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Live Reporting

All times stated are UK

  1. That's all for today

    Principal Deputy Speaker Christopher Stalford winds up the meeting with a message for the members: "Stay safe and God bless".

    Our next scheduled live session is a meeting of the assembly's Education Committee on Wednesday morning, however the business diary is changing daily as the politicians react to the health crisis.

    In any case we hope you can join us next week.

    Until then, keep well and have a good Easter weekend.

    Easter Eggs
  2. 'Clear guidance to landlords'

    The Green Party's Rachel Woods asks the minister about "eligibility criteria" for universal credit and the discretionary support fund.

    The minister replies that the "discretionary support fund came through the assembly a couple of weeks ago".

    She says it applies to those showing "symptoms of Covid-19 and has to stay within their home and are under financial pressure".

    She adds that "all information is now being put up and streamlined" and is available on NI Direct.

    Gerry Carroll

    Gerry Carroll of People Before Profit asks the minister about people livinfg in rented accommodation, and says while there has been information for landlords, there hasn't been "enough for tenants".

    "How can we have a situation where the vulnerable are able to afford to keep a roof over their heads?" he asks.

    Ms Hargey says she lives in a "working class community in south Belfast" and is aware of the "impact this is having on working class communities".

    She says "no-one will be evicted from their home as they can’t keep up payments".

    She says she has issued "clear guidance to landlords this week" highlighting, that if "they do get the three-month holiday, that that should be passed on to the tenant".

  3. 'Working with health trusts'

    Alliance's Chris Lyttle asks the minister about weekly food deliveries and measures being put in place "to ensure these essential food delivers are given to people who need them most".

    Ms Hargey says her department is "working with health trusts in terms of the data basis they have," and "also know who the 40,000 people are who are shielding and have made direct contact with those 40,000 people".

    She adds that these parcels are also "for those who don't have existing support networks, this is to fill that gap".

    Daniel McCrossan

    Meanwhile the SDLP's Daniel McCrossan asks about discretionary support payments.

    Ms Hargey says there has been a "huge uptake in demand for discretionary support," adding that the department has "realigned our services and staff to go in and support that".

  4. 'People are frightened'

    The UUPs's Robbie Butler asks about support mechanisms for the staff in the Department for Communities.

    The minister pays tribute to the employees.

    She says she visited some of the offices and "people are frightened".

    Ms Hargey says that measures have been put in place for social distancing and the cleaning of equipment.

    John O'Dowd

    Sinn Féin's John O'Dowd asks if the minister has enough staff to work on universal credit.

    Ms Hargey says the department's priority is to ensure that benefits are maintained.

    She explains that some activities have been scaled back, with staff from other areas redirected to work on benefits

  5. 'Going to need our sports teams to lift morale'

    Sinéad Ennis of Sinn Féin talks sports and asks the minister to "provide more detail on actions she’s taking to support the sport sector and measures she will introduce in future to relieve financial burden".

    Ms Hargey says "sports plays a really good contribution we want to ensure they are sustained at the end of this emergency".

    "Coming out the other end, we are going to need our sports teams to lift morale in communities," she says, adding "I intend to roll out sport relief fund".

    Sinéad Ennis

    Meanwhile, the SDLP's Justin McNulty asks the minister if she would consider a "bespoke financial package for cross-border workers who have no support from existing Covid-19 schemes".

    Ms Hargey says the executive has been in conversations about this issue and "engaging with the Irish government on this issue to see if resolution can be found".

    She says: "I know it’s high up on the agenda on the executive table and has been discussed with the tánaiste and others in the southern government".

  6. Supermarket delivery slots

    Sinn Féin's Catherine Kelly asks about the organisation of food boxes

    The minister says local councils have been asked to organise distribution hubs.

    She says that anyone who feels vulnerable and has no support can register through the Covid helpline.

    Ms Hargey says the system will be refined over the next few weeks.

    "I would rather somebody gets two food parcels than none," she says.

    Paul Givan

    Paul Givan of the DUP says supermarkets in Great Britain have a system in place that allows them to identify the most vulnerable and wants to know what work is being done to allow a similar arrangement in Northern Ireland.

    He also asks the minister to "call out" the "incident in Ballinderry" referred to by Jonathan Buckley.

    Ms Hargey says the department is working with the main supermarkets and suppliers and it it hoped that they can make delivery "slots" available.

    On the second question, about the funeral in County Tyrone, the minister says: "I'm not here to get into a political squabble or to call out every single incident where people may not be following the public health emergency".

  7. 'People are dying from this virus'

    Alliance's Kellie Armstrong asks the minister about "the number of people applying for universal credit" including those who have "never ever faced this before or understood how much paperwork people have to go through".

    Ms Hargey says her staff have "been amazing under extreme pressures".

    She says "universal credit takes real time information now".

    "We’re putting more resources into the universal credit team as there is pressure," she says.

    She adds that she hopes people will see "what people in the social security system have to live on".

    Jonathan Buckley

    The DUP's Jonathan Buckley then asks the minister about what "appears to have happened yesterday in County Tyrone" in relation to the "mass public gathering" at the funeral of former Sinn Féin councillor.

    He says, "will she join with me in condemning this behaviour".

    Ms Hargey says "this is a difficult time and people are dying from this virus".

    She says people are losing "loved ones and losing loved ones they can't say goodbye to".

    She says it's "important people adhere to public guidance" and says she thinks "people on the whole, people understand the reasons for it".

  8. 'A worrying time for charities'

    The SDLP's Mark Durkan says the department has responded in "a fantastic manner" to the challenges of the health crisis.

    He asks about the chancellor's announcement of £700m funding to support charities and a subsequent assurance from the secretary of state that Northern Ireland will receive £10m of that.

    The minister says it as a worrying time for charities

    "I understand that the Finance Minister is looking at that," she says, adding that she expects an announcement in the coming days.

    Andy Allen

    Ulster Unionist Andy Allen asks about the universal credit contingency fund and whether there is sufficient funding for it as benefit applications rise.

    The minister says the department does have the required funds at the moment for the contingency fund and it has bid for extra Covid-19 funding for contingency and for discretionary support.

  9. 'Council know their own areas'

    The Chair of the Committee for Communities, Paula Bradley begins questions for the minister.

    She asks about "collaborative working between councils in the voluntary and community sector" and about food boxes.

    Ms Hargey says it has been a "fast moving situation and people are in crisis now and we’re trying to respond as quickly as we can".

    She says the "way we have looked at parcels is we're working through local councils formally".

    She says they have established "distribution hubs," as "we feel it’s better to work through councils as they know their own areas".

    Paula Bradshaw

    Karen Mullan of Sinn Féin then asks the minister about the bedroom tax and the estimated time frame that will take.

    The minister replies, the bill has been drafted and presented to the executive, and that she is "waiting for that to be signed off within the executive".

    She says the "payments are continuing" and will "until the agreement and legislation comes in".

    Ms Hargey says she will present the bill to the assembly as soon as she can and reassures members, "no-one will feel the impact as those payments are continuing to flow".

  10. Ten-fold increase in benefit applications

    Following a five-minute break, we're back in the chamber for a statement from the Minister for Communities, Deirdre Hargey.

    She says that over recent weeks the work of her department has been transformed "to ensure that those most in need are protected and receive the necessary help and support they require".

    She says there has been "unprecedented demand in terms of new claims for universal credit with 45,000 cases received in the last three weeks alone". This represents a ten-fold increase.

    The minister says that in the last three weeks the department has made over 35,000 regular payments to universal credit with 99% of those paid on time.

    After explaining some of the many actions taken by her department, Ms Hargey says "there is a tremendous amount of goodwill and generosity in action across our society which is to be very welcome at this challenging time".

    NI assembly
  11. 'It's not hopeless'

    NI Assembly

    Gerry Carroll of People Before Profit asks the minister about substitute teacher pay and says the "hardship fund doesn't seem to be covering it".

    Mr Weir replies, "we can call it a hardships fund, we can call it whatever, it’s about trying to get some level of funding that is there".

    He says, "in Northern Ireland we are dependent in what is there in the block grant".

    "There is no lack of willingness across the board to try and tackle those issues," says the minister.

    Adding: "It's not hopeless."

    The deputy principal speaker then moves the house to take a short five minute break.

  12. Free school meal payments

    The SDLP's Mark Durkan asks about the position of families that are unable to receive the emergency free school meal payments because they don't have a bank account.

    He says they are "extremely vulnerable, extremely poor" children.

    The minister says 95% of those eligible were easily reached as they also receive a uniform grant.

    He says there is a group of about 500 people without bank accounts and the EA is working with them to try to get accounts.

    A final group consists of about 360 asylum seekers - the department is working with the Cabinet Office on this.

    Mark Durkan
  13. Social distancing 'not been a problem' in schools

    Responding to a question from Alliance's Kellie Armstrong, Mr Weir says there has been work ongoing in relation to student mental health "in terms of counselling sessions so they can continue on".

    The DUP's Keith Buchanan asks about social distancing and raises the issue of a gathering of people for the funeral of former Sinn Féin councillor Francis McNally.

    Keith Buchanan

    He says "while some played pretend soldiers" the "real soldiers are battling day and night to save lives".

    Mr Weir replies that this crisis has "brought out the best in people" and "also sometimes brings out the worst".

    He says in terms of schools, social distancing "has not been a problem".

  14. Hardship funding for substitute teachers

    The DUP's Paula Bradley asks about "clustering" of schools, where one school would provide accommodation for children of essential workers from a number of other schools.

    The minister says this will work most successfully when schools enter into the arrangement on a voluntary basis.

    Paula Bradshaw

    Sinn Féin's John O'Dowd, himself a former education minister, asks about the proposed hardship fund for substitute teachers.

    "Is there any light at the end of the tunnel for those substitute teachers?" he asks.

    Mr Weir says there a number of options.

    There two types of substitute teachers - those on longer contracts whose contracts are being honoured, and those who work for a few days or weeks.

    He says supporting the latter would require considerable funding which is not available from the education budget,

    Mr Weir says it's hard to see a solution unless there is additional money "levered in".

  15. 'Can't guarantee no child unsafe during lockdown'

    Sinn Féin's Sinéad Ennis asks the minister what cross border cooperation there has been with the Department of Education in the Republic of Ireland.

    Mr Weir says efforts are being made to make this as "seamless for everybody".

    He says there have been discussions to ensure "no barriers north or south, nor will there be barriers east or west".

    He says "universities across a wide range of areas, on a pan-European basis, there will be an acceptance of grades" and a recognition of the "challenging circumstances".

    Justin McNulty

    The SDLP's Justin McNulty asks about vulnerable children and says that for some "school was a safe haven for these children and now there is no escape" due to the imposed lockdown.

    He gets visibly emotional, before asking the minister if he can ensure "no child will be unsafe at home as result".

    Mr Weir replies that "every possible action" is being taken and that it is a "concern all of us have".

    He says registers will be looked at, and encourages schools who have "local knowledge" and "particular concerns with particular children, you need to bring those forward, reach out to those children" and "make that information available to social services".

    "Can I be confident no child will be unsafe? Sadly I don't think I'd be able to be in a position to give that guarantee," says the minister.

    "If someone commits a domestic crime or a crime against children, whatever pressures are there, that should never be an excuse."

    He adds, "every conceivable effort will be made to try and protect our children as time moves on."

  16. Praise for parents

    Sinn Féin's Catherine Kelly says the finance minister has announced a funding package for emergency childcare provision.

    She wants to know what role the Department of Education will play in the scheme and when does the minister believe it will be in place.

    Mr Weir says his department has been working closely with the Department of Health on this and the work will largely lie with that department.

    The DUP's Jonathan Buckley pays tribute to the parents "who have stepped up to the teaching role within our homes".

    Catherine Kelly
  17. 'Presumed grades, coursework and assessment'

    The UUP's Robbie Butler asks what measures are going to be put in place in terms of exam results.

    Mr Weir says he doesn't think there will be as much damage to results as "had we we been doing exams next month".

    He says there will be an announcement which will be a "mixture of presumed grades, coursework and assessment".

    He says, "there will need to be examination and an appeal mechanism" as well.

    NI Assembly

    Paul Givan of the DUP then reads out a letter sent to him by a principal in his constituency, which praises the minister for his decision making.

    He then asks the minister what more can schools do to provide home schooling support.

    Mr Weir says "We do have advantage in NI of the C2K system which does enable that level of delivery" but he recognises that may not be in "every home or area, and a number of schools are providing materials".

    He says there are around 400 schools that remain open and adds that the "extent to which schools have stepped up the mark is an exemplar".

    "We have seen throughout this crisis people stepping up to provide the best that they can."

  18. Equipment for pupils without laptops

    Sinn Féin's Karen Mullan says she welcomes the work of the department and the unions towards the resolution of the teachers' pay dispute.

    She notes the department's assertion that 60,000 pupils are being taught online, observing that this is less than 20% of the school population.

    Will he consider supplying laptops and connectivity to those who need it, she asks.

    Mr Weir says that "if there's any lack of resources that can be worked through" and that in some areas, particularly those with poor broadband, packs have been produced.

    Karen Mullan

    The SDLP's Daniel Mc Crossan asks about the possibilty of the use of schools for testing, for treatment and for step-down services.

    Mr Weir says he's more than ready to help where requested.

    He says that as he understands it there is no particular problem posed by a lack of space.

  19. 'Commend the work going on'

    William Humphrey of the DUP asks the minister if he would join with him in praising schools that have donated PPE. He also asks what further measures will be put in place to help key workers when the peak of the virus hits.

    Mr Weir says there has been a "wide range" of schools and that they have been playing a role "beyond education".

    "They've looked in terms of what they have in stock and resources, and where they have found aprons and face masks they have been providing those.

    "I completely commend the work going on."

    William Humphrey

    Mr Weir says of those who have volunteered to help at schools, "900 have been cleared so far".

    He says this means "we have a ready group of people who, if particularly there are gaps in geographical areas, can step up to the plate".