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Who Benefits from the Privatisation of Public Sector Interpreting? Part III

The ability to speak more than one language competently is not unusual in many parts of the world. This, however, does not eliminate the need for professional linguists. Interpreters, usually qualified to postgraduate level, offer far more than the ability to speak more than one language, particularly in medical and legal settings where the average monolingual individual may be challenged by the jargon used.

Old school

In the UK, the use of interpreters in various public settings is a statutory requirement under a number of domestic and international laws. As a common law jurisdiction, there is no concept of sworn or certified interpreters. Instead, for public service interpreting, following the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice report in the early 1990s, spoken (foreign) language interpreters were previously mainly sourced from the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI), “the UK’s independent voluntary regulator of professional interpreters specialising in public service” and non-spoken (deaf spectrum) language interpreters from the National Registers of Communication Professionals working with Deaf and Deafblind People (NRCPD), which holds registers of “interpreters for deafblind people, lipspeakers, notetakers, sign language interpreters, sign language translators and speech to text reporters”. Registration involves proven professional qualifications with evidence of interpreting experience. Interpreters were often contacted directly for assignments.

Given the distance interpreters may have to travel, unusual working hours and the length of assignments – which can involve a lot of sitting around in waiting rooms – interpreters were usually paid a basic 2-3 hour fixed fee for each assignment. For court interpreters, the fee agreed in 2007 was £85, in addition to travel expenses and overnight stay, where applicable. Similar rules still apply today, with different rates, in some public sector areas.


Court interpreter protest outside Parliament 2012

New rules

A major innovation in Applied Language Services’ (ALS) winning bid for the 2011 Ministry of Justice framework agreement for the supply of language services across the justice sector (courts, police, probation, etc.) consisted of smashing the existing pay and skills structure to pieces, replacing it with an untested and unworkable system interpreters warned of before it was implemented. While agencies continue to be paid high rates for public sector services, this does not reflect in interpreter pay.

The new qualification tiers meant that untested and unqualified individuals, who would not have been permitted before, can now interpret in difficult and sensitive settings. This was one way to compensate for the fact that almost no qualified interpreters were prepared to work under the framework agreement (months into the framework agreement, less than 20% of ALS’ interpreters were NRPSI-registered and thus qualified at all levels).

Pay was slashed to a maximum of £16 per hour for the most common interpreting assignments (tier 3), slightly less than the current rate under the second framework agreement, and around 30-45% lower than the previous rate. Travel time was no longer included. Attending assignments can now cost more than is earned. ALS’ cost saving was not due to technology but cutting the already modest pay of those providing the professional service. In 2011, the average annual income of a public service interpreter was £15,000.

The new system created a costly middleman offering a gig economy platform while siphoning off the already-modest wages of interpreters. The result was a boycott: in the first month of operation of the agreement – February 2012 – only 58% of bookings, out of an average of 700 requests a day, were fulfilled by ALS. Although unquantified, with respect to quality: “there have been reports of long delays and instances where interpreters were late, underprepared, underqualified or failed to turn up at all.” In May 2012, the NRPSI had over 2200 registered interpreters, whereas ALS had 1340, of which 305 were NRPSI-registered.

Miscalculation or…

The concerns of professional interpreters have been constantly disregarded. This framework agreement and its successors in the justice, medical and general public sector rest on the erroneous assumption that an interpreter is simply a foreign language speaker or sign language communicator. Anyone who has spent a few weeks in Mallorca can competently interpret Spanish for a pre-surgery consultation, mental health assessment or a deportation hearing, right?

The reality, as amply demonstrated in a case where two Slovak interpreters failed to attend the same adoption hearing on seven different occasions leading to Capita (as ALS was known after December 2011) being fined over £16000 in costs, is that even if there are thousands of speakers of a particular language in a given region, few are interpreters and even fewer are qualified interpreters: “on 7 May 2014 Capita had only 29 suitably qualified Slovak language interpreters on  its books (only 13 within a 100 miles radius of the Royal Courts of Justice) whereas it was requested to provide 39 such interpreters for court hearings that day. This is on any view a concerning state of affairs.”

Accidentally on purpose?

The tiered qualification system introduced by ALS suggests that it was vaguely aware that language interpreting and proficiency in a language are not the same thing. The system drastically reduced the qualifications and experience required. ALS claims it had sought the opinion of an academic from Middlesex University on its proposed system; however, it did not tell the Ministry of Justice that he had expressed “profound reservations” about the system and assessments for recently qualified interpreters, nor did the Ministry ask.

The result is that lower paid and less qualified tier 2 and 3* interpreters have been relied on in serious cases; tier 3 simply requires having “Demonstrable experience in the public sector with appropriate linguistic background”. A 2014 independent quality review found that less than half of the interpreters used in the justice sector held adequate or acceptable qualifications. The current system also lacks accountability; interpreters registered with the professional registers are held responsible for complaints about the quality of their work.

Under the second framework agreement, in force since October 2016, which maintains the tier system, the qualification requirement required by law has been worked around by defining rare languages as one “for which there is no qualification of Diploma in Public Service Interpreting”, which is the majority of them.


Poor pay and the use of under- or un-qualified interpreters for public service interpreting, where there is a statutory duty to provide one, is now common and a model adopted by many agencies providing such services. In 2013, the interpreting signs blog described the situation for professional British Sign Language (BSL) medical interpreters working for the now-bankrupt agency Pearl Linguistics:

“Pearl usually have a minimum fee payable to interpreters at £30 per hour for a minimum of £60. No travel expenses are paid. For an interpreter this is only feasible if you can squeeze in several jobs per day with little travel and preferably no extortionate hospital car parking. If you’re also paying back your student loan, additional costs of training and being self-employed the offer looks even more insulting. Oh and that’s without paying national insurance and tax on that sum. Really what’s the point?”

With respect to quality:

“Many good Registered Interpreters used to being self-employed are able to get work elsewhere, so they do. What happens then? Pearl say, well we will just use someone learning BSL because to get someone is better than nothing isn’t it? Well, no, absolutely not. These are people’s lives. A wrong diagnosis, the wrong treatment, a fatality are waiting to happen.”


This situation inevitably creates a disincentive for interpreters. In the justice sector, it has contributed to an ongoing boycott against the framework agreement by professional interpreters since 2012. Many experienced interpreters no longer work in the public sector or have changed profession, creating a dearth of qualified and experienced professionals.

A 2015 survey by the National Union of British Sign Language Interpreters (NUBSLI) found that 48% of respondents were “considering leaving the profession. Of those who were considering leaving, 93 per cent were qualified and about half of those had over 10 years’ experience.” Current large agency conditions “effectively de-professionalise interpreting leaving deaf people with no access”.

At the same time, there is little incentive for newcomers to enter the profession: training for a graduate-level qualification is costly. In addition, registration with the NRPSI requires evidence of at least 400 hours of professional experience. According to the NUBSLI, “It takes seven years to train a sign language interpreter and be on the National Registers of Communications Professionals working with Deaf and Deafblind People.” The entry qualifications for the unqualified interpreters used by many agencies – untested ability to speak two languages and no proof of other skills – lead to the same poor rates of pay and no recognition for qualified professionals.

Inexperienced interpreters or those looking for a bit of work experience before undertaking formal training may be daunted and put off when they realise that there is more to it than speaking other languages and that interpreters often work in dangerous and challenging environments; a first task for an unqualified interpreter sent by an agency could involve domestic violence issues in a court, social services or medical setting, or interpreting at a police station for a still drunk drink driver. The upshot may be a public authority that is none the wiser, a vulnerable person put at further risk and a traumatised and underpaid “interpreter”.


Experiencing traumatic events as an interpreter in public settings is not uncommon: a recent survey of NHS Glasgow and Clyde medical interpreters found that almost 60% had experienced traumatic events. As well as dealing with traumatic issues as a linguist, on occasion interpreters have been attacked physically and threatened at work.

Where an interpreter has to deal with a traumatic subject matter, professional confidentiality means that they cannot discuss the matter with others, leaving an interpreter who already works alone feeling more isolated.

The impact of vicarious trauma on interpreters has only been recognised in recent years. While training and support is available for the professionals – doctors, lawyers, social workers – interpreters work with, none is available for interpreters. For the untrained and unqualified who have no idea of what the job really entails, being thrown in off the deep end can have serious consequences for themselves as well as those they interpret for.

Skills, please

The skills interpreters offer are both linguistic and professional: punctuality, confidentiality, impartiality and relaying what needs to be relayed and not what one assumes is necessary or relevant, or one’s own opinion. This is acquired through training. A professional interpreter knows his or her limits: they do not interpret what they think they understand, but ask for clarification or an explanation. They are also aware that dialects of the same language can be mutually incomprehensible. An experienced interpreter may intervene to make sure that a speaker of a minority language is communicated with in their native tongue and not the majority language of the country they are from.

The public sector areas interpreters work in are not static, thus professional development is necessary to remain an interpreter. This is particularly so as errors by interpreters can be fatal, not just detrimental. In a research study by Multilingual Manchester on interpreting in healthcare settings in the city, interpreters told researchers that although they were trained on issues such as confidentiality and consent, there were aspects of interpreting in such a context they were uncomfortable with, for example, concepts, “such as ‘depression’ [that] do not necessarily exist in other cultures or languages. This may complicate the interpretation process significantly.”

The depth of knowledge required by interpreters is broad and expectations are high. Interpreters told Multilingual Manchester that “medical staff should be trained specifically for their work with interpreters.” If “value for money” is the rationale for privatising such services, then training users in how to work with interpreters and what to expect would inevitably save both money and time.

This is also a requirement of the 2010 EU Directive on the right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings, which has been transposed into the second framework agreement for the justice sector. Since 2016, thebigword, which has the largest chunk of the agreement for spoken language interpreting, has produced “a series of short educational videos for legal professionals so they can get the best out of interpreters.” While this is the best that public money can buy, medical charity Freedom from Torture is able to offer its medical practitioners training on how to work with interpreters, focusing “on effective communication skills and good practice for using interpreters in therapeutic settings”.

Modern education

Under the second justice sector framework agreement, the Ministry of Justice has made apparent attempts to address the quality and training deficit. The agreement includes an interpreter training requirement which thebigword plans to provide through the International School of Linguists (ISL). To this end, in July 2017, ISL claimed to have developed a Diploma in Public Service Interpreting (DPSI) with qualification company TQUK, which has no language sector background.

Rather than focusing its new qualification on quality public service provision, ISL launched its new course in aggressive marketing terms, with claims of having broken up “control of the linguist qualification market”. Since the 1980s, this qualification has been offered solely by the Institute of Linguists Educational Trust (IoLET), a “specialist languages Awarding Organisation”, not a corporate body.

IoLET hit back by stating that only it can award the DPSI, which “is not the same as the recently launched qualification of the same title offered by TQUK and delivered by ISL, which is a separate untried and untested award. There is no connection between TQUK and IoLET nor between the two qualifications.” ISL’s claim that the DPSI “has been producing the highest quality interpreters for many years” is a reference to the work of IoLET and not its own.

thebigword’s reported £1 million investment of public money in the ISL is harder to grasp when simultaneously funding for language courses at universities has decreased substantially and courses and departments are closing down. Claims of diversifying opportunities for language education and training are thus baseless when the public sector can indirectly fund private institutions but not its own academic institutions. With no real distinction in the qualification required to work in the public and private sectors, this affects private sector quality too.

The confusion created by ISL’s new qualification is another disincentive to future interpreters. The discouragement of seasoned interpreters and the dumbing down of skills and qualifications for newcomers is not without financial advantage: in the USA, SOSi, which provides immigration court interpreters, has maximised its profits through “a transition to a less qualified but more profitable workforce.” Such interpreters, who lack the breadth of opportunities of more qualified professionals, are in less of a position to complain or go on strike.

The fightback

The boycott by court interpreters has not attracted nearly the same level of interest strikes by other public sector workers have. This is partly due to the lack of importance attributed to the vital role interpreters play but also to the relative isolation in which interpreters work.


Public mural to mark 40th anniversary of the Grunwick Strike

One way of dealing with this isolation has been the creation of trade unions for professional interpreters and translators, such as the National Union of Professional Interpreters and Translators (NUPIT) and the NUBSLI. The latter, which represents at least one third of the 1100 BSL interpreters in the UK, has been particularly effective in mobilising BSL interpreters and fighting for the rights of their profession and the deaf community they serve. Most recently, the union “won a victory over fees, terms and conditions with LanguageLine Solutions”, one of the agencies operating under the Crown Commercial Services framework agreement. A strike in Sheffield, followed by London, led the company to negotiate an agreement with the NUBSLI and agree to its guidance fees.

Through a non-unionised “fair pay campaign”, in 2016, security-vetted Home Office interpreters who have not had their rates increased since 2002, threatened to walk out when the Home Office said it would cut the existing rate by around one third. The Home Office eventually decided not to go ahead with the proposed cut: “They know that if we boycott even for a day, that will cause major disruptions to their business.”

Taking a stand

It is not simply a question of justice for one set of workers: interpreters are necessary to fight for the labour rights of other vulnerable workers. Migrant workers and the disabled are particularly susceptible to all forms of modern slavery. An inability to speak English meant that 18 Polish men, who were trafficked to the UK, worked at a Sports Direct warehouse without other staff realising.

Many current labour disputes related to poor pay and conditions for cleaners and support staff at hospitals, cinemas, universities and elsewhere involve migrant workers who cannot speak adequate English to defend themselves. Full justice requires professional qualified interpreters: otherwise agendas can be manipulated for the partial victory of a few and the key issues remains unaddressed. An interpreter does not create a narrative but simply communicates it.

Public service interpreting is not the only sector affected by cuts and privatisation. Disabled and migrant rights community groups have stepped into the void created by official indifference. Here too a lack of understanding of what professional interpreters do and the use of untrained volunteers puts vulnerable people at risk in situations where there is actually a statutory requirement to use a professional interpreter.

Language is power. It is a part of the everyday lives of everyone. It is not a commodity and must not be used as political leverage. Ultimately, those who wish to silence vulnerable communities also wish to silence their interpreters.

* Now standard, complex and complex written

This is Part III of a three-part study into the impact of the privatisation of public interpreting services in England and Wales on the sector. Part I looks at the field and the impact on interpreting service users, Part II looks at the outsourcing companies and Part III looks at the impact on interpreters and linguists.



One comment on “Who Benefits from the Privatisation of Public Sector Interpreting? Part III

  1. Pingback: Who Benefits from the Privatisation of Public Sector Interpreting? | Interpreting Signs

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