Earlier this month, communities secretary Eric Pickles urged councils to cut back on the money they spend on translating their leaflets and signs for residents who speak a foreign language. However, many council leaders have since spoken out about the benefits of the translation services they provide.

Pickles had suggested that human rights legislation is being misinterpreted by local authorities. He claimed that while councils should ensure not to discriminate and acknowledged that there are instances where translation services must be mandatory, there were also occasions where they were unnecessary. Indeed, he stated that by providing translations of all council-produced materials, local authorities were actually reducing the incentive to learn English.

The communities secretary suggested that nearly £20 million was spent annually by councils around the country on translation services, and called it a “poor use of taxpayers’ money”.

Fighting back

However, Southwark Council has spoken out in defence of its translation service, saying it is money well spent. According to 24.dash, the authority’s cabinet member for finance Richard Livingstone asserts that the council has actually reduced the money it spends on translations. His comments come after Southwark Council was specifically mentioned in a government press release.

Livingstone notes that the council prints leaflets in a foreign language by request only and that in the last two years it has cut its spending on translation services by almost 50 per cent. However, he adds that the majority of the translations Southwark provides are for social services, “particularly in relation to safeguarding vulnerable people”.

Pickles had claimed that by no longer automatically providing interpreting and translation services, councils would incentivise migrant communities to learn to speak English. This, in turn, would provide people with the foundation they need to progress in UK society, he added.

However, Livingstone urges Pickles to be “pragmatic”. “If a social worker needs to communicate with a mother over the safety of her child, that social worker can’t say ‘go away and learn English and I’ll come back in six months’. ” He adds that councils would be “remiss” if they were not able to communicate effectively with such a constituent.

Southwark is not the only council to fight back. Oldham Council has also claimed its translation services are far from being a waste of money.

According to the Oldham Chronicle, council publications are only printed in English, but employees often meet face-to-face with residents who speak a foreign language. Local authority staff regularly meet with constituents and pass on information to groups as large as 30 at coffee mornings.

As a result, Oldham Council saves money when translating materials, as this is more economical than providing one-to-one services. In addition, it points out that it has reduced its spending on translation services, which stood at £37,510.18 during 2011 to 2012.

“Real need” for translation services

Meanwhile, the Lancashire Telegraph reports that translation services are also vital in East Lancashire. The leader of Burnley Council Julie Cooper and Yusuf Jan Virmani, Blackburn with Darwen’s executive member for neighbourhoods, housing and customer services, revealed that the local authority’s translation budget has already been “severely cut back”. As a result, it is now supplied on an as-and-when basis.

However, the pair claimed that the council is unable to do “nearly enough” for its residents whose mother tongue is not English. Virmani noted: “I don’t agree with [Pickles] at all; there’s a real need for elderly people who are too old to learn English to have accessible services.” His comment is echoed by the MP Jack Straw, who says he is often accompanied by a translator so he can hold conversations with older constituents who speak a foreign language.

Perhaps one point that has been missed in this debate is that even when a person can speak a second language well, they may miss vital information that they would spot if it was written in their mother tongue. It’s for this reason that hospitals employ professional interpreters to work alongside doctors, rather than relying on a bilingual member of the patient’s family.

If a council has the important information it needs all residents to be made aware of, all residents should have the right to request that information in their mother tongue. This will help them to communicate with other members of the community, meaning they do not feel isolated. As a result, providing translation services could – conversely – assist in greater integration among migrant communities, rather than discourage it.

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