I notice that the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies are turning up the heat on the MoJ over tagging. Given the extremely forthright report by the esteemed Professor Mike Nellis, I can only surmise that he never hopes to gain work from them.
Call for parliament to investigate tagging fiasco
The Ministry of Justice should consult widely and transparently with public sector, private sector and civil society organisations on plans to electronically monitor those under a criminal sanction, if it is to avoid the waste and chaos that characterised attempts to develop a new satellite-enabled GPS tag. Parliament should also investigate the 'vast waste of time, energy and money' expended by the Ministry of Justice as its unrealistic programme lurched from one crisis to another.
The call comes in a new Centre for Crime and Justice Studies briefing by Professor Mike Nellis, one of the foremost experts on electronic monitoring. The briefing – 'Grayling's failings on electronic monitoring' – details the ‘vast sums of money endlessly wasted’ on a ‘misconceived’ attempt to introduce GPS tags across England and Wales. The failure of the Ministry of Justice to develop ‘an intelligent, integrated strategy’ led to the ‘utter fiasco’ that those in the know had predicted.
The briefing also examines the political calculations behind the plans for GPS tags, which were pursued despite the lack of evidence that the tags were either effective or required. The then Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, who championed the GPS tags programme, ‘was not interested in garnering an evidence-base for GPS tracking because he thought he was creating something so novel and transformative that nowhere else could possibly have lessons for him’, writes Professor Nellis.
Mr Grayling, argues Professor Nellis, hoped that the new GPS tag could be sold around the world through the Ministry of Justice's controversial commercial arm: Just Solutions International (JSI). Mr Grayling's successor, Michael Gove, closed down JSI. The GPS tagging plans are currently in disarray and years behind schedule.
Looking ahead, Professor Nellis calls for the Ministry of Justice to draw on the 'abundant expertise' across the commercial, statutory and third sectors on managing electronic monitoring programmes. He also argues that a more localised approach to commissioning electronic monitoring should be considered.
And he throws down a challenge to criminal justice reform organisations to play an active role in shaping future developments. Electronic monitoring technologies, he argues, ‘will never be used wisely and well anywhere unless they are embedded in decent and properly resourced pre-trial, community supervision and resettlement services’.
Professor Mike Nellis said:
"The reason the Ministry of Justice failed so comprehensively is not only because of incompentence about electronic monitoring. It is also because their entire penal policy – closing courts, starving prisons of resources, part-privatising the probation service – was malevolent and incompetent. Electronic monitoring will never be used wisely and well unless it is embedded in decent and properly resourced pre-trial, community supervision and resettlement services. Electronic monitoring has a contribution to make to an overdue reduction in the use of imprisonment, but only a modest one."Richard Garside, Director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, said:
"So shambolic was the Ministry of Justice's attempt to implement GPS tagging, that active sabotage would look much the same. But it was as much a political, as a management, failure. By treating GPS tags as a business proposition and a nice little export earner, the Ministry of Justice lost sight of what GPS tagging is for and whether it has a useful role to play at all."--oo00oo--
The report is an absolutely cracking read and a thorough indictment both of Chris Grayling and the MoJ's complete incompetence. It's a 'call to arms' addressed specifically at penal reform groups, so lets hope the invitation doesn't fall on deaf ears. The following extracts should give readers a flavour, sufficient to encourage a visit to the whole document.
This briefing by Professor Mike Nellis scrutinises the chaotic attempts by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to commission a new generation of satellite-enabled tags for monitoring those under a criminal sanction in England and Wales.
Drawing on the recent forensic analysis by the National Audit Office (NAO), Professor Nellis, one of the foremost experts on electronic monitoring, highlights the ‘massive waste of public money’ and the ‘hubris and incompetence’ that has dogged the programme.
But as Professor Nellis points out, the electronic monitoring fiasco was more than just a story of unrealistic plans, shifting specifications and incompetent management. It was also the story of a politically-driven attempt, particularly by the former Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, to reshape aspects of the justice system along market lines. A ‘lot of what Grayling pushed through during his tenure’, Professor Nellis writes, makes sense if one abandons the idea that it had a primarily penal rational. Every move he made… was designed… to make established state agencies dysfunctional so that a certain kind of market model could be imposed on them’. The probation service was subjected to a damaging part-privatisation from which it has not recovered. In the new satellite enabled tags, Grayling thought his department was developing worldleading technology that it could sell around the world. Instead it wasted large amounts of time and money on a scheme that many had suspected would fail.
Looking ahead, Professor Nellis calls for the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee to review what happened and hold those who made the key decisions to account. He also argues that the MoJ should draw on the ‘abundant expertise in England and Wales’ to help develop any new programmes, and consider a more localised approach to contracting. And he throws down a challenge to penal reform organisations to play an active role in shaping future developments. Electronic monitoring technologies, he argues, ‘will never be used wisely and well anywhere unless they are embedded in decent and properly resourced pre-trial, community supervision and resettlement services’. It is up to penal reform organisations and others to make this case.
The NAO makes it clear that the initial ambitions of the third contract are dead in the water and damns with faint praise the MoJ’s claims to now be on track with a more modest programme. There are still ‘major risks’ (paragraph 18), it says, without specifying exactly what. Presumably it means the continued reliance on the ‘tower’ delivery model, but it doesn’t spell this out. The fact that the MoJ has now taken over the system integrator function from Capita, leaving it with only a service delivery role, while making sense at the project design level, hardly inspires confidence. The NAO still doubts the MoJ’s capabilities in this respect, while wanly acknowledging ‘some clear signs of progress’ (paragraph 3.24). Restricted by its overarching remit, the NAO seems unduly deferential to the MoJ in this respect. Despite ample evidence to warrant it, it nowhere questions the continued viability of central contracting, and says nothing of the potential merits of local EM contracting arrangements because it is not allowed to suggest alternative policies, only to suggest improvements to existing policies.
It is not yet clear if the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee is going to pick up the NAO report – it should! – and interrogate the key players more robustly. It would be delightful to see Chris Grayling (now heading the Ministry of Transport) hauled before it and held accountable for his part in this vast waste of time, energy and money when an easier and better way, without the chimerical ‘supertag’, was available to him. As Justice Secretary, not only did he disregard the merits of locally contracting EM with probation services and police forces, with only light touch central control (relating to practice standards and technical specifications) he made local contracting permanently harder to achieve, by partially privatising the locally-based probation service, destabilising it to no valid purpose, and setting back the pursuit of good professional practice in community supervision by decades.
Once upon a time, it could all have been so different. The fiasco described by the NAO is all the more shocking and disappointing because there has been abundant expertise in England and Wales, for years, spread across the commercial, statutory and third sectors, for devising and managing a sensible and effective EM programme making modest use of RF, GPS, voice verification and alcohol monitoring technologies. From 2010 onwards, the MoJ could and should (in principle) have facilitated this, consulting widely (and transparently) with probation services, penal reform groups and sentencers, commissioning research, taking best advice from abroad, listening to commercial tech companies and think tanks, whilst remaining alert to the ease with which business and political agendas can deform penal agendas. If only.
The reason the MoJ failed so comprehensively with ‘New World’ is not only because of specific incompetence about EM (although there was that), but because their entire penal policy – straining court services by closures, starving the prison service of resources, part-privatising (but completely restructuring) the probation service – was malevolent and incompetent. Attempting to upgrade EM while simultaneously downgrading probation, in particular, ruined the chances of a creating a properly integrated approach. EM technologies will never be used wisely and well anywhere unless they are embedded in decent and properly resourced pre-trial, community supervision and resettlement services: they have a real contribution to make but only a modest one. There is no way that technological surveillance can (or, more to the point, should) displace the caring, supportive, educative and offence-challenging services that only trained and committed human supervisors can provide. There is no way that EM will ever make serious financial savings unless the technologies are used as part of a strategy – not the centrepiece of a strategy – to reduce the prison population and it is the MoJ’s implacable hostility, under all ministers from Grayling onwards, to contemplate doing that, that underlies so many of its other misjudgements and failings. It is precisely because EM technologies, if used sensibly, could help to support a prison reduction strategy, that they should long ago have been taken up by penal reform organisations and probation interest groups, and turned, both practically and symbolically, against government policy on prison numbers.
Grayling personally wanted a ‘world-beating’ EM programme (specifically, ‘world-beating’ EM technology whose profitable intellectual property the MoJ owned). In the wider world of community supervision and EM use England and Wales must now – and rightly so – be a laughing stock. Other European countries have used EM far more sensibly than we have, mostly integrating it in probation services from the start, eschewing private sector delivery in principle, let alone the absurdities of the ‘tower’ model, and never having more than modest ambitions for it. Many have added GPS use to their existing RF platforms without fuss or fanfare, or such massive loss to the public purse. There is much to be learned from how European countries use EM, but even less chance now, as we get mired in Brexit, that the MoJ will play the slightest attention to it. The problem – the tragedy – is that we are way past the point when good European lessons on EM could be grafted into the impoverished and degenerating infrastructure of the English penal system. There is no good future for EM in England and Wales outwith a root and branch redesign and improvement of the whole system, and it is pointless of the MoJ to plan for one as if EM stood apart from everything else. The NAO rightly recommends that future EM policy making is more consultative, especially with sentencers (although sentencers themselves need to up their game on what EM – technologies could help them achieve). But that itself will be nowhere near enough in the context of all that needs to be done.
So this is a good moment for penal reform organisations, who do grasp the bigger picture, to claim a voice in shaping the future use of EM in the proper context of needful wider reforms. The MoJ has repeatedly proved itself incompetent at devising a sensible EM strategy. Others should now try. Intellectual authority on the matter should never have been ceded to think tanks like Policy Exchange and Reform, but the wilful silence of the penal reform organisations allowed this to happen. So now is the time to convene a ‘symposium on EM’ to which everyone but government (except the NAO) would be invited, in order to develop a vision and set standards and limits on the use of EM technologies, a symbolic, common sense benchmark that would make any future attempt to revive ‘New World’s grandiosity seem abstruse and ridiculous?
The NAO is right that ‘New Word’ has been abandoned for now, but who knows for the future, especially if the lessons from its report are not widely learned and hammered home? The potential for revival remains. EM systems are nothing more than agglomerations of commonplace digital technologies customised for use in a penal context, or a healthcare context and – coming soon – an immigration context. There is zero likelihood that the demand for and impact of digital connectivity – of which EM is a coercive kind – will grow less in any walk of life. The MoJ has shown quite spectacularly that just because ‘the digital’ is politically and economically alluring there is never a frictionless way of institutionalising it. Systems have to be designed, negotiated and built (‘socially constructed’, as some theorists say), and there are, as the MoJ has learned to its cost, demonstrably better and worse ways of doing this. In the present political conjuncture, and in the cultural backwash from emerging developments in automation and robotics, there will be intensified commercial and governmental pressure to adopt ‘automated socio-technical systems’ and to denigrate and undermine ‘wasteful’ human public services. In this context, penal practitioners, especially, must become more adept and assertive than they have ever been in specifying the forms, scale and duration of ‘coercive connectivity’ with defendants and offenders that they can ethically live with (and, as importantly, those they cannot). To refuse to engage, to pretend that innovative digital technologies in criminal justice can simply be sidelined (rather than actively sifting the good from them and learning to block the bad) is tragically ‘retrotopian’, and will leave the way clear for the MoJ to overreach itself again.
Prof Mike Nellis