Should government departments deal directly with interpreters?

The arguments for outsourcing any type of work are clear: costs are reduced; efficiency is improved; economies of scale can come into play; and there is usually an application of appropriate technology that would be less likely to take place if the work was kept in-house.

The outsourcing model has also been successful in cutting costs and improving efficiency in the public sector. Council and government tenders have been big business for years, and although cuts have had a dramatic effect on certain sectors such as consultancy, in others there are still opportunities to be had.

Many public sector organisations outsource their language requirements, partly because this is a highly specialised area, but also to free up their internal resources; as widespread redundancies have forced them to streamline their operations to make the best use of remaining employees.

When it comes to The Police and Courts, however, interpreters have in the past been in direct contact with the organisations in need of the service. These organisations had access to the National Register of Public Service Interpreters and were able to contact individual interpreters directly and make the necessary arrangements.

For situations such as asylum interviews, the Department of Immigration has a pool of registered, freelance interpreters that are booked via a central source – interpreters are selected on the basis of locality as well as language and expertise, and the arrangment seems to work well for all involved.

Interpreters at Bradford Asylum and Immigration Tribunals staged a walkout last week in protest at Ministry of Justice plans to contract with one supplier to provide language services at courts and tribunals. Amongst other concerns, they fear that both pay and standards will be cut, and that this may result in miscarriages of justice for minority plaintiffs and defendants.

From a supplier’s point of view, pricing varies according to language, regional variety/dialect, subject matter, location, etc. In bidding for a contract, particularly within the public sector, an agency has to take all these variables into account and produce a pricing structure that is transparent and easy for the client/purchasing organisation to follow.

Fixing supplier pricing is the most logical way of doing this, and unfortunately this often does mean asking individual interpreters to reduce their rate to secure the business (or finding other interpreters who charge less). Putting pressure on individuals and implying that they have no choice but to reduce their rates is not acceptable, however, and I can see why those interpreters involved in the recent protest felt angered that a client they had dealt with directly as individuals for several years has put them in a situation where they may have to accept less money for their work, or lose the opportunity altogether.

Somewhere along the way, of course, some agencies have tried cutting corners by using lower priced interpreters without formal training, and who would have been ill-prepared for the task at hand in many cases. Sadly there are unscrupulous individuals in the world of language services just as there are dodgy lawyers, shady accountants and similar crooks in every other walk of life.

The function of an agency as far as interpreting is concerned is to streamline the process of finding an appropriate interpreter and remove this responsibility from the organisation in receipt of the service. I (along with many others) would argue that providing a consistently high level of service in this field should come at a premium, with a commensurate price attached.

Associations of interpreters believe, however, that they have managed to propose solutions that would both cut cost and provide an efficient service without compromising on the quality; saving Cambridgeshire Police over 30% in the last financial year, to cite one example. According to Guillermo Makin, of the Society for Public Service Interpreting Ltd: “Interpreter organisations have repeatedly offered the Ministry of Justice a plan in writing that would not increase expenditure but would in fact cut it. There is a precedent.”

Makin also believes that the MoJ scheme will also destroy the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI), an unwise move since the 2010 EU directive the UK has signed up to requires an independent regulator such as this. The register has been in existence for many years, covers 99 languages, and is the accepted, tried and trusted benchmark for a qualified interpreter in legal or medical interpreting. One wonders: If it isn’t broken, why fix it?

Interpreters out there: What do you think of this situation? Have you found that your are getting less of your assignments directly from clients in the Public Sector, or have you managed to maintain your direct relationships with such organisations? Have you seen a drop-off in demand recently? Please send us your comments.