Tagging of offenders poised to return: Despite earlier failures, a Bill before Parliament allows use of electronic monitoring

Electronic tagging for offenders is to be reintroduced by the Government, despite being abandoned more than three years ago after disastrous pilot schemes.

New powers, included in the Criminal Justice Bill currently before Parliament, will enable courts to sentence criminals to curfew orders, which will be electronically monitored. Offenders convicted of crimes such as theft, minor assaults, stealing cars and burglary, are expected to be given the new punishments and fitted with tags, probably around their ankles. The tags produce signals which alert a supervisor, usually a private security guard, if the offender leaves home.

Electronic monitoring - inspired by an American comic character King Pin, who used electronic surveillance to track his arch enemy Spiderman - will be introduced for nine months in Manchester, Reading and Norfolk next January. The Home Office has more than pounds 1.3m to spend on the project and, if successful, hopes to set up a national scheme.

Tagging was first used in Nottingham, Newcastle and London in 1989. In that experiment, people were tagged instead of being locked up awaiting a court appearance. Probation officers claimed it degenerated into an expensive fiasco.

Of the 49 subjects, 29 either breached their conditions or committed another offence. In all there were 217 violations. In one case a man absconded for several weeks and when he was found he was charged with murder, for which he later received a life sentence. Another man in Tyneside jumped out of the dock and escaped before the tag could be fitted. There were also dozens of equipment failures.

In 1992, the Home Office said the scheme was being dropped because of expense - it was estimated that it would have cost up to pounds 60m to introduce it country-wide.

The Home Office is confident that developments in technology will produce better results than in 1989 when the tags had to be plugged into a telephone connected to the local police station, or security guard, to show wearers were observing their curfew.

Private security officers employed by the electronics company which provides the equipment and, in some cases, probation officers or local authority staff, are expected to monitor the tagged offenders. Courts will be able to combine community service orders with the new electronic curfew sentences.

The Home Office also wants to establish the cost and effectiveness of the new orders.

The government plans are contained in a letter from Hugh Marriage, the deputy head of the Probation Service division at the Home Office, which contains details about the electronic monitoring and the curfew order in advance of the Criminal Justice Bill being given parliamentary assent. The House of Lords is expected to debate it in committee on 16 May.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: 'Ministers have failed to realise that a punishment that might act as a deterrent for them does not act as a deterrent for many offenders who, by and large, lead chaotic lives, may have mental health, drink and drug problems, are disorganised, unemployed and tend to have unsettled home lives.'

Rosemary Thomson, chairwoman of the Magistrates' Association, said that they were 'sceptical' given their experience of the earlier trials.