Police Interpreters

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:45 pm on 11th March 2009.

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Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Identity) 4:45 pm, 11th March 2009

I have not discussed the issue widely, as I am not the policing Minister and it has not been a topic of conversation when I have visited police throughout the country, but from personal experience in my constituency, I can say that the police are anxious to ensure that interpreting is of good quality. They are aware of the sensitivities and issues. If they get someone who cannot do the job properly, a case might not stand up in court and there could be issues involving service to the victim or injustice to the perpetrator. There is a strong awareness among police of the need to get the right sort of interpreting. If the hon. Gentleman will let me continue, I will explain a little about some of the issues that he mentioned and what the Government are doing to work with the police to ensure that the concerns that he and other hon. Members have raised are addressed.

PACE code C contains specific requirements aimed at ensuring that information gathered may be admissible in court and, importantly, that the detainee understands what is happening at the police station and which matters are being put to them. That is a fundamental right. Access to an interpreter at the police station is a key safeguard in compliance with our responsibilities as a Government and as a nation under article 5 of the European convention on human rights, which states that everyone who is arrested shall be informed promptly, in a language he or she understands, of the reasons for his or her arrest and of any charge against him or her.

The national register is an important and useful source of interpreters. The reality is that there is a shortage of interpreters, which is one issue that the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice alone cannot resolve. PACE code C requires that the outcome in article 5 of effective communication between police and the detainee is met, and advocates that, wherever possible, interpreters should be drawn from the national register. That is something that I think we would all wish to see as a paradigm.

The use of interpreters in criminal proceedings, including at the police station, is governed by the national agreement on arrangements for the use of interpreters and translators in the criminal justice system, which I shall call the national agreement. As with PACE code C, the national agreement requires not that an interpreter from the National Register of Public Service Interpreters must be used, but that they should be drawn from the register where possible. That is important, because if no one from the register is readily available, there can be big challenges, and that leaves the police in a difficult position. They have to consider how long they can wait when they have someone in custody, as there are, quite rightly, legal requirements on how long people should be kept in custody. That protection is in place, and interpreting is relevant to the delay and cost to the police and criminal justice system if justice is not carried out properly or fairly.

I am aware that outsourcing, and the engagement and use of interpreters outside the national register, has been an issue in some police forces since about 2005, so it certainly is not a new issue. The hon. Gentleman has raised it about his area. Interpreters understandably object to outsourcing because they receive less money under that system. The average pay range for an interpreter on the national register is between £35 and £50 an hour, but could drop to as low as £15 to £20 an hour if they are employed through an agency. I can see the economics of the situation: if an interpreter has a choice of jobs, they will clearly take the higher paid rate if they can, so there is a problem with getting them to do interpreting through outsourcing. However, outsourcing is often used because forces cannot get someone from the national register to do the work.

There is anecdotal evidence that outsourcing has led to a drop in the quality of interpreting being provided, because interpreters are not prepared to work for the money available. We recognise that, and we know that work needs to be done to help to resolve the issue. ACPO's lead official on interpreting issues, Assistant Chief Constable Douglas Paxton of Staffordshire police, wrote to all police forces last year, reminding them that they should use interpreters from the national register where possible. Forces were also reminded of the need to ensure that outsourcing did not compromise compliance with the standards set out in the national agreement. We must allow ACPO to play its role, working with police forces, but I shall address the hon. Gentleman's comments about legislating in this area later.

ACPO acknowledges the invaluable contribution of the work carried out by interpreters in police forces and across the wider criminal justice system, but it also points out that outsourcing does not constitute a breach of the national agreement. Police forces are duty-bound to secure best value, and ACPO is not aware of any outsourcing activity that does not seek to operate in accordance with the national agreement.