Ministry of Justice faces ‘contempt’ accusation from MPs

Report slams department for obstructing parliamentary inquiry into court interpreters

By Alex Varley-Winter | 6 February 2013

“We consider that the actions of the ministry… may have constituted a contempt” – Report, House of Commons justice committee

MPs suggest in a damning report today that the Ministry of Justice was in “contempt” for hampering an investigation into translation services for courts.

The House of Commons justice committee accuses the ministry of interfering with witnesses to its inquiry. In highly critical comments that are deeply embarrassing to the government, MPs on the committee say that the ministry’s actions may amount to a contempt of the House of Commons.

It comes after Exaro disclosed an e-mail sent by a senior ministry official that instructed employees at HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) not to give evidence to MPs for the inquiry.

In November, Exaro also revealed how the ministry was blocking magistrates from supplying crucial data for the MPs’ inquiry.

Sir Alan Beith, Liberal Democrat MP and chairman of the committee, said today: “We deplore the ministry’s ill-advised actions, and there should be no repetition of them in the future.”

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

Beith said: “We have made use of online forums in the past to obtain the views and experiences of staff in probation and prison services, without any obstruction by the ministry.”

His committee’s report devotes a whole section to, “Interference with witnesses”.

“We consider that the actions of the ministry,” says the report, “may have constituted a contempt” of the House of Commons.

From the outset, the committee found the ministry “unhelpful”. Its report says: “The Ministry of Justice initially refused to provide our secretariat with regional contact details to enable the consultation to be publicised to HMCTS staff.

“It then became apparent that HMCTS had issued an edict instructing its staff not to participate.

“We also heard from the chair of a magistrates’ court bench who had been dissuaded by HMCTS from sending data on the performance of interpreters to support his evidence.”

The committee said that it would not take any action over the contempt.

Beith said that it was confident about the report’s conclusions despite the ministry’s obstruction. “We received an abundance of evidence from other sources about the quality of court interpreting services, so we are confident in the conclusions we have reached.”

The committee wrote to Chris Grayling, justice secretary, seeking an explanation over blocking witnesses.

Helen Grant, justice minister with responsibility for the courts, replied: “We took this decision because the department was already giving its evidence to the committee.”

Rules on civil servants’ conduct say that officials “should not take part in research projects or surveys designed to establish their personal views on government policies,” she wrote.

The department “did not interfere with the collection of evidence by the committee,” she added.

The committee said in its report: “It is not for the Ministry of Justice to judge whether steps they took in relation to the inquiry did or did not interfere with our collection of evidence.

“That is a matter for us and for the House of Commons. Any act that obstructs or impedes the House in discharging its functions may be treated as a contempt of the House.”

The report goes on to condemn the performance of the ALS contract, including “ongoing breaches”. It accuses the ministry of pushing ahead with the contract despite warnings that the quality of services would be reduced.

“The ministry did not have a sufficient understanding the complexities of the interpreting work and failed properly to anticipate or address the clear potential for problems with ALS’s capacity to deliver on its promises.”

“The evidence shows that ALS failed to deliver on many aspects of the agreement, and did not implement appropriate safeguards to ensure that the interpreters it provided were of sufficient standard. In particular, ALS clearly needed significantly more resources than it had at its disposal to deliver the service levels required.”

Grant said in a statement today: “There were significant issues at the start of the contract in early 2012, but we took swift and robust action and have seen dramatic improvements.”

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