People in Wales are probably unaware that in 2009/10 the Welsh Government gave a grant of £120,000 to a consortium of un-elected public bodies to set up a Welsh Interpreter and Translation Service (WITS). The aim of this was to provide a one-stop service for foreign-language interpreting for hospitals and councils to enable them to deal with ethnic minorities seeking their services. The service was run by Gwent Police until the summer of this year.
On the face of it this was a much-needed initiative to save costs and simplify the procurement of interpreters for public bodies. However, an ill-informed and ignorant decision was made by the WITS board to include sign language interpreting for deaf people in the service. Until then this service for deaf patients in Wales had been provided by the Wales Council for Deaf People and RNID.
The deaf person would contact one of the charities, which would arrange for an interpreter of choice for the deaf person to attend the hospital or GP consultation and invoice the local health board for the pre-agreed service. This long-standing arrangement came to an abrupt end when some badly advised health boards decided to embrace the WITS system.
Deaf patients were forbidden to discuss appointments with the Gwent Police-run WITS. Under WITS deaf people are not told by the health boards whether an interpreter would be present for an NHS health session and who the interpreter would be. Appointments had to be deferred if a WITS interpreter failed to turn up.
Seriously ill deaf patients had to struggle with their GPs or NHS consultants without a promised interpreter and their health worsened in some cases due to miscommunication's. Gwent Police adopted a Pontius Pilate stance and refused to deal with complaints from deaf people, saying that it was the health board’s problem, not theirs. The possibility of corporate manslaughter charges against the WITS board could arise because of the appalling service to deaf people.
Sign language interpreting should never have been taken over by WITS. Cardiff Council now hosts WITS and recognises that sign language is completely different from oral languages. If Cardiff Council fails to get the WITS board to allow deaf people to directly discuss their appointments with WITS staff, then sign language provision should be removed from WITS and reverted to the charities of and for deaf people.
Cedric Moon MBE