The Ministry of Justice will not deploy new satellite tracking tags for offenders until 2019, despite the embattled project having already been delayed by five years to late 2018.
Senior officials admitted to a host of failures regarding project, which had to be heavily scaled back following the termination last year of a contract with an SME to develop “one of the most advanced GPS tagging systems in the world” for dangerous and repeat offenders.
Speaking to MPs on the Public Accounts Committee, MoJ permanent secretary Richard Heaton said the 2017 snap general election had caused further delay to the programme, but that he was “absolutely confident” it would eventually succeed.
A £130m programme to develop bespoke GPS tracking devices to tag thousands of offenders was launched by the department in 2011 and originally expected to deliver by November 2013.
The MoJ has since cancelled its contract with initial supplier Steatite – at a “fruitless cost” of £4.4m – after the project was found to be too challenging. It has now opted to buy already available “off-the-shelf technology”, and has asked security company G4S to complete the project.
Heaton said the department remained committed to the programme as “a sensible alternative to custody” but, in the spirit of no longer making “rash or overambitious” claims, warned the committee about potential further delays.
“We’re absolutely confident that the programme will succeed… whether it will deliver in 2018, I would just sound a note of caution there. There have been some delays since the NAO report, so we’re probably looking at early 2019,” he said.
Heaton later added: “That slippage was partly due to our inability to let one of the contracts during the pre-election period, when things grind to a halt to a certain extent.”
The National Audit Office published a report in July that found that the ministry failed to do enough to establish the business case for GPS tagging, that its bespoke requirements were too ambitious and its timescale unachievable, and that the programme had not yet delivered intended benefits.
The PAC was told yesterday that the MoJ’s original business case envisaged that 65,000 offenders would be electronically tagged, but only 12,000 people are currently on first-generation radio frequency tags and just 1,000 are now expected to migrate to the next-generation satellite tags.
The ministry expects savings of £9-30m in annual monitoring costs through the new service.
MPs asked officials to explain the decision, highlighted in the NAO report, to adopt a “high-risk and unfamiliar delivery model to the procurement”. Under this model, elements of the service were split into four contracts with different suppliers, with work pulled together by a contractor integrator (which was Capita).
Department officials said this procurement method had been recommended by the Cabinet Office at the time, as a way to boost government spend with small businesses. The integrator function has now been brought in-house, following guidance warning against the model issued by the Government Digital Service in 2015.
Officials conceded that through this project the MoJ had made too many demands of SMEs including Steatite, and insisted that the department has since streamlined its procurement processes.
Michael Spurr, chief executive of HM Prison and Probation Service, told MPs a series of mistakes had been made, partly because the project was originally wrongly categorised as “re-procurement” rather than the “transformation programme” that the department now accepts it was. He also apologised for the department’s failure to pilot the project.
But Heaton said the project was now set up to succeed, as it was “fairly well insulated from Brexit, the relationships with the suppliers are good, contracts are all in a good place, everyone knows what they’re doing”.
Some of the delays in the project’s implementation sprang from the discovery that Serco and G4S had been overcharging for electronic tagging services. This is still being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office.