Tagging scheme heads for 'disaster'

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Confidence among Home Office staff overseeing the electronic tagging of offenders is so low that they are running a sweep stake in which most have predicted the initiative will be an embarrassing flop.

One of the department's senior civil servants has also privately admitted that the new law and order scheme is becoming a disaster. His opinion appeared to be supported yesterday with the news that the first offender to be fitted with a tag has breached the conditions of his "house arrest" three times in the past five days.

Clive Barratt, 29, a convicted shoplifter, was given the first tagging order 12 days ago, in which he was supposed to remain in his home in King's Lynn, Norfolk, from 8am to 8pm for the next three months.

Barratt is constantly monitored via the device attached to his wrist, which sends radio signals via a telephone line.

He first broke the terms of his sentence when he walked out of the house he shares with his girlfriend after a row. "It's difficult being cooped up all day. I just went down to the park," he said. He returned an hour later. The second time he arrived home at 8.10am after attending an all- night party.

On another occasion Barratt tried to force the tag off. Security guards, alerted by an alarm, went to his house but he said he had accidentally knocked it with his hand. "I hate being trapped in the house and when I do go out I feel like an alien," he said.

His telephone monitoring was originally delayed for several days when it was discovered he was not on the phone and a line was hastily installed.

Under the new tagging rules if an offender is absent for a total of two hours in any one month or three hours during the whole period of the curfew order the monitoring company will prosecute. Barratt has used up 70 minutes of his "grace time" so far.

Only two people have been given tagging orders since three nine month trials began last month. About 2,000 offenders have been rejected for the tagging treatment by magistrates. If the trials, taking place in Manchester, Norfolk and Reading, are successful, they will be extended nationally.

Home Office civil servants involved in the initiative, however, are not optimistic about its future. The sweep stake they are running is based on how many offenders for each of the three trials will be given tags. So far the majority of bets are for single figures.

Nevertheless, Charles Rose, chief executive of Geografix, is happy with the progress. "I'm very pleased with the performance of the equipment - we've detected all the curfew breaches so far," he said.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: "These breaches are not surprising. It is highly unlikely that an offender with numerous previous convictions will adjust overnight to the conditions and strain of home confinement."

A Home Office spokeswoman said: "We will be making an assessment when the trials are over."