A drive to save money on court interpreters degenerated into "total chaos" yet the firm responsible for the shambles was only fined a "risible" £2,200, a withering report by MPs has found.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is facing deep embarrassment after the Public Accounts Committee accused it of presiding over an "object lesson in how not to contract out a public service". Its chairman, Margaret Hodge, said: "Almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong."
The farce began when the ministry decided to set up a centralised system for supplying interpreters for trials instead of allowing courts to hire them on ad-hoc basis.
It awarded the £42m contract to a small new company, ALS, despite warnings that it could only handle business on a fraction of that scale.
By the time the contract went live in January, the firm had recruited just 280 of the 1,200 interpreters the Ministry said it required to cover the country. Initially it was able to fulfil just 58 per cent of bookings – far short of its target of 98 per cent.
Mrs Hodge said: "Many of the 'interpreters' it thought were available had simply registered an interest on the company's website and had been subject to no official checks that they had the required skills and experience. Indeed we heard that some names were fictitious and one person had even successfully registered their pet dog."
She said the MoJ bungled by deciding that the new service would go live nationally in one big bang and by miscalculating how many interpreters – and in which languages – were required. "The result was total chaos. Court officials have had to scramble to find qualified interpreters at short notice," Mrs Hodge said. "There has been a sharp rise in delayed, postponed and abandoned trials. Individuals have been kept on remand solely because no interpreter was available and the quality of interpreters has at times been appalling."
In their report, the MPs accuse the MoJ of lacking intelligence in awarding the contract despite the risks to the smooth running of courts and to its reputation. It said the ministry failed to carry out due diligence tests on the company, which is now owned by Capita, and had so little understanding of what was needed that bidders were able to lead the process of awarding the contract.
It could not confirm that all of the interpreters working under the contract had the necessary qualifications, experience and enhanced Criminal Records Bureau checks. The MPs added that the MoJ appeared to ignore consultations with interpreters over the wisdom of awarding the contract to ALS.
The committee protested: "Risible levels of penalties and low expectations of performance allow private companies to get away with over-promising and under-delivering."
Richard Bacon, a Tory committee member, said: "The Ministry of Justice must learn from this debacle and pay far more attention to the basics of contract management in future".
Helen Grant, the Justice Minister, said: "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."
'Almost everything went wrong': ALS errors
* A murder trial at Winchester Crown Court was brought to a halt after the Punjabi interpreter confessed that he was an unqualified stand-in for his wife. He got the oath wrong for a witness.
* A retrial was ordered three days into a case at Snaresbrook Crown Court, east London, when the Romanian interpreter confused the words "beaten" and "bitten".
* A Vietnamese translator made a 560-mile round-trip from Newcastle for an eight-minute hearing at South-East Suffolk magistrates' court.
* A man who was charged with perverting the course of justice was told he was actually accused of being a "pervert".
* A barrister at Bradford Crown Court said it might be quicker for him to learn Czech when an interpreter failed to turn up for his client, who was accused of attempted murder.
Gavin Wheeldon appeared on the BBC2 entrepreneur show Dragons' Den to appeal for financial support for his translation business ALS five years ago. The dragons predicted success for him – but told him his valuation of his company was wrong. Whitehall, however, had no such qualms in handing a £42m contract to the firm.
Last year, Mr Wheeldon earned £7.5m when he sold up to Capita, with more to come if ALS achieves certain financial targets.