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June 21, 2022updated 22 Jun 2022 9:17am

Prison service bosses blame Capita for failed £98m electronic tagging system

The IT services company did not understand the complex system it was supposed to deliver, MPs are told.

By Matthew Gooding

Capita “bears a lot of responsibility” for the failure of a monitoring system for electronically tagged offenders which cost the taxpayer £98m, senior officials from HM Prison & Probation Service (HMPPS) told a parliamentary committee this week. The services giant had failed to understand the scope of the project, which was scrapped in 2021 after years of delays, they said.

The Gemini monitoring system for offenders was scrapped last year, at a cost of £98m. (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)

The Gemini system was supposed to simplify the process of overseeing offenders wearing electronic tags, to help ensure they complied with parole conditions around exclusion zones or attending meetings and events. It was announced in 2011 as part of a wider scheme to digitally transform the tagging process, but was scrapped last year, two years after its initial 2019 delivery date.

A damning report from the National Audit Office, released earlier this month, said there had been failings on both sides when it came to the scrapping of Gemini, and that without it, acquiring full and reliable data on offender behaviour is difficult.

Gemini electronic tagging system: is Capita to blame for its failure?

Speaking at a meeting of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on Monday, Antonia Romeo, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice, which encompasses HMPPS, said that Capita had failed to deliver what was promised, and had to pay considerable compensation as a result.

“The complexity of the system and the timeframe around it contributed to where we ended up,” Romeo said. “We got from Capita the maximum payout we could under the terms of the contract, which would indicate they bore a lot of responsibility for what happened.”

The model for Gemini, which would have replaced a system where civil servants manually enter information about offenders onto a database, was described as “complex and ambitious” by Dr Jo Farrar, chief executive of HMPPS.

The contract was “entered into for the right reasons because we wanted to deliver something transformative,” Dr Farrar told MPs. “But it was very complex, with multiple suppliers involved. The performance of Capita in remedying defects wasn’t addressed early enough and there are questions for us in terms of did we spot early enough that they weren’t taking action, but they did pay £10m in compensation for not remedying these defects.”

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Indeed, this complexity contributed to a string of delays and disputes between the parties. “The MoJ and Capita didn’t understand how complex [the contract] would be,” Dr Farrar said. “As we worked through it the complexity became clearer, and the specifications and timescales were changed as a result.”

Should the Gemini tagging system have been scrapped earlier?

The National Audit Office report asked whether Gemini should have been scrapped sooner, highlighting the missed deadline in 2019 as a point where the plug could have been pulled, potentially saving the taxpayer millions.

But MoJ officials told the PAC that the decision to press on with the project has borne fruit in other areas, with Capita delivering on other parts of the tagging system which had allowed it to be expanded to more categories of offender.

“There are points in this programme that it is arguable with hindsight that different decisions could have been made, in particular the decision in summer 2019 as to whether we should carry on when the report says clearly Capita had missed their delivery date,” said Jim Barton, senior responsible owner at HMPPS. “We reviewed this decision and, even with the benefit of hindsight, believe it was right based on the facts.”

Barton added: “[We were able to] make changes in the technical architecture that moved elements of the system into the cloud which has allowed us to expand the service. We had confidence Gemini could be delivered by summer 2020, [but] ultimately that confidence was not borne out.”

HMPPS also defended its continued work with Capita, which signed a six-year contract for electronic monitoring services with the MoJ in 2015, a deal 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.

Dr Farrar said improvements had been made to oversight and governance of third-party contracts by HMPPS and MoJ as a result of the problems with Gemini. "It’s really important that the best person to deliver the project steps in to deliver it," she said. "Capita is providing a really strong service for us in other areas."

A spokesperson for Capita said: "We supported the Ministry of Justice’s decision to cease development of this programme, as the system was unlikely to deliver the required benefits, over the relevant timescale.

"We continue to work with the Ministry to provide the operational Electronic Monitoring Service, which we have run since 2014. Through upgrades and other improvements this work has already delivered many of the services that the IT programme was set to introduce, such as GPS tagging.”

Earlier this month, the government unveiled a new roadmap for digital transformation, which includes five core missions, each of which is 'sponsored' by a senior civil servant. The mission to deliver 'transformed public services that achieve the right outcomes' is sponsored by Dr Farrar.

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