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Summary

  1. Economy Committee is briefed on broadband coverage in Northern Ireland by regulator Ofcom
  2. Public Accounts Committee discusses Audit Office's general report on 2016

Live Reporting

By Robin Sheeran and Iain McDowell

All times stated are UK

That's all for today...

That draws to a close a gloomy day on the hill, where the sense of imminent collapse has been almost palpable.

Join us tomorrow morning at 10:30 for live coverage of the Health Committee.

A microphone at Stormont
BBC

Health reform and the Bengoa Report are not officially on the agenda but we'll be keeping our eyes peeled for any hints about how the Stormont crisis could affect the reorganisation of the health service in Northern Ireland.

And tomorrow afternoon looks deceptively normal, with the usual Thursday meeting of the Justice Committee. This week members are being briefed on the work of the coroners service.

What can be done for abuse survivors?

Chair Mike Nesbitt notes that the Historical Institutional Abuse inquiry has finished its work and its report is due to be published next week.

He says he has been contacted by abuse survivors, who "understandably are almost at their wit's end" because "Tantalus-like remedial action, compensation, whatever, is just out of reach".

Historical Institutional Abuse inquiry
Pacemaker

He suggests to the members that, given that there is no longer a first and deputy first minister, perhaps responsibility for the report could be handed to Communities Minister Paul Givan or Justice Minister Claire Sugden.

If the dissolution of the assembly is extended to another two weeks, he says, then they should be asked to do what they can for the victims.

Christopher Stalford of the DUP and the Alliance Party's Stewart Dickson are both supportive of the idea.

Switch to Executive Office Committee

With the Public Accounts Committee having gone into closed session, we now hand you over to this afternoon's meeting of the Executive Office Committee, chaired by Ulster unionist leader Mike Nesbitt.

The mood, it's fair to say, is mournful.

'Get off your high horse!'

The political storm raging outside briefly invades the peace and calm of the Senate chamber as a row breaks out between the DUP's Trevor Clarke and the SDLP's Daniel McCrossan.

Mr Clarke says the figures for benefit fraud have increased from "£21m a year for benefit fraud to £45m a year in benefit fraud and it's in back and white".

Robin Swann
BBC

He compares this to people who "getting exercised" about the RHI scheme, saying to Mr McCrossan that "your minister [Margaret Ritchie] was in charge at £21m per year from 2006 and said nothing".

The SDLP member protests off-mic, saying: "Get off your high horse for God's sake, you've torn down these institutions" he says.

Chair Robin Swann (above) remonstrates with the two men, saying: "Come on, Daniel, you don't need that in here - the two of you know better than that," he says.

Trouble on the line

Ms Mason turns to the cost of Phase 2 of the Coleraine to Londonderry railway upgrade.

The first phase came through on time and on budget, but the second phase cost £46.4m "and it cost more than double the original estimate"

Train
BBC

She says the two competitions for Phase 2 both produced a sigle bidder.

"The concern is where there's a a single bidder there's a potential that you're paying a premium for the work," Ms Mason says.

'£50k quarrying grant paid out on basis of photo'

Ms Mason outlines an example of control failures in the Rural Development Programme, run by the former Department for Agriculture and Rural Development.

Her example refers to a grant of £50,000 that was made in 2015-16 for quarrying equipment when the correct procedures were not followed.

Heavy machinery
BBC

"The amount was paid out before there was even a site visit... and it was paid out on the basis of a photograph of the machine.

"It was not in the applicant's possession and use until about a year after the payment was made," she says.

Auditors not delving into RHI at PAC briefing

Chair Robin Swann gets the proceedings under way at the Public Accounts Committee, and Sinn Féin members are absent, just as they were at this morning's three committee meetings.

Audit Office staf
BBC

The meeting begins with a presentation from auditor general Kieran Donnelly and his staff on the Northern Ireland Audit Office's general report for 2016.

Louise Mason says she does not intend to deal with the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme or legal aid as the committee will be dealing with these later.

This afternoon on Stormont Live

In an attempt to keep up with the latest political developments we are adopting a slightly unorthodox aproach to this afternoon's Stormont Live coverage.

At 14:00 GMT we are joining the Public Accounts Committee for the opening part of its meeting, including a briefing from auditor general Kieran Donnelly on his general report for 2016.

Parliament Buildings at Stormont
BBC

The committee than goes into closed session for a discussion of its inquiry into the vexed question of the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme.

At that point we will switch to this afternoon's meeting of the Executive Office Committee, which is taking evidence on equality and good relations... all rather ironic, isn't it?

Sinn Féin 'not interested' in crisis talks

Sinn Féin says it will not enter negotiations ahead of a new assembly election after the crisis at Stormont.

Party officials met Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire on Wednesday morning.

Conor Murphy, Michelle O'Neill and Gerry kelly
Press Eye

Michelle O'Neill says "fundamental change" is needed, adding: "We believe the public need to have their say.

"There's been a disrespect to the public by the DUP over the last number of weeks and months, a disrespect for the public in relation to listening to the views, the concerns out there."

'Committee has done valuable work in short lifespan'

Steve Aiken winds things up by saying he is disappointed that Sinn Féin members - including committee chair Conor Murphy - have chosen not to attend today's Economy Committee meeting.

He says that in its short lifespan the committee has done "a lot of very valuable work" on key issues for the Norther Ireland economy, including Brexit, further and higher education and the energy sector.

Economy Committee
BBC

But he says the dealings with the Department for the Economy have been "torturous" in terms of trying to get information from the minister and his officials.

After thanking the members and the committee staff, he asks: "Date and time of net meeting?" and is met with a few chuckles.

It is scheduled for next Wednesday but we are not exactly going to be holding our breath for it.

'Do what we can to stop drip of public money'

With the assembly looking increasingly likely to be dissolved as early as Monday, there's a fair bit of doubt as to whether the Economy Committee members will gather together again.

But Alliance Party MLA Stephen Farry suggests that "any scrutiny we can provide even at this 11th hour may be of of some limited value".

Stephen Farry
BBC

He says that if circumstances allow it, members should meet again on Monday.

The SDLP's Sinéad Bradley agrees, and says MLAs should do what they can to "stop the drip of public money" before they walk out the door.

'No takers for dispute resolution?'

And now for a bit of gallows humour as we near the end of what's likely to be the final meeting of the Economy Committee...

Couple in a counselling session
Thinkstock
Has the dispute gone too far?

Going through some correspondence, chair Steve Aiken laughs as he comes across an invitation for members to attend a "dispute resolution service event" hosted by the Law Society for Northern Ireland.

The DUP's Gordon Dunne jokes: "I would need to declare an interest!"

'Department could feel disproportionate impact with RHI cost'

The implications of the collapse of the assembly on the Northern Ireland budget are raised by the Alliance Party's Stephen Farry.

One of those is how the £490m cost of the disastrous renewable Heat Incentive scheme, which has been the primary reason why the institutions are on the brink, will be addressed.

Burning wood pellets
Tchara

"We have an issue about where the liability for [RHI] is going to lie - is it a central pressure across all departments or is it parked as things currently stand in the Department for the Economy?" he asks.

"If it's the latter, then there's a potential issue there of disproportional impact upon the service areas of the department."

'No place for Dublin in NI's affairs'

The Irish government has "no place in the internal affairs of the Northern Ireland", the DUP's Mervyn Storey.

He says that whatever the political future at Stormont is, his party will not support a suggestion by the SDLP's Sinéad Bradley that Dublin should receive a copy of the committee's Brexit presentation.

Sinéad Bradley
BBC

But Ms Bradley says: "A little bit of humility would not go amiss as we walk out the revolving doors.

She says people in Northern Ireland do not have a voice on Brexit, and she wants the Irish government to be acknowledged on the issue at a time when Stormont is on the brink of collapse.

"The people I represent will want the Dublin government to have a pivotal role in anyway forward on a Brexit campaign of discussions," she adds.

'Northern Ireland's been silenced on Brexit'

Mervyn Storey of the DUP says the members "have to face up to reality" that due to the current political situation they will be "looking at our government in Westminster dealing on our behalf".

The SDLP's Sinéad Bradley says the unfolding political crisis means that "we are essentially silenced in this - we have no role to play".

She calls on the Irish government to play a major role in resolving the crisis.

Mervyn Storey
BBC
Mervyn Storey

Stephen Farry of the Alliance Party sticks largely to the matter of Brexit, saying the committee needs to highlight to the department their concerns on matters such as access to labour, the energy market, the single market and the customs union.

The DUP's Gordon Lyons thanks the committee staff for their work, and he accuses Sinn Féin members of "going AWOL" by not attending committees today.

Brexit and Northern Ireland

Economy Committee members begins a discussion on Brexit issues, and the clerk gives a short briefing on a paper outlining the possible implications for Scotland.

Union jack bunting
Getty Images

He expands on this to Brexit matters unique to Northern Ireland, mainly concerned with the land border with the Republic of Ireland.

'Single mobile network for rural areas?'

The DUP's Gordon Dunne asks about the possibility of mobile phone companies sharing masts.

Mobile phone
BBC

Mr Carter says that in the interests in consumers there may be a need to reach beyond conventional competition.

"Is there a role, for example, for a single mobile network in the most rural and remote areas of the United Kingdom? Would that unlock the ability to get it further out?" he says.

'Providers not under obligation for rural broadband'

Sinéad Bradley of the SDLP asks about broadband coverage in rural areas, a sore point that has been regularly raised in assembly debates.

She says that as an MLA in rural South Down "we routinely hear that broadband is not accessible, or people are being told that 'it's not in your area'", in spite the presence of fibre cabinets near their homes.

Ofcom officials
BBC

Mr Carter explains that the network of cabinets was designed for analogue telephony.

He says Ofcom can pass on these concerns but there is a good reason why people are not always connected to some nearby cabinets.

"They could, and it would cost tens of thousands of pounds to do that and at the moment nobody is under any obligation," he says.

'More than one way to skin broadband cat'

Two officials from communications regulator Ofcom, Jonathan Rose and Clive Carter, are briefing the Economy Committee members on the Broadband Universal Service Obligation and mobile coverage.

Committee chair Steve Aiken says there is concern about the "very poor standard of fibre" going into homes and businesses.

A broadband engineer
PA

Mr Carter says Ofcom is not wedded to any particular technology but the reality is that better broadband relies on fibre.

"There is more than one way technologically to skin a cat," he says.

"What we want is a high quality of speed, a reliable service that doesn't drop out at inappropriate times, especially for businesses, and something which doesn't have high fault rates," Mr Carter.

Housing campaigners seek bedroom tax talks

BBC News Northern Ireland

Urgent meetings are being sought by housing campaigners to try to avert the introduction of the so-called bedroom tax on over 30,000 households in Northern Ireland.

The executive agreed to fund a policy that meant it would not apply to tenants in the region, but Stormont has not yet passed the legislation that would allow that to take effect.

Houses
Getty Images

The tax is expected to cost those affected an average of £20 a week.

Communities Minister Paul Givan says he has spoken to officials in his department about emergency options to mitigate the tax, but there are no options available "initially".

In the Economy Committee chair

Ulster Unionist Steve Aiken is chairing this morning's meeting in the absence of usual chair Conor Murphy, of Sinn Féin.

Steve Aiken
BBC

He suggests the members get on with their work despite the unfolding crisis.

"Let's do what we're supposed to be doing, and doing what's best for Northern Ireland," he says.

Efforts to resolve Stormont crisis intensify

BBC News Northern Ireland

The UK and Irish prime ministers have pledged to do what they can to resolve the political crisis at Stormont.

Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster
BBC

Theresa May and Enda Kenny talked on the phone on Tuesday night after Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness (above, left) quit as deputy first minister on Monday in protest at the DUP's conduct in the executive and Arlene Foster's (above, right) stance over the RHI scandal.

Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire is to hold talks with all of the parties at Stormont to try to find a solution and says an assembly election is "highly likely".

Good morning

Welcome along to the first of our Stormont Live coverage after the Northern Ireland Assembly's Christmas recess... did we miss anything?!

Parliament Buildings at Stormont
BBC

The past month has been a chaotic one at Stormont, and we'll touch on some of that today.

But for the moment this morning, we're bringing you what could be one of the final sittings of the Economy Committee in this mandate, with broadband, Brexit and a burning crisis up on the hill all likely to be on the agenda.