Lost in translation: it’s time that outsourcers were brought to justice


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Answering his mobile phone, one grouchy Scottish MP moaned last week that secession was overshadowing crises in Syria and Iraq: “You want to talk about the referendum don’t you? I was just about to leave the house and go campaigning [for a No to independence].  I’m having to do this while the world goes to hell in a handbasket.”

Whichever you think is the bigger concern, there is no doubt that the MPs who resat for two weeks, and the researchers who remain during conference season, have only been talking about Scotland and the legality of possibly supporting US air strikes on Islamic State in Syria. As a result, any business-related issues that have cropped up in Parliament have, understandably, received scant attention from our political masters or the mainstream media.

But here’s one issue and it relates to most of our most strategically important companies, given outsourcing’s role in essential services: Capita.

Deep within a 70-page policy paper to be put before the Liberal Democrat  conference next month is a call for the party to “undertake an urgent review of procurement within the Ministry of Justice with the aim of improving the process of procurement, the nature of suppliers selected, and the structure of the contracts”.

Senior grass-root Lib Dems note that the Justice Select Committee, which is chaired by the party grandee Sir Alan Beith, was “scathing” about a number of contracts, in particular one involving the provision of court interpreters.

The paper argues that under the contractor, Capita, the interpreters “appear to be costing more money and yet [have] reduced service delivery to an unacceptably low level”.  For example, the cost of hiring translators to help non-English speakers at crown or magistrate courts nearly doubled from £7.9m in 2012 to £15.5m a year later.

Post-outsourcing fiascos included the bizarre instance of an “interpreter” at a murder trial in Winchester, who admitted he was standing in for his wife after a fair few linguistic blunders. Ministry of Justice procurement is a “car crash”, grumbles a Lib Dem lawyer.

Payments totalling a little more than £46,000 were withheld from Capita’s translation and interpreting arm between May 2012 and November 2013 – a tame penalty for a series of serious failures on a contract that was supposed to save the taxpayer £18m a year.

The Lib Dems blame many of the Ministry of Justice’s procurement problems – which also include Serco and G4S charging fees for tagging non-existent offenders – on the Conservatives and also the civil servants who oversaw botched contract negotiations under the last Labour government. But in coalition, the party has always had a minister in the department and they can’t escape a degree of culpability. If passed, an urgent review would become party policy, but would not necessarily be included in the manifesto.

Even if it does, let’s hope that the current Lib Dem justice minister, Simon Hughes, presses for that review to get started now. It would be wrong to save this as an election pledge on the off-chance that lightning will strike twice – in a row – and the party gets another shot at power-sharing.

Gunfighter’s last stand will impress some other big guns

Few Westminster politicians had a good referendum, but Gordon Brown surely did.

Our former prime minister left office a shell of the ferocious political titan who ruled the Treasury through a volcanic temper and a will of iron. Rather than leading Labour to a fourth straight term, Mr Brown was anchored to the lowest rank of prime ministers, joining Alec Douglas-Home in leading the country despite having never won a general election.

Rarely can a disliked PM have been so suddenly rehabilitated after years of brooding over his misfortune in having led the country at the wrong point of the electoral cycle.

Yesterday The Times, hardly a newspaper linked with editorial support for the son of the manse, praised Mr Brown’s “fists clenched… bravura performance” at the final Better Together rally in Glasgow.

This “tub-thumping, angrily passionate address… punctuated by cheering foot-stamping and cheering” saw Mr Brown declare: “Scotland belongs to us all. This is not their [the SNP’s] flag, their country, their culture, their streets. This is everyone’s.”

This was the battered old gunfighter’s last stand, a shot at redemption for past failures. By contrast, Tony Blair left the House of Commons to a standing ovation led by David Cameron and soon snaffled a lucrative advisory role with J P Morgan – but in the years since, his reputation has sunk deeper and deeper into the mud.

Sir John Major was never as disliked as Mr Brown, but he still endured a wounding time in office. His standing in the public’s eyes slowly improved and four years after leaving office he was snapped up by the US private equity giant Carlyle as chairman of its European funds and advisory board.

No one thinks that Mr Brown is as enamoured of money as Mr Blair or a free marketer from the Tory party. But that doesn’t mean the dough wouldn’t be welcomed.

Don’t be surprised if Mr Brown isn’t offered some well-paid work with a big conglomerate, probably American given his love of the country, very soon.