Director of nursing for the prison healthcare taskforce Lindsay Bates says progress with the needs assessments for the PHImPs is 'generally good'and 'all are on target to complete'by the deadline.

She concedes that some areas have had 'more difficulty'in getting key people together because of the 'complex agendas on the NHS and prison service side'. She insists that the taskforce is not 'in an ivory tower'and is there when help is needed.

According to the taskforce, new money is being made available from April for mental health, harm minimisation, staff training and development, and improving buildings and their fabric. The prison service has recently allocated£35m over the next three years for refurbishing or rebuilding healthcare buildings.

But It is not just about more cash, Mrs Bates adds. 'We need to understand what we are trying to provide, what's being spent now and how we use existing money more wisely. '

Having a single ringfenced pot of money under health service control would not be 'necessarily beneficial', she believes. The issue of ownership will be reviewed in two years, but even if the NHS was running the show financially, providing a service 'still requires partnership between the prison service and the NHS', she stresses.

Most of the challenge relates to bringing in modern systems and practice. A report last October by the working group on nursing in prisons means that nurses and healthcare officers will have to prove competence in general nursing, mental health and 'jail craft'. An NVQ in custodial care is to be introduced in September.

A similar working group is reviewing ways of improving the training, recruitment and retention of doctors working in prisons, and the DoH says it is committed to ensuring that all prison healthcare centres have access to NHSnet.