Law Society Gazette on 9 February might have given him an inkling of the problem.
Sure, we tucked it away on the front page and gave it the cryptic headline of ‘Interpreting hub a false economy’, but surely someone at the Ministry of Justice could have picked it up? And, whilst this may surprise some regular commenters, we didn’t just fabricate the story either. Interpreters were coming to us in their droves to tell us how rotten this new system was. If anything the howls of protest have grown louder since.
Critics claim that ALS interpreters have failed to attend hearings and were ill-prepared for work in courts and tribunals. Trials are delayed or held back, and worst of all some defendants are being held at least an extra night whilst someone is found to tell them what they are being charged with.
Interpreters are right to claim theirs is an under-estimated skill. They are not mere translators; they are required to comprehend complex legal terms and package them in a way that is easy to understand. It seems like a lifetime ago that the government was trumpeting this translation service as a salvation, a chance to dispense of those profligate freelancers and save a cool £18m a year.
Blunt’s colleague Nick Herbert predicted a more ‘efficient and effective’ system that ensured high-quality interpreters. Perhaps it’s starting to sink in how difficult a task that will be.
Since the launch, ALS has re-written its expenses rates, courts have been given permission to appoint their own interpreters and the department itself has labeled the performance ‘unacceptable’. Quite when the £18m savings kick in we’re not sure.
ALS has to get its house in order, but it’s difficult to see how. Established interpreters say they are more likely to quit the profession than work for an agency, leaving a diminishing pool of potential workers. The only option will be to jack up pay rates, but with shareholders to satisfy (don’t forget, ALS is owned by Capita) the margin for manoeuvre is limited.
We should keep in mind this is a contract in its infancy. The company and its governmental overlord have time to get this right and we should give them the benefit of the doubt for now. For all the criticism encircling it, ALS as a company has been open with us about the issues it faces and insists that performance has already improved significantly.
But the prospect of a smooth-running interpreting service is currently as much a triumph of hope as expectation. If there is no obvious turnaround by the summer, drastic action may be required. But for that we’re relying on a department that couldn’t even detect discontent on the issue for two weeks.
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