Inspection report published: An inspection of the Home Office’s use of language services in the asylum process

Published 11 November 2020: The inspection focused on how well the language needs of asylum applicants were being met but the findings will have a wider relevance. The Home Office accepted all three of the recommendations.

From: Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration

Publishing the report, David Bolt said:

This inspection examined the use of language services by the Home Office’s Borders, Immigration and Citizenship System (BICS) in the context of asylum casework.

The UK’s Immigration Rules state that: “The Secretary of State shall provide at public expense an interpreter for the purpose of allowing the applicant [for asylum and humanitarian protection] to submit their case, wherever necessary [and] shall select an interpreter who can ensure appropriate communication between the applicant and the representative of the Secretary of State who conducts the interview.

The inspection looked in particular at how well the language needs of asylum applicants were being met. However, the findings have a wider relevance. Past inspections, including most recently ‘An inspection of the EU Settlement Scheme (April to August 2019)’, have criticised the lack of foreign language versions of instructions and guidance, while Stephen Shaw drew attention to the importance of reliable interpreting services in his reviews of vulnerable adults in immigration detention.

Previously, BICS has often seemed slow or reluctant to accept that some of the individuals it encounters, including some of the most vulnerable, will not have sufficient command of English to understand clearly and precisely their rights and obligations unless they are translated into their own language. I am therefore pleased that it has accepted all three of my recommendations.

The Home Office has got a good deal of work to do to improve its use of language services. This needs to be tackled strategically and in a coordinated way rather than piecemeal. Some things need urgent attention, but others will take time and effort. However, getting this right is essential to BICS operating efficiently and effectively and providing its “customers” with the quality of service they are entitled to expect.

Summary of conclusions
3.1 The Borders, Immigration and Citizenship System (BICS) does not have a system-wide policy for the provision of information and services in foreign languages. Policies and guidance have developed separately for asylum and for other BICS functions and practice varies not only for the different functions but between and within the operational directorates, and in some cases from one location to another. Some of this is a pragmatic response to the (non-)availability of particular language services, but the overall effect is unsatisfactory in terms of efficiency and effectiveness and means that the treatment of asylum applicants and other BICS ‘customers’ is uneven.

3.2 All three BICS operational directorates are involved in the asylum process and all three make use of language services. The bulk of asylum casework falls to Asylum Operations, part of UK Visas and Immigration’s (UKVI) Immigration and Protection Directorate. However, Border Force and Immigration Enforcement officers are often the first to encounter asylum seekers and may conduct asylum screening interviews at ports and in detention settings. Immigration Enforcement staff also serve asylum decisions to immigration detainees. BICS staff make extensive use of language services in support of their other core functions, including at immigration controls and in a range of compliance and enforcement scenarios.

3.3 There is no single BICS budget for language services. Costs are met from the delegated budgets of each of the operational directorates. Based on the information provided to inspectors, the combined expenditure for 2018-19 was c. £7.5 million, although there must be some doubt about the accuracy of this figure. Expenditure is not recorded in a way that clearly distinguishes asylum casework from other functions, but in 2018-19 the Asylum Operations budget for “Interpreters & Translation” was set at £3.8 million, suggesting that the larger part of BICS expenditure is asylum-related.

3.4 For asylum applicants, the Immigration Rules require the Home Secretary to “provide at public expense an interpreter for the purpose of allowing the applicant to submit their case, wherever necessary”. At each stage of the process, Home Office interviewers must check that the applicant understands what they are being asked and, if this is not the case in English, to establish which language(s) the applicant speaks so that questions and answers can be fully and accurately interpreted. But, this is not followed through logically to decision letters, which are in English only.

3.5 Between 2016-17 and 2018-19, 40,584 asylum decisions were appealed, of which 16,553 (40.8%) were allowed. The Home Office was unable to say how many appeals against asylum decisions cited issues with language and comprehension. Meanwhile, stakeholders contended that it was common for mistakes by interpreters to result in “inconsistencies” in an applicant’s account and for the Home Office to use these as grounds for refusal.

3.6 Home Office record keeping in relation to language requirements and the provision of language services is inconsistent, incomplete and fragmented, and much of the information, if recorded at all by staff, is not readily retrievable. As a consequence, the Home Office was unable to satisfy a number of ICIBI’s requests for data. For example, it could not provide any data for asylum decisions made without an interview due to interpreter non-availability, nor could it say how many asylum interviews were suspended due to language issues, although it did have figures for Interpreter Operations Unit (IOU) booking cancellations and re-bookings.

3.7 Where it did provide data, or where inspectors carried out their own database or spreadsheet searches, the inconsistencies and gaps mean that any analysis is necessarily indicative rather than definitive. Overall ‘fulfilment rates’ for interpreter requests appear to be high but, however well current demand is being managed, BICS needs better data to plan and improve its language services provision.

3.8 In both the Case Information Database (CID) and the IOU database of freelance Home Office interpreters the language categorisations are not sufficiently precise, especially in relation to dialects. This is a problem for several languages, but particularly for Arabic, because of what one stakeholder described as “marked differences in phraseology in different countries”. It does not help that there is no training for Home Office staff about languages and dialects. Learning is done on the job, and appreciation of the importance of the dialects therefore varies considerably.

3.9 The IOU database is updated weekly, and the numbers of interpreters and available languages and dialects fluctuate. However, it is evident from the ratio of interpreters to asylum applicants, even without any complicating factors, such as location and gender, that certain languages are under-resourced, most obviously Vietnamese and Albanian. And, for some languages, for example Otjiherero and Rohingya, there is no-one.

3.10 Meanwhile, the Home Office’s efforts to recruit interpreters are unsystematic, sluggish and need overhauling, and the higher rates of cancellation by in-demand interpreters and reported loss of Vietnamese interpreters to other, more generous employers, require a much more critical look at the competitiveness of its ‘package’. This should be coupled with a programme to raise the standards of interpreter competence and conduct, from the initial testing (with help from professional bodies) of interpreters’ qualifications (including their fluency in English) and suitability to be listed, through the regular monitoring of their performance, to a rigorous process for delisting those who are not up to standard.

3.11 This requires a collective effort by IOU and users of language services to improve recordkeeping and feedback. It will need to be backed up with training for staff in how to work effectively with an interpreter and better briefings for the interpreters. For asylum cases, as well as a general briefing about the asylum process, thought should be given to what an interpreter needs to understand about a particular applicant and their claim before the start of an interview in order to ensure they are properly prepared and to achieve the best results. Thought should also be given to whether specific training is required for interpreters working with child applicants, and whether more stringent warnings are needed about not allowing personal or religious beliefs, for example about homosexuality, to affect the interview.

3.12 To avoid a two-tier offering, the same standards should apply to language services procured from commercial providers. BICS directorates use thebigword as a source of interpreters, mostly for telephone interpretation. For some functions, thebigword serves as a contingency where a Home Office interpreter is not available. For Border Force, whose interpreting requirements are unpredictable and often of short duration, it is the first choice for reasons of ease and cost. It is also preferred by staff in Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) and prisons, who often find Home Office interpreters are unwilling to accept bookings. Moving detainees to other sites for interview, or using fellow detainees as interpreters, are poor alternatives.

3.13 To date, the Home Office has been wholly reliant on thebigword for data about usage and expenditure and has had no reliable means of validating either, or of quality assuring the services provided. Its response to widespread and persistent concerns about the latter,
and about telephone interpreting more generally, has been inadequate and this needs to be gripped.

3.14 According to thebigword, in 2018-19 BICS made 71,371 requests for an interpreter, an increase of c. 12% on the previous year. Expenditure increased by c. 18% to ÂŁ1.2 million. Four IRCs were among the top ten users by volume of requests and together accounted for 16,180 (23%) of the total. However, given the range of business at an IRC, many of these calls will not have been asylum related.

3.15 thebigword declined to share other data requested by inspectors, including about thequalifications held by its interpreters, citing “commercial sensitivity”. The original contract with thebigword was with the Crown Commercial Service. It was transferred to the Home Office in 2018, by which time it had already expired. ICIBI was told that the contract document could not be traced. If it agrees a new contract with thebigword, the Home Office needs to remedy the current lopsided arrangement and put an effective monitoring regime in place. It also needs to ensure that as a provider of services covered by the UK Borders Act 2007 Section 48, thebigword is not able to frustrate independent inspection.

3.16 Although they are used on a much smaller scale, similar considerations apply to other commercially-procured language services, such as Language Analysis (used to help establish an individual’s place of origin where this is in doubt) and written translations.

3.17 Guidance in relation to the latter is out of date (produced in 2009), but there is a wider need to look across all guidance that refers to the provision of information and services in foreign languages to ensure that, notwithstanding the different purposes for which it is used, the BICS position is coherent. This should include examination of the justification for and sense of any redactions made to guidance posted on GOV.UK, in particular where the text refers to individuals’ rights and obligations, and to the Home Office’s requirements and expectations, and the consequences if these are not met.

3.18 The review of guidance should be used to unblock work about, or reliant on, language services that appears to be stuck in the BICS system. For example, in March 2018, responding to ICIBI’s recommendation to “produce ‘child-friendly’ information to hand to unaccompanied asylum seeking children, including foreign language versions for the main nationalities, covering all aspects of the asylum process”, the Home Office stated that it had “already committed to publishing a ‘point of claim’ leaflet in a range of different languages” and these would “include a wide range of information for children”.

3.19 In August 2019, the Home Office reported that work was “in train to test, trial and implement improved communications for asylum applicants” and consideration was being given to “bite size leaflets in foreign languages” and SMS, text and short video communications. But, in October 2019, it referred to “translation difficulties” to explain why updated foreign language The Home Office agreed a new interim contract with thebigword to run from 1 March to 1 June 2020, a copy of which was provided to inspectors on 4 May 2020. This contained a section on “Service Levels and Performance”. In its factual accuracy response, received on 4 May 2020, the Home Office commented that: “As part of the new contract the Authority has the ability to receive MI, and as before, has access to internal billing data. There are also Service Level Agreements (SLA) in the interim contract.” ‘point of claim’ leaflets had still not been produced. Meanwhile, some business areas continue to use out-of-date versions, while one had commissioned its own translations.

3.20 The ‘Code of Conduct for UK Visas and Immigration Registered Interpreters’, produced in 2008, is another example of slow progress. It was reviewed in March 2019 and in June 2019 it was awaiting final sign off. In the meantime, interpreters had been given a one-page update covering security clearance renewal, social media, medical conditions, and video conferencing for interviews.

3.21 In October 2019, the Home Office reported “the redraft … will involve wide stakeholder consultation and input. We … will begin engagement with stakeholders in November 2019 to ensure that the document captures the wide-ranging needs and is sufficient for all our represented services. We envisage that the new version will be issued out by the end of January 2020 and will begin an exercise of obtaining signed declarations from interpreters”. At the end of March 2020, the redrafted Code had still not been issued.

3.22 For some years, stakeholders have been raising concerns about the “religious literacy” of Home Office caseworkers and the impact on decisions. Since at least 2015, ‘Asylum interviews’ guidance has instructed caseworkers to “ensure that the interpreter can translate the concepts and terminology of religious or non-religious groups in the country of origin”. But, in 2016, it responded to a recommendation from the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for International Freedom of Religion or Belief and the Asylum Advocacy Group (AAG) to provide training for caseworkers and interpreters saying that it would “work to produce an information document to be issued to all Home Office interpreters”.

3.23 In August 2019, the Home Office told ICIBI that “having reviewed actions to date, we recognise that we could have made more progress”. However, it had “liaised with asylum specialists to establish trends around terminology”. In October 2019, it reported that it had now produced a leaflet which it would share with representatives of the APPG to get their views.

3.24 While the content of anything the Home Office publishes must be right, and stakeholder consultations play an important role in ensuring this, it is clear from these examples that the Home Office needs to inject some pace and urgency into the process of producing and updating its published information about language services.

3.25 Quality assurance of asylum interviews focuses on the caseworkers, the interview record and the asylum decision, rather than on the quality of any interpretation. The latter is more difficult, but in its present form and limited usage, the Interpreter Monitoring Form (IMF) is of little value. Home Office managers agreed that a more robust assurance process was needed and suggested that the options might include a “trusted interpreter review” of certain cases, random “spot checks”, targeting of cases that could give rise to issues, and using a second interpreter to check an audio recording of an interview to ensure that a verbatim translation was provided. These options need to be properly explored.

3.26 As with all BICS functions, the Home Office needs to be alive to the opportunities and risks presented by technology. At its most basic, this means ensuring that clear working practices and standards apply to telephone interpreting and video conference (VC) interviewing with an interpreter, and these need to specify how interviewers should respond to technical problems such as poor connectivity and auditability, rather than leaving this to the interviewer’s judgement. The Home Office also needs to ensure that wherever substantive interviews are conducted there is the facility to make an audio recording, including where the Digital Interviewing (DI) capability has not been installed or does not work, and that this is always done.

3.27 Since they are already being used by staff, the Home Office needs as a matter of urgency to produce guidance on the purposes for which translation devices and applications may be used, and which devices and applications are “approved”.

3.28 There is a lot that needs attention, some of it pressing, and it will be neither efficient nor effective for BICS to tackle this piecemeal. Meanwhile, BICS does not have a recognised ‘owner’ for language services, accountable for the formulation and implementation of policies and processes, collection of data and performance monitoring, planning and delivery of the required resources and capabilities, risk management, internal and external communications, monitoring and management of contracted-out services, and stakeholder engagement.

3.29 On the face of it, the Interpreter Operations Unit (IOU) may seem like the obvious candidate, but as constituted it has neither the capacity nor the clout to manage everything that is required. Assuming that BICS accepts the need for improvement, the first step should therefore be to agree who will pull this together and to ensure they have the resources and BICS-wide authority they require to succeed.