Amendment 280

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - Committee (10th Day) – in the House of Lords at 7:15 pm on 22nd November 2021.

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Baroness Coussins:

Moved by Baroness Coussins

280: After Clause 170, insert the following new Clause—“Spoken word interpreters: minimum standardsSpoken word interpreters appointed to a court or tribunal must—(a) be registered on the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (“NRPSI”),(b) possess a Level 6 Diploma in Public Service Interpreting, or comply with NRPSI Rare Language Status protocols, and(c) have completed the requisite number of hours’ experience of court interpreting commensurate with the category of case complexity, as agreed by the Secretary of State in conjunction with relevant professional bodies.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would establish minimum standards for qualifications and experience for interpreters in courts and tribunals, along the lines of the Police Approved Interpreters Scheme.

Photo of Baroness Coussins Baroness Coussins Crossbench

My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds, the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, and my noble friend Lord Pannick for adding their names to my amendment. I am sorry that my noble friend has had to leave for another commitment, but he wanted me to confirm that he planned to speak in support of this amendment. I declare my interests as a co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages and the vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Linguists.

The purpose of this amendment is to establish in law

“minimum standards for qualifications and experience” of those appointed to act as interpreters in Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service. For the avoidance of doubt, let me clarify that, for the purposes of this amendment, I am referring only to spoken word interpreters, not sign language interpreters.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, for meeting me earlier in the year to discuss this and related issues. I very much hope that the Minister replying tonight will be able to facilitate another meeting between me, other interested parties and the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, between now and Report to look at my proposals more precisely. Obviously, my best-case scenario is the Government accepting my amendment or coming back on Report with a better-worded version to achieve the same, or a closely similar, end.

I will not repeat the detailed case that I set out at Second Reading. I will simply summarise the way in which the appointment of court interpreters as it is currently organised, using the Ministry of Justice’s register and delivered via outsourced private companies, is inadequate—often seriously so, leading at best to mistakes and, at worst, to miscarriages of justice. It is an easy way for fake interpreters to present themselves. Too often, hearings need to be abandoned and expensively rescheduled, sometimes with defendants on remand for longer—all at public expense.

My objective is to strengthen the MoJ register for interpreters, thereby improving the quality and administration of justice. I will explain each of the three elements of my proposed minimum standards in a little more detail, starting with the second, which relates to the qualifications that a court interpreter should have. I am sure all noble Lords would agree that, if they were having heart surgery or even having their tonsils out, they would expect the surgeon to have more than a GCSE in biology. If they were passengers in an aeroplane, they would not expect the pilot just to have a geography degree and know roughly which way was south. They would not expect their car to be serviced by a mechanic whose only proven competence was in the use of a tin opener. Yet you can get on to the MoJ’s register of approved interpreters simply by having a GCSE pass or a low-level two-week foundation course, or just by being bilingual, even if you have never set foot in a court before.

I know it is sometimes argued that many of the cases requiring the services of an interpreter are very simple and straightforward, and so do not need an advanced level of linguistic skill. Cases are indeed categorised according to three levels: namely, standard, the lowest or simplest level; complex; or complex and written. However, I would argue that even if a defendant were in court facing a charge over an unpaid parking ticket, which I would assume would be classified as standard, they would still want an interpreter who knew the difference between, let us say, stationery with “ery” at the end and stationary with “ary” at the end. The potential for confusion can be imagined.

Of course, the landmark case which first drew significant attention to the problems with court interpreters illustrated the far more serious and potentially life-changing implications of using an unqualified or underqualified interpreter in the most serious and complex cases. This was where a woman accused of murder found herself in court with an interpreter who did not know the different between murder and manslaughter. A qualified interpreter is doing professional, specialist and highly skilled work just as much as the heart surgeon, airline pilot or car mechanic.

As I said at Second Reading, there is consensus among the specialist professional bodies that the diploma in public service interpreting at level 6 should be the minimum standard for any court interpreting work. This is supported by the National Register of PSIs, the Chartered Institute of Linguists, the Association of Police and Court Interpreters and the recently launched Police Approved Interpreters and Translators scheme, known as PAIT. The DPSI level 6 is pitched absolutely correctly for all types of court interpreting and is a qualification registered with Ofqual. It enables accurate, procedurally and culturally informed, wholly accurate interpreting, whatever the level of case complexity.

Noble Lords will notice, however, that my amendment, at paragraph (b), includes the words

“or comply with NRPSI Rare Language Status protocols”.

The reason for this is that there are some languages that are not yet covered by the DPSI level 6 but are, nevertheless, sometimes in demand in our courts. Examples include Basque, Moldovan, Sinhalese and Yoruba. In these and similar circumstances, the National Register of PSIs has a matrix of competences and experience which, if met, would still guarantee the level of interpreting skill required for those languages.

Qualifications are one thing, but without relevant experience they could amount to misleading or false assurance for the defendant, witness, victim, lawyer, judge or juror concerned, who must of course depend on the interpreter’s competence. That is why my proposed minimum standards consist not only of the level 6 diploma but also, in paragraph (c), a number of hours of court interpreting experience

“commensurate with the category of case complexity”, which, as I have mentioned before, could range from the contested parking ticket to charges of murder, rape or terrorism. I have not specified the number of hours in the amendment, because I think this is a professional matter to be negotiated and resolved by detailed consultation between the MoJ and relevant professional bodies, some of which I have already referred to. As an example, the Police Approved Interpreters and Translators scheme, PAIT, requires 400 hours of experience alongside the level 6 diploma.

The importance of experience as a crucial component of a minimum standard, rather than a qualification alone, has been starkly illustrated by the results of spot checks conducted on behalf of the MoJ. Of 118 interpreters subject to a spot check by the Language Shop, all allocated from the MoJ’s register, an alarming 50% failed the check’s criteria, and 39 of those 59 failures were people with the level 6 diploma, which demonstrates that what is needed is qualification plus experience. No court, defendant, lawyer, witness or victim should be satisfied with the poor standard of competence revealed by those spot checks.

The good news is that, thanks to the helpful dialogue I have had with the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, I am aware that there is already a stakeholders’ forum set up by the MoJ to discuss all these issues with the professional bodies and interested parties. This is just the right environment in which to thrash out an agreed position on the various levels of experience needed for different case complexities.

The third and last element of my proposed minimum standard, which appears in paragraph (a) is that interpreters should only be appointed from the National Register of Public Service Interpreters. This would not be a radical departure. Currently, the Metropolitan Police only uses interpreters from the national register, as do the Crown Prosecution Service, the National Crime Agency and the Northern Ireland courts. Again, such a requirement would be welcomed by the professional bodies in the field.

The national register represents the highest standards of appropriate qualification plus experience, as well as being an independent and not-for-profit body. It safeguards and regulates the quality and professionalism of public service interpreters who work across the criminal justice system as well as in the health service. There is a code of professional conduct, which has also been adopted by PAIT, the police interpreters scheme, and its disciplinary procedure is uninfluenced by any political or commercial interest. In other words, it is a framework which is far more reliable, professional and gaffe-proof than the MoJ register—what is not to like?

The noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, indicated to me in a previous discussion that one obstacle to this part of my proposal is that to appoint court interpreters only from the national register would breach public contract protocols. I hope the Minister this evening will be kind enough to explain what is meant by this. So far, all the people whom I have asked about it—lawyers and lay people alike—have confessed to not knowing what it means. Perhaps I have consulted the wrong people and the Minister will enlighten me. If the Metropolitan Police and the CPS, to name but two organisations, are using the national register and have not yet come a cropper over public contract protocols, is this really a legitimate barrier or just a needless worry?

My amendment would be a desirable and welcome step forward in improving the quality of the service for all concerned. It would be a logical development and progression from the existing MoJ system to a more tried and tested format.

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland), Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Advocate-General for Scotland 7:30 pm, 22nd November 2021

Before the noble Baroness sits down, may I ask a question? Her amendment refers to every court or tribunal. Knowing how the courts are operating, for example, in family law, the urgent need for an interpreter happens every single day when urgent decisions have to be made about children. How long would it take to find an interpreter in such a case if her provisions, which I see as having great strength in criminal trials, were in force?

Photo of Baroness Coussins Baroness Coussins Crossbench

I can answer that only by saying I would have to consult the national register and chartered institute to find out how quickly they respond now and how that compares to the MoJ system. I agree it is an important element. Part of the problem will be the supply chain, but I think these issues can be overcome. I beg to move.

Photo of The Bishop of Leeds The Bishop of Leeds Bishop

My Lords, I endorse every word of what the noble Baroness just said. In a previous incarnation—that is probably the wrong phrase to use; I am mixing my religions—I was a professional linguist in Russian, German and French, working in government service. One of the things you learn as a professional linguist is that language goes deep. This is not simply a matter of picking someone off the street who can order a pint in a Spanish bar; you are dealing with the stuff of people’s lives. Surely accuracy is vital, for the sake of not only clarity of understanding but justice itself.

I could give many examples of how this works. There is the difference between translation and interpreting. Interpreting goes deep, because you have to understand that some things cannot be translated. That is how language works.

I will not trespass on eternity here, but will simply say that justice, whatever the logistical problems highlighted a moment ago, demands that people have clarity of understanding and expression in courts of law. I endorse every word that was said in the last speech.

Photo of Lord Hogan-Howe Lord Hogan-Howe Crossbench

I too support this amendment. I was really surprised that there is not already a standard and that this is not consistent across the criminal justice system. When the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, explained that the Metropolitan Police had already taken the lead on this, I was hoping that that was during my time, but it was not. However, I think this is a good idea. This is about not only high and consistent standards but experience—experience within the criminal justice system will be relevant at various times—and integrity. These people will have access to private and confidential information. For all those reasons, it is important that there is a consistent, high standard.

Each part of the system, whether the police, prosecutors, defence, courts, judge or jury, requires this to happen consistently. It seems amazing that at the moment they are not able to rely on the same interpretation or translation of the same material. That seems odd. At least in the case of the police, you can go back and check some of the original evidence. Body-worn video, CCTV or audio recordings of the interview might be available, so someone can go back and check. However, as far as I am aware, that is not the case in court. There is a written record, but that in itself is open to interpretation and is not always entirely accurate.

There are things that feed into the criminal justice system which are also important and rely on the contribution of the individual and what they say, for example psychiatric assessments. These can be vital in determining whether someone is guilty or so psychiatrically ill that they should not be held guilty for their actions and in determining what actions will follow a sentence.

This is not a minority issue, particularly in London. The last time I saw the figures, around 27% of the 250,000 arrests carried out by the Metropolitan Police every year are of foreign nationals. There is then at least a risk that they are speaking a second language, not their first, which imposes certain challenges on the whole system. It is vital that they, as well as witnesses and all the other people who play a vital role in the criminal justice system, are able to be heard.

Finally, it seems to me that this is particularly pertinent in an adversarial system which relies an awful lot on cross-examination. Are mistakes made in court? Is consistency observed between the original account and those given by various witnesses? Language is very important. We would all say so, but I would say it is even more important in an adversarial system, which sometimes seeks to cause inconsistency in the account that is given. This creates an even bigger burden for the system to make sure that the account of the language is of the highest standard available. It is important that the Government create such a system, so I support this amendment.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat Shadow Attorney General

My Lords, when I was a young solicitor in north Wales, I recall a knock on the door at about 6 o’clock in the evening. There was an agitated man of Polish extraction on the doorstep saying, “Please come quickly. My friend is dying in hospital and he wants to make a will.” I went to the hospital, which was just around the corner, and discovered that the patient spoke only Polish. I said to the first man, “What are we going to do?” He said, “We don’t need an interpreter. I’ll do it. He wants to leave everything to me.”

I eventually found a Polish hospital porter who could confirm that the dying man did indeed wish to leave his estate to my new client—I hope he was not in collusion with him—and the porter and I witnessed the signing of the will, with the testator dying two hours later. I learned the importance then of having an interpreter.

In Wales, of course, we had people involved in court proceedings who required Welsh interpreters as a matter of principle. I only ever once came across a monolingual Welsh speaker. In one case in Caernarfon—arson of a country cottage—the defendant insisted on an interpreter for every word of the proceedings, although he could speak English perfectly well, so everything was translated into Welsh. Then there came a moment, two weeks into the trial, when he asked the judge, the formidable Mr Justice Mars-Jones, in English, “Can I use the toilet, your Lordship?”, to which the judge wearily turned to the interpreter and said, “Translate into Welsh”, which was done.

The NRPSI is an organisation concerned with the need for public protection. When an interpreter is working in a public service setting, possibly in a potentially life-changing interview situation, they are the only person who understands what both the parties are saying, so it is a crucial role. Of course, there is potential for abuse. The organisation was set up after a report in 1994, with help from the Home Office and the Nuffield Foundation. It is still a voluntary organisation with nearly 2,000 registrants offering more than 100 languages. Of course, it provides a selection of highly experienced professionals.

However, interpreters who are not registered may still be employed. What is really needed is statutory regulation of the public service interpreting profession. In the past, things were different. I remember a man turning up at a Denbighshire quarter sessions claiming to be a Russian interpreter. When it turned out that his knowledge of Russian amounted to no more than putting “ski” on the back of every English word, he was locked up for contempt of court. I trust that has never happened to the right reverend Prelate with his interpretations.

In Hong Kong, where I had considerable experience, the court interpreters were highly expert. They had to deal with a variety of languages from Putonghua, Cantonese to Mandarin, and a variety of regional languages in a court in which, prior to 1997, the proceedings were conducted in English, although English was spoken by only 4% of the population of Hong Kong. I recall on one occasion one of them took me aside and told me that my English grammar was wrong—the trouble was, he was right.

I wish that that quality of interpretation existed in the courts of this country, so the noble Baroness will not be surprised to know that I wholeheartedly support this attempt to professionalise and recognise minimum standards for court interpreters.

Photo of Lord Berkeley of Knighton Lord Berkeley of Knighton Crossbench 7:45 pm, 22nd November 2021

I wholeheartedly endorse my noble friend’s amendment, having seen on a couple of occasions interpreters who I seriously thought could barely speak English. Imagine the confusion when the interpreter translated “car” as “cow”. The judge became pretty exasperated at this point. However, there is one obstacle to this that I see. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, mentioned one obstacle, but the other might be that it is very difficult at the moment for courts to find interpreters at all. I seriously worry that there is going to be a shortage of interpreters, although I still feel that we should get the standard up, whatever happens. Perhaps we need to have courses for interpreters with proper qualifications making it a career in which people who could become interpreters could find some sort of vocation.

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice)

My Lords, I have put my name to this amendment for all the reasons put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, in opening. She has campaigned for this change for a long time and has a great deal of knowledge and experience on the subject. We have also heard from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds, the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, and my noble friend Lord Thomas, who still supports this reform despite the success of his experience with the Polish testator. I will therefore add little.

There is an answer to the points made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, about the availability of interpreters and the need for speed in getting them to court, and by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley of Knighton, about there being enough registered interpreters. I accept, as I expect would the noble Baroness, that there would be a need to transition the introduction of these proposals and to take steps to ensure that there were enough registered interpreters. We also have to consider the availability of interpretation in the very unusual languages that she mentioned.

This amendment is important. The duty of an interpreter in courts and tribunals is limited and specific. It is a duty to act as a conduit and only as a conduit; accurately to convey the meaning of the court’s proceedings to the non-English speaker; then, if and when that non-English speaker gives evidence, to convey the court’s and counsel’s questions to that non-English speaker; and lastly, and most importantly, to convey the non-English-speaking witness’s evidence to the court. That all demands accuracy, and to provide that accuracy requires a great deal of skill.

However, it is a duty to act as a conduit only, the aim being to overcome the language barrier. It is decidedly not to render assistance of a more general kind to the non-English-speaking participant in legal proceedings, still less to provide some kind of informal independent advice service. Yet, in spite of those very clear principles, many of us who have practised in courts and tribunals have seen how interpreters, often motivated by the best of intentions, can fail in their task. The inadequacies have been extensively and well highlighted by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins.

There are two main reasons for such a failure. The first is that some set out to act as interpreters when they lack the necessary linguistic skills and they simply get the translation wrong. Sometimes the inaccuracy is noticed by someone in court who understands and speaks the language concerned who can then ensure that the witness’s meaning is further explored, but on other occasions it is not, and when it is not then injustices occur.

The second problem is that some interpreters overreach themselves. Again, often they are not motivated by an improper wish to intervene in the proceedings with ideas of their own, yet they do precisely that. They discuss evidence with the witness and act as assistants and advisers as well as interpreters. The noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, pointed out that on some occasions the integrity of the witness and of the proceedings is called into question. That is wrong, and it subverts the proceedings of the court or tribunal concerned. The way in which we must deal with these issues is quite simply by training and minimum standards, and that is exactly what the amendment seeks to achieve.

I add this final point: I hope that, in order to maintain registration, it would be necessary to have adequate programmes of continuing education. Interpretation is a difficult skill that requires specialist and professional training and needs constant maintaining. I hope the Government will bring a positive response to this amendment.

Photo of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My Lords, this has been a very interesting debate and I thank the noble Baroness for moving her amendment; in general terms we support it. The question marks would be about the standards, which she dealt with very fully, whether emergencies could be covered, and the potential costs. As the noble Lord, Lord Marks, said, there needs to be a transition to harmonising and raising standards in general.

I want to pick up a couple of points made by noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe expressed surprise that there was not already a common standard and I was surprised as well. He went on to talk about there being written records in courts, but that is not the case in magistrates’ courts; they are not a court of record. As a sitting magistrate, I regularly have interpreters in court. In the 14 years I have been a magistrate I can think of three or four occasions when the magistrate colleagues I have been sitting with have told me that the interpretation was wrong. They knew the language and were able to inform us, and we were able to deal with the situation. But, as other noble Lords have pointed out, that will not always be the case. It is not that unusual for interpretations to be wrong.

I want to make a more serious point, which the noble Lord, Lord Marks, also made, about interpreters overreaching themselves. As I mentioned in an earlier group, I regularly sit in the domestic abuse court and I have done various bits of training on that. One of the points the training makes is that you have to be careful with interpreters and translators when dealing with domestic abuse cases in minority languages. It has been recorded that the interpreters overreach themselves and what the witness or the victim is saying in court will get back to that minority group. It is something that the court needs to be very aware of and handle sensitively to prevent that happening—and it does happen. Nevertheless, in general terms, we support this amendment.

Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland

My Lords, Amendment 280 would restrict the Ministry of Justice to appoint in our courts and tribunals only interpreters who are registered on the national register of public service interpreting—the NRPSI—and possess a level 6 diploma in public service interpreting, or who comply with the NRPSI’s rare language status protocols.

The Ministry of Justice commissions the services of interpreters for our courts and tribunals in England and Wales through its contracted service providers, thebigword and Clarion Interpreting. These interpreters are sourced from the Ministry of Justice’s register, which is audited by an independent language service provider, the Language Shop. All interpreters are required to complete a justice system-specific training course before they are permitted to join the register.

The contract has a clearly defined list of qualifications, skills, experience and vetting requirements interpreters must meet, which have been designed to meet the needs of the justice system. It covers a vast range of assignments, from simple telephone interpreting to deal with a user query to the facilitation of interpretation in a complex criminal trial. The qualifications and level of experience required will depend on the complexity of the assignment and the highest complexity level has qualification criteria comparable to those set by the national register of professional service interpreters.

It is in dealing with that vast range that the noble Baroness’s rhetorical analogy broke down. Of course I would expect my heart surgeon to have the relevant qualifications and experience to fulfil that role. At the same time, if my car developed a minor technical fault, I would not necessarily want to pay out for a consultant engineer to fix it, as opposed to taking it to the local garage.

Complaints about the quality of interpretation or the professional conduct of interpreters are carefully monitored and independently assessed by the Language Shop. The complaint rate remains low at less than 1%.

I turn to the question posed by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, who proposed this amendment, as to the point about obligations under contract regulations, which might tell against her amendment. When procuring services from external suppliers, the Ministry of Justice must comply with the Public Contracts Regulations 2015. By mandating the exclusive use of the NRPSI register, or setting a single qualification standard to cover the vast majority of our requirements, we would likely be in breach of those regulations. They prohibit contracting authorities from artificially narrowing the market and from creating unnecessary barriers to entry to bidding for government contracts, and require specific standards or processes which characterise the services provided by a specific supplier. In mandating the exclusive use of the National Register of Public Service Interpreters, or setting a single qualification standard to cover the vast range of our requirements, the Ministry of Justice would, as I say, likely be in breach of all three public contract regulation requirements and could be subjected to legal challenge from—

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice) 8:00 pm, 22nd November 2021

I take it the Minister would accept that legislation could quite easily disapply those regulations in the case of the use of registered interpreters, if that legislation were correctly worded and addressed to do so.

Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland

Hypothetically, yes, but I hesitate to give the noble Lord a definite commitment on that, as my information on these points is substantially in answer to the point raised by the noble Baroness. But, if the noble Lord will permit me, in exploring these important points, I will make sure that the Ministry of Justice writes to him and that there is a meeting with the noble Baroness, as she sought, to discuss with her the future of this amendment. I hope that that answer will satisfy both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord.

Just to continue on that point, it is important to bear in mind that we are reviewing and engaging in consultation with various bodies. But we need to take into account the broad-ranging needs of the Ministry of Justice and to ensure that we have a service appropriate for the wide range of circumstances and the various commissioning bodies to which I have made reference. There are concerns that mandatory NRPSI membership may give unnecessary control over the supply chain, and the police interpretation contract does not require interpreters to be NRPSI registered. We need to complete a full and objective assessment of MoJ needs across the board and not to introduce NRPSI standards when we do not know what impact they might have on the overall justice system.

The Ministry of Justice is looking constantly to improve the service for users and to work collaboratively with interpreter membership organisations and language service providers to ensure that the short, medium and long-term service needs of the criminal justice system are met. Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service is starting up a language services future pipeline working group, which will focus on the issue of securing suitably qualified interpreters in the long term.

I will develop that point. As the single biggest public sector user of language services, we believe it is important for the Government to encourage new entrants into the interpreting profession and to provide them with appropriate opportunities to build up their experience levels and to maintain standards of excellence. We have an independent quality assurance supplier, which has recently developed a subsidised trainee scheme, encouraging qualification in languages that are in high demand in our courts. We will continue to work with it, and with other organisations, to improve our service and to ensure it provides access to suitably qualified interpreters in the future. The arrangements that we have in place are designed specifically to ensure that our courts and tribunals are supported by high-quality language service interpretation that meets the needs of all our court users, both now and in the future.

I turn now to some of the submissions made by your Lordships in Committee. I fully accept the point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds on the distinction between translation and interpreting. But on the submission made by the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lords, Lord Marks and Lord Hogan-Howe, I return to the point that there is a wide range of functions which interpreting has to carry out. With the greatest of respect, each of those noble Lords answering on this point predicated their submission on the fact that we were talking about translation at the very highest level—at the most important level of translating a potentially complex criminal trial.

In response to point made by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, again I accept that the single function of an interpreter in these circumstances is to act as a conduit by which English may be rendered into a foreign language and the foreign language rendered as accurately as it may be into English in order to assist the court. Again, that is at the very top end of the spectrum. Lower down, in simpler and more straightforward functions that I identified—the most elementary part of the range of needs that I discussed—it may well be that some well-meaning attempt to intervene and to assist, such as the noble Lord, Lord Marks, discussed, might be appropriate. I am thinking of the simple telephone inquiry that I referred to.

Photo of Lord Hogan-Howe Lord Hogan-Howe Crossbench

There are just two points that I would like to have clarified. First, the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, proposes a consistent high standard. I was not sure from the Minister’s response what the equivalent is in the contract. I hear that there is one, but I do not know what it is.

The second point is that there might be a spectrum of quality of interpretation. I understand that in a broad sense, but if that was to include the magistrates’ court, there are two issues there. First of all, someone’s liberty is at risk for six months and, in any case, they could be committed to a higher court for a more substantial penalty, should the magistrate decide to do that. Finally, as we have heard only today, if we look at things such as inquests, they can have very substantial consequences both for the people who apply to them and for the people who might be judged by them.

I am not quite sure about either of those points. First of all, what is the standard? Secondly, is it true to say it is always such a wide spread of necessity, given the importance to the victim, the suspect or the witness, in each of these cases?

Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland

As I think I have said, the contract provides that, at the highest level, the standard is commensurate with that of the NRPSI. In answer to the noble Lord’s second point, of course none of that interrupts anything that I have said about the importance of identifying the point at which interpretation facilities suitable for the most complex case is to be found. Simply because a matter is not being tried at the Crown Court does not mean that it would not engage the need for the most detailed, able and comprehensive of interpreting facilities.

In closing, I can, as I said earlier, indicate that my noble friend Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, the Minister dealing with this matter, will meet the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, who is proposing the amendment. In the circumstances, I ask her to withdraw the amendment at this stage.

Photo of Baroness Coussins Baroness Coussins Crossbench

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his detailed reply and all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate and supported the principle, if not every detail, of the amendment. Some very good ideas have emerged; I am particularly taken with that of a transitional period.

A couple of questions were asked. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, referred to family courts. In a family court where an interpreter might be needed at very short notice, it strikes me as even more important, if we are talking about families and children who may be in very vulnerable circumstances, to have an interpreter who is properly qualified. Rustling up somebody at very short notice might not serve the interests of those vulnerable families and children, but I agree that it is a complex situation.

On the point raised by my noble friend about courts sometimes finding it difficult to find interpreters, that is partly to do with the fact that so many interpreters—thousands, I believe—left public service when the MoJ system was contracted out to private companies, because those companies have sustained appallingly low levels of pay and poor conditions. The Minister referred to the need to get new interpreters on board. Yes, of course, that is right, but there are also a lot existing, qualified, experienced interpreters out there who need to be brought back into public service. I believe that if their status was raised and their contribution and professionalism more readily acknowledged by having these minimum standards, which they all complied with, they would be attracted back into public service.

The Minister referred to the fact that the MoJ system is audited by the Language Shop and that complaints were very low. Yes, that is true, but the Language Shop also failed 50% of the interpreters on whom it conducted spot checks, so it is clear that qualifications without experience are not good enough.

I am grateful for the promise of a further meeting with the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, to discuss the amendment, and I look forward to discussing this issue further on Report. With that in mind, I am happy to withdraw the amendment at this stage.

Amendment 280 withdrawn.

Amendments 281 to 283 not moved.

House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 8.52 pm.