The UK’s interpreting industry continues to be the subject of controversy. Following the saga of Capita’s courtroom interpreting contract with the Ministry of Justice, it has now been discovered a business supplying telephone interpreters for the NHS is routing calls to the Dominican Republic.

Medical interpreting on the line

Late last month, the Sunday Express discovered Language Line, which is the main provider of telephone interpreting services for the NHS, has routed calls to the country’s capital Santo Domingo. NHS staff have told the newspaper they were not aware of this connection, and that they had been informed all call centres used in the operation were in the UK.

According to the newspaper, after tourism, call centres are the second largest industry in the Dominican Republic. It is thought this is because of the country’s proximity to the United States, the fact it is cheaper to run such an operation there and that the tax regimes are regarded as favourable to businesses. The majority of the thousands of people who work for the various call centres there are bilingual, speaking Spanish and English.

The Language Line service is used by doctors and health advisers working in the UK when they are visited by patients who don’t speak English as their mother tongue. The doctor calls the service and selects the language they require – out of a choice of 140 – and is then put on hold while the call centre operative finds a suitable telephone interpreter on their database. The interpreter, doctor and patient then participate in a three-way conference call.

In addition to the NHS, some UK councils and the health service’s new non-emergency number 111 also use the services of Language Line. The newspaper reveals that 15,331 calls were made by NHS Direct to Language Line in 2010, with the contract funded by the taxpayer.

A spokeswoman for NHS Direct said: “Our understanding from Language Line is that all contact centres are based in the UK. We have no evidence to believe this is not the case.” They added that they would look into the issue.

Meanwhile, UK sales director for Language Line Simon Yoxon-Grant said he did not wish to get involved in the discussion. The Sunday Express noted that there did not appear to be any evidence of wrongdoing on the part of Language Line.

The Capita case

In March, the Sunday Express revealed that Capita Translating and Interpreting was also using an overseas’ call centre as part of its contract with the public sector. Capita has the sole responsibility of providing court interpreters for the Ministry of Justice (MOJ). The newspaper reported that some of these interpreters were being booked by a call centre in Krakow, Poland, which the company had outsourced work too. In response, a Capita spokesperson said the call centre was helping it to find and secure interpreters, but that none of the call centre workers had any contact with the actual courtroom staff.

The MOJ contract has been blighted by controversy for several months. The five-year contract originally went to Applied Language Solutions (ALS) in January 2012, but the company was later acquired by Capita.

In March, the MOJ published a report that revealed Capita had missed its target of honouring 98 per cent of the requests for interpreters it received from the courts. It achieved an overall success rate of 90 per cent.

Many professional interpreters working in the UK have refused to work for the Capita contract, due to a reduced salary and expenses. Ahead of the contract, many interpreters voiced their concerns that cutting pay would mean ALS would fail to attract the professionals with the necessary skills and experience to reliably interpret in a courtroom setting. Instead, lesser-qualified interpreters would be used, which could – in a worst case scenario – put the delivery of justice at risk.

Since then, in some cases the interpreter has not arrived for the trial, causing the court to lose money by shutting down for the day and rescheduling. On occasion, the courtroom has had to carry on regardless.

Jennifer Smith, a UK sign language interpreter and author of the blog Anonymous Interpreters, previously claimed that since Capita cut its travel expenses for interpreters, it was unlikely the most highly-qualified would choose to work for the company. In order to plug the gaps this has left, Ms Smith said she has heard of cases of non-professionals like hotel staff being asked to attend hearings.

What’s your opinion on the use of overseas call centres for contracts within the UK’s public sector?