Electronic monitoring: in flight to where?

Mike Nellis assesses the latest developments in the electronic monitoring fiasco and asks where future policy is headed

Professor Mike Nellis
Wednesday, 15 November, 2017

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) session on the National Audit Office’s (NAO) report on the Ministry of Justice's (MoJ) failed 'New World' electronic monitoring (EM) strategy on the 13th November was a disappointment.

It did not get to the bottom of why things had gone so catastrophically wrong, concentrating only on the hows and whats, as the NAO themselves had done. Chris Grayling, the minister who more than anyone devised and drove this secretive, overambitious strategy, abetted by the Cabinet Office, and drawing on a Policy Exchange report that had considered radio frequency (RF) based EM curfews obsolete and 75,000 offenders per day on GPS tracking a feasible and desirable option, was not held to account in the way he deserved.

Maybe one day the Justice Select Committee will have a word with him? Meanwhile, three civil servants dutifully carried the can for him, Richard Heaton, Michael Spurr and Adrian Scott, the first two of whom were indeed there during the fiasco, although neither deserved pillorying for a strategy they would surely not have signed up to had their minister not been so determined.

But they do get paid to apologise for it, and that's what they did, as well as assuring us that a now more modest EM strategy – in which RF EM will remain dominant – had been salvaged from the old, and would be alright.

A disaster from start to finish

The PAC members pressed the civil servants to accept that New World had been 'a catastrophe', 'shambolic', 'a total disaster from start to finish'. £60 million was spent on it, from 2012, and not a single person had been placed  on GPS by 2015, its original start date.

The gist of the MoJ’s response was that New World had been conceived with the best of intentions – to 'break up the market' and 'go for innovation' – but they ruefully accepted that it had indeed been overambitious and flawed in execution, albeit hinting that this could only have been realized in hindsight. Furthermore, they identified two silver linings.

Firstly, it was the decision to move from a duopoly of EM providers – G4S and Serco each providing a regional service – to 'a tower model' involving four integrated companies providing a national service that had exposed the overcharging scandal.

Secondly the £60m fiasco itself had been a learning experience, which provided the foundations of the assuredly good, sensible strategy that was now, as Heaton confidently put it, 'in flight' and 'set up to succeed'.  Only £4 million (+VAT, making it £5.2 million), he said, had been 'fruitless expenditure'. This was the pay-off to Steatite, the second selected tag supplier, when the Ministry’s reckless pursuit of a bespoke supertag was abandoned.

A disaster foretold

There is no way that £60m had to be spent to work out how to introduce GPS tracking into an existing EM programme. All the academics, think tanks and commercial actors knowledgeable about EM, and indeed many of the MoJ’s own civil servants, would have advised a more prudent strategy.

There were several other countries, at that time, whose experiences  with GPS could easily have been learned form. But the minister and his close advisers were never in listening or consultative mode about New World, and the PAC accepted too readily Spurr’s cursory, fudged explanations of why not even the probation and prison services were treated as important stakeholders in the proposed EM strategy.

Somewhat paradoxically, given its otherwise great influence, the most articulate and persuasive opposition to both the prevailing duopoly of EM service provision and the upcoming the tower model came from the centre right think tank Policy Exchange, whose report had strongly favoured localized contracting with Probation Services and/or Police and Crime Commissioners. A second centre right think tank, Reform, later made the same cogent argument.

Neither the NAO not the PAC asked why the MoJ had not explored the cost-effectiveness of local contracting, but after this fiasco someone somewhere ought to place it back on the agenda.

No evidence, no rationale

Famously, New World had had no evidence-base and no pilot schemes. This was about 'getting quick results'. The civil servants said: 'we were embarking on a major transformation programme', as if this was an excuse.

The PAC seemed more interested in the absent evidence-base for the transformation than the absent rationale for the transformation itself, the non-existence of a publicly debatable policy on EM in general and GPS tracking in particular.

Spurr helpfully conceded that more than evidence was at issue: 'we should have had an underlying policy base for what we wanted to do with tracking, and we didn’t'. But the PAC did not pursue that. It rightly pointed out that it had called for more research on EM in 2006, which had not been done. But it still failed to raise the larger question of why, after all this time, the MoJ was still no nearer to having a clear strategy for EM in the context of a clear, coherent penal policy.

Providers badly treated

The PAC was concerned that the 'small, medium enterprises' (SMEs) involved in the tower model, first Buddi, then Steatite, had been badly treated by the MoJ and indeed set up to fail. The civil servants conceded that the original specifications for the supertag were too numerous and complex, and that the participation demanded of small companies with few staff and other customers to serve was excessive.

Buddi’s understandable unwillingness to share technical secrets (intellectual property) with a much larger company (Airbus) so that the hardware and software could be integrated with each other had become grounds for its withdrawal before contracts were signed.

The civil servants feigned regret on this, but defended it all the same, begging the far more pertinent question, which the PAC spared them, of why the tower model separated hardware and software provision in the first place. In the original procurement, Buddi had sensibly bid to do both, and had a proven track record of delivering both in its successful police and NHS schemes.

Few wanted the job

The issue with Steatite was somewhat different. They replaced Buddi  despite, as the NAO had revealed, being below the benchmark for reliability, partly because they had no experience of making GPS devices. What was barely made clear in the session was that Steatite got the job by default, because there were too few other companies willing to take it on.

This was less about SMEs as such being unwilling to work with the MoJ, as the PAC hinted, and more about experienced EM providers refusing to invest their time and money in the MoJ’s pursuit of a bespoke supertag, whose intellectual property the MoJ would own, when there were already satisfactory devices available on the open market.

During Michael Gove’s brief tenure as Justice Minister – the MoJ conceded this – paying off Steatite and closing down Just Solutions International, the commercial arm of the National Offender Management Service, established by Grayling to sell British penal expertise abroad. His supposedly world-beating EM technology was to have been one of these services for sale.

Continuing problems

Turning to the present, the PAC were understandably concerned that even the salvaged programme would not deliver. They sought (and got) assurances that sufficient staff time was now being devoted  to it, that it was insulated from Brexit, that MoJ competence in procurement and contract management was now adequate to the task.

The civil servants insisted that now that the integration function in the tower model had been shifted from Capita to the MoJ, as the NAO had recommended, they were in a better position to drive the programme forward. But the question of whether the delivery structure was more complicated than it needed to be still hung over proceedings.

The PAC worried that there had already been slippage from the new programme’s projected national start date in 2018 to February-March 2019. It was also mildly irritated that the civil servants would not even commit firmly to that.

Despite acknowledging the still low take-up in the 8 GPS pilot schemes – 491 subjects so far, out of the 600/1000 anticipated – the PAC seemed reassured by the MoJ’s now modest model, from which, Scott said, 'lessons are being  learned as we go'.

One of these lessons, revealingly, 'was that we now understand when sentencers will use GPS or not'. This has apparently shrunk the MoJ expectations of what the future scale of GPS use will be to no more than a 1000 per day, with the current figure of 12,000 on RF EM remaining static. This is lower than it was before New World was conceived.

A recipe for penal conservatism

What the PAC did not seem to understand was just how far the MoJ’s aspirations have fallen: from a world-beating grand plan for mass satellite tracking without RF, imposed from the MoJ, to a sentencer-determined model of GPS use in a mostly RF system.

The programme is indeed 'in flight', but not only in the sense that Heaton meant. It is 'in flight' not only from Grayling’s crazy hopes of having the world’s biggest and best GPS programme but also – still – from any attempt to consider what EM technologies might actually contribute to a rational, coherent penal policy.

Given the broader decline in the use of community sentences, of which the decline in RF EM use may be a part (no-one knows for certain), leaving sentencing to the vicissitudes of sentencers is a recipe for penal conservatism and the untenable status quo.

No solution to the probation and prisons crisis

From wanting too much control, the MoJ seemingly now wants too little. EM is no solution to the manifest problems of the privatised probation services or the understaffed prisons. It is also no substitute for measures which meet the psychological and practical needs of offenders.

But used properly, integrated with other supportive measures, EM technologies can make a modest contributions to reductions in custody and public protection in ways that those under criminal sanction themselves find legitimate.

There is still a need for a 21st century penal strategy with a properly contextualized place for EM. It is up to the penal reform network to at least imagine what that could be.