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Scotland: Private prison transport "risking safety".
Private escorts 'risking safety'

The Scottish National Party has accused ministers of jeopardising public safety by using a private firm to escort prisoners to court.

At first minister's questions, SNP leader John Swinney said the executive had pledged that the use of Reliance would not put the public at risk.

The firm has come under fire for releasing a convicted killer in error.

First Minister Jack McConnell defended the contract and said the contractor would be "made to deliver".

'Breach of promise'

Reliance has been dogged by controversy since taking over the courts security contract at the start of April.

Just four days after the contract began in west central Scotland, James McCormick tricked his way out of Hamilton Sheriff Court after switching bail papers with another prisoner.

He remains on the run two weeks later.

Mr Swinney reminded MSPs that in January 2002 the then justice minister, Jim Wallace, said public safety would not be compromised "under any circumstances" by plans to privatise the court escort service.

He then referred to a statement made by the current Justice Minister, Cathy Jamieson, which said that Reliance Custodial Services did not have enough staff, enough training or enough management controls.

The SNP leader urged Mr McConnell to accept that this was "a breach of the promise made by Jim Wallace".

Mr McConnell said the government had a clear policy to ensure that the 300 police officers potentially able to go back out to operational duties were freed up from prisoner escort duties.

He said: "We are absolutely committed to making sure that the police officers of Scotland can do the job that they themselves want to do."

Mr Swinney asked why ministers had not made sure that Reliance were up to the job before they were allowed to take up the contract.

Mr McConnell said: "It is not the contract that has jeopardised public safety in the instance of that one individual - it is the implementation of that contract.

Public safety reasons

"That is why the company will rightfully face penalties - that is exactly the right procedure."

SNP justice spokeswoman Nicola Sturgeon pressed the first minister to say what penalties were to be paid by Reliance "for allowing a convicted murderer to saunter out of a courtroom and disappear into thin air".

Mr McConnell said Reliance's contract would be published, with some parts omitted for public safety reasons and "inevitable" provisions relating to commercial confidentiality.

But Tory justice spokeswoman Annabel Goldie accused ministers of "hiding behind issues of commercial and operational sensitivity".

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