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Live Reporting

Robin Sheeran and Ross McKee

All times stated are UK

  1. 'Good evening'


    That's all from our live coverage of Stormont today, we'll back with a meeting of the Health Committee tomorrow from 10:30.

    Do join us if you can.

    Until then, have a great evening.

  2. 'A familiar plea from the chair'

    Colin McGrath wraps up the briefing with a familiar plea to the officials.

    He says he had three appointments this morning before coming to the meeting.

    "Receiving the document at 10.30 is not going to cut it because I didn't have time to look at what is a substantial document of 12, 13, 14 pages," he says.

    Colin McGrath

    It's a complaint we hear every week from committee chairs.

    "Going forward we just simply cannot have that," Mr McGrath says.

  3. 'Lessons from the RHI debacle'

    Mike Nesbitt (below) has some concerns about the estimated costs for new offices envisaged under the New Decade, New Approach document such as an Irish language commissioner and an Ulster British commissioner.

    "These are only very broad estimates. They could be half this, they could be more than this," Mr Browne says, adding that it will depend on what the executive and assembly want the bodies to do.

    Mike Nesbitt

    Mr Nesbitt says that "one of the lessons of the RHI (Renewable Heat Incentive) debacle was that another statutory committee, rightly or wrongly, was heavily criticised for not spotting things".

    He says they all need to "up our game, particularly when it comes to finances".

  4. 'The cost of payments for Troubles' victims'

    Mr Browne says he wants to address some media reports from last week about funding for Troubles victims' payments.

    He says there was an implication of a difference between the figures given by First Minister Arlene Foster and those Mr Browne himself quoted.

    "We believe that in 2021 the cost will be somewhere in the region of between £25m and £60m, and that was the figure the first minister referred to," he says.

    cheque book

    "When I was here last week I referred to a figure for the financial planning horizon over three years when we reckon the figure is £109m

    "So, one was for one year, and one was for three years."

  5. Budget costs in the spotlight

    The committee's moving to a briefing on the Executive Office budget for 2020-2021.

    Mark Browne remains in the witness hot-seat, and he's accompanied by fellow departmental official Peter Toogood .

    Mark Browne

    Mr Browne says the department has "additional pressures, because of additional responsibilities we have taken on over the last five years", as well as the "combination of budget cuts" over this period.

    He says they have not needed to meet the costs of ministers and special advisers over the last three years and that has allowed them to "plug some of these gaps", but now with the Executive back "we don't have that luxury".

  6. Extra £427m for education in Northern Ireland requested

    Robbie Meredith

    BBC News NI Arts and Education Correspondent


    The Department of Education (DE) has bid for an extra £427m in funding in the 2020/21 budget.

    Pressures have increased across a number of areas, a DE official told MLAs.

    By 2022, an extra £716m will be needed compared to this year, according to the DE's director of finance Gary Fair.

    The education budget - which covers schools and youth services - is one of Stormont's biggest at about £2bn a year.

    You can read more about this here.

  7. 'We need to defeat sectarianism'

    Sinn Féin's Fra McCann (below) asks about the removal of interface walls and barriers.

    He says he has a number of these in his West Belfast constituency including "the longest in the north" - running from Lanark Way to Townsend Street.

    "The people who live on either side of the interface are the ones you need to convince that the walls are not necessary," he says.

    Fra McCann

    "The removal of a wall or a gate at a particular time could set you back 40 years," he warns.

    Mr McCann says he has always believed the walls are "the public manifestation of division but the real enemy that we need to tackle and defeat is sectarianism".

  8. Sterling writes letter to institutions

    Mike Nesbitt returns to the issue of financial redress for victims of historical institutional abuse.

    He says there was a meeting "some months ago" in Castle Buildings when the five biggest parties agreed that the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, David Sterling (below), "should go back to the institutions, not least the Catholic Church" and "make clear to them that we expected them to put their hands in their pockets".

    David Sterling

    He asks whether the team from the Executive Office are aware if Mr Sterling had that discussion.

    Mark Browne says Mr Sterling has written to the institutions following the meeting referenced by Mr Nesbitt.

  9. 'T:BUC funding coming to an end next year'

    Mr Browne says the Executive has reaffirmed a commitment to T:BUCC in the New Deal, New Approach document.

    "I think this is a question of where the funding comes from, ministers are in discussion with the Department of Finance about a range of things including the ongoing funding for this," he adds.


    Mr Browne says funding had been guaranteed for the strategy for five years, but the "problem is it is coming to an end next year".

    He says officials were "flagging up" with the Department of Finance that "provision needs to be put in place for that".

    However, he adds that he expects the programme to continue.

  10. 'Concern over figures for abuse victims'

    Committee chair Colin McGrath is concerned to hear about latest developments in support and compensation for victims of historical institutional abuse.

    Mark Browne says the department shares the concern about uncertainty over figures regarding the number of victims.


    "One of the difficulties of dealing with such historical issues and dealing with homes that are in many cases no longer in place is that the numbers and the records simply aren't there in many cases," Mr Browne says.

  11. '570 summer camps held'

    Mark Browne quickly runs through the latest developments in the T:BUC strategy and its four key priorities:

    • Children and young people
    • Shared community
    • Safe community
    • Cultural diversity
    Mark Browne

    He says that of the 10 proposed shared education campuses envisaged in the strategy, development has begun on five and the Department of Education is considering options on further schemes.

    T:BUC has also funded more than 570 summer camps, attended by 20,000 young people.

  12. What is T:Buc?

    T:BUC logo

    Together: Building a United Community (T:BUC) is a strategy that "reflects the Executive’s commitment to improving community relations and continuing the journey towards a more united and shared society".

    You can read more about it here - on the Executive Office Website.

  13. United community strategy

    A different team from The Executive Office (below) is now before the committee, providing a presentation on the Together: Building A United Community (T:BUC) strategy.

    Executive Office officials

    They are Mark Browne, Director of Strategic Policy, Equality and Good Relations, Andy Cole, Director of Good Relations and T:BUC, and Gareth Johnston, Director of Equality, Victims, Human Rights.

  14. 'Forty-seven press officers seems incredibly high'

    DUP MLA Christopher Stalford (below) returns to the vexed question of the 47 press officers.

    He says he has sympathy for press officers as he used to be one at DUP HQ, but the party only had five people in its communications at most.

    "I do find the figure of 47 just incredibly high" he says, admitting that he may be "being naive".

    Mr Stalford says it seems very difficult to justify that number.

    Christopher Stalford

    "None of my staff are sitting idly by, they're fully engaged," says Chris McNabb.

    He says he knows press officers have received " a reasonably bad rap in the media".

  15. 'Mix of communication channels used'

    Chris McNabb says the government advertising unit will procure an advertising agency for particular campaigns being run by executive departments.

    "They would then come up with a mix of communication channels to reach as wide an audience as possible," he adds.

    Social media icons

    "Social media is a growing part of some campaigns, but it is not the only part," Mr McNabb says.

    He adds that there is still a role for "traditional print media" for some advertisements.

  16. 'Was communications appointment a waste of money?'

    The UUP's Mike Nesbitt asks about the appointment a few years ago of David Gordon (below), a former BBC producer, to head up executive communications "in an attempt perhaps to be coherent".

    He wants to know if the role still exists.

    "There are no plans to fill it," says Chris Stewart.

    David Gordon (centre)

    Does it tell us that it wasn't necessary, that it was unsuccessful, that it was a waste of money?" Mr Nesbitt asks.

    Mr Stewart says he doesn't want to speculate.

    "I can only conclude that the current first minister and deputy first minister haven't seen the same need for it as their predecessors," he says.

  17. 'I haven't the faintest idea about Instagram and Snapchat'

    Mr Stewart says one of the challenges faced by the team is the emerging role of social media, particularly for reaching young people.

    "New channels, new platforms coming along all the time," he says.

    Teenagers with smartphones

    "We were just having a discussion outside and it's very important now I'm told to know the difference between Instagram and Snapchat, and I confess I haven't the faintest idea what either of them does," Mr Stewart says.

  18. 'Number of press officers highlighted'

    Colin McGrath highlights the figure of 47 press officers within the communications team.

    "I wish I saw weekly, daily newspapers, being delivered out of the departments and I would love to think that Twitter is completely filled with information from the departments, these could be my observations but I certainly don't see the output of 47 press officers," he adds.

    He asks for a flavour of the work that the 47 press officers do.

    Chris McNabb

    Chris McNabb says the 47 officers are spread across nine different departments and are there to support the ministers' portfolios.

    He says "some of the work is very visible" in that you will see "press releases and social media" supporting ministers, and some of the work is "not visible".

    "Some of the conversations with the media is to clarify some issues that don't make it into the news," he says.

  19. 'Key challenges outlined'

    Chris Stewart outlines some of the key challenges facing the Communications and Executive Support team.

    He says there's the challenge of restarting some systems that have been dormant for three years.

    Chris Stewart

    Mr Stewart adds that there are a number of officials in senior positions "with limited or in some cases no experience of working with ministers or committees, or the Executive".

    He says there has been a "19% reduction in the size of the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) overall in recent years", resulting in a loss of "corporate memory".

  20. Communications briefing

    Colin McGrath calls in the witnesses for this afternoon's first briefing.

    It's a presentation from the department's Communications and Executive Support team.


    The officials are Chris Stewart, Director of Executive Support and Programme for Government, Neill Jackson who is Head of Executive and Central Advisory Division, and Chris McNabb, Head of Communications, Executive Information Service.