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Ministry of Justice interpreter contract ‘caused total chaos’

By Vivienne Russell | 14 December 2012

MPs have slammed the Ministry of Justice’s procurement of a £42m contract to provide a national interpretation service for courts, which was unable to meet demand and led to an increase in delayed and abandoned trials.

The Public Accounts Committee said the ministry was not an ‘intelligent customer’ as it did not understand its own requirements for interpretation services, such as how many interpreters were needed, in what languages and locations, and at what cost.

In October 2011, the MoJ signed a five-year contract with Applied Language Solutions, a relatively small, regionally-based company that was acquired by Capita in December 2011. The contract went live nationally on January 30 2012.

But ALS had only 280 interpreters on its books rather than the projected 1,200. It was able to meet only 58% of bookings against a target of 98%.

‘The result was total chaos,’ PAC chair Margaret Hodge said, publishing her committee’s findings today.

‘Court officials have had to scramble to find qualified interpreters at short notice; there has been a sharp rise in delayed, postponed and abandoned trial; individuals have been kept on remand solely because not interpreter was available; and the quality of interpreters has at times been appalling.’

Hodge noted that Capita-ALS had been fined only a ‘risible’ £2,200. ‘This is an object lesson in how not to contract out a public service,’ she said.

The PAC criticised the MoJ for failing to give adequate weight to the views of interpreters themselves who had serious concerns about the contract. Many expressed strong opposition and said they would not work for ALS, which was proposing to pay them much lower rates.

The ministry also failed to heed advice that warned the company was too small to fulfil the demands of the contract, would struggle to scale up in time and should only be given contracts up to a value of £1m.

Rather than being rolled out in one go, the contract should have first been piloted or phased in gradually, the committee said.

Although Capita-ALS is now fulfilling more bookings, the PAC said it was still struggling to fulfil all of them and too many courts were having to find their own interpreters, defeating the purpose of the contract.

‘We are concerned that it many not be doing enough to recruit interpreters or to incentivise interpreters to take jobs I rare languages and covering all geographical locations,’ the MPs said.

‘The ministry cannot be sure that all interpreters working under the contract have the required skills, experience and character, partly because it is not yet inspecting Capita-ALS as it has the right to do under the contract.’

Responding to the PAC’s concerns, justice minister Helen Grant said: ‘The Ministry of Justice had strong reasons to change the old interpreter booking system, which the National Audit Office acknowledged was inadequate in several respects and which the Public Accounts Committee accepts was administratively inefficient.

‘We have now seen a major improvement in performance, complaints have fallen dramatically and we are continuing to push for further action. We remain confident the contract will make the expected saving of £15m a year for the Ministry of Justice.’

A statement from ALS-Capita, now trading as Capita Translation and Interpreting, said 95% of bookings were now being fulfulled.

It added: ‘We acknowledge that, as with the old system, there have been challenges but we are determined to get the service running at full efficiency, providing transparency of opportunity for linguists and fully supporting the MoJ, police and court service.  The overall objective remains to work in partnership with the MoJ to ensure that a more efficient and effective service is in place than previous arrangements.’

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