The Front Line – Interpreting Services in the Public Sector

January 13, 2012 by admin

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Logic dictates that higher immigration levels increase the demand for language provision in both the healthcare and justice system. But what happens when increased demand and a need to cut costs meet head on?

For the NHS, providing interpreters for patients who do not speak English is vital for patient safety and dignity. However the availability of interpreters for specific languages does not always match the demand, and the nature of medical interpreting means that it is often required at a moment’s notice, and at any time of the day or night.  As a result, the NHS often have to rely on telephone interpreting services and use interpreters based in different time zones, though it is also true to say that telephone interpreting rather than face to face interpreting is frequently used in hospitals in order to cut costs.

Local authorities tend to be aware of the benefit of using face-to-face interpreters for less urgent work, such as GP appointments. To take an example, the Birmingham Primary Care Trust has created a specific service called the Birmingham Integrated Language and Communications Strategy. This service is designed not only to facilitate interpreter provision for patients, but also has the more general aim of bridging language barriers within the community.

Since its creation in 2001, the demand for interpreters through BILCS has increased year-on-year by 15%, an increase that is largely due to the rise in economic migrants, refugees and asylum seekers coming to Birmingham.

In Scotland the cost of providing interpreters has increased fairly dramatically over the past decade, with GBP 826,728 being spent on interpreters in the financial year to March 2008, compared with GBP 198,896 in 2003/2004. The Scottish Government has a duty under the Human Rights Act to provide interpreters in court so that those appearing can understand what is going on. Critics have said that there is not enough investment in English language class provision for immigrants, however there is a big difference between understanding basic everyday English and understanding court procedures, and therefore more investment in English language classes is unlikely to have a dramatic impact on expenditure on court interpreters.

In England, after figures suggested that Polish speakers made up a high proportion of the victims of crime in magistrates’ courts, with interpreting services for victims, witnesses and perpetrators proving costly, some police forces began to employ Polish nationals as Police Community Support Officers. This would presumably have had the bonus of making community support officers more approachable for the Polish-speaking population.

The government’s own efforts to cut spending have had far more negative consequences for court interpreters. In July 2011 the Ministry of Justice entered into a Framework Agreement with Applied Language Solutions worth GBP 60m. The aim was to substantially reduce the Ministry’s annual interpreting bill, whilst safeguarding interpreting quality. The decision has not gone down well with court interpreters, who already struggle to make a proper living out of interpreting work. Whereas interpreters were previously paid GBP 85 for a minimum of three hours’ work, and had their travel expenses paid for, under the new Agreement ALS did not offer to pay travel expenses, and also put in place a new lower three-tier rate of pay. Many interpreters have since complained that the new rates make it unviable for them to continue to work. Other interpreters complained about the fact that ALS required them to take a new test before allowing them to accept any interpreting assignment, regardless of their qualifications or years of interpreting experience.

The government has defended its decision by saying that it is ensuring that taxpayers get value for money across the whole justice system. However, with many experienced interpreters choosing to leave the court interpreting profession altogether, the integrity of the Justice system may find itself at risk due to an influx of less experienced interpreters taking on  complicated and demanding work. And it may ultimately be the victims of crime, as well as other vulnerable individuals who rely on interpreters when they appear in court, who stand to lose the most.


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