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Summary

  1. Employers For Childcare brief Education Committee members VAT on childcare at home
  2. Public Accounts Committee holds lengthy inquiry session on Renewable Heat Incentive scheme

Live Reporting

By Robin Sheeran and Iain McDowell

All times stated are UK

That's all, folks!

Mr Swann calls for the final item of business to be taken in closed session, so that's where we'll leave the PAC for this week.

Parliament Buildings at Stormont
BBC

Join us tomorrow morning at 10:00 for the Communities Committee, which is taking evidence on the Licensing and Registration of Clubs Bill.

The interest groups appearing include representatives from churches and the Wine and Spirit Trade Association.

'Expect another call from committee on this'

PAC chair Robin Swann thanks the officials for their attendance in what has been another marathon session in this inquiry.

Heather Cousins and Dr Andrew McCormick
BBC

However, he says the committee's work is far from done and Dr Andrew McCormick and Heather Cousins can expect to be called again to give evidence.

Analysis: Trump's tax policy could hit NI plans

John Campbell

BBC News NI Economics and Business Editor

Donald Trump says he will reduce the headline rate of US corporation tax from 35% to 15%.

That could have particular implications for the Republic of Ireland, which has attracted lots of tax-sensitive US investment.

Donald Trump
Getty Images

It could also weaken the impact of the Northern Ireland Executive's plan to use reduced corporation tax as a tool for attracting investment.

US firms employ more than 20,000 people in Northern Ireland.

Trump a racist, misogynistic buffoon, says Eastwood

Northern Ireland politicians have been sending their congratulations to Donald Trump after his victory in the US presidential election.

But SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has been less than complimentary about the billionaire tycoon, describing him as a "racist, misogynistic buffoon".

Donald Trump
AFP

He adds that Mr Trump's victory was one of "fanatical and fantasy absolutism over a more considered, coherent and kinder politics".

For that reason, he says, he will "take a stand" and refuse to visit the White House while the New Yorker is president.

'This was avoidable if we'd done analysis'

Sinn Féin's Oliver McMullan sees the problem as having been the department's decision to follow a similar scheme already operating in Great Britain.

He says DETI adopted "a flawed system before we started".

Oliver McMullan
BBC

But Dr McCormick says Great Britain project "did not have the same flaws".

"If we had understood and analysed the tariffs properly and efficiently this could have been avoided. This was clearly avoidable," he says.

Analysis: Trump unknown quantity for Stormont

Mark Devenport

BBC News NI Political Editor

In comparison to Hillary Clinton, who made several visits to Northern Ireland over the past 21 years, Donald Trump is more of an unknown quantity as far as most Stormont politicians are concerned.

The kind of access they might have enjoyed at the White House under a Mrs Clinton presidency seems unlikely under Mr Trump.

Hillary Clinton with her husband Bill
AFP

But no-one had expected that Northern Ireland would be or should be anywhere near the top of a new US president's bulging in-tray.

Those days are long gone and we are now entering a new era for the world, never mind Northern Ireland.

'Officials fell short in managing project'

The DUP's Gordon Dunne asks whether, in hindsight, the officials think DETI's energy team was "adequately resourced" and had "sufficient qualities and skills" to manage the project.

Dr McCormick says most parts of the civil service "will at some stage say they are under pressure and need more resources".

Gordon Dunne
BBC

The permanent secretary says he "couldn't say that it was unreasonable to expect them to have addressed some of these points".

"So they fell short," says Mr Dunne.

Government making Brexit up as it goes along, says McGuinness

Gareth Gordon

BBC News NI Political Correspondent

Northern Ireland's deputy first minister has accused the government of making up its Brexit policy as it goes along.

Martin McGuinness
PA

Martin McGuinness was speaking after the first meeting of a new committee made up of the devolved administrations and chaired by Brexit Secretary David Davis.

Mr McGuinness said he could not understand why more information was not being shared with Stormont, Edinburgh and Cardiff, but First Minister Arlene Foster said it was a first meeting in a long process.

'Were junior employees encouraged to whistleblow?'

The committee returns after a minute break of about 20 minutes, and Alliance Party MLA Trevor Lunn asks about the department's attitude to lower-ranking employees who challenge management.

He asks if it could have been that they "were not actively encouraged to make suggestions and effectively to whistleblow".

Trevor Lunn
BBC

Dr McCormick says he does not know what the culture was like in the department at the time as he was not working there.

"I think that the right approach is for senior managers to be asking, and open and transparent in their behaviour in terms of welcoming challenge and welcoming suggestions," he says.

'Average RHI payout set to hit £1m'

Sinn Féin's Michelle Gildernew says the average payment to applicants over the RHI scheme's 20-year lifespan will be about £1m.

She refers to her time as agricluture minister, and says she constantly fielded complaints from farmers she met "at a filling station or at a funeral" that the department was holding off on paying grants to them.

Michelle Gildernew
BBC

She says that when she took those issues up with her officials, she was told that "until the final inspection is done and every box is ticked, they wouldn't be paying out".

She says a similarly rigorous inspection regime should have been included in the RHI scheme to ensure "public money is being spent properly".

'Ofgem's inspections weren't up to standard'

A number of RHI beneficiaries have had their subsidy payments suspended pending investigation into their conduct relating to the terms of the scheme, Ms Cousins tells the committee.

But all of those suspensions have been as a result of inspections by the professional services firm PwC, rather than by Ofgem, she adds.

Heather Cousins
BBC

PwC was commissioned by the department to investigate the scheme after the whistleblower raised concerns about it earlier this year.

Sinn Féin's Oliver McMullan suggests the standard of PwC's inspections was much higher than those carried out by Ofgem.

'Genuine concern over feedback on inspections'

Dr McCormick says there is a "genuine concern" at the department over the extent of feedback from Ofgem about what it found in its inspections of sites that were using the RHI scheme.

He tells the committee that Ofgem said "there wasn't much to worry about" from the first 57 inspections it carried out.

Wood-fired boiler
Thinkstock

But chair Robin Swann tells Dr McCormick that Ofgem had informed the committee two weeks ago that it had alerted the department to problems.

Dr McCormick says it would be fair to say the department was aware there were issues but Ofgem did not expand on them.

There would "not have been pressing reason to pursue and ask a lot more questions" on those issues, he adds, but "knowing what we know now, it looks bad."

'We believed Ofgem had ability to run scheme'

DUP MLA Alex Easton asks why Ofgem was asked to run the scheme when it had no base in Northern Ireland and carried out only a small number of inspections to approve applications.

At the last session of this inquiry, Ofgem officials came in for heavy criticism over their handling of the RHI project.

Ofgem E-serve graphic
Ofgem
Ofgem E-Serve administers government green energy schemes

Dr McCormick said the department had "every reason to believe they had the technical ability" to operate the scheme effectively because it had been the administrator of the same scheme in Great Britain.

"They were selected because of the experience that they had that wasn't available here," DfE official Heather Cousins adds.

'Whistleblowers maybe felt we didn't listen'

An investigation into the RHI scheme was started after a whistleblower made allegations about it to the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister in January this year.

An approach had previously been made to Ofgem, the scheme's administrators, in the summer of 2015.

The committee in session
BBC

Mr Swann asks Dr McCormick why he thinks the complaint was made to OFMDFM rather than the DETI.

The civil servant says: "I don't think it's unreasonable or unfair that people had maybe felt that the department wasn't listening."

'We're criticised for not spending Treasury cash'

Dr McCormick has said several times during his two appearances before the PAC that the department had many projects going on at the time when the RHI scheme was open and therefore his officials' focus may not have been as sharp on it as it could have been.

Running parallel to the RHI scheme that was set up for businesses is a similar scheme for domestic users, which cost £3m a year for a seven-year lifespan.

Mr Swann asks: "A complete scheme worth £21m was a bigger distraction than a scheme that could potentially cost £1.18bn?

wood pellets
Thinkstock

"Is that because it was simpler and easier to understand?"

Dr McCormick says the minister had made it a priority to put the domestic scheme in place, and the "attitude" was that failing to do so would result in the funding being lost by Stormont.

"We get plenty of criticism as officials for failing to spend and handing money back to the Treasury", he adds.

'Question of 'why' not sufficiently asked'

In reply to questioning from Sinn Féin's Declan Kearney (below), Dr McCormick says there has to be "an inquisitive and challenging attitude in everything we do".

Declan Kearney
BBC

"In this case the word 'why' was not sufficiently asked," he adds.

Mr Kearney says he finds it "deeply alarming" that they are having this conversation about the department that is supposed to be "the powerhouse of economic innovation".

'No disciplinary proceedings going on'

The DUP's Trevor Clarke asks about the whistleblower who first raised concerns about the scheme.

"Are they part of the disciplinary stuff that's going on?" he asks.

Public Accounts Committee
BBC

"There is no disciplinary stuff going on - there is a fact-finding exercise," Dr McCormick replies.

He says he will not prejudge the outcome.

'Officials did not believe warnings over scheme'

Mr Swann says the committee has been told by "a whistleblower or concerned member of the public" that there were clear warnings about the scheme as far back as October 2013.

Dr McCormick says that at a meeting after the warning "the officials did not believe what they were being told".

Arlene Foster
PA

Mr Swann puts it to Dr McCormick that Arlene Foster, the then DETI minister, was informed.

He replies that what Mrs Foster did was "entirely appropriate".

"She said you need to go and see my officials, and that happened."

'Biggest financial scandal in living memory'

Mr Swann says the costs incurred and mistakes made in the RHI scheme make it "the biggest financial scandal in living memory".

Dr McCormick, who has been in the civil service for almost 40 years, admits he "can't recall anything that was on [this] scale".

A quick reminder for you - the scheme is due to cost £1.18bn over 20 years.

A pile of £10 notes
BBC

Mr Swann delves into the effect of making up the losses on other government programmes.

He asks how much money was reassigned in the last monitoring round to cover the costs of then RHI scheme, with DfE official Heather Cousins says £20m was set aside.

Mr Swann says £1.7m was taken from apprenticeships, £600,000 from assured skills and £1.2m from training schemes.

'Impression that silence would make issues disappear'

Chair Robin Swann sums up what he says is the PAC's "view on this".

"Only belatedly the department appears to have recognised the gravity of what has occurred," he tells Dr McCormick.

There were "numerous warning signs" that there were "serious problems" with the project, but they were "effectively ignored" by the department and "for far too long the department behaved as if nothing was wrong".

"The committee is left with the impression that DETI hoped that silence and inaction would make these issues disappear," he adds.

Robin Swann
BBC

Dr McCormick acknowledges that would be a "very fair" summation of the RHI scheme.

But Mr Swann then says the comments are actually from the committee's report on the failed Bytel broadband project several years ago.

"Did the department learn anything from Bytel?" he asks.

"We thought we had learned quite a lot but clearly not sufficient," Dr McCormick says.

'Scheme was clearly not fit for purpose'

Dr Andrew McCormick, the permanent secretary at the Department for the Economy (DfE), explains that it has become clear that a warning regarding structural and design problems was not acted on.

Dr Andrew McCormick
BBC

A fact-finding investigation has been started, he says, and he may be restricted in his answers as the investigation has not been completed.

"It is very clear that the scheme was not fit for purpose," he says.

Background: Renewable Heat Incentive scheme

The Renewable Heat Incentive scheme was introduced in 2012 by the former Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI), with the aim of increasing the uptake of renewable heat technologies.

But in July this year, the Northern Ireland Audit Office stated in a report that "serious systematic failings" in the scheme are likely to cost the Northern Ireland budget "hundreds of millions of pounds".

Economy Minister Simon Hamilton described the finding as "deeply shocking".

The Audit Office investigation was prompted when a whistleblower contacted the Northern Ireland Executive in January alleging that the scheme was being abused.

Burning wood pellets
Tchara

One of the claims was that a farmer was aiming to collect about £1m over 20 years from the scheme for heating an empty shed.

At an initial PAC inquiry session, a senior civil servant apologised for the department's lack of oversight in the scheme and said that by the end of it, it will have cost the public purse a grand total of £1.18bn.

Two weeks ago, officials from Ofgem E-Serve, the scheme's administrators, gave evidence to the committee.

The officials came in for heavy criticism from MLAs, with the SDLP's Daniel McCrossan saying the scandal was "one of the biggest" that politicians had encountered since devolution.

In the chair

We're back now with coverage of the Public Accounts Committee, and Ulster Unionist Robin Swann gets the latest hearing of its inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme under way.

Robin Swann
BBC

Officials from the Department for the Economy are appearing before MLAs to explain their role in the scheme.

That's lunch

Barry McElduff adjourns the committee. 

We'll take a brief break for lunch now.

Rejoin us at 14:00 as the Public Accounts Committee begins what is expected to be a marathon evidence session as part of its inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme

'Concern over lack of mention of shared education'

Chris Lyttle refers to outcome number nine of the draft programme for government, which says "we are a shared society that respects diversity".

The Alliance Party MLA says he is concerned that there is "no reference whatsoever to shared education or integrated education" in the indicator against which that outcome is measured.

Cathy Galway
BBC

But Ms Galway says the indicators are still "in development" and are "not final products".

"If there's something anyone wants to see reflected that they feel isn't in some of the delivery plans, that's absolutely fine," adding that it could be added to the final document if there is a "legitimate reason" to do so.

'Parents will be empowered to teach their children'

Lord Morrow asks how "empowering parents to educate their children" will be rolled out.

Cathy Galway from the DoE says it will begin from the start of a child's life, with support and advice coming from health visitors and then pre-schools.

DE officias at the committee
BBC

The programme is intended "to give the parents the knowledge and the skills," she adds, and the department has asked parents what help and advice they needed to bring up their child.

"It's not assuming that all parents know all of this instinctively and immediately."

'Setting achievement targets creates risk'

Ulster Unionist Sandra Overend asks if the department will set actual targets to run alongside its plan.

But Dr Hughes says there is a "risk" in doing that.

Sandra Overend
BBC

"Setting targets can produce distorting effects," he adds. "People will do anything to hit a target, even if it's not necessarily the right thing for the overall outcome."

He adds that while while targets will not be set, there will be "considerable" monitoring and assessment of attainment.

'We must encourage parents in role as educators'

After the committee takes a quick break for a press photograph for Anti-Bullying Week, they return for a briefing from civil servants on the Department of Education's action plan stemming from the new draft programme for government.

Dr David Hughes saying it is the executive's aim to "maximise the proportion of young people who leave school with at least five GSCEs".

A child in a classroom
BBC

The department is proposing some actions that "will give schools greater freedom and capacity to support their learners" and some that give schools the chance to "share the burden" of educating.

Dr Hughes says children can be given the best advantage if the executive encourages parents "in their role as the principal educators of their own children".

Trump win shows people sick of elites, says Wilson

"Prejudiced and blinded liberal pundits of the media" did not predict that Donald Trump would become US president, the DUP MP Sammy Wilson claims.

Donald Trump shakes hands with supporters in New York
Getty Images

He says the election result proves that "ordinary people... like straight-talking and are fed up of a ruling elite", and likens it to the UK's decision to leave the EU.

But he acknowledges that there "will be challenges" for Northern Ireland from a Trump administration that "will try to keep jobs in America rather than have US firms invest abroad".

'Department should consider childcare scheme support'

Education Committee
BBC

The committee agrees to write to the Department of Education to urge it to explore options to provide finance for the Employers For Childcare scheme.

'Home care costs are high compared to daycare'

The DUP's Carla Lockhart questions the costs quoted by Employers For Childcare.

She says members of her family use daycare for their children and "it doesn't work out at anywhere near the figures you're quoting".

"In fact," she adds, "it would nearly be a half, or a quarter."

Children's coats on hangers
PA

Ms Duffy says "we make a very small margin" and that the rate charged depends on how many hours of childcare over the week you're using, £10 is our lowest".

Ms Lockhart says this is "still quite high" compared daycare rates.

"In a daycare setting, obviously, you don't have one-to-one care," Ms Duffy replies.

Kenny hopes 'warm' US-Irish relations will continue

Enda Kenny says he is hopeful that the "very close and warm relationship" between his country and the US will continue under Donald Trump's presidency.

A man watches a screen in New York's Times Square showing Donald Trump giving a speech
Getty Images

The Irish prime minister says he intends to work closely with the Trump administration on immigration reform, an important issue "to tens of thousands of Irish people who are making a major contribution to America". 

Mr Kenny also has a word of commiseration for defeated Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, saying she is a "friend to Ireland".

'Disgrace that service could fold over £50k'

Mr Lyttle is told that the organisation receives no funding from the executive.

A mother holds her young son's hand
PA

"You could make an argument that you have done more for childcare in Northern Ireland than the Northern Ireland Executive," he tells Employers For Childcare.

Mr Lyttle says it is "an absolute disgrace" that there is still no childcare strategy in place when it was due in 2012, and that "a vital scheme" could fold for the lack of £50,000.

'Families must be wealthy to afford childcare'

Committee chair Barry McElduff asks for a figure for the cost of funding the additional VAT associated with the home childcare scheme.

Employers for Childcare's Zara Duffy says the total figure is £50,000.

Representatives from Employers for Childcare
BBC

The DUP's Lord Morrow says VAT is not a devolved matter, which could raise difficulties.

Ms Duffy says the average family could be paying £15,600 plus VAT a year for childcare.

"That's a lot of money in my books," says Lord Morrow. "A family would need to be very well off," he adds.

'VAT decision has ruined vital childcare service'

Employers For Childcare, a charity and social enterprise that provides childcare services in Northern Ireland, is appearing before the committee to discuss the end to its offering last week.

Chief executive Marie Marin says the organisation was told in the summer by HMRC said it not be eligible for exemption from VAT.

That meant a 20% increase on its fees charged to families, she says, and with some of those families using it for 40 hours a week it became unaffordable for three-quarters of them.

A child plays with a toy train
PA

As a result, Employers For Childcare had to make 22 staff redundant as it folded.

"The VAT has ruined our business plan and destroyed a very valuable service," she adds, and tells members that experts have said an appeal would be "very costly" and is unlikely to succeed.

She hopes for financial support from the Department for Education to revive the service.

Call for ministerial briefing on teachers' pay protests

Alliance Party MLA Chris Lyttle raises the matter of calls for an urgent briefing from the minister on protests by teachers at schools in a dispute over pay.

The UUP's Rosemary Barton says she has been contacted by a number of principals who are "very, very concerned" about the possible effect of industrial action on their schools.

Teachers protesting outside a school
BBC

Catherine Seeley of Sinn Féin says she received a written response from the minister saying he was "in discussions and it wouldn't be appropriate to comment any further at this stage".

The DUP's Lord Morrow says the committee should "express our disappointment at the industrial action" and the disruption of education, but Mr Lyttle and Ms Seeley disagree with him.

The committee agrees to write to the minister requesting a briefing "in person, if possible, as soon as possible".

Trump congratulated by first and deputy first ministers

Northern Ireland's first and deputy first ministers have congratulated Donald trump on becoming the 45th president of the United States.

Donald Trump
Getty Images

First Minister Arlene Foster said she looked forward to working with his administration, adding that Northern Ireland has "strong historical, economic and political ties" with the US.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said he would "work constructively with President Trump" to "maintain and strengthen our well established and deeply valued relationship with the US".

In the chair

The Education Committee
BBC

This morning's meeting of the Education Committee is underway, and is being chaired by Sinn Féin's Barry McElduff.

Good morning

As the world wakes up and rubs its eyes to find President Donald Trump in sharp focus, life continues as normal up here on Stormont hill...

Parliament Buildings
BBC

Our Stormont Live coverage from Parliament Buildings will keep tabs on the Education Committee, which is due to begin at 10:25 this morning.

But if you haven't had enough of a US election fix just yet, we'll also bring you reaction from Northern Ireland's parties to the shock result across the pond.