Probation chiefs to create supplier board to improve 'poor relationships'

UK probation chiefs are to set up a “programme board” with suppliers following “adversarial relationships” in the provision of offender tagging services, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).

In a report the NAO said HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) had experienced a “breakdown of trust” with outsourcer Capita in the past, including three formal disputes and a £10m settlement paid by Capita over a failed project called Gemini.

Gemini, which had the goal of providing police and probation staff with live mapping of an offender’s movements, was cancelled in 2021 at a cost of £98m to the taxpayer due to lack of progress.

The report said HMPPS had been forced to fall back on “obsolescent technology” to monitor offenders but was now in the process of awarding new contracts as part of a £1.2bn tagging expansion programme due to come into effect in 2024.

Among the issues uncovered by the NAO was the use of a “tower” contracting model to provide tagging services, with different suppliers responsible for different aspects and HMPPS acting as an “integrator” between the parties.

“[HMPPS] did not manage the implications of its complex delivery model effectively, set overly prescriptive requirements and did not perform its role as systems and service integrator effectively,” said the report.

The NAO said to address “poor commercial relationships” HMPPS had:

  plans to “facilitate joint access to shared information and documents”; 

  decided to “create a programme board with suppliers where issues can be raised and discussed”; and

  “committed to greater flexibility in future contracts”.

HMPPS will continue to use a tower model but will outsource the integrator role. Capita had acted as integrator until a dispute in 2016 meant HMPPS brought the role in-house.

“[HMPPS’s] plans for re-procurement and transition to the new service mean it is now better placed to avoid repeating past mistakes,” said the NAO. 

“However, it has limited time to make the transition, and at this early stage it does not yet know how easy it will be to integrate prospective suppliers’ work. 

“Ultimately, achieving value for money in the future will depend on HMPPS delivering a reliable, responsive and cost-effective service to stakeholders, supported by evidence that tagging brings proven reductions in reoffending and that more offenders are diverted from prison.”

Offender tracking services have been criticised in the past, with the Public Accounts Committee in 2018 describing efforts to incorporate GPS into bracelets a “catastrophic waste of public money” and overbilling by G4S and Serco for tagging services leading to around £175m in payments to the Ministry of Justice.

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