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Live Reporting

Tori Watson and Robin Sheeran

All times stated are UK

  1. Good afternoon

    Stormont

    That's all from today's assembly coverage.

    Join us again tomorrow when we'll follow the Health Committee's briefing on Covid-19 from trade unions.

    Then in the afternoon, Economy Minister Diane Dodds will deliver a ministerial statement to the Ad hoc Covid-19 Response Committee.

    Until then, stay safe and socially distanced.

  2. 'There's a lot of paper'

    Colin McGrath

    Colin McGrath thanks the officials for coming and the members move on to a stack of committee business.

    "There's a lot of paper," he mutters.

    They take a gallop through their forward work programme, discussing the possibility of ad hoc committee meetings through the summer before the chairperson ends the meeting.

  3. 'Are we forgetting what we just came from?'

    NI Assembly

    Colin McGrath, the committee chair, takes a final run of questions from the room.

    He begins by asking if there should be a reallocation of Spads across departments and outlines the current importance of the Health Department.

    Mr Sterling says that would be a decision for ministers.

    Doug Beattie of the UUP is up next and references Mr Robinson’s “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” comments.

    He says, “are we forgetting what we just came from?”

    “You have to agree, there was confidence damage over the last three years, and there’s still confidence damage to what we have now.”

    Mr Sterling replies that he fully recognises “there were issues around confidence, transparency, accountability”.

    “What I’ve seen is ministers very determined to address those concerns.

    “The most important thing for a smoothly functioning administration is trust between the various players,” says the civil servant.

    He adds, if you’re “purely reliant on legal sanctions to make something work, I think you're in trouble”.

  4. 'It’s not broke, don’t fix it'

    Sinn Féin’s Martina Anderson is up next. She refers to the earlier ‘biscuit sound’ issue and says she “got one bite” out of her lunch as she “doesn’t know how to mute”.

    She turns attention away from the bill and asks the permanent secretary for an update on the Ulster University Magee medical campus in Londonderry- but she says she recognises he’s not here to talk about that today, but she would appreciate more details at a later stage.

    Back to Spads and she says they have been doing “sterling work”, adding “we do not want to reduce the effectiveness of the administration as has been suggested here would be the impact of this bill being taken forward and supported”.

    Martina Anderson

    Emma Sheerin of Sinn Féin says it’s been interesting to hear Mr Sterling’s observations and hearing experts outline their views.

    George Robinson of the DUP joins by phone. He says “as far as I’m concerned, I’m one of these people that believes, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it”.

    He says the first and deputy first ministers would be in the best position to know how many Spads they need.

    “I would be of the mind to leave things as they are, particularly at the present time.”

  5. 'The institutions here are unique'

    Pat Sheehan

    Pat Sheehan of Sinn Féin says the institutions here are unique in these islands.

    He asks Mr Sterling if he agrees that "the situation here is much more complicated than Scotland or Wales" and there may a need for more advisers to reflect that.

    "Certainly I would see that," he replies, adding that with a five-party coalition it's "almost inherently" difficult to get things agreed.

    "Obviously the fewer (Spads) you have, then the less ability you have to perform those important functions," Mr Sterling says.

  6. A 'difficult question for me to answer'

    The DUP’s Christopher Stalford asks “what positive aspects do you see from the implementation of this legislation in relation to the smooth governance of NI?"

    Mr Sterling replies that it would be a "difficult question for me to answer".

    "Clearly, what I sort of feel I can do today is point up some of the issues that arise if the legislation was enacted as currently drafted," he says.

    "I haven't sat down and looked at it in terms of what would its overall impact be positively and negatively."

    Christopher Stalford

    Mr Stalford then asks, "from a civil service prospective, is there anything that stands out to you that you see, what would fix a problem we previously had?"

    Mr Jackson says the legislation "doesn't change the situation in terms of what is there".

    He says there will still be Spads and appointments, but that the legislation seeks to place "controls on the exercise of those functions".

  7. 'A certain flexibility'

    Trevor Lunn

    Independent MLA Trevor Lunn says the can see virtue in allowing TEO to bring in specialist support "and if its urgent to do it without having to go through the normal appointment procedure which can take an awful long time".

    What does Mr Sterling think of the idea?

    "The current provision provides a certain flexibility to ministers," he says, adding that the bill as it is drafted would remove that flexibility.

  8. 'Provision was only ever used once'

    Deputy chairperson Doug Beattie says he “didn’t get a sense of any merit of anything that’s in front of us here” based on what the head of the civil service has said.

    He asks about clause two - the reduction of Spads from three to one - and says “surely because there’s eight departments”, Spads in those departments could brief the first and deputy first minister.

    He says this would help make sure departments are “not working in a silo”.

    Doug Beattie

    Mr Beattie turns to clause three - repealing powers to appoint a person for specialist support.

    He asks for an “example of special support we’re talking about in regards to that”.

    Mr Sterling says “it’s a provision that was only ever used once” adding there is “no indication that ministers would be inclined at the moment to use it again”.

    He says it “could prove to be useful at a particular moment in time”.

    Mr Beattie asks when the one occasion was used, to which Mr Sterling replies that the one appointment was for David Gordon - who was appointed as the Executive Press Secretary in 2016.

    Mr Sterling says the power was used for “communications and media support and advice”.

  9. 'Not appropriate for me to comment'

    Colin McGrath opens the questions to the head of the civil service.

    He asks Mr Sterling if he thinks there is a need for the same number of advisers given that the responsibilities of the Executive Office have reduced.

    "I don't think it's for me to comment on what the appropriate number is," the senior official replies.

    He adds that at the moment there is provision for the first and deputy first ministers to have four advisers but they have decided to have three.

    "To reduce down to one would put quite a considerable burden on that one person," Mr Sterling comments.

    Colin McGrath

    Mr McGrath asks if there is a hierarchy of Spads (special advisers) within the parties.

    Mr Sterling says that within the the TEO (Executive Office) the Spads each have a particular role - "so in that sense there's no particular hierarchy".

    Referring to the Covid crisis, he adds that, "my experience has been ministers and advisers across departmental boundaries are working well together".

  10. NI 'isn't significantly out of line'

    Turning to clause two, Mr Sterling says it seeks to reduce the maximum number of special advisers which the first and deputy first minister can appoint - a reduction from "up to three, down to one each".

    He says the Executive Office believe it would be "inappropriate to seek to determine in law the level of support ministers should have with no possibility of review in the light of need without recourse to further legislation".

    Mr Sterling then lists some comparative figures and says NI "isn't significantly out of line" with other jurisdictions - with Scotland having one first minister and 11 cabinet secretaries (the equivalent of a minister) and Wales with one first minister, eight ministers and 10 full-time equivalent special advisers.

    NI has a first minister, deputy first minister, eight ministers and 14 special advisers.

    David Sterling

    Clause three seeks to repeal the first minister and deputy first ministers' ability to "appoint a person to provide specialist support to them outside normal support".

    Mr Sterling says the current arrangements are done on the "basis of fair and open competition" and says that "if made, any such appoint terminated on date of next election to the assembly".

    As far as he is aware, the chief civil servant says "only one appointment has been made under the order" in 2016 and ended in March 2017, and "no further such appointments have been made".

    Clause four links back to "reducing the number of special advisers being appointed" and seeks to "make this reduction to have effect from 31 March 2021".

    Mr Sterling says the previous reservations have been outlined but on a "practical point, if the assembly agreed such a reduction, we believe it would be detrimental to the official conduct and continuity of business to have this occur at a point well short of the mandate in 2022".

    Finally, clause five seeks to extend the "remit of Commissioner for Assembly Standards to include matters such as ministerial conduct".

    He says the Executive Office believes "any such extension should cover matters to the pledge of office, including ministerial code of conduct and not the ministerial code in its entirely".

  11. 'Less exciting than a custard cream'

    Mr Sterling begins the briefing.

    He outlines some of the steps already taken by the executive to address issues raised by the RHI Inquiry around a code of conduct for special advisers and a revised ministerial code of conduct.

    He says these were put in place very quickly when the executive returned to office in January.

    Mr Sterling is briefly interrupted by the sound of one of the committee members who's operating remotely taking a bite from a biscuit.

    "This is a little less exciting than I custard cream I might say," the senior official quips.

    David Sterling

    He says he's going to concentrate on the parts of the bill that might affect the work of the first and deputy first minister.

    Mr Sterling refers to a first clause that relates to the role of the special advisers in Executive Office, specifically where one special adviser has powers in relation to another special adviser.

    But says it won't have any effect if the proposal to limit the number of special advisers in the Executive Office is adopted.

  12. Committee opens to business

    NI Assembly

    Committee Chair Colin McGrath opens the committee to the public.

    He updates members that he had written to the Chairperson's Liaison Group about the assembly’s committee on Brexit.

    He says it replied to say that the “best placed” committee to carry out the Brexit scrutiny role would be the Committee for the Executive Office, but says more staff resources may be required.

    The committee then turns to the next item of business on the agenda - the Functioning of Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.

    They're joined in the room by the head of the civil service David Sterling and Neill Jackson from the department.

  13. On the Committee for the Executive Office agenda

    NI Assembly
  14. Break for lunch

    Committee chairperson Caoimhe Archibald runs through some items of committee business, before calling the meeting to close.

    We'll be back at 14:00 for live coverage of the Committee for the Executive Office which will be briefed by the Head of the Civil Service David Sterling.

    He'll be talking about the Functioning of Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.

    Join us then.

    NI Assembly
  15. 'Construction makes up about 7% of all employees in NI'

    John O'Dowd

    Sinn Féin’s John O’Dowd asks the panel if they have “an idea how many jobs have been lost in construction as a result of Covid”.

    John Armstrong replies that it’s “hard to say how many have been lost”.

    But he says the CEF is aware that “construction makes up about 7% of all employees in NI”, adding that “12% of all people who have been furloughed are in construction”.

    “We estimate there are some 27,000 people in the construction industry who have been furloughed or laid off,” he adds.

    The longer the situation goes on, Mr Armstrong says, leaves a “strong possibility there will be significant job losses”.

  16. Awarding of government contracts

    Gordon Dunne

    The DUP's Gordon Dunne says he understands that a lot of documents have been tendered for government contracts "and are sitting in government departments".

    He asks if there are concerns among CEF members about this.

    Mark Spence says CEF has been in contact with CPD (the department dealing with government contracts).

    "It has been agreed with CPD that those tenders should go ahead to be awarded on the basis on which they were tendered in good faith, which ignores the Covid crisis," he explains, adding that at that stage would be reviewed to uplift the costs post-Covid.

    This would require the agreement of all the bidders.

    "We are keen to get the pipeline up and running again as quickly as possible," says Mr Spence.

  17. 'Training is basically shut down'

    Claire Sugden, Independent MLA, asks about delays in HGV training and where the “construction employer pool is limited” as a result of not being able to access training.

    John Armstrong says that he hasn't heard issues around HGV training, but says in relation to CSR cards, “training is at the moment, basically shut down”.

    He adds that “training providers are keen to get back up” and that the CEF is “extremely keen to support them on that”.

    He says the aim is to get those services back up and running “as quickly as possible”.

  18. 'Need to bring young people' into industry

    Sinead McLaughlin

    Sinead McLaughlin of the SDLP asks the panellists about apprenticeships and what the CEF believes the government can do to help encourage more uptake.

    Mr Armstrong says apprenticeships have been an “issue for the industry and has been for many years”.

    He outlines recent discussions, pre-Covid, which were held with unions about agreeing wages for apprentices and says there was emphasis on strengthening the wage paid to “encourage more into the industry”.

    He says the “age profile of those engaged in construction is quite high” adding there is a “need to bring young people in”.

    Turning to the UK government apprentice levy, which was “introduced some years ago now”, Mr Armstrong says NI firms, where eligible, pay the levy but “we get absolutely nothing back” - something he would like to see addressed.

  19. Health and safety training

    Caoimhe Archibald raises concerns about the stopping of training for the construction skills register (CSR).

    CSR is a health and safety training course and assessment for the industry.

    John Armstrong says the federation has been in contact with the training providers with an aim of getting the courses open again as soon as possible.

    He explains that the CSR card allows for mobility for workers across the UK and Ireland.

    Caoimhe Archibald

    Dr Archibald also asks about worker safety and transport to work.

    Mark Spence says the issue is being dealt with in line with UK-wide guidance, including the use of perspex screens in work vehicles.