There does appear to be something fundamentally wrong in spending £100 million last year on translation services for those who don’t speak English.
The figures released by the BBC provide some fairly startling reading – £25m spent by local authorities; £21m by the police; £10m by the courts system (without accounting for the cost of legal aid); and the NHS spending a conservative estimate of £55m (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6172805.stm).
I am not naive or bigoted enough to think that people arriving in the UK from other countries should immediately speak English and no other language.
Such a viewpoint smacks of the worst kind of hypocrisy given our national ignorance towards other languages. We’re not really in a position to preach or dictate when we refuse to learn even the basics of French, Spanish and Italian despite returning to those countries for a fortnight each summer on holiday.
It is a generalisation, but still hits the mark. Our collective attitude is that other countries should learn to speak English, rather than us “wasting time” on learning other languages.
Yet there is plenty to be concerned about in the fact that £100m has been spent on interpreters and translation services.
The most telling comment on this story appears to me to come from Bangladeshi human rights lawyer Zia Haider Rahman, who maintains that the provision of translation and interpretation is damaging his community.
His claim that members of his community are put off learning English because the authorities translate everything for them strikes at the heart of the issue. The money being invested is misdirected.
We do need ready access to translation services, but surely the bulk of this money could have been spent on providing English classes?
The lawyer is quoted as saying: “They are…reinforcing the language barrier which separates this community from the rest of Britain. They are de-incentivising Bangladeshis from learning English”.
To prove the point, the BBC has also interviewed a Bangladeshi woman who has lived in London for 22 years but cannot speak a word of English. Her take on the issue is that however well-meaning, all the language support had ruined her life.
Are we trying too hard?
It sounds a ridiculous question to ask and the answer appears to be that in some respects we are.
On the one hand we have £100m spent on translation services when English classes would make far more sense, but on the other we prevent immigrants from doing the type of work they are skilled and experienced in.
For example, despite an acute shortage of trained dentists in the UK, foreign trained dentists are unable to set up practice in this country without taking an entrance exam and getting access to such a qualification is seemingly littered with obstacles (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/6177330.stm).
The UK is not a soft touch. It is a tolerant and welcoming society.
But these latest figures also show how misguided we are, no matter how well-intentioned we are trying to be.