The National Union of British Sign Language Interpreters (NUBSLI), which is part of Unite, is writing to NHS clinical commissioning groups (CCG) in the north west of England after the interpreting provider Language Empire was ordered to pay £240,000 in damages over masquerading as a competitor to win contracts with the NHS, police forces and civil service.
The letter, raising concerns over Language Empire’s conduct, follows reports that the Rochdale based firm has been contacting British Sign Language (BSL)/English interpreters asking them to provide services through it after winning several contracts to provide interpreting services to NHS trusts in the north west.
Revelations of the damages come amid reports that interpreters and translators booked through Language Empire have not been paid for their work and concerns that Language Empire is seeking to drive down pay.
Seeking confirmation that Language Empire has been awarded an interpreting contract, the NUBSLI letter warns CCGs that the firm may not be able to meet contractual obligations, saying,“We are writing to seek reassurances that Language Empire has not been awarded a contract by claiming that it can provide BSL/ English interpreting services at rates which are below market rates.
“And that the bid it put forward allows interpreters, who undertake bookings, to be remunerated under business terms which are in line with industry standards.
“If this is not the case the result may be that interpreters will not be able to provide services you commission through Language Empire, and, subsequently, Language Empire will be unable to meet it contractual obligations.”
The letter goes on to add, “The fact that Language Empire was recently forced to pay substantial costs and damages in court for unethical business practices and was heavily criticised for ‘conduct so exceptional as to amount to an abuse of process’ cannot be ignored.
“Our members are extremely concerned that this agency is still being awarded contracts to work with vulnerable clients and would like this matter to be investigated as a matter of urgency.”
BSL/English interpreters provide an essential service in providing communication support between public service providers and deaf people. This can range from providing interpreting in hospitals and at GP appointments to legal and justice matters, as well as social care and child protection.
In 2015 the government brought in framework agreements to govern the provision of interpreting and translation across local and central government. Bookings that were previously arranged through specialist, often local agencies, or with interpreters directly are now more often than not awarded through contracts with larger agencies.
According to a NUBSLI report called ‘Dossier of Disgrace’, these framework agreements have resulted in agencies slashing interpreters’ fees leading to interpreters leaving the profession. Meanwhile quality standards have been compromised to maximise profits by using unqualified and unregistered individuals instead of qualified, highly skilled interpreters.