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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 December 2006, 22:09 GMT
Cost in translation
By Mark Easton
BBC home editor

It is a lot of money in anyone's language. The cost of translating and interpreting for UK residents who don't speak English is rising sharply.

police generic
Police chiefs are spending a lot of money on translation services

Our research has identified expenditure of at least 100m in the past year, but the true figure is likely to be much more.

Local councils spend at least 25m; the police 21m; the courts system spends more than 10m without accounting for the cost of legal aid; and the NHS - a conservative estimate is 55m.

Unclear imperative

On hearing of the BBC research, Ruth Kelly, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, has asked for a review of language services across government.

A spokesman said: "We do recognise that there is an issue here which we need to look at."

Even though government departments refer to an obligation to translate, any legal imperative is far from clear.

If we're going to fund anything, it should be English classes
Christine, Southport

The Race Relations Act simply says that all parts of the community should have access to services. The Human Rights Act only requires translation if someone is arrested or charged with a criminal offence.

But many public bodies assume they must translate.

In Peterborough, for instance, our research has identified more than 1m of public money is now spent on interpreting and translation for the city's growing immigrant population.

What we say to people is if they need it in their language we will make sure they have it
Leonie McCarthy,
Peterborough New Link centre

A Home Office funded community centre has translated documents and services into 76 languages, with Polish and Portuguese among the most commonly requested.

Leonie McCarthy, the project manager at Peterborough's New Link centre, says the council sees it as its duty to translate into any dialect or language for which there is a demand.

"What we say to people is if they need it in their language we will make sure they have it because we believe that everybody should have equal access to knowledge of the services.

"If somebody needs information and they have a right to that information we will make sure we get it translated."

At the centre we met Agneska, a Polish civil engineer who has lived in Britain for three years but does not speak English.

Now pregnant and unemployed, she was asking for advice on how to claim Jobseekers Allowance from an interpreter. Asked if the absence of such translation would have encouraged her to attend English classes, Agneska replied: "Absolutely, yes."

They are doing harm because they are reinforcing the language barrier which separates this community from the rest of Britain
Zia Haider Rahman,
human rights lawyer

'Doing harm'

In Tower Hamlets in the East End of London, Bangladeshi human rights lawyer Zia Haider Rahman says the provision of translation and interpretation is damaging his community.

It is a corner of England where, he says, English is a foreign language. Shops, restaurants and the doctors surgery all cater for a population which speaks Bengali or Sylheti.

His community, he says, is put off learning English because the authorities translate everything for them.

"They are doing harm because they are reinforcing the language barrier which separates this community from the rest of Britain. They are de-incentivising Bangladeshis from learning English".

Zia introduced us to a woman who is too frightened to speak openly. She has lived in Tower Hamlets for 22 years but doesn't speak a word of English. She told me that however well-meaning, all the language support had ruined her life.

NHS trusts: 55m.
Local councils: 25m
Police: 21m
Courts system: 10.3m
Immigration and nationality directorate: 8.5m
Sources: BBC, Home Office, Times newspaper

"When you are trying to help us, you are actually harming us", she says. "All we have to do is say hello and they are here with their interpreters. We just sit here doing nothing and we don't need to speak in English at all."

The woman, in her early 40s, says many other girls brought over from Bangladesh as wives are effectively enslaved by men who do not want them to integrate.

"Women are not being allowed to learn English because if they go out the husband fears they will be corrupted, that she will gain courage and she will learn how to operate in this country.

"There should be a law that requires these newcomers to learn English and that stops their families from preventing them learn English," she says.

'Access to services'

The former head of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, says the cost of translation is simply a feature of globalisation and "we should just soak it up".

Mr Phillips says most people who come to Britain want to learn English.

"Translation is not a disincentive. It allows them to get access to services while they learn English. Translation is a way of helping people into transition into integrating into our society."

Smokers can get help to give up - in Turkish

The biggest area of spending is now the National Health Service. In the East End of London, Barts Hospital alone spends 1m a year. Guy's Hospital in South London spends almost 600,000 a year - an increase of 28% in the past 12 months.

Much of the expenditure is interpreting consultations between doctors and patients who do not speak English.

Cost rising fast

There would seem to be a moral, if not a legal duty to ensure understanding in such circumstances. But provision, in the words of one trust, can go from "asking for a drink to therapy".

Islington Primary Care Trust, for instance, provides stop smoking advice in Somali and Turkish - often one-to-one sessions through an interpreter.

The justification is that those communities have higher levels of smoking than the wider population and translating helps reach that population. But there are no national guidelines as to when it is appropriate or required to provide interpretation or translation services.

A spokesman for the Department of Health told the BBC: "No legal advice has been taken. It is clear that there is an obligation to provide information that is clearly understood."

The cost of translation is rising fast. In the last five years the bill for the courts in England has trebled. West Midlands police translation costs have also trebled to nearly 2m.

There are many unanswered questions. No-one knows how many millions we spend on translation. We do not know exactly what the legal requirement is. But perhaps most worrying of all, we do not know whether it does more harm than good.

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