MPs dismayed by 'total chaos' of £42m lost in translation

Outsourcing of courts' interpreter service was 'an object lesson in how not to do it'

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.

Dragons' warning

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
food + drink
Life and Style
Shoppers in Covent Garden, London, celebrate after they were the first to buy the iPhone 6, released yesterday
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvSeries 5 opening episode attracts lowest ratings since drama began
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck stars as prime suspect Nick Dunne in the film adaptation of Gone Girl
filmBen Affleck and Rosamund Pike excel in David Fincher's film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
Warner Bros released a mock-up of what the new Central Perk will look like
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Website Editor

£15 - £17 Per Hour: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently r...

Year 1 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Birmingham: The Job An inner city Birmingham sc...

Year 2 Teacher - Maternity cover

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Year 2 maternity cover, startin...

KS1 Teacher

£95 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Key Stage 1 teacher require...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments