The Ministry of Justice’s deal for the central procurement of court interpreters has now been the subject of three damning reports. The National Audit Office (NAO), the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and most recently the Justice Committee have criticised almost every aspect of the flawed procurement process and contract management.

The PAC concluded that the MoJ ‘was not an intelligent customer’. It described the exercise as ‘an object lesson in how not to contract out a public service’.

Here are some snippets from the three reports:

- Lack of understanding of the service the MoJ was buying:

The MoJ did not have a sufficient understanding of the complexities of court interpreting work prior to initiating the procurement of a new service. (JC)

It started the process ‘without basic management information on language services’, including the cost of interpreters or what languages were required in which location and at what notice. (PAC)

- Weak due diligence

All three reports highlighted weaknesses in the department’s due diligence and risk mitigation procedures.

A financial report commissioned by the ministry advised that Applied Language Solutions, the company awarded the contract, was too small to be given any business worth more than £1m a year. Despite this, the MoJ went ahead and gave Applied a contract worth an estimated £90m over five years.

‘The ministry failed to undertake proper due diligence on [Applied’s] winning bid. It did not heed financial and other advice that [Applied] was too small and would struggle to scale up to meet the Ministry's requirements in time.’ (JC)

- Failure to listen to warnings from interpreters

During the consultation process, interpreters raised concerns over the quality of interpreters used by Applied, due to the low fee rates, and training and accreditation standards.

The MoJ ‘did not give sufficient weight to the concerns and dissatisfaction that many interpreters expressed.’ (NAO)

The ministry ‘ignored strong opposition from the interpreter community… 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.’ (JC)

‘The MoJ and its contractor appear to have buried their heads in the sand. Many of the concerns that interpreters raised regarding the nature of the new operating model were realised during implementation, were utterly predictable, and should have been properly considered from the outset.’ ( JC)

‘The MoJ was, at best, naïve to view the new arrangements simply as an "outsourced booking process". Interpreters had repeatedly raised significant concerns about the new terms and conditions under which they were expected to work.’ (JC)

- Failure to ensure the standards of interpreters:

‘Applied did not make it clear to the MoJ that the three-tier system for interpreters had not been supported by the independent expert it had consulted. The department has sanctioned, untested, a tiering system that imposes major changes to professional occupational standards and has significant potential to undermine the progress that has been made in professional development and resulting improvements in the quality of interpreting services provided in the justice sector.’ (JC)

‘The ministry was unable to confirm that all interpreters working under the contract had the required qualifications, experience and enhanced CRB checks.’ (PAC)

During its inquiry the PAC was given written evidence that revealed the lax vetting processes in operation – interpreters were able to register fake names with obviously fictitious contact details. One person even registered a rabbit, another a cat. The committee heard that some fictitious recruits were offered work by Applied, without having been vetted.

- Terminology misunderstandings:

Evidence given to the PAC showed that basic mistakes were made during the contract process. NAO director Aileen Murphie said that at the start of the contract the MoJ and Applied had different understandings of what it meant for an interpreter to be ‘registered’. The MoJ thought it meant that they were fully accredited, vetted and ready to work, while Applied used it to mean interpreters who had registered an interest in working for them.

This in part is the reason why the contract went live with only 280 interpreters ready to work, out of the estimated 1,200 required.

The MoJ’s director general of finance and corporate services, Ann Beasley, reassured the committee: ‘I think we have learned a number of lessons from this contract. In particular, we have made sure that we get the terminology right, so that we understand the same things as the suppliers.’

- Contract fulfillment and fines:

In the first week of the contracted arrangements, Applied (which had by then been bought by Capita and was trading as Capita Translation and Interpreting) fulfilled 40% of requests made to it, rising to 65% in the first month. By November fulfillment rates had risen to 95%, still short of the 98% target. More than 2,000 complaints were received in the first quarter of operation, comprising 13% of assignments that the company fulfilled.

Despite this, Applied/Capita TI has received a financial penalty of only £1,100.

The reports found that the contract did not include a strong enough incentive for Applied to meet the requirements of the contract right from the start.

Beasley told the justice committee that it is not unusual to take a couple of months to get up to service levels in new contracts, indicating that the MoJ would not seek to implement penalty clauses within that time.

Peter Hancock, chief executive of HMCTS, told the committee ‘the level of penalties that may be deployed under the contract are very small in any event’.

The lack of financial penalty for failing to meet service levels seems to send out a dangerous message to businesses looking to make a fast buck.

The errors made in this contract have caused delay and expense for the courts, with trials and hearing adjourned and defendants needlessly detained in custody.

Aside for the risks to the fairness of trials and waste of public money, the mistakes made are especially worrying because of the ministry’s declared intention of entering more much larger and more complicated contracts with the private sector – in relation to the probation service and the rehabilitation of offenders. A fact that was not lost on the two commons committees.

After the MoJ’s ‘shambolic’ handling of the court interpreter contract, can it really be trusted to outsource more services to the private sector?

Catherine Baksi is a reporter on the Gazette

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