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Long journey to free us from shackles of a broken system

Those who have read the final report by the Prison Review Team and its 40 recommendations for reform will know that Dame Anne Owers did not pull any punches.

She clearly sets out what is wrong with the Northern Ireland Prison Service - why we're spending too much money on a prison system that is not contributing enough to make society safer.

Dame Anne also makes it clear that while reform will take time to complete, the next six months will be crucial if Northern Ireland is to have the prison service that wider society demands.

I fully agree with her observations. We are also in agreement at the size of the reform challenge that lies ahead of us and the steps that are needed to deliver the necessary transformation.

I put that challenge on a par with the Patten reforms of policing, so it's unrealistic to believe that such root-and-branch reform, and then embedding new working practices and a new ethos across the establishments, can be achieved in a short space of time.

But, while it will take time to achieve all that we want to do, let there be no doubt about my determination to do so - and to make real progress within the next six months.

During that time we will:

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* announce an exit scheme for serving prison officers who want to leave and a recruitment programme for new staff to refresh the workforce;

* appoint a dedicated change programme team to oversee the fundamental reforms across the service and reporting directly to director general Colin McConnell;

* complete the development of a new business operating model to totally transform how NIPS works, ready for launch by April 2012;

* transfer all prisons healthcare staff over to the South Eastern Trust, to improve the way healthcare is delivered in prisons;

* complete reviews of how non-core functions, such as learning and skills, catering and estates management, are delivered and

* publish a revised prison estates strategy setting out how we will reconfigure our prisons to make them more effective and efficient.

So there won't be any prevarication, or stalling, on our part.

In the Assembly on Monday, I told MLAs that the Department of Justice and the Northern Ireland Prison Service are up for the challenge and that we need the Assembly and the Executive to embrace our reform agenda.

Through the Prison Service's strategic efficiency and effectiveness (SEE) programme - a four-year change management programme to deliver the vision set out in the Owers report - the building blocks of reform have been firmly put in place.

Work to date, has included the development of a new business operating model for the service; the development of new roles for frontline staff and reviews of non-core functions to examine possible opportunities to improve existing service delivery.

Dame Anne Owers and her team have clearly set out the direction of travel to reform the Northern Ireland Prison Service and her report reminds us of the 'unique opportunity to create a public sector prison system that is a model of excellence'.

I am determined not to waste that opportunity.

I accept that the journey ahead will not be without its difficulties, but the prize on offer - of a prison service that makes its proper contribution to building a safer society by challenging offending behaviour - is one which everyone in the Assembly must get behind.

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