02 October 2003 | Liam O'Brien
MPs have slammed the Prison Service for poor procurement after finding evidence of rocketing levels of spending and low take-up of national contracts.
The probe by the influential Public Accounts Committee into prison purchasing highlights a continuing failure by the Prison Service to get to grips with its almost £1 billion-a-year purchasing budget.
Although there are 1,170 full-time procurement staff in the service - equivalent to 10 per prison - the report uncovered major inefficiencies.
Spending on daily supplies rose by 36 per cent, from £339 million in 1998-99 to £461 million in 2001-02. In the same period, prison numbers were up only 2.7 per cent.
Much local purchasing continues, even though 74 centrally negotiated contracts were in place by 2002. Only four of these are mandatory.
In addition, purchasing systems are still largely paper-based.
Although 80 out of the 128 prisons lie within 12 miles of other prisons, only 38 had negotiated joint contracts.
By reducing stock levels to three months' supplies, the service would save £12 million with scope to reduce stocks even further, the report concluded.
Edward Leigh MP, chairman of the PAC, said: "I find it pretty unsatisfactory that progress has been patchy, with procurement still fragmented and costly to deliver. The service must find a way to incentivise prison managers to make improvements."
The PAC report follows a study by the National Audit Office, published in April, that called for a shake-up in prison procurement and the appointment of heads of procurement within each prison.
A spokeswoman for the Prison Service told SM that the PAC report did not consider a range of programmes now under way to improve procurement.
John Cavell, head of procurement at the Prison Service, is to respond to the report this month.
Prison purchasers have been aware of deficiencies, and in May, Cavell announced plans to draw up plans for testing regional buying consortia.
The pilot projects will co-ordinate buying in the UK's eight high-security prisons and the seven women-only jails.
The three prisons on the Isle of Wight - Albany, Parkhurst and Camp Hill - have started a joint buying project to cut their combined £26 million purchasing budget.
A benchmarking exercise undertaken for the government-run Prison Service shows that it spends almost double the amount per prisoner than private companies that run prisons.
The service spends £1,777, compared with £936 by privately run jails, but much of the government's costs were attributed to maintenance of the prison estate.