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Lost in translation: Council leader hits back at minister's blast
Wirral is in the firing line of a broadside from Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles over the millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money town halls spend on “unnecessary translation services.”
Mr Pickles ridiculed the amounts spent on translation services in the UK and bemoaned a culture that could spend £600 on translating a glossy magazine into Urdu for a single complainant.
Wirral, with an immigrant population of less than three per cent, has spent almost £68,500 in three years translating documents and other material into different languages, including Polish, Chinese, Gaelic, Somali, Arabic and Urdu.
Council leader Phil Davies accused Mr Pickles of arrogance in suggesting that the translation service was not needed.
He said: “It would be a retrograde step to stop doing this - we would rightly get complaints from these communities.
“We may not have as large a multi-cultural population as places like Liverpool, but we have a growing population of Bangladeshis and a big population of Polish people.
For them and others we need to provide important information in the key languages they understand.”
Councillor Davies said he completely disagreed with Mr Pickles’ sentiments. “It shows how out of touch he is with local government,” he commented.
A Wirral Council statement said the local authority occasionally made use of translation and interpretation services for “a wide range of circumstances,” including translation of documents and business materials for use when securing investment from abroad, converting documents to make them suitable for people with learning difficulties or those for whom English was not their first languages.
Council tax information was also provided in Braille.
The statement concluded: “Between 2008 and 2011 Wirral Council spent £68,434 on services such as these which help the local authority to fulfil its statutory obligations under the Equality Act 2010.”
Mr Pickles heavily criticised what he sees as a money-frittering reluctance to simply provide documents in plain English, which would “promote cohesion and better community relations.”
And he claimed 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 left by the last administration.”
He added: “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.”
Mr Pickles insisted that councils must adhere to equality directives, but emphasised that they were not compelled to translate documents into foreign languages.
He said those unable to speak English could instead refer to "easy-read versions of documents and using pictures instead of translation" and added that his department would be "practising what we preach" with English-only leaflets as part of a "Fire Kills" safety education campaign.
Chrissie Maher, founder of Plain English Campaign said: 'If all the documents in question were produced to our plain-English standards in the first place, this might not be such an issue.
"Yes, we need to promote our language, culture and integration, but if we can't expect someone with English as their first language to understand a document, we should not expect those with English as a second and third language to be able to understand it either.'
"We need easy-to-understand English documents as the foundation for all information in the public domain."