Whistleblowers have alleged that convicted offenders wearing faulty G4S-supplied electronic tags were being hauled back into custody because the equipment would wrongly show they were in breach of their curfew.
That is just one of several claims made by the two whistleblowers who used to work as electronic monitoring officers for G4S on its now-defunct tagging contract with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).
The contract was cancelled by Whitehall after allegations surfaced that G4S had been overcharging the MoJ. The company had been accused of charging taxpayers for tagging criminals who had already been incarcerated or were dead.
A criminal investigation has been launched by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) and is ongoing. G4S has agreed to repay £108.9m to the MoJ for overcharging.
Sarah Bamford and Paul Wakeman, who both worked for G4S in the southwest of England, alleged to IBTimes UK that:
- Faulty and flimsy equipment led to those with tags wrongfully taken into custody for breaching curfews.
- G4S sent new tagging orders for every offence, even if the person had already been tagged, so the firm could charge the MoJ.
- When G4S identified a faulty batch of tags it ordered its officers to change them – but not to tell those tagged why.
- G4S issued tasks to single officers that required two people, or sent them out to offenders' homes at times they were not allowed to enter.
- G4S would continue to visit homes of offenders it unofficially knew were in prison or had been released from their tagging orders, but would still charge taxpayers until it received official confirmation from the courts.
- It would write off 100 tags a month because they were faulty or broken – at a cost of £350 each.
- Much of the officers' equipment, such as SatNavs and personal digital assistants (PDAs), was out of date and not fit for purpose.
- Staff morale was very low.
Each of these allegations was put to G4S and the company responded in detail.
Neither Wakeman nor Bamford, both ex-military, still work for G4S. The company confirmed that Bamford and Wakeman were ex-employees.
Bamford left in June 2013 with a medical condition. Wakeman was sacked at the end of 2013 – after he had given his interview to IBTimes UK – for what he says was the unauthorised use of a company vehicle. He claims he was taking medication to his nan, but lost his appeal against the sacking. He is now a bus driver.
"Sometimes our sheets would get faxed to us and we'd have the same person's name on two or three times – but we still had to do every single one as a separate install for the money," Bamford said.
And it wasn't the firm's bottom line being hurt by the purported dodgy equipment – it was those relying on it for their freedom.
For example, if the battery died when someone was wearing a tag then they were at risk of being sent back to prison.
Rather than phoning or visiting to check on why an individual's tag showed they were not in the house during their curfew hours, G4S would immediately issue a breach notice – known as a section 9 – to the police.
"So if that was done on a Friday for example, that person would spend the weekend in custody through no fault of their own – just the faulty equipment," Wakeman said.
"It could possibly put a person back in prison, because if they've been released on licence and they're saying they're not respecting the curfew they could get recalled. And if it's a court order they could receive a letter saying they've violated the terms of their community order so to speak and they go back to court.
"From all the cases I've been to and attended, the magistrates have thrown them out every time because it's faulty equipment."
On the overall allegations of Bamford and Wakeman, G4S replied:
"G4S has been operating electronic tagging for over 20 years, and our equipment is world-leading, outperforming any comparable equipment used elsewhere.
"We have a well-established internal whistle-blowing policy for staff, which they can use in complete confidence and without fear of compromising their position.
"We are happy to respond to all the allegations made by these two individuals, but we question why they didn't feel these were serious enough to raise via the channels available to them at the time they were employed with us. Neither works for G4S now, and in fact one was actually dismissed for gross misconduct."
The SFO told IBTimes UK it could not comment while its criminal investigation was active.
Wakeman said he knew he "sounds bitter" but added: "When I first started working for this company I absolutely loved it. The last two years it has gone totally downhill.
"I don't know where you want to start with this company to be honest with you. It's a complete clusterf**k, to put it bluntly."
Wakeman said G4S cut its costs by buying the tagging equipment manufacturer GML. It then slashed costs further by making the tags in Poland.
This specific allegation was put to G4S. It replied:
"Everything we used has to be independently tested to ensure it meets the MoJ's specification. As long as it does so where it comes from is irrelevant.
"The equipment we use is assembled in Leicester and Vancouver, and some components are manufactured overseas. Assembly and testing is carried out in the UK by our own manufacturing facility and all maintenance is also done there by the manufacturers."
Yet Wakeman claimed the cost-cutting had affected the quality of the equipment. He said the batteries often died and sometimes tags could not be attached to the ankle properly because the straps were ill-fitting.
"You've got not just the actual equipment for the tagging, but the equipment that the staff use - ie, the PDAs (personal digital assistants), the satnavs, the vans - is so out of date that the stuff they've got is just not fit for purpose," he says.
It is a scenario Bamford, who was in the British Army for seven years before joining G4S, recognised from her time at the firm.
"I can't even count how many times that has happened," she said.
"The amount of times we would go round to see people and the families would go absolutely berserk because they were in the house and our equipment just didn't work."
Bamford recalled a man who was on bail. G4S had been alerted by their equipment that he was in breach of his curfew and issued a section 9 breach notice to police.
The police went to the man's house during the alleged curfew breach – and he answered the door.
"The police were right there on his doorstep and we're telling the police he's not in," Bamford said.
"He got arrested as well. He still got taken in. I went around the day after he got out of custody and his tag was showing he had no battery left.
"It was one of the faulty tags ... what was meant to happen is when the battery gets low it sends a message back to the server to say 'battery's low, come round and change'.
"This battery kit didn't do that. It never gave a low battery reading. So people were getting arrested when the equipment wasn't working properly."
These allegations of faulty equipment were put to G4S. It replied:
"We receive a small amount of complaints all of which are thoroughly investigated.
"Our equipment is well tested before use and is robust and reliable, with a failure rate of less than 1%, with any malfunctions very rarely interfering with the actual monitoring of subjects. Our equipment performs far better than comparable systems elsewhere.
"Faulty equipment is extremely rare. It is not possible to comment on individual cases but breach action will only be pursued where there is clear evidence of non-compliance or if someone has attempted to tamper with the equipment.
"If a subsequent investigation revealed a fault action would be rescinded. Our rates of false tamper alerts are extremely small (less than 1 in 4000 or 0.025%)."
On out of date staff equipment:
"The equipment used is all perfectly fit for purpose."
G4S sent their officers around to people who were hooked up with a particular batch of faulty tags so they could change the equipment.
But they were not allowed to tell those on the tags the reason why the equipment was being changed – that it was faulty.
"There were still people getting arrested. Still people being done for it. When actually it was our equipment, not them," Bamford said.
On changing equipment, G4S replied:
"Where we have identified minor issues we have swapped equipment out as a precaution to ensure that we maintain the high standards required, keeping our client (the MoJ) informed.
Wakeman claimed the amount of tagging equipment G4S wrote off each month was "phenomenal" – at least 100 a month. He said each one cost around £350 but G4S rebutted his claims.
Wakeman said: "If we know that somebody is in prison, and you put that on the PDA and fill in the comments, they will still send you every day to try and get that tag back or that box back.
"You could go to a flat that's been boarded up by the council, it's been kicked in or whatever. Wooden doors, wooden windows. But they still make you go there five times, which isn't very cost-effective at all.
"Because they were losing so much kit, they actually brought in an incentive for staff to work an extra three hours during that shift or before that shift every day and they would pay them an extra £50 or £100, but nobody bothered doing that because of the way they've been treated."
G4S replied: "This isn't true. We would not write off faulty equipment without trying first to get it repaired. We only write off equipment which is unrecoverable, or which is lost, which can happen as the wearers can be unpredictable.
"Faults are rare. We have run incentive schemes many times to recover lost equipment so it can be recycled and it makes complete sense to do that."
On one occasion, Bamford said she had been called out to the home of a heavily pregnant lady who had been put on a tag after committing an offence.
She complained that the tag did not work when she was in the bath and Bamford thought that the cast-iron Victorian tub might be interfering with the signal.
G4S had sent out an instruction saying not to change any tags if the officer reset the accompanying box, which monitors whether the tagged person is in or out, and it showed them to be still at home.
The equipment did not show the pregnant lady was missing, but Bamford took the decision to change the tag anyway because she couldn't recreate the exact conditions of when the absences were occurring, mostly for a few seconds or a couple of minutes in the early hours of the morning.
Bamford changed the equipment. The new tag showed the woman as missing when she entered the bathroom.
"It instantly shows that the rule they brought out for us to do doesn't work," Bamford said, adding she told G4S management about the problem.
But for taking the initiative and showing the equipment could be faulty, Bamford claimed she was "severely reprimanded ... even though I proved that the equipment didn't work".
"She was sent to custody on a Friday and didn't get seen till Monday having had a three-day-old baby," Bamford said.
"All the way through her pregnancy she was put into prison. I documented and another lady documented that the equipment did not work in her bathroom."
G4S replied: "[There would be] no need to change equipment which was fully functional".
Another incident Bamford recalls involved a young man who enjoyed playing football for a semi-professional club at the weekends. He was left-footed and this also was where he wore his tag because, Bamford said, it was G4S policy.
But G4S said it was not company policy.
"It is irrelevant what ankle the tag is fitted to," a spokeswoman said.
The tag broke off while he was playing a game and he faced the prospect of going back to prison. Bamford fixed a new one on to his right ankle instead because there was "no rationale" for forcing people to have it on one side or the other – and got in trouble with bosses again.
"Officers will assess each installation on its own merits and decide which leg is the most appropriate," the spokeswoman added.
Neither Bamford nor Wakeman told IBTimes UK they were aware of some of the allegations around the SFO's investigation while they were working for G4S.
Bamford alleged that G4S, in her experience, would treat the duplication of tagging orders for the same individual - on orders from above.
She said that if someone were tried for two offences and tagged for one of them, a fresh tagging install order would still be sent out for the other offence.
"There was no need for us to visit and all we had to do was add in the system that they were on for two offences," Bamford said.
"They'd already got a tag on their ankle. We were being told to complete the job as successful because then they would get paid for having a whole new install. That was coming direct from G4S up in Manchester. From head office."
Bamford spoke of one job where G4S knew the person was already in prison because the police had told them but alleged that the firm still sent her on a 200-mile round trip to the house.
"I still had to go and still had to document the job so we were paid for attending. We knew he wasn't even there. It happened so often," she said.
These allegations of multiple orders were put to G4S. It replied:
"Where multiple orders were received for one person we used to have to visit to reconfigure the equipment," said a G4S spokeswoman.
"This changed approximately three years ago and we now make the change remotely, charging a small admin fee."
Wakeman said G4S stuck rigidly to the formality of the procedures in place, but that led to farcical ends – and he claimed it was the taxpayer picking up the tab.
"If an individual dies, or has gone to court today and been found not guilty, G4S will still charge the government because what they're saying is they haven't received the paperwork yet," he said.
"You could have it on the front page of the newspaper, saying found guilty or found not guilty, but until G4S officially receive the paperwork from the court procedures, they will still carry on charging the government for these visits because they're saying 'we haven't been told officially'."
The G4S officers were only allowed to enter the properties of those on tags on their particular curfew days as set by the courts. Yet G4S officers were often sent to the homes of those with tags on the wrong days, the whistleblowers claimed.
"The amount of times you go to a job and you get sent in the week and they're only on a curfew Friday, Saturday, Sunday," said Bamford.
"We're not allowed to go into their properties unless it's a curfew day," she added, although G4S denied that.
"Officers can visit people outside the curfew in response to a breach," the company spokeswoman said.
Bamford continued: "So we travel hundreds of miles and they're not even on curfew. You'd have to ring head office and say to them check the order. They'd then have to go into the orders and put in all the right information on to the system.
"The job I went to where the bloke was in prison, I actually spoke to the manager on shift that day and he gave me a direct order to remain outside his property for 60 minutes, then do what's called a RAM which is where you use your equipment to tell if somebody's in the house or not.
"Even though we knew he was in prison, they made me sit there for 60 minutes, do this RAM, then leave and drive back home.
"They know what's going on. They know what's happening. How they've managed to keep hold of the contract for so long is just a joke."
Freedom of Information request
A freedom of information request made by William Allen through WhatDoTheyKnow.com supported some of what Paul and Sarah said about the tags.
Allen described himself as a 23-stone man who broke his tag accidentally on the stairs. He said he called G4S within 30 seconds of the incident – five hours before his curfew – but was told nobody could come out to fit a new one in time.
G4S then sent his case to court for a breach of curfew conditions.
"I find this strange and a waste of time and money," wrote Allen in his letter to the MoJ, requesting details on how many breaches are sent to court by G4S.
"The tag guy told me not to worry as it happens and is no big deal and he could see how I did it. Now I am thinking that G4S could be on to a potential never-ending supply of their own business.
"I have been told I could have time added to my curfew when I go to court. This seems stupid to me for an accident which logic alone would ask why I would take my own tag off and then ring five hours before curfew for a new one."
He concluded: "Tagging may be cheaper than prison, but I cannot break a prison cell and am constantly paranoid about this stupid tag getting broken."
The MoJ said G4S monitored 39,686 community sentence cases in 2011 and reported to the courts 15,078 as having been breached – 38%.
"Most breaches are due to offenders being absent during curfew, although a small number are due to tampering with equipment and other failures to abide by the requirements," said the MoJ.
Both Bamford and Wakeman said G4S made them document every move and fax information back to the head office. Every visit, every procedure, every complaint – all written down in hard copy and sent to the managers in Manchester.
Wakeman said he often faxed over problems or issues he wanted to raise with superiors, such as faulty equipment.
"I used to send faxes every couple of days to our line managers and I was getting no responses. All I was ever getting was 'yeah, yeah it's being looked at' or 'yeah it's being sorted out'," he said.
"Until September of last year I was still getting no responses, so I'd basically had enough and started kicking off to our senior management. They had a meeting with me and said yes we have failed you, etc, but then since that meeting nothing has improved and it's been exactly the same.
"One of the main bugbears we've got is jobs being passed out where there should be two people, but it's only passed out for one because they haven't got enough staff. Anybody who's committed sex offences, or attempted murder, or any violence like that, or hostels, should be always passed out with two people to visit.
"It's always the case that we will always pick that up and say 'look, we need a second person to come with us'. They'd say 'oh we haven't got that, you'll just have to carry it forward until tomorrow'.
"You think hang on, that shouldn't have been handed out for one person in the first place."
Lone Worker Devices, which tell bosses where a worker is and can be used to transmit distress signals, are used on riskier visits – but they only work where there is mobile connectivity.
"All this public protection they say about is a load of rubbish. It's fine if you've got a signal. If you haven't got one, there is no protection," said Wakeman.
On Wakeman's claims of putting workers at risk, G4S replied:
"The business holds British Safety Council five-star accreditation and a sword of honour for industry-leading health and safety standards.
"We would be extremely surprised if this had happened, but would be happy to investigate if the complainants can provide specific examples."
On the claim of very low staff morale, the spokeswoman said: "Given the extreme levels of public scrutiny the business has been under and the subsequent loss of the contract to another provider, it is hardly surprising that staff may be unsettled."
A review carried out by the law firm Linklaters – commissioned by G4S – found that "in certain circumstances, G4S wrongly considered itself to be contractually entitled to bill for monitoring services when equipment had not been fitted or after it had been removed."
G4S said that the Linklaters review, which trawled internal documents and emails and cost £2m, had "not identified any evidence of dishonesty or criminal conduct by any employee of G4S".
Capita, G4S rival, will take over the tagging contract from April and has been operating it in the interim. It will also take over from Serco's tagging contract with the MoJ after a similar scandal. Serco is also under investigation by the SFO.