The Ministry of Justice is to terminate a £23.2m contract to develop a new generation of GPS tracking tags for dangerous and repeat offenders because the project has proved “too challenging”.
Justice minister Dominic Raab said that the department would instead seek to procure an “off-the-shelf” product for its offender-management programmes.
The change of plan is likely to prompt further questions about the level of commercial acumen in central government, as the latest contracts were awarded just months after private sector providers G4S and Serco were found to have overcharged the MoJ to the tune of tens of millions of pounds under their tagging contracts.
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Under the latest scheme, Worcestershire-based firm Steatite was selected as provider of new tags as part of a £200m-plus electronic monitoring programme announced in July 2014.
The programme is being managed by outsourcing giant Capita, and includes satellite mapping by Airbus Defence and Space, and network provision from Telefonica.
The tags had originally been scheduled for introduction by the end of 2014 and were expected to provide Britain with what the MoJ described at the time as “one of the most advanced GPS tagging systems in the world”.
In a written ministerial statement, Raab said the MoJ’s decision to ditch Steatite had followed a review into “considerable delays” in the programme’s first year.
“This review examined progress made on the programme to date and how best electronic monitoring technology can meet our ambitions for the future, and considered the experience of other jurisdictions around the world who have developed GPS tagging schemes,” he said.
“Developing bespoke tags has been challenging and it is now clear that it will be more appropriate to pursue our goals using off-the-shelf technology which is already available.
“The Ministry of Justice will be terminating our contract to develop a bespoke tagging product with Steatite Limited and will shortly begin a new procurement process for proven tags already on the market.”
Raab said pilots aimed at informing the government’s future use of GPS tracking technology would begin later this year.
“These pilots will be run in a variety of settings in conjunction with criminal justice partners and will be designed to test how GPS technology is used and how it affects behaviour,” he said.
“The pilots will be independently evaluated and the results will inform policy decisions on the future use of this important tool.”
The MoJ told Civil Service World that it had paid Steatite approximately £21m on the “mobilisation” of the programme to date, but still expected the benefits of its expenditure to be realised.
A spokeswoman said: “These costs include development and build of technology which is necessary to deliver the new service, and which is well-advanced.”
She said the ministry would not comment on “ongoing commercial discussions” related to the contract’s termination, but added that Steatite had only delivered "a small number of tags with very limited functionality" that were used for a small-scale internal trial designed to "understand durability and wearability".
Labour's shadow prisons and probation minister Jo Stevens said it beggared belief that the government was abandoning another procurement process.
“From the overcharging scandal to G4S and Serco still being paid to deliver tagging equipment after they had been barred from running the contract, this whole saga has been a shambles from start to finish,” she said.