Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - Report (5th Day) – in the House of Lords at 7:30 pm on 12th January 2022.
Moved by Baroness Coussins
104FD: After Clause 172, insert the following new Clause—“Spoken word interpreters: minimum standards Within six months of commencement of this section, spoken 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.
My Lords, I remind the House of my interests as vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Linguists and co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages.
I am very grateful indeed to the Minister for the interest he has taken in the issue of court interpreters and my concerns about the weaknesses of the present system, as well as for his willingness to meet several times and discuss candidly the detail of my amendment. This dialogue has been very constructive and leads me to be hopeful that we can reach a positive outcome.
My amendment seeks to establish minimum standards for court interpreters based on their qualifications, experience and registration with the National Register of Public Service Interpreters—NRPSI. Obviously, I am not going to repeat the detail of the case I set out in Committee, but perhaps I could just comment on the response I had at that stage from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart of Dirleton.
There seemed to be three main reasons for rejecting my amendment. The first was that the MoJ system is already fit for purpose. For example, the noble and learned Lord said:
“All interpreters are required to complete a justice system-specific training course before they are permitted to join the register.”—[Official Report, 22/11/21; col. 659.]
This refers to the MoJ’s register. My understanding, however, is that that course takes four hours to complete, which does not strike me as remotely adequate for such potentially demanding and specialist work. It remains the case that the current MoJ register will admit people who would not be considered sufficiently qualified or experienced to be on the NRPSI—nor, indeed, on the Police Approved Interpreters and Translators scheme. The DPSI at level 6 is considered by all the specialist professional bodies in the field to be the correct minimum qualification for any court interpreting work.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart, also claimed that the MoJ system is fit for purpose because the complaint rate is less than 1%. I had claimed that the failure rate following spot checks was 50% but, in our subsequent meetings and correspondence, the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, has clarified that the 50% figure I quoted in Committee applied only to referrals of quality-based complaints, and that the overall failure rate is actually 5% of all assessments. I still think that a failure rate of 50% after a referral from a court or mystery shop is unacceptably high. I would also contend that even an overall rate of 5% out of hundreds of thousands of assignments each year could potentially lead to a significant drain on the public purse through the costs of rescheduling adjourned hearings or keeping defendants in custody for longer—not to mention the avoidable stress and confusion for victims, defendants and witnesses.
Secondly, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart, thought that my amendment fell short because it would not be right to take a one-size-fits-all approach, given that there are various levels of case complexity. But I agree with that: the point is explicitly acknowledged in my amendment, which specifies that the number of hours’ experience required should reflect case complexity and, crucially, should be agreed between the department and “relevant professional bodies”. In discussions with the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, over the past few weeks, it has been repeatedly pointed out to those of us supporting this amendment that there are no fewer than 1,000 different types of assignment. The mind boggles—well, mine does anyway. I would certainly love to see a list spelling out exactly what those 1,000 different categories are.
Thirdly, the obstacle of the rules on public procurement was raised as a reason why my amendment’s provision for the NRPSI registration was unacceptable. I still find this a bit odd and confusing as an argument, as the NRPSI is not a membership organisation, nor a supplier. It is worth remembering that it was established at the request of the judiciary in the first place after the interpreting calamity of the Begum case. It is surely just akin to the professional registers in many other fields, such as teaching, medicine or law, from which we would always expect and require practitioners to be drawn. There appears to be at least one significant precedent in that the Metropolitan Police Service mandates that all its listed interpreters must have continuous NRPSI registration. Of its annual 25,000 face-to-face assigned interpreters, only 2.5% are not NRPSI registered, and then for a very good reason—for example, to do with the need for a rare language speaker or the need for a super-speedy appointment in highly urgent or dangerous situations.
I accept, of course, that this whole system is complex and that there are inherent challenges to any solution that I have not touched on today, such as the supply chain of interpreters. I also acknowledge that the wording of my amendment may not be perfect, although I have tweaked it since Committee to try to build in a transition period, as suggested in Committee by the noble Lord, Lord Marks. But I have been encouraged by the approach of the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, in our discussions in that he acknowledges that if there are improvements that could or should be made, it would be sensible for them to be made before the current contract is due to be retendered in 2023. The challenge, of course, is to get to the bottom of precisely what those improvements are, and I am extremely concerned that there should be no more delay in establishing and achieving them than absolutely necessary. The current contract expires in October 2023, so presumably a revised tender will need to be issued some months before that in order to achieve a seamless transition.
With this in mind, we raised with the Minister the possible option of conducting a detailed and independent inquiry into exactly what the standards of qualifications and experience and other matters should be. I am hopeful that the Minister might be able to say something about that proposal when he comes to reply today. Such an inquiry would need to be conducted on a genuinely independent basis and cover all aspects of the MoJ’s responsibility for interpreting services, with a commitment to apply its findings to the next contract. I believe that such an independent inquiry would also have the credibility to help attract back into public service the many hundreds of professional interpreters who have left because of low pay, bad conditions or a lack of acknowledgement of their professional status. This exercise would have the potential to make a long-term strategic impact on the service, as well as knocking into shape the terms of the next contract. I look forward to the Minister’s response and beg to move.
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for pursuing this important matter, and to the Minister for his engagement on a number of occasions with those of us who support the noble Baroness and are concerned about this. During those discussions, I expressed the view that it is striking that there is such a radical difference of view between the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, with her enormous expertise in this area, and civil servants as to how the system is working in practice. I therefore suggested to the Minister that one way forward in this important area would be for him to agree that there should be an independent assessment—an independent inquiry—of an outfacing nature that can rely on the expertise of the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and others in order to inform the department as to the way forward. That seems to be a constructive way forward, and I very much hope that the Minister will be able to say that the department is prepared to do that.
My Lords, I too pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Coussins for the determination with which she has pursued this argument. As a user of the court, it is crucial to have complete confidence in the interpreter. Most of us do not have the complete gift of language—which perhaps my noble friend has—over a wide range of languages. You have to rely on the interpreter; confidence in what the interpreter is doing is crucial to the way the proceedings are conducted, so the highest standards should be aimed for. I must say, I am surprised that it is taking so long for the advice my noble friend has offered to be accepted and put into practice.
My Lords, I support the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, as I have from the beginning, as a layman who does not understand an awful lot about interpreting standards but does understand the importance of evidential matters going through tribunals needing to be of a high standard.
What has confused me from the beginning—as I think the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, suggested —is that the Government’s response is that they do not prefer the standard that the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, offers and that they therefore want to rely on the standards that are in the contract. However, it is not at all clear what that standard is, because the easiest response would be that the standard in the contract is far better than the standard she offers, but no one is saying that. There is clearly a differential standard for different acts; the Minister mentioned something of the order of a thousand different scenarios leading to different qualities of interpretation, but I am not sure that that would lead to a thousand different standards.
It is clear from the Metropolitan Police’s experience that, broadly, there is a split between face-to-face contact and other types, but the real split is whether the material interpreted is going to be evidential. Often, a person who is arrested needs to have a conversation with the charging sergeant about who they are and whether they need medical attention—all the common tactical things that people need to talk about—or the police may need to talk with a victim at the scene of a crime. That can be achieved by telephone. That immediate conversation has some value, of course, but not in the context of an evidential test. When it comes to an interview, a prosecution decision and, obviously, attendance in court, it is vital that that standard is of the highest level.
Therefore, I support the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, but if it cannot be achieved in this Bill, I think the proposal for an independent inquiry is a reasonable next step.
My Lords, I spoke at length on this amendment in Committee and attended the meeting with the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds, who also signed the amendment. It has led to a full and thorough response from the Minister, and we expect him to announce a full and independent review. If that is right, that is extremely welcome news. I join the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, in saying that it would be extremely helpful to have an indication of the timescale of such a review—if that is to be announced—because of the imminence of the renewal of the contracts. It would also be extremely helpful for us to have an indication of how the independence of the review will be assured, because independence is a relatively flexible word, and it is an extremely important part of this.
For all the reasons given by the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, the standard of interpretation is incredibly important to the maintenance of justice where there are litigants, parties or witnesses for whom English is not their first language. We talked about the importance of having the undisguised and unchanged evidence of the witness before the court in an evidential case without the interpreter’s view of matters intervening. That calls for the very highest standards of quality and for any review to be completely independent.
My Lords, I too spoke in Committee, and I have been copied in on the very helpful response from the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson. I felt he was trying to embrace this important subject. To extend the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, a little, one has to understand that when people are in court, it is not just a question of interpretation; quite often, it is case of compassion and being able to communicate with a witness or a defendant. If there is a language barrier, those are the first things that tend to go out of the window.
Just to lower the conversation slightly, I mentioned in Committee an occasion on which the word “cow” was confused with the word “car”—a cow was observed travelling at 90 miles an hour.
I think it would be good to finish my brief contribution to this debate by repeating the explanatory statement of the noble Baroness:
“This amendment would establish minimum standards for qualifications and experience for interpreters in courts and tribunals, along the lines of the Police Approved Interpreters Scheme.”
I find it very hard to see why the Government would not want to embrace that.
My Lords, having begun my response to the previous group with an apology for getting a date wrong, I then went on to get another date wrong. The case of Antia is, for those noble Lords keen to read it, 2020 and not 2000. The rest of the legal analysis, I hope, remains unchanged. I will seek to avoid any reference to dates in what I am about to say.
This amendment would restrict the Ministry of Justice to appointing in our courts and tribunals only interpreters who are registered on the National Register of Public Service Interpreters and who possess a level 6 diploma in public service interpreting or comply with the national register’s rare language status protocols. I place on record at the outset my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, the noble Lords, Lord Pannick and Lord Hogan-Howe, and others for their time engaging with me.
This is a very important issue. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley of Knighton, noted that it goes to compassion, which is correct. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, said, it also goes to the heart of the justice process. Anyone who has done a case with interpreters knows how important their role is. Indeed, I remember one case where, when the witness answered a question of mine, it was interpreted through a language I knew, and I knew that it had been interpreted wrongly. The judge also picked up that the interpretation was wrong and the witness himself criticised the interpretation, thus illustrating that the presence of the interpreter was unnecessary, and they were dispensed with.
We currently commission the service of interpreters for our courts and tribunals through our contracted service providers, thebigword and Clarion interpreting. The contract has a clearly defined list of qualifications, skills, experience and vetting requirements interpreters must meet, which have been designed to meet the particular needs of the justice system. The highest complexity level has qualification criteria comparable to those set by the NRPSI. They are sourced from the MoJ register, which is audited by an independent language service provider, The Language Shop. All interpreters must have 100 hours of experience and complete a justice system-specific training course before they can join the register.
As the noble Baroness said, the overall failure rate of all quality assurance assessments remains low, at 5%. We believe that illustrates the effectiveness of the auditing measures. Complaints about quality are also carefully monitored and independently assessed by The Language Shop. The complaint rate remains low, at less than 1%.
I am confident that there are no systemic quality issues with the current arrangements. None the less, I discussed this in some detail with the noble Baroness and others and we want to improve the quality of the service we provide, if that is possible, right across the justice system. That is why I am commissioning a full independent review of our existing qualifications and standards and the requirements for each type of assignment our contract covers. There are over 1,000 of these—I do not have a list to hand. This will also consider experience levels and rare language requirements. The review will be completed in time to inform the retendering of our contracts in 2023. It will establish a detailed framework of the standards and qualifications required for all assignments covered by the contracts, with clear explanations and justifications for each. The aim is to ensure that our contracts continue to meet the demands of all our court users.
We will continue to consult external stakeholders, including the NRPSI—its input is highly valued. We will learn from other schemes, including the police-approved interpreter and translation scheme, which adopts a level 6 diploma in public service interpreting as a minimum qualification standard, but with safeguards to allow for exceptions as needed to ensure timeliness in progressing a case.
We understand that there are issues about the availability of NRPSI-registered interpreters in some parts of the country—40% of them are based in London. Under our current arrangements, we can control and direct recruitment for our register based on geographical and language needs. This is tied in to the supplier’s obligation to fulfil bookings and ensures that we can dictate recruitment trends to meet our requirements.
I cannot say at this stage whether the police-approved interpreter and translation scheme would be suitable for the Ministry of Justice. We are concerned not to have a one-size-fits-all approach; even within a court setting, interpreting in a criminal court is quite different from interpreting, for example, in the family jurisdiction. It is not only court settings; there is telephone interpreting for court custody officers, and service centres require interpreting assistance to support court users paying fines or responding to general inquiries. However, we will look at the outcome of the review. All the options we consider will need to be fully costed in accordance with government policy for large government procurements to ensure value for money for the taxpayer.
The review will be undertaken. We have already started some work; we want to establish the most appropriate and cost-effective solution, one which meets the current and future needs of the justice system and promotes the continued development and progression of new entrants into the interpreting profession. With renewed thanks to the noble Baroness for her time and the discussions we have had, including on the option of a full independent review, which I hope I have set out clearly, I respectfully urge her to withdraw the amendment.
I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. I especially offer my thanks to the Minister and warmly welcome his decision to commission a full independent inquiry into the qualifications, experience and overall standards of all the different types of interpreters for court work. I look forward to seeing the terms of reference, the timetable and other details of this inquiry. I feel optimistic that professional bodies in the field will also feel encouraged by this development and welcome the decision. With that in mind, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 104FD withdrawn.