Group 4 offered extra prison escort duties despite escapes: Security company's much-publicised difficulties 'will not affect service's privatisation programme'

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DESPITE its litany of recent disasters, Group 4 is being asked to take on extra prison escort duties, which may involve increasing the security company's pounds 9.5m a year contract fee, the head of the prison service revealed yesterday.

Derek Lewis gave measured support to the beleaguered company. He said that, while there had been 'some real problems' with its escort services, they would not affect the Government's privatisation programme.

'I don't think it has made us change the underlying feelings about the private sector . . . We shall clearly learn lessons from it - we would be stupid not to - but at this stage we have not seen evidence that would require that we change the strategy.'

He was speaking after opposition leaders, prison service unions, and reform groups had called for a review of Group 4's escort contract following the escape of eight of its prisoners in a month, and culminating with the death of one man in its care. There has also been criticism of drug abuse and violence in the Wolds, the remand prison run by Group 4.

Mr Lewis said of the escort service: 'I don't think anyone should judge a contract when they are only four or five weeks into it - particularly when it is such a new venture. We shall need some more experience before we can say that we are happy with the way things are going.' But he revealed that talks with the security firm later this week, aimed at resolving its initial failings, also included changes to its contract to carry prisoners. They would include taking prisoners to and from HullETHER write error prison - not in the original contract.

That may involve a 'price adjustment', Mr Lewis said, adding: 'Unless it can be handled by changing existing resources or by deleting things from other parts of the contract.'

But he dismissed suggestions that greater reward to Group 4 at a time when it appears beset by problems may attract criticism. 'Provided it is absolutely clear that what we are paying them for is additional work that they had not previously contracted to undertake, it seems it me that is a thoroughly right and proper thing for us to be doing,' he said. Mr Lewis, a former television executive, has been in the prison business a shorter time than Group 4, which has been running the Wolds for a year. It was widely reported, when he was appointed by Kenneth Clarke at the end of last year to run the new Prison Service Agency, that he was considered the best candidate to pursue the Government's privatisation policy.

Yesterday he said that he had not expected so much controversy, adding: 'Anyone who gets involved with the prisons service has to recognise that not everything is predictable.'

A Group 4 escort van containing prisoners hit three private cars after the vehicle became stuck in the entrance at Bradford central police station, West Yorkshire, yesterday.