Friday 14 December 2012 by Catherine Baksi
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has exposed the full failings of the Ministry of Justice's contract for court interpreters, branding it 'an object lesson in how not to contract out a public service'.
A report published today details the flaws in the procurement process and operation of the contract awarded to Applied Language Solutions (Applied) in August 2011 for the provision of court interpreters across England and Wales.
The ministry signed a five-year deal with Applied, worth around £42m a year. It expected to save around £18m a year in interpretation services.
But after the contract began, Applied was unable to provide a sufficient number of interpreters to fulfil the need, which lead to delays and adjournments in courts. The company was initially only able to meet 58% of bookings against a target of 98%. Six months into the contract it was still failing to meet its target fulfilling 89% of jobs.
The news of the chaos created was broken by the Gazette in February.
Despite the poor performance, the MoJ levied a financial penalty on Applied, which was bought by Capita in December 2011, of £2,200, a sum that PAC chair Margaret Hodge described as 'risible'.
The report followed an inquiry by the committee into the contract, during which it heard evidence from MoJ, Capita and the Association of Police and Court Interpreters.
Its damning findings catalogue the failings of the MoJ, which it says 'was not an intelligent customer' in procuring language services, despite the risks posed to the administration of justice and to the ministry's reputation.
Among the criticisms, the committee says that the ministry started the process 'without basic management information on language services', including the cost of interpreters or what languages were required in which locations and at what notice.
It failed to undertake proper due diligence on Applied's winning bid, and did not heed financial and other advice that Applied was too small a company to be able to deliver the contract.
The contract did not include a strong enough incentive for Applied to meet the requirements of the contract right from the start.
The committee criticises the ministry for ignoring strong opposition to the contract from the interpreter community, many of whom refused to work for Applied, and suggests that some of the problems could have reduced had greater weight been given to their views.
When the contract went live, Applied had only 280 interpreters available to work, compared to the 1,200 that the MoJ estimated were required, and as a result it used interpreters who had not been properly assessed as required by the contract.
The report criticises the ministry for not conducing a proper pilot or a phased roll-out of the contract to ensure smooth implementation. Although Applied is now fulfilling more bookings, the committee says it is still struggling to fulfil all of them.
It says that 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 Applied, as it has the right to do under the contract.
The report says: 'Too many courts are having to find their own interpreters, which means that the purpose of the policy, to provide one centralised system, has not been met.'
Commenting, Hodge said: 'Interpretation services are vital for ensuring fair access to justice. Yet when the MoJ set out to establish a new centralised system for supplying interpreters to the justice system, almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong.'
She said the ministry awarded a contract to a company that was 'clearly incapable' of delivering it and had 'no hope' of recruiting enough qualified interpreters in time to start the service.
'The result was total chaos. Court officials have had to scramble to find qualified interpreters at short notice; there has been a sharp rise in delayed, postponed and abandoned trials; individuals have been kept on remand solely because no interpreter was available; and the quality of interpreters has at times been appalling,' said Hodge.
'Despite this, the ministry has only penalised the supplier a risible £2,200, she said, and added: 'This is an object-lesson in how not to contract out a public service.'
Responding to the report, justice minister Helen Grant said: 'The ministry had strong reasons to change the old interpreter booking system, which the National Audit Office acknowledged was inadequate in several respects and which the PAC 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 MoJ.'
The full report can be read on the committee's website.