Karaoke politics in Northern Ireland

Singing may have recently been banned in the Scottish parliament, but one kind of vocal performance Stormont MLAs have no option but to join in is what Mark Durkan memorably described on this weekend's Inside Politics as "karaoke legislation" .

The Foyle MP was referring to the Stormont bills which follow a tune already composed at Westminster.

If you visit the legislation section on the assembly website, for example, you can see the text of a Pensions Bill introduced last month which seeks to phase in the changes to pension age already passed in London.

More controversially, the assembly will soon be dealing with "karaoke legislation" related to Iain Duncan Smith's welfare reform proposals.

Last week, the DUP Finance Minister Sammy Wilson accused the SDLP of seeking to engineer headlines over the threat to welfare.

However, on Inside Politics back in December Mr Wilson's colleague, Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland, expressed his own fears, especially about the suggested monthly payment of the new Universal Credit and the proposed payment of all benefits to the head of a family's household.

Those concerns are shared by the Social Development committee chair Alex Maskey.

As previously reported on this blog, the dilemma for Stormont politicians is that, whilst they might not like the welfare changes, dissenting from them could open a financial "Pandora's box", which could have a massive negative impact on Northern Ireland's block grant.

With more details emerging about the number of local households in receipt of more than £26,000 in benefits, the welfare debate will run and run.

But returning to Mark Durkan's karaoke theme, the concerns about parity and how much room for manoeuvre MLAs have point up some of the difficulties which face the new commission probing the so called West Lothian Question.

Right now local MPs like Mark Durkan can vote on measures like Andrew Lansley's controversial Health and Social Care Bill which only applies to the NHS in England.

Mr Durkan told me that he and his colleagues make their own distinctions about which measures they believe they have a right to vote on and which they consider beyond their remit.

They include consideration of whether a change of policy for England could have a financial Barnett consequence for their own patch.

However, it will fall to the new commission to potentially lay down a more formal Highway Code governing which topics Northern Ireland MPs can and can't cast their votes upon.

So will Mr Durkan and other local MPs be allowed to vote on foreign affairs and taxation, which are clearly excepted matters, but banned from passing their judgment on health or criminal justice?

And how will Queen's Professor Yvonne Galligan and her fellow commission members deal with welfare, which is technically devolved, but in practice follows Mark Durkan's karaoke principle?

It will be hard to navigate this complex terrain without hitting some discordant notes.