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Live Reporting

Robin Sheeran and Tori Watson

All times stated are UK

  1. That's all for today


    The UUP motion is defeated by 46 votes to 37.

    That's all for today from the hill at Stormont.

    We'll be back tomorrow morning as MLAs on the Economy Committee hear from representatives of Belfast city retailers on the effects of Covid crisis.

    Do join us at 10:00, until then keep safe and have a great evening.

  2. 'It’s about equity, not equality'

    Mike Nesbitt

    The UUP’s Mike Nesbitt winds on the motion.

    He says Mr Beattie made clear the use of the term “inefficiency” in relation to mental health is wrong and welcomes the fact the minister says he would work with officials to address this issue.

    Mr Nesbitt says he’s “disappointed and shocked” that the house may divide on the motion.

    Turning to points raised by Paul Girvan, Mr Nesbitt welcomes that he recognised that “prison officers work in special and very, very challenging circumstances”.

    Mr Nesbitt says there should be provisions for prisoners as well, something referenced by Gerry Carroll and Rachel Woods.

    “Please do not divide this house as you will send the worst possible message to everyone in this country who is suffering poor mental health and well-being,” says Mr Nesbitt.

    “It’s about equity, not equality.”

    The vote is called and there being no agreement the house divides.

  3. 'Profound unintended consequences'

    Conor Murphy

    Conor Murphy, the Finance Minister, responds to the motion.

    He says “the terminology in the policy should change” and raises concerns round the use of the word “inefficiency” adding it relates to the capacity of the workforce, not the individual.

    Mr Murphy says removing the ability to issue a written warning would have “profound unintended consequences”.

    “The potential implication of this motion is all civil servants with an illness would be able to absent themselves from work without consequence,” says the minister.

    He says he is happy to work with officials and proposers of the motion to ensure those absent from work for mental health reasons are given all the support they need.

  4. 'Prisons are often difficult and demanding'

    People Before Profit’s Gerry Carroll says he takes the “mental health crisis in our society extremely seriously”.

    “There’s nothing in the motion that mentions the mental health of prisoners,” he says, adding “mental health problems in prisons must be dealt with in a way that doesn’t open a door to other problems”.

    Gerry Carroll

    The Green Party’s Rachel Woods says mental health can impact everyone in prisons.

    She says “prisons are often difficult and demanding” places for all levels of staff.

    Ms Woods says she has, “like others”, some issues with the wording of the motion.

    “I hope through this motion there will be greater awareness of mental health across the civil service,” she says.

    Rachel Woods
  5. Tribute to former MLA Billy Bell

    The SDLP's Pat Catney says that as an MLA representing a constituency where many prison staff live, "I'm keen to see recognition of the unique challenges faced by prison officers and support staff".

    He says our thoughts today should be with the murdered prison officers, David Black and Adrian Ismay.

    Mr Catney calls on all threats to prison officers to be removed.

    He says the mechanism suggested in the latter part of the motion represents a significant divergence from common practice "not only in the public sector but also in the private sector".

    Pat Catney

    Robbie Butler of the UUP begins by informing the members of the death earlier today of the former UUP MLA for Lagan Valley, Billy Bell.

    Pat Catney intervenes briefly to pay tribute to Billy Bell, saying that when his house was petrol bombed 25 years ago Mr Bell was the first person to visit him.

    Mr Butler says he served as a prison officer for a number of years.

    "These problems have existed for decades in this country," he says.

    "Much has been made of the inequality that this policy might make. That doesn't stand, because prison officers are not civil servants," Mr Butler says.

    He says he joined the prison service in 1996 knowing his life was under threat.

    "In 2020, is it any different?" Mr Butler asks, explaining that a prison officer starts the day by checking under their car.

    "Do normal and everyday civil servants face that same threat? Absolutely not," he says.

  6. 'People who are highly dangerous'

    The DUP’s Paul Frew says there is a need for the prison service “to be treated differently from other civil service staff” as they do a very specific role.

    He says there is nowhere else in the civil service where you “interface with people who have massive problems, and also people who are highly dangerous”.

    Mr Frew says those in the prison service go home and feel danger, and that the environment in which they work is “not conducive to mental health and well-being”.

    Paul Frew

    Sinn Féin’s Jemma Dolan says she can’t support the motion as it only deals with “one section of the public service”.

    She says she's under no illusions that prison officers face demands that can leave a mental toll and says there needs to be “empathy and compassion”.

    Jemma Dolan
  7. 'Few roles in society of which we ask more'

    Cara Hunter of the SDLP is making her maiden speech as MLA for East Londonderry.

    She begins by paying tribute to her constituency predecessor, John Dallat, who died recently.

    "With Magilligan Prison in my constituency I know prison officers face many challenges. We must strive to support them and their emotional well-being," Ms Hunter says.

    She says her party supports the spirit of the motion but cannot back the mechanism it suggests.

    Cara Hunter

    Chris Lyttle of Alliance says "there are few roles in society of which we ask more" than the role of prison officer.

    "I have met with prison officers who have been harassed and threatened in the line of duty, intimidated with information gathered by terrorist surveillance of their loved ones."

    He says he remembers the prison officers "who have been cowardly and brutally murdered".

    He pays tribute to the work done by the Justice Minister, his party colleague Naomi Long.

    Mr Lyttle says he doesn't think "that ceasing sickness management procedures with regard to written warning without an alternative mechanism to manage sickness is a comprehensive or appropriate response to this matter at this stage".

  8. 'Working with some of the most challenging people'

    Linda Dillon is the deputy chairperson of the Justice Committee. She says she supports “much of what has already been said” and the “intent of the motion” but she does have some concerns.

    She says the remit of the motion is “narrow” and says “the motion in front of us and how it’s worded makes it’s very difficult to support because of these issues” and questions whether it is compliant with employee law.

    “I accept there is a real issue around prison staff,” she says adding “they are working with some of the most challenging people we have living here”.

    Linda Dillon

    “They are expected to care for those people and rehabilitate them.”

    The Sinn Féin MLA says “we need to ensure we put in place a proper robust regime that looks after them”.

    “We can’t do this working in silos.”

    Mrs Dillon says she doesn’t support the motion but does “support the intent of it”.

  9. 'The hidden service'

    The DUP's Paul Givan chairs the assembly's Justice Committee.

    He says the prison service is often the hidden service as prison officers work behind a wall.

    Mr Givan says the families of prison officers are told to say: "My daddy works in an insurance company."

    He says his father was a prison officer for 33 years: "He worked in the Provisional IRA wing, he worked in the loyalist wing, and both regarded him as a screw."

    Paul Givan

    Mr Givan says the approach taken to prison officers has led to "a much higher level of written warnings and disciplinary action than any other part of the civil service. Why is that and what's being done to address it?"

    "We need to have a system in place that recognises distress and the pressures that exist," he says.

  10. 'Mental health is not inefficiency'

    The next item of business is a private members motion tabled by UUP MLAs relating to the stress experienced by members of the NI Prison Service while carrying out their duties.

    It calls on the minister of finance to ensure the “that the Northern Ireland Civil Service Human Resources policy on Inefficiency Sickness Absence Management takes into account the stress experienced by Northern Ireland Prison Service staff; and further calls on the minister to cease the issuing of written warnings to members of the Northern Ireland Prison Service who are suffering from diagnosed mental health conditions and instead to manage the needs of these individuals through positive engagement and compassionate management which focuses on their needs”.

    The UUP's Doug Beattie opens the debate.

    “Our prison service makes up about a third of the Department for Justice” says Mr Beattie, but they get about “two thirds of the written warnings”.

    Doug Beattie

    Mr Beattie says “it is an abject failure in leadership, a lack of understanding of the moral component and a laissez-faire attitude to our prison service”.

    “Mental health is not inefficiency” says Mr Beattie.

    He outlines the difficulties which face prison officers working in Northern Ireland and says their job is like none other.

  11. Motion is passed

    NI Assembly

    Deputy Speaker Roy Beggs moves the house to an oral vote on the motion. The response is ambiguous, and the house is divided.

    Once votes are counted the clerk reads out the result.

    A total of 82 members voted, with 55 voting aye and 27 voting no.

    The motion is passed and the assembly turns to the next item of business.

  12. 'A lot of frustration'

    Wide shot of the chamber

    Sinn Féin's Philip McGuigan winds for the motion.

    He says that when the Agriculture Committee invited comments on how the minister was distributing support funds "there was a lot of frustration that it was a very closed section of the agricultural sector and lots were being forgotten about".

    The North Antrim MLA questions the minster's comment that the motion they are debating could be "divisive".

  13. 'Let's get Northern Ireland back to business'

    Up next is the Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots.

    He says the fund is not about uplands or lowlands, “it’s about Covid-19”.

    The minister says what he noticed today “was the absence of evidence” that uplands farmers “suffered more than others”.

    “It has to be done on the basis of evidence alone,” says Mr Poots in relation to the funding and where it is allocated.

    Turning to animal movements that took place during the pandemic, the minister says there was a “fall off” but says there has been a recovery in May.

    “The actual price of store cattle in the markets has recovered very well and the market reflects that,” he says.

    Edwin Poots

    "It's not about a widespread distribution so everybody gets a little, this is about focusing the funding to where the hit took place," says the minister.

    “If we really want to see an uplift in agri-food prices then getting normality back into the market is critical,” Mr Poots adds.

    "Let's get on with it. Let's get Northern Ireland back to business."

  14. 'Unbelievable hardship'

    The SDLP's Colin McGrath says there are many farmers in the Mournes area of his South Down constituency who face restrictions in their farming practices due to tourism and natural beauty.

    He says many farmers have been faced with "unbelievable hardship" as a result of the pandemic.

    "They definitely need support and assistance," he says.

    Colin McGrath

    Sinn Féin's Jemma Dolans speaks about the role of Rural Support, an advice service based in Cookstown, in the farming community.

    She says it is vital that farmers get financial support.

  15. 'Distributed as fairly and equally as possible'

    The DUP’s Harry Harvey says farming is a “volatile industry” that has faced “unimaginable” challenges during the pandemic.

    He says it’s “essential individual farm businesses can benefit from the intervention fund” and that it is “focused at meeting the needs of the worst impacted first, regardless of sector or locality”.

    The Strangford MLA says it should be “distributed as fairly and equally as possible” adding it’s important the fund is “flexible” to provide “financial assistance across NI”.

    Emma Sheerin

    Emma Sheerin of Sinn Féin “these people produce something we could not live without” - food.

    She says farm income at the end of the year is “non existent” due to market pressures, and says the challenges caused by Brexit and Covid-19 have put severe pressure on the industry.

  16. 'To add insult to injury'

    The UUP's Rosemary Barton says the agricultural sector has been offered very little support through the Covid crisis grants.

    She says that in addition to the other problems besetting farmers "to add insult to injury we hear of processors bringing in Polish beef to supply a UK supermarket".

    "These are stressful times for all business including agriculture", she says, adding that farms should have reasonable support to ensure that there is a food supply beyond this crisis.

    The MLA notes that the motion refers specifically to "sheep and beef farmers from areas of natural constraint" but she says she's aware that sectors such as dairy farming have also suffered due to the health crisis.

    Rosemary Barton

    John Blair of Alliance says his party is happy to support the motion.

    He says he understands the rationale behind it.

  17. 'No one disagrees the industry should be supported'

    Justin McNultyof the SDLP makes his contribution to the agriculture debate.

    He says farmers are vital to the food chain but they are also dependent on other parts of the chain working.

    The SDLP MLA says the initial government support schemes “were not designed with agricultural business in mind” adding that he welcomes the £25m being designated for the industry.

    “The £25m fund has a lot of ground to cover,” he says, adding he backs the motion.

    Justin McNulty

    The DUP’s William Humphry declares an interest in the debate as a “partner in a diary farm”.

    He says lockdown has impacted people’s eating trends and the closure of restaurants and cafes has seen a “significantly diminished” demand for meat and dairy.

    The Newry and Armagh MLA says there are a number of sectors which has been badly affected by Covid, while others have not been hit as drastically.

    He says, “no one disagrees the industry should be supported” but emphasises “we must be pragmatic” in how it can be done.

    William Humphry
  18. 'Opportunities for diversification'?

    Sinn Féin’s Liz Kimmins asks about sole traders and how many will face financial difficulties and closures.

    Mrs Dodds says the question of sole traders is “hard to define” but says she will continue to look at help for those in the community.

    She adds that “it will be dependent on how we are able, and how the minister (for finance) is able, to identify the money that is available”.

    Diane Doddss

    TUV MLA Jim Allister says aeroplane manufacturers will face the "toughest path into the future" and asks the minister if there are "opportunities for diversification that could be explored and are they being explored?"

    Mrs Dodds replies that there is "scope to look at diversification", something she says is "particularly important when we look at the supply chain".

    "Reinventing ourselves is something we have done and we will be able to give support for going forward," she adds.

    The deputy speaker thanks the minister and says that concludes the urgent questions section of business.

    Roy Beggs now moves the chamber back to its debate before lunch around Covid-19 support for beef and sheep farmers.

  19. 'Did the department not see this coming?'

    "What on earth did we do about the 350 job losses from the same company two months ago where non-contract workers or agency workers who were dismissed and nothing was done to support them?" asks the UUP's Doug Beattie (below).

    "Did the department not see this coming?" he adds.

    The minister says Mr Beattie is quite right and that "this came in two tranches".

    "My department has been working with the aerospace sector and in the next number of weeks that will become increasingly clear," she says.

    Doug Beattie

    Andrew Muir of Alliance says workers are not looking for sympathy, they are "looking for hope" and a "clear, robust recovery strategy".

    "When are they getting that?" he asks.

    Mrs Dodds says that from the very beginning of the Covid crisis the department has been first of all trying to mitigate the effects.

    She says she believes "the best opportunity for recovery is to let business get on with doing business and that we actually start to open up the economy in a safe and sustained way".

  20. 'It’s a gross irony'

    The DUP’s Jonathan Buckley says he is “devastated” at the job loss potential.

    He asks the minister if she agrees with him that “it’s a gross irony” for Mr O'Dowd to "sympathise" with the workers as during the "midst of the Covid crisis he and his party leader" called on "companies to close their doors".

    Mrs Dodds pays "tribute to those business in the face of very, very challenging circumstances right throughout this pandemic" and those who "did keep going and are busy trying to fulfil their order books".

    Dolores Kelly

    Dolores Kelly of the SDLP asks the minister about Invest NI's work with the company, and if there will be a skills audit of the firm to help match workers with similar roles in the area.

    Mrs Dodds turns to NI's unemployment figures for April, she says they "completely wiped out six years of very hard work reducing unemployment in NI" - something she says is a "measure of the crisis that has been caused by Covid-19".

    The minister adds that there is work to be done in helping people "match skills" with companies and in helping "people to retrain and up skill".