Public spending watchdog the National Audit Office has criticised the Ministry of Justice for failing to deliver value for money on the implementation of a new-generation electronic monitoring programme for offenders.
It said the MoJ had pursued an “overly ambitious strategy which was not grounded in evidence” for the programme, which aimed to reduce annual offender-monitoring costs by up to £30m a year.
The NAO said the ministry did not do enough to establish the case for a major expansion of location monitoring using GPS, and that its bespoke requirements for new world-leading tags had been unrealistic.
It said the ministry had so-far spent £60m on the programme, which is running five years late, and remained reliant on legacy services. It gave a figure of £470m for the cost of running the service between 2017-18 and 2024-25
According to the watchdog, the new service will not be operational “until the end of 2018 at the earliest” and will not feature a “bespoke, world-leading tag”, following an earlier specification that that had around 900 prescriptive requirements that exceeded those of existing off-the-shelf devices.
The NAO said some of the delays with the programme’s implementation had sprung from the discovery of overbilling by G4S and Serco in relation to electronic tagging services, followed by two failed procurements for the tags.
However it found that the MoJ had “adopted a new high-risk and unfamiliar approach” to the procurement of the next-generation system, and “failed to manage the implications”, which included disputes with suppliers related to its preferred delivery model.
Under its now-abandoned delivery model, the ministry made one supplier – Capita – responsible for integrating the work of all suppliers, but the NAO found Capita had no contractual responsibility for the work and performance of the other suppliers. The ministry subsequently decided to bring the role in-house.
The report said that in addition to specification and procurement issues, the MoJ had assumed there would be high demand for location monitoring from those who sentence offenders but did not run a pilot to test the assumption before launching the programme.
It added that the department did not understand the potential financial costs and benefits of expanding location monitoring, while external reviews had noted a lack of accountability to senior responsible owners in the project – of which there had been five since 2011.
NAO head Amyas Morse said the ministry had “learnt costly lessons” from its failings, and that although action had been taken to address many of the issues with the project, significant risks remained.
“The case for a huge expansion of electronic monitoring using GPS was unproven, but the Ministry of Justice pursued an overly ambitious and high risk strategy anyway,” he said.
“Ultimately it has not delivered. After abandoning its original plans, the ministry’s new service will now, ironically, be much closer to its existing one. Even if it launches in 2018, it will still be five years late.”
Among the NAO’s recommendations was a call to the MoJ to limit the expansion of the programme to incorporate additional uses for monitoring until the core services of curfew and location monitoring were in place.
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union, said the report made “grim reading” and exposed a catalogue of errors spanning years.
“This has been a textbook case of an outsourcing disaster showing the very serious problems that can arise when profit is put before public service, and the MoJ should now halt plans for further privatisation of the justice system,” he said.
The MoJ said it had significantly expanded and strengthened its commercial teams following the challenges it faced with the electronic monitoring programme between 2010 and 2015, and had also strengthened its oversight procedures.
A spokesperson said: "We are now in a strong position to continue improving confidence in the new service and providing better for value for money for the taxpayer.”