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By Christine Murray
LONDON, Feb 6 (Reuters) - British government plans to contract out billions of pounds worth of public services to private companies have been called into question in a parliamentary committee report published on Wednesday.
The Ministry of Justice plans, which have been criticised by the opposition Labour party, include allowing firms to run criminal probation services, and are part of a wider drive across government to cut spending by outsourcing.
The chair of the justice select committee said that the MOJ's handling of a 90 million-pound ($141 million) contract to run court translation services was "shambolic" after translators failed to turn up at court and others mistranslated hearings to defendants.
The report also said that weaknesses in the MOJ's due diligence and risk mitigation procedures were a "cause for concern" ahead of its ambitious plans to contract out more public services, and repeated a call made in a previous report for an independent review into the department's ability to commission services.
It added that the MOJ did not have a sufficient understanding of the complexities of the work it was contracting out when it started the procurement process.
The committee said that services firm Capita, which inherited a five-year translation services contract when it bought Applied Language Solutions for 7.5 million pounds in late 2011, had improved the service markedly but it had taken a long time, even with Capita's "considerable" resources. The service is also still largely boycotted by qualified interpreters who previously worked in the public sector.
Capita acknowledged there had been issues regarding the delivery of the contract but said it had invested in improving its performance.
"Processes have been put in place to get the service running efficiently and effectively which means that the vast majority of booking requests are fulfilled and the volume of complaints has fallen," Capita said in a statement.
The MOJ held a joint seminar with G4S in January, reassuring its investors that the security firm was not blacklisted from government work after its failure to provide enough security guards for the London Olympics.
Analysts at Jefferies said in a note afterwards that they estimated business opportunities for firms with the MOJ amounted to 300-400 million pounds worth of prison facilities management, 100-150 million in electronic tagging and 60-100 million of criminal fines compliance work.
Other government departments have also been blamed when deals involving the private sector have gone awry, including the mishandling of the award of the West Coast Main Line train operating franchise late last year.