Ministry issues instruction to court staff not to help MPs’ inquiry

MPs ‘very concerned’ after official e-mail reveals government gag over interpreter ‘fiasco’

By Alex Varley-Winter | 23 January 2013

“Interpreters obviously suspected it for a long time, because we knew anecdotally from the court staff” – Madeleine Lee, court interpreter

Court officials were ordered not to give evidence to MPs for an inquiry into translation services, Exaro can reveal.

The Ministry of Justice faces accusations of attempting to block the parliamentary inquiry into the supply of interpreters to courts. The department issued the instruction in an e-mail, a copy of which has been passed to Exaro.

The ministry official responsible for interpreter services for courts sent the e-mail in October to local managers in HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS).

It reveals that the ministry told the House of Commons justice committee “not to contact our staff directly” to gather evidence.

The committee set up an online forum in October to enable court staff and others to give details of their experiences with interpreter services.

It is investigating repeated reports of problems since Applied Language Solutions (ALS) became the ministry’s sole contractor for translation services in courts. ALS is part of Capita Group, the outsourcing giant.

But the ministry told managers at HMCTS, an agency of the department, to warn staff not to help the inquiry.

The ministry’s e-mail said: “We have already asked the committee not to contact our staff directly in this regard, but we are now aware that individual interpreters are e-mailing our staff and encouraging them to participate.

“We are very clear that this is not appropriate, and would be grateful if you could cascade advice to your staff that they should not engage with these approaches, as the ministry has already provided its evidence to the committee.”

The ministry then provided a form of words to use to warn court clerks and other staff against helping the investigation: “You may be aware that the justice committee is currently investigating the interpreter-services contract that we have with Applied Language Solutions/Capita.

“You may be contacted by interpreters inviting/encouraging you to join a forum where anecdotal information about this service is being gathered.

“As the department has already provided consolidated evidence to the committee you are requested to refrain from participating, or engaging with the interpreters who approach you in this way.”

MPs on the committee have complained to Helen Grant, justice minister with responsibility for the courts, about what they see as the obstruction of their inquiry.

Sir Alan Beith, Liberal Democrat MP and chairman of the committee, told Exaro that he is “very concerned” about the ministry’s attempts to undermine the online forum aimed at “reticent witnesses”.

He said: “The committee has used this process successfully in the past without any objection from the department, notably in its online consultation with prison officers.”

Madeleine Lee, a court interpreter and Dutch translator (pictured above, second from the left on the front row), obtained the e-mail under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Exaro revealed in November how the ministry was blocking magistrates from supplying crucial data to the justice committee’s inquiry into translation services for courts.

The disclosure prompted the committee to seek an explanation from Grant.

Lee said that she was pleased to have the evidence of the ministry’s order as revealed in the e-mail, saying: “Interpreters obviously suspected it for a long time, because we knew anecdotally from the court staff that they were not allowed to talk to us, or about us.”

A ministry spokesman said that the e-mail “was in line with the rules that govern civil servants’ conduct.”

“We disagree that following established rules on these matters can be described as ‘gagging’ staff.”

A further FOIA response to interpreters revealed that the government has temporarily lifted the monopoly on court interpreting.

It said: “The department does not have currently have procedures in place to monitor qualifications or Criminal Records Bureau where interpreters are engaged through other agencies.”

“As a temporary measure, for short-notice bookings, HM Courts and Tribunals Service uses interpreters from companies other than ALS.”

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