Big payout prison staff can apply for new jail jobs
Almost 400 prison officers hoping to benefit from a £60 million redundancy scheme could later apply to take on new jobs in the jail system, Northern Ireland politicians have been told.
A total of 371 staff have so far applied for the enhanced payouts which are part of a major overhaul of the prison service aimed at modernising and streamlining Northern Ireland's jails.
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.
"I think we have got to be careful not to get into too much hypothesis here," he said.
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."
He said work was ongoing to deal with queries from staff over the tax implications of taking the payments.
The DUP's Jim Wells raised the tax issue and the question of staff being rehired.
The committee was told staff members who took the redundancy scheme would not be re-employed as agency employees or as consultants - as has controversially happened in the police service.
But MLAs were told there was nothing to prevent exit-scheme officers applying for the vacancies that are being created to bring in new recruits.
Sinn Fein's Raymond McCartney asked for further information on how staff taking the redundancies could, in theory, be allowed to apply to re-enter the service.
But Mr McConnell said: "I think we have got to be careful not to get into too much hypothesis here. At the end of the day, it's an open competition and individuals will decide to apply, regardless in a sense, whether they are ex-staff or not. There is a procedure been set out and we will transparently and fairly apply that procedure."
When the scheme was unveiled, officials said an individual prison officer with 40 years of service, on a salary of £37,000, could receive as much as £120,250, plus an annual pension of £18,500.
Justice Minister David Ford said at the time that the scheme struck the correct balance between delivering reform and recognising the service of prison staff who saw 29 of their colleagues killed during the Troubles.
The exit scheme has been drafted in tandem with the plan to recruit new staff.
The total number of 1,800 uniformed prison staff will fall as the exit scheme and recruitment drives balance out.
Government has claimed this will contribute towards a saving of £180 million over the next 10 years.