Thirty Years of Electronic Monitoring in the UK

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Thirty Years of Electronic Monitoring in the UK

First in a three-part Electronic Monitoring series by national officer, David Raho.

Electronic Monitoring (EM) is essentially a form of electronic surveillance.

It can take many forms, using different technology such as biometrically enabled kiosks, mobile phones with apps, wrist monitors, ankle bracelets, alcohol monitoring, location monitoring and proximity monitoring.

Probation staff will most likely be used to seeing devices attached to a service user’s ankle. These devices usually either use radio frequencies to monitor whether the wearer is keeping to curfew (ie they are near a base station), or uses satellite to track where the wearer is or has been.

It is generally accepted that in the UK, the use of EM can be credited to a campaign by journalist Tom Stacey first made proposals to the Home Office in 1981 following the introduction of cell phone technology. Stacey later set up the Offender Tag Association; and the term “tagging” subsequently stuck in the UK.

A few years later, judge Jack Love – inspired by the use of a tracking device in a Spiderman comic – asked a computer salesman to come up with a device allowing him to monitor the whereabouts of offenders which in effect created the use of EM as we now know it.

Location monitoring has equally interesting origins and can be traced back to the mid to late 1960s Harvard experiments by behavioural psychologists who used ex-military missile tracking equipment to track young offenders.

It was met with some public hostility at the time by people who feared that it was an invasion of privacy, so was quietly abandoned, not least because of the technology of the time. However, in the 1990s with the availability of portable accurate satellite location technologies for civilian use this form of EM became viable.

Not surprisingly, when EM was first being trialled and then subsequently rolled out in the UK, Napo was one of its most vehement critics echoing members’ views of it being sinister, disproportionately invasive, and entirely at odds with the prevailing social work/probation values that informed practice at the time.

There were some fans of tagging in probation though. Dick Whitfield, the chief probation officer for Kent who wrote two engaging books on the subject argued that probation should be more willing to embrace new technology and cautiously accept that electronic monitoring could be a normal and integrated part of probation.

Though the Home Office were apparently keen for the probation service to take electronic monitoring on, Napo and most other probation chiefs were less enthusiastic for this to happen and together successfully convinced the Home Office to privatise it.

In retrospect those who have looked at the origins of privatisation in probation have noted that this was perhaps one of those key points where the decision not to make a strong case to take EM in house and make it part of probation probably opened the door to the private sector being directly involved in and responsible for community supervision of clients, albeit through electronic monitoring.

The probation service remained involved but were one step removed from the tagging process and not at all interested in taking on the potentially lucrative contracts that were then awarded to private companies creating substantial number of jobs in the private sector.

High profile tagging scandals have since called into question the efficacy of private companies delivering criminal justice services at the very point that Chris Grayling was driving through the coalition governments transforming rehabilitation agenda.

A Serious Fraud Office investigation was launched in 2013 after it had emerged that G4S and Serco had been paid for people it claimed were on tag, but were actually either in prison at the time or had died. In 2014, G4S had agreed to repay £108.9m and Serco £70.5m.

The investigation still continues, and much of the information that is being considered originally came from concerned Napo members and activists.

Fast forward to 2018-19. EM is now an established part of the criminal justice system and no longer considered a new technology per se.

There are fresh calls for probation to take a more active role in the delivery of EM and the police, family courts, and others have been doing interesting things with tagging.

The current EM contract in England and Wales is held by Capita with a G4S owned company supplying the hardware. G4S still run electronic monitoring in both Northern Ireland and Scotland where it is used slightly differently and is little more integrated into probation practice. Serco are no longer a player in the UK EM scene.

The UK tags far more individuals than any other state in Europe and looks set to increase its use of EM 30 years on from the original trials – although this time the expansion will be in the use of location monitoring tags.

As you would expect Napo has been keeping a close eye on recent developments.

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