Tag faults bring trials to the verge of collapse

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Crime Correspondent

The Home Office has threatened to abandon two of the three planned trials into electronic tagging of offenders if there are any further equipment failures, it emerged yesterday.

The possibility of two-thirds of the trials collapsing before they have even started will add to the Government's growing embarrassment with a system already dogged with problems and branded an expensive failure.

Two weeks ago the Home Office was forced to pull out of its first pilot study in Manchester after a pre-trial failed. The devices, which are worn around an offender's ankle, did not give off an electronic warning when three Home Office officials tested them by leaving their curfew zone.

Securicor Custodial, the company contracted to run the system, said the American tags needed some fine adjusting and dismissed the problem as "bugs in the system".

The trials, which are also supposed to take place in Reading and Norfolk, have already been delayed for six months because of mounting costs.

Baroness Blatch, the Home Office minister responsible for tagging and probation, is understood to have been angry at the latest hitch and has written a confidential memorandum to the Home Office officials responsible for the trials saying the tests in Manchester and Reading should be ditched if the system fails again. Trials are expected to take place in the next couple of weeks.

If the Securicor devices are abandoned only the Norfolk system, which uses a different type of tag and is run by another company, Geografix, would go ahead.

Home Office officials have privately admitted this is the "last chance saloon" for Securicor.

A Home Office spokeswoman said: "We do not comment on leaked documents."

New powers, included in the Criminal Justice Act, enable courts to sentence criminals to curfew orders. Offenders convicted of crimes such as theft, minor assaults, stealing cars and burglary, are expected to be given the new sentences and have tags fitted.

If an offender leaves home, the tags emit alarm signals that alert a supervisor.

Tagging was introduced on an experimental basis in Nottingham, Newcastle upon Tyne and London in 1989, but was scrapped after it ended in disaster, with most of the 49 people tagged absconding or committing further offences. There were also dozens of equipment breakdowns.

The Home Office has argued that the new devices are far more reliable.

However, when three Home Office officials tried on the tags at the Securicor offices in Manchester two weeks ago the devices were useless. One official went to a pub, another to a shopping centre, and the third for a walk, but according to the monitoring equipment none of them left the Securicor building.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: "The Home Office has not learnt the lessons from the past and we now seem set for an expensive re-run.

"The fact that ministers are threatening to pull the contracts shows they do not have a great deal of faith in the system."

A statement from Securicor Custodial said: "We know what the problem is. It is solvable. We are working on it and remain confident the system will perform to standard."