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(This is not satire – it’s ALS!)

Have you heard the one about the Delboy character who set up a firm in his bedroom and then persuaded naive government ministers to award him with a £300 million contract  – a decision which has now become so disastrous, in some cases it’s brought Britain’s criminal justice system to a halt?

Yes I know it’s getting difficult to keep track of all the unbelievably incompetent fiascos happening as a result of the government’s attempts to cut costs by farming essential services out to whichever Delboy character they come across – but you’re really going to have to keep up.

First some background.

Crime is an international business. Police and courts on a daily basis need to be able to communicate internationally – not just to deal with foreign criminals operating here but for witness statements and expert opinion as well as vital cooperation with police and courts around the world.

Essential to these needs are legal interpreters. These are not just people who can speak another language well enough to interpret simultaneously* but are experts on legal and crime fighting terminology in both languages – and because international crime never sleeps they must be available to the police and the courts 24 hours a day – sometimes at extremely short notice. In short they are professionals who are as essential to the successful running of our legal, court and crime fighting system as police, lawyers and judges.

Last year, in a bid to save money, ministers gave a £300 million contract for providing all legal interpreters to courts and police to one company – Applied Language Solutions (ALS), which promised to cut the annual translation bill by a third. The firm was owned by a smooth talking, slippery salesman by the name of Gavin Wheeldon, whose own mother described him as a ‘small Arthur Daley‘ (a 1970s TV character version of Delboy).

The problem is that Gavin isn’t an interpreter, in fact doesn’t even speak any foreign language at all and he started ALS from his bedroom in Manchester.

These are his own words from an article in the Times, well before he won the government contract:

I was ringing up and pretending I was this huge translation company when really it was just me in the back bedroom with a phone and PC. I won the contract and then thought: oh my God, how on earth do I deliver this?

And here he is on The Dragon’s Den five years ago, the dragons of course saw through him immediately, in a way our government ministers unfortunately did not.

And what has been the result of the government’s decision to hand over this vital service to Gavin ‘Delboy’ Wheeldon?

Another complete and utter omnishambles of course, which has so far resulted in the collapse of important court cases including murder trials, the denial of the right to a fair trial and even foreign suspects being allowed to walk free from police custody.

Up to 60% of the professional legal interpreters previously employed by the courts and police have unsurprisingly refused to work for Gavin’s company, especially after he announced he would be cutting their salaries by as much as half and refusing to pay them travelling expenses.

This in turn has resulted in ALS employing unvetted and incompetent interpreters, which in turn has resulted in a catalogue of disasters. In one case, a cat called Masha was accepted and registered as a legal interpreter by ALS.

And what has been the savings to the taxpayer for reducing our legal system to a laughing stock in the eyes of the world?

Last month, the government admitted the projected £12 million annual savings from the contract will probably not be achieved.

Yes, that’s right. None. Nothing. Zero.

You’re probably also wondering if we’re going to be getting our £300 million from Gavin back.

Not likely I’m afraid as he’s already sold ALS on to another company, Capita, for £7.5 million.

By the way, if you’re as cynical as I am and wondering if there were any connections between Gavin ‘Delboy’ Wheeldon and government ministers, Tory or Liberal Democrat donors, I did check but as far as I can tell there doesn’t seem to be any at all.

So probably not a case of conspiracy –  probably just another good old government cock-up.

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*If you don’t think accurate translation is important, have a look at this fascinating (and worrying) article:

6 Mistranslations That Changed The World

And here are some useful links if you want to know more about ALS and this latest government omnishambles:

ALS’s Gavin Wheeldon: A Case Study in Cheap Translation
Numerous news stories about problems with ALS
BBC – Court chaos follows interpreter change
The court interpreting fiasco
ALS – lies, damned lies, and statistics
Professional Interpreters’ Alliance
Registered Public Service Interpreters (RPSIs) 

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