British Sign Language (BSL) is the predominant sign language used by deaf communities in the UK. BSL / English translators and interpreters (SLTIs) provide an essential service facilitating communication between hearing people and these communities, across a broad range of domains. These include the workplace, medical and clinical services, health and social care, education, courts, legal and police settings.
SLTIs are highly skilled professionals who undertake years of training to become competent and qualified. Professionals are regulated by one of three bodies in the UK, these being the National Registers of Communication Professionals working with Deaf and Deafblind people (NRCPD), the Regulatory Body for Sign Language Interpreters and Translators (RBSLI) and the Scottish Register of Language Professionals with the Deaf Community (SRLPDC). NUBSLI recommends the use of registered BSL/English interpreters/translators who are members of one of these three regulatory bodies. This is in order for end users to have confidence that a given practitioner has undertaken the required training. Regulated trainees may also be used where appropriate. The consequences of using unqualified, unregulated services can be far-reaching and, in extreme cases, even life-threatening.
To maintain their registration and practice safely, SLTIs must be Disclosure and Barring Service checked (DBS). They must also possess the appropriate Professional Indemnity Insurance (PII) and undertake a stipulated amount of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) each year. The vast majority of practitioners work on a freelance basis, therefore these costs must be incorporated into their regular business expenditure. In addition to this, pension contributions, income protection insurance, accountancy fees, ICT equipment, and professional supervision will be needed as a minimum.
It has long been the case that there is a shortage of SLTIs in the UK (NUBSLI, 2017; West, 2018). In order to attract enough suitably qualified practitioners to the profession, and for them to remain in their chosen career providing high-quality services, the financial remuneration they receive must be sufficient to cover the significant amount of specialist training and experience they possess and their regular business expenditure.
NUBSLI fee guidance has broadly been considered to represent the industry standard for a number of years. However, it has been misunderstood and misused by various stakeholders. The result has been that rather than allow for incremental increases in fees in line with inflation, the guidance has been used as a fixed rate by organisations. Members have been effectively prevented from increasing their fees as they see fit. This has steadily diminished the purchasing power of SLTIs over time, eroding their living standards, even before taking the current cost of living crisis and spiralling inflation into account
The Current Landscape
NUBSLI Fee Guidance
Fee guidance information is usually collected from NUBSLI’s membership on a triennial basis, the most recent survey having taken place in 2020. Members are surveyed on the fees they intend to charge the following year. This information is then used to determine average (median) fees for half-day, full-day and callout rates in each region across the UK. The results are made available in the public domain on NUBSLI’s website.
NUBSLI fee guidance is exactly that – guidance. The vast majority of SLTIs operate as individual businesses. Therefore decisions as to what fees to charge are entirely down to each practitioner.
NUBSLI fee guidance does not set a minimum or maximum rate, it is simply indicative of the median fee in a given region. Individual practitioners may charge outside of the guidance rate, for reasons such as their own specialism, or the complexity of a given assignment. It is also important to note that many SLTIs will have already raised their fees in order to cover the increasing cost of living since the last guidance was published in 2020.
The Erosion of Fees by Inflation
Sign language interpreting and translation as a career is particularly susceptible to inflation when compared to many other professions. Once an interpreter has qualified, there is little to no recognition of increasing skill and experience by agencies or those that commission their services such as Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) / Access to Work (AtW), the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA), and the Students Award Agency Scotland (SAAS). This leaves an individual practitioner with relatively ‘flat’ earning potential over the course of their career. This is in contrast to most employed professionals who will climb salary spine points as they gain experience, helping offset any losses from inflation.
Prior to the onset of the cost-of-living crisis, inflation was steadily fluctuating between 1-3% per year (ONS, n.d.). In the 2020 update to the NUBSLI fee guidance, fees were already tracking below inflation in most regions. Extrapolated into the future, SLTIs would see their earnings steadily decline. If no action were to be taken, wages and income would continue to reduce until practitioners find themselves effectively working for minimum wage.
The below table is an illustrative example of this decline. The figures are based on the rate of inflation prior to the current cost-of-living crisis, for a practitioner working in London, 5 days per week. The figures take into account the UK legal minimum for annual leave (28 days), as well as the average amount of unplanned absence (6 days), and time off for training (4 days), in a given year.
|NUBSLI guidance fee||Inflation adjusted fee||Daily loss||Year loss||Cumulative loss|
The Cost-of-Living Crisis
Britain is in the grip of the worst cost of living crisis in a generation. Inflation has reached the highest level in forty years. This has led to real terms incomes falling at the fastest rate on record, while energy prices have increased by 400% in the last year, and by 1,000% since 2019 (YouGov, 2022).
The Retail Price Index (RPI) is one of the two main measures of consumer inflation produced by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The other being the Consumer Price Index (CPI). These measures of inflation are based on a universal market basket of goods and services, which is taken to indicate the level of inflation at a given time.
As of October 2022, the Retail Price Index, which differentiates itself by the inclusion of house prices and mortgage rates, is running at 12.6% (ONS, n.d.).
Any increase in wage / income that falls below the current RPI is a pay cut in real terms.
It is perhaps no surprise that rising prices have led many to reduce their spending. According to a recent YouGov poll, 66% of people have already made some form of cut, including 23% who have already had to cut back on key essentials. 43% have had to cut back on non-essentials in order to maintain their spending on essentials. Only 29% say they are untouched so far (YouGov, 2022).
SLTIs across the UK have seen their income fall in real terms year on year, a situation further exacerbated by the current cost-of-living crisis. If allowed to continue, this fall in buying power will pose an ever-increasing threat to the sustainability of the profession and by extension, the availability of the vital services provided by its practitioners.
How will NUBSLI Support its Membership?
NUBSLI will poll members annually to establish whether they believe the existing fee guidance should be adjusted in line with the latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) inflation figures for that year. This is in addition to the main fee guidance survey conducted every three or four years.
When the three/four yearly ‘full’ survey is published, members will be informed of exactly how their fees would have changed had they been keeping pace with inflation over time.
By implementing smaller, regular increases in fees, the process becomes more manageable and predictable for clients, stakeholders and purchasers of interpreting / translation services. The intention being that they can start to budget for fees which rise in line with inflation. We have heard from members in the past that when the guidance fees have increased significantly after a few years of stagnation, some agencies and clients have not adjusted to the new fees promptly. Our new approach to the fee guidance should help to mitigate this effect.
Reviewing the fees in line with inflation more frequently also means that interpreters and translators can benefit from fees that reflect the increasing cost of living each year, rather than waiting three to four years to see any change.
NUBSLI is engaging with key stakeholders in tandem with the release of the updated fee guidance. We have distributed this briefing document to a number of large agencies, as well as specific commissioning bodies such as Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) / Access to Work (AtW), and the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA). We will seek to maintain an open dialogue with the above bodies and organisations.
What can NUBSLI Members do?
It is important to note that the latest update should not be used as a fixed rate by stakeholders. It is likely that many colleagues are already charging equal to, or above the fees shown in our guidance. Other colleagues may begin to increase their fees as a result of the new guidance being published.
Increases in fees must be negotiated between individual practitioners and those purchasing their services on a case by case basis. With this in mind, members are likely to begin the process of increasing their fees as and when they feel it is appropriate for the assignments that they undertake.
NUBSLI would advise a gradual and incremental approach, with a willingness to be flexible. We have produced resources in English and BSL that members can access in order to inform clients, stakeholders and those purchasing their services about the updated fee guidance.
If we accept stagnant fees, then we risk the ongoing sustainability of our profession. Working as a BSL / English interpreter or translator simply won’t be a viable career in the future. As a result, colleagues will leave the profession and deaf communities will be left with reduced access.
It is possible that some members will meet resistance when they increase their fees. We aim to empower and educate our members in appreciating their own business and personal needs. Individual SLTIs should not be left to absorb the spiralling cost of living to maintain the profit margins of agencies, or to protect the budgets of commissioners.
We would argue that prudent business planning should always incorporate headroom for price fluctuations. It would be unrealistic for anyone conducting business in the current climate to do so without any expectation or foresight that the price of goods and services will increase.
By refusing to accept fees at below market rates as a profession, agencies and organisations involved in our industry have to consider how they can adjust to enable them to continue fulfilling their obligations.
In the long term, accepting a stagnation in fees risks the sustainability of the profession and jeopardises the right of deaf communities to access high quality interpreters and translators in the future.
What about Clients and End Users?
Hearing people need interpreters when communicating with deaf BSL signers. Individuals work with interpreters and translators in a wide range of settings and for many different purposes. Understandably, some people might be concerned that increases in fees might somehow affect the availability of the interpreting and translation services they require. In fact, the opposite is true. By increasing fees regularly in line with the cost of living, interpreters and translators are safeguarding the future of the profession by ensuring it continues to be a viable long term career. The more practitioners that are able to join and remain in the profession, the more interpreting and translation provision will be available for those that use it.
It is important to remember that if you are a deaf BSL signer, the Equality Act 2010 protects you from discrimination. You have a right to ‘reasonable adjustments’ in order to access services, activities or work opportunities. A reasonable adjustment can include providing a BSL / English interpreter or translator.
Section 149 of The Equality Act 2010 is known as ‘the public sector equality duty’. This came into force in 2011, and applies to public services. This includes the police, the fire service, hospitals, GPs, NHS Dentists, local authorities / councils, schools, colleges and universities.
Under the public sector equality duty, organisations have to make reasonable adjustments, remove barriers that prevent you from accessing services and put changes in place to meet your needs.
If a public service refuses to make reasonable adjustments they may be acting unlawfully. If you feel you have been discriminated against then you should make your complaint known to the relevant authorities.
Access to Work
Access to Work budget holders might be concerned that caps placed on their award will mean that they cannot pay increased fees.
Caps on the total daily or hourly rate awarded to an individual budget holder can be queried and adjusted, although the maximum per calendar year is currently capped at £65,180.
For those whose budget is capped at a total daily amount, this can be reviewed and increased as part of a ‘change of circumstances’ request. The budget holder may be asked to provide three new quotes as evidence of the increase in fees.After this their award can be adjusted to cover the required amount.
Other budget holders might find that they are subject to a cap on the hourly rate that they can pay. Once again, this can be reviewed and increased as part of a ‘change of circumstances’ request. The budget holder may be asked to provide three new quotes as evidence of the increase in fees. After this their total award can be adjusted accordingly.
It is also possible that a budget holder may need to request a review of both their daily and hourly rate. This can be done by following the same process. The budget holder will usually be asked to provide three quotes showing the fees required, and the changes can be made as part of a ‘change of circumstances’ request (DeafAtW, n.d.).
Disabled Students’ Allowance
The Disabled Students’ Allowance is a grant that can help to cover study-related costs. These include “non-medical helpers”, such as BSL / English interpreters or translators and specialist note takers. For the academic year 2022 to 2023, grants are capped at £25,575 in England, £20,520 in Scotland, £25,000 in Northern Ireland and £32,526 in Wales (Save the Student, 2022).
Universities are subject to ‘the public sector equality duty’ (s.149 of The Equality Act 2010). They are legally required to provide BSL / English interpreters or translators if required, they cannot refuse.
DSA grants are only sufficient in funding part of the interpreting, translation and notetaking provision required by the majority of deaf BSL signing students. Once the grant has been spent, the university still has a legal obligation to meet these costs and ensure that the required services are provided.
- There has been a disparity between the rate of inflation and NUBSLI fee guidance increases since 2017. This has led to a cumulative loss of as much as £28,000 for many full time practitioners.
- The cost-of-living crisis and spiralling inflation has further exacerbated these existing real terms losses year on year.
- NUBSLI will poll members annually to establish whether existing fee guidance should be adjusted in line with the latest Office of National Statistics (ONS) figures for that year. The fee guidance will then be updated, incorporating a rise in line with inflation if voted on by the membership.
- NUBSLI will continue to carry out a full fee guidance review approximately every three to four. This in order to ensure the guidance stays representative of actual fees.
- NUBSLI fee guidance is exactly that – guidance. The vast majority of SLTIs operate as individual businesses. Therefore decisions as to what fees to charge are entirely down to each practitioner.
- Increases in fees must be negotiated between individual practitioners and those purchasing their services on a case by case basis. NUBSLI would advise a gradual and incremental approach, with a willingness to be flexible.
- By increasing fees regularly in line with the increasing cost of living, interpreters and translators are safeguarding the future of the profession by ensuring it continues to be a viable long term career.
- ATW budget holders can make a ‘change of circumstance’ request to address any increases required in their budgets.
- Providers of public services, including higher education, health care and local authorities, have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments under Section 149 of The Equality Act 2010, known as ‘the public sector equality duty’.
– Resources in BSL and English will be available to NUBSLI members to better equip them for conversations and negotiations around increasing fees.
- Deaf ATW (n.d.) Deaf ATW – information to help challenge access to work decisions, DeafATW. Available at: DeafAtW
- NUBSLI (2017) Government urged to address shortage of BSL/English interpreters, NUBSLI. Available at: NUBSLI
- ONS (n.d.) Inflation and price indices, Inflation and price indices – Office for National Statistics. Available at: ONS
- Savethestudent (2022) Disabled students’ allowances (DSA) guide 2023, Save the Student. Available at: Savethestudent
- West, E. (2018) Why is there a shortage of sign interpreters?, British Deaf News. Available at: British Deaf News
- YouGov (2022) Cost of living crisis: One in four have had to cut essential spending, YouGov. YouGov. Available at: YouGov