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‘Only publish documents in English’ How COVID-19 changed language access in the UK

Published 22 April 2021 / By Jacqui Broadhead

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Introduction

In 2012, the then Secretary of State for Local Government Eric Pickles published a list of ‘50 ways to save, examples of sensible savings in local government.’

Number 34 was:

“Stop translating documents into foreign languages: Only publish documents in English. Translation undermines community cohesion by encourage [sic] segregation. Similarly, do not give community grants to organisations which promote segregation or division in society.”

The idea that translation undermines cohesion goes hand in hand with a framing of language access policy (through translation and interpreting) as being in opposition to English language provision (Aspinall and Hashem 2011) – an either/or, rather than a both/and.

This is in stark opposition to the approach taken by other countries – where language access and English language provision run in parallel. In a 2018 learning visit to Pittsburgh and Montgomery County, Maryland in the US, each city took a pragmatic twin track approach – seeing both as useful tools in promoting integration and inclusion.

This is not to say that from 2012 to 2020 there was no provision for translation and interpretation in the UK, but rather that there has been both a lack of statutory framework (and funding) for this provision, alongside a more unofficial reticence, to support the practice. Whilst there has been some continued interpreting support for essential services, translation of documents has been even less common practice.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on this position has been dramatic.

Almost overnight, local government, health services and others mobilised to provide resources in community languages. Sometimes this was in partnership with NGOs - for example Doctors of the World took the initiative to start translating documents and this was then capitalised upon through partnership with the Greater London Authority. Our Access to Information COVID-19 Research and Policy Briefing outlines a number of examples of good practice that have emerged from UK cities.

So, why did we observe this shift and what are the implications?

Most obviously– the clear public health imperative of the pandemic overrode pragmatic and ideological resistance to the policy – both active and passive. The clear need for, and benefit of, translation naturally help ‘make the case’ for a policy, which might otherwise be hidden, with low level, diffused benefits and one which was therefore easy to restrict or abolish, in particular when funding for local government is so constrained.

More widely, this shift poses a few clear questions and implications:

  1. If the pandemic can cause such a quick shift in policy and practice, do we need to increase our ambition in relation to integration?
  2. How can momentum be maintained in order to mainstream this work, as part of efforts to be ‘inclusive by default,’ as defined in the Inclusive Cities Framework
  3. If we are shifting to a ‘both/and’ provision of ESOL and translation services, how can we link these policy areas up? Local authorities noted that, even as translation and interpreting services have developed throughout the pandemic, this connection has not often been made.
  4. Are there economies of scale to be found? As each local authority mobilised, there was clear crossover (and potential for duplication) – how can we organise and embed this work to maximise value for money (whilst remaining clear on the importance of local intelligence and context?) Could this be an area for regional coordination at Strategic Migration Partnership or Metro Mayor level?
  5. What implications does this shift have for broader integration policy, including the (much delayed) ESOL strategy?

The Inclusive Cities Framework sets out a roadmap for local authorities in understanding their choices and priorities in relation to inclusion. It recommends that municipalities undertake an audit of existing provision to ensure that, where possible, services are ‘inclusive by default’ – mitigating exclusion through targeted services where necessary.

The shifts in language access policy demonstrate the importance of clear and coherent inclusion policy making and how often neglected policy areas can be thrown into sharp relief by crisis.

 

References

Aspinall, P.J. and Hashem, F. (2011), "Responding to minority ethnic groups' language support needs in Britain", Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, Vol. 30 No. 2, pp. 145-162. https://ezproxy-prd.bodleian.ox.ac.uk:2102/10.1108/02610151111116526