A Problem Of Communication: The Home Office and the UK’s Interpreting Profession;

The 16th Century Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (also known as King Carlos I of Spain) was renowned for saying that “To God I speak Spanish, to women Italian, to men French and to my horse – German”. He clearly didn’t require interpreters. The British Government, however, does need them – many, all of the time. Which made the Home Office’s attempt (reported by The Guardian on 20th November 2015) to reduce the pay rates for the “2,000 highly trained interpreters on its books” both puzzling & misjudged.

The result was a threatened “series of one-day boycotts” beginning on January 1st 2016 and the subsequent decision by the Home Office to “adjourn the planned rate changes”. As the “PoliticsHome.com” website pointed out, interpreters are not salaried workers, so can’t go on strike, but they can refuse assignments – which would “seriously damage the immigration system and plunge it into administrative chaos”.

Although – as the Government’s career advisory service, Prospects .ac.uk” notes – many qualified interpreters find work in the business sector for functions such as meetings, conferences and exhibitions, the Criminal Justice System provides a key source of employment. This includes “police and probation service interviews, court hearings, solicitor interviews, arbitration hearings and immigration tribunals”, as well as meetings with asylum seekers and dealing with customers at the HM Passport Office.

The Guardian journalist Diane Taylor, on 15th January 2016, cited the current pay as being £16 an hour on weekdays and slightly more at the weekend, “but the first hour’s work is paid at an enhanced rate to recognise the time and cost of travelling to appointments”. The intention of the Home Office – now (for the moment) withdrawn – was to reduce the first-hour rate from £48 to £32 on weekdays and from £72 to £46 at weekends. The “Fair Payment Campaign For Home Office Interpreters” has been quoted by “Linguistic Lounge” as protesting that their “already meagre fees have been unchanged for at least 13 years” and that they have in effect been “subsidising the Home Office throughout that period”.

The UK Border Force acknowledges that, because many airports and ports work 24 hours a day, they are in constant need of interpreting services. Hence, they welcome applications “from those who may only be free to interpret at specific times such as evenings or weekends, as well as those who are available at any time” – though on a freelance basis: There is no provision for formal contracts. Candidates must have been resident in the UK for the last 3 years, be British, an EU citizen or have indefinite leave to remain in the UK and speak both English and another language fluently. Furthermore, they must be a full member of the National Register of Public Services Interpreters (NRPSI), hold a Diploma in Public Services Interpreting (DPSI) or equivalent, have been assessed by the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal (AIT) & the Metropolitan Police and have been vetted & cleared by the Departmental Security Unit (DSU).

According to the NRPSI, there are 99 languages on their Register – the “Top Ten” (representing 63% of their interpreters) being: Polish (14%), Urdu (9%), Russian & Spanish (both 6%), Arabic, French, Farsi & Romanian (all 5%), Mandarin & Portuguese (both 4%).

However, neither the NRPSI nor the “Professional Interpreters for Justice (PIFJ)”- which has seven “partners”, including the Association of Police and Court Interpreters (APCI) and the Society of Official Metropolitan Interpreters UK (SOMI) – are at all happy with the decision by the Ministry of Justice in 2012 to “outsource its justice sector interpreting requirements to CapitaTI under a “Framework Agreement” (FWA). This company describes itself as “the UK’s leading provider of business process management”. In 2014, it made a profit of £535.7 million before tax.

An NRPSI survey of its members has revealed that 64% consider that “quality and professionalism have been lost in criminal justice system interpreting because of the FWA” and that 72% had seen other (CapitaTI-recruited) interpreters in court whose quality (in their view) was sub-standard due to: language skills that were not good enough, so mistakes were made; poor understanding of the court process; interpreters arriving late & delaying proceedings; unprofessional standard of dress and not knowing the appropriate way to address the judge. There was also criticism of FWA interpreters who “carry shopping bags into Court and leave mobile phones on which go off during the hearing” and those who “either keep their mouth shut or speak something different and interpret very little”.

A PIFJ investigation reached a similar conclusion: 84% of its members questioned believe that “the interests of justice are not served by the FWA & the CapitaTI contract” and 83% “fundamentally disagree with the introduction of the Framework Agreement and outsourcing to a single private contractor”.

The PIFJ is therefore campaigning for: The reversal of outsourcing to commercial agencies ; The re-introduction of direct employment of freelance interpreters by the courts and police services; The establishment of regular dialogue between interpreter organizations and the Government; Statutory regulation of the interpreting profession and protection of the title of “Legal Interpreter”.

Filed under: Immigration & Visas, Society | Posted on January 25th, 2016 by Colin D Gordon

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