Long-delayed plans to fit criminals with GPS monitoring bracelets have been criticised as a “catastrophic waste of public money” by the UK’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
In a report published today, the PAC said the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) proposals for replacing the contract for its tagging system – currently five years behind schedule – were over ambitious and far too complex.
Electronic monitoring allows police, courts or probation services to monitor an offender’s location and their compliance with home curfews. In 2011, the MOJ launched a programme to develop a “new world-leading” ankle bracelet tag using GPS technology, to be used by all tagged offenders.
The scheme was intended to reduce the cost of tagging 220,000 criminals by £30m and provide wider operational benefits. The new tags were originally due to rolled out in November 2013.
The PAC said additional delays in introducing the tags had already cost more than £60m, and the government would end up with the same form of technology used in the original tags.
It added that the scheme had also incurred unrecoverable losses of £9m for a failed contract to develop and produce tags with computing firm Steatite in 2014, for which it had to pay compensation.
Last year, a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) also criticised the MOJ’s tagging programme, its treatment of SME suppliers and its failed pursuit of a particular technology when there was no proven need for it.
Gefforey Clifton-Brown, PAC deputy chair, said the MoJ took an “all-singing, all-dancing” approach to what could have been a relatively simple procurement exercise.
“The evidence to support a wholesale transformation of the tagging system was weak at best but the ministry pushed ahead anyway,” he said.
“This ill-fated adventure in the possibilities of technology has so far cost taxpayers some £60m.
“The new tags are expected to be rolled out more than five years later than planned and, even then, the system will rely on the same form of technology that was available when the programme launched.”
He added that although the ministry admitted its failings on the project, this did not excuse its disregard for the fundamental principles that should be applied to spending public money.
“It must act on lessons learned from this programme. We urge it to demonstrate a commitment to do so by publishing details of the steps it is taking to avoid such wasteful mistakes in the future,” he said.
In the report, the MoJ told the PAC that it was “startled and stunned” by the over-optimism of the initial project, accepting that not enough research had been done before the programme was approved and that it should have piloted the programme first.
The optimism included investing heavily in developing “ground-breaking” technology rather than using readily available off-the-shelf products.
The report found that the MoJ had a fundamental lack of knowledge of electronic monitoring services or how they operated when the programme started, as the services had always been outsourced. Despite this, it chose the highest risk procurement strategy and adopted the ‘tower model’ for delivering the programme.
A tower model of procurement splits the service into a four-supplier tower structure, with an integrator bringing all the contracts together.
The report said the MoJ was unprepared for was essentially a transformation programme and found it lacked the capacity and capability to manage the difficult strategy it created.
During the initial procurement process, the MoJ also discovered it had been overbilled by the its existing supplier of electronic monitoring services – G4S and Serco – that resulted in a £175m repayment to the department. The Serious Fraud Office is currently investigating this case.
The MoJ repeated its response to the previous report by the NAO, saying that the failures would not be repeated in the future and it is now piloting GPS tagging to improve understanding of its use.
“Electronic monitoring is a valuable tool in supervising offenders and protecting the public but we have been clear there were an number of challenges to our expansion of the electronic monitoring programme,” it said.
“As a direct result, we fundamentally changed our approach in 2015, expanding and strengthening our commercial teams and bringing responsibility for oversight of the programme in-house.
“We are now in a strong position to continue improving confidence in the service and providing better value for money for the taxpayer.”