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The Court Interpreting Fiasco Continues as Capita Agreement Is Branded 'Unsalvageable'

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As the old adage goes: if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

On Tuesday the Justice Select Committee (JC) held its first evidence-gathering session into the £300m court interpreting contract awarded to private translation firm Applied Language Solutions (ALS) by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). You can watch it here.

It's fair to say the contract, which came into play on February 1 this year, has been an unmitigated disaster. Morale in the court interpreting community is catastrophically low, with many highly-qualified and experienced interpreters drifting away from the profession in protest at slashed pay rates and what they see as a dangerous decline in the standard of court interpreting. A large number of interpreters continue to boycott the MoJ deal.

Rebranded as Capita Translation and Interpreting earlier this month, ALS's catalogue of errors is far too long to list exhaustively, but has included no-shows, providing interpreters with no court experience, and non-existent criminal background checks, with one man managing to register his cat as a qualified interpreter. While Capita insisted these were the inevitable "teething problems" encountered at the start of a new contract, the firm is still filling only 95% of bookings more than six months after the contract began.

The fact that bookings have levelled out at 95% - the MOJ's contract with Capita actually specifies they will meet 98% of bookings - is interesting in itself. Madeleine Lee, director of the Professional Interpreters' Alliance, suggested at the JC evidence session that, in cases that involve a long journey due to the lack of an available local translator, Capita bosses may be actively choosing to save money by paying the penalty fee for missing a session rather than stumping up for large rail fares.

While the number of bookings met has increased, serious problems remain. At the evidence-gathering session, the Law Society's criminal law committee chairman Richard Atkinson told of an arrested party with no prior criminal convictions being remanded into custody on three separate occasions as no interpreter had arrived to explain his bail conditions to him. Eventually police were forced to give up and release the man with no bail conditions set. Atkinson also told of a crown court trial delayed for a day, at the expense of thousands of pounds to the taxpayer, because no Albanian interpreters had been sourced.

All of which begs a simple question: why was the change made in the first place? In July a spokewoman for Capita told the Guardian:

The Ministry of Justice awarded the contract to ALS to address the weaknesses, lack of transparency and disproportionate costs of the previous service.

The idea that the new regime has fixed any of these factors is a joke. While John Fassenfelt, chairman of the Magistrates' Association, admitted the old system was far from flawless, he said he struggled to think of a single way it had improved since the Capita contract came into force. As for a lack of transparency, the new system has created a sizeable conflict of interest, with the same company now responsible for training, assessing and providing court interpreters. And as for "disproportionate costs" - the MoJ agreement has led to the collapse or delay of hundreds of trials, which will cost the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds.

So what was the drive behind the switch? The truth is that it seems to be yet another case of outsourcing on ideological grounds. The political credo of our times is clear: public sector, local, piecemeal = bad, private sector, multinational, overarching = good. It emerged last week that senior MoJ officials had failed to even read the credit report they commissioned, which warned ALS was too small to handle the full MoJ contract and should be given no more than £1m a year of business.

The decision to hand over the court interpreting contract to Capita is simply yet another example of the bull-headed belief that subcontracting out services to private firms always leads to a sleeker, more efficient service. The recent failures of ALS, back-to-work firm A4e and private security contractor G4S would suggest otherwise. Up in front of the Justice Select Committee next Tuesday is ALS founder and former CEO Gavin Wheeldon. He could be in for a bumpy ride.