Leading Article: Lost prisoners, but not a lost cause

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The Independent Online
MOST businesses have teething troubles when they first set up shop. Group 4 Court Services, which last week became the first private firm to carry prison inmates to court in Humberside and the East Midlands, has had a less auspicious start than most. In its first six days of operation it lost four prisoners; and its managing director (a former chief constable) was hauled before a High Court judge to explain why others had been delivered to court late.

Of the four escapes, only one can be blamed on the company itself: that was from a minimum-security courtroom in Hull, where a prisoner vaulted over the dock and made a run for it - but was recaptured two days later. The others were not the firm's fault. One prisoner walked free because a court mistakenly ordered Group 4 officers to let him go; two more kicked their way out of a new design of Black Maria van, for which the Home Office accepts responsibility. The 13 vans involved have already been fitted with stronger roofs and windows.

The record of the public sector is not conspicuously better. Last year, about 350 prisoners were lost by the official prison service and the police, either from inside closed jails or while being transported. During Group 4's embarrassing first week, the public sector lost a convicted murderer and rapist - who remains at large.

The argument for putting out to tender the escorting of prisoners is a simple one. Of Britain's one million prisoner movements a year, less than 1 per cent involve the dangerous Category A prisoners who merit the police- car escorts and flashing lights that the public tends to notice. The rest rattle to and from court in taxis and buses under the combined eye of prison officers, police officers, the Lord Chancellor's people and the courts. Putting the job out to tender saves money and leaves the police and prison officers free for other work.

Three things have gone wrong with Group 4's contract. First, the privatisation of the prisoner escort service - unprecedented even in the United States, where private prisons are now commonplace - was not carried out gradually, as Group 4 itself has suggested, but all at once for one in 10 of the country's prisoner movements.

Second, the prison officers themselves - who have made their opposition to private competition clear - have done little to help Group 4 succeed. In some cases, prison officers handed over their charges to the firm so late that it had no chance of delivering them to court on time. They may even have provoked delays by encouraging prisoners to refuse to board Group 4 trucks. Derek Lewis, director-general of prison services, will need to address these issues before he meets Group 4 later this week.

Third, the week's problems were badly handled. Neither the Government nor the company itself has explained why privatising the service is a good idea. Details of how Group 4 won the contract - details that could have helped to justify the tender - have been kept secret. If a contract for Greater London is to be put out to tender as planned later this year, the Government should make its case more clearly.