To Translate or Not to Translate?

The news that state subsidised translation services are being withdrawn for passport and driving license applicants has been largely ignored. Despite the significant implications of the move, the media have no doubt failed to pay attention because it was announced by Nick Clegg. He probably sought to gain the ‘credit’ for a popular policy in a bid to toughen the Liberal Democrats’ stance on immigration. The Deputy Prime Minister said:

Obtaining a passport and drivers’ licence is a privilege and ‘rite of passage’ in this country.

It is only right that someone gaining such rights should be able to speak English to an appropriate standard and I certainly don’t think everyone else should pay for them to use an interpreter or translation service if they can’t.

Withdrawing translation services has become something of a trend in recent years. They are a soft target for spending cuts, as they are both expensive and unpopular. It is completely fair to expect that those seeking the public services provided by our society should undertake to learn our language. What is not fair is to cut the translation services that a number of first generation immigrants depend on, and to cut the free English language classes that could give them independence. Statistics show that, if a migrant or asylum seeker does not already speak English upon entering the UK, they are likely to be poor and therefore unable to afford language classes. And yes, there are questions to be asked about an immigration policy that has created hundreds of thousands of British residents who can’t speak English. But creating policy that puts these people between a rock and a hard place won’t actually solve the problem. Moreover, some politicians have suggested compulsory language classes for all immigrants. That is a total waste of time and money given that many immigrants do speak English to a high standard.

Maybe our leaders should learn from the example set by Newham Council. The east London borough, according to the last Census, has a population that is just 16.7% White British. It is a centre for first generation migrants, and accordingly translation services were a huge expense. Newham directed the translation budget towards language classes, and it is expected to reap these benefits:

  • Better community cohesion. How can people relate to each other if they have no culture or language in common? Breaking down linguistic barriers is helping to end the virtual ghettoisation suffered by non-English speakers.
  • Safety for migrants. Non-English speakers are hugely vulnerable. We’re all familiar with horrific cases in which people have been unable to escape abuse or exploitation because they are unable to seek help.
  • Long-term savings. It is the equivalent of teaching somebody to fish rather than giving them a fish whenever they need one. Government bodies can save millions in the long term, as it is cheaper to provide someone, say, 100 hours of language classes than 15 hours of interpreter’s services for every year of their lives.

This represents a constructive approach that benefits all parties, rather than the draconian (and ultimately ineffective) approach adopted by central government in a futile attempt to enhance the each party’s ‘tough’ credentials.

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