371 prison officers seek redundancy
Stormont Assembly members have been told that 371 prison officers have applied to leave their jobs under a £60 million redundancy scheme.
The enhanced payouts are part of a major overhaul of the prison service aimed at modernising and streamlining Northern Ireland's jail system. But Justice Committee members raised questions when they were told there was nothing to prevent the same staff applying to rejoin the service.
The deadline for redundancy applications closes next week, when prison chiefs will also advertise for new recruits as part of a dramatic revamp.
Director General of the Northern Ireland Prison Service Colin McConnell played down the prospect of a re-run of the controversy that has seen ex-police officers being rehired by the police service. But a member of the Justice Committee said they would be seeking further information on the issue.
The prison service, shaped by the decades of violence, has long been accused of falling short of the needs of the 21st century and the staff shake-up has been billed as a key element of the process of reform.
Prison Service official Ronnie Armour, who accompanied Mr McConnell at the committee sitting, predicted further applications for the redundancy package may come forward ahead of the deadline.
"At the moment we have 371 applications, that's up to today," said Mr Armour.
"We had an eligible pool of around 640. The vast majority of those individuals asked for an estimate (of what they would receive). We would have expected them to do that.
"In our business case, in terms of the exit scheme, we built the package with a view to attracting at least 360 people. That was our plan. We have at this stage passed that. I would expect that figure to grow a little more, if not significantly more, but a little more, over the next week."
Asked if some of the applicants would fail to secure a place on the exit scheme, he said: "We have always made clear we want to let as many officers as operationally possible go, to go. We won't be able obviously to let them all go at the same time for operational reasons. But it would be our objective to try and let as many of those folk who want to go, go."