Welfare Rights: A way with words

Guidance has been tightened on the use of interpreters for benefits claimants, writes Gary Vaux

The Department for Work and Pensions has issued new guidance to its staff on interpreters. For some years, the DWP has been using untrained office staff in an unofficial capacity or even relying on family members, including children, to translate and interpret. Many claimants who are comfortable with English find it difficult to follow conversations with DWP staff – imagine how much more difficult it is for someone relying on a child of 11.

It is DWP policy to provide an interpreter where:

● An interview is needed.
● The customer does not speak English, or, in Wales, Welsh.
● The customer cannot, or does not wish to, provide their own interpreter.

The new guidance says that the arrangement for the interview must be made within one working day, although the interview itself may need to take place later than this. In Wales, by law, customers may choose to be interviewed in Welsh if they prefer.

Customers can still provide their own interpreter, including family members or friends, but under-16s can no longer be used.

Where interviews are conducted under caution, for fraud purposes, only professional interpreters may be used.

The new guidance is unequivocal on one key point: in no circumstances should customers be sent away to find their own interpreter. The DWP is still prepared to use its own multi-lingual staff to translate and interpret. Such staff will only get extra pay if they spend more than a quarter of their time engaged in interviewing.

Using DWP multi-lingual staff may be less than ideal, however, because the workers are not normally recruited for their translation skills. They also are not independent of the DWP. The guidance gives advice to staff using interpreters as well as staff acting in that capacity, and it warns them of the dangers of interpreters becoming engaged in dialogue with the DWP to the exclusion of the claimants.

I also know from personal experience that multi-lingual staff are often called on to use language skills they may lack – one DWP official told me that they would use a worker who spoke “Indian” when interviewing a client of mine who spoke Punjabi. I told her, in my best European, that they needed to find someone with the specific language skills required.

If a claimant provides their own professional, qualified interpreter the DWP is willing to pay reasonable professional fees and expenses. This would cover interpreters employed by community-based interpreting services. However, friends and relatives accompanying customers should not be paid for interpreting.

The DWP also has a contract with Language Line to provide a telephone interpreting service. The contract is “pay as you use” and the rates vary from £8 for up to five minutes to £17 for up to 15 minutes (and £2.25 a minute after that). Also in the contract is a “text-to-speech” facility (a spoken translation of written documents).

Although the new guidance is a step forward, it may not satisfy everyone who would like to see the DWP offer an unfettered equal service to every claimant, irrespective of language skills. 

Gary Vaux is head of money advice, Hertfordshire Council. He is unable to answer queries by post or telephone. If you have a question to be answered please write to him c/o Community Care

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