Less than two-thirds of prisoners due in court arrive on time causing huge delays across the justice sector, according to a damning new report from Audit Scotland.

The 2022/23 audit of the Scottish Prison Service makes for grim reading for ministers, with the Auditor General also warning that “significant investment” is needed to make the country’s ageing prison estate fit for purpose.

Scotland’s prison population is rising and, Audit Scotland says, becoming “more complex,” with more prisoners required to be accommodated separately due to a wide range of issues including their legal status, sex, age or offending history.

The average prison population was around 7,500 in 2022/23. It is forecast to increase to over 8,150 by March 2024.

READ MORE: Under fire GEOAmey hits back at court delays across Scotland

In 2018, GEOAmey, was the only bidder in the running for the eight-year prisoner escort contract worth £238m.

The private company is contracted to transfer prisoners in Scotland between prisons, courts, police custody units and healthcare facilities.

But it has long come in for criticism. 

Last week, the Edinburgh Bar Association sent a catalogue of failures to Cabinet Secretary for Justice Angela Constance. 

They included examples of the accused being in the building but there not being staff to bring them up to court. 

They also raised causes of people in custody simply not being in the building,

On 21st November, someone sentenced to a period of imprisonment had to wait in the dock for around 15 minutes for a member of GeoAmey staff to come and take him to the cells. 

​In recent years the firm has been unable to recruit the staff needed to deliver the contract. Between April 2022 and October 2023, staffing levels at GEOAmey dropped from around 660 to around 520 full-time equivalents, “around 25 % less than the estimated 670 to 700 needed to deliver the required levels of service".

Audit Scotland states that between July and September 2023, only 62% of prisoners due in court arrived on time, and only 63% returning from court arrived back on time.

Similarly, only 65% 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 report states.

The SPS has already issued improvement notices to GEOAmey, and fined the company around £4 million. However, this has “had limited impact".

SPS is now having to take “more direct action,” including offering financial support to GEOAmey to help them recruit staff.

On the prison estate, the Auditor General says the forecast of increases in the prison population will put “additional, extensive pressure on the existing estate".

As of March 2023, around a third of prisoners were in cells of double occupancy, many of them in HMP Barlinnie, which is due to be replaced.

However, the auditor warns that the cost of the new HMP Glasgow “is expected to be significantly higher than an earlier cost estimate of £387.6 million in October 2019".

READ MORE: New Barlinnie prison costs to rise further Constance warns MSPs

This is because of inflation and an updated design “to reflect 'Net-Zero’ commitments and changing requirements postCovid to safely manage the prison population".

Stephen Boyle, Auditor General for Scotland, said: “The issues facing Scotland’s justice sector are of significant concern and cannot be resolved by the Scottish Prison Service alone.

“It is essential that there is close collaboration between the prison service, the Scottish Government and their justice partners to ensure prison services can be maintained in a safe and secure environment.”

Justice Secretary Angela Constance said: “We take the issues highlighted in the Auditor General’s report very seriously and are working closely with the Scottish Prison Service and justice partners to address them.

"And this should be taken alongside SPS’s Annual Report, which shows significant progress against key objectives including opening two new Community Custody Units and HMP & YOI Stirling.

“We have provided an extra £29m this year to support the Scottish Prison Service to deliver a stable and secure prison system, on top of the £97m in capital funding that we are giving to continue the modernisation of the prison estate to better meet the needs of staff and prisoners.

“We are also supporting SPS and other partners in delivering an improvement in the GEOAmey contract which has resulted in early positive signs, with a slowdown in staff attrition and improved staff numbers.

“We are committed to delivering HMP Highland and HMP Glasgow to better serve local communities, meet the needs of people within prison as well as providing an improved environment for staff and visitors.”

A Scottish Prison Service 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 GEOAmey spokesperson said: "We note the findings of the Audit Scotland report which makes specific reference to the changed operating environment and other external factors that have impacted contract performance and delivery since the pandemic of 2020-21. 

"COVID-19, and subsequent acknowledged changes to the operating model and service demand levels, were unforeseen by all parties when the contract was signed back in 2018.  

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

"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.

"Looking ahead, following negotiations with the Scottish Prison Service to recalibrate the contract, together with a recent improved pay award, we have experienced a promising increase in recruitment numbers. 

"We are confident that this will lead to further improvements in service delivery and return the contract to strong pre-pandemic performance levels."