Capita, Serco, G4S, government and the rise and rise of electronic tagging

Kate Belgrave /   June 29, 2015 at 8:36 PM 1,226 views

I rarely use the words “fascinating” and “press release” in the same sentence, but: This fascinating press release appeared on the Capita website recently: “Capita [is the] preferred bidder for electronic monitoring contract.” So. It seems that Capita has positioned itself (with three other companies) to take over the dire electronic tagging system run by Serco and G4S for the Ministry of Justice. By “dire,” I mean “very likely fraudulent”: Serco and G4S were recently slammed by PriceWaterhouseCoopers for charging the taxpayer tens of millions of pounds for people they claimed to have tagged, but who turned out to be dead or incarcerated. Serco will participate in an independent “forensic audit” as a result. G4S won’t: according to the MOJ, they told Grayling No and were referred to the SFOG4S, amazingly, told Robert Peston that it opted to call in the SFO itself. I am not sure what the real situation is there. All I know is that we get to keep paying for it. And paying for it. We now have Capita as preferred bidder for a large electronic monitoring contract. Unfortunately, it is a contract that sets many alarms off itself. Chief among these Capita’s plan to make £400m in its first six years of the contract and its reluctance to explain in detail (to me anyway) exactly how it proposes to do that. I hope that they have decided against targeting the dead. Of even greater concern, though, is the extent to which they apparently plan to target and tag the living. Their press release says that the £400m in those first six years will be generated on the basis of an “anticipated increase in the use of tags beyond the current numbers of monitored individuals.” Early days, I know, but £400m is a lot of money, so we’re surely talking a lot of monitored individuals. I’m going back and forwards with the MOJ at the moment for more on who exactly the ministry proposes to tag and how long for when we’re talking offenders and/or ex-offenders: the press release they sent speaks, vaguely, of “tracking the movement of offenders in the community,” “delivering swifter justice,” “tracking offenders wherever they go 24 hours a day,” (in another call, the MOJ says that’s an advantage of the new technology it expects to be provided) and stopping “paedophiles hanging around” at school gates. Napo offers more details in its take: Napo said last year that as government dramatically increased the number of people it tagged, “it was envisaged that tagging would be a condition of all community orders. Currently around 35,000 offenders are tagged for up to 12 hours and for a maximum of six months, either as a condition of a community order, or early release from prison on Home Detention Curfew. This has risen hugely over a 15-year period from a few hundred individuals tagged per year to the current level of tens of thousands. Under the government scheme, the number tagged could rise 180,000 or even more, an increase therefore of six-fold.” So there’s that. I also wonder if several hundred million quid’s worth of tagging will go beyond the offenders and ex-offenders that Chris Grayling seems so obsessed with tagging and tracking long after they are released from jail (I don’t personally believe the tagging of people in those categories should be accepted as written, either – but more on that later. The MOJ says that the length of time on a tag will be decided by judges). I think that it will. Capita certainly sees a market beyond so-called justice and the MOJ. Like Serco and G4S, Capita thinks big. Certainly, Capita thinks a lot bigger than Grayling. You could go as far to say that Capita sees the MOJ contract as a launching-pad for the real projectile – an enormous net to sling across the public sector and people who use it, and then, it would seem, the entire world. You wouldn’t have to be a wild conspiracy type to reach that conclusion, either. Just go back to that Capita press release. It’s fascinating, as I say. “Further significant growth is expected through the expansion of services to other government departments and agencies” (my emphasis). “Capita will work with the MOJ to promote the intellectual property which underpins the service internationally, generating further growth.” “The service has been designed to enable other government bodies – for example, the probation services, the NHS and social care agencies, to procure related services” (my emphasis). I wonder about all of this, you know. Who are the people that the government and/or Capita (I’m not entirely sure which is which or who is who any more) really plan to tag as this golden future unfolds? Are they thousands of ex-offenders who have served their time, but who Grayling decides need a further kicking, for political gain at least? Are they the people who were once served by the probation service that Grayling is in the process of privatising and destroying? Where is this all meant to end? And what does Capita mean when it talks about “enabling” social care agencies and the NHS and other government bodies with this sort of technology? Are they thinking, say, of replacing paid care staff with a tag? Will this tagged population include people who are in and out of hospital with serious mental health conditions, but whose services have been cut and who have nowhere to go and nobody to help if there are times when they become disoriented? And what about people who the government is already after? Will we see pre-emptive tagging of people who are known (and entitled, by the way) to attend anti-government protests, or who plan to disrupt, say, a royal wedding? What about people on the work programme, even? Does the government fancy a future where it can tag people who claim benefits – and sanction anyone who steps away from Jobmatch for ten minutes? I wonder about these things. So I asked Capita for details. That went about as well as I expected it to. Capita said talk to the MOJ. The MOJ, needless to say, said talk to Capita. Then, the MOJ rang me thinking I was Capita. Trying to recover from this error, the MOJ told me to ring the Department of Health about people who might be tagged through the health system. I told the MOJ to ring Capita and tell Capita to tell me which groups of people it was basing its projections on. Am now waiting for Capita to ring and tell me to go back to the MOJ, the Department of Health, the DWP and every council out there that still has social services, to ask what Capita has in mind for their client groups. This will probably go on until I’m dead. In the meantime, it’s worth having a think. I think, for example, of the woman I spoke to for this article who had a long-term schizophrenia diagnoses and alcoholism, and who’d been in and out of hospital, and who’d been able to live an independent life in a supported living hostel. The hostel was staffed around the clock. People who lived there came and went freely, but were able to contact staff if they got disoriented, or lost, or if abusers were following them, or trying to get into the building. That hostel was closed down though, as was another in the same borough. The woman I spoke to was terrified of being placed in low-support accommodation, or a B&B because she’d been abused in such places before. And she’d wandered before and often got lost and confused when she was drinking. She liked the hostel and had good relationships with staff. She certainly liked the arrangement better than the alternative – which was being cast adrift completely. Is she the sort of person who would be tagged in future – someone no longer thought worthy of decent services or decent accommodation, but to be kept track of in a basic way? And what about other people who are losing services? I think about a story I did in Ealing earlier this year. I spent a lot of time talking to Ealing people with learning difficulties and their families about council plans to cut their training-to-work centre and the support staff who worked there. The people who used the centre would get nothing as a replacement: Ealing council no longer allocates funding to people with “moderate” needs. The thing was – safety was an issue. One mother of a 28-year-old man who attended that centre kept telling me that she appreciated the centre because she knew her son was safe there. Out on the streets on his own, he got picked on, robbed and, often, just lost. The thing was – he would be on his own if the centre was closed, because he’d be given little or nothing to replace it, or to pay for personal assistants or support. His mother could pay for a mentor to accompany him sometimes, but could only afford one day a week. So in future – will she and families of people with even more substantial needs whose care will undoubtedly be cut, be told their best and only option is a tag? Is the future of social care a world where, instead of proper funding for independent living, money is given to the likes of Capita to tag people and update their families with their basic positioning? That issue that has long been debated, of course. There’s been much discussion, for example, about the ethics of tagging of people with dementia, who do sometimes become disoriented or lost: “of the 700,000 people in Britain with some form of dementia, up to 60% occasionally felt compelled to walk away from home without knowing how or where to return,” the Alzheimer’s Society told the Guardian some time ago in a debate on the topic. Some people welcomed the technology, saying it gave them greater freedom in the earlier stages of their conditions. But, as you can see from that story, there was and is concern that the technology infringed on human rights and that it would be used in place of high-quality care and personal assistants – a concern that must be even more pressing now as social care budgets disappear. In my experience, too, people want human contact as well as technology. I’ll be written off as a wet hippie for saying that, but it really is true. People make that sort of point all the time when you talk with them. Another story: several years ago, Barnet council announced that it would remove onsite wardens from sheltered housing flats in the borough. One of the justifications for this plan (which was very unpopular with sheltered housing residents) was that the elderly people in those flats had alarms and electronic means of summonsing help if they needed it. But the elderly people who turned out at Hendon Town Hall to protest the cut did not have faith in those alarms. They said no button or alarm would compensate for having a real person onsite to check in with, or to alert when someone was feeling unwell. No technology is entirely dependable. Tagging technology certainly isn’t. Napo, which is battling the privatisation of probation services as we speak, has long argued that tagging systems are unreliable and alone don’t impact on crime. Concerns listed in Napo’s 2012 paper on tagging include: faulty equipment, tags not working when people take baths or showers, people being recalled to custody unnecessarily, high-risk offenders not being monitored properly and instances where devices were never fitted. So – tagging companies are not always be brilliant at tracking and finding people who have been tagged. They are, however, brilliant at tracking and finding councillors and MPs who are willing to pay and pay for their technology. Even the Policy Exchange has raised concerns about this. As the Howard League’s Andrew Neilson reported here last year, the Policy Exchange said “that the use of electronic monitoring has been too expensive and dominated by the duopoly of Serco and G4S, leading to a lack of innovation and a use of technology that has changed little since it was first deployed in 1989.” Cost upset the Exchange: “the report estimates that electronic monitoring an individual costs £13.14 per day in England and Wales, while the equivalent in the United States was £1.22.” So. Intriguing, as I say. Intriguing to imagine where all of this is going and who will end up tagging whom. Capita obviously thinks the sky is the limit. CE Paul Pindar freely admits in his press release that “when fully live, this is expected to be the largest, single and most advanced ‘tagging’ system in the world.” He also says that the thing will be run “to the highest possible standards of governance and transparency.” That’s an intriguing claim as well. I’m guessing that Paul doesn’t realising that he’s the CE of the company that recently put the translation service in meltdown, or brought us the black hole that is Service Birmingham (where transparency is such a problem that a sub-committee was recently set up for councillors who publicly admitted they did not know how much money the council was paying Capita via Service Birmingham), and the Sefton council debacle (Sefton is cutting short a £65m contract with Capita, because it has failed to deliver savings). There are times when I think that the only people round here who really need tagging are the ones from these companies who keep visiting council and government buildings and leaving with blank cheques. Courtesy of Kate Belgrave

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