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Live Reporting

Tori Watson and Robin Sheeran

All times stated are UK

  1. That's all for today

    Stormont

    The members continue their discussion after Mr Lewis has left the meeting.

    Dr Archibald then draws the meeting to a close.

    We'll be back tomorrow morning at 10:30 with a full day's plenary meeting of the assembly.

    In the meantime, stay safe and enjoy the rest of your day.

  2. 'Unconventional times'

    NI Assembly

    Before letting Mr Lewis leave the meeting, Gordon Dunne of the DUP has one final question.

    He wants to know if there is an ongoing legal challenge in relation to the £25,000 grant scheme offered by the department to some businesses to deal with the impact of Covid-19.

    Mr Lewis confirms this is the case, adding it's an "ongoing legal challenge against the eligibility rules around the £25,000 grant scheme".

    He adds "these things are not unusual, particularly in these unconventional times".

    Mr Dunne asks if it is an individual business taking the case.

    Mr Lewis replies there are a number of businesses involved.

    Dr Archibald then thanks the panel for their contribution to the meeting.

  3. Covid-19 response funding

    Sinn Féin's John O'Dowd wants to know why a bid for funding for SMEs was not included as part of a bid for Covid-19 response funding.

    It's quite a technical point that the official has to deal with.

    The minister "felt that the investment in schools and education warranted more at this stage," he says.

    Mr O'Dowd says he welcomes the match funding for the student hardship fund.

  4. 'Budget bill not received its royal ascent quickly enough'

    Claire Sugden, the independent MLA for East Londonderry, joins the meeting remotely.

    She says the finance minister “circulated” a note to members yesterday in relation to an advance from the NI consolidated fund, with £36m needed for the Department of Economy. She wants to know why that was necessary.

    Mr Lewis says the “demand for cash has been quite extraordinary in the last quarter” with a number of “big schemes coming in”.

    He adds that the “budget bill has not received its royal ascent quickly enough” and the delay has resulted in “some pressure”.

    As such, the department has made the “prudent move of seeking cash cover from the centre”.

  5. 'If they are not there, this gives us a major headache'

    Caoihme Archibald asks another few questions.

    She wants to know about bids "in relation to apprenticeships, in terms of the actual programmes".

    Mr Lewis says there are two elements to support.

    "We rely on FE (further education) colleges and external training providers," he says, adding "we have to keep them solvent and viable".

    "If they are not there, this gives us a major headache."

    He adds that the department is concerned about the number of redundant apprenticeships adding there will be further work on this.

    Caoimhe Archibald

    Dr Archibald also wants to know about the bid "in relation to higher education loss of commercial research income" and whether is was "developed along with universities in terms of what their ask was".

    Mr Lewis says, "absolutely".

    He says research is part of universities "life-blood" in generating income and is "vital to the economy".

  6. Ulster University funding

    Sinead McLaughlin of the SDLP asks about funding for Ulster University and how much capital grant has been afforded to the university's capital project in Belfast.

    Mr Lewis says says the £126m of FTC (financial transaction capital) was to support the completion of the university's Belfast project

    "There is a business plan that has been appraised and an offer made and conditions have to be met. I'm assuming that the university is not yet in the position to meet those conditions so the draw down of the £126m of FTC has not yet commenced," he says.

    Mr Lewis says there are financial pressures in the university not least due to the loss of income due to Covid and that the department has put in a bid for this.

    He says he thinks this is "perfectly reasonable and understandable".

  7. 'Mechanism to address cash flow difficulties'

    Committee Chair Caoimhe Archibald asks about the £1.4m for student hardship - she wants to know if that is to match the £1.4m allocated by the executive.

    Mr Lewis says that is the case, making the total fund £2.8m.

    Up next is the DUP’s Gary Middleton. He joins remotely and says the “majority of it speaks for itself” and welcomes some of the bids made by the department to address challenges brought forward by the pandemic.

    However he wants more information about the £25m for the Ulster University greater Belfast development.

    NI Assembly

    Mr Middleton asks if grant capital is being sought to replace a financial transaction loan (FTC).

    Mr Lewis outlines the “reasoning” which he says is because the “FTC loan has not been processed as such given the status of the particular project”.

    He says “in order to de-risk the project, but also to address what are anticipated cash flow difficulties, we seek to convert £25m of FTC into capital grant to immediately release cash”.

    He says this will “protect it’s financial sustainability,” adding it is “merely a mechanism to address cash flow difficulties, or emerging difficulties”.

    “If it’s done then those difficulties will not arise and easier for those universities to manage the project,” adds Mr Lewis.

  8. 'Change of role for Invest NI?'

    The DUP's Gordon Dunne gets the first bite in the Q&A session.

    He asks about the role of Invest NI in the light of Covid revovery.

    "I understand their role will be changing somewhat," he says, adding that he's heard the organisation will be broadening its remit to work on supporting local business.

    Mr Lewis says it's "slightly beyond my capability of answering".

    "I think it's unlikely Invest NI will change their strategy significantly. I think it's probably reasonable to assume that the potential for foreign direct investment at this time is likely to be constrained somewhat," he adds.

    The official says there would "more than likely" be a focus on the support of existing business and to encourage micro businesses.

    Gordon Dunne

    Mr Dunne asks about bids for funding for tourism.

    Mr Lewis says there is a bid for funding for tourism research for Tourism NI's marketing effort and for "the Game of Thrones issue".

  9. 'Medium and long term recovery and rebuild phases'

    Mr Lewis begins his briefing by audio link.

    He says the "monitoring exercise typically occurs three times each year" and enables a department "to realign its budget allocation" on the basis of need.

    Normally "flexibility of budgetary management" is limited, but the executive made the decision in light of Covid-19 that departments "should be given complete flexibility to reallocate any non-ring fenced budgets".

    The committee has a paper which Mr Lewis says, "describes in some detail the various easements, budget pressures and reallocations that have been made".

    Mr Lewis says the department has seen the reallocation of £30m of non-ring fenced budget with £24m of resource budget and £6m of capital budget.

    He says the minister's "emphasis in making these allocations was focused on medium and long-term recovery and rebuild phases" and "on the immediate reaction to the pandemic".

    Now the minister (Diane Dodds) is looking "longer term," says the official, adding she hopes to go "all she can within the confined of her budget to prepare for recovery".

    NI Assembly
    Image caption: Mr Lewis joins the meeting by audio link

    Mr Lewis outlines a number of"additional bids which the department has made in relation to Covid and non-Covid pressures.

    He says there were £14.7m of Covid-19 resource bids submitted.

    Mr Lewis adds that the main purpose of "budget prioritisation" is to find savings, but he says that the Department for Economy has found "no non-ringfenced savings".

    He adds this is "hardly surprisingly given that the department will be at forefront of the executive's medium and long-term response to the pandemic".

  10. Department for the Economy briefing

    Caoimhe Archibald

    Sinn Féin's Caoimhe Archibald is chairing this morning's meeting of the Economy Committee.

    She gets the ball rolling with some items of committee business.

    The first, and only, witness session is a briefing from Department for the Economy on the department's spending plans.

    The witnesses are:

    • Colin Lewis - Head of Management Services and Regulation Group
    • Ms Sharon Hetherington - Finance Director
  11. On the Economy agenda

    NI Assembly
  12. Good morning

    Stormont

    Welcome to this week's live coverage of events at the Northern Ireland Assembly.

    Business at Stormont has been picking up recently but Mondays are still fairly quiet.

    We've just one session for you today - a meeting of the assembly's Committee for the Economy.

    MLAs are being briefed by officials on the department's spending plans.

    The meeting kicks off at 10:00 - do stay with us.