That's the limit: 7 1/2 dangerous Scots on the run

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SCOTTISH prisons are allowed to lose seven and a half category B prisoners this year, under performance targets set by the Government - but no maximum security category A inmates.

Targets set for the Scottish Prison Service this financial year specify 'the number of escapes by category B prisoners should not exceed 2.5 per 1,000 prisoners.' Scotland has just under 3,000 category B prisoners - officially described as likely to be a danger to the public - giving a target of not more than 7.5.

The Scottish prisons were one of 92 Civil Service agencies to have their performance standards published yesterday in the Government's annual 'Next Steps' agencies review. Others include: reducing 'the known backlog of records over 30 years old which have not been processed, by 1,500 feet' at the Public Record Office; providing 'sound and timely advice to Ministers' - Pesticides Safety Directorate; the withdrawal of 63,000 benefit claims following investigations by inspectors - Employment Service.

A spokesman for Scottish prisons said there had previously been internal targets but this was the first time they had been made public. Asked what would happen if more than 7.5 were to escape, he replied: 'The chief executive's neck will be on the line; his job is to make sure that doesn't happen.'

The spokesman said 2.5 was chosen as 'a challenging target based on the number of escapees in the past'. He denied it was in order for 7.5 category B prisoners to escape. 'In principle, no escapes are acceptable, but it is unrealistic to set a zero target for all categories as that would require measures to restrict all prisoners which could not reasonably be justified.'

Barry Reamsbottom, general secretary of the CPSA civil service union, said the Government was 'dreaming up targets for the sake of it - this is a barmy exercise.'

The review lists a further 44 government functions which are candidates for stand-alone agencies. They include the Department for National Savings; army, air force and navy recruitment; defence training; Crown Prosecution Service and Serious Fraud Office.

William Waldegrave, the Civil Service minister, also announced that in future agency reviews will be advertised and anyone can write in and tell the Government how the job could be done better.

He admitted this meant that if a hotel chain thought it could run Hampton Court, part of the Historic Royal Palaces agency, more efficiently and profitably, it could make an offer.