“Justice and the right to a fair trial have been seriously compromised”
Yesterday afternoon, members of Parliament held a debate in Westminster Hall on the continuing disaster that is the Ministry of Justice’s contract with Capita for interpreting services in courts and tribunals in England and Wales (posts passim).
Hansard has the full transcript of the debate, which is worth a quick skim – if nothing else – if one’s pressed for time.
In my reading of the proceedings, I have so far not found a single MP who spoke in favour of the current arrangements with Capita. A selection of their criticisms follows.
Does the right hon. Gentleman share my concern that we are hearing from people, such as the chairman of the Bar Council, about the significant costs and money wasted when trials collapse because of failures under the terms of the contract? Does he share my view that perhaps we would be better served if we considered saving those costs, rather than embarking on a revolution in legal aid provision and putting all that at risk again?
Next Alan Johnson, a former Home Secretary.
As a former Minister, I have been at the rough end of several Select Committee reports in my time, but I have never known three reports —t he National Audit Office memorandum, the Public Accounts Committee report and now the Justice Committee’s report — to be so consistent in their condemnation of a Government policy. A number of conclusions can be drawn from those reports. First, there were no fundamental problems with the original procedures. Secondly, the Ministry of Justice changed those procedures without understanding their complexities, or indeed the professionalism of the people providing the services. This is a caricature, but it seems that someone who knows a bit of holiday Spanish can now come in and do a job in the courts, which has proved to be disastrous. Thirdly, the MOJ awarded the contract to a company, ALS, that is totally incapable of fulfilling its requirements. Surely there can be little doubt about that. I do not think there are many people in this debate who will be arguing on the Government’s side, apart from the poor Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant).
The final conclusion is that justice and the right to a fair trial have been seriously compromised as a result of this debacle.
Thirdly, John Leech.
In a nutshell, the system was not broken. The MOJ was warned that its proposals would cause problems, which certainly proved to be the case. When the Select Committee decided to investigate, the MoJ tried to stop staff from assisting the inquiry. Frankly, that is not good enough.
We are not only talking about money; we must not forget justice and access to justice. In giving evidence, Mr Atkinson of the Law Society stated that while miscarriages of justice would occur infrequently, they were possible. Even one miscarriage of justice is one too many, but perhaps more concerning was his comment that “people are spending time in custody for no reason other than the lack of an interpreter.”
I could continue in this vein for some time, but will draw to a close with the words of Sir Gerald Kaufman.
All the available information shows that the system is not only failing abjectly, but damaging seriously the administration of justice in this country. In addition, it is costing the taxpayer huge sums of money in abandoned trials and in other ways.
My reading so far reveals not a single MP who spoke stood up for the Ministry of Justice and its failing contract with Capita.
That job fell to Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice Helen Grant MP, who was clearly well out of her depth and clung for support to the briefing note prepared by the MoJ’s civil servants and repeated the same misleading statements that had previously been parroted 3 weeks ago in the House of Lords by Lord McNally (posts passim).
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Pritchard. I genuinely welcome the opportunity to listen to the debate. I shall do my very best to respond to the issues raised today and to the important report of the Justice Committee.
I would like to affirm my Department’s appreciation of the services provided to the justice system by interpreters, many of whom I can see in the Chamber today. They ensure fairness in courts and tribunals; they encourage confidence in the justice system; and they are a vital part of the service that is provided. It is well known, however, that the old system was not ideal. It was inefficient, inadequate and did not provide good value for money. Those issues were noted by the National Audit Office in its report. The new contract and framework agreement were developed to address, as far as possible, those inadequacies. The reality is that we could no longer afford to reward people in a way that bore no relation to the levels of work that they carried out. The National Audit Office recognised that important reality, too.
Remuneration now more closely reflects the work being undertaken and is more closely aligned to the rates on offer for similarly qualified people in other public services. We do not deny that there were teething problems during the early stages of the new contract, and as the Ministry said in its response to the Justice Committee’s report, the initial performance was not satisfactory. Contingency plans were put in place quickly and had a direct effect. Disruption was kept to a minimum; we pushed Capita to improve matters urgently; and there was a significant outlay of investment on its part to improve services.
In the year 30 January 2012 to 31 January 2013, there were more than 131,000 requests for language services, covering 259 different languages, and the overall success rate was at 90%. That is a significant improvement on the 67% successful booking rate in February 2012. The number of complaints received, as against the number of bookings made, has fallen significantly. From February 2012 to August 2012, complaints fell from 10.6% to 1.7% in criminal courts; from 6.3% to 0.8% in civil and family courts; and from 19.2% to 5.6% in tribunals.
We take our responsibilities seriously, and we have ensured that each complaint is investigated. As has been said during the debate, lessons must be learned. I can assure hon. Members that lessons truly are being learned.
The above is only a sample of Helen Grant’s contribution to the debate. However, it is not difficult to picture her sat in Petty France with her hands over her ears ignoring the warnings of doom coming from all quarters and making a loud noise to attempt to drown out all voices that contradict the view of the world which she has been told to accept by her mandarins.