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Live Reporting

Robin Sheeran and Tori Watson

All times stated are UK

  1. That's all for today

    That's all from us this today.

    We'll be back with more assembly committee business on Monday.

    Until then, stay safe - and if you're able to, join Stormont at 20:00 tonight by supporting the NHS staff fighting against COVID-19.

    View more on twitter
  2. 'The Army is the best organisation to get it done'

    Mr Frew says the Army has proved its capability in the construction of the Nightingale Hospital.

    "If you want something done the army is the best organisation to get it done," he says.

    "If we need people on the ground there should be no delay," the DUP MLA adds.

    Paul Frew

    Linda Dillon says she understands where Mr Frew is coming from and that he would have no problem using the Army but others would have "a really, really serious issue with it and it's a very, very serious issue".

    She says there could be very serious ramifications in future and she would like some urgent clarification.

  3. Civil service self-isolation advice?

    The DUP's Paul Frew asks "what policy is in place in the Justice Department" for civil service staff who have to self-isolate, as he says he is aware the "government doesn't want to use the furlough process".

    Miss Brown says there has been "detailed guidance" and there is also a "hub for staff which frequently asks questions and provides guidance around making sure they are safe and others are safe".

    Paul Frew

    She adds "people can be given special leave" and that "there is guidance around all of this".

    She says "things are changing" but that they are continue to "engage with staff" and already a few people are "self-isolating and working from home".

  4. 'Regulations aren't completely silent on children'

    In his opening remarks, Andrew Laverty from the Department of Justice outlines some of the details included in the regulations.

    He says it "contains provisions to close premises and businesses and restrictions on gatherings to prevent risks from coronavirus".

    He also outlines that in some cases fines of up to £5,000 could be issued.

    Andrew Laverty

    He then talks about how the provisions would affect children and says the "regulations do apply to children under 18".

    "They can be charged or prosecuted so long as they are over age of criminal responsibility, which is 10 in Northern Ireland," he adds.

    He says that "would be prosecution through the courts," adding that a fine of "£5,000 isn't an appropriate penalty for children".

    As such, diversionary measures would be implemented such as "community resolution notices which doesn't attract a criminal record," or an "informed warning from a police officer".

    This would apply to "children over 10 and under 18" and therefore, Mr Laverty reassures the committee that the "regulations aren't completely silent on children".

  5. Kinnegar - 'the NI temporary resting place'

    Mr Todd leaves the senate chamber and the members move on to the final item of business - a briefing on COVID-19 response with two Department of Justice officials, Deborah Brown and Andrew Laverty.

    This includes information about regulations introduced on 28 March that include the enforcement of requirements to close premises and restrictions on gatherings.

    Ms Brown says the department is encouraging working from home and finding different ways to do business including the use of technology to avoid face to face contact.

    She says the lord chief justice has issued guidance to minimise the number of people required to attend courts, to postpone future jury trials and prioritise urgent business.

    Courts business is being consolidated in the Royal Courts of Justice, Laganside Courts, Craigavon, Dungannon and Londonderry.

    Deborah Brown and Andrew Laverty

    Miss Brown says the department is taking precautions to prepare for the risk that normal burial arrangements will not be sufficient.

    "We will do all that we can to ensure dignity for the deceased and their family," she says, adding that members will be aware of arrangements being made at the Kinnegar base "which is to be used as the Northern Ireland temporary resting place" if it is needed.

  6. Spitting at front line workers

    Paul Givan asks ACC Todd about reports of domestic abuse and violence.

    Mr Todd says there have been "more reports of domestic abuse and violence" and that "the volume is rising as was predicted".

    He says the PSNI is "doing a significant amount of work around that" and is continuing to work on "prevention and support".

    He adds it's a "significant priority for us" but "regrettably we are seeing an increase".

    NI Assembly

    Mr Givan then asks about instances of people spitting at police officers and claiming to have COVID-19.

    Mr Todd says "thankfully most of the people who have claimed to be COVID-19 positive as a means to avoiding arrest, hasn't proved to the the case".

    He adds, "it is a significant risk and it is one that will grow over time".

    "Anyone who coughs or spits over any of my officers, staff, or front line responders can expect to be arrested and put before the courts immediately," he tells the committee.

  7. PSNI student officer classes ongoing

    The UUP's Doug Beattie asks the assistant chief constable if training programmes are still ongoing for those seeking to join the organisation, or whether recruitment has stopped.

    Mr Todd says the "student officer programme in the PSNI is a quasi university course," adding "we face the same challenges as universities and academic institutions do in providing training at this time".

    He says "we really don't want to stop people coming into the organisation" and so have "tried to balance that and gone to significant changes in how we deliver that training programme".

    Doug Beattie

    Mr Todd says they have "introduced a significant amount of social distancing" to run courses that "won't run at full capacity".

    He adds they have "increased the number of classrooms," and made "classes much smaller than would have been".

    He says there is "only close contact with student officers in areas where it is absolutely necessary".

    Mr Todd also says the PSNI is working with Department of Justice around flexibility around when student officers can leave the training college and be assigned to duties "so those people are not lost to the organisation".

  8. 'PSNI has struck the right balance'

    Sinn Féin's Linda Dillon says she thinks the PSNI's approach so far has struck "the right balance" on dispersing gatherings.

    She says that the PSNI can learn from this difficult situation for the future.

    Linda Dillon

    Mr Todd says they have hundreds of encounters with the public each day and "some of them we're going to get wrong".

    He says the police are actively developing an evidence base so that lessons can be learned for future use.

    Rachel Woods of the Green Party asks if there is sufficient PPE equipment for officers.

    "We're broadly using as much PPE in a week now as we would routinely use in a year," says Mr Todd.

    He says it represents a huge challenge at a time when there is massive global demand.

  9. 'No diminution of service'

    Committee Chair Paul Givan asks Mr Todd if he can outline how many staff are currently self-isolating and are not in work due to COVID-19.

    Mr Todd says there are "operational implications around" releasing those figures but says "there is no diminution of service".

    Mr Givan then asks Mr Todd if that was part of the thinking behind correspondence sent to officers due to retire this year, asking them "to hold off".

    Paul Givan

    The ACC says it was "judicious on our part to make the offer to people".

    He says the correspondence makes it clear "it wouldn't be a major contribution to the organisation but it would be useful".

    However he says the PSNI "understand people have made own plans financially" and "in their own minds had made up their minds to go".

    He adds it was a "prudent" move to say "we wouldn't be pushing them out the door" for those wishing to stay and help.

  10. 'Vast majority of people are broadly compliant'

    Up next, Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd briefs MLAs about the police response to COVID-19.

    In his opening statement Mr Todd says the PSNI is "planning on things becoming more demanding in the weeks ahead" but "at the moment in time we’re steady in capability and capacity".

    He says "that's a good place for policing currently".


    In relation to regulations which "came into force on Saturday evening," Mr Todd says it's "early days" but that the "sense from a policing perspective is that the vast majority of people are broadly compliant with those".

    He says they are following the "three E’s" - namely "engaging with people, explaining the situation and encouraging them to comply where we feel they may not be".

    He adds "we haven't moved at all towards the enforcement end" but he says it will "inevitably come" as a small proportion of people will seek to oppose the measures.

  11. Concerns about evening association

    The UUP's Doug Beattie says he has concerns about "evening association" in the prisons and social distancing.

    Mr Armour explains that this is normally the time after dinner when prisoners can come out of their cells and associate freely with each other.

    NI Assembly

    "We're trying to ensure that people move around the landings in an orderly and a measured way so that we can create as much social distancing as you can," he explains.

    Mr Beattie asks at what level of staff sickness he would consider a complete lock-down of prisoners.

    Mr Armour says they will have to keep matters under review as the staffing levels fall.

  12. 'Benefits, welfare, health and well-being' support

    The Green Party's Rachel Woods asks about learning materials being made available to prisoners during this period as well as seeking clarification about whether those who are in prison due to breaches in restraining orders will be entitled for early release.

    Mr Armour says they will not be eligible for early release.

    He says, "where there are concerns around domestic abuse or stalking or any of the non-molestation orders you mention - those individuals are not eligible".

    Rachel Woods

    Regarding learning materials, Mr Armour says "we are seeking to provide some materials. We are making efforts to do that".

    Ms Woods also asks about support for those who are entitled for early release and Mr Armour says the prison service has been working with a number of organisations on this matter.

    He adds that there have also been helplines set up "to ensure they get the support they need in terms of benefits, welfare, health and well-being".

  13. Parent-child contact

    Sinn Féin's Linda Dillon says she's "assuming there's no major issues" and that prisoners are for the most part compliant as the measures are being taken to protect them.

    She wants to know if steps have been taken to ensure family contact continues, particularly parent-child contact.

    Linda Dillon

    Mr Armour says the prisoners watch their TV at night and are well aware of what is going on outside.

    He says there was an acceptance of the decision to suspend visits.

    And he says there are phones in 700 cells.

    The director says they hope to able to instigate some "virtual" visits.

  14. 'Contingency plan in place with the PSNI'

    Committee Chair Paul Givan asks the Director General who makes the final decision about a prisoner's release.

    Mr Armour replies that it will be down to the governor to "ultimately take the decision" adding, "we have drawn together lists of individuals that qualify".

    He says they will then go through individual assessment and that discussions will be had with the probation board.

    Ronnie Armour

    Mr Givan then asks if the "picture continues to deteriorate in terms of numbers of staff" what way will the work force be supplemented.

    Mr Armour says "we have a contingency plan in place with the PSNI for a range of different circumstances".

    He adds: "Moving forward our approach to this has been to take decisions when we've needed to take those decisions.

    "That's how we will continue to approach this in the coming weeks."

    Mr Armour says they are "not near a situation where we are looking for support from anyone from outside prison service".

  15. 197 prison staff off work due to COVID-19

    The DUP's Paul Givan asks Mr Armour if all of the 197 staff that are not at work, are absent due to COVID-19 alone.

    Mr Armour says they are and that there's an "addition to that - 'normal sick' if you can put it that way - and today that figure stands at 94".

    He says that means about 23% of the current workforce is off sick.

    Paul Givan

    The chairperson asks if the staffing levels were a factor in the ending of visits and the early release of prisoners.

    Mr Armour says it was not entirely the case but that staffing is something they have to pay close attention to.

    Regarding early release of prisoners, he says it was "important we bring the population down" in the prison and that reduced numbers "helps social distancing" and "reduces the number of prisoners sharing cells".

    "Crucially it also means when the more difficult days come we have fewer people to monitor and fewer people to manage," Mr Armour adds.

  16. Release scheme 'is proportionate response'

    We're on to the next item on the agenda - a briefing from the head of the NI Prison Service, Ronnie Armour, on its response to COVID-19.

    He says the aim of the service has been to maintain as normal a regime as possible for as long as possible.

    Mr Armour says much has changed since he was last at the committee, two weeks ago.

    Prison visits were ended on 23 March, quickly followed by an end to temporary release and working in the community schemes.

    Access to the prison estate has been limited to those who have an absolute need to be there, he explains.

    Ronnie Armour

    Mr Armour says there are three prisoners in isolation but are no currently confirmed cases of COVID-19.

    A scheme has been put in place to allow for the temporary early release of prisoners in the last three months of their sentence.

    He says he believes this is "a proportionate response".

  17. 'Significant programme of training'

    Sinn Féin's Linda Dillon, who's deputy chair of the committee, asks if there has been any work done around offering victims special leave from work where domestic violence is taking place. She says it is something which is in place in the Republic of Ireland.

    Ms Dillon also emphasises that she thinks there needs to be education about what a healthy relationship looks like alongside the bill.

    Linda Dillon

    In response, Dr Holland says she is not aware of the leave situation in the Republic but will "see what provisions are in place" and "can give some consideration to that".

    She adds there "will need to be significant programme of training" following this bill and that the department is looking at "re-running and tweaking campaigns we had around domestic abuse".