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Doubts over Home Office e-tagging

Testing 'woefully inadequate', MPs told

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Home Office assumptions about the high performance of tagging equipment, used to monitor prisoners on early release, is based on "woefully inadequate" evidence, MPs on the Public Accounts Committee were told.

The MPs heard from barristers that two of their clients, released from prison under a home detention curfew, were fitted with electronic tags by Home Office's contractor, Group 4 Securicor (G4S).

When both men reported to G4S that the tags had come off due to problems with their straps, they found themselves back in prison. The Home Office rejected the men's appeals against recall to prison and the straps were destroyed, despite the request that they be retained for evidence.

Last year the Home Office spent more than £100m on electronic tagging. The system is now an integral part of the criminal justice system and there are plans to extend tagging for offenders and asylum seekers.

But the MPs heard that although more than 225,000 people have been tagged since 1999, Home Office figures show that only two straps have been tested during that time. Both tests were carried out on a single occasion on 2 July 2004.

The committee was following up on a National Audit Office (NAO) report, published in February 2006, which shows that Home Office requirements that contractors carry out manual checks every 28 days, are not adhered to.

Two barristers, Ian Wise and Caoilfhionn Gallagher from London's Doughty Street Chambers, go further: "We are not aware of any independent monitoring or auditing of tags and equipment performance once fitted. We are not aware of any independent monitoring of contractors' staff competence at installing and fitting electronic monitoring," they told MPs in a written report submitted at the hearing.

Financial penalties imposed on the tagging contractors for poor performance, create an incentive to not to take proper responsibility for problems, the barristers said.

Tom Riall, chief executive of tagging supplier Serco Home Affairs, told the committee that in 2005 his company paid the Home Office £41,000 in penalties. G4S managing director David Taylor-Smith said in the last 12 months his company had paid £100,000 in penalties.

Taylor-Smith said most of this was before April 2005, when his company introduced a new national IT system to streamline its processes. Taylor-Smith said he was 100 per cent satisfied with his company's equipment. "We have yet to find an example of someone circumventing the equipment," he said.

The barristers believe the current electronic tagging system is poorly structured, with private contractors being responsible for implementing a system and monitoring their own performance. They also claim the NAO's report does not fully examine equipment performance and "does not touch on" human error in fitting tags.

"Rigorous and independent scrutiny of electronic monitoring schemes is required," Wise and Gallagher's report said.

"Without such scrutiny, it is difficult to assess whether the schemes represent value for money and respect the rights of those most affected by electronic monitoring – those who wear the tags."

Conservative MP Richard Bacon, acting chair of the committee, also raised the issue of problems with finalising paperwork so that prisoners can be released. The NAO examined 100 case files. It found that 58 prisoners were granted release under a home detection curfew, but only 28 of these (48 per cent) were released on their eligibility date.

This article was originally published at Kablenet.

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