Group 4 wins praise from prison service: Governors criticise surprise report as 'unrepresentative'

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The Independent Online
GROUP 4, the widely ridiculed private security firm, has established a good reputation for its prison escort work among police, court and jail staff, according to the preliminary findings of a government survey.

But prison governors immediately attacked the study, published yesterday, arguing that it was unrepresentative and failed to vindicate the private company.

The surprise conclusions of the report, of which only scant details have been made available so far, follows a barrage of criticism about Group 4. A government investigation last month found that the death of a prisoner who choked on his vomit while in the custody of the private security company could have been prevented.

The report, which called for a tightening of training and monitoring, followed the findings of an inquest jury in February that the death of Ernest Hogg was contributed to by lack of care. His family intends to bring a civil action against Group 4.

Mr Hogg was a remand prisoner at Group 4's remand prison, The Wolds, on Humberside, which was criticised last year by the Chief Inspector of Prisons for the ready availability of drugs.

A series of well-publicised blunders has also led to dozens of prisoners escaping while in the custody of the private security guards. Five people were lost in the first three weeks of taking on their first escort contract in April last year.

Despite Group 4 increasingly being the butt of jokes about incompetence and shoddy service, it appears to be growing in standing among the people who use the prisoner transport service.

Home Office researchers, on behalf of the prison service, received questionnaires from 140 representatives at crown and magistrates' courts, the police, prisons and independent lay observers. Eighty-six per cent were either satisfied or very satisfied with the firm's overall performance. Almost the same number felt that Group 4 had mastered the job after the 'initial difficulties'.

Nearly 90 per cent of court staff and lay observers said the security company had a good or reasonable relationship with prisoners. The majority said that the company had settled into a demanding job quite well and that relationships with staff were good.

It also received high marks for 'flexibility' and dealings with the public. The survey, carried out in February, did not examine its work in running the remand centres and detention camps.

David Roddan, general secretary of the Prison Governors' Association, said: 'Escort work is a duty that requires skill, good management and sensitivity. Clearly, all three of these qualities were lacking on the occasion of Mr Hogg's death.

'This snapshot customer satisfaction survey should not be seen as a vindication of Group 4's performance.' He added: 'There's been no comparative survey of the public sector escort services so we view with extreme caution the apparent fact that prisoners see this service is a definite improvement.'

Jim Harrower, chief executive of Group 4, said: 'Group 4 is a company based on good people, quality and comprehensive training. We offer value for money and measurable standards of service. This is reflected in this independent survey.

Derek Lewis, director-general of the Prison Service, yesterday denied the government department had a vested interest in promoting privatised services. He said: 'Our responsibility is to make sure that we provide the best possible court escorting service and the best possible value for money. This survey is simply part of our continuing process of checking this is the case.'