The outsourcing giant contracted to provide court interpreting services has failed to hit its performance targets after two years, a report by the public spending watchdog reveals today.

The National Audit Office’s second report on the Ministry of Justice’s contract for language services finds that Capita has not met its 98% performance target since the contract came in to effect on 30 January 2012.

The NAO found progress has been made in implementing many of the recommendations made by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in its damning December 2012 report. However, it says a number of areas remain where the ministry and Capita still need to improve. 
In line with the PAC’s recommendations, the report notes that the ministry is now performing audit checks of the security status of interpreters and on some data generated by Capita.

In addition, it says the number of interpreters available to work under the contract has increased ‘significantly’. From the start of the contract the number available has risen 102% from 1,365 to 2,705 in November 2013.

But the NAO laments that the ministry has been slow to implement some of the PAC's recommendations. A new assessment system for interpreters has not been implemented and an independent review of quality standards has not yet been performed.

The report shows the ministry has penalised Capita for its poor performance, claiming back the maximum contractually allowed after the first three months of the contract. In total the ministry reclaimed £46,139 between May 2012 and November 2013.

In addition to the financial penalties imposed by the ministry, judges have made 11 wasted costs orders totalling £7,229 against Capita.

The ministry initially estimated the contract would save £18m a year from its bill for interpreting services. It was forced to provide extra money to enable Capita to increase its rates of pay in order to secure interpreters. The ministry now estimates that the contract will save £13m in 2013-14.

The contract springs from a framework agreement signed by the MoJ in August 2011, worth an estimated £90m over five years, with a small company called Applied Language Solutions which was subsequently purchased by Capita.  

The aim of the contract was to improve the efficiency of the service and to save money, but as the NAO points out, once it became operational it ‘immediately faced difficulties’.

Performance statistics published by the ministry this month show that from 30 January 2012 to 30 September 2013, Capita received 237,700 requests for interpreters.

The number of requests rose in each quarter since the start of the contract, with 23% more requests in quarter three of 2013 than in the previous year.

They show Capita fulfilled the requests for an interpreter in Q3 of 2013 in 94% of cases, up on the 87% completed in the previous quarter, but still below its 98% contractual performance target. 

From 30 January 2012 to 30 September 2013, 11,100 complaints were recorded relating to completed requests - 5,700 in 2012, and 5,400 in the first three quarters of 2013. Complaints related to the lack or availability, lateness and poor performance.

Complaint volumes increased to 2,150 in Q1 2013 – a high since the contract began – before decreasing to 2,000 in Q2 2013 and again to 1,300 in Q3 2013. 

The overall complaint rate decreased from a complaint relating to 6% of completed requests in Q1 2013, down to 5% of completed requests in Q2 2013 and to 3% of requests in Q3 2013. 

The falling number of complaints in Q2 and Q3 2013 coincided with improvement in fulfilment rate after travel payments were increased. In the first two quarters of 2013, around 60% of complaints related to interpreters not being available. 

The data also shows a fall in the number of off-contract bookings in the third quarter of 2013 compared with the second quarter, when the MoJ first collected the data.

The Gazette first flagged up concerns over the contract in February 2012. Since then it has been the subject of two reports, form the NAO and the Public Accounts Committee, criticising the contract's procurement process, performance and management.

Responding to the report, justice minister Shailesh Vara said: ‘I am pleased that the National Audit Office has recognised the significant progress made — we have seen dramatic improvements over the life of the contract so far, record numbers of bookings are now being made and fulfilled, complaint levels are very low and we continue to drive further improvement.’

Vara said: ‘It is important to remember that the new interpreting contract was introduced to tackle the inefficiencies and inconsistencies in the previous system — and it has already saved taxpayers £15m in its first year.’

The chairman of the PAC Margaret Hodge said: ‘Whilst I am pleased that progress has been made on implementing many of our recommendations, I am unimpressed that over a year later, Capita are still not meeting their target of fulfilling 98% of bookings.'

Andy Slaughter MP (pictured), shadow justice minister, said: ‘It is predictable but depressing that two years after Capita took over court interpreting and translating services they’ve still not got the basics right.' 

Based on this experience, Slaughter questioned how the ministry could be trusted to organise its planned contracts for prison and probation outsourcing.

Law Society chief executive Desmond Hudson said: 'The Ministry’s slow response in implementing the recommendations of the Public Accounts Committee and Capita’s poor performance in delivering the interpreters contract is a  cause for concern.
'Delays caused by non-attending, late or poorly trained interpreters have serious consequences for the efficiency of the whole criminal justice system and for defence solicitors in particular who already face the brunt of waste elsewhere in the system, ranging from prisoner transport failings to bad court planning.
'If a defence solicitor showed the same level of errors and failures as Capita has, their contract would have been be terminated. Is this a case of one rule for Capita and a different one for everyone else?'.