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Live Reporting

All times stated are UK

  1. Good evening

    That concludes another day of business at the assembly.

    We'll be back tomorrow with coverage of the Health Committee, which will be receiving a briefing on the impact of Covid-19 on business, followed by a ministerial update at the Justice Committee.

    Then in the afternoon we'll be turning our attention to a sitting of the ad hoc committee where the Health Minister Robin Swann will update MLAs on Covid-19.

    Join us tomorrow from 10:30.

    Stormont
  2. Budget 2020-21 discussion

    Dr McCormick departs in some haste and the committee agrees to deepen its engagement with the executive on Brexit issues.

    They continue to the next item of business - a discussion of the budget for 2020-21.

    They're considering a draft committee response to last week's briefing from departmental officials.

    The committee clerk outlines the main points.

    cash
  3. Erasmus 'being discussed' in negotiations at the minute

    Erasmus

    Sinn Féin's Pat Sheehan joins the meeting by audio link. He says while most "of the issues have been covered" he'd like to know more about negotiations around "access of participation in EU programmes such as Erasmus or R and D".

    Executive Office official Lynsey Moore responds to his question.

    By audio link, she says "we do know at the moment, research and innovation funding and Erasmus are both on the table and being discussed at the moment".

    She adds it is "something we have been quite clear, we would wish to continue and participate in those programmes" due to the importance they hold to universities - adding, not just in terms of funding but partnerships with other experts.

  4. Access for NI goods to the GB market

    Independent MLA Trevor Lunn asks about access for goods from Northern Ireland to Great Britain.

    Dr McCormick says the UK government has committed to "underpin the access of Northern Ireland goods to markets in GB".

    Goods vehicles

    There are also commitments to ensure that Northern Ireland can take part in future UK trade deals with other countries, he explains.

    The senior official says the commitments won't be fully in effect until the legislation is passed.

  5. London's 'negotiation fiasco game'

    Sinn Féin's Martina Anderson is up next.

    She says she can understand why "groups and organisations (are) looking for an extension" to the negotiations.

    The former MEP adds that the "EU should be allowed to have a technical office in Belfast".

    She says this is needed to "allow their experts to advise on the suitability of any preparation or any work that should be by now ongoing and needs to take place at some stage" and to "ensure the checks and controls are compliant".

    Ms Anderson puts on record her opposition to a decision that "British ministers have refused that request from the EU".

    She then turns to what she calls London's "negotiation fiasco game" with the EU and the protocols in the withdrawal agreement.

    Martina Anderson

    Dr McCormick says "the UK government has confirmed very clearly it reflects and will fulfil the obligations".

    He says there is a will in the executive to secure the "best possible outcome" regardless of political differences on the issue.

    He adds that there is a "genuine and legitimate interest across the member states" in the EU that this will be done properly.

    "There is a lot that is clear, but there is a lot that needs to be resolved in detail in moving all this forward to get the best possible outcome," he adds.

  6. 'The committee can compel ministers to appear'

    The UUP's Mike Nesbitt has a question about "open and transparent government".

    "Did you say it would be for ministers to decide on engagement with the assembly and its committees?" he asks Mr McCormick.

    He replies that that's their normal way of working - that it's ministers who make statements to the assembly and who authorise official attendances.

    Mr Nesbitt observes that the committee has "a statutory power to compel ministers" to attend here.

    Mr McCormick agrees that this is the case, and that it is for the ministers to decide what they say.

    Mike Nesbitt

    Mr Nesbitt asks which local organisations have been lobbying for an extension to the Brexit transition period.

    Mr McCormick says he'd rather not say, as the businesses concerned may regard this as private communication with ministers.

  7. No deal 'hasn't honestly received the same attention'

    Mr McGrath says the committee received answers from Dr McCormick to a number of written questions but that the answer relating to a potential no-deal scenario was the "shortest answer".

    He asks if that means this area has "received the least attention?"

    Dr McCormick says the department notes that "UK government ministers are expressing confidence that there will be a deal".

    "There's no doubt we need to be as prepared as possible and do everything we possibly can to provide clarity and communication to citizens and businesses as to how to be ready," he adds.

    "There are still a range of scenarios as possible," say Dr McCormick.

    Brexit dice

    He says "it hasn't honestly received the same attention," but adds that the "parameters are unclear right now".

    Dr McCormick says the time to have this information in place would be the end of December, adding "we do need to do more work on this".

    He says there will be further "work with ministers on a range of scenarios that are possible".

  8. 'Imposition of Brexit at this time is ludicrous'

    Committee Chairperson Colin Mc Grath of the SDLP, says the "imposition of Brexit at this time is ludicrous" and will have a "double-whammy impact" given the issues around Covid-19.

    He then asks Dr McCormick about the executive taking over the workings of the Brexit sub-committee - "when was the announcement made that that was actually going to happen?"

    Dr McCormick replies that the "practical reality is that those things are just happening around the time when everything changed very suddenly".

    He says it was "probably the week of the 9/10 March which was when the virus issue was just beginning to dominate".

    Colin McGrath

    "That's just my recollection of the timing of when things happened," he says.

    Mr McGrath says the sub-committee was part of the New Decade New Approach (NDNA) agreement.

    Dr McCormick says the reason for change was about the ability of "ministers to collectively take decisions and not have to change format in order to take decisions".

    He says "all five parties would have been present and participating" in the executive meeting when the decision was made, adding he doesn't "recall any opposition to the proposal".

  9. Committee for the Executive Office

    Committee chairperson Colin McGrath of the SDLP gets this afternoon's meeting of the Committee for the Executive Office under way.

    He introduces the officials who are going to give a briefing on Brexit issues via audio link.

    Director General of International Relations Andrew McCormick is leading on this.

    He says that a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since they last appeared before the committee.

    Dr McCormick says quite a few of the team he had working on Brexit matters have been redeployed into working on Covid contingency planning.

    UK and EU flags

    "That's not to say at all that the work on Brexit is not progressing or unimportant," he says.

    There was a full round of negotiations between the UK and the EU last week, Mr McCormick explains.

    Referring to reported calls for the extension of the Brexit transition period due to the Covid crisis, he says the UK position is very much against this.

    "The truth is that any option would be challenging," the senior official comments.

  10. On the Executive Office Committee agenda

    NI Assembly
  11. Time for lunch

    Lunch

    The assembly is taking a short break for lunch.

    We'll be back at 14:00 with live coverage of the Committee for the Executive Office.

    Members are due to receive a briefing from officials on an issue that pre-Covid-19 was never far from the headlines - Brexit.

    Join us then.

  12. Covid-19 and employees' rights

    NI Assembly

    Caomhe Archibald thanks the two witnesses and moves to a short briefing from two Department of the Economy officials on budget matters.

    Following this, the members approve two minor pieces of legislation concerning employees' rights to leave and paternity pay in light of the Covid-19 crisis.

  13. Face of higher education in NI 'changed forever'

    The DUP's Gary Middleton asks about new ways of teaching and how the universities have adapted.

    Prof Greer says it is a "new era of how we deliver teaching".

    He says the online environment has been "very well received," adding that "the key thing for next year is flexibility" as "no one can predict if the campus will be open as normal".

    The vice-chancellor says he hopes students will also appreciate the need for that flexibility and says lecturers turned resources around very quickly.

    He adds, it will "change the face of higher level education in Northern Ireland forever".

    Caoimhe Archibald

    Committee chair Caoimhe Archibald asks the witnesses about lecturers and measures being taken to help them.

    Prof Bartholomew says there have been "senior team discussions about what the new normal looks like".

    He says there are attempts being made to "ensure our staff don't feel over-burdened".

    In terms of moving resources online, he says: "We encouraged staff to take a pause and think about how they were going to do that and how they were going to transition".

  14. Concerns about fee increase for part-time courses

    Sinn Féin's John O'Dowd asks Prof Bartholomew if he will reconsider the pre-Covid-19 decision to increase fees for part-time courses.

    He's particularly concerned about increased about fees for the part-time Irish language diploma.

    The vice-chancellor says the fees remain pro-rata well below the full-time fees.

    students

    "We didn't take the decision lightly," he says, adding that the courses were being run at a loss.

    On the subject of the Irish language diploma, Prof Bartholomew says the university has a commitment to offer courses that are "useful and viable" and that "we are committed to that broad area".

  15. 'Took accommodation losses as it was the right thing to do'

    The DUP's Gordon Dunne asks about student accommodation and the associated financial losses the universities are taking.

    Prof Bartholomew says there is a "mixed picture".

    Prof Greer says "we both took the losses because it was the right thing to do" but adds, "we have to somehow absorb them into our overall planning" to "mitigate the losses".

    He adds, the universities "can't really control what happens in the private sector" but says "we have made additional funds available in the hardship funds" which he hopes can indirectly help students with rental costs.

    NI Assembly

    The SDLP's Sinead McLaughlin says "the best light comes from a burning bridge".

    She asks Prof Bartholomew about the develpoment of the Magee medical school campus, which awaits sign-off.

    Prof Bartholomew replies "we've always been transparent that for a 2021 start there was a deadline at the end of May for us to be able to meet requirements of the GMC (General Medical Council) to proceed with that".

    He says "it's really important that that, as an initiative, comes fully funded".

    "In these times the ability, to have a functioning health service, has never been brought more into focus," he adds.

  16. The forthcoming academic year

    Committee chairperson Caoimhe Archibald of Sinn Féin has the first question.

    She asks the witnesses about the forthcoming academic year.

    Ms Archibald wants to know about discussions with the department regarding the cap on student numbers and any funding that could result.

    lecture

    Prof Greer says they have had "very good discussions with the department and the minister. We've not had any conclusion yet".

    He says this is partly because the Northern Ireland universities want to be part of a UK-wide solution.

    The vice-chancellor says the argument he and Prof Bartholomew has been making is that there are special circumstances in Northern Ireland that need to be included when the UK solution is brought forward.

  17. NI universities 'stand ready to do what we can'

    Ulster Uni

    Prof Paul Bartholomew, Vice-Chancellor of Ulster University, outlines some of the measures the institution has taken to help students in their studies.

    He says it's been important "not to forget research students and staff" but recognises there are challenges in carrying out research and that there will be continuing "reviews as to how we maintain access".

    In terms of the Covid-19 risks, he says he talks with Prof Greer "multiple times a week to ensure we get the best possible outcomes for prospective students".

    The vice-chancellor adds that Ulster University is somewhat at a disadvantage as "we operate on multiple campuses" and that has "reduced our resilience to economic" impact of Covid.

    He says he estimates "our deficits in the range of £20-64m over a three year period" but adds that is taking into consideration that "we don't know how long lockdown is going to go on and so forth".

    He says NI universities "stand ready to do what we can" and are "well placed where we can contribute".

  18. QUB 'forecast losses in range of £34m to over £80m'

    Caoimhe Archibald, the chair of the committee, thanks Mr Pollen before introducing the next witnesses.

    Professor Ian Greer, vice-chancellor of Queen's University Belfast and Professor Paul Bartholomew, interim vice-chancellor of Ulster University, join the meeting by audio link.

    In his opening remarks, Prof Greer, says "universities are already playing a fairly major role in the Covid-19 pandemic".

    He says they are involved in helping with testing for the virus and says there have been many students who have graduated early "to get them into the workforce".

    QUB

    Prof Greer says the "critical time for universities to respond is autumn" when he says the "impact on us will be maximum".

    He says for Queen's "forecast losses look to be in the range of £34m to over £80m".

    He says there are "big challenges, big risks and many uncertainties" and talks about the cap on the number of students able to study at NI universities.

    He says of GB universities, "they can attract our students but we’re not in a position to drive up our recruitment to do the same".

    Prof Greer adds, that many students "may choose not to travel this year" but may "want to stay here".

    He adds it's a "time of great uncertainty in predicting student numbers".

  19. 'Some businesses reluctant to take on debt'

    The SDLP's Sinead McLaughlin asks Roger Pollen what feedback he's getting from his members on business interruption loans.

    He says flaws in the scheme were quick to emerge "and it wasn't doing what it was intended to do".

    Changes were made, partly due to representations from his colleagues in London, Mr Pollen says.

    He says it's "very much a work in progress" and there are signs it's "not hitting the mark" but he's reassured by some comments he's had from local bankers about how it's currently operating.

    Bank building

    Independent MLA Claire Sugden asks about businesses that feel reluctant to take on further debt in the form of a government loan.

    She also suggests that banks are not being as supportive as they would like us to believe.

    Mr Pollen says that taking on a loan is always "a personal decision for the business owner".