Members will be aware that, as part of the Scottish Government’s National Plan, a Landscape Review of BSL/English interpreting in Scotland is currently being undertaken by a team at Queen Margaret University. As a stakeholder in the profession, NUBSLI were asked to participate and respond to 3 questions:
1. Are there any particular issues that your members in Scotland have raised as being particularly problematic for them?
2. What do you see as being the main challenges for BSL/English interpreters working in Scotland?
3. How do you think the provision of BSL/English interpreting in Scotland could be improved?
We asked NUBSLI members who are working in Scotland to let us know what they were experiencing in relation to these questions in order that our response would be reflective of that, and we would like to thank those members who provided this feedback in order that we could submit the response below.
The National Union of British Sign Language Interpreters (NUBSLI) is a branch of Unite the union and was established to represent British Sign Language/English interpreters (BSL/English interpreters) working across the UK. At the time of writing, our membership stands at 513, 34 of whom are living and working in Scotland.
As part of our remit, NUBSLI works to ensure that the fees and terms and conditions of business of BSL/English interpreters are respected. This is done by engaging with and responding to consultations from organisations responsible for creating policy and commissioning the services of these interpreters. We also highlight the necessity of them engaging directly with the professionals who will be providing the services they require. Our reasons for this work are straightforward; by working with registered professionals, organisations will be in a better position to meet their statutory obligations by having the assurance that those providing services have appropriate qualifications, skills and experience. In addition, by remunerating these interpreters fairly the sustainability of the profession is assured, which in turn ensures both deaf and hearing consumers have peace of mind that they are receiving the best service that is available.
Are there any particular issues that your members in Scotland have raised as being particularly problematic for them?
Increasingly, sign language interpreting services are being obtained via framework agreements and NUBSLI are clear that these are not an appropriate method of procuring these services.
The result of these agreements has been that more and more spoken language or ‘non-specialist’ agencies are bidding for contracts which include sign language services, despite the fact they are unfamiliar with how BSL/English interpreters work or how they provide services.
In addition, agencies are winning contracts without knowing if interpreters will work with them, and by providing bids that promise to deliver services at reduced rates and with terms and conditions that are not commensurate with what is considered the ‘norm’ for BSL/English interpreters.
This has led to a decrease in the quality of service provision as many interpreters are choosing not to provide services under the agreements. When this happens, either the agencies cannot provide what they have committed to at all, or they provide a sub-standard service by engaging the services of unqualified and, by default, unregulated ‘signers’.
In either case, as well as failing to meet the terms of the contracts, they are placing clients at risk. It was as a direct result of these frameworks being introduced that the first organised industrial action taken by BSL/English interpreters in the history of the profession took place in 2016. More information can be found in the the NUBSLI Dossier of Disgrace.
Please note that we acknowledge that the information in this dossier is perhaps England-centric. However, this reflects the fact that the work was commissioned at a time when framework agreements had been in use in England for some time and the impacts were already being seen there.
Conversely, they were only starting to be used in Scotland, therefore data was not yet available at the time. Nonetheless, it does not require much effort to anticipate that the consequences of these agreements would be the same in Scotland and we are now collating evidence from our Scottish members where this is the case and this will be included in our updated Dossier in due course.
In-house interpreting services
In terms of employment patterns, it is worth noting that the overwhelming majority of BSL/English interpreters are self employed. This is not to say that some would not wish to be employed, on either a full or part time basis, nor that this cannot be a workable arrangement. However, NUBSLI believe that if an in-house services is to be a successful means of providing BSL interpretation services, staff at all levels (including managers) must have expert knowledge of the Deaf Community and their needs, as well as how BSL/English interpreters work.
Novice interpreters may be more likely to seek employment but it needs to be stressed that their inexperience must be given due consideration as, without appropriate knowledge and guidance, some may feel pressured to undertake assignments that they do not yet have the experience for. This could lead them to a position where they are practising in a way that contravenes their professional Code of Conduct and may result in them being subject to complaint investigations from their regulatory organisation.
For these reasons, we would recommend that employed interpreters should have a range of experience and skills and that employers must give due respect to the Code of Conduct of their regulatory organisations, particularly where this may be at odds with in-house policy.
It has also been brought to our attention that some in-house interpreting services seem to be constantly under review, Glasgow City Council being named specifically, and that while the demand for BSL/English interpreters is increasing, the pool of staff is being reduced.
Members expressed concern about agencies in general terms, insomuch as the majority do not consult with the BSL/English interpreting profession prior to tendering for services, whether that be as part of a framework agreement or not. However, they also noted the difference in approach between agencies run as private enterprises and some of those that are charities/social enterprises.
Two specific examples highlighted by our members are Deaf Action, headquartered in Edinburgh, and Deaf Links, based in Dundee. Deaf Action consulted with BSL/English interpreters on several occasions when considering whether or not to enter a bid for contracts and members were satisfied that their feedback was taken into account when the organisation decided whether or not to pursue tendering opportunities. They stated that they hope for more of this collaboration in future. Similarly, Deaf Links consulted with BSL/English interpreters when it was approached by NHS Tayside to manage the provision of interpreting services across their facilities in Dundee, Angus and Perthshire.
Conversely, however, members have expressed annoyance that agencies operating as private companies do not consult with them despite the fact that, if successful in winning bids, they rely on their services to meet contractual obligations. This irritation is expressed towards both private ‘specialist’ agencies as well as ‘non-specialist’ agencies, e.g., spoken language agencies.
A further issue raised by members regarding agencies is that it increasingly seems as though one agency, namely Sign Language Interactions, is commandeering more and more of the BSL/English interpreting marketplace. While it is accepted that they are operating in what has become a lucrative area of business, questions have been raised specifically with regard to how they have been awarded contracts for public services, e.g., the ContactScotland-BSL service and providing services to the Scottish Parliament, as well as to the fact that a sister company of Sign Language Interactions, namely SLI Now, was the only agency named in the recent NHS Scotland Interpretation and Translation Policy that was out for consultation. These concerns have been voiced due to the increasing concerns that the company may be benefitting from the fact that the owner and/or employees of the company have been present at times when policy and contractual information has been discussed.
Fees and terms and conditions of business
As stated above, most BSL/English interpreters are self employed. It should therefore be assumed that they will determine their own fees and business terms and conditions, and that these should be negotiated and agreed upon with clients who wish to engage their services.
In spite of this, it has been reported to NUBSLI that, without prior consultation, agencies in Scotland routinely inform BSL/English interpreters of the fees they will pay. Specialist agencies named by members were Fife Council Deaf Communication Service, Deaf Action, Deaf Connections, Just Sign and Sign Language Interactions and it was stated that they pay Registered Interpreters between £60-£62 (minimum 2 hours) per assignment, with hourly increments of £30-31 thereafter.
In addition, non-specialist agencies attempt to pay lower fees than these, as well as to enforce severely reduced cancellation terms of between 24-48 hours. This pattern is evident across all sectors regardless of whether agencies are private or charitable/social enterprises and the fees fall far short of the guidance published by NUBSLI and, while this information is not provided to ‘recommend fees’ but rather to give guidance as to what consumers should realistically anticipate paying for interpreting services, NUBSLI condemns the fact that some agencies do not appear to be willing to respect these.
It was stated by some members that some Scotland-based specialist agencies (North East Sensory Services, Deaf Links) and those that are not based in Scotland (Remark!, Love Language and Action on Hearing Loss) are more likely to accept fees quoted to them by individual interpreters, or to negotiate fees that are acceptable to both parties. Nonetheless, this still appears to be the exception rather than the norm but it is a practice that we would like to see adopted by all agencies and interpreters across the board.
A further issue that has been highlighted by members is in regard to some public organisations that have established ‘in-house’ interpreting and translation services. These may utilise a combination of employed interpreters and a pool of ‘bank BSL/English interpreters’.
Of most concern to NUBSLI is where there is use of ‘bank interpreters’ as it has been reported that these organisations are obtaining interpreting services by way of zero hours contracts. This is a form of employment which NUBSLI vehemently disapproves. Indeed NUBSLI successfully campaigned to get these removed from one of the earliest framework agreements for Crown Commercial Services that was put in place for BSL/English interpreting services, as well as to ensure that only the services of regulated (registered and trainee) interpreters would be used.
NUBSLI advocates for BSL/English interpreters to charge fees that are commensurate with their skills and experience in general, as well as reflective of skill specific domains. This means that there is not a ‘one fee fits all’ for BSL/English interpreters and it should be anticipated that they will charge higher fees for domains that require them to have specialist skills.
We would also stress that BSL/English interpreters do not charge by the hour, nor on a 2 hour minimum basis. The reasoning for this is that it gives a false representation of what the interpreter is charging for when determining the fee for an assignment, as it does not take into account the preparation undertaken prior to an event or the need for them to manage their workloads in such a way that they ensure they are mentally and physically prepared to provide quality services when contracted to do so. This is why they will charge a fee for a booking of short duration (determined by them), and half-day and full-day fees for bookings of longer duration.
Training and registration
NUBSLI absolutely supports the need for those providing BSL/English interpreting services to be trained, qualified and regulated prior to entering the workforce. By engaging the services of unqualified and unregistered ‘signers’, agencies and consumers open themselves up to allegations of not having provided adequate access to their services or, in the case of public organisations, having failed to meet the legal obligations incumbent upon them, at best, and having put the lives of deaf people at risk at worst.
NUBSLI will not comment on individual training providers or routes to qualification. However, what we would highlight is that members have raised concerns that as novices are entering the workforce it is apparent that they are not being taught the skills necessary to navigate the world of self-employment. We have also seen evidence of this in the requests for support we receive from some of our members who are new to the profession and would urge that this is addressed by training providers in future.
What do you see as being the main challenges for BSL/English interpreters working in Scotland (this may or may not overlap with number 1)?
Without doubt, the continuing use of framework agreements poses a significant challenge to those who wish to provide BSL/English interpreting services in Scotland. The simple fact is that these agreements are lucrative for the agencies and companies who are chosen to be providers, but are punitive to those providing the professional services at point of delivery. NUBSLI believes that the continuance of these puts the future of the BSL/English interpreting profession in jeopardy which in turn has serious implications for all consumers of our services, not least the Deaf community who are at the mercy of budget holders.
Concern has also been expressed in relation to the BSL (Scotland) Act 2015 itself. Following the Act passing into statute, aspirational national and local plans have been created and published and expectations from the BSL community are rightly high. However, there is no denying the fact that no additional budgets are being made available to assist with the implementation of these plans. There is grave concern therefore that the aims set out in the plans will either be entirely unmet, or will be met at a cost. In terms of the BSL/English interpreting profession, there is a risk that this will lead to a further devaluing of services and that more experienced interpreters will leave the profession as well as fewer people pursuing interpreting as a viable career.
How do you think the provision of BSL/English interpreting in Scotland could be improved? You can be as radical as you like with your suggestions here.
Procuring services from Registered Sign Language Interpreters directly
NUBSLI acknowledges that reputable agencies who are willing to work collaboratively with BSL/English interpreters provide a valuable service. However, where possible, we believe procuring services from interpreters directly merits consideration. By engaging services directly, a shorter supply chain and more efficient service can be established which benefits all parties involved. NUBSLI believes this yields positive outcomes; confirmation of availability is expedited, third party costs are removed, industry fees and business terms are respected and trusted working relationships are established allowing for a collaborative approach to provision leading to continuity for clients and safer working practices for interpreters.
Procuring services from third parties
Where the services of BSL/English interpreters are procured via a third party, the preferred option should be for contracts to be awarded to specialist agencies who are working collaboratively with the interpreting workforce. It should be clearly stated in the terms of the contract that they must work only with those interpreters that are registered with one of the regulatory organisations in the UK. A further condition of the contract needs to be that they provide evidence of this for 100% of assignments.
We do not believe it is in the interests of procurers, consumers (Deaf or hearing), or interpreters for contracts to be awarded to a non-specialist provider. However, if this is to happen it should be clearly stated in the terms of the contract that, to deliver the BSL/English interpreting services, they must again be working collaboratively with the interpreting workforce and engage the services of only those BSL/English interpreters that are registered with one of the regulatory organisations in the UK. It must be a condition of the contract that they provide evidence of this for 100% of BSL/English assignments.
In addition, a condition of the contract must be monthly reporting which clearly shows how many interpreting requests have been met, as well how many were unmet, and that these figures are reported separately to spoken language bookings to ensure accuracy.
Any organisation tendering for contacts for interpreting services should be doing so inline with the fees and business terms that BSL/English interpreting professionals charge for their services and they should be asked to demonstrate that they are doing so.
Establishing a national interpreting service
We understand that there are often calls for a ‘national service’ to be implemented such as those in some Scandinavian countries. However, NUBSLI would urge caution if this is a consideration. As stated previously, most BSL/English interpreting professionals are self-employed. They are also women. The fact that working on a self-employed basis affords them the ability to balance work and personal demands is a significant factor in their choosing to continue to work in this field. In addition, government-run interpreting services are often not the ideal they purport to be. Deaf people still express frustration at not being able to get interpreters when and where they want and, as was seen in Finland in 2017 [Finnish Sign Language Interpreters lose their jobs], there is also no guarantee that employment is secure for the workforce.
This landscape review is a valuable first step. It is welcomed by NUBSLI and our members and we are keen to see the results when they are reported on later this year. We hope this is the start of what will be a collaborative process to improve services in Scotland for all consumers of BSL/English interpreting services, as well as ensuring the longevity of the profession.