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 agree that it is an important issue that we need to consider in full. My point is that the national agreement has some flexibility, and that it is right to explore the options. ACPO says that it is not aware of any outsourcing activity that does not operate in accordance with the national agreement, and I am keen to hear from hon. Members, as I have been doing, about how it is working in their areas. The national agreement says of outsourcing:

"Police forces and other CJS agencies that are contemplating outsourcing the provision of interpreters must ensure that this does not compromise compliance with the standards set out in this Agreement. In particular, where the fees payable to interpreters—as distinct from those paid to the intermediary agency—are lower than those contained in the recommended Terms and Conditions for Interpreters in the CJS...they are likely to be unattractive to fully qualified interpreters who are on the" national register,

"with the result that the contractor resorts to unqualified interpreters who may not be competent. This is not acceptable."

Those are ACPO's words, and the point is fairly clear, but the critical issue is that the national register currently lists about 2,000 interpreters—a figure well below what police forces in England and Wales would deem appropriate. I see the problem in my area of London, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham in his area, and he has raised the issue with me. Clearly, it is also an issue in Manchester, as a number of Manchester MPs have raised it with me too. There is a challenge, but it is a little beyond the Home Office's remit. The Government need to look into the matter, and interpreters, as a profession, need to work out why relatively few of them go into that type of work.

Police forces are outsourcing their requirement for interpreters as a pragmatic approach because they need to progress investigations. They have to get the balance right, to make sure that investigations are carried out fairly, with a high level of proof, and to make sure that people are not spending time in custody unnecessarily. We must all recognise that those issues are difficult to balance, while ensuring that we maintain the quality of interpreting. ACPO has started work on national scoping exercises with forces to assess current requirements and service improvements, and how they could be met. We hope that will give a clear indication to the interpreting profession of the opportunities for fully qualified interpreters in that valuable area of work.

We recognise the benefits that the national agreement provides, and we need to ensure that its framework delivers the necessary service to the criminal justice system. The Government will work with key stakeholders in the criminal justice system and with the representative bodies of the interpreting profession on reviewing the current guidance. My hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing, and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Maria Eagle will lead on that work. The focus of the exercise will be to determine how we can ensure that suitable, qualified interpreters are available for use throughout the criminal justice system. I repeat that the Home Office cannot solve the problem alone, but the Government can take a role in encouraging people to take up those important positions.

The rising demand for interpreters is due to a number of factors. We are living in an international world, and we expect that our cities, particularly Manchester and London, will be diverse. Interpreters are sometimes called because the police are concerned about their ability to understand someone who thinks that they can speak English, and because they need to be clear that their message is getting across. There are a number of reasons why interpreters are used, and it is right that we should consider the issue seriously and closely. We need quality services at a reasonable cost, and there should be no incentive to reduce quality. Responsible police forces will take that into account, but outsourcing alone is not the problem.

The hon. Gentleman asked why we do not legislate on the matter. There are no immediate plans to do so, but it is an important option, and we are considering amending the PACE code of practice on detention to require the use of interpreters from the register only. My hon. Friends in the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice are considering that, but before we can make that change, we must ensure that sufficient, trained, able and competent interpreters are available to enable the police to progress their investigations and ensure that detainees are not in custody for too long. The danger with hastily introducing legislation is that if we do not have sufficient bodies on the ground to deliver what we are legislating for, we will be in the same position as we are now, with too few interpreters. That is a key issue.

The key driver in ensuring quality of result for the victim and fairness for the perpetrator in any case is having good-quality interpreters. I am sure that view is shared by the hon. Gentleman and by other hon. Members who have raised the issue with me—indeed, I know it is from my conversations with them. I hope that they will all welcome the work that we are doing to address these important problems. My hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing is aware of hon. Members' concerns from his conversations and correspondence with them, and I know that he will keep them updated about our thinking and progress in this area.