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MPs attack Government for 'catastrophic waste of public money' over new electronic tags for offenders

The Government has wasted millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on “fundamentally flawed” plans to redesign the electronic tags worn by criminals, an influential committee of MPs has said.

The Public Accounts Committee accused ministers of a “catastrophic waste of public money” over the “shambolic” introduction of the new tags, which is already five years over schedule.

The Ministry of Justice admitted it had made failings during the process, which has so far cost £60m, including at least £7.7m of unrecoverable losses. It said steps have been taken to ensure the mistakes are not repeated.

The controversy stems from Conservative plans, first announced in 2011, to upgrade the electronic tags used by police and other authorities to monitor an offender’s location and ensure they are meeting conditions such as curfews.

The tags are sometimes handed out as an alternative to a custodial sentence. The Government wants to encourage wider use of the devices because they are cheaper than placing someone in prison. 

When appointing private companies to oversee the supply and management of the tags, the Ministry of Justice decided to award four separate contracts and ask the companies to work together. It also opted for a specially-designed, bespoke tag rather than an off-the-shelf model.

Since then, the process has been dogged by a series of problems and delays. The tags were due to be ready by November 2013 but will now be rolled out from early 2019 – more than five years late. MPs said they were unconvinced that even this deadline will be met.

In a damning report, the PAC said the Ministry of Justice’s handling of the contracts was “overly ambitious, overly complicated and has been poorly delivered”.

It added: “The programme has so far been a catastrophic waste of public money which has failed to deliver the intended benefits.”

The companies that were previously responsible for managing the tags, G4S and Serco, are being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office after it emerged they had overcharged the Government by £179 million. The Ministry of Justice only discovered this during the retendering process, and the amount has since been paid back.

Despite the £60m spent on them, the new tags use technology that was already widely available in 2011, the PAC said.

“The Ministry of Justice has ultimately wasted a huge amount of time and taxpayers’ money to end up with an approach which uses the same types of tags and supplier it had when the programme started,” MPs said in the report.

“Many of the lessons the Ministry claims to have learned are simply common sense and should not have resulted in such a shambolic delivery of an important programme.”

They added: “The Ministry has paid dearly to learn lessons which should have been common sense, and we are not assured that this situation could not happen again.”

Conservative MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, deputy chair of the PAC, said: “The Ministry of Justice 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. This ill-fated adventure in the possibilities of technology has so far costed taxpayers some £60 million.

“The Ministry accepts it got this badly wrong but admitting its failures does not excuse an approach that disregarded fundamental principles we would expect to see applied in the spending of public money.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Electronic Monitoring is a valuable tool in supervising offenders and protecting the public, but we have been clear there were a number of challenges to our expansion of the electronic monitoring programme.

“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 for value for money for the taxpayer.”

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