Prison stalls on project

Doubts were raised over the future role of accountants in the prison service last week after the Prison Service suspended plans for a #350m private finance initiative IT outsourcing contract.

The high-profile PFI project codenamed Quantum, has been put on hold for six months after doubts over its cost and risk potential. The project has two rival bidders, EDS and Sema.

The project’s shelving after two years raised serious a question marks over the efficiency of financial management in the prison service and the responsibilities of its 135 accountants, union officials said.

There are 110 accountants working on fixed term contracts in the prison service. They were recruited over two years ago in a bid to streamline the prison service’s financial systems.

The prison service also committed itself to moving 100 of these accountants on to permanent contracts.

Accountants act as financial advisers and report to the head of finance or finance manager, who report to prison governors. However the Quantum project offered a significant change in focus for accountants. Under one option, the introduction of a Service Delivery Organisation (SDO) to run IT and the support services, would see accountants reporting direct to the governor, bypassing each prison’s head of finance.

Les Mitchell, branch secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union in Liverpool, expressed concern over the service’s financial management. He warned: ‘There is still the possibility that a future contract could hand everything over to the outsourcers meaning job losses for accountants.’

An source close to the project said the service was racked by internal divisions: ‘It’s highly politicised with the involvement of civil servants, politicians and prison governors. Managing change in IT is virtually impossible.’

A spokesman for the prison service said funding had been secured to create 100 permanent accountant posts and that these jobs ‘are unlikely to be affected’ if outsourcing takes place. However he admitted that a further 63 accountants on contract to manage the new Quantum system would probably be cut to six under an outsourcing deal.

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