Authorities to name contractors for framework deal four months early as concern mounts over state of system.

The Prison Service is to bring forward its £3bn refurbishment programme amid mounting concern over the state of the country’s decrepit Victorian jails.

The decision comes as news emerges of a centralisation in the Prison Service’s procurement system.

A source at the Prison Service said that a decision on the selection of contractors for a framework agreement to refurbish 137 prisons had been moved to next month. It had originally been planned for March.

The source said: “The refurbishment has been brought forward as the evaluation of contractors’ bids has been completed a lot more quickly than expected, but it is very helpful to be able to get the programme on track as quickly as possible.”

The need to upgrade prison accommodation was illustrated last week, when a prison inspection report into Britain’s only prison ship was published. The report said

HMP Weare, at Portland Harbour in Weymouth, Dorset, ought to close unless millions of pounds were spent to end the “oppressive and cramped” conditions in which its 400 prisoners lived.

The ship was opened in 1997 as an emergency measure to deal with the rising prison population, which presently stands at 75,000.

The contractors' bids have been evaluated a lot more quickly than expected.

Prison Service source

The Prison Service source said that the number of inmates had not increased as quickly as expected but emphasised that the refurbishment programme was still a top priority. Officials at the Prison Service said: “The refurbishment contractors will be selected at the end of this year or early next year as planned.”

The £3bn infrastructure programme is being procured through a framework agreement of architects, consultants and contractors. This is a traditional procurement route, separate from PFI.

It is also understood that within the past three weeks the property and construction procurement system at the Prison Service has been restructured.

Under the fresh structure, the head of procurement, Vincent Godfrey, is to take overall control of the letting of all contracts. Before, property and construction contracts had been under the control of the commercial department at the Prison Service’s property services division.

Godfrey, who took over the post in the summer, has been updating the Prison Service’s entire purchasing operation as part of Operation Phoenix.

This is the service’s response to chancellor Gordon Brown’s spending review, which called for £21.5bn of efficiency gains in government departments and agencies.