30 March 2016
Nicky Evans, Branch Secretary of the National Union of British Sign Language Interpreters explains the threat of privatising interpreting services.
Public authorities have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to provide access for disabled people. This means Deaf British Sign Language (BSL) users have BSL/English interpreters made available to them in health, care and criminal justice situations.
Since 2010, the privatisation of these interpreting services has steadily been taking hold with ever larger contracts and frameworks. Public authorities are strongly encouraged to procure their language services via these frameworks, buying interpreting contracts from private interpreting agencies which offer less value for public money whilst creating private profits.
What's the problem with privatisation?
1) Profits taken away from the Deaf community
Prior to this, the profits generated by the interpreting services provided for the Deaf community would go back into the Deaf community via Deaf charities and organisations. Many of these smaller community enterprises have lost their contracts to private large spoken language agencies, who then often sub-contract to specialist agencies. This is resulting in interpreters, as the end supplier, being squeezed and unable to afford to work at the prices offered.
2) Ever decreasing standards
Many of the large agencies, and some smaller ones, do not adhere to agreed standards and the use of registered interpreters.
Deaf people and speakers of other languages are losing out due to the likes of Capita, and large spoken language agencies such as The Big Word, Pearl Linguistics and others. These agencies have shown an alarming disregard for the need to uphold standards, and instead of committing to only providing trained, qualified and registered language specialist, will readily book anyone who says they can use the language but has no interpreter or language training. To add insult to injury, this reduced quality of service is costing service users more money.
3) Cost is coming before quality
Commissioners of interpreting services such as central government departments, the NHS and the Cabinet Office (via the Crown Commercial Service) are increasingly commissioning services based on cost and not quality, driving qualified and experienced interpreters into different careers. A new National Framework for Language Services, covering most central government departments, and the new Ministry of Justice contract have both refused to recognise industry standard fees and terms and conditions.
4) Interpreter brain drain
A National Union of British Sign Language Interpreters (NUBSLI) survey in which nearly 50% of the sign language interpreting profession responded, showed that half of respondents were either thinking about or already leaving the profession. This will leave the Deaf community with a greater shortage of interpreters. A recent exit interview published by NUBSLI had 5% of the profession report they were no longer working as interpreters or starting to diversify their income.
5) Less control and choice for Deaf people
It is proposed that the new National Framework is offered to Deaf people for their Access to Work claims. Previously Deaf people had control and choice in how they use their budgets, allowing them to source the most appropriately skilled and compatible interpreters to match their needs. Their access rights will be stripped away from them if forced to use these contracts. This is already happening with agency contracts in some companies and agencies are struggling to fulfill contracts due to interpreters starting to boycott those with unfavourable pay and terms and conditions.
NUBSLI is campaigning for fair pay and terms and conditions for sign language interpreters. You can support us by signing up to our "Fees fightback campaign", which calls on agencies to stop the race to the bottom. Sign our open letter to support interpreters and everyone who needs their services.
Image by Quinn Dombrowski and used under the Creative Commons license