Our lips are sealed: what we are fighting for in the UK and why

The ALS/Capita contract for justice sector interpreting in the UK has met with fierce and justified criticism – in the press, on the streets and most recently in Parliament. And it’s about more than r

When I had my first inkling of the changes the led to the current crisis over court interpreter services – back in 2009 when several local police forces indicated an intention to outsource language services to Applied Language Solutions (ALS) – I gathered 100 fellow professionals in a room in Manchester, together with my MP John Leech. I told them that our strength lay in the rarity of our skill and the quality of our qualification, the Diploma in Public Service Interpreting.

I argued that this, coupled with the protection, albeit a half-baked kind of protection, afforded by the national agreement (the next best thing to statutory professional status and which compelled the criminal justice system to use us) would make it difficult to force us to work under a monopolistic single supplier.

We knew we would not be easy to replace and we could stand our ground.

I have since been vindicated, but at the time, I am sure someone at the MOJ overheard me. As part of their procedure, in a move parallel to the outsourcing exercise, the National Agreement was withdrawn.

By throwing the doors open to new, watered-down criteria for what makes a person ‘an interpreter’, the MOJ must have believed they had found the way round the inconvenient truth that the skill we have is special and impossible to replace overnight.

Boomerang effect

The MOJ has succeeded in achieving the exact opposite of their aim, as the stories over the course of 2012 have demonstrated. The idea that moving the goalposts would not affect quality has been rubbished.

This dispute has been about the risks of ignoring the standing of a profession that is an essential component for the smooth running of any legal process that involves people whose first language is not English.

The way ministers singled out rates of pay as the reason for the reaction of interpreters against the framework agreement was wrong and highly mischievous. Interpreters hit breaking point with the scrapping of the National Agreement – the framework that more or less compelled (but did not oblige) the public services to use us. It included a payment framework set up in the late 1990s and, which in the case of the court service and many police forces, was last updated in 2007.

At a time we are all being told to tighten our belts, with full-time public sector workers taking a two-year pay freeze, the imposition of a far more draconian set of measures for language interpreters overlooked the fact that our own conditions had barely changed in a decade. I have argued on many occasions that the MOJ’s saving had already been made from 2000-2012 by effectively freezing the rates paid.

This dispute should be seen as the reaction of a profession that, for the most part, wanted to remain in position but who have other choices. Rather than threats of abandonment, the entire approach by interpreters has been to encourage the government to ensure that we remained involved.

The NRPSI consists of just over 2,300 qualified professionals who have obtained the Diploma in Public Service Interpreting by passing a test consisting of:

  • Two interpreting modules each consisting of a role-play lasting 25-30 minutes
  • Two written examinations, one into each of the languages being tested
  • Two sight translations where the candidate is asked to read a document straight into another language

You would imagine this qualification – a mental Krypton Factor assault course for language professionals – would secure a reasonable standing. It is high time the skills involved in attaining a professional level as an interpreter were recognised with statutory protection of title.

Far from relishing the stories emanating from courts across the land, the mood among my colleagues is one of great regret. Like many strikes, there is a hard decision to make but accepting the ALS/Capita terms would have ended up in many interpreters having to give up, so the feeling many had was that they might as well just go on strike from the start. 

What our job involves

The demands of the job are heavier than you might think. Imagine being called on at 6am on a Sunday for a witness statement at a police station 200 miles away, or at a trial involving any crime you could care to name, or a PACE interview lasting six tapes followed by a drive home in the early hours. Then there is the emotional strain of a life of constant reaction to short-notice demands to drop everything. You don’t know what will happen or when, you have no idea how frequent or infrequent the need for your services will be.

A call can bring a job that starts mid-evening where initially it might not look like it will take all night, but then a legal (or other) complication can result in a delay and you find yourself emerging at 4am and handling a court case you accepted weeks before at 10am many miles away. You handle it but it takes its toll. This is not a job that has a steady salary, or any of the benefits. This isn’t a shop, where a bad day on Monday can be compensated for by someone spending a fortune on Wednesday – if we are not used on a particular day, we will never get that day back. The last four years have, on a personal level, set my life plans back by a decade.

It is understandable that the MOJ’s outsourcing favoured a company that thought a short assessment was sufficient as a replacement. If the MOJ believed becoming an interpreter was that easy, I would venture that that is because we perhaps made it look easy.

From the point of a suspect being arrested, an interpreter is on the telephone for the explanation of rights at booking in and they assist the solicitor in conference through to interview. The interpreter stays when the solicitor leaves, and if the suspect is charged, the police are only then involved if required as witnesses in any trial, for which a separate interpreter is also present from start to finish, including all preliminary hearings.

It is not realistic to expect someone to be available at short notice to speak Vietnamese in Carlisle or Lithuanian in Penzance. This unrealistic expectation is one of the causes of the MOJ’s initial dissatisfaction. The Ministry seemed to want all combinations of all languages available anywhere at any time and in one hour. It is my view is that they went for a problem they decided to overstate the importance of in order to be able to present a ready-made excuse to press ahead with their plans.

Even under the old system, someone living in a more remote area speaking a more infrequently used language might well live closer to police stations and courts. This may be the ideal for the MOJ, but the interpreter in question would be living in areas where they would never receive enough calls to remain available, and their presence so close to the venues they were supposed to serve would become irrelevant.

For the most part, languages required are available for the communities that need them because NRPSI interpreters are nearby. The entire 2300-strong database of the NRPSI (minus the chicken-hearted and short-sighted 305 who signed up) has been made to suffer greatly for the fact that the rarer languages were not always easy to find.

It takes a massive combination of varied circumstances to produce each extreme, from the ready availability of a Spanish interpreter in central London to Hebrew and Dutch interpreters who regularly travel the length of the country because they are the nearest people available.

It is like any other product or service – it is either available or in stock, or it isn’t. You’re more likely to get a plumber at a week’s advance notice than one at 3am on a Thursday night. You are more likely to get a piece of Ron Arad furniture in London at a specialist store than in Carlisle. You can expect it to be difficult to procure the services of a specialist stained glass artist than a normal glazer if you want a broken window to be replaced. Not all interpreters are difficult to find at all times. But all interpreters were scapegoated for the instances where the impatient client didn’t get what it wanted immediately.

False claims

Justice minister Crispin Blunt, speaking in the Commons earlier this year, and again the same week on BBC Radio Four’s Today, attacked interpreters for ‘taking advantage’ of a system that allowed them to earn ‘six-figure salaries’. Salaries are not paid to freelancers, nor are any of the benefits Blunt – or a police officer – enjoys such as paid holidays. The idea that anyone ‘takes advantage’ of something that was offered rather than demanded is laughable.

On the Today programme, Blunt claimed that fees were paid for jobs lasting five minutes. This, like his claim of interpreters earning six-figure sums, may be true for a tiny minority of instances but it is not the interpreter’s fault that some hearings are very short. However, even for a very short hearing, legal advice provided beforehand by solicitors takes up time and most of my attendances at court have lasted over two hours and often longer.

Sometimes cases come to court and are adjourned for reasons that are neither the defendant’s nor the interpreter’s fault. In practical terms, I cannot imagine how any public service interpreter could earn in excess of £100,000 in a year. A full week in a Crown Court pays around £1,000 and trials lasting a week or more that run full length are rare. I had three such trials in eight years from starting work in 2004 to when ALS-Capita came in earlier this year.

We make a living. We do not earn a fortune. The original estimated spend on language services has been £60m for the entire justice system. If you divide £60m by the 2,300 NRPSI qualified professionals, you get an average of just over £26,000.

My earnings have rarely topped £30,000 (and some of my work is private sector). I should also point out that I am qualified for two languages. To even attain the dizzying levels of lavish living I am accustomed to, I have given up an entire Christmas Day for a PACE interview with a rape suspect, spent entire weekends attending various police jobs, and been asked to rush from a court case in Wales in the morning to a police job in North Yorkshire going into the early hours before getting up to reach another court.

The Minister’s comments have only served to underline what I suspected: that in the overall cost-benefit analysis played out since 2009, any cost involved in securing our skills is seen as an inconvenience and has overshot any appreciation of the benefit we bring.

Solution: consolidating a profession

I would like to point something else out. Interpreters and translators have been portrayed as leech-like animals, sucking resources out of the public purse. First of all, we have shown what the wider costs of not using us are. Secondly, where do you think our pay goes? On various taxable goods and services that go back into the exchequer. Thirdly and perhaps most interestingly, and speaking for myself, even when doing public service interpreting, my work did include some written translation and some of that was for overseas clients. That means our skills bring revenue into the UK exchequer from other economies. We are, effectively, exporters to some extent. The UK government should be proud of us. Instead, we have spent three years as virtual pariahs.

Whatever the MOJ wants to misguidedly believe, the events of 2012 have vindicated my insistence to colleagues that we did have a skill that was as rare and valuable as we believed. Interpreters do not want to be seen as concentrating on rates. The only way to resolve this is to recognise the standing of the profession, retain the talent there is, and build on it. This is what the MOJ was urged to do in the first place by a profession that knew what would happen, but instead they fell into the hands of Applied Language Solutions.

Most – in fact, almost all – NRPSI interpreters just want to go back to work and be paid a rate that is commensurate with our skills and that recognises the degree of refinement that skill has, combined with the depth of experience and knowledge we have. There is a song from the early 80s, recorded by both the Go-Gos and Fun Boy Three, because it was co-written by members of each group, and it is called “Our Lips Are Sealed”. Although the origins of the song’s lyrics are a far cry from our situation, it still speaks volumes.

Until there is some concrete action to make good on the crucial role we have now proven we play, as far as police and court interpreting is concerned, I won’t be taking on a single job – my lips remain sealed.

An earlier version of this article appeared in The Justice Gap.

Recommended citation format:
Marc STARR. "Our lips are sealed: what we are fighting for in the UK and why". aiic-usa.com November 8, 2012. Accessed June 7, 2020. <http://aiic-usa.com/p/6334>.

About the author(s)

Marc Starr is a freelance interpreter based in Manchester. He is qualified for court interpreting in Spanish and Portuguese and also holds the CIoL Diploma in Translation from both of those languages into English.