Ariane Burgess, Scottish Green MSP for the Highlands & Islands, today secured an assurance from the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs that GEOAmey would be able to resource the courts from the Spring, paving the way for the return of Solemn Jury Trials at Lerwick, Kirkwall, Portree, Stornoway, Lochmaddy and Wick.
GEOAmey – who are paid by the Scottish Government to provide the Scottish Courts Custody Prisoner Escorting Services under a contract agreed in 2018 – have been fined £4m for breaching the terms of that contract but are now receiving direct funding to support recruitment and staffing.
Staff numbers at the service are 25% lower than they should be (according to a recent report by the Auditor General) and this is having a direct impact on justice and policing across Scotland, but especially the Northern and Western Isles.
Ms Burgess today highlighted the impact on islanders and the justice system of GEOAmey’s failure to fulfil its contract to safely escort prisoners to and from trial and asked the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs when jury trials will resume and what assurances GEOAmey has offered that it will tackle the staffing challenges that currently mean islanders acting as witnesses have to travel to jury trials on the mainland at their own expense.
The Minister responded that GEOAmey have now provided assurances that they will be able to properly resource the six courts from Spring 2024.
Following further questioning by Ms Burgess, the Cabinet Secretary described the performance of GEOAmey as “utterly unacceptable” and confirmed that “All options remain under consideration in relation to prisoner escort arrangements in Scotland” and that the performance of GEOAmey will be considered while deciding on the future model of the Prisoner Transport Service contract.
Commenting after the exchange, Ms Burgess said:
“While defendants’ costs are covered, that is not always the case for witnesses and, even where direct costs are reclaimed, that doesn’t address the time and the distance from support networks for those giving evidence.
“Private profit should have no place in Scotland’s criminal justice system.
“The Scottish Greens have long opposed the privatisation of crucial public services such as prisoner transport and the current crisis at GEOAmey is an example of what can go wrong when public services are run for private profit.”
Ms Burgess also raised the clause in GEOAmey’s contract that could enable a four-year extension to their contract and sought assurances that GEOAmey’s record will be taken into consideration during future bids for lucrative Government contracts.
“GEOAmey have cut wages to staff to secure bumper profits for stakeholders.
“Little wonder they face a recruitment crisis.
“It’s poor value for the taxpayer if the Scottish Government is having to step in to address their failings in staff recruitment and retention.
“That the Scottish Courts have felt compelled to order the transfer of solemn court proceedings away from Kirkwall, Lerwick, Lochmaddy, Portree and Stornoway further underlines the failure of this approach.
“It’s time we stopped dishing out huge amounts of public money to predatory companies who run our public service into the ground.”