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by Margaret Taylor
12 December 2023
GeoAmey transport failings pose 'considerable risk' to justice system

GeoAmey took over the prisoner-transport service in 2019 | Alamy

GeoAmey transport failings pose 'considerable risk' to justice system

The poor performance of the company contracted to transport prisoners to and from custody is posing a “considerable risk” to the prison service, the Auditor General for Scotland has warned.

GeoAmey took over the prisoner-transfer service from G4S at the beginning of 2019 after emerging as the only bidder for the £238m, eight-year government contract the previous year.

In addition to taking prisoners from custody to court and back again it is also resposible for transporting inmates to hospital appointments, police identity parades and on escorted leave, but in the past year it has been late dropping people where they are supposed to be on more than a third of occasions.

In a report accompanying Audit Scotland’s 2022-23 audit of the Scottish Prison Service, Auditor General Stephen Boyle noted that while the SPS had issued improvement notices and fined GeoAmey £4m for the poor service these actions had had little effect.

Boyle said the successful delivery of the prisoner-transfer service is “critical to the effective operation of the criminal justice system in Scotland” but noted that “significant delays” caused by GeoAmey’s “poor performance” were creating “inefficiencies across the justice system”.

“In recent years, GeoAmey has been unable to achieve the staffing levels required to effectively deliver the contract,” he said.

“Between April 2022 and October 2023, staffing levels at GeoAmey decreased from around 660 to around 520 full-time equivalents, around 25 per cent less than the estimated 670 to 700 needed to deliver the required levels of service.

“Between July and September 2023, only 62 per cent of prisoners due in court arrived on time and only 63 per cent returning from court arrived back on time.

“Similarly, only 65 per cent of non-court escort services such as transfers to hospitals, police identification parades or special escorted leave, took place on time.

“The ongoing poor performance of the contract is resulting in delays and inefficiencies across the justice sector, impacting on policing, prison services and the courts.”

The company's tenure was dogged with issues from the start, with no handover between G4S and GeoAmey meaning staff had to move from one computer system to another overnight without any time for training. That resulted in scheduling problems that led to delays in court attendances from day one.

The issue has continued since, with lawyers repeatedly complaining about severe delays to court business and the Law Society of Scotland earlier this year calling for “urgent action” regarding the “inadequate service levels” provided by GeoAmey.

In a bid to address the issues the SPS is providing financial support to help GeoAmey recruit staff and has agreed not to issue penalties for the time being, although Boyle said these interventions are expected to take around six months to take effect.

His report also highlighted the problems being caused by Scotland’s record prison population, which was sitting at 7,948 at the end of November and is expected to rise to 8,166 by the end of March.

Boyle said that would put “extensive pressure” on the prison estate, adding that “significant investment is required” to ensure it is fit for purpose.

However, he said that plans for a replacement for HMP Barlinnie – Scotland’s largest prison – are coming under pressure as the total cost of the project, which was put at £100m a decade ago, “is expected to be significantly higher than an earlier cost estimate of £387.6m in October 2019”.

Earlier this year Barlinnie governor Michael Stoney told Holyrood that the new prison is desperately needed because overcrowding is preventing his team from carrying out the rehabilitative work it is supposed to do with inmates.

At that time the Victorian prison, which was designed to hold 987 men was housing 1,396, putting occupancy at just over 140 per cent.

Stoney said the problems with GeoAmey were adding to the impact overcrowding was having on the amount of time staff could spend working with inmates.

“Our job at Barlinnie is to step up,” he said. “That’s the function we provide to the prison service, but it doesn’t make it right.

“Anything above 1,000 [inmates] is contingency and we’re operating in contingency all the time.

“We’re still doing everything – we have a legal requirement to provide things like exercise – we just don’t do it as well.”

In his report, Boyle said: “As Scotland’s largest prison, HMP Barlinnie is relied on for surge capacity when prisoner numbers are high across the estate.

“The ongoing reliance on prisons that are considered no longer fit for purpose, in particular HMP Barlinnie, presents a significant risk to SPS.”

He added that the issues raised in his report are of “significant concern, not only to SPS but to the wider justice sector”.

“It will be important for SPS and their partners, the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service, COPFS and Police Scotland to work together with support from the Scottish Government, to consider all options available to ensure the safe and effective delivery of prisoner escorting services both now and in the future,” he said.

“The number of risks and challenges facing the prisons system is considerable and will be exacerbated further with increasing prisoner numbers in an ageing prison estate.

“These are not issues that can be resolved by SPS alone. Close collaboration between SPS, the Scottish Government and justice partners, in conjunction with improvements to the prison estate, are essential to ensuring that prison services can be maintained in a safe and secure environment.”

Justice Secretary Angela Constance said the government takes the issues highlighted in the report “very seriously” and is working to address them.

An SPS spokesperson said: “We welcome the Auditor General’s report and his focus on some of the challenges we continue to face as an organisation.

“We have a population that is not only rising rapidly but is also increasingly complex. Many of our establishments are full beyond their design capacity, and the oldest prisons are no longer fit for purpose.

“There is an urgent need for the major capital projects planned and these are being undertaken, with support from Scottish Government, in an exceptionally challenging economic climate, with rising costs and supply-chain pressures.

“We have worked with GeoAmey, with support from Scottish Government, to recalibrate our contract with them and, while it is still early days, we are seeing positive signs, such as a slowdown in staff attrition and more people working on the contract compared to a few months ago.”

A spokesperson for GeoAmey acknowledged the report and said that the company is still trying to recover from the impact of Covid and the subsequent changes to service demands, neither of which were forseen when the contract was signed in 2018.

"As highlighted in the report, the contract up to the post-Covid point was being delivered to acceptable levels," they said.

"Since then, service levels have been below satisfactory levels. We have consistently acknowledged and accepted that we have undoubtedly contributed to unacceptable delays to court business.

"We deeply regret this situation, and we once again offer our apologies to our partners across the justice sector in Scotland."

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