Clarke to be challenged over private jail escorts

LABOUR will be demanding a Commons statement today from Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, over the 'shambles' resulting from the privatisation of the prison escort service, writes Colin Brown.

Group 4 executives are being called to a meeting with the head of the prison service tomorrow to account for three escapes during the first week of the security firm's prison escort service.

Tony Blair, Labour's home affairs spokesman, will be seeking reassurances in the Commons today. 'The first week has revealed a chaotic shambles that reflected very considerable discredit on the Government,' he said. 'If they cannot get this contract right, it would be wholly wrong for the Government to proceed with further privatisation contracting out.'

The Government has entered into a five-year contract with Group 4, but Mr Blair said that Mr Clarke needed to review urgently the standards of the specifications. Labour leaders intend to use the prison escort experience to attack the privatisation of other public services.

There has been growing public and parliamentary alarm after three inmates escaped in the first four days of Group 4 Court Services' pounds 9.5m contract to provide prisoner escorts in Humberside and the East Midlands.

Last Wednesday, Derek Lewis, director-general of the prison service, ordered a report on the performance of the company, the first to be awarded such work. The next day a prisoner in the company's custody was freed by mistake instead of being returned to jail.