MPs question minister on gagging magistrates over interpreters

Justice minister Helen Grant asked to give explanation for attempt to stifle MPs inquiry

By Alex Varley-Winter | 4 December 2012

“Magistrates are independent people. They should not be under pressure and control from the executive” – Andy Slaughter, shadow justice minister

MPs are asking a justice minister why her department gagged magistrates in an attempt to conceal embarrassing details of problems with court interpreters.

Members of the House of Commons justice committee are worried that crucial evidence is being withheld from them about the fallout from the privatisation of translation services for courts in England and Wales.

Sir Alan Beith, Liberal Democrat MP and chairman of the committee, is writing to Helen Grant, the justice minister with responsibility for the courts, seeking an explanation.

Meanwhile, Andy Slaughter, Labour MP and shadow justice minister, is pressing for an investigation into “shocking” evidence that magistrates and clerks were constrained by the Ministry of Justice from speaking out about translation services.

Exaro revealed three weeks ago that the government clampdown had prevented magistrates from supplying crucial data to the justice committees inquiry into translation services for courts.

Beith told Exaro that he and his colleagues are raising the issue with the Ministry of Justice.

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

It did so after hearing that some potential witnesses may be reticent to come forward, and undertook to keep their identities confidential.

Beith said: “The committee is very concerned at the action of the department in telling court staff not to take part.”

“We are taking up our concerns with the minister.”

Robert Buckland, a Conservative member of the committee and a barrister, said that the ministrys stifling of officials “does not seem right to us at all.”

“We have to make adjustments when something is going wrong, according to the evidence. Any attempt to prohibit that evidence causes us huge concern.”

The justice committee is investigating repeated reports of problems since Applied Language Solutions (ALS) became the ministrys sole contractor for translation services in courts in February. The House of Commons public accounts committee is also investigating the privatisation of the services.

Capita Group, the UKs biggest supplier of outsourcing services, bought ALS last December. Since October, ALS has been trading under the name Capita Translation & Interpreting.

The company says that its interpreters are qualified to the standards required to provide services to the criminal-justice system. It says that complaints have fallen “dramatically” and the company will continue to push for “further improvement”.

Peter Beeke, chairman of Peterborough magistrates court, told Exaro that he had been “forbidden” from providing key data to the committee.

The committee could demand that the blocked evidence is released to its inquiry.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice denied that the restraints amounted to “gags”.

He said that data provided to staff “is not validated according to Office for National Statistics rules and therefore, as a matter of principle, we do not make this information public where detailed verified information is published as part of a national statistic.

“The statistics that I think he wanted to release are management information produced by the courts service,” he said. “That sort of low-level management information cannot just be handed out as official information.”

Labours Andy Slaughter told Exaro: “It is quite shocking, because magistrates are independent people. They should not be under pressure and control from the executive.”

He continued: “The point is that we have not had any independent figures, so it makes it all the more important. There has not been a proper investigation.”

“People are concerned about the waste of money, but we are also concerned that people might be locked up wrongly. We shall not really be able to determine that unless there is an independent investigation.”

Slaughter believes that the Ministry of Justice is “embarrassed” by the translations services for courts, “but that is not a sufficient reason for stopping information, and we will see what the public accounts committee and the justice committee do about it.”

He added: “I shall ask some more questions about this.”

Jago Russell, chief executive of Fair Trials International, a charity that campaigns on human rights, said: “We were delighted that Parliaments justice committee is investigating,” but added, “To do this job properly, the committee must be able to hear from the magistrates and court clerks.”

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