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  1. Government Computing
June 8, 2022

Botched electronic monitoring scheme for offenders costs UK taxpayer £98m

Failures by the prison service and its contractor led to the monitoring project being cancelled, a damning report says.

By Matthew Gooding

A failed project to digitally transform the way offenders are electronically tagged and monitored has cost the UK taxpayer £98m, according to a damning new report from the National Audit Office. The report lays the blame for the failure of the scheme at the door of HM Prison & Probation Service (HMPPS) and Capita, the company tasked with implementing it.

Electronic tags have been used to monitor the location of offenders since 2018. (Photo by StockSolutions/iStock)

The transformation programme, which was aimed at improving the electronic tagging and monitoring of UK offenders, launched in 2011. But it has been unsuccessful because HMPPS and Capita have been unable to deliver an accompanying case management system, known as Gemini, the report says. This would have provided greater information on the behaviour of tagged criminals.

“HMPPS has not achieved the fundamental transformation of tagging services it intended,” said Gareth Davies, head of the NAO. “Significant work remains to strengthen the evidence base and understand the impact of electronic monitoring on reoffending. HMPPS must learn lessons so it can deliver a reliable, responsive and cost-effective service that protects the public.”

Why did Gemini offender monitoring system fail?

HMPPS has been using electronic tagging for UK offenders since 2018, to help ensure they comply with exclusion zones or attend meetings and events as dictated by their parole. But “the delays and subsequent termination of Gemini have undermined its efforts,” the NAO says. For example, “HMPPS has had to rely on old and outdated technology and fundamental inefficiencies in tagging services remain unresolved,” it explains. “The current system requires staff to re-enter information manually, which is slower and more prone to error.”

Gemini was intended to streamline this process and provide better data on offenders. It was due to be delivered by Capita, which has been running electronic monitoring services for the Ministry of Justice and HMPPS since 2014. It signed a six-year contract for electronic monitoring services with the MoJ in 2015, which was extended by three years in 2020. Capita, which is HMPPS’ biggest IT supplier by expenditure, says the renewed contract is worth an additional £114m.

Capita had been due to deliver Gemini as part of this work, but the contract was cancelled last August with the project already 18 months overdue. This was "the best decision to take at the time, but cancelling the project has cost taxpayers £98 million," the NAO says. "HMPPS decided that the risks posed by unresolved issues with Gemini meant that continuing with its existing system would be more stable and sustainable." The programme cost HMPPS £153m between 2011-12 and 2021-22, the report says.

Both HMPPS and Capita are responsible for the delays and subsequent failure of Gemini, the report explains. "By the time the contract for Gemini was terminated, the programme was already 18 months late against its original, over-optimistic timetable," the NAO says. "An external review of the programme found that HMPPS did not intervene early enough to resolve issues across the suppliers involved in the programme, and there was a breakdown in trust and collaboration." This led to three formal disputes between HMPPS and Capita, the last one specifically concerning delays.

Without Gemini, the insights available into offenders’ journeys or longer-term outcomes are limited, says the NAO. It notes that "only data on offenders’ age and gender are captured, so HMPPS does not know whether tagging is proportionately applied to offenders with other protected characteristics, including ethnicity". Poor-quality data means that HMPPS does not have evidence as to whether electronic monitoring is effective in reducing reoffending or in diverting offenders from prison, it says.

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Lessons for prison service from failed monitoring scheme

Since the transformation programme for the electronic monitoring system came to an end, HMPSS has instead focused on expanding the electronic tagging programme across the UK to cover different groups of offenders. It has "achieved positive outcomes in its alcohol monitoring service, reporting offenders’ high sobriety rates while on tag," the NAO says.

But the report notes a scheme to monitor foreign national offenders in the UK using smart watches, which capture biometric data, has also been delayed because the operating system chosen did not meet the government's cybersecurity standards.

HMPPS "is seeking to learn lessons from the failures of the transformation programme," the NAO says. "It has made some pragmatic decisions to reduce delivery risks, including selecting a simpler delivery model and committing to buy tried and tested technologies instead of commissioning bespoke systems. It has also developed a clear framework to escalate risks, which will help to ensure better scrutiny."

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Innovative GPS and sobriety tags are helping us to crack down on crime, from alcohol-fuelled violence to burglary. The decision to stop work on this back-office system means we can invest savings into doubling the number of offenders tagged by 2025.”

Tech Monitor has approached Capita for comment.

Read more: A big touch of technology in the UK correctional system

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