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"Prisons watchdog urged to launch inquiry" by Dan McDougall, The Scotsman

21st June 2005

Scotland's prisons watchdog must launch an urgent investigation into the controversial private company in charge of custodial escorts, politicians and academics demanded last night.

The calls came after it emerged yesterday that Scotland's chief inspector of prisons, Dr Andrew McLellan, has always had the power to intervene and scrutinise Reliance Custodial Services but has failed to do so. Reliance has been heavily criticised for a series of high-profile errors, including the accidental release of a convicted murderer.

Speaking to The Scotsman yesterday, Scotland's leading statistician, Professor Sheila Bird, who has studied Reliance's performance and concluded that it is running 20 per cent over budget, urged Dr McLennan to act. "The disclosure powers of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons [HMCIP] for Scotland in respect of Reliance are considerable. The Scottish Prison Service [SPS] carefully wrote into its contract with Reliance that prisoner inspections were subject to HMCIP inspection and that Reliance had to comply with data requests from the inspector and that inspectorate reports would be disseminated publicly.

"Thus Scotland needs to look to HMCIP for full disclosure about Reliance's performance, penalties and targets."

Reliance came under serious criticism last year after Scotland's freedom-of-information watchdog admitted defeat in his attempts to force the security firm to make public details of its £126 million contract with the Executive. Kevin Dunion, the Information Commissioner, conceded that the SPS was legally entitled not to publish parts of the Reliance contract due to a confidentiality clause.

According to Prof Bird, the issue surrounding public disclosure of the contract details could be dealt with by a thorough inspection by Dr McLellan. She added: "There are so many grey areas in the Reliance contract ... A comprehensive inspection by HMCIP would help to address growing concerns about prisoner security and public safety."

The Executive yesterday confirmed that Dr McLennan, a former Moderator of the Church of Scotland, has the power to impose a high-profile inspection on Reliance. A spokesman said: "As Dr McLellan ... has always made clear, among the aspects of the conditions and treatment of prisoners inspected by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons are their conditions and treatment under escort. The chief inspector intends to inspect conditions and treatment under escort during the normal programme of prison inspections."

But the Scottish National Party's justice spokesman, Stewart Stevenson, said last night: "With the succession of serious failures within Reliance, this is an organisation which has been begging to be inspected. It's clear from the contract that the inspector of prisons has the authority to conduct such an investigation, and so it's curious that a company performing this vital public service has attracted so much attention from every quarter except for the agency which is there officially to oversee their work."

Reliance claims that Prof Bird's comments are at odds with a recent report by the SPS, which found that the firm was responsible for fewer mistaken releases than police and prison service officers in its first year of duties.

The report found Reliance was to blame for only 22 of the 56 prisoners accidentally released in that time. A further 23 incidents were because of the failure of other authorities, such as the police or the prison service, while the final 11 cases were excusable failures.

© The Scotsman