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Live Reporting

Tori Watson and Robin Sheeran

All times stated are UK

  1. Good afternoon

    Stormont in autumn

    That concludes the assembly’s first week back in action since recess, and what a week it has been!

    We’ll be back again with more coverage of proceedings at the house on the hill on Monday.

    MLAs will be back in the chamber for another plenary session, kicking off at 12 noon.

    Until then, have a great weekend and stay safe.

  2. Committee enters closed session

    The committee chair thanks the officials for joining the meeting.

    He moves members to the next item of business.

    Members are to receive a briefing on the Inquiry into Major Capital Projects.

    They are joined by:

    • Kieran Donnelly, Northern Ireland Audit Office
    • Kyle Bingham, Northern Ireland Audit Office
    • Tomas Wilkinson, Northern Ireland Audit Office
    William Humphrey

    This part of the session is being held in closed session.

  3. Fraud and PPE purchasing was 'discussed at length'

    Matthew O’Toole of the SDLP asks about fraud relating to Covid-19. He wants to know if there is a “specific work-stream to stocktake and learn lessons”.

    Ms Kelly replies, that the “devolved authority working group” has been established by the Cabinet Office to look at fraud resulting from Covid.

    She adds that there were “quite a significant number of members from NI” who were “looking at the different areas that were at risk and what procedures we were putting in place”.

    Mr Stevenson intervenes and says the purchase of PPE “was an area that was discussed at length”.

    He says those in procurement were following on closely to the guidance out there and “discounting suppliers who were looking for significant amounts of money upfront”.

    Matthew O'Toole

    Maolíosa McHugh of Sinn Féin jumps back in to make a supplementary comment about tenancy fraud.

    He calls for the Housing Executive to be more “proactive themselves” rather than relying on a “squealer in the community” to report.

    “I think that there is a whole lot more than 285 cases in the north of Ireland,” he says referring to figures included in the report on this matter.

    “I think it is a complete underestimate of what is going on there”.

  4. Fraud and Covid-19

    Andrew Muir of Alliance says there are obviously trends regarding fraud and Covid-19 that have been recorded in the media.

    He wants to know if the officials have anything to say on this.

    Stuart Stevenson says that the officials will take the point about Covid-19 away and include it in the 19.20 report given the committee's interest in the subject.

    Committee chair William Humphrey suggests that if the report is ready in December it might be a good idea to bring it to the committee early in the new year rather than waiting until September.

    Andrew Muir

    Órlaithí Flynn of Sinn Féin wants to know if DoF has direct contact with the counter fraud teams in the various departments through the year.

    "Where does the accountability lie? Who is overseeing that?" she asks.

    Stuart Stevenson says the accounting officer is responsible within their own department.

    The official says his unit receives fraud notifications from the departments "on a day-to-day week-to-week basis" and this information can be fed into the fraud forum

  5. Reduction in contractor fraud

    Cathal Boylan

    Sinn Féin’s Cathal Boylan asks the panel to “tease out” points in the report relating to “attitudes towards contract fraud and payment process related” fraud.

    Ms Kelly says contract fraud is “significantly down” and outlines that in 2017/18 there was “£41,000 of contractor fraud” compared to £500 in 2018/19.

    She says it comes about as a result of “contractors overcharging for goods and services”.

  6. 'Dumping on an industrial scale'

    William Humphrey

    William Humphrey says there was a case of dumping "on an industrial scale " in his constituency, amounting to 200 tons.

    It was reported to him and he immediately contacted local government, the Environment Agency and the police.

    "The response was slow from the Environment Agency and the council," he says.

    The committee chair says he had to ask the minister to intervene directly and that he thinks there is a "lack of joined-upness".

    He says the incident he is referring to resulted in serious rat and fly infestation.

  7. Covid and changes to fraudulent activity

    Harry Harvey of the DUP is up next.

    He wants to know how Covid-19 has affected the officials' work in the last six months.

    Mr Stevenson says it has affected “day-today” activity most. “We had a, very much, office-based process,” he says, adding there was a swift move to a “remote process”.

    Ms Kelly says “we knew it was coming," and "we had really strengthened our contingency plan”.

    NI Assembly

    She adds that there was IT kit available for members of the team prior to lockdown.

    Mr Harvey asks if there will be changes to the type of fraud as a result of Covid-19.

    Mr Stevenson says they expect this to be the case and warns against any “complacency”.

  8. 1,043 incidents of reported waste crime

    Maolíosa McHugh of Sinn Féin asks about Environment Agency statistics.

    He notes that there were 1,043 incidents of reported waste crime but only 40, or 0.4%, resulted in a criminal investigation with eight convictions.

    He wants to know if the resources are available to confront this type of crime and, in particular, its cross-border aspect.

    Maolíosa McHugh

    Stuart Stevenson agrees with the member.

    "It stands out in this report, in terms of the number of instances," he says.

    Mr Stevenson says other types of fraud, such as benefit fraud, will have specialist teams.

    He emphasises the importance of connectivity and says that the Environment Agency, by being part of the DoF's Fraud Forum, can get direct feedback from the fraud investigation service.

  9. 2019/20 fraud report due before Christmas

    Roy Beggs

    Roy Beggs of the UUP is up next.

    The deputy chair of the committee asks the panel to outline the definition of “actual fraud”, “suspected fraud” and “attempted fraud”.

    Mr Stevenson replies “we gather information on each individual fraud”.

    He says actual fraud looks at financial loss, suspected fraud looks if there had been any previous success.

    “Most fraudulent activity is carried out on a multiple basis rather than a on-off fraud,” says the official.

    Mr Beggs says the figures being looked at today are 18 months old.

    He wants to know when 2019/20 data will be available.

    Ms Kelly says it would normally be commissioned in April but due to Covid that commission period was pushed back to June.

    “We would anticipate the 19/20 report will be available before Christmas,” says Ms Kelly.

  10. 'That's a good test for my maths'

    William Humphrey opens the questioning.

    He wants to know how much the fraud outlined by Mr Stevenson has cost the "Northern Ireland public purse".

    Mr Stevenson says "that's a good test for my maths".

    Roisin Kelly

    DoF official Rosin Kelly helps him out. She says there was a total of £787,000 worth of fraud in 17/18 and £509,000 in 18/19 - "a decrease of about £280,000".

    Mr Stevenson says the officials have tried to change the "Look and feel" of the report, as in previous years there had been feedback to say it was "dry and repetitive".

  11. 'Theft most frequent type of fraud'

    Stuart Stevenson, the Treasury Officer of Accounts, beings the briefing by answering a few queries from the committee chair.

    The official says the report being brought to the committee today covers “activity of departments, agencies and their ALB’s (arms-length bodies)”.

    The report excludes “activity in and around the assembly, our friends in the Audit Office and local government as well, which sit outside the scope”, says Mr Stevenson.

    Beginning his brief he says the report show “key areas that have been targeted”.

    “These are significant areas where there are a large volume and a large value of cases, for example benefit fraud, falling under the Department of Communities. They were looking at a total loss of around £56m for the reporting period of 2018/19,” says Mr Stevenson.

    Stuart Stevenson

    “We have a huge amount of cases, the NI Environmental Agency were looking at over 1,000 cases of reported waste crime,” he adds.

    The official claims there’s a “good story to tell, certainly at the end of 2019” as he says “theres a year-on-year reduction of the number of frauds falling by 7%”.

    Mr Stevenson says “theft remains the type of fraud that occurs most often, whilst abuse of position remains type of fraud with the highest total value”.

  12. Public Accounts Committee meeting

    William Humphrey

    Committee chair William Humphrey calls this afternoon's meeting of the Public Accounts Committee to order.

    He runs through some preliminary committee business before introducing the first briefing.

    It's a discussion of the Annual Theft and Fraud Report.

    The members are assisted in their consideration of the report by two Department of Finance officials, Stuart Stevenson and Roisin Kelly.

  13. On the PAC agenda

    NI Assembly
  14. Lunch break

    That's all from us this morning.

    We're off to grab a bite of lunch and a sweat treat, but we'll be back at 14:00 when we'll be joining the Public Accounts Committee.

    Join us then.

    Biscuits
  15. Closed session

    Declan McAleer

    Committee chair Declan McAleer thanks the officials for their contributions to the meeting.

    He turns to the next items of business which include written briefings from the department on the Common Framework for Radioactive Substances and the Direct Payments to Farmers (Penalty Simplification) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020.

    Claire Bailey and John Blair then raise other business around water quality.

    The committee agrees a way forward on this before the chair brings takes members into private session.

  16. Additional committee sittings

    Maurice Bradley

    Maurice Bradley of the DUP, who joins the meeting by video link, he asks “how are we supposed to scrutinise so many bills in such a short timeframe”.

    Dr Agnew says she recognises the timeline is tight. She says the committee will perhaps be asked to “take additional time to work through this”.

    “In many ways we’re in this together and we will be asking if it will be possible for additional meetings to meet these tight tight timelines.”

  17. 'We know Westminster has ignored us before'

    The UUP's Rosemary Barton asks about delivery times for DAERA documents to the committee.

    Kevin Murphy from DAERA explains that the department needs "a wee bit of time" to consider the legal aspects "but as soon as we get that we can share it".

    Rosemary Barton

    Green Party leader Clare Bailey says there are obvious concerns over the principle of consent and how it is applied at Westminster.

    "We know that they've ignored us before," she says.

  18. 'Significant amount of work' ongoing on port infrastructure

    Philip McGuigan of Sinn Féin is up next. He says “this is a very unsatisfactory approach to deal with important issues, particularly in the scrutiny role this committee has”.

    Mr McGuigan wants clarification on whether the DEFRA minister can push through legislation “concerning the north” without the consent of the DAERA minister.

    Dr Agnew says the department has asked for early insight of details of legislation to “enable scrutiny to happen”.

    This is something the minister has committed to, she adds.

    “You are right, Philip, I did say, there is a risk that if we delay consent, or responding to consent too late, there is a risk that DEFRA as the UK government could go ahead and lay the UK-wide SI,” she says.

    Philip McGuigan

    SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone is up next. He joins the meeting by video link.

    He wants to know if work is still continuing to prepare for checks at ports.

    Rosemary Agnew say there is a “significant amount of work being done around preparing for what we believe will be required for port infrastructure”.

    She says this is ongoing within the department internally, and adds that it is something the “permanent secretary will update the committee on when he comes in a couple of weeks' time”.

    Patsy McGlone
  19. Possible effects of the UK Internal Market Bill

    John Blair of Alliance (below) has the first question.

    He asks what impact the "controversy of recent days" over the UK Internal Market Bill could have on current plans made by the officials.

    Rosemary Agnew says she recognises there has been a lot of controversy "but it hasn't influenced DAERA's planning as it currently stands".

    "We're waiting to see how that falls out," she adds.

    John Blair

    Committee Chair Declan McAleer asks if the approach being adopted by DAERA is consistent with the Executive Office (TEO) guidance on managing EU exit.

    Ms Agnew confirms that DAERA's plans to cooperate with the committee are in line with those being adopted by other departments and their assembly committees.

    The DUP's William Irwin asks if there will be changes to the role of the committee if there is a "no-deal scenario" following the negotiations between the UK government and the EU.

    Ms Agnew confirms that this will be the case.

    "The situation is very fluid because there are so many unknowns," she adds.

  20. 'Everything remains very fluid'

    Departmental official Rosemary Agnew begins the briefing.

    “We’re at a very huge, critical stage as all of you will be very much aware,” says Dr Agnew.

    She acknowledges that the department has been late in providing the committee with Brexit-related papers recently due to a number of issues.

    Dr Agnew proposes the department will provide the committee with written updates about Brexit on a fortnightly basis.

    Turning to today’s briefing, the official directs MLAs to packs supplied by the department.

    She says the figures quoted are "correct today, in relation to the secondary legislation programme”, but she warns, “everything remains very fluid”.

    Dr Agnew adds that “decisions are being made in Whitehall are being jointly made between the UK Government and EU”.

    She says that the aim of the secondary legislation is to “ensure DAERA has a fully-functioning rule book with some degree of risk”.

    The official reminds members of deadline for the transition period on 31 December and outlines the pressures the department is facing in terms of the “huge number of identified risks, the volume of legislation required, the pressure on parliamentary time,” as well as the need for Westminster departments to draft and send information which the department then can issue to the committee.

    There is a “huge legislative programme, we need to try and work collectively try and achieve,” says Dr Agnew.

    NI Assembly

    The official moves to the “Common Framework Programme” which she says aims to “develop UK-wide arrangements for powers repatriated from the EU”.

    She outlines that “it’s recognised that it won't be possible to deliver the full programme of frameworks by the end of the transition period”.

    “Therefore key priority frameworks” which will be “critical for Day One have been identified”, says Dr Agnew.

    “The majority of DAERA frameworks, parliamentary scrutiny, by yourselves, and by the executive, ongoing reappraisal of the cross-cutting issues, development of the full frameworks and implementation, will happen in 2021. It will not happen before the end of 2020,” she says.