Government urged to address shortage of BSL/English interpreters

By NUBSLI | Published on 30 October 2017

Following on from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Committee (UN CRPD) meeting in Geneva asking the UK government to address the shortage of BSL/English interpreters, we thought it would be useful to unpick some of the main issues facing the interpreting community at the moment.

We have recently seen numerous articles exposing the problems with deaf people’s access: from deaf children not getting the support they deserve for GCSEs to NHS services in Cardiff not being fit for purpose . The issue is nationwide.

Is there a shortage of BSL interpreters?

The problem is more complex than numbers alone. One of the issues we are currently facing is how services are booked and provided – in particular the use of framework agreements to provide interpreters.

What’s a framework and why is it a problem for interpreters and translators?

The whole concept of frameworks is that they can provide cost savings. By buying in bulk, it is expected that savings can be made. The idea is usually called gain share and it means that once costs are lowered any savings are passed back to the government. For example, a framework is needed by a council so that they can buy desks for their workforce. The council states in the framework what it needs in the desks it’s buying and then awards the contract to provide the desks to whichever company will follow the terms and conditions in the framework and is the most cost effective.

This is fine when it comes to tangible products – such as desks or printing – where the cost of buying in bulk is cheaper, or where the more copies you print the less overheads there are.

However, the problem occurs when the government attempts to use the same principles for services. People’s time cannot be treated in the same way as buying stationery or hardware. It is irrelevant how many hours an interpreter or translator works as their overheads will remain the same. In fact, it is more likely that their overheads would increase (e.g. Childcare costs etc).

We therefore need to make it clear that we don’t accept this model of working.

How do we do that?

The most effective way for us to show that we will not accept the model being used is to refuse to work to hourly time slots and instead maintain our booking rates as call out, half day or full day.

Working to hourly time slots is the quickest way that our fees, terms and conditions will be eroded. This is because it allows for an hourly time slot to be divided into smaller units. Instead of being booked for 2 hours you’re booked for 1 hour 30 minutes. Or, you’re paid for one hour and then further payments are made in 15 minute slots.

Didn’t government consult with us on the use of frameworks?

No. NUBSLI found out about the planned framework agreements accidentally. One of our members happened to be on the government procurement websites and saw a notice. We contacted the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) who are responsible but we were initially ignored. It wasn’t until we established our ‘Scrap the framework’ campaign that they began to talk to us. They ignored our repeated advice about the pricing structure and the fact that workforce sustainability, which is part of EU guidance around developing frameworks, was being placed at risk.

What happened in Geneva?

The UN met with UK government representatives to talk about the issues facing Deaf and disabled people. They asked about the shortage of interpreters and the government representatives said they would be using the DWP marketplace review to look at the issue.

This is extremely worrying given that the document is already out of date (the data gathering for this piece of work was completed in 2015). There have been two significant events in our industry which make this piece of work irrelevant:

How are complaints about frameworks recorded and audited?

NUBSLI requested that complaints should be recorded and published by the government for transparency. This request was rejected. There is no means to audit the performance of frameworks, whether they are being successful or not, or their impact on the Deaf or interpreting communities. The government has never recorded the met or unmet need for interpreting provision in the UK.

The DWP marketplace report contained an email address which has never been provided to interpreters, which the DWP says should be used by interpreters to contact the Crown Commercial Service if they are aware of contracts paying unsustainable rates. There is no guidance on this or explanation on who decides what a sustainable rate is, or what action will be taken. Having contacted the DWP they couldn’t answer any questions on how data collected would be used or complaints handled.

What about the Deaf community?

How does the Deaf community complain? What happens after complaints are made? We requested this information be made public but this was ignored.

There is currently no way of knowing how many complaints have been made regarding services or lack of interpreter provision. However, NUBSLI has case studies that demonstrate contracts from framework agreements failing to provide interpreters for appointments – particularly in social services and health settings.

What can you do?

NUBSLI is currently compiling evidence against the use of frameworks. If you have any case studies that you can provide, please send these in to us (you can email tellus@nubsli.com). Any information will be treated confidentially and any case studies will be anonymised.

We will be working with Unite, along with our friends at Inclusion London and DPAC over the coming weeks and months.