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Summary

  1. Employment Minister Stephen Farry is appearing before the Employment Committee to discuss issues facing his department, including the application process for the European Social Fund.
  2. Officials are briefing MLAs on a review of youth training programmes.
  3. This afternoon, the Public Accounts Committee is hearing from the auditor general, officials from the Finance and Enterprise Departments and Pat Colgan of the Special EU Programmes body.
  4. The subject of their briefing will be the Bytel project, a cross-border broadband internet initiative.

Live Reporting

By Robin Sheeran and Robert Ainley

All times stated are UK

Good evening

The committee goes into closed session for the remainder of the meeting.

Join us at 10am tomorrow with live coverage of the Culture Committee including a briefing from the British Board of Film Classification.

In the meantime, why not take a look at the latest

BBC NI politics news.

Mars Bar

John Dallat asks David Sterling of the Department of Finance and Personnel if anyone has "fallen on their sword" or been reprimanded.

Mr Sterling says disciplinary action has been considered but "the conclusion so far has been that there is not sufficient evidence to warrant disciplinary procedures".

David Sterling
BBC
David Sterling

The SDLP MLA says there is something wrong with society when a young person can be sent to court for stealing a Mars bar from Tesco but when £2m goes missing "nobody, but nobody even gets a warning letter".

'Marking their own homework'

Roy Beggs
BBC

Ulster Unionist Roy Beggs asks whether officials involved in the assessment of the Bytel grant approval would have been involved in the investigation of an initial set of whistle-blowing allegations.

Dr McCormick confirms this.

"A big flaw here is that when the first investigation was undertaken they were quote/unquote 'marking their own homework'," he says.

'Disgruntled individuals'

Paul Girvan asks Andrew McCormick "if it hadn't been for a whistleblower, would we be here today?"

"I think the truth is that if we hadn't had the further whistleblower in '08 we might well be looking back and saying 'that was alright' and not knowing all that was wrong," he replies

Mr Girvan says there should be more checks and balances so that "we're not dependent upon individuals who are disgruntled enough to actually put something down on paper".

"I'm not saying I'm 100% happy, but I'm glad to see that the department have learned some lessons and put things in place certain things", he says.

'Bewildering' cable claims

The DUP's Paul Girvan picks up on a question regarding payments for fibre-optic cable.

Paul Girvan
BBC

"I'm just completely bewildered how someone can claim to have put cable in the ground that was never put in the ground by them, nor was it paid for by them," he says.

Political pressure?

John Dallat asks Pat Colgan of the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB), which provided grants for the project, whether he had ever come under political pressure.

Mr Colgan says he does his job "with integrity".

Pat Colgan
BBC

"It would be naive to believe that there is no political pressure within the system, that happens all the time, but I'm certainly not aware, I was not subjected to any political pressure," he says.

'Heads would roll'

John Dallat puts it to Andrew McCormick that if this had happened in the private sector "heads would roll".

Dr McCormick nods. "I guess so," he says

'Fairy Tales'

The SDLP's John Dallat says he is "really fed up with the fairy tales",

John Dallat
BBC

"You would presume that all the procedures would be in place, the East Londonderry MLA says, adding that the situation reminds him of a trip he made to Georgia in eastern Europe.

Dr McCormick says the officials are answerable to "this committee", and he apologises.

'Not as it should have been'

In reply to a question from Ms Boyle, Dr Andrew McCormick, Permanent Secretary for the Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment (DETI) says the project was "was not handled as it should have been".

Andrew McCormick
BBC

He adds that "there is a lot to be concerned about", and that "we have taken a lot of corrective action".

Michaela Boyle in the chair

Sinn Fein's Michaela Boyle is chairing this afternoon's meeting.

Michaela Boyle
BBC

The Bytel Project - What's the story?

A recent report into a cross-border broadband project found that an IT company was awarded a 1.3m euros (£950,000) grant to buy equipment which "in all likelihood" cost it 30,000 euros (£22,000),

The NI Audit Office examined the EU-funded broadband scheme, known as the Bytel Project.

LAN cables
PA

It found the equipment involved was bought from the company's sister firm an used in the final project.

Bytel Networks Ltd said its grant aid claims had been "fully scrutinised".

In its report, the NIAO said it had found "major failings" in the handling of the scheme, including inadequate verification of grant claims.

You can read a fuller report on the Bytel Project from BBC NI's Business and Economics Correspondent John Campbell

here.

Welcome back

In a few minutes we'll be joining the members of the Public Affairs Committee in the ornate setting of Stormont's Senate chamber for today's evidence session on the Bytel Project.

Join us after lunch

That's it for the moment.

Join us at 2pm in the Senate for this week's meeting of the Public Accounts Committee.

We'll have an evidence session from the PAC's inquiry into the cross-border broadband initiative.

In the meantime, why not take a look at the latest

BBC NI politics news.

'Lack of demand'

Official Cathy Bradin says they planned youth training 'roadshows' for Belfast, Londonderry and Mid-Ulster, but "there weren't sufficient numbers to warrant a separate event" for the latter.

People who had expressed an interest in a Mid-Ulster event were contacted individually and offered there option of attending either the Belfast or Londonderry session, so there were "no surplus people".

The DUP's Sydney Anderson asks whether the events had been publicised sufficiently.

Carol Magill says press releases were printed in newspapers and she heard "no indicators that anybody felt they didn't have an opportunity to contribute".

'18 responses'

Robin Swann says he is concerned that only 18 young people had responded to a youth training survey, not all of whom completed it.

Employment Department official Carol Magill says over 100 young people attended related workshops and their opinions would also be incorporated in the overall analysis.

Carol McGill
BBC

Youth training briefing

DEL officials
BBC

MLAs hear from officials on a review of youth training.

Economic inactivity 'deep-seated'

SDLP MLA Pat Ramsey asks about the economic inactivity rate in areas like Strabane.

The department is not complacent, says Bobby Clulow, "in this sort of area there is an economic inactivity strategy".

But he says the problem is "deep-seated", persisting for around 30 years.

The department is looking at other ways of dealing with it, says Mr Clulow.

University drop-out rate

Anna Lo
BBC

Alliance's Anna Lo wants to know about the university drop-out rates, particularly in architecture, IT and creative arts.

"We very much depend on those degrees to have the skills we need", she says.

Drop in apprenticeships

Bobby Clulow
BBC

Mr Clulow says the number of apprenticeships was down by 22% to 7450, according to latest figures.

This is due to less funding for over 25s, with a greater focus going on "priority sectors".

Economy doing 'quite well'

Bobby Clulow, an economist from the Department for Employment and Learning says the economy is doing "quite well" though youth unemployment and economic inactivity are relatively high, compared with the rest of the United Kingdom.

In education terms, performance in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) areas has been "slightly up and down".

Departmental briefing

Departmental officials are briefing the committee on the Delivering Success Through Excellence programme.

Funding for disabled students protected

On reductions to Further and Higher Education budgets, Catherine Bell from the Department for Employment and Learning says support for students with disabilities will be protected, but "that will mean cuts elsewhere".

Flanagan: 'Wrong and immoral'

Phil Flanagan
BBC

Sinn Fein MLA Phil Flanagan describes 'zero-hours' contracts as "wrong and immoral" and and calls on the minister to do more to restrict their use.

Mr Farry says he is not aware of any mainstream United Kingdom party calling for these contracts to be banned, but he is proposing "more stringent regulation in Northern Ireland than is currently being used in the rest of the United Kingdom".

This would involve:

- A ban on exclusivity clauses.

- The introduction a statutory code to address workforce planning.

- A duty on employers to demonstrate why a worker should not move to a more permanent contract.

- A "better interface" with the benefits system to "ensure people are getting everything they're entitled to".

Skills provision 'in a bad place'

Mr Farry says he cannot commit to funding enough training places to offset cuts to further and higher education courses - "we're in a bad place in terms of what we're doing with skills".

There would not be cuts to existing Apprenticeship NI and Training for Success places, he says, and these will remain "demand-led" programmes.

The bigger picture

Party leaders Peter Robinson of the DUP and Mike Nesbitt of the UUP.
BBC
Party leaders Peter Robinson of the DUP and Mike Nesbitt of the UUP.

It may be

Budget Day at Westminster, but in Northern Ireland the big political news of the day is the
electoral pact between the Ulster Unionists and the DUP.

Meanwhile, the SDLP has rejected the offer of

a similar pact with Sinn Fein.

EU Social Fund 'oversubscribed'

Minister Farry says "I think it's important in the interests of transparency to be very clear, it's not likely every organisation that passes the threshold will be funded" and "we will be considerably over-subscribed".

He warns there will be an cases where groups are deemed worthy of funding where "we simply don't have the resource to do that", while other organisations may not maintain matched funding.

Delays to EU funding

Turning to the European Social Fund application process, Sinn Fein's Fra McCann asks what the department can do to address delays in the receipt of funding by community or voluntary groups.

"If organisations are not getting money, they need to be told in very clear terms why they are not getting money and what's holding it up," says Derek Baker of the Department for Employment and Learning.

He says for the incoming Social Fund application "some of the bureaucracy around the claiming process has been relaxed".

Minister wary of 'zero-hours' ban

Stephen Farry
BBC

Mr Farry says he hopes an employment bill can be introduced to the Assembly "before summer recess".

It is likely to include clauses around so-called

zero-hours contracts.

"There is a desire to see a ban", he says, "I'm not here to defend this employment practice but we need to be realistic, we have to be aware of unforeseen circumstances".

He says employers could "circumvent the ban with a different approach to employment" and people could lose their jobs as a result, becoming dependent on welfare.

"Strong regulation is the most appropriate course to take".

Warning on funding model

On budget pressures, the minister says - "There are going to be challenges, especially in terms of our higher and further education sectors", and the approach to funding them "may no longer be sustainable".

Ministerial briefing

Robin Swann
BBC

The UUP's Robin Swann is in the chair this morning.

Stephen Farry at the meeting
BBC

Minister Stephen Farry is joined by officials to discuss issues facing his department.

Good morning

Good morning and welcome to our coverage of today's Assembly Committees.

First up is the Employment Committee.