In February 2012, I published my department’s approach to integration, Creating the conditions for integration and in December 2012, I published 50 ways to save: examples of sensible savings in local government. The latter recommends:
“Stop translating documents into foreign languages: only publish documents in English. Translation undermines community cohesion by encouraging segregation. Similarly, do not give community grants to organisations which promote segregation or division in society.”
I would like to reaffirm my department’s approach to the use of translation and interpretation services for foreign languages by local authorities.
Some local authorities translate a range of documents and other materials into languages spoken by their residents, and provide interpretation services. While there may be rare occasions in which this is entirely necessary - for instance in emergency situations - I am concerned that such services are in many cases being provided unnecessarily because of a misinterpretation of equality or human rights legislation. Such translation services have an unintentional, adverse impact on integration by reducing the incentive for some migrant communities to learn English and are wasteful where many members of these communities already speak or understand English.
They are also very expensive and a poor use of taxpayers’ money. Independent research has suggested that local authorities alone spend nearly £20 million a year translating a variety of documents. Across the wider public sector, it has been estimated that translation and interpretation costs reached over £100 million in 2006.
Of course, local authorities must comply with the duties set out in the Equalities Act 2010, including the duty not to discriminate and the public sector equality duty. But this is not a legal duty to translate documents into foreign languages. Even if publishing only in English could put some people at a particular disadvantage, such a policy may be justified if local authorities can demonstrate that the integration and cost concerns pursue a legitimate aim and outweigh any disadvantage. The equality duty does not require a particular outcome, merely that public authorities consider all the relevant factors.
Obviously, there are broader challenges with communication with groups who may have poor levels of literacy or learning difficulties. But this can be addressed by use of plain English, easy read versions of documents and using pictures instead of translation. My department will be practising what we preach in the materials we are producing as part of our Fire Kills fire safety education campaign.
Stopping the automatic use of translation and interpretation services into foreign languages will provide further incentive for all migrant communities to learn English, which is the basis for an individual’s ability to progress in British society. It will promote cohesion and better community relations. And it will help councils make sensible savings, at a time when every bit of the public sector needs to do its bit to pay off the deficit.
For the avoidance of doubt, this statement effectively replaces the department’s Guidance for local authorities on translation of publications published under the last administration in 2007.