Saturday, 26 January 2013


Another immigration-related mess that Capita has been implicated in recently was the court interpreters contract. In December 2011, Capita acquired Applied Language Solutions Ltd (ALS) for £7.5 million on a cash-free, debt-free basis, with a further “contingent consideration” of up to £60 million over four years.
In August 2011, ALS was awarded a £300 million national contract with the UK Ministry of Justice to run a new Framework Agreement for the provision of all translation and interpreting services to the ministry. The agreement has been in effect since February 2012.
In the first month of the four-year monopoly deal, the company only fulfilled 58 per cent of service requests – against a target of 98 per cent – and received 2,232 complaints in the first quarter of the year. Media reports at the time talked of “courtroom chaos” as court proceedings were being held up or collapsing because interpreters had not shown up or did not have the necessary competence (see here, for example).
Giving evidence to the Commons justice select committee, the former CEO of ALS, Gavin Wheeldon, blamed the failures on interpreters' “resistance” to the new working conditions. According to one survey, up to 90% of the 1,206 interpreters who worked for ALS under the old system boycotted the new regime because they were unhappy with the dramatic pay cuts and poor travel expenses under the new arrangements.
Capita claims there have been “many recent improvements to the terms and conditions with which we offer interpreters who wish to work with us within the Criminal Justice Sector.” The current rates the company pays are £22 per hour for Tier 1 (specialist, such as those used by courts), £20 per hour for Tier 2, and £16 per hour for Tier 3. But this is still below the standard acceptable rates (see the UKBA's already-low rates, for example).
Mr Wheeldon admitted his company had relied on “extrapolated” figures to draw up its plans for the MoJ contract but blamed the “serious lack of management information” from the court service about its needs. However, when the new system started, out of the 1,200 specialist interpreters promised, only 280 were available.
The contract, seen by Corporate Watch, states that the contractor, ALS, “shall be responsible for the accuracy of all drawings, documentation and information supplied to the Authority by the Contractor in connection with the supply of the Goods or Services and shall pay the Authority any extra costs occasioned by any discrepancies, errors or omissions therein.”
At a Public Accounts Committee hearing in October 2012, it emerged that senior MoJ officials had not read the credit rating report that they themselves had commissioned, which warned the ministry not to award more than £1 million a year of business to ALS because the company was “too small” to shoulder bigger contracts. The framework agreement is worth £42 million a year.
It is understood that all face-to-face interpreting and document translation are provided by Applied Language Solutions itself, while sign language and telephone interpreting are outsourced to two separate subcontractors.
Inefficiencies and savings
The MoJ claims the contract with ALS will save it £15 million a year. Similarly, Capita boasts that the framework agreement “has been designed to be more efficient and will provide users and taxpayers with a better, more effective service over the term of the contract.” Other 'benefits' cited by the company include a single pricing matrix, one point of contact to book services, and a uniform measurement of service usage. The question is: What is exactly meant by 'efficiency' and how are these 'savings' made?
Following Capita's acquisition of ALS in December 2011 – which has now been re-branded as Capita Translation and Interpreting and forms a new stand-alone business within the Capita Group – there was a systematic programme of “restructuring and change” taking place behind the scenes. Capita claims this was to supply frontline staff with the “help” they need so that they work “more efficiently and effectively, while allowing departments across the public sector to save money.”
But as we have seen with numerous other private restructuring programmes, in the world of privatisation and outsourcing, efficiency means cutting any 'extra' costs, primarily labour costs. Thus, Capita's “reducing operational inefficiencies” in its new translation business simply meant cutting down on staff, wages, other staff expenses such as transport, social security and so on. The impact on the quality of public services is almost always similar to what we have seen with the court interpreters.
In its Tender Response, ALS promised the MoJ the following: “Our business model is tried and trusted and has delivered significant cost savings to a number of existing customers within the [ministry].” And this is how they did it: the introduction of a “more competitive national environment amongst the interpreters” by abolishing the three-hour minimum payment and only charging for the “actual work done.” “Interpreters that want to make a real career within this sector,” the document adds, “have been extremely flexible, understanding the new economic environment and pushing themselves forward for more professional development and more assignments.”
The company then sites as evidence its “tried and tested methods” used with police forces, which have allegedly delivered “dramatic cost savings and value for money across the board.” These include hourly rate reductions; abolishing the three-hour minimum for interpreting assignments and replacing it with a one-hour minimum, then charging by the minute after the first hour (or by the second with telephone interpreting and by word with translation); lower travels expenses; and technological alternatives to face-to-face interpreting (machine translation, for example).
Interestingly, ALS had anticipated “negative media coverage” of its contract with MoJ: “The UK press may report the annual spend on language services and can report, under the Freedom of Information Act, on payments made to suppliers of these services.” So the cautious company warns the ministry: “It is therefore essential that an agreement statement be in place to use in response to any questions around this topic, which will communicate the efficiencies that the framework agreement will deliver and in turn how these will equate to genuine cost savings for the MoJ.”
Another anticipated risk was the “potential lack of interpreter engagement”: “In the Northwest, we have encountered a group of interpreters who have attempted to resist the outsourcing by the Police Services and have refused to accept assignments via Applied Language Solutions or any other agency.” But it goes on to reassure the ministry: “We do not envisage this causing any problems for the provision of the contract” because, “through targeted recruitment and sponsorship of linguist training, we have fully mitigated this problem.”
The other aim of Capita's taking over ALS, which had just won the MoJ contract, appears to be establishing a near-monopoly in the public interpreting and translation services market. This, in turn, would make the introduction of drastic measures, such as those mentioned above, easier for the company, as there would not be many competitors that unhappy staff could switch to.
Indeed, according to Capita, the 'contingent consideration' of extending the ALS acquisition deal to £60 million over four years is based on “ALS achieving growth targets in line with the successful roll-out of the MoJ contract and greater penetration of the UK language services market.” In a press release, Capita Group's chief executive said at the time: “By combining ALS's specialist skills and proprietary technology with Capita's operational expertise and balance sheet, we believe that this will allow us to become a very strong player in the language services industry. There are excellent opportunities for organic growth both in the UK and internationally.”
ALS had made an operating loss of £0.3 million in the financial year to May 2011, on turnover of £10.6m.
Contractual matters
Given that the MoJ contract with ALS resulted in “total chaos’’ while providing an “appalling” service, to quote the Commons public accounts committee's report on the fiasco, have any remedial measures been taken by the MoJ against the company?
The framework agreement, seen by Corporate Watch, states that the contractor “shall employ at all times a sufficient number of Contractor’s Personnel to fulfil its obligations under the Contract. All Contractor’s Personnel shall possess the qualifications and competence appropriate to the tasks for which they are employed.” This was clearly not the case, at least in the first few months of the contract, by the company's own admission.
Under 'Particular Conditions' attached to the contract, this is emphasised again: “The Contractor will recruit sufficient numbers of interpreters/translators to provide 24-hour cover 365 days per year. The Authority [the MoJ] cannot guarantee the volume of Service requirements under this Contract.”
In other clauses of the agreement, the contractor should have taken “reasonable care to ensure that in the performance of its obligations under the Contract it does not disrupt the operations of the Authority, its employees or any other contractor employed by the Authority” and should have “satisfied itself that it has sufficient information to ensure that it can provide the Goods or Services” – these being the “timely supply” of interpreters and translators in accordance with the “quality standards” specified in the agreement.
Now, if the contractor failed to provide these services, or provided them inadequately, the agreement states that the MoJ may reduce payment, deduct a sum of money from any scheduled payment due to the contractor or terminate the whole contract. The latter requires the authority to be “of the reasonable opinion” that the contractor is “in default” or “material breach” of the contract and has not “remedied the default to the satisfaction of the Authority within 10 working days” (or such other period specified by the authority). Alternatively, the authority may supply or procure the services somewhere else until the contractor “has demonstrated to the reasonable satisfaction of the Authority that the Contractor will once more be able to supply all or such part of the Services in accordance with the Contract.” The MoJ does not appear to have had the will to take any of these measures.
As far as Corporate Watch is aware, ALS, or Capita Translation and Interpreting, has only been fined £2,200 for “disrupted services.” No other penalties have apparently been levied against the company during the first few months of the contract, when disruption was at its worst. Both Capita and the MoJ declined to confirm or deny whether this is the case.
Furthermore, it can be argued that knowingly disrupting court services for private interest is tantamount to contempt of court. The legal definition of 'contempt of court' covers a wide variety of conduct which undermines, or has the potential to undermine, the course of justice and the procedures designed to deal with it.
According to the public accounts select committee, ALS knew it was “clearly incapable of delivering” the MoJ contract, and when Capita took over ALS in late 2011, it “had no hope of recruiting enough qualified interpreters in time to start the service.” Shouldn't the company and its new owner be held responsible for this?
In its Tender Response submitted to the MoJ, ALS had claimed that 2,500 of its 4,500 registered freelance interpreters were “suitably experienced and qualified” for the MoJ's needs, and promised its criminal justice services team would “expand considerably to accommodate the requirements of the framework agreement.” It even proposed a service that would “exceed all the key deliverables demanded by the Authority.” It turns out that many of the 'available' interpreters had merely registered an interest on the company's website and had not been subject to any official checks as to whether they possessed the required skills and experience.
Then, there are the 'lessons' learnt by government and the assurances that things have now 'improved'. The justice minister Helen Grant had this to tell us in December 2012: “We have now seen a major improvement in performance – more than 95 per cent of bookings are now being filled, complaints have fallen dramatically and we are continuing to push for further improvement.” Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the public accounts committee, said: “This is an object-lesson in how not to contract out a public service.” Similar lessons were supposedly learnt in the aftermath of the G4S Olympics shambles last year.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Interpreters join forces across Sussex as cuts hit their income

Interpreters join forces across Sussex as cuts hit their income
Hundreds of official interpreters in Sussex are mounting a campaign against cuts to hourly fees.
Some 400 people across the county who act as translators for the NHS, councils and other public bodies have this week formed the Association of Community Interpreting Standards, officially launched at Eastbourne town hall.
The aim is to raise the profile of their work and to highlight a crisis in their profession – the pressure to cut their hourly pay rates, in some cases by almost half.
They say the pressure to reduce costs comes from budget cuts in the public sector and increased competition between big translation and interpreting companies.
Translator Ali Akbar, from Brighton, is one of the founding members of the association.
He said: “We appreciate that councils and the NHS are facing serious cuts – but as community interpreters we feel that we offer a vital service to very vulnerable people.
“We do more than translate, we also help people to make crucial decisions about their lives in a culture they’re not familiar with.
Pay eroded
“It’s very depressing to see how our pay is being eroded. Three years ago I could expect to earn between £26 and £30 an hour, with travel expenses paid on top of that.
“Now I can be asked to do an hour’s interpreting for as little as £16 an hour with no travel expenses.
“Once I’ve taken away time and money for travel I can end up earning about £3 an hour.”
Other work carried out by community interpreters can range from helping their client’s family to finding the right school or translating clauses of a tenancy agreement.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Mandarin interpreter "failed to arrive at court" 
23 January 2013 

[…] "However, a Mandarin interpreter failed to arrive at court to assist Zhuang and the case was adjourned for three weeks."

MPs ‘very concerned’ after official e-mail reveals government gag over interpreter ‘fiasco’ 
23 January 2013

MPs ‘very concerned’ after official e-mail reveals government gag over interpreter ‘fiasco’
Court officials were ordered not to give evidence to MPs for an inquiry into translation services, Exaro can reveal.
The Ministry of Justice faces accusations of attempting to block the parliamentary inquiry into the supply of interpreters to courts after issuing the instruction in an e-mail obtained by Exaro. It has also blocked magistrates from supplying crucial data to the inquiry.
The ministry official responsible for interpreter services for courts sent the e-mail in October to local managers in HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS).
It reveals that the ministry told the House of Commons justice committee “not to contact our staff directly” to gather evidence.
The committee set up an online forum in October to enable court staff and others to give details of their experiences with interpreter services.
It is investigating repeated reports of problems since Applied Language Solutions (ALS) became the ministry’s sole contractor for translation services in courts. ALS is part of Capita Group, the outsourcing giant.
But the ministry told managers at HMCTS, an agency of the department, to warn staff not to help the inquiry.
The ministry’s e-mail said: “We have already asked the committee not to contact our staff directly in this regard, but we are now aware that individual interpreters are e-mailing our staff and encouraging them to participate.
“We are very clear that this is not appropriate, and would be grateful if you could cascade advice to your staff that they should not engage with these approaches, as the ministry has already provided its evidence to the committee.”
The ministry then provided a form of words to use to warn court clerks and other staff against helping the investigation: “You may be aware that the justice committee is currently investigating the interpreter-services contract that we have with Applied Language Solutions/Capita.
“You may be contacted by interpreters inviting/encouraging you to join a forum where anecdotal information about this service is being gathered.
“As the department has already provided consolidated evidence to the committee you are requested to refrain from participating, or engaging with the interpreters who approach you in this way.”
MPs on the committee have complained to Helen Grant, justice minister with responsibility for the courts, about what they see as the obstruction of their inquiry.
Sir Alan Beith, Liberal Democrat MP and chairman of the committee, told Exaro that he is “very concerned” about the ministry’s attempts to undermine the online forum aimed at “reticent witnesses”.
He said: “The committee has used this process successfully in the past without any objection from the department, notably in its online consultation with prison officers.”
Madeleine Lee, a court interpreter and Dutch translator (pictured above, second from the left on the front row), obtained the e-mail under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Exaro revealed in November how the ministry was blocking magistrates from supplying crucial data to the justice committee’s inquiry into translation services for courts.
The disclosure prompted the committee to seek an explanation from Grant.
Lee said that she was pleased to have the evidence of the ministry’s order as revealed in the e-mail, saying: “Interpreters obviously suspected it for a long time, because we knew anecdotally from the court staff that they were not allowed to talk to us, or about us.”
A ministry spokesman said that the e-mail “was in line with the rules that govern civil servants’ conduct.”
“We disagree that following established rules on these matters can be described as ‘gagging’ staff.”
A further FOIA response to interpreters revealed that the government has temporarily lifted the monopoly on court interpreting.
It said: “The department does not have currently have procedures in place to monitor qualifications or Criminal Records Bureau where interpreters are engaged through other agencies.”
“As a temporary measure, for short-notice bookings, HM Courts and Tribunals Service uses interpreters from companies other than ALS.”