Prisoner escort company hit by more blunders: Group 4 press conference called to allay public fears undermined by loss of inmates

A carefully stage-managed press conference called in an attempt to allay public fears over Group 4's ability to transport prisoners to court was undermined last night when it emerged that the private security firm had lost two more inmates.

These latest blunders, following the escape of three prisoners and the mistaken release of a fourth during the first week of the company's operation, will fuel criticism that the private escort service has been a 'chaotic shambles'.

The gaffes were made public as leaders of the prison service met with directors of Group 4 to hammer out an action plan that they say will lead to an improvement in performance.

Jim Harrower, Group 4's managing director, conceded that the mistakes had embarrassed his company, but said it had now overcome its biggest problems. There would be fewer escapes and fewer prisoners arriving at court late, he said.

Derek Lewis, director general of the prison service, said that his own staff were responsible for some of the difficulties, accepting that the vans they had designed for Group 4 had been flawed. Of the four escapes in the first seven days, just one could be blamed on the firm, he said.

He admitted that on occasions the company had only been told at the last minute that prisoners needed to be taken to court. Moreover, the number of inmates transported on the first and third days of the operation had exeeded all expections. There were no grounds for enforcing penalty clauses in the contract. The action plan would ensure that Group 4 fulfilled its pounds 9.5m-a-year agreement to transport about 100,000 prisoners in Humberside, East Midlands and parts of Yorkshire, he said.

However, as the press conference ended, there was fresh embarrassment for Group 4. It emerged that the firm's staff had allowed a defendant to leave Leicester magistrates' court on Saturday without ensuring that he paid a pounds 50 surety. The requirement for surety was later deleted, meaning that the man is 'lawfully at large'.

And last night, police in Derbyshire said a 17-year-old defendant had escaped from Ilkeston magistrates' court while he was supposed to be under Group 4's guard. Despite the presence of Group 4 staff, William Wason leapt from the dock and ran from the courthouse after appearing on remand from the Glen Parva young offenders' institution in Leicestershire.

His escape will reinforce claims that the privatised operation is losing a far higher proportion of inmates than the police and prison services. In 1992, about 30 people escaped when being guarded by prison and police officers in the area managed by Group 4. At this rate, the new service will lose about 220 in the same time.

Last night, Tony Blair, the shadow Home Secretary, said that the first 10 days had been a 'comedy of errors' which could not continue. In addition to the escapes, court hearings in Derby and Nottingham had been delayed because prisoners had not been brought to court on time.

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