The business secretary has been urged by a voluntary regulator for interpreters to take action over 'Wild West' conditions that have resulted in courts struggling to find suitably qualified linguists.
The National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI) raised concerns with Andrea Leadsom after Bolton-based Debonair Languages ceased operations last month. It was a subcontractor for Leeds-headquartered thebigword, which was awarded a Ministry of Justice contract in 2016.
The NRPSI said numerous registered interpreters are owed 'considerable' amounts of money. Interpreters were 'turning to thebigword for information only to be turned away and advised to take the issues with Debonair Languages' liquidators'.
The letter says: 'This is a horrifying case and the way interpreters have been treated is nothing short of contemptible. Sadly, however, it only serves to punctuate the ongoing poor treatment and unfair remuneration of qualified and experienced public service interpreters more generally due to inadequately written frameworks; the performance indicators set by the public services focusing on price and supply at the expense of quality; and the need for privately-owned language agencies to compete on price to win public sector language service contracts and then squeeze the fees they offer to interpreters to preserve their profit margins.'
'The result of this situation is to lower engagement fees to unacceptably low levels and foster the use of linguists who are not qualified interpreters, lesser qualified and even unqualified interpreters, and bilinguals who are willing to work for reduced fees.'
The NRPSI alleges that 'Wild West' conditions have led to public service language contracts 'being awarded on cost and supply considerations with no or inadequate quality demands'.
The NRPSI calls for mandatory standards for privately-owned language agencies providing public services 'to avoid future situations where other privately-owned agencies can be assigned as sub-contractors without effective oversight by either the public service or the principal agency'.
In a statement, thebigword said it did not accept the NRPSI's views: 'Interpreters provide a valuable service and the rates we offer to language professionals are among the most competitive across the industry and, as agreed in our contract, we make extra payments to interpreters according to the complexity, security and urgency of assignment and we have a travel mileage and travel time payment contribution policy for interpreters. thebigword works with a community of over 15,000 expert linguists and the community is growing strongly, with over 500 applications every month suggesting the work is attractive for linguists.
'As part of our ongoing partnership with the MoJ and the linguist community, we regularly carry out linguist-focused summits, and we review our service agreement to ensure it is fair. Linguists in our network are freelancers and have the option to accept or decline any job.'