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Live Reporting

Tori Watson and Robin Sheeran

All times stated are UK

  1. Good afternoon


    That concludes our coverage of the assembly for today.

    We’ll be back tomorrow morning from 09:30 when we’ll be spending the day with the Health Committee.

    MLAs will be hearing about the budget, Brexit and the Adoption and Children Bill.

    Until then, have a great evening.

  2. Committee enters private session

    Aiken and clerk

    Steve Aiken thanks the officials from the Finance Department for their time.

    MLAs have a brief discussion of points raised before turning their attention to other pieces of business.

    The committee chair then moves into private session for members to confidentially share views on the Non-Domestic Rates Valuations (Coronavirus) Bill.

  3. Is there anything missing from the bill?

    Malíosa McHugh of Sinn Féin asks “in what way would the department consider the current law to be inadequate?”

    Michael Foster responds that “there are aspects" of the proposed Defamation Bill "that probably, if we were starting a bill ourselves, we would take forward”.

    The Finance Department official adds that “the defence of truth at Clause 2 in the bill is largely the same as the common law defence of justification”.

  4. Raising the County Court limit for defamation

    Jim Allister

    TUV MLA Jim Allister refers to the possibility of raising the County Court limit for defamation above the current £3,000.

    Department of Finance official Michael Foster says raising the limit is "an entirely sensible proposal".

    He says he thinks the Department of Justice has been considering raising the figure to £10,000.

  5. 'Will this bill will improve the lot of the publisher or author?'

    Matthew O'Toole

    Matthew O’Toole of the SDLP says the representations given to the committee, from weekly newspapers to the BBC on the Defamation Bill, suggest that the “libel law regime here has a particular chilling effect on their work”.

    Michael Foster responds it’s “not particularly surprising that it is the media organisations pressing for this change”.

    “The chilling effect on the media appears to centre on the fact that the existing law promotes an environment in which strategic litigation can take place,” says the Finance Department official.

    “The question is whether this bill will improve the lot of the publisher or author and will Clause 1, for example, mean that pre-action letters be less common?”

  6. 'Bogey man of libel tourism has not really raised its head'

    Steve  Aiken

    Committee chair Steve Aiken asks Michael Foster if he has much of a feel about "what's going on with the Online Safety Bill" in Westminster.

    "The Online Safety Bill is a much broader piece," responds the official.

    He says that defamation is a "narrow issue" and the Westminster bill covers "a whole range of matters".

    Mr Foster says the current defamation laws "do not appear to have been effective at all in England and Wales" with regard to social media.

    "The supposed bogey man of libel tourism has not really raised its head here since the time of t the 2013 Act" as some had predicted, the official says.

  7. 'Essentially a rewrite of legislation in England and Wales'

    Michael Foster from the Department of Finance outlines the key aspects of the paper that was submitted to the committee about the proposed Defamation Bill.

    “We’re conscious of the fact this is a private member’s bill,” he says, adding “that kind of constrains us in terms of how we interact with the bill”.

    Mr Foster says the bill “is essentially a rewrite of legislation in England and Wales in 2013”.

    Michael Foster

    “Those big ticket items in the bill are ones that the department has reservations about,” explains the official.

    He says the evidence from England and Wales seems to suggest that the bill has “balanced the scales towards freedom of expression” but “equally” he says, “the serious harm test has simply shifted the financial burden to earlier in proceedings”.

  8. Defamation Bill briefing

    Committee chair Steve Aiken thanks the minister and his colleagues for attending the meeting.

    He takes the members through some committee business before turning to the next item on the agenda.

    It's a briefing from Finance Department officials on the Defamation Bill.

    The officials are Michael Foster and Martin Tyrell.

    You can read more about the bill here.

  9. 'The tsunami that is going to hit us'

    Pat Catney

    Pat Catney says he welcomes the finance minister’s push towards a three-year budget.

    The SDLP MLA focuses on the increased cost of living “and the tsunami that is going to hit us”.

    Conor Murphy responds that he called for departments to look at what they could “surrender early”, before the January monitoring round, which could go towards winter heating payments.

    "The executive has to be flexible enough to recognise issues when they arise,” adds the finance minister.

    A proposition that the Communities Department would receive £55m but the papers were not put onto the executive’s agenda, says the minister, adding that he’s hopeful it will make the agenda at a meeting due to be held tomorrow.

  10. Public sector and the living wage

    Jemma Dolan

    Jemma Dolan is another of the finance minister's Sinn Féin colleagues.

    She notes that the executive has recently been accredited as a living-wage employer.

    "Does this mean that from next June all public sector employees, even those who are contracted, will receive the living wage?" Ms Dolan asks.

    The executive is responsible for the civil service and those who work for the civil service, the minister explains.

    "As from next June anyone who tenders for a government contract will be obliged to employ their staff as a minimum on the Living Wage Foundation living wage," Conor Murphy adds.

  11. 'Executive’s decision what the budget looks like'

    Matthew O'Toole

    SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole says he’s supportive of the executive’s drive to prioritise health, but seeks more clarity on the two percent which other departments will have to surrender under the draft budget.

    Conor Murphy, the Finance Minister, responds “it’s going to be the executive’s decision at the end on what the budget looks like”.

    “If we had decided to go two percent from some departments and none from others, to get to the level we needed would have meant taking four percent from some departments and none from others,” he adds.

    Mr Murphy outlines that discussions on the two percent cut was started with departments during the summer.

  12. The capability of the civil service

    Jim Allister

    TUV leader Jim Allister says the finance minister has put a brave face on regarding the report of the Fiscal Commission report

    He says there are "some quite stark comments in it about doubts over the capability of the civil service to handle tax devolution, about the political incapability, etc."

    It would be surprising if the commission didn't reflect on issues such as "capability and I suppose competence" given that some of those issues arose out of the RHI report and were also referred to in the Audit Office report, Conor Murphy replies.

  13. 'Households are struggling with energy costs'

    Conor Murphy

    Maolíosa McHugh, the finance minister’s Sinn Féin colleague, focuses in on the issue of rising energy prices.

    He joins the meeting by audio link.

    “What provision does the budget contain to mitigate the cost of living crisis?” Mr McHugh asks.

    Conor Murphy says energy costs “rose very rapidly” and “households are struggling with them” which was accompanied by “the double whammy” of the reduction in the universal credit uplift.

    Issues such as “big construction costs are beyond our control” says the minister.

  14. Green growth funding 'un-ringfenced'

    Philip McGuigan

    The finance minister's Sinn Féin colleague, Philip McGuigan, says he thinks nobody "should or could" disagree with the prioritising of health spending.

    He says he believes that the climate emergency should be another priority.

    "Is green growth a priority?" he asks.

    Finance Minister Conor Murphy says funding had been "ringfenced" for green growth but they were "un-ringfenced" as people wanted some flexibility over three years.

    He says "there is a commitment there".

  15. 'The body who makes the decision takes the cost'

    Keith Buchanan

    Does breaking parity concern you, asks Keith Buchanan.

    The DUP MLA directly references the Parental Bereavement Leave Bill.

    Joanne McBurney, a Finance Department official, outlines that there are two ways in which parity can be broken.

    “If we break parity for something that’s funded through AME (Annually Managed Expenditure) then we take the cost of that through our DEL (Departmental Expenditure Limit),” while the other relates to creating something which breaks parity “and other administrations in England having to come in and do something similar”.

    Ms McBurney explains that in the latter scenario, “then the statement funding is clear that the body who makes the decision takes the cost”.

    “I’m not aware of that ever having happened before, that’s not to say that it wouldn’t,” she adds.

  16. 'Further support for the hospitality industry?'

    Jim Wells

    Jim Wells, the DUP MLA who has had the party whip removed, asks about the current coronavirus situation.

    He says "it looks like the hospitality industry is going to take a terrible hit over the next month," and asks if there is anything in the current budget to provide some sort of support for hospitality businesses.

    "The short answer is no in the current budget," responds the finance minister.

    He says the executive has been told that what it is doing now, getting its message out and "doubling down", is "sufficient in the here and now".

    Conor Murphy says his department is "in dialogue with Treasury".

  17. 'We’re all aware of the tensions behind the scenes'

    Steve Aiken

    Steve Aiken says “we’re all aware of the tensions behind the scenes in the executive”.

    When will the draft budget come back to the executive for final agreement, asks the Ulster Unionist.

    The Finance Minister Conor Murphy responds that there will be “challenges” to other ministers if the executive follows through on its priority to push more funds into the Health Department.

    “We did get agreement, it wasn’t a complete agreement,” he adds, but says there was agreement on the consultation being launched.

    “There are very real consequences to no agreement” at the final discussion stage, says Mr Murphy.

  18. 'Budget prioritises health'

    Conor Murphy

    Conor Murphy says "the budget is the first multi-annual budget announcement it ten years and that obviously helps us with planning but it doesn't give us the quantum of allocation that would have been needed to do all of the things that we would like to do".

    He emphasises some of the areas of concern, with particular emphasis on the health service.

    The finance minister says that, as was outlined to the assembly earlier in the week, the budget "prioritises health".

    "It directs 2% of other departments' baselines to health," he adds.

    He says this is an opportunity for ministers to put some reforms in place in health.

    On the subject of the outworkings of the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), the minister says it outlined some "systemic failings" including access to expertise, programme management, communication and management of risk.

    "We have had revisions of the code of conduct for ministers and special advisers," he explains.

    "We will be working with the new head of the civil service to drive reform within the civil service," Mr Murphy adds.

  19. Fee to use electric car charging points being considered


    Introducing fees to use the electric car charging network in Northern Ireland is being considered for next year, the company that operates the public charging network has said.

    Electricity Supply Board (ESB) executives were giving evidence to Stormont's Infrastructure Committee earlier this morning.

    The network is currently free to use in Northern Ireland.

    The executives reported that there are 1,180 charging stations in the Republic and 170 in Northern Ireland.

    Read more on this story here.