Police Rip Up Contract with Interpreter Agency after Claims it Was Hampering Investigations

Exclusive by Dan Thompson

March 07, 2011

Manchester Evening News, March 7, 2011

Greater Manchester Police’s contract with an interpreter agency has been ripped up – after claims that it was hampering investigations.

The force struck an exclusive deal with Applied Language Solutions (ALS) last August. It meant ALS, which is run by Oldham businessman Gavin Wheeldon, would supply interpreters to GMP when they were needed for interviews with suspects, victims and witnesses whose English was not good enough.

The interpreters were paid at least £30 an hour by ALS, which is based in Delph.

But hundreds of interpreters refused to work for ALS and set up a group called the Professional Interpreters’ Alliance. The group successfully applied for a judicial review of the ALS contract, and similar deals the firm had with three other north west police forces.

Former GMP interpreter: ‘One wrong word could mean justice isn’t done’

Now bosses from GMP and police in Merseyside, Lancashire and Cumbria have scrapped the deals they had with the agency before the judicial review hearing, which was due to take place next month. The PIA – whose 400 members are all on the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI) – had listed a series of alleged failures by the firm in the application to the High Court. They included:

  • Officers at a GMP custody suite in Pendleton complaining of ‘terrible problems’ with ALS and had been forced to turn to NRPSI-registered interpreters instead
  • Crime suspects allegedly being released by GMP on bail because they could not get interpreters from ALS in time
  • Police in Swinton having to wait 24 hours for an interpreter who could speak French
  • A petition PIA supplied to police allegedly indicated that its boycott meant there would be no NRPSI-registered members available to the officers in Polish, Czech, French, Slovak, Hungarian, Turkish, Romanian, Vietnamese, Thai, Mandarin and Cantonese

ALS strenuously denied all the allegations.

The police forces have now admitted the deals had breached the Race Relations Act, as they did not give ‘due regard’ to promoting good relations with different ethnic groups.

They also accepted they should have known there was a risk that ALS, even for a temporary period, might not be able to provide interpreters of the same quality and as quickly as under previous arrangements when GMP used freelance NRPSI-registered interpreters. Farid Arada, from PIA, said: “We are delighted.” A GMP spokesman said: “GMP, Merseyside Police, Lancashire Police and Cumbria Police are currently in consultation with the PIA about how the forces will move forward and how they will deliver interpretation services in the future.”

National guidelines, approved by Britain’s top cops, say interpreters used by police or the courts should be on the NRPSI to ensure high quality.

Freelance NRPSI-registered interpreters who worked directly for GMP were paid £29 an hour in the day, £43.50 on a Saturday or at night and £58 on Sundays or bank holidays.

Under ALS, the registered interpreters were told they would be paid £30 an hour in the day and £35 at night, at weekends and bank holidays.

ALS managing director Mr Wheeldon said he was disappointed with the ruling.

He said: “I don’t think it’s fair. I think it’s just a failure in the process.”

ALS strongly denied that the interpreters it sent for GMP hampered any investigations.

In response to the PIA allegations, a company spokeswoman said that no mention was ever made of the ‘terrible problems’ with ALS during the agency’s monthly review meetings with GMP.

She said the agency always contacted NRPSI-registered interpreters in the first instance when looking to fulfil a GMP interpreter booking.

The agency said that it did have access to NRPSI interpreters for languages like Polish, Czech, French, Slovak, Hungarian and Turkish, but the spokeswoman added: “However, these assignments do not legally need to be carried out by NRPSI registered interpreters and we have hundreds of qualified non-NRPSI interpreters registered directly with us who are able to fulfil assignments in these languages.

“Many highly-qualified interpreters across the region have never been NRPSI members.

“There are sometimes instances where an interpreter cannot be sourced for an assignment. This can be due to rarity of language, high demand for interpreters at that date and time or due to the remote location of a police station.

“This is the case regardless of whether the police are requesting interpreting services through ALS, through NRPSI or through any independent means and is, at times, completely unavoidable.

“This has been the case for many years and bears no relation on the service offered by ALS.”

She added that ALS was saving taxpayers’ money.

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