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14 December 2012 | Anna Reynolds
The procurement and implementation of the Ministry of Justice's (MoJ) contract for translation services with Applied Language Solutions (ALS) was “an object lesson in how not to contract out a public service”.
This is the view of the chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts (PAC), Labour MP Margaret Hodge, who said: “The ministry had been warned that ALS was too small to shoulder a contract worth more than £1 million, but went ahead and handed them an annual £42 million contract covering the whole country.”
An excoriating report into the deal by MPs said the contract would have been more effective if the ministry had listened to concerns from interpreters and trade bodies. Hodge also criticised the MoJ for failing to realise how many interpreters it needed and ignoring interpreters who had concerns about the contract.
The MoJ appointed ALS to a four-year framework agreement in August 2011. It then signed a five-year contract under the framework with ALS for all courts to use them from January 2012. ALS was acquired by Capita just before the contract was signed and struggled to recruit enough interpreters in time.
As a result, many of the interpreters had not had the official checks or the required skills or experience and there were even reports pets had been registered to test this. Hodge described the result as “total chaos” and accused the Ministry of letting the supplier off lightly, fining the supplier just £2,200.
The report accused the MoJ for going live with the contract too early, when Capita-ALS had only 280 interpreters compared to the required 1,200, resulting in poor-quality interpreters being used and ineffective trials which had to be delayed or postponed. The PAC also criticised the MoJ for failing to conduct a proper pilot and for failing to sufficiently incentivise ALS to meet its requirements under the contract.
When the contract first went live, Capita-ALS only met 58 per cent of bookings and the PAC found the company is still struggling to recruit interpreters. Further, the MoJ cannot be sure that all the interpreters working under the deal are fully qualified because they are not inspecting Capita-ALS despite having the right to do so under the contract. The report concludes that too many courts are having to find their own interpreters so the aim of providing one centralised system has not been met.
Justice minister Helen Grant said in a statement: "The MoJ had strong reasons to change the old interpreter booking system, which the National Audit Office acknowledged was inadequate in several respects and which the PAC accepts was administratively inefficient. We have now seen a major improvement in performance - more than 95 per cent of bookings are now being filled, complaints have fallen dramatically and we are continuing to push for further improvement. We remain confident the contract will make the expected saving of £15m a year."
Capita-ALS said in a statement: “This performance is continuing to improve. We acknowledge that, as with the old system, there have been challenges but we are determined to get the service running at full efficiency, providing transparency of opportunity for linguists and fully supporting the MoJ, police and court service."