All 3 Baroness Coussins contributions to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022

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Tue 14th Sep 2021
Mon 22nd Nov 2021
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Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill Debate

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Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

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Baroness Coussins Portrait Baroness Coussins (CB)
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My Lords, I want to raise some concerns about the provision of interpreters in our courts and to suggest a way in which this Bill could improve the service. I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Linguists.

I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, for meeting me after I raised these concerns in the debate earlier this year on the Queen’s Speech, and for his subsequent helpful and encouraging correspondence. I am sorry he is not in the Chamber today, because he has assured me that the MoJ is already addressing some of the shortcomings. I want to flag up a possible amendment to the Bill which I believe would help.

Part 12 already acknowledges the potential role of British Sign Language interpreters for jurors. Sign language is not my area of expertise, but it is not too much of a stretch to see that this part of the Bill would be the logical place for a simple amendment to lay down a specific requirement for minimum standards in the quality and qualifications of the spoken-word interpreter. Their role is already established in court proceedings, but all too often there is serious detriment to defendants, victims or witnesses—not to mention the taxpayer—when an unqualified, underqualified or inexperienced interpreter causes confusion rather than clarity, often leading to costly re-hearings or even the wrong verdict being overturned on appeal. I gave some examples of such cases in the debate I referred to earlier and will not repeat them here.

The question is: how can the current MoJ system be improved so that only competent and appropriately qualified interpreters are engaged? The criteria for inclusion in the MoJ’s list of approved interpreters currently fall short of either the requirements for the National Register of Public Service Interpreters or the excellent, more recently formed, police-approved interpreters scheme.

The noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, has kindly briefed me on the stakeholder forum which HMCTS and the MoJ have been holding. I would be grateful for an update on these discussions. In particular, is there any good reason why the MoJ should not adopt the same practice as the CPS and use only interpreters from the National Register of Public Service Interpreters, which would guarantee an appropriate level of qualification and significant experience of the court and justice system?

There is consensus among the specialist professional bodies that the Diploma in Public Service Interpreting at level 6 should be the minimum standard for any court interpreting work, alongside requirements for experience which acknowledge the variation in complexity of cases. The level 6 standard is supported by the National Register of Public Service Interpreters, the Chartered Institute of Linguists, and the Association of Police and Court Interpreters. There is also support for the National Register of PSIs to be the officially recognised register for court interpreters. Are the Government willing to look at these aspects of a proposed minimum standard being incorporated into the Bill, which I believe would improve trust and confidence in the system?

I have two more brief but connected points. First, I am aware of concerns that the supply chain for court interpreters might not be robust enough to meet the minimum standard requirement that I have outlined. It is true that well over 1,000 public service interpreters have abandoned court interpreting over the past few years because of poor and declining terms and conditions, not least the derisory pay rates. However, a determined campaign could bring these highly skilled professionals back into public service, not just with better pay but also much greater recognition of their status and skills, and could attract more new linguists into the field. Does the Minister agree?

Finally, it has been reported that an American venture capital firm recently took a majority stake in thebigword, the company contracted to provide language services for our courts. What, if any, impact assessment or due diligence was undertaken by the department, HMCTS or thebigword on any changes in service delivery that this change in ownership is likely to have?

I look forward to the Minister’s reply and hope that, if all my questions cannot be answered this evening, either she or her colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, will be able to write to me.

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill Debate

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Department: Scotland Office

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Baroness Coussins Excerpts
Lords Hansard - part one & Committee stage
Monday 22nd November 2021

(2 years, 7 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 40-XI Eleventh marshalled list for Committee - (22 Nov 2021)
Moved by
280: After Clause 170, insert the following new Clause—
“Spoken word interpreters: minimum standards
Spoken word interpreters appointed to a court or tribunal must—(a) be registered on the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (“NRPSI”),(b) possess a Level 6 Diploma in Public Service Interpreting, or comply with NRPSI Rare Language Status protocols, and(c) have completed the requisite number of hours’ experience of court interpreting commensurate with the category of case complexity, as agreed by the Secretary of State in conjunction with relevant professional bodies.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would establish minimum standards for qualifications and experience for interpreters in courts and tribunals, along the lines of the Police Approved Interpreters Scheme.
Baroness Coussins Portrait Baroness Coussins (CB)
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My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds, the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, and my noble friend Lord Pannick for adding their names to my amendment. I am sorry that my noble friend has had to leave for another commitment, but he wanted me to confirm that he planned to speak in support of this amendment. I declare my interests as a co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages and the vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Linguists.

The purpose of this amendment is to establish in law

“minimum standards for qualifications and experience”

of those appointed to act as interpreters in Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service. For the avoidance of doubt, let me clarify that, for the purposes of this amendment, I am referring only to spoken word interpreters, not sign language interpreters.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, for meeting me earlier in the year to discuss this and related issues. I very much hope that the Minister replying tonight will be able to facilitate another meeting between me, other interested parties and the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, between now and Report to look at my proposals more precisely. Obviously, my best-case scenario is the Government accepting my amendment or coming back on Report with a better-worded version to achieve the same, or a closely similar, end.

I will not repeat the detailed case that I set out at Second Reading. I will simply summarise the way in which the appointment of court interpreters as it is currently organised, using the Ministry of Justice’s register and delivered via outsourced private companies, is inadequate—often seriously so, leading at best to mistakes and, at worst, to miscarriages of justice. It is an easy way for fake interpreters to present themselves. Too often, hearings need to be abandoned and expensively rescheduled, sometimes with defendants on remand for longer—all at public expense.

My objective is to strengthen the MoJ register for interpreters, thereby improving the quality and administration of justice. I will explain each of the three elements of my proposed minimum standards in a little more detail, starting with the second, which relates to the qualifications that a court interpreter should have. I am sure all noble Lords would agree that, if they were having heart surgery or even having their tonsils out, they would expect the surgeon to have more than a GCSE in biology. If they were passengers in an aeroplane, they would not expect the pilot just to have a geography degree and know roughly which way was south. They would not expect their car to be serviced by a mechanic whose only proven competence was in the use of a tin opener. Yet you can get on to the MoJ’s register of approved interpreters simply by having a GCSE pass or a low-level two-week foundation course, or just by being bilingual, even if you have never set foot in a court before.

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Lord Falconer of Thoroton Portrait Lord Falconer of Thoroton (Lab)
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Before the noble Baroness sits down, may I ask a question? Her amendment refers to every court or tribunal. Knowing how the courts are operating, for example, in family law, the urgent need for an interpreter happens every single day when urgent decisions have to be made about children. How long would it take to find an interpreter in such a case if her provisions, which I see as having great strength in criminal trials, were in force?

Baroness Coussins Portrait Baroness Coussins (CB)
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I can answer that only by saying I would have to consult the national register and chartered institute to find out how quickly they respond now and how that compares to the MoJ system. I agree it is an important element. Part of the problem will be the supply chain, but I think these issues can be overcome. I beg to move.

Lord Bishop of Leeds Portrait The Lord Bishop of Leeds
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My Lords, I endorse every word of what the noble Baroness just said. In a previous incarnation—that is probably the wrong phrase to use; I am mixing my religions—I was a professional linguist in Russian, German and French, working in government service. One of the things you learn as a professional linguist is that language goes deep. This is not simply a matter of picking someone off the street who can order a pint in a Spanish bar; you are dealing with the stuff of people’s lives. Surely accuracy is vital, for the sake of not only clarity of understanding but justice itself.

I could give many examples of how this works. There is the difference between translation and interpreting. Interpreting goes deep, because you have to understand that some things cannot be translated. That is how language works.

I will not trespass on eternity here, but will simply say that justice, whatever the logistical problems highlighted a moment ago, demands that people have clarity of understanding and expression in courts of law. I endorse every word that was said in the last speech.

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Lord Stewart of Dirleton Portrait Lord Stewart of Dirleton (Con)
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As I think I have said, the contract provides that, at the highest level, the standard is commensurate with that of the NRPSI. In answer to the noble Lord’s second point, of course none of that interrupts anything that I have said about the importance of identifying the point at which interpretation facilities suitable for the most complex case is to be found. Simply because a matter is not being tried at the Crown Court does not mean that it would not engage the need for the most detailed, able and comprehensive of interpreting facilities.

In closing, I can, as I said earlier, indicate that my noble friend Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, the Minister dealing with this matter, will meet the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, who is proposing the amendment. In the circumstances, I ask her to withdraw the amendment at this stage.

Baroness Coussins Portrait Baroness Coussins (CB)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for his detailed reply and all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate and supported the principle, if not every detail, of the amendment. Some very good ideas have emerged; I am particularly taken with that of a transitional period.

A couple of questions were asked. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, referred to family courts. In a family court where an interpreter might be needed at very short notice, it strikes me as even more important, if we are talking about families and children who may be in very vulnerable circumstances, to have an interpreter who is properly qualified. Rustling up somebody at very short notice might not serve the interests of those vulnerable families and children, but I agree that it is a complex situation.

On the point raised by my noble friend about courts sometimes finding it difficult to find interpreters, that is partly to do with the fact that so many interpreters—thousands, I believe—left public service when the MoJ system was contracted out to private companies, because those companies have sustained appallingly low levels of pay and poor conditions. The Minister referred to the need to get new interpreters on board. Yes, of course, that is right, but there are also a lot existing, qualified, experienced interpreters out there who need to be brought back into public service. I believe that if their status was raised and their contribution and professionalism more readily acknowledged by having these minimum standards, which they all complied with, they would be attracted back into public service.

The Minister referred to the fact that the MoJ system is audited by the Language Shop and that complaints were very low. Yes, that is true, but the Language Shop also failed 50% of the interpreters on whom it conducted spot checks, so it is clear that qualifications without experience are not good enough.

I am grateful for the promise of a further meeting with the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, to discuss the amendment, and I look forward to discussing this issue further on Report. With that in mind, I am happy to withdraw the amendment at this stage.

Amendment 280 withdrawn.

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill Debate

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Department: Ministry of Justice

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

Baroness Coussins Excerpts
Moved by
104FD: After Clause 172, insert the following new Clause—
“Spoken word interpreters: minimum standards
Within six months of commencement of this section, spoken word interpreters appointed to a court or tribunal must—(a) be registered on the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (“NRPSI”),(b) possess a Level 6 Diploma in Public Service Interpreting, or comply with NRPSI Rare Language Status protocols, and(c) have completed the requisite number of hours’ experience of court interpreting commensurate with the category of case complexity, as agreed by the Secretary of State in conjunction with relevant professional bodies.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would establish minimum standards for qualifications and experience for interpreters in courts and tribunals, along the lines of the Police Approved Interpreters Scheme.
Baroness Coussins Portrait Baroness Coussins (CB)
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My Lords, I remind the House of my interests as vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Linguists and co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages.

I am very grateful indeed to the Minister for the interest he has taken in the issue of court interpreters and my concerns about the weaknesses of the present system, as well as for his willingness to meet several times and discuss candidly the detail of my amendment. This dialogue has been very constructive and leads me to be hopeful that we can reach a positive outcome.

My amendment seeks to establish minimum standards for court interpreters based on their qualifications, experience and registration with the National Register of Public Service Interpreters—NRPSI. Obviously, I am not going to repeat the detail of the case I set out in Committee, but perhaps I could just comment on the response I had at that stage from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart of Dirleton.

There seemed to be three main reasons for rejecting my amendment. The first was that the MoJ system is already fit for purpose. For example, the noble and learned Lord said:

“All interpreters are required to complete a justice system-specific training course before they are permitted to join the register.”—[Official Report, 22/11/21; col. 659.]


This refers to the MoJ’s register. My understanding, however, is that that course takes four hours to complete, which does not strike me as remotely adequate for such potentially demanding and specialist work. It remains the case that the current MoJ register will admit people who would not be considered sufficiently qualified or experienced to be on the NRPSI—nor, indeed, on the Police Approved Interpreters and Translators scheme. The DPSI at level 6 is considered by all the specialist professional bodies in the field to be the correct minimum qualification for any court interpreting work.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart, also claimed that the MoJ system is fit for purpose because the complaint rate is less than 1%. I had claimed that the failure rate following spot checks was 50% but, in our subsequent meetings and correspondence, the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, has clarified that the 50% figure I quoted in Committee applied only to referrals of quality-based complaints, and that the overall failure rate is actually 5% of all assessments. I still think that a failure rate of 50% after a referral from a court or mystery shop is unacceptably high. I would also contend that even an overall rate of 5% out of hundreds of thousands of assignments each year could potentially lead to a significant drain on the public purse through the costs of rescheduling adjourned hearings or keeping defendants in custody for longer—not to mention the avoidable stress and confusion for victims, defendants and witnesses.

Secondly, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart, thought that my amendment fell short because it would not be right to take a one-size-fits-all approach, given that there are various levels of case complexity. But I agree with that: the point is explicitly acknowledged in my amendment, which specifies that the number of hours’ experience required should reflect case complexity and, crucially, should be agreed between the department and “relevant professional bodies”. In discussions with the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, over the past few weeks, it has been repeatedly pointed out to those of us supporting this amendment that there are no fewer than 1,000 different types of assignment. The mind boggles—well, mine does anyway. I would certainly love to see a list spelling out exactly what those 1,000 different categories are.

Thirdly, the obstacle of the rules on public procurement was raised as a reason why my amendment’s provision for the NRPSI registration was unacceptable. I still find this a bit odd and confusing as an argument, as the NRPSI is not a membership organisation, nor a supplier. It is worth remembering that it was established at the request of the judiciary in the first place after the interpreting calamity of the Begum case. It is surely just akin to the professional registers in many other fields, such as teaching, medicine or law, from which we would always expect and require practitioners to be drawn. There appears to be at least one significant precedent in that the Metropolitan Police Service mandates that all its listed interpreters must have continuous NRPSI registration. Of its annual 25,000 face-to-face assigned interpreters, only 2.5% are not NRPSI registered, and then for a very good reason—for example, to do with the need for a rare language speaker or the need for a super-speedy appointment in highly urgent or dangerous situations.

I accept, of course, that this whole system is complex and that there are inherent challenges to any solution that I have not touched on today, such as the supply chain of interpreters. I also acknowledge that the wording of my amendment may not be perfect, although I have tweaked it since Committee to try to build in a transition period, as suggested in Committee by the noble Lord, Lord Marks. But I have been encouraged by the approach of the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, in our discussions in that he acknowledges that if there are improvements that could or should be made, it would be sensible for them to be made before the current contract is due to be retendered in 2023. The challenge, of course, is to get to the bottom of precisely what those improvements are, and I am extremely concerned that there should be no more delay in establishing and achieving them than absolutely necessary. The current contract expires in October 2023, so presumably a revised tender will need to be issued some months before that in order to achieve a seamless transition.

With this in mind, we raised with the Minister the possible option of conducting a detailed and independent inquiry into exactly what the standards of qualifications and experience and other matters should be. I am hopeful that the Minister might be able to say something about that proposal when he comes to reply today. Such an inquiry would need to be conducted on a genuinely independent basis and cover all aspects of the MoJ’s responsibility for interpreting services, with a commitment to apply its findings to the next contract. I believe that such an independent inquiry would also have the credibility to help attract back into public service the many hundreds of professional interpreters who have left because of low pay, bad conditions or a lack of acknowledgement of their professional status. This exercise would have the potential to make a long-term strategic impact on the service, as well as knocking into shape the terms of the next contract. I look forward to the Minister’s response and beg to move.

Lord Pannick Portrait Lord Pannick (CB)
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My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for pursuing this important matter, and to the Minister for his engagement on a number of occasions with those of us who support the noble Baroness and are concerned about this. During those discussions, I expressed the view that it is striking that there is such a radical difference of view between the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, with her enormous expertise in this area, and civil servants as to how the system is working in practice. I therefore suggested to the Minister that one way forward in this important area would be for him to agree that there should be an independent assessment—an independent inquiry—of an outfacing nature that can rely on the expertise of the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and others in order to inform the department as to the way forward. That seems to be a constructive way forward, and I very much hope that the Minister will be able to say that the department is prepared to do that.

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Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, having begun my response to the previous group with an apology for getting a date wrong, I then went on to get another date wrong. The case of Antia is, for those noble Lords keen to read it, 2020 and not 2000. The rest of the legal analysis, I hope, remains unchanged. I will seek to avoid any reference to dates in what I am about to say.

This amendment would restrict the Ministry of Justice to appointing in our courts and tribunals only interpreters who are registered on the National Register of Public Service Interpreters and who possess a level 6 diploma in public service interpreting or comply with the national register’s rare language status protocols. I place on record at the outset my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, the noble Lords, Lord Pannick and Lord Hogan-Howe, and others for their time engaging with me.

This is a very important issue. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley of Knighton, noted that it goes to compassion, which is correct. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, said, it also goes to the heart of the justice process. Anyone who has done a case with interpreters knows how important their role is. Indeed, I remember one case where, when the witness answered a question of mine, it was interpreted through a language I knew, and I knew that it had been interpreted wrongly. The judge also picked up that the interpretation was wrong and the witness himself criticised the interpretation, thus illustrating that the presence of the interpreter was unnecessary, and they were dispensed with.

We currently commission the service of interpreters for our courts and tribunals through our contracted service providers, thebigword and Clarion interpreting. The contract has a clearly defined list of qualifications, skills, experience and vetting requirements interpreters must meet, which have been designed to meet the particular needs of the justice system. The highest complexity level has qualification criteria comparable to those set by the NRPSI. They are sourced from the MoJ register, which is audited by an independent language service provider, The Language Shop. All interpreters must have 100 hours of experience and complete a justice system-specific training course before they can join the register.

As the noble Baroness said, the overall failure rate of all quality assurance assessments remains low, at 5%. We believe that illustrates the effectiveness of the auditing measures. Complaints about quality are also carefully monitored and independently assessed by The Language Shop. The complaint rate remains low, at less than 1%.

I am confident that there are no systemic quality issues with the current arrangements. None the less, I discussed this in some detail with the noble Baroness and others and we want to improve the quality of the service we provide, if that is possible, right across the justice system. That is why I am commissioning a full independent review of our existing qualifications and standards and the requirements for each type of assignment our contract covers. There are over 1,000 of these—I do not have a list to hand. This will also consider experience levels and rare language requirements. The review will be completed in time to inform the retendering of our contracts in 2023. It will establish a detailed framework of the standards and qualifications required for all assignments covered by the contracts, with clear explanations and justifications for each. The aim is to ensure that our contracts continue to meet the demands of all our court users.

We will continue to consult external stakeholders, including the NRPSI—its input is highly valued. We will learn from other schemes, including the police-approved interpreter and translation scheme, which adopts a level 6 diploma in public service interpreting as a minimum qualification standard, but with safeguards to allow for exceptions as needed to ensure timeliness in progressing a case.

We understand that there are issues about the availability of NRPSI-registered interpreters in some parts of the country—40% of them are based in London. Under our current arrangements, we can control and direct recruitment for our register based on geographical and language needs. This is tied in to the supplier’s obligation to fulfil bookings and ensures that we can dictate recruitment trends to meet our requirements.

I cannot say at this stage whether the police-approved interpreter and translation scheme would be suitable for the Ministry of Justice. We are concerned not to have a one-size-fits-all approach; even within a court setting, interpreting in a criminal court is quite different from interpreting, for example, in the family jurisdiction. It is not only court settings; there is telephone interpreting for court custody officers, and service centres require interpreting assistance to support court users paying fines or responding to general inquiries. However, we will look at the outcome of the review. All the options we consider will need to be fully costed in accordance with government policy for large government procurements to ensure value for money for the taxpayer.

The review will be undertaken. We have already started some work; we want to establish the most appropriate and cost-effective solution, one which meets the current and future needs of the justice system and promotes the continued development and progression of new entrants into the interpreting profession. With renewed thanks to the noble Baroness for her time and the discussions we have had, including on the option of a full independent review, which I hope I have set out clearly, I respectfully urge her to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Coussins Portrait Baroness Coussins (CB)
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I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. I especially offer my thanks to the Minister and warmly welcome his decision to commission a full independent inquiry into the qualifications, experience and overall standards of all the different types of interpreters for court work. I look forward to seeing the terms of reference, the timetable and other details of this inquiry. I feel optimistic that professional bodies in the field will also feel encouraged by this development and welcome the decision. With that in mind, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 104FD withdrawn.