Wednesday 06 February 2013 by Catherine Baksi
The Ministry of Justice's outsourcing of court interpreter services was 'nothing short of shambolic' according to a highly critical report from the House of Commons Justice Committee, which questions whether the deal is 'financially sustainable'.
The report, published today, also condemns the MoJ's actions in seeking to prevent court staff from taking part in the committee's inquiry, which it said 'may have constituted a contempt'. It reveals that the cross party committee 'gave serious consideration' to asking the house to pursue the matter.
The Justice Committee's appraisal is the third damning report into the procurement and performance of the contract, granted to Applied Language Solutions under a four-year framework agreement that began last January.
It is being boycotted by large numbers of interpreters due to concerns over fees and standards. Applied was bought by Capita in December 2011 and now operates as Capita Translation and Interpreting (Capita TI).
The committee echoes the concerns of the two previous reports, by the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee, over the weakness in the ministry's due diligence and risk mitigation procedures.
'This is a cause for concern at a time when the same department is likely to be responsible for a large complex centralised commissioning programme for implementing the rehabilitation revolution,' it says.
'Significant concerns' that quality standards would be reduced under the contract were revealed during the MoJ's consultation process, but it pushed ahead and 'failed to properly anticipate or address' the potential for problems with Applied's capacity to deliver on its promises.
Committee chair Liberal Democrat Sir Alan Beith said the department 'did not have an adequate understanding of the needs of courts, it failed to heed warnings from the professionals concerned, and it did not put sufficient safeguards in place to prevent interruptions in the provision of quality interpreting services to courts. The MoJ's handling of the outsourcing of court interpreting services has been nothing short of shambolic.'
The committee reports that the new arrangements faced 'immediate operational difficulties' as Applied and then Capita TI were unable to recruit enough qualified and experienced interpreters. In the first week, Applied/Capita TI fulfilled 40% of requests made to it, rising to 65% in the first month, against a 98% target.
More than 2,000 complaints were received in the first quarter of operation, comprising 13% of assignments that the company fulfilled.
Where interpreters were available, they were 'frequently' without qualifications or under-qualified, the committee reports. 'This has resulted in numerous hearings being adjourned or severely delayed and, in criminal cases, unnecessary remands into custody, with potential implications for the interests of justice,' the report says.
'The evidence shows that [Capita TI] failed to deliver on many aspects of the agreement and did not implement appropriate safeguards to ensure that the interpreters it provided were of sufficient standard,' said Beith.
In addition, the report finds that the company 'paid lip service' to the regulatory duties accepted under the framework agreement, and did not have the capacity to cope with complaints or to implement basic vetting procedures.
The committee accepts that there were 'clear administrative inefficiencies' with the previous arrangements, but says 'there do not appear to have been any fundamental problems with the quality of services, where they were properly sourced'.
It concedes that steps taken by the MoJ, Applied and Capita TI have improved performance, with fulfilment rates up to 95% in November. However it points out that not all court interpreter jobs are provided under the contract. 'Performance figures clearly do not reflect the company's fulfilment against 100% of the requirements of HMCTS and they should be altered, retrospectively and in the future, to indicate this.'
The report notes that the MoJ has had to monitor the contractor closely to secure the level of improvement necessary.
The committee suggests that the contract, which is being 'propped up' by Capita, may 'not be financially sustainable'. By the end of October Capita had invested £5.4m to help improve the service, and the company made no profit in the first year of the deal.
During its inquiry, the committee invited observations on the performance from 'frontline staff'. HMCTS issued an edict instructing its staff not to participate.
The committee condemned the MoJ's actions, which it said 'hampered the inquiry'.
The report says: 'The committee considers that the actions of the ministry in this case may have constituted a contempt of the house, but as it received sufficient evidence from other sources to make a reliable judgement, it has not asked the house to take further action on this matter,' though it gave 'serious consideration' to doing so.