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UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 645-ii
House of COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE the
Interpreting and Translation services and the Applied Language Solutions contract
Tuesday 30 October 2012
Andy Parker, Sunna van Loo and Gavin Wheeldon
Helen Grant MP, Ann Beasley and Peter Handcock CBE
Evidence heard in Public Questions 59 - 237
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Taken before the Justice Committee
on Tuesday 30 October 2012
Sir Alan Beith (Chair)
Mr Robert Buckland
Nick de Bois
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Andy Parker, Joint Chief Operating Officer, Capita, Sunna van Loo, Public Services Director, Capita, and Gavin Wheeldon, former CEO, Applied Language Solutions, gave evidence.
Q59 Chair: Mr Parker and Ms van Loo from Capita, welcome. Mr Wheeldon, formerly of Applied Language Solutions, welcome. We have some questions to ask you today. The amount of interest that is aroused by this issue is illustrated by the fact that, as you will be all too aware, there are two Commons inquiries going on-one by the Public Accounts Committee and one by us-into this subject at the moment.
The Public Accounts Committee obviously has a particular focus on value for money. We have a focus on issues that affect the capacity of the Department to manage major contracts and we want to learn some lessons about that, but we also have a particular concern about the future effective operation of our courts and the other services to which language services are provided. We will want to look at where we can go from here, so our interest is not merely in what happened but also in where we go from here.
Could I start with Mr Wheeldon and ask how the framework agreement was modified after the Ministry of Justice’s consultation in June 2011?
Gavin Wheeldon: I don’t think there was any framework agreement in place before then, so-
Q60 Chair: There must have been a draft, wasn’t there?
Gavin Wheeldon: No, or at least if there was I certainly don’t remember seeing it.
Q61 Chair: If there was, you didn’t know about it.
Gavin Wheeldon: No.
Q62 Chair: So you don’t know, really, whether the Ministry changed the basis on which they were going to work with you as a result of their consultation.
Gavin Wheeldon: Yes, absolutely. From my recollection, I don’t think I ever saw any framework agreement at that point, so what was happening in the background I don’t know.
Q63 Chair: How aware were you of the concerns of professional interpreters about the framework agreement?
Gavin Wheeldon: Obviously I was very aware of the concerns of the interpreters, both directly to us through the Ministry and through other channels of social media, where there was a lot of chatter.
Q64 Chair: How then did you base your assumptions about how many interpreters you would need to service the contract and what would be the appropriate level of fee for each tier of interpreters? What were you using as the basis for making those decisions?
Gavin Wheeldon: The basis for that was predominantly on our experience with the northwest contract we already had, with all the police forces and also doing court work through that.
Q65 Chair: How much court work were you doing in the northwest?
Gavin Wheeldon: It was all first appearances, so-
Q66 Chair: Just first appearances.
Gavin Wheeldon: Yes, it was. So the vast majority was the police forces. We also had a number of contracts across the NHS and local government as well, so, although not a direct comparison, it is still the same market.
Q67 Chair: Do you recognise that court processes are quite significantly different in their interpreting requirement?
Gavin Wheeldon: Of course, yes. I think every area of interpreting is quite different.
Q68 Chair: You haven’t really told us a lot about what you had to work on. You had some experience in the northwest-significant experience, from what you say, of police, NHS and other areas, and limited court experience of first appearances-
Gavin Wheeldon: Yes.
Chair:-where there would be very little exchange between the court and the person for whom you are interpreting, as compared to a trial.
Gavin Wheeldon: It is fair to say that nobody had any real experience. In terms of a private sector business with interpreting contracts, we had by far the biggest experience in the justice sector because of the way the prior contract was run or the prior arrangements were run.
Q69 Chair: Looking back on it, do you think the Ministry of Justice failed to give you information you should have had?
Gavin Wheeldon: There was a serious lack of management information; that is something that everybody was aware of. If we had had that management information, it would have been much easier to do the planning, but obviously it just didn’t exist. None of the courts or any other parts really recorded any information at all, so all we were able to do was use what was available from certain parts, like the tribunals, and try and extrapolate out what we thought it would look like across the court system.
Q70 Chair: Is that a judgment made with hindsight or were you aware at the time that you were flying blind?
Gavin Wheeldon: Obviously we pushed and tried to get as much management information as we possibly could, but if it just doesn’t exist there is very little you can do to make it appear. So, once we got into the contract and were able to look at some of the management information, it provided a lot of insight that, had we known prior, would have allowed for better planning, but if it doesn’t exist you can’t make it appear.
Q71 Chair: What about information the other way? Do you think you gave enough information to the Ministry of Justice or, indeed, that they asked for enough information about what your real capacity was, and particularly your capacity to expand from the limited service you provided in the northwest to a national roll-out of a completely new system for organising court interpreting?
Gavin Wheeldon: They’ve obviously asked the questions about how we would do that and we put together quite detailed project plans of how we would roll it out and scale up, ready for that level of service.
Q72 Chair: When you gave them those project plans did you say, "Well, you haven’t given us enough management information, but, on the basis of the limited knowledge you have given us, here is what we think"?
Gavin Wheeldon: Yes, absolutely. At all points we did push for more management information to try and get that, and I know the Ministry did make endeavours to get that. I believe they approached a number of courts, so we did push for that. Obviously all of our assumptions were made on the basis of, "This is how we believe it will look."
Q73 Chair: At any stage in that did you feel, more than you might usually do in a business venture, that this was getting very risky?
Gavin Wheeldon: We knew it was going to be hard work and we knew-it was something we were open about-that in the first couple of months there would be problems. We saw that with the northwest police forces and we knew it would happen again in this scenario. I don’t think we expected it to the level it ended up at by any means, but we knew that going into it there would be issues and that was something we openly discussed.
Q74 Chair: Could you have negotiated your way out of some of the problems with professional interpreters?
Gavin Wheeldon: I’m not sure. The resistance that was there from the interpreter community was obviously a lot more than we expected and that we saw from the northwest. I am not sure what else we could have done. I think it’s fair to say that for the interpreter community, or certainly a small element of it anyway, it’s a fairly binary decision for them; it’s either the old arrangements or no arrangements. We made a number of approaches to all of the professional bodies to try and have discussions and to make this transition in a sensible manner, but the level of engagement was not what I thought you would expect from a community.
Q75 Nick de Bois: On that point, specifically which bodies did you contact and was it a two-way dialogue?
Gavin Wheeldon: Yes, it was. We approached NRPSI, APCI-and I can’t remember who else. We also held working groups with interpreters that are members of none of the professional bodies, which is actually a large amount.
Q76 Nick de Bois: So it was two professional bodies. How many professional bodies are there?
Gavin Wheeldon: In terms of the justice sector there are probably only really two-those two-that have any influence. There are a number of professional bodies that have a tiny amount of members. I personally can’t remember which ones we approached. I know the only two that engaged with us were NRPSI and APCI.
Q77 Jeremy Corbyn: What do you mean by "resistance by the interpreting community"?
Gavin Wheeldon: They didn’t want to see this contract go ahead. The arrangements that were in place they were more than happy with and they didn’t want to see this contract go ahead.
Q78 Jeremy Corbyn: Do you think they were justified?
Gavin Wheeldon: No, I don’t.
Q79 Jeremy Corbyn: Why not?
Gavin Wheeldon: The old system was very broken and it needed fixing, on a whole host of fronts. So there had to be change and that community didn’t want to see any change whatsoever.
Q80 Jeremy Corbyn: Is your company doing it better?
Gavin Wheeldon: It’s not my company, so-
Q81 Jeremy Corbyn: Is your contract doing it better then?
Gavin Wheeldon: Obviously I don’t have the figures. I left in July.
Q82 Jeremy Corbyn: Why not? Why don’t you have the figures?
Gavin Wheeldon: Because I no longer work there, so I wouldn’t have access to those types of figures. My understanding is that, certainly when I left and from what I hear, it has improved dramatically. So, yes, I do believe it’s being done better and I do believe that for the long term it will be a much better system.
Q83 Chair: There was one other specific question before I turn to Mr Buckland and it is just about the Tier 3 work. What was Tier 3 supposed to be for? What kind of work were Tier 3 recruits supposed to do?
Gavin Wheeldon: Tier 3 was generally aimed at community work within the police forces. That was the main thing that we discussed around the usage of that particular tier. It was an opportunity for new interpreters coming through the system to get some exposure in the justice sector and be able to work through the ranks. One of the things that the framework was designed to do was to bring new blood into the system and give them experience. This was a way of doing that and for us to encourage them to go and get the appropriate qualifications to move up from a Tier 3 to a Tier 2, to a Tier 1.
Q84 Chair: But they were not expected to do either court work or police interview work.
Gavin Wheeldon: All we did was to set the tiers. We said, "Look, these are the tiers; these are the qualifications that they have." The end user was then tasked with who is most appropriate. We expected, within the court system, to only see Tier 1 and 2. It’s worth saying though as well that, with rare languages, a lot will be a Tier 3 and therefore will be assigned Tier 1 work because that is simply the way the system is designed.
Q85 Mr Buckland: Mr Wheeldon, 30 January 2012 was the date of full national implementation. Did you have any concerns that things were not as they should be?
Gavin Wheeldon: It’s hard to remember back, I am sure. We knew, going into this, there were going to be issues and, like I say, it is something we discussed openly.
Q86 Mr Buckland: What issues did you think were going to arise after implementation initially?
Gavin Wheeldon: If we looked at the northwest police forces, there was an initial resistance by interpreters in the hope that the contract would be squashed. Certainly within the northwest, within a matter of weeks, that resistance melted away and people started to join the contract and therefore we were able to hit the numbers expected. So we knew that that was going to happen. Obviously, with hindsight, there are all sorts of other things you might see, but at the time, walking into that at that point, we had appropriate systems and-
Q87 Mr Buckland: With hindsight, do you wish that you had said to the MoJ, "Look, we are not ready for a national roll-out on 30 January. Can we pause this?"
Gavin Wheeldon: With hindsight, I’d have said a whole host of things. I don’t know if that would have been one of them.
Q88 Mr Buckland: You don’t know whether that would have been one of them. There were a number of issues that you didn’t alert the MoJ, weren’t there, relating to the capacity of ALS being able to comply with the contractual obligations? What about server capacity? There was insufficient server capacity, wasn’t there, to meet the demand?
Gavin Wheeldon: No, not that I know of. Do you mean server capacity as in IT servers?
Mr Buckland: Yes.
Gavin Wheeldon: I wouldn’t say so, no.
Q89 Mr Buckland: What about the problem with Middlesex university? They were administering assessments, weren’t they, and then they pulled out? Did you notify the MoJ about that?
Gavin Wheeldon: They hadn’t pulled out at that point.
Q90 Mr Buckland: When did they pull out?
Gavin Wheeldon: I can’t remember the dates. Sunna will probably be able to answer that better.
Sunna van Loo: I think it was around January. I can’t remember the exact date.
Q91 Mr Buckland: Around January but before national implementation. Was it before 30 January?
Sunna van Loo: I would have to check. I think it was around January/February-time where that happened.
Q92 Mr Buckland: Perhaps you would let us know subsequently.
Sunna van Loo: Yes.
Q93 Mr Buckland: There was a failure to notify the MoJ about instances where there was no record of a check of qualifications or enhanced CRB disclosures of individual interpreters. That’s right, isn’t it?
Gavin Wheeldon: It probably is, yes. Some of those issues weren’t flagged up the chain internally straight away. I know that some staff failed to record or photocopy appropriate certificates, and that probably wasn’t flagged straight away.
Q94 Mr Buckland: Shouldn’t that have been a matter that would have been dealt with before a national roll-out so that you were absolutely ready? Would that be a fair comment?
Gavin Wheeldon: I think we believed that, with the amount of people who were registered, if you make the assumption-which you naturally would-that if somebody is registered and has been through a process they are going to do the work, we would have been in a much better position going into the roll-out.
Q95 Mr Buckland: Just to remind ourselves of some of the statistics that Mr Corbyn asked about, in February 2012 the level of fulfilment ran at only 65% and the performance target was 98% in that first month.
Gavin Wheeldon: Correct.
Q96 Mr Buckland: In the first quarter of the operation, 13% of assignments were the subject of a complaint. That was 2,232 complaints.
Gavin Wheeldon: I can’t remember the exact numbers, but that sounds-
Q97 Mr Buckland: Hardly satisfactory.
Gavin Wheeldon: No, it isn’t. It is far from satisfactory.
Q98 Mr Buckland: You have conceded some points, but are you able to pinpoint what it is that meant that for those early months of 2012, after implementation, things were far from satisfactory? What things would you have done differently now to remedy those problems?
Gavin Wheeldon: It is very difficult to say if there is one particular point. The main issue was the level of interpreters that were agreeing to work for us. There was an awful lot, as I am sure that people are aware, of intimidation around this contract and encouragement-strong encouragement, shall we say-for interpreters not to do the work, even where they had registered or taken some assignments and then decided not to work. If you took that-
Q99 Chair: If you are alleging intimidation, you would have to produce some evidence of that for us.
Gavin Wheeldon: There are plenty of police reports of interpreters who have reported these incidents to the police. There have been interpreters working for us-NRPSI interpreters-who have been assaulted, spat on, and threatened. The list of things that went on was quite horrendous. Honestly, if we had not seen the level of resistance that we had in interpreters, the other issues, which were probably much smaller, would have been the teething problems of any contract that you go into.
Q100 Nick de Bois: Did you ever report that to the MoJ?
Gavin Wheeldon: Yes, we did.
Q101 Nick de Bois: How did they respond?
Gavin Wheeldon: Report it to the police. They took it very seriously. They were looking-I believe they put posters up in some of the courts around intimidation, but they were very aware of it.
Q102 Chair: Was anybody charged with any offence?
Gavin Wheeldon: A number of people have reported this to the police. I don’t know how those panned out in terms of criminal proceedings, but it was a serious problem.
Q103 Mr Buckland: If you do have any written or documented evidence, we would be very obliged if you could send it in.
Gavin Wheeldon: I don’t personally, but I am sure there must be some available.
Q104 Mr Buckland: Can I come back to the Middlesex university problem? The date that we have is that the decision by Middlesex to terminate the agreement with your then company was 10 October 2011, and then it was on 3 January 2012 that your former company and Middlesex agreed to suspend their relationship under that agreement, with a final signature on that agreement to suspend being received from your former company on 17 February. So this was a problem that first emerged in October 2011. Why didn’t you notify the MoJ of it?
Gavin Wheeldon: I don’t believe it did emerge then. My understanding is that, up until probably the February date, we were still going to be working with Middlesex university. I know they were having problems with capacity and getting the number of assessments through, and we had some issues with that. They had concerns about their own ability to deliver the numbers that we required, but I am definitely not aware of anything in October.
Q105 Mr Buckland: This is evidence that comes from Brooke Townsley, who is the senior lecturer in interpreting and translation at Middlesex university. These are the dates we have been given.
Gavin Wheeldon: Have you seen any written evidence to back that up, because-
Q106 Mr Buckland: I have it in front of me. It has been sent to the Committee as CI78.
Gavin Wheeldon: I mean an email, a letter or anything that was sent.
Q107 Mr Buckland: This statement, made by the witness, is dated September 2012.
Gavin Wheeldon: I appreciate it is a statement, but I’ve never seen any email, letter or anything from Mr Townsley or Middlesex university that would suggest anything but a good relationship up until the end of January.
Q108 Mr Buckland: So your evidence is that you have no knowledge of any decision by that university to end the agreement with you in October.
Gavin Wheeldon: Correct.
Q109 Steve Brine: Mr Wheeldon, I am sorry to come back to you but you are in the hot seat this morning. Obviously you sold the business to Capita. How do you respond to their belief that ALS would not have achieved the service delivery improvements without their operational expertise and investment? You are a person like the rest of us; how does that feel?
Gavin Wheeldon: Obviously I’d see it slightly differently. The route we may have taken with the Ministry of Justice would have been different had we not been part of Capita. The way we rolled it out and various other things would have been different, so it would be impossible to say, had we been on our own, what it would have looked like.
Q110 Steve Brine: But you resigned by mutual consent-those famous words. I am just thinking, was the deal with Capita in the pipeline before you signed the contract with the MoJ?
Gavin Wheeldon: No.
Q111 Steve Brine: No conversations had gone on at all between you and Capita.
Gavin Wheeldon: I am almost certain. I don’t have, obviously, the dates in front of me but-
Q112 Steve Brine: I’m not looking for any specific dates; I’m just talking in general terms. Were there any conversations between your company and Capita before the deal was signed with the Ministry of Justice?
Gavin Wheeldon: No.
Q113 Steve Brine: Mr Parker, if I can bring you in-you have been sitting very patiently-what due diligence did Capita undertake prior to obtaining ALS?
Andy Parker: We did our standard due diligence when we acquire companies. That is a combination of financial due diligence and legal. We brought in HR people and external reporting accountants. Obviously the operation was more than just the MoJ contract, which had not started, because there was another side to the business around translation that was obviously very attractive to us. But we looked at things such as the operation of the northwest police forces to see how that had worked. We were also aware of the fact that the Scottish courts had done something similar and it appeared to work. So we looked at what evidence there was at the time and it appeared that similar services were being delivered on a much smaller basis.
Q114 Steve Brine: But you had to invest quite significantly, didn’t you-£3.5 million, according to my notes here-to rectify service delivery issues? You factored that into your due diligence but it was still worth you spending £7.5 million.
Andy Parker: We are still pleased we bought the business, if that’s the question, yes. As I said, there was more than just the interpretation side to the business. ALS owned some proprietary software, which has no use on this contract but is used on the global translation market, so the value of that IPR alone had a substantial value.
Q115 Steve Brine: Mr Wheeldon, did you want to add something?
Gavin Wheeldon: I was just going to say a reminder about the pay levels earlier. Something we did look at as well was the Scottish system, where it is considerably less than what we pay the interpreters. There, it is something like 30% or 40% less. So we looked at that and thought, if we’re paying a lot more than is happening in the Scottish system, you would think it would work.
Q116 Steve Brine: Just going back to you, Mr Parker, why then did Mr Wheeldon leave by mutual consent? Why not buy the company, have him in charge running the gig and everybody is happy?
Andy Parker: Because by mutual consent we agreed to part company.
Q117 Steve Brine: Why?
Chair: Can I ask you to speak up a bit so that all members of the Committee can hear?
Steve Brine: Was the conversation not had that Mr Wheeldon might continue working with the project but under your banner? I know what the words "mutual consent" mean in the dictionary, but why? What was the story behind it? Let us in.
Andy Parker: It was a private conversation with me and Mr Wheeldon, really. We agreed that we would go our separate ways at that point. It was four or five months into the year and we agreed to part company.
Q118 Steve Brine: You don’t wish to let us into those private conversations.
Andy Parker: I am more than happy to do that in private or in written evidence, but I don’t think a conversation between staff is appropriate in a public forum. I am sorry.
Q119 Nick de Bois: As part of an acquisition arrangement it is normal practice that senior management are required, under the contract, either to leave immediately or stay on for a certain period of time. Did your agreement to mutually part company come before any part of the contract that had a predetermined period that Mr Wheeldon would stay on?
Andy Parker: There was never any predetermined period. There was a subsequent period of time where, if Mr Wheeldon left, he couldn’t work in the language business.
Q120 Nick de Bois: There was a gardening leave clause or something similar.
Andy Parker: Just around the language, but there was no predetermined period.
Q121 Nick de Bois: It may not have been part of the agreement, but did you negotiate a new employment contract with Mr Wheeldon that subsequently you decided to terminate early? So, when you set out to do this, you would have said, "Oh, we’ll keep Mr Wheeldon for a year or two years."
Gavin Wheeldon: The employment contract I had was a standard employment contract.
Q122 Nick de Bois: So you just TUPE’d it over.
Gavin Wheeldon: Yes.
Andy Parker: Because it was an acquisition it wasn’t a formal TUPE, but it was the equivalent. We assumed all of the contractual obligations of the company and continued with the contracts of employment. For new members of staff that we took on they took on a Capita standard contract, but for the remainder they carried on with their old ALS contracts of employment.
Q123 Steve Brine: I am sorry to be a bore-I will take your advice, Chair, on this-but if Mr Parker is offering to give us something in writing after this evidence session, we would always be grateful. With regard to the conversations that went around the acquisition, was it said, to put a blunt point on it, "Yes, we’ll buy your company but there’s the door"?
Gavin Wheeldon: No.
Andy Parker: No.
Steve Brine: That happened after the acquisition was signed.
Q124 Seema Malhotra: My question relates to performance under the framework agreement through this year. Between 30 January and 31 August this year there were 72,000 completed requests for language services. About 11.4% of those were recorded as being cancelled by the customer-that is either the Courts Service or NOMS. Since July I am just wondering-actually, I should probably say particularly in September and October-what is your estimate of the interpreting and translation work required by courts and tribunals that you have undertaken and fulfilled.
Sunna van Loo: At the moment, in September and October we are quite close to delivering 100% of the available court work. I am by no means suggesting that we are filling all of those bookings. We are running at round about 95%, but almost all the court work booking requests are made to ALS, and it is around 85% to 90% of tribunal bookings, again, which are requests made to ALS for the fulfilment. So there are a number of tribunal bookings that are short notice, which currently aren’t provided for by ALS, but we are in the process of moving those back under the framework agreement.
Q125 Seema Malhotra: So 85% to 90% of tribunals work you think you are fulfilling.
Sunna van Loo: Of the volume of requests that we get in, the tribunals ask us to fill their bookings in round about 85% to 90% of cases. The fulfilment rate we have against that is about 95%.
Q126 Seema Malhotra: You have 1,135 interpreters on your database. Some 932 provided services in August this year and you are not yet providing a full service against the 98% fulfilment rate. Are you needing to do any more work to attract new interpreters to help that fulfilment and what sort of work are you doing?
Sunna van Loo: Yes, absolutely. I guess the information that we have gathered over the previous months gives us very good detail around the languages that we require and where we require them. That is extremely helpful for us in terms of understanding what the requirements are. We have a recruitment plan in place, which we are executing at the moment, which involves building relationships with awarding bodies and universities. We also work with the criminal justice organisations and ask for their support in terms of the interpreters that were working previously within the system. They may contact those interpreters and ask if they would be interested to work for us, so that is another opportunity for us. That has been very successful.
Q127 Seema Malhotra: Over what timetable are you looking to undertake this recruitment?
Sunna van Loo: We are recruiting on a continuing basis, so there is no-
Q128 Seema Malhotra: But do you have any targets?
Sunna van Loo: At the moment we have some specific targets around specific languages and regions where we know there is a shortfall, but in terms of the interpreting requirements going forward, we don’t have a defined maximum at this moment because there are a number of criminal justice organisations who have expressed an interest in joining the framework agreements. We would work with them, really, to understand what their volumes and language requirements are, to make sure that we can fulfil those.
Q129 Seema Malhotra: Just coming back to not having particular targets, there are variations in performance, particularly across regions and jurisdictions. Could you just tell us a little bit more about the extent of those variations and whether you have any specific plans for addressing those?
Sunna van Loo: Yes. There are variations in the performance on a regional basis and, again, the information that we have collected over previous months shows us that. That information is also available to the Ministry to review. That really equips us with a good understanding of the regional variations that there are, such that we can put particular focus on those areas where that is required. I guess, geographically, the location of certain areas and the population from within that region dictates that there might only be a certain number of interpreters available, but, again, what we are able to do is to look in the surrounding regions and cities to see what the interpreter availability is in particular languages.
Q130 Seema Malhotra: Could I just ask one question in relation to availability? There is a KPI under the framework agreement to have 95% of all languages catered for within a 25-mile radius. What is your view of how realistic that actually is and what did you think when you signed up to that?
Sunna van Loo: My view, knowing what I know now, is that that is not something that is achievable. I know it is a KPI in the contract. We obviously try to make sure that interpreters go to particular assignments that live close by, but certainly in the information we’ve provided to you, we show that that isn’t the case. I guess I can’t comment on why that KPI specifically was put into the framework, but what I can say is that I don’t think it’s realistic to expect the language requirements and the variety of language requirements that there are across the country to be within 25 miles.
Q131 Seema Malhotra: You say knowing what you know now, but you must have had a view on that at the time that you agreed to that and you signed the contract, and yet performance levels against that stood at 34% rather than 95% in August. Was this raised at all at the time?
Gavin Wheeldon: It’s probably easier for me to answer that.
Q132 Chair: Mr Wheeldon, can you help us with that?
Gavin Wheeldon: I’ll try. Given the lack of MI that we had at the time, if you look at it on the face of it, 95% of people within a 25-mile radius seemed perfectly feasible. It was that the vast majority would be more common languages and therefore we would be able to get them locally, and the ones that would most likely need to be moved around the country would be those of rarer languages. Without any MI, I don’t think we realised the amount of short notice bookings, which has an influence on the need to move people around. We were expecting somewhere in the region of 5%, and it ended up that more like 25% to 30% of bookings were short notice, so that obviously really influences how you can schedule your resources. But, equally, the variety of languages was probably a little more broad than we expected.
Q133 Chair: I live in BerwickuponTweed and there is not a wide range of interpretation facilities within 25 miles of Berwick magistrates court. There was one issue relevant to this that was put to us that I would like clarifying. It was suggested to us that, on occasions, a telephone conversation takes place in which the court is saying, "We want a interpreter", and the supplier is saying, "I am sorry but we can’t get you one until tomorrow or the end of the afternoon." Of course they say, "That won’t do for us because we’ve got another case then." That is then booked as a customer cancellation and wouldn’t appear in your figures as a failure. Can you refute that?
Sunna van Loo: Yes, absolutely. That’s not the case. Right at the start of the contract, in the first couple of weeks, there were some issues because one of the things that we did was to ramp up the back office staff by about 75 people, so there was quite an increase in staff and there were some-
Chair: Sorry, could you just say that again a little louder?
Sunna van Loo: Sorry. In the first few weeks of the contract we brought in a lot of new back office staff and there were a few issues surrounding training around what is a cancellation, what is unfilled, but we have always been open that that was a training issue that occurred right at the beginning and it isn’t something that is occurring now. I can be quite clear on that.
Q134 Chair: So it might have happened before your back office staff were fully trained and up to speed.
Sunna van Loo: It may have happened. It probably has happened on occasions and I think, also, one of the things that we needed to set with the Ministry was a very clear definition around when it is a cancellation and when it is an unfilled booking, depending on the time that the booking was made, for example.
Q135 Jeremy Corbyn: Representatives of professional interpreters-this is for all of you-believe the framework agreement is unsalvageable because the contractor is performing regulatory monitoring and disciplinary functions as well as supplying interpreters and there are unsatisfactory pay arrangements. Don’t you think you need to explain what you would say to professional interpreters if that was put directly to you?
Sunna van Loo: In terms of the contract being unsalvageable, I disagree with that. At the moment we are delivering 95% of service, which I appreciate is not in line with the contractual commitment. I also think that the functions carried out by ALS, which are obviously done at the request of the Ministry, address some of the functions that weren’t carried out previously. Previously there wasn’t in place a standardised skill level or standardised pay rates. A central booking system, for example, wasn’t previously available and management information was not something that was previously available. I know the Ministry were also very keen to have a complaints process in place, which of course is something that ALS also manage. In terms of those functions being incompatible, I personally would say that they actually complement each other in the provision of the overall service that the Ministry was looking for.
Q136 Jeremy Corbyn: What do you mean by the skill level?
Sunna van Loo: In terms of the definition around the skill level of the interpreters that is defined in the framework contract.
Q137 Jeremy Corbyn: You seem to allude to the fact that the previous skill level before you took over was bad.
Sunna van Loo: No, I am not alluding to that. What I was saying is that it’s standard at the moment. My understanding is-and I don’t want to speak on behalf of the Ministry-that I believe previously there are instances where interpreters did not all come from the National Register of Interpreters, which was one of the organisations that was supplying interpreters.
Q138 Jeremy Corbyn: Do you think the framework agreement needs to be modified?
Sunna van Loo: No.
Q139 Jeremy Corbyn: Not so that registered interpreters could operate to a sufficient standard, where you know what that standard is.
Sunna van Loo: Sorry, I don’t understand.
Q140 Jeremy Corbyn: Don’t you think that there ought to be a change in the framework agreement so that we know the quality of the translation and the quality of the people you are employing is?
Sunna van Loo: The standards are defined in the framework.
Q141 Jeremy Corbyn: But the performance doesn’t seem to indicate that to be the case.
Sunna van Loo: The performance of?
Q142 Jeremy Corbyn: Your company.
Sunna van Loo: In terms of the quality?
Q143 Jeremy Corbyn: Yes.
Sunna van Loo: I don’t think that’s the case. We’re delivering 95% of the standards, which isn’t sufficient; I appreciate that, but-
Q144 Jeremy Corbyn: Do you think it’s satisfactory-this is to all of you-that Capita should be the supplier of interpreters as well as the regulator of the service and, after all, what is a vast amount of public money that’s spent on this?
Andy Parker: We don’t actually control which interpreters take the job though; we just make the job available. The interpreters don’t actually work for us; they’re all selfemployed. Effectively, we’re just creating for that part of the role a booking service. We don’t know which interpreter, providing they are correctly qualified. If they’re a Tier 1 interpreter and a Tier 1 job is being offered, they can book that without any intervention by ourselves.
Q145 Jeremy Corbyn: Isn’t that a very convenient way out for you, because you’re getting paid for this, aren’t you?
Andy Parker: And we’re providing a service around-
Q146 Jeremy Corbyn: But you’re telling me now that the service is done by somebody else and you’re just getting the fee.
Andy Parker: Sorry, that’s not what I actually said.
Q147 Jeremy Corbyn: Just explain yourself then.
Andy Parker: We provide a service around providing the standardisation approach. We provide a booking portal. We give a service where we have a central complaints service. We ensure all the vetting is done. We ensure all the interpreters are correctly tiered and correctly qualified. We liaise with the court and then we provide a booking service for the courts on our IT. The courts make the request, either by telephone to our call centre or directly on to the portal, and then the interpreters have the ability to take those jobs without intervention by looking at our portal. If a job isn’t fulfilled by the portal, we would phone up a variety of interpreters based on their relevant skill sets. But on the basis that they don’t actually work for us we’re not really controlling who does what; we’re just making the job available.
Q148 Jeremy Corbyn: To me that seems extraordinary. You are saying that somehow or other you are not responsible when you have the contract-it is 95% only fulfilled, and then you are telling me it is the responsibility of individual interpreters that you yourselves phone up and ask to come and work. Why don’t you employ them directly?
Andy Parker: That would create many issues. In particular, we would be accused of having a monopoly of supply of labour.
Q149 Jeremy Corbyn: You clearly have a monopoly. There’s no doubt about that.
Andy Parker: I don’t believe we do have a monopoly because we don’t actually control the labour. They are all selfemployed. We’re making the jobs available across a whole range of agencies.
Q150 Jeremy Corbyn: I am sorry to interrupt you, but does that mean a selfemployed interpreter could not go into a court and work other than through Capita?
Andy Parker: No, because it’s not an exclusive arrangement.
Q151 Jeremy Corbyn: So that means you do control it then.
Andy Parker: Sorry, no. That’s not-
Q152 Chair: The courts are not empowered by the Ministry of Justice to bypass you. They do occasionally do so. If you fail, then they may find themselves looking elsewhere for an interpreter, but they can’t simply ignore the contract, can they?
Andy Parker: It is a nonexclusive contract.
Q153 Jeremy Corbyn: You’re the gatekeeper, are you not?
Andy Parker: We are the gatekeeper of the contract, but, given that it’s a nonexclusive contract, we can’t be the gatekeeper of the nonexclusive bit.
Q154 Jeremy Corbyn: I think you need to explain that.
Gavin Wheeldon: I was going to say, if you look at the overall size of the UK market for language services, this is a very small proportion of it. The NHS, I would say, is a much bigger market, so it’s by no means a monopoly.
Q155 Jeremy Corbyn: We are not talking about the NHS here; we are talking about the Ministry of Justice.
Gavin Wheeldon: You could say as well-I am talking obviously from when I was there-that, if we won, say, for example, Dudley NHS Trust, do we have a monopoly over Dudley NHS Trust? Of course we do. We are the supplier of the contract to that particular customer. It is not a monopoly over the UK market, and we would also regulate the agreed quality standards for that particular customer. It’s still not the regulator of the UK market. It’s a very small amount of a much bigger market in the UK and the wider.
Jeremy Corbyn: Mr Wheeldon, you seem to miss the big point.
Q156 Chair: Can I just get something clear from what you’ve just said? What would be the situation if you discovered that courts all over the country were bypassing your service and hiring interpreters separately? Wouldn’t you have a conversation with the Ministry of Justice in which you drew attention to the contract you had with them?
Andy Parker: We’d want to talk to the Ministry of Justice about working closely with the courts as to why they are doing that, but we have no exclusive right for their bookings. That is what the contract states.
Chair: I think we are working with two completely different understandings of what the current reality is.
Q157 Jeremy Corbyn: I am getting very confused here. Mr Wheeldon brings in the issue of the NHS, which is completely irrelevant to the inquiry we are undertaking at the moment. We are talking about the Ministry of Justice contract for court interpreters. That’s all. If a court wants an interpreter, must they come through Capita or can they employ somebody themselves?
Andy Parker: They could employ someone themselves.
Q158 Jeremy Corbyn: How would they do that?
Andy Parker: Sorry, they could employ someone themselves.
Q159 Jeremy Corbyn: Do they do that?
Andy Parker: In some cases they do, yes.
Q160 Jeremy Corbyn: If you found lots of courts were doing that, what would you say to the Ministry of Justice?
Andy Parker: I am not sure what we would say. They do that today. We’d look to work with that court as to why they felt it was necessary to not use the framework and we would try and explain the benefits that we believe are on the framework. But do we have a right to stop them doing that? We do not.
Q161 Jeremy Corbyn: Are you comfortable with being the regulator as well as the supplier?
Andy Parker: Yes.
Q162 Jeremy Corbyn: Do you think there is a contradiction here?
Andy Parker: From my perspective I don’t.
Q163 Jeremy Corbyn: You are supposed to be regulating yourself then, aren’t you?
Andy Parker: No, because-
Chair: Seema Malhotra wants to come in.
Jeremy Corbyn: Sorry, Chair.
Q164 Seema Malhotra: I just want to be clear on what it seems that you are saying. It seems like you have been saying that you are responsible for the provision of a service but not necessarily for the quality of the service being provided.
Andy Parker: We are responsible for the quality of the interpreter that attends. As part of this, what we can’t actually warrant is what happens when the interpreter is in court. If we then received issues from that court about the quality, we would investigate, and, as has happened in some cases, the ultimate sanction would be to remove the interpreter from the available list.
Q165 Seema Malhotra: Who is ultimately accountable for the quality of the service being provided?
Andy Parker: Ultimately that would be ourselves.
Q166 Chair: You have left a strange paradox there. Wouldn’t you actually be in a better position if you recognised an independent qualification system, not organised by you and those in it not selected or classified by you, and those are the only people you employed for the appropriate level of court work?
Andy Parker: The qualifications are independent of ourselves. We are just checking that people have these qualifications. The most common qualification or the most commonly known one is the DPSI qualification, which is the Diploma in Public Service Interpreting, but that is not something we issue. We are not in control of that. That is a recognised diploma.
Q167 Chair: But you have your own tiering system.
Andy Parker: Our tiering system was agreed by the MoJ, which they crosschecked against nationally recognised standards. So all we are doing is matching someone’s qualification against the tiering that was agreed, I believe, at the time of the contract.
Gavin Wheeldon: It is. As Mr Parker said, all the qualifications are independent. It is just a matter of looking at what they have and then matching them to an appropriate tier.
Q168 Nick de Bois: But you are the validator. If they don’t get past you as the validator, they can’t work for you. That’s the bottom line isn’t it? They may have the independent qualification, but it sounds like to me you are validating this.
Andy Parker: We are checking that they have that qualification and are appropriately vetted. Once they have that, then they would be on the register and would be available for work.
Q169 Nick de Bois: While you are arguing that your contract is not exclusive, and I accept what you are saying, the reality is in practice that it is a significant hurdle for anyone to overcome not to go through you. They would have to make their own arrangements with individual courts; they wouldn’t be able to say they have the same validation because you do validate them. So, in practice, you have an exclusive arrangement but not in law. Is that fair?
Andy Parker: That’s fair, and the intention of the Ministry of Justice, by putting this framework in place, was to get over all of those issues.
Q170 Nick de Bois: So the only question then is whether you are delivering or that is actually in the interests of the taxpayer.
Andy Parker: Yes.
Q171 Seema Malhotra: Could I just ask a question as well? This contract has obviously been running this year. What level of profits would you say you have made from the contract so far?
Andy Parker: To date we have not made any profit.
Q172 Chair: When do you expect it to go into profit?
Andy Parker: We would hope to get into profit next year.
Q173 Seema Malhotra: Is that in line with your forecasts at the time of signing the contract-that you may make investment in the first year?
Andy Parker: No; the performance has been less than what we expected.
Q174 Nick de Bois: Are you satisfied with your due diligence, because I know when I was running a company I would be absolutely furious. So, for example, the Middlesex issue didn’t emerge during your due diligence, despite the fact we have conflicting statements about it.
Andy Parker: We were aware of the Middlesex arrangement because it was a key part of the delivery.
Q175 Nick de Bois: But you weren’t aware of any complications with that.
Andy Parker: No. The first complication that we were aware of was when we chased for the marking by Middlesex university. It was after we chased because we thought that they were behind schedule and there appeared to be an issue.
Q176 Nick de Bois: Did your due diligence effectively contradict what Mr Wheeldon said-that he was completely oblivious to what was going on in his company and his supply chain?
Andy Parker: No.
Q177 Nick de Bois: So due diligence was complete, and then lo and behold suddenly you have a problem with Middlesex. It is extraordinary.
Andy Parker: At the time the marking was being carried out. It was only when there was a large backlog-an increasing backlog-and from my understanding we pressed for a speeding up of the process that we appeared to fall out with the establishment.
Gavin Wheeldon: It’s safe to say-and, Sunna, you would probably answer better- that there were a number of conversations with Middlesex prior to this where they were saying that they were going to improve performance and get more through; so there was no suggestion at any point that there was an issue.
Q178 Mr Buckland: But the agreement ended in February 2012, signatures were received and by 1 March the agreement to suspend had been reached. This agreement with Middlesex was suspended months before you bought the company.
Andy Parker: No. We bought the company in December of last year.
Mr Buckland: Sorry, December 2011.
Andy Parker: Yes.
Q179 Mr Buckland: But this was an ongoing issue because the initial indication about termination had come as long ago as 10 October 2011. You weren’t aware of it. Capita weren’t aware of it at all.
Andy Parker: It was not that we weren’t aware of it but it never came up in any of the conversations with Middlesex university.
Gavin Wheeldon: Even after that date into January.
Andy Parker: So into January we were still chasing for the marking, so it’s very difficult to say now why-we have never seen any information from this. We have been asked several times now about a report that was made. We have never seen a report; we never knew it was available. We have still never seen it and neither has the National Audit Office- about the queries about the assessment centre and the marking. The first we knew there was a problem was when we wanted better performance by the university and then suddenly there appeared to be an issue.
Gavin Wheeldon: There were several conversations in January, not just the one, around improving their performance, which they were unable to do.
Q180 Chair: We will give you the opportunity to reflect on that and clarify by letter what the situation really was. We have other witnesses coming and I want to just ask one last question, which is this, and it is to Capita. Are you content to carry on as you are, having made appropriate risk assessments of where you go from here, or have the Ministry of Justice in your view got to do something about the situation?
Andy Parker: We are in regular dialogue with the Ministry of Justice around improvements, suggestions from both us and from themselves. We continue to work closely with the courts, and, actually, where we have worked very closely with the courts, such as City of Westminster, we are now at 99.5% fulfilment. So we believe the contract is improving all the time. Are there certain things that we’d like to change? We talk to the Ministry of Justice all the time about that, about things both ways, about where we think improvements could be made, but until our customer tells us otherwise we will continue to deliver the service.
Chair: Mr Wheeldon, Mr Parker, Ms van Loo, thank you for your help this morning.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Helen Grant MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice, Ann Beasley, DG Finance and Corporate Services, and Peter Handcock CBE, Chief Executive, HM Courts and Tribunals Service, Ministry of Justice, gave evidence.
Q181 Chair: Mrs Grant, welcome back to the Committee, on the other side of the table.
Mrs Grant: Thank you very much, Chair. It’s lovely to be back here.
Q182 Chair: I know you’re looking forward to it very much indeed.
Mrs Grant: Very much so.
Q183 Chair: Mr Handcock, you have answered questions from us on this subject at a much earlier stage in this process when we expressed our concern.
Peter Handcock: Yes.
Chair: Ms Beasley, thank you also. We are glad to have you because we have quite a lot of questions to ask on a situation about which there are surprisingly different views about who is responsible for what.
Perhaps I should make clear, as I did at the beginning of the earlier session, that there are two inquiries going on-ourselves and the Public Accounts Committee. There is a slightly different focus in that the Public Accounts Committee must look to the value for money issues that are involved. We have particular concerns about the Department’s capacity to manage large contracts and draw up the specifications for large contracts. We have particular concerns about where we go from here, what the future for the court interpretation system is and whether any fundamental change is required at this stage. I am going to ask Mr Buckland to open the questions.
Q184 Mr Buckland: Yes. It is a question to Ann Beasley and Peter Handcock initially. We are grateful for the MoJ evidence, dated this month, which has explained that you are now using what you call an end-to-end process map for understanding the rather complex issue of how interpreters work in the system. That suggests to me that perhaps at the time of procuring these services there wasn’t a sufficient understanding of the complexities of interpreters’ requirements and their work. Would you agree with that statement?
Peter Handcock: Perhaps I could start and then Ann can answer it from a procurement perspective. I don’t think that’s true. We understood it was a complex process and what set us out along the road of changing the system was the complexity that we were dealing with, with a very uneven system, different parts of the system with different practices. One of our key objectives at the beginning of the process was to have a much more consistent and straightforward system. We will no doubt come to this later, but we acknowledge that we had a much more difficult implementation than we expected and that has coloured what has happened since, but we understood perfectly well that we had overly complex arrangements in place.
Q185 Nick de Bois: Do you think there was enough collaboration with the representative bodies of interpreters at the time of the procurement process?
Peter Handcock: We did an extensive round of stakeholder engagement with the interpreter community at large. If you look at the NAO report into the procurement process, it acknowledges that that was a very open and engaging process.
Q186 Mr Buckland: Looking back, you wanted to try and streamline or simplify the system. Perhaps another way of looking at it would have been to maintain the use of the national register, with safeguards, and then outsource payroll. Wouldn’t that have been a simpler way to try and achieve your laudable aim of consistency?
Peter Handcock: We considered a wide range of options. One of the important things to recognise here about language services generally is that we are a very small part of a very large market. It is not far off a £1 billion market, of which the framework that we are now talking about is about £90 million. It would have required-
Q187 Nick de Bois: That is 10%.
Peter Handcock: About 10% of the total market. It would have required pretty substantial investment from us to set up a system that could tap the potential critical mass of the whole market. So it seemed to us then, and, actually, it still seems now, that the right way to do this was to contract the booking service comprehensively.
Q188 Chair: That phrase is interesting because there was a stage during the questioning of our previous witnesses from Capita and ALS in which they seemed to see their role just as a booking agency. Is that how you saw it?
Peter Handcock: We see them as a straightforward contractor for the provision of language services across the justice system.
Q189 Chair: That is not the same thing. A booking agency is what it says. I go to a booking agency for a theatre ticket. They have no role in deciding whether it is a good play or not; they just make sure I have a ticket for that theatre on that night. That is a very different role from a monopoly supplier.
Peter Handcock: I don’t think they are a monopoly supplier.
Q190 Chair: A near monopoly supplier.
Peter Handcock: Well, 10% of the market probably-
Q191 Chair: No, of the supply of language services to the courts.
Peter Handcock: They operate the booking service for the courts, but, of course, the interpreters who choose to register with Capita ALS are still independent individuals, who are free to work either within that framework or anywhere else across the whole demand for language services. You are right that it probably isn’t right to characterise ALS as a straightforward booking service because they book against a set of qualifications. There are minimum standards for those that they can book, so, in a way, they have to guarantee to us that the play we are going to see is a good one.
Q192 Mr Buckland: Question marks were raised from a fairly early stage about the maintenance of standards, so, as a Department, what additional safeguards then did you put in place with regard to those obvious concerns that were being raised, not just about standards but also about rates of pay?
Peter Handcock: We have a contract with Capita, and Capita have an obligation to fulfil our requirement for interpreters with Tiers 1 and 2 interpreters under the contract. It is a matter for them to ensure that they pay market rates that enable them to fulfil that contract. If they were not doing so, then we would expect to be having a conversation with them across a wide range of things. It isn’t necessarily just pay that impacts on potential supply.
From the beginning of the contract, after we had a rather rocky implementation, we put in place very quickly a recovery team. We took back a proportion of the bookings to take the weight off the system, but we have also been very closely engaged with Capita. For example, we are now routinely inspecting their register of interpreters; we are routinely checking the work that they’ve done to check qualifications and tiering so that we have a very high degree of assurance about the people that they have on their books and the people that they are supplying. That wasn’t the case in the beginning, but we have put that right.
Q193 Steve Brine: The lesson for the future is that those sorts of checks need to be put in place right at the beginning of any procurement process, which I am sure you understand.
Peter Handcock: I absolutely do. With the benefit of hindsight, at the point where we believed we were ready to implement the contract there were a number of questions that we might very easily have asked that we didn’t, and had we asked those questions I suspect we would have taken a rather different course on implementation.
Q194 Mr Buckland: Could you help me as to one detail? We have been made aware of a conflict of evidence about the issue of Middlesex university and their withdrawal or suspension of a contract between them and ALS. You know they had a role in terms not of providing a substitute set of qualifications but an additional system. By early January, the evidence that we had received from Middlesex university was that, by 3 January, they had indicated there were problems to ALS and then the agreement was formally suspended in February. Were you made aware of those problems by ALS?
Peter Handcock: We certainly knew by-well, we didn’t actually understand that the assessment process wasn’t continuing until after we had launched the contract. I think that is right.
Mr Buckland: Right.
Peter Handcock: We believed the assessment process was still running.
Q195 Mr Buckland: So on 30 January, when it was rolled out, your understanding was that things were still hunkydory and things were still working, as far as you were concerned, and you had not been made aware of any issue about suspension.
Peter Handcock: No.
Q196 Nick de Bois: However, the National Audit Office suggested that, when the decision was taken-I am not sure whether this is for Ms Beasley or you-to shift to the nationwide roll-out, this was done partly to prevent regional boycotts. That suggests that you were aware of a scale of serious resistance from amongst the interpreter community, and this was of course before the contract was actually put in place, if it was coming to this decision to roll out. What put you on to that and why was it left so late to recognise that problem? Shouldn’t you have envisaged this coming up and dealing with it in a slightly more satisfactory way, because it obviously has led to greater problems? It didn’t solve the lack of supply of interpreters.
Ann Beasley: The original intention, as you will know from the NAO report, was to go for a regional roll-out. Part of the thinking behind that was that we had originally planned to roll out in conjunction with other criminal justice agencies, such as the police and CPS, at the same time. But, when we came to it, it was only the Courts and Tribunals Service that was rolling out, so we anticipated that the roll-out would be less complex.
We had undertaken a pilot in the northwest. Bear in mind that we had been working with a number of freelance interpreters for a long time and what we were introducing, if you like, was an outsourced booking process. Previously, that bit was done inhouse and we had used freelance interpreters inhouse; what we were then moving to was a booking process that was run by ALS. We tested that in the northwest pilot and the results of that were very good.
Q197 Nick de Bois: Was that a formal evaluation though? I am led to believe there wasn’t a formal evaluation of the northwest pilot before the decision to proceed to the roll-out took place.
Ann Beasley: No, I don’t think it was written up as a formal evaluation of a pilot.
Q198 Nick de Bois: Was that a good thing?
Ann Beasley: There was an assessment of the results that were achieved in that and the results-
Q199 Nick de Bois: Sorry, can I explore that? If it wasn’t written up, what was it-a chat? Did a few people get together and decide? There must have been evidence.
Ann Beasley: My understanding is that the results of the ability to fulfil bookings were monitored and in the northwest pilot they achieved the 98% service level that is in the contract. There was feedback on the usability of the booking portal, and the feedback on that was that it was very good. There were very few complaints. The bits that were kind of new in the model, which was essentially the booking process, had been tested in the northwest pilot, so we didn’t see at that point any reason to delay rolling it out further, which would deliver us significant savings.
Peter Handcock: Your starting point was that we should have understood from the level of opposition that there was in the interpreter community that we ought to adopt a different process to rolling out. So far as we were concerned, at the point of roll-out there were more than enough interpreters registered to provide the national service. That was the overwhelming consideration for us. We were conscious of the fact that, if we undertook a regional roll-out, interpreters might simply choose not to work in that region. I perfectly well understand the difficulty for interpreters in moving to rather different terms and conditions. We were conscious of that, but none the less we still wouldn’t have rolled out nationally on any basis other than an understanding that there were enough people registered with ALS to provide the service.
Q200 Nick de Bois: Where did you get that information from? Was it coming from ALS then or did you look beyond that, because quite clearly some of the evidence seen from ALS is, in my opinion, extremely suspect?
Peter Handcock: We now acknowledge, as we did in our evidence to the PAC, that the evidence that we had from ALS about the number of interpreters who were registered-actually, the data they gave us was accurate. What they told us was the numbers of people who had put their names on the booking portal as people who would be available to work under the framework. In reality, what happened was that, when the contract went live, a number of people who had done that chose not to work under the framework.
Q201 Nick de Bois: You weren’t aware through your negotiations. Did no one say, "Look, I think they are registering because they’ve got no choice; they want to stay in the marketplace, but actually they are trying to get work elsewhere and won’t work for them"?
Peter Handcock: With hindsight, we should have been more cautious about that than we were-
Nick de Bois: Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Peter Handcock: -but understand that, in order to get to that position, they had to make the physical effort of registering themselves on the portal, and at that point our assumption was that if people had gone to the trouble of registering on the portal that they would be available for work.
Q202 Nick de Bois: Finally, what did you do to deal with, I think, anticipated problems related to a potential decline in the quality of service to the courts? It is fair to say they were anticipated, weren’t they?
Peter Handcock: When you implement a contract of this kind and you are making a fundamental change in the way that you deliver a service into any business, you always need to anticipate that it won’t go as smoothly as you planned.
Q203 Nick de Bois: Particularly with the reduction in the fees.
Peter Handcock: No plan ever survives engagement with the enemy, does it? That is the way that these things always work. So we had a contingency plan; we hadn’t disbanded the teams of people that had been doing the work inhouse. We tracked where they had gone, where they had been redeployed, so that we could reassemble them very quickly. So we still had the capacity across Courts and Tribunals to revert bookings. It became obvious, really about midway through the first week of contract, that it was problematic. We were getting feedback very quickly that bookings weren’t being fulfilled in the right numbers. So we immediately took back all of our short notice bookings; in effect, we took back about 20% of the work. We did that because we were then catching the failures, if you like, so we were wicketkeeping the ALS system for a while, and to a small extent we are still doing that. So within about 10 days of contract problems we were on the problem and we had our own teams of people picking up the slack.
Q204 Chair: I have a point about taking back. It wasn’t clear to us in the previous session what the position would be if either the Ministry of Justice collectively or individual courts removed a very substantial part of the work that Capita was being expected to do and engaged quite large numbers of interpreters independently of that. How do you see the contract applying to that situation?
Ann Beasley: The contract is actually a call-off contract. There is no volume requirement in it. Capita have no redress if we choose not to put work through them and they only get paid for those assignments that they fulfil.
Q205 Chair: So they could invest quite substantially.
Ann Beasley: That is their risk.
Q206 Chair: You could take away three quarters of the work and they would have no redress.
Ann Beasley: We could. We had a number of reasons why we wanted to get into this project because there were problems with the previous system, but it is fair to say that one of the drivers was that we wanted to reduce the cost and we wanted to implement fee regimes that were actually operating elsewhere within the language service market because it would save us money.
Q207 Seema Malhotra: I want to explore very briefly the reason why a decision was made to run a pilot in the northwest. The reason I ask is because the decision about where a pilot is done is going to lend itself to having good information or not for a roll- out. There are some criticisms in that it was over a six-week period, including Christmas and new year; it was quieter; it was where ALS had a larger pool of interpreters. Was it a recommendation by ALS to run the pilot there or was that an MoJ decision?
Peter Handcock: It was our decision. It was our decision to run there. It is important to recognise that in piloting we weren’t-perhaps we should have been-load-testing, if you like, ALS’s capacity. What we were really testing was the effectiveness of the portal and the effectiveness of the booking system. The thing that gave us the problem on implementation was capacity; it was the number of interpreters who were signed up. But the purpose of the pilot really wasn’t to test that. It was just a question of looking at the number of people ALS had registered and allocated for tiers. So what we were testing in the pilot was the effectiveness of the portal, whether court staff could load the booking data into it, whether interpreters could book through it, whether it provided a user-friendly system and ran properly.
Although, as has already been said, there wasn’t a-well, actually, you might describe the process as a formal evaluation because, when the pilot was set up, we had a proper data specification for what we wanted to see from the pilot, we measured the success of the pilot and concluded that it worked. What it didn’t test for us was when we got to national roll-out whether those people who had registered on the portal nationally would actually sign up for work.
Q208 Steve Brine: I want to ask the Minister especially. We have just had the previous people in from Capita and the former CEO of ALS. In July of this year Capita replaced the senior management team in ALS, and the expression is that Mr Wheeldon resigned by mutual consent. They have promised us in writing, in private, the detail of what that really meant, which we look forward to with great interest. When do you expect that Capita will be fully operational, meeting its KPIs under the contract?
Mrs Grant: Since Capita became involved there have been considerable improvements. They have invested £3.5 million into service improvements, and that has in effect led to overall improvements and also some business process improvements between the MoJ and Capita in relation to the portal, the use of it and the information that can be usefully taken off it. At the moment we are about 3% short of KPI. The aim is 98%. It is going in the right direction, and certainly in some areas we are achieving our target of 100%-for example, in the prisons. But it is right to say, yes, we do still have some concerns in certain areas, certain jurisdictions with certain languages, and there is no room at all for any complacency.
In order to fix that, Capita are going to have to recruit more interpreters. We are going to have to move forward and implement the recommendations of the National Audit Commission, and generally we are going to have to work creatively and carefully and cleverly to get this to the standard that we all want. But my honest opinion is that it is considerably better than it was in February-hugely better. Complaints have dropped, performance has gone up, and the National Audit Office, as you are aware, have recommended that we fully implement the contract. I would hope, to answer your question, that by the end of the financial year, which is in March, we will have seen further improvements.
Q209 Steve Brine: I have a very quick question to Ann Beasley. Did Capita ever come back and say, "We’ve incurred quite a lot of extra cost"-£3.5 million", as the Minister says-and say, "This is all terribly awkward. We need something else from you"?
Ann Beasley: No.
Q210 Steve Brine: What if they had come back and said that? What would be your response?
Ann Beasley: Probably no-possibly more expansively but the gist of it would be no. Capita are in this for the long haul. They recognise that this is a good business to be in, they are looking forward to a long-term relationship with the Ministry of Justice and they need to invest up front. But over the lifetime of the contract, which is five years, they expect presumably to get back into profit.
Q211 Steve Brine: Do you think they are happy with their acquisition?
Ann Beasley: They seem to be.
Q212 Steve Brine: Can I just ask Mr Handcock what your estimate was of the extent then to which Courts and Tribunals are resorting to old arrangements to cover gaps?
Peter Handcock: I think what we took back-the short notice staff-would average about 20% of the total work load, certainly at the beginning, because, if there is a high level of failure for the longer-term booking, more falls back into the short notice stuff. At the beginning, when we intervened first, we were spending about £500,000 a month on short notice bookings. That spend is down by 80% now. We are spending about £90,000 per month on short notice bookings and it’s going down all the time. We have a plan; we are already migrating two regions-the midlands and the northwest-fully back into the contract. We will just watch carefully to make sure that that works and then we will begin to migrate the rest back. By the time we have been right round the country and finished the migration I suspect that almost all of the work will be back on contract.
Steve Brine: Just finally, Chair, if you would just indulge me, we had a magistrate in last week who was talking about whether it was broke in the first place. His exact words were, "Well, it wasn’t."
Chair: We are going on to that in a moment. Mr Corbyn had a supplementary question.
Q213 Jeremy Corbyn: It was on that sort of point. Ann Beasley said that the previous system had been very poor-a rather sweeping remark. What do you mean?
Ann Beasley: I don’t recall using the words "it had been very poor". I was just saying that there had been a number of problems with the previous system because each court and tribunal was booking its own interpreters. They had quite often paper copies of a list that was out of date. There was no proper complaints procedure. There was no ability to influence. If an interpreter had not performed well in one court, there was no system that ensured that they didn’t then operate in different courts.
Q214 Chair: Is there now?
Ann Beasley: There is now, yes. Because we have a single register and a proper complaints system, if there are complaints against particular interpreters and they are upheld, Capita remove them from the list. They have actually removed a number of interpreters following complaints. So that gives you a much better process for ensuring quality.
Q215 Jeremy Corbyn: Are you comfortable that so much of your authority has been handed over to Capita?
Ann Beasley: I am not sure we had that authority previously. At the moment it is people in the courts who probably would be the ones who instigated complaints against interpreters. Previously they could have done that for their own court and stopped them being used. Now they have an opportunity to make sure that if interpreters don’t perform to the right standards they are not used anywhere else. That seems to be a better system.
Q216 Seema Malhotra: This first question is to the Minister, Helen Grant. There has been an increase in ineffective trials during the course of the contract over 2011-12, as against the five previous years, and that is as a consequence of interpreter unavailability issues. The Magistrates’ Association have told this Committee that the new arrangements do not give magistrates confidence. How would you respond to these concerns?
Mrs Grant: I can honestly completely understand those concerns if they were expressed in February of this year. The situation, we have accepted, was bad, and a contingency plan was put in place very quickly to improve the situation. If the Magistrates’ Association are saying that that is the position now-that at this point they still do not have confidence in the system-then I have to say I am surprised and a little disappointed as well, because the figures that have been mentioned today already speak for themselves. We are at a 95% success rate level; complaints have reduced dramatically.
I can perhaps give you a few numbers here on complaints as well, if it would be helpful: criminal courts, from 9.9% in February down to 1.4% in August; civil and family, 5.8% to 0.6%; and in the tribunals from 17.1% to 5.2% over the same period. So, clearly, performance is getting better steadily and quite swiftly; complaints are going down.
Then, of course, we have the fact as well of the National Audit Office telling us or suggesting that we should certainly fully implement the contract. If the contract was not good, if there was no confidence in it, then surely the National Audit Office would have said leave it.
I am also a little bit surprised because I am aware of the fact that the Magistrates’ Association have stated that the number of comments that they are getting about the situation has reduced. So I really do hope that, very soon, they start to see some improvements.
Q217 Seema Malhotra: This question is to Ms Beasley. What progress have you made in assessing ancillary costs that will arise from ineffective trials, where that has wasted police time, and have you made any progress in the assessment of those costs of underperformance, particularly since the NAO report? There are some suggestions that the full cost of the ineffective trials as a result of unavailability-I appreciate that may have been going down-remains an issue and it is not fully costed as a result, in terms of the impact.
Ann Beasley: Yes. We don’t monitor, obviously, the actual costs. It will depend very much on the circumstances of any individual case. The estimates that we have of the cost of an ineffective trial are probably surprisingly low. Our estimate is that for an ineffective trial in the magistrates courts the cost is about £650 and it’s about £1,500 in a Crown court. It depends crucially on the assumptions that you make about what people do when a particular trial is ineffective. If you are the solicitor in the case, you have probably so much work to do that you maybe waste a very short period of time at court and then you would go on and do other work. That obviously critically-
Q218 Chair: This is a new idea from the Ministry of Justice-that ineffective trials aren’t as expensive as we used to think.
Ann Beasley: There is an NAO report-I think it dates back to 2006-that confirms similar sorts of numbers for the cost of an ineffective trial, because the world doesn’t completely stop if a particular trial does not go ahead at the exact hour that it was planned. Our estimates are that the costs are not that high.
Peter Handcock: But the numbers are quite small as well. That perhaps offers an additional explanation. In absolute numbers, for example, the number of trials that were ineffective in the Crown court, through the period of poor performance, was 11 in quarter one of 2012 and in the equivalent quarter of the previous year it would have been seven. So you are talking about four cases that were ineffective because we weren’t able to field an interpreter. The reason the overall cost is quite low is both because the court is still busy and all the people who would otherwise be in the court on that case are still busy, and the overall numbers are relatively low.
Q219 Seema Malhotra: I am assuming that you would be including in that additional time spent on remand and how long it takes to reschedule the court date.
Peter Handcock: It is all of those costs, and, as I said, we are quite encouraged by the fact that our estimate of cost is remarkably close to the estimate of cost that the NAO made when it published its report on ineffective trials in 2006. The methodologies come very close together.
Q220 Seema Malhotra: Mr Handcock, there have been concerns raised that there isn’t a complaints system for legal professionals and other stakeholders. Are you intending to work with Capita to implement such a complaints procedure?
Peter Handcock: We think there is one and we think it is our complaints process. You have to bear in mind that Capita are our contractors and we don’t think it would represent an appropriate standard of service to people who use the courts for us to invite them to pursue their own complaints with our contractors. We think that’s our responsibility. We think it’s our responsibility too, because when someone has a complaint about the provision of a service around a court hearing there may be any number of explanations for that and it might not be a Capita issue. We need to know that people are raising those complaints, first of all, so that we can ensure that it isn’t some part of the court process that has caused the problem and, secondly, to ensure, for example, that if an interpreter has been found to be inadequate we know that as well. But, where that complaint is made by a legal professional, we will then put that complaint on to the complaints system.
Q221 Seema Malhotra: What communications have been undertaken with organisations like the Law Society, who, for example, have told this Committee that they think there should be a complaints system? Would they be aware that they should be coming to you directly?
Peter Handcock: If they are not, we need to make sure that they are. But there is no question about it. If legal professionals have a complaint about the service that has been provided, we will take that complaint into the formal Courts Service complaint system.
Mrs Grant: Could I just add as well that any solicitor or barrister or anyone who is concerned can simply make the complaint at a court office or tribunal office and it will be passed through?
Q222 Nick de Bois: Minister, we have had suggestions rather forcefully put to us that interpreters believe the framework agreement is unsalvageable. Have you had those representations and how do you respond to that?
Mrs Grant: I don’t accept that position; I don’t accept those representations. Personally that has not been put to me, to my knowledge, but of course I am a relatively new Minister. But I disagree with the allegation. The performance figures in relation to this contract are considerably better, as I have already explained quite carefully with the statistics. The complaints are going down. The National Audit Office have said that we had very good reason to change the original contract and have said that we should go on and implement it. If interpreting organisations are saying it’s unsalvageable and it is not good, then I am a little bit mystified now.
I would also like to add, too, that I don’t think we should be under any illusions or misapprehensions about what the old system was like. As some of the Committee know, I was a family lawyer for over 20 years prior to becoming an MP and I worked in a pretty needy, edgy London urban borough where there was high, high need for interpreters and translation services. I have to say I have distinct memories of turning up on various mornings, looking through the glass of the court office and seeing frantic court staff phoning round, using books and scrappy pieces of paper to try and find translators and interpreters for cases.
I also have actual recollection of interpreters not turning up, turning up late or turning up and unfortunately not being of the quality that we would have liked. I also have personal experience as well of interpreters turning up for a full day and receiving a full day’s pay for perhaps a trial and then leaving after 10 minutes because the case was adjourned. Of course, that’s no fault of theirs but it is quite common.
Q223 Nick de Bois: Minister, I appreciate that, but there is some context-
Mrs Grant: So I do think it’s important, when comparing what is salvageable and what is not salvageable, not to be under any illusion about what the old system was like-just let me finish, please, if I may-because, although I had good relationships with some excellent interpreters, it was by no means uniform and it wasn’t perfect.
Q224 Nick de Bois: My issue is not whether there should have been change, and thank you for your lengthy context position there. My point is about whether this particular change is salvageable, and obviously others have made representations that they don’t think it is. Thank you for your answer. However, picking you up on one point, I don’t think there was any doubt, under the former national agreement, that it complied with articles 5 and 6 of the ECHR, which is all about providing translation services as a right for those in the justice system.
Given that the interpreters themselves and Fair Trials International are suggesting that as a result of the tiering system there might be some issues here where, potentially, we are not fulfilling our obligations-it is rare for me to use the ECHR in this context, I agree-I would ask you whether you think that there are any necessary legislative or other steps that are required to ensure that we do fulfil our current obligations under the EU directive on the right to interpreting translation services?
Mrs Grant: Of course I am aware of the EU directive and I am quite satisfied that the current contract meets that standard. There is a small team at the MoJ who work closely with European counterparts to look at implementation issues in relation to the directive and to talk through ideas.
Q225 Chair: Mrs Grant, there are two issues here. There is the ECHR issue-the article 6 fair trial issue-but there is also, as you correctly point out, the EU directive on which we have issues as well.
Mrs Grant: Yes. Thank you, Chair. In relation to the directive, yes, I am quite satisfied that the current contract meets that standard. I am also quite satisfied that when the transposition date comes, which I believe is 27 October 2013, we will be in compliance as well with all the various requirements.
Q226 Nick de Bois: Mr Handcock, do you think there is ever a case of unqualified interpreters being approached in the justice sector?
Peter Handcock: The contract requires an interpreter to be provided from Tier 1 or Tier 2. Those are highly qualified interpreters and it is very important that interpreters are properly qualified. There is a lower level of qualification required for Tier 3, but there are still conditions attached to being in Tier 3. There are occasions, particularly with rare languages or in difficult circumstances when the pool of interpreters is very small, when it might be necessary to use someone from Tier 3, still qualified but qualified to a rather lower level. Whenever that happens, the court is asked if it is content to have a Tier 3 interpreter, so ultimately it’s a decision for the judge. It is always a decision for the judge, actually, whether the interpreting service being provided is adequate, and I am quite satisfied that it is.
Q227 Nick de Bois: How many of those do we know that a judge may have rejected?
Peter Handcock: If a Tier 3 interpreter is offered and the court says, "No, that’s not satisfactory", I don’t think we have a record of that.
Q228 Nick de Bois: Do you think we should find out, to back up the very reasonable assertion you are making?
Peter Handcock: It’s a very small-we may-I am reluctant to say-
Nick de Bois: No.
Peter Handcock:-when we don’t have anything from the data, but I am certainly happy to have a look and see if we have a record. The proportion of cases in which Tier 3 is offered is only 2% of the total court volume. The offer is only made in 2% of cases, so it is a very, very small number.
Q229 Nick de Bois: Each case is very important to the individual.
Peter Handcock: Absolutely, absolutely, but I am completely happy and completely satisfied that there are no circumstances in which a judge would go ahead with a case where he or she was not satisfied that there was an adequate interpreter.
Q230 Nick de Bois: It would be useful if you think you could ascertain that.
Peter Handcock: I’ll see if I can find that information for you.
Q231 Chair: Minister, there are a couple of things I would like to ask you-one general and one very specific. The first question is what thought you and your ministerial colleagues have given to whether the Ministry needs to do anything now to regain the confidence of that substantial section of the interpreting community that has not participated under the new contract and remains very concerned about it.
Mrs Grant: It is very, very important indeed that we rebuild this important relationship between the Ministry of Justice and the interpreting community. It’s critical; it’s essential. We need to engage; we need to talk; we need to move forward constructively together. There are huge opportunities for the interpreting community and also huge opportunities for the Ministry of Justice in that engagement, so much so that I have already agreed to meet some of the umbrella organisations, namely, Professional Interpreters for Justice, whom I have suggested we should meet and have a chat and talk things through after this Committee hearing today.
Q232 Chair: Are there not perhaps two kinds of things that could be looked at? One is whether there are things that can be done in the remaining time of the existing contract, and the other is whether there are features, when the contract comes up again, which ought to be incorporated in it.
Mrs Grant: Yes. As recommended by the NAO, we have to work carefully and creatively. We have to find more interpreters as well and we are forever looking, with Capita, at different ways that we can innovate. We are looking at coming up, possibly, with some sort of new assessment process for rare languages, and we are also considering whether there might be some career progression within the Tier system effectively to move interpreters in Tier 3 up to Tier 1 or Tier 2. There is lots happening. We want this to work, we want to continue to have a very good and close relationship with this community, and we will endeavour to do whatever we can to make that happen.
Q233 Chair: I have a very specific question for Ms Beasley. We have been talking about court interpreting, but this contract covers a great deal more than that. What assessment have you made and what awareness do you have of the level of complaints or the level of satisfaction with the service provided by, now, Capita, for example, to NOMS and to the many institutions that have to use the service within NOMS?
Ann Beasley: My understanding is that the service level within NOMS is very high. In fact, it quite often reaches 100%, as the Minister said earlier. The feedback I have had is that they are very satisfied with the service that they are getting, and, as always envisaged, there were a number of police forces that also use the contract. My understanding is that they are also satisfied and the intention is that more police forces will use the contract in future.
The feedback that we have is that most of the participants within the justice system are satisfied with the contract. That is not to say that we are happy with the 95% level within Courts & Tribunals, and obviously we need to build that up and get it nearer to the 98% that is in our contract.
Q234 Chair: Have you any figures that you could subsequently let us have that give an indication of the situation in the noncourts area of this contract?
Ann Beasley: We can certainly supply some figures. Do you mean in terms of service levels?
Q235 Chair: Service levels, compliance and complaints levels-
Ann Beasley: Yes, we can certainly provide those.
Q236 Chair:-things that we are using as indications in the courts context.
Ann Beasley: Absolutely; we will certainly do that.
Q237 Chair: We also need to look at how they are working out in the other areas to which the contract applies.
Ann Beasley: Yes, we will do that.
Chair: Thank you very much indeed for your evidence this morning. That ends our session.