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Summary

  1. MLAs debate Sinn Féin call for education minister to ensure funding for autism therapy centre
  2. DUP motion welcoming education minister's funding for nurture provision in primary schools passes
  3. Education Minister Peter Weir and Communities Minister Paul Givan appear at Question Time
  4. Proposed closure of Cookstown social security office discussed in adjournment debate

Live Reporting

By Robin Sheeran and Iain McDowell

All times stated are UK

Goodnight

Speaker Robin Newton adjourns the assembly for another week.

Join us tomorrow morning for our regular coverage of committee business.

A microphone inside the Great Hall in Parliament Buildings at Stormont
BBC

At 10:00 we have this week's meeting of the Infrastructure Committee live from the old senate chamber here at Parliament Buildings.

Goodnight for now!

'No decision taken until consultation reviewed'

Communities Minster Paul Givan reassures Mr McElduff that he is his own man, saying: "I'll take the decision."

Paul Givan
BBC

"This is not something that officials come to me and I signed a blank cheque," he says.

"Let me make it very clear, there has been no decision," he adds, explaining that nothing will happen until after analysis of the consultation, which has elicited about 400 responses so far.

'People have right to access centres'

"People have a right to access these centres for advice and support," says People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll.

He pays tribute to the Nipsa trade union for its support for the campaign against closure of the offices.

'Minister should put his stamp on matter'

Closing social security offices would have "an unfair impact" on people in rural areas, according to Colin McGrath (below) of the SDLP.

He questions whether a poor broadband service would have the capability of supporting an online system.

Colin McGrath
BBC

Sinn Féin's Barry McElduff says he "would like the minister to put his own stamp on this issue" and he calls for the retention of a number of posts in Omagh in his West Tyrone constituency.

Philip Smith of the UUP speaks up for his Strangford constituents in the threatened Ballynahinch office.

Foster and Hamilton in Dublin for Brexit talks

Mark Devenport

BBC News NI political editor

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The first minister is joined by Economy Minister Simon Hamilton for the talks with Enda Kenny in Dublin.

'Closures have knock-on effect on economy'

Ulster Unionist Harold McKee says there is a similar issue in his South Down constituency with threats to social security and benefits offices in Newcastle and Ballynahinch.

"This will have a knock-on effect to the local economy," he says.

A man using a computer
Thinkstock

Caitríona Ruane of Sinn Féin is another concerned South Down MLA, and she says broadband coverage is very poor in some areas.

"Online solutions will not work for many people," Ms Ruane says.

'No rural-proofing done over closure decision'

The SDLP's Patsy McGlone (below) says 16% of the Mid Ulster population does not have access to private transport, which creates a big issue for those who use the Cookstown social security office.

"There was no rural-proofing actually done on this - there were five phonecalls made," he says.

Patsy McGlone
BBC

Sinn Féin's Ian Milne says the minister needs to take account of the rural nature of the area.

"Just over 88% of staff affected are women," he also points out.

'Office a vital service for 38,000 people'

Keith Buchanan of the DUP says he has met the Communities Minister Paul Givan on the matter and was assured of the long-term future of the social security office in Magherafelt.

He tells members that the minister says the Cookstown office's future depends on the outcome of the consultation, and that "no member of staff would be made redundant".

Money
BBC

Mr Buchanan says he would remind the minister that the Cookstown office "provides a vital service for 38,000 people".

Ulster Unionist Sandra Overend points out that clients of the Cookstown office would "have to travel much further on a regular basis".

'Sad indictment on executive if benefits office closes'

Sinn Féin's Linda Dillon now takes the opportunity of an adjournment debate to raise the proposed closure of the Cookstown social security office in her Mid Ulster constituency.

She says staff at the office learned of the proposal through a "leaked document", adding that that was "wrong for the staff and wrong for everybody involved".

A woman inside a benefits office
BBC

She says there are a number of "failures" in the consultation document issued by the Department for Communities.

These include a lack of attention given to poor public transport services and broadband in the area, and insufficient attention to rural proofing and equality issues.

Ms Dillon concludes by saying it would be a "sad indictment" on the executive if there is "a foodbank in the town but no social security office".

DUP's amended motion on nurture units passes

The DUP's Carla Lockhart concludes the debate on her party's motion on nurture units with a detailed recap of the contributions of other members.

She says Mr Allister's agreement with her party on the matter is a "historic move".

Carla Lockhart
BBC

Steven Agnew withdraws his Green Party amendment and the SDLP's change to the motion is approved on an oral vote.

The amended motion is also passed orally.

'Let's bank this feeling of consensus'

Green Party leader Steven Agnew says he will not push his amendment to a division.

Steven Agnew
BBC

But he asks that the assembly's Business Committee allows him to bring forward a motion specifically on early-years education provision, which formed the trust of his proposal.

He points out that it is a rare thing that the TUV's leader Jim Allister agrees with the executive, and laughs: "When we reach that level of consensus, I think we should bank it."

'Need for care for children more critical than ever'

Winding the SDLP amendment to the motion, Alex Attwood says the need to take care of young children is "more critical and more acute" than it has ever been.

Alex Attwood
BBC

The "single most important challenge" for the assembly in this mandate, he adds, is to direct resources "into the lives of children from the moment of birth to the age of six".

He adds that his party will support the Green Party amendment because "we think there is a need for a comprehensive approach".

'Funding for nurture units will be maintained'

Education Minister Peter Weir rises to respond to the debate, saying nurture units have been an issue he has had a keen interest in since his days chairing the Education Committee.

More than 700 have attended a nurture groups since they were introduced, he says.

Child writing in class
Thinkstock

Sustaining the existing 32 groups will cost £2.3m, but he says he will stand over that funding in spite of other "challenges" his education budget is facing.

The units have "much more to offer the education system", the minister concludes, saying he will support the SDLP's amendment to the motion.

'Nurturing interests children in joys of learning'

Members now return to debating the DUP motion on nurture units in primary schools, which started before lunch.

TUV leader Jim Allister says his "experience of the nurture projects is positive".

Jim Allister in the chamber
BBC

He identifies some of those positives as improving the child's behaviour and "interesting them in the joys of education through their reading capacity".

He says one of the few criticisms of the approach has been "the drip-feed nature of the funding".

'No shock over mental health service failures'

Mrs O'Neill says "it was no shock to me" that mental health waiting time targets are not being met.

She says there was a "legacy of under-investment" in mental health services.

Michelle O'Neill
BBC

"We have big, big demand on our service," the minister adds.

"Don't be shocked, but be assured that I'm doing everything that I can to make sure that we do change the services that we provide."

'Improving mental health services a long-term effort'

Another urgent oral question now, this time from the SDLP's Mark H Durkan, who asks the health minister what actions she will take to address the "unfolding crisis" in mental health services.

It comes after it emerged that none of Northern Ireland's health trusts is meeting their waiting time targets for people with problems like anxiety and depression.

A woman hold her head in her hand
PA

Health Minister Michelle O'Neill says mental health in "one of my key priorities" and she has "working hard" to assess the "gaps" in services.

She says it will take "five years at the very least" to see major changes in the service, but a "10-year programme is probably more realistic".

She adds that she is making a case at the executive table for more money for mental health but even if it was made available immediately, there would be a "delay in utilising it fully" due to the need to recruit more specialist staff.

'Interchange project was never put on hold'

SDLP MLA Nichola Mallon asks why the minister "cited Brexit as the reason initially for putting this project on hold".

She says that came in spite of the Treasury's commitment to fund structural projects awarded EU funding beyond the point of Brexit.

Nichola Mallon
BBC

"I never once made an announcement that this project was on hold," Mr Hazzard says.

Instead, he claims he had said the "procurement process for this programme had been lengthened" and that allowed him to "take stock of the financial and geopolitical situation".

'Is there money for the York Street interchange?'

Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard's announcement earlier that he is to push ahead with the major interchange project at York Street in Belfast is raised in an urgent oral question.

Alliance Party MLA Kellie Armstrong wants to know where the project lies in the minister's list of priorities as, she says, he has indicated in his statement that it "is a priority but there's no money for it".

Traffic on roads near the proposed York Street interchange in Belfast
BBC

The minister says he does not believe he said anywhere in his statement that there is "no money" for the scheme, but he adds that it must fit into a programme of works.

He says there are four infrastructure "flagship projects" - the A5 and A6 road projects, the Belfast Transport Hub and Belfast Rapid Transit.

'Minister misled house with Alliance policing claim'

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long suggests that the communities minister "inadvertently misled" the house during Question Time by suggesting her party supported 50:50 recruitment for policing.

She says it was her party's former leader and former justice minister David Ford who "withdrew that provision".

Naomi Long
BBC

Paul Givan responds, saying the Alliance Party "can be very precious about these finer details", adding that it is his understanding that the party supported the Patten Report on Northern Ireland policing in 1999.

But Ms Long hits back, saying that "these are not matters of political opinion but matters of fact".

'Why no meeting over Oval development?'

Alliance Party MLA Chris Lyttle asks the minister about a proposal to redevelop the Oval football ground in his East Belfast constituency.

Specifically, he wants to know why Mr Givan "has refused to meet [Alliance Party MLA] Naomi Long and I on the matter despite meeting with numerous DUP MLAs on the issue".

The Oval football ground
BBC

Deputy Speaker Patsy McGlone says Mr Lyttle's supplementary query is not connected to the substantive question and it is therefore up to the minister to decide on his response.

Mr Givan remains in his seat, refusing to respond to the question.

'Group gave categorical support for police'

TUV leader Jim Allister question the minister's wisdom in "being photographed with at least one paramilitary figure" at the office of the Lower Shankill Community Association in Belfast on the morning after it featured in a BBC Spotlight programme on paramilitary links.

Mr Givan defends his decision, saying he will "go to constituencies, I'll meet with organisations".

Jim Allister
BBC

He adds that when he met the group referred to, "the conversation did take place about supporting the PSNI upholding the rule of law".

Those who responded, he says, "were categoric in saying that it was for the PSNI to effectively deal with issues of law and order", the minister says.

'Promotion of one identity can't be at expense of another'

The SDLP's Claire Hanna asks the minister what action he is taking "to meet and engage with the LGBT community" as he develops his departmental strategy.

A man holds a rainbow flag
AFP

Mr Givan says his "door is open" to people who wish to discuss the matter with him.

"I think it is important that in the promotion of one's identity we don't need to denigrate another individual's identity," he says.

'Review of benefits office closures makes sense'

Harold McKee of the UUP asks about possible closures of social security offices and job centres in Cookstown in County Tyrone and Ballynahinch and Newcastle in County Down.

He says that in the light of major changes to social security the closure of offices in major towns "makes no sense".

Outside a jobs and benefits office
BBC

Mr Givan says he will not make any decisions until he has examined the results of a consultation.

"What does make sense is my department reviewing the services that it provides in the light of the changes that are coming about through the introduction of universal credit," he says.

Question Time for communities minister

Paul Givan
BBC

Paul Givan now steps up to take answer questions from members in his role heading the Department for Communities.

'Activity centre closures proposed to save schools' budget'

Ulster Unionist Steve Aiken asks why several of Northern Ireland's large outdoor residential activity centres, which are run by the Education Authority, are set to close next year.

The proposal was announced yesterday, with the hope that it could save £1.5m.

An outdoor activity centre
Google

The move is a "product of the pressures that are there financially", and with his priority being to protect the frontline schools' budget then cuts have to be made elsewhere.

He said the Education Authority "bore a disproportionate amount" of cuts to the department's funding and while that is regrettable they must remain within their budget.

'No more money for teachers' pay increase'

Staying on the issue of teachers' pay, Mr Weir says staff "should show restraint" and not take strike action over their salaries.

"The reality is there isn't any more money," he says.

Mr Weir speaking in the chamber
BBC

A "tough financial regime" for schools means that "the more we push up pay, the more that is going to lead to further redundancies".

"I don't have any additional money to throw at this particular issue."

'Teachers' pay not relevant to schools plan'

Alliance Party MLA Chris Lyttle asks the minister how his "failure to support" a 1% pay increase for teachers will affect schools' area planning.

Teachers on picket line
BBC
Teachers picketed schools recently over their pay claim

But the minister accuses the member of trying to "shoehorn" his remark in, saying that what teachers are paid has no relevance to the matter.

"We shouldn't be trying to conjoin the issues even in a desperate for some level of headline," Mr Weir adds.

'Composite classes don't allow for best education'

SDLP MLA Richie McPhillips asks the minister for an assurance that rural schools will not suffer cuts as a result of the Education Authority's (EA) latest area plan.

The draft three-year plan sets out a strategy for changes to the number and nature of schools, with mergers and closures on the cards for some.

Richie McPhillips
BBC

Mr Weir explains the idea behind the proposals, saying that "composite classes" in many rural schools, in which two school years are taught in one class by a single teacher, pose a "danger" that children are not given the "best possible education".

He says MLAs will want to save schools in their area, but adds that there needs to be a "mature" look taken at schools with the question: "What is the best possible delivery of our education?"

Question Time for education minister

Peter Weir is having a busy day today.

Peter Weir
BBC

He now takes to the despatch box to reply to questions on his education portfolio.

Government 'prepares three-line Brexit bill'

Norman Smith

BBC News assistant political editor

The government has prepared a short three-line bill to begin the Brexit process so Theresa May can meet her March deadline, it is understood.

A union jack and an EU flag
Getty Images

Sources say they believe the legislation is so tightly drawn it will be difficult for critical MPs to amend.

Ministers have drawn up the legislation in case they lose their appeal to the Supreme Court, which would force them to consult parliament.

That's lunchtime...

With the clock striking one, Principal Deputy Speaker Caitríona Ruane suspends the debate to allow the assembly's Business Committee to meet to draw up next week's agenda.

Caitríona Ruane
BBC

We'll return at 14:00 with Question Time for the education and communities ministers.

'MLAs could learn from children's better behaviour '

Sinn Fein's Catherine Seeley says she welcomes the education minister's commitment to "fulfilling and advancing" the work of her party colleague John O'Dowd.

The former minister "part-funded" the expansion of nurture units, she says.

Catherine Seeley
BBC

Mark H Durkan of the SDLP points out that nurture units can "help the children to learn to behave appropriately... something which some members in here might be able to benefit from".

The SDLP MLA calls on all executive ministers to work with Peter Weir on the provision as "the outcomes of nurture units are a benefit to many departments".

Minister advances Westlink road scheme

Julian O'Neill

BBC News NI business correspondent

Plans for a major interchange project at York Street in Belfast are to be pushed forward by the infrastructure minister, in spite of uncertainty around its funding.

Traffic at York Street junction
BBC

The scheme is designed to ease congestion at the junctions of the M1, M2 and M3.

Chris Hazzard said he accepts the findings of a public inquiry held into the £130m scheme last year, but adds that funding the roadworks "remains a major challenge" for the Northern Ireland Executive.

'Investment pays for itself in just two years'

Evidence suggests that investment in nurture provision "is likely to pay for itself in just two years", the DUP's Philip Logan tells the assembly.

Teacher helping pupil
BBC

"It is therefore cost effective and represents a significant economic return to society and the benefits it brings to that child and that child's family," he adds.

Sinn Fein will be supporting the SDLP amendment to the motion, Barry McElduff says.

'More research needed on nurture provision'

Ulster Unionist Sandra Overend says there are still aspects of the nurture units scheme that could be improved, and she urges the minister to investigate that.

A new nurture unit is being opened on Friday in a school in Castledawson in her Mid-Ulster constituency, she tells members.

Sandra Overend
BBC

Chris Lyttle of the Alliance Party says the units have a "positive impact" on pupils, their parents, and school staff and children who have used the units "are feeling more confident".

He echoes Ms Overend's call for more research on the provision, but says he wants to hear from the minister on where he will find the money to fund the units.

'Bereaved children receive help from units'

Colin McGrath introduces the SDLP amendment, which calls for a sustainable funding model and expansion in each primary school sector "targeted in the areas of greatest need".

"Currently, the nurture groups only cover 32 schools and we want to see this widened," he says.

Jennifer McCann
BBC

Sinn Fein's Jennifer McCann also sings the praises of the groups, which she has seen at work in her own West Belfast constituency.

She gives the example of children "who have lost a mother or a father in tragic circumstances who have gone through these nurture units".

"The whole family unit is helped," she adds.

Government rejects 'Brexit memo' claims

The government says it "does not recognise" a leaked memo's claim that it has no overall plan for Brexit.

Obtained by The Times, the note warns that Whitehall is working on 500 Brexit-related projects and could need 30,000 extra staff.

A union jack flying near Big Ben in London
AFP

And it highlights "divisions within the cabinet" over Brexit strategy.

But a No 10 spokesman says the "unsolicited document" came from an external accountancy firm and had "no authority".

'Mainstreaming nurture units would make them permenant'

Steven Agnew introduces the Green Party amendment calling for "a universal early-years education provision".

He says he is "fully supportive of the original motion" and his amendment is designed to add to it.

Children in a classroom
BBC

Education Minister Peter Weir intervenes to clear up a query over the use of the word "mainstreaming" in the motion.

"At the moment nurture units have been funded under a particular programme that is time-limited and separate from the main education budget," he says.

Mainstreaming, he explains, would allow the units to be brought into the main budget and make them permanent.

'Barriers must be removed to help children achieve'

Lord Morrow introduces the DUP motion on nurture provision in primary schools.

A child in a classroom
BBC

It calls on the education minister to examine potential options for "mainstreaming" the funding of nurture groups.

"We have to remove any barriers to learning that may exist in our schools to ensure that all children are valued equally and given the opportunity to achieve their potential," Lord Morrow says.

On the agenda: Nurture units in primary schools

Continuing on the education theme, a DUP motion on nurture units in schools is next up for debate.

Nurture units are set up in some primary schools in Northern Ireland, with the aim to help pupils to receive extra attention in a bid to improve their social skills and school performance.

Children's coats hung up on a wall
PA

Twenty units were set up at a cost of £3m in 2014, with 500 children set to benefit.

But in June, the Department of Education overturned a decision by a former Sinn Fein minister to introduce nurture units in two Irish-medium primary schools.