Main Content

“2020health is an important and thoughtful contributor to the health debate”

Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, Chairman, Health Select Committee


Mail Online How you pay £100m a year to aid immigrants who can't speak English

Shock figures reveal huge sums spent on translators by police, councils and hospitals
- Police, hospitals and courts are all spending huge sums on translators
- Councils in England spent £11 million on language services in last year
- Polish is the most commonly translated language by courts and police
- Met spends nearly £7million a year on interpreters for crime suspects

Taxpayers are spending £100million every year on interpreters to help immigrants who cannot speak English, a Mail on Sunday investigation has found.

Police, town halls, hospitals and courts are all spending huge sums on translating documents and providing professional interpreters to assist people with poor English.

This is despite repeated Government attempts to save money and improve social cohesion by making new arrivals take English tests, and by telling councils not to waste money on translating leaflets.

It can be revealed today that:

  • A hospital trust in the North West uses interpreters 74 times each day.
  • Britain's biggest police force spends nearly £7 million a year on interpreters for crime suspects – mostly Romanian – and victims.
  • One council helps people who speak a total of 61 different languages, including the little-spoken Fulani, Karen, Kinyarwanda, Shona, Tagalog and Visayan.
  • Polish is by far the most commonly translated language by courts, police and councils.
  • A US firm makes more than £10 million a year from the interpreting 'industry'.

Last night critics said that, at a time when budgets are being slashed by the Government, key public services can ill afford to spend millions of pounds to help immigrants who have not learned English.

And they argued that translating can ultimately leave foreign language-speakers worse off – as they are less likely to get well-paid jobs in this country if they have not learned the language.

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said: 'The guidance I've issued is crystal-clear – councils should stop wasting taxpayers' money by translating into foreign languages. Translation holds people back from integrating into British society. If they can't speak English, they're not going to get on. Money saved can be used to protect frontline services and keep council tax down.'

Under the Freedom of Information Act, The Mail on Sunday asked public bodies across England to detail their costs for written translation of documents and face-to-face or telephone interpreting.

Responses from 585 organisations, about two-thirds of those contacted, revealed they had spent £79 million in 2013-14, indicating that the total figure is well over £100 million. Most goes on face-to-face interpreters rather than document translation, which can be done free online.

In the NHS, the sum spent on foreign language services has risen by 41 per cent over the past four years to reach at least £33 million. Dozens of hospitals failed to respond to our data requests.

The biggest health spender is Homerton University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust in East London, which spent £1.2 million in a year.

Some hospitals have even installed full-time interpreters on their wards, such is the demand they face. But the details obtained by this newspaper indicate poor control of spending in some trusts.

In one instance last January, a Bengali interpreter charged £126 for more than three hours' work, even though the interpretation took only ten minutes, during an endoscopy procedure.

In another, the Trust was charged £162 for 4.5 hours' work by an Arabic interpreter, which in fact took 30 minutes during a home visit.

Meanwhile a health board in Brighton translated a 'short video explaining what a clinical commissioning group is' into five languages, at a cost of £7,500.

Another spent £1,678 on translating leaflets about 'the importance of registering with a GP'.

One physiotherapist in South-West London reported having four appointments in a day – with an interpreter required at each.

NHS organisations claim that offering translation and interpretation services to those with poor English is a 'mandatory requirement'.

In its FOI response, Cannock Chase Clinical Commissioning Group stated: 'This is a mandatory requirement within the standard NHS contract that we use. The standard contract states, 'The Provider must provide appropriate assistance and make reasonable adjustments for Service Users, Carers and Legal Guardians who do not speak, read or write English or who have communication difficulties.' '

But some experts say that, in the vast majority of cases, providing this service is unnecessary.

Julia Manning, chief executive of the think-tank 2020Health, said: 'I cannot imagine someone with zero English being in this country without having a relative who does speak the language, who could help them. It really should be the responsibility of family or friends to assist with understanding.'

Latest figures show the Department for Work and Pensions spent £5 million on language services in a year, most on face-to-face and telephone help for jobseekers and benefits claimants.

Meanwhile, councils in England spent £11 million on language services in the most recent financial year, despite 2013 guidance from the Government telling them translation and interpreting should be used in emergency cases only, for instance child protection.

Among the biggest spenders was the London Borough of Haringey, paying £232,592 for interpreters and £16,444 for written translations, mostly Turkish, Polish and Spanish.

Sheffield City Council spent £226,280 on interpreters and £47,644 on translation into 61 languages. Government data shows HMRC spends £1 million a year on providing tax advice in different languages.

Some of the spending is required by law, however. A massive £15.5 million was paid out last year by the Ministry of Justice for interpreters in court cases, as the European Convention on Human Rights requires.

Police and the Crown Prosecution Service spent £16 million between them as the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) requires that suspects understand the questions put to them by officers. The Metropolitan Police was the biggest spender – getting through £6.7 million in 2013-14. A spokesman said: 'The MPS has a legal obligation to provide interpreting.'

Private companies that make money from taxpayer-funded interpreting services include outsourcing giant Capita, California-based LanguageLine and thebigword.

In many cases interpreters work from home or in call centres, and translate in three-way phone conversations with foreign-language speakers and doctors or police.

12.1.15 - Migrants’ interpreters cost taxpayers £100million a year

12.1.15 - Migrants’ interpreters cost taxpayers £100million a year

INTERPRETERS aiding immigrants with poor English to use public services cost taxpayers £100million a year, it was revealed yesterday.

This is despite government efforts to require new arrivals to sit English tests.

The news made Communities Secretary Eric Pickles repeat his guidance to councils, which spent £11million last year in England alone on translation, to stop putting leaflets into foreign languages. He said immigrants should learn English.

Julia Manning of the 2020Health think tank, said: “It really should be the responsibility of family or friends to assist with understanding.”

2020health Report Lost in translation

Lost in translation

This report investigates NHS spend on translation services, the overall costs as well as the individual areas of spend. Research was conducted by 2020health through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests sent to 247 NHS Trusts. read on Lost in translation