Comment: Secret plans to GPS tag 75,000 people show privatisation is out of control

By Frances Crook and Mike Nellis
We understand the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has been planning to put 75,000 men and women on GPS tracking under new outsourcing contracts. It is currently unclear who these people will be, why they would be tagged and how much it will cost.

This is an ideological use of justice money. Planning to place them on GPS tracking represents a sea change in the way we supervise people in the community.  It's a crazy, unworkable plan, but even to come up with it suggests something transformational is going on in criminal justice – especially as it coincides with the untested and risky privatisation of the probation service.

The plan needs far more open discussion than it has had and the MoJ should have been much more honest about the projected numbers, the time scale and the people who will be targeted. The GPS tracking scheme will start in 2015, yet the plan has, in effect, been secret.

How was the figure of 75,000 arrived at? Does it include prisoners released on temporary licence? It seems to – but how many? Release on temporary licence mostly works well as it is. Only a few prisoners might warrant GPS. Is there any serious penal basis for it? Or is the figure market-driven – a minimum or optimum number necessary to persuade potential contractors to submit a tender?

There are a limited number of useful  ways in which GPS tracking could be used – none of which get anywhere near a figure of 75,000. France, the Netherlands and Germany all use GPS tracking on some high risk sexual and violent offenders, but mostly we are talking low hundreds – and often less than a 100.

Some police forces have experimented with the use of GPS tracking on a voluntary basis with "persistent and priority offenders" but the numbers are very small and the tracking is part of a holistic package that includes housing and intensive personal support.

These projects are working with people who want to desist from crime and the tracking is a positive way that they can prove their commitment to it. Their tracks show whether or not they are at crime scenes. These voluntary schemes aimed at helping people out of a life of crime are the opposite of the government's new plan to place tens of thousands of people under surveillance in order to boost the profits of the private security companies.

The numbers being proposed are baffling and it looks like the MoJ itself is, yet again, in a muddle. Last week, the MoJ confirmed the figure of 75,000 people on GPS, then it backtracked and showered a senior financial journalist investigating the story with other figures to explain its 'plan'. The MoJ appears to be confused and it is impossible to get a coherent explanation. Probably it has gone into overdrive to kill the story.

The MoJ is being very secretive about GPS and doesn't want to let anyone know what its plans are. Those plans may well be a mess rather than a conspiracy. Seventy-five-thousand per day was never a plausible or realistic goal, even though that is what they asked would-be contractors to aspire to in 2012. It's possible the ministry has realised that now.

But whichever explanation turns out to be true, the secrecy surrounding the transformation of the justice system is unacceptable.

Frances Crook is chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform. Professor Mike Nellis is an emeritus professor in criminal justice, having been professor of criminal and community justice in the Glasgow School of Social Work, University of Strathclyde.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

Update 22/08/2014: Justice minister Andrew Selous said: "These new contracts will allow us to introduce some of the most advanced electronic monitoring technology in the world and we expect them to deliver average annual savings of £20 million. Satellite tagging will allow us to keep a much closer watch on the most high-risk and persistent offenders who cause so much harm in our communities, creating a safer society with fewer victims."

The MoJ said the 75,000 figure related to the possible number of new users per year and was an upper estimate.