Scotland's chief inspector of prisons is preparing to begin a formal examination of prisoner escort services run by Reliance, it has emerged.
But Dr Andrew McLellan was last night accused of dragging his heels after it emerged he is unlikely to publish his findings until 2007.
The prisons watchdog has been urged to carry out an urgent investigation into the controversial private company in charge of custodial escorts following a series of high-profile errors, including the accidental release of a convicted murderer, since its contract began in April 2004.
The Scottish Executive yesterday said the methodology for the inspection was being drawn up and that the inspector would report back "before the end of the next financial year".
But Professor Sheila Bird, one of Scotland's leading statisticians, said the timeframe was unacceptable.
"It's astonishing that he will not report back before 2006-07, considering his counterparts in England and Wales have already managed to produce two thematic reports on prisoner escort services.
"They told me in January that they were working out the methodology. How long does it take? His predecessor previously drew up plans for prisoner escort inspections," she said.
An Executive spokeswoman said Dr McLellan would be inspecting the treatment and conditions of prisoners being transported under escort.
She said: "In terms of specifically what he will be looking at, the methodology is still being developed.
"The inspector has said he will be looking to report back before the end of the next financial year."
Meanwhile, a follow-up inspection report into conditions at Peterhead Prison has criticised the ongoing practice of slopping out.
The jail, which houses a number of sex offenders, was praised for installing electric power in cells and new "top-end" accommodation for a small number of prisoners.
An increase in sex offenders attending the jail's Stop rehabilitation programme was also commended.
In the report, Dr McLellan said: "The conditions in which Peterhead prisoners live will never be decent while slopping-out continues."
© The Scotsman