Survey of BSL/English interpreters’ working conditions 2017

This is the third annual report on the results of NUBSLI’s survey of British Sign Language (BSL) / English Interpreters’ Working Conditions. NUBSLI will continue to collate and publish this data in order to monitor trends and changes in the profession.

What you’ll find on this page

BSL intro to the 2017 working conditions report


Key Findings

references and footnotes are available in the full report, below.

1. Pressure on fees and standards: concerns about multi-language agencies

Respondents expressed deep concerns about the dominance of public sector work by generic, multi-language agencies with low or no quality-control systems, low rates of pay and reduced terms and conditions. These were the most frequent free text comments made by respondents.

Concerns raised include that generic, multi-language agencies are booking the first interpreter willing to accept the agency’s offered fee irrespective of their suitability or skills, the use of ‘single fee’ rates which are inclusive of travel but insufficient to cover travel costs and a sustainable income, and the difficulties some interpreters have had in obtaining payment of agreed costs from many agencies.

One of these agencies in particular was singled out for their exceptionally poor practice in relation to paying invoices, with many interpreters stating that they will no longer work for that agency as a result of late, under, or non-payment.

A sense of exhaustion from having to repeatedly argue about rates and chase payments, and a feeling of being dispirited about what this means for the sustainability of the profession as a whole, was striking in its abundance.

It’s of note that no interpreters mentioned the NHS Accessible Information Standard, which requires NHS and Adult Social Care to provide full access to communication and information for Deaf people and those with communication disabilities.

2. Delays in invoice payments by Access to Work (ATW) & difficulties resolving payment issues

A number of respondents commented on a recent (to December 2017) downturn in the efficiency of ATW’s payment system. In particular, people reported problems with increasing numbers of invoices being disputed or lost by ATW, and paid very late, or not at all, as a result. A strikingly consistent series of comments were made about the challenge of resolving difficulties when they arise. This was noted to have been in part attributable to the new system of providing remittance notices with no information about which invoices these relate to, and the disjoint between the adviser, the payments service, the customer (the ATW award holder) and the interpreter leaving interpreters powerless to resolve issues directly.

This is consistent with contact NUBSLI has received from members over the past year.

3. Access to Work (ATW) cap on awards

A number of respondents expressed dismay and concern about the impact of the forthcoming cap on both Deaf people’s careers, and the impact this will have on interpreters.

Whilst since the survey the cap has been raised, it is anticipated that any cap will lead to further pressure for interpreters to reduce their fees, terms and conditions, particularly when working with Deaf people who have additional disabilities and/or senior and professional roles requiring considerably more communication support that the cap allows.

4. Remuneration for travel costs

Respondents continued to report a downward pressure on travel costs, including the use of ‘all inclusive’ fees by ATW with a fixed hourly rate (particularly affecting those who work in or with Deaf people in rural areas), or where travel costs are paid, these being limited to 25ppm rather than the HMRC approved rate of 45ppm. Some interpreters reported that they had stopped accepting bookings that involve extensive travel for this reason. ATW’s policy on travel costs appears unclear and inconsistent.

5. Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) / Video Relay Service (VRS)

Only one VRS/VRI provider was cited by a significant number of respondents as representing best practice.

A significant number of respondents raised concerns about the (unsuitable) deployment of VRS/VRI as a cost saving measure, especially in relation to health appointments. This will be an issue to monitor as the public spending constraints continue, and the increased use by public bodies of generic, multi-language agencies results in a loss of knowledge and insight into good practice for BSL/English interpretation.

6. Intention to change working hours

Fewer interpreters reported having already reduced their hours in 2017 compared to 2016. There was no significant change in the percentage of respondents planning to reduce or stop working compared to the previous survey, which remains at a quarter of qualified respondents.

7. Trainee interpreter engagement

Only a small number of trainee interpreters (27) responded to the survey making meaningful analysis of responses difficult. Of note, in some areas no trainees responded, and of those who did respond several mentioned feeling insufficiently supported by qualified interpreters.

A potential cause for tension was identified in the comments made by some qualified interpreters, who cited concerns about trainee interpreters taking bookings from generic language agencies at unsustainable fees, and for which they were not suitably qualified (e.g. child protection meetings).


These recommendations address the issues raised in this, and previous NUBSLI surveys, with the aim of ensuring the long-term viability of the profession, and so meeting the needs of customers.

Government and Commissioners

1) Government (OFCOM) should prioritise formulating quality standards for VRS/VRI providers.

2) The NHS Accessible Information Standard (NHS AIS) provides a legal requirement for provision of communication services. Commissioners should ensure that tenders and contracts for communication services, including BSL/English interpreting, meet the requirements of the NHS AIS.

3) Government and/or Local Authorities should consider an equivalent information standard to cover provision of Social Services provision, providing equivalent good practice e.g. with regard to child protection.

Until this happens, Local Authorities and Social Services should ensure that tenders and contracts for communication services including BSL/English interpreting are modelled on the requirements of the NHS AIS, to ensure appropriate minimum standards and safe practice.

NHS trusts; GP practices; dentists, opticians and chiropodists undertaking NHS work; and Local Authority Adult Social Care Providers.

1) Ensure that training (including in staff inductions) and resources are made available for front line staff, and those involved in patient bookings, understand their legal obligations under the NHS Accessible Information Standard (NHS AIS), and how to book appropriately registered communication support.


1) Pay interpreters fees and travel in line with NUBSLI’s Fees Guidance.

2) Publicly commit to respecting NUBSLI’s Fees Guidance in general and/or for specific contracts.

3) Recognise the need for specialist interpreters to be booked for specific domains, and for those specialist skills to be recognised in variable rates of pay.

4) Ensure that contract bids take account of the need to respect NUBSLI’s fees guidance when tendering.

5) Ensure that bookings allow the interpreter sufficient time to complete their appointment, allowing for typical delays, e.g. in NHS settings. For example, this would mean not booking one interpreter for multiple NHS bookings in a morning, unless there are robust local systems in place to ensure that this is achievable.


1) Consider some additional direct engagement work with trainee interpreters, including potentially a trainee only survey, to better understand their concerns about relationships with qualified interpreter colleagues, and improve participation in future Market Conditions surveys.

2) Work to ensure that members know about and understand the relevance of the NHS AIS (in England) in ensuring appropriate communication services are used in NHS and Adult Social Care settings, and how members can best taken action where they are not followed.


1) Interpreters witnessing or being told about the inappropriate use of VRS/VRI should consider signposting Deaf people to appropriate services, where they exist, and/or supporting them in raising those concerns formally (e.g. through the complaints process) with the provider or purchaser and CQC.

Interpreters can also ‘share their experience’ directly with CQC, raise concerns with NRCPD, as well as NUBSLI.

2) Interpreters should consider how best to connect with trainees in their regions, for example hosting focused workshops, as well as alerting trainees to the support and resources that are already available, including the NUBSLI Buddy scheme, Freelance Guide, and Interpreter Awareness Pack.

Survey of interpreters’ working conditions 2017 report and appendices

download each part of the report by clicking on the links below:

Previous surveys

View the 2015 survey here.

View the 2016 survey here.