Stormont debates require more focus

Hardened Stormont hacks are used to sitting through debates which don't amount to very much.

For example, there was the debate which called on the Justice Minister David Ford to introduce mandatory minimum sentences for violence against older people.

Afterwards, justice officials said it was a private members' motion which asked the minister to do something, but did not "instruct" him.

So in the real world it didn't mean anything.

Then there was the call for a moratorium on shale gas extraction and the controversial technique of hydraulic fracturing.

It generated publicity, but the enterprise department insisted it couldn't withdraw any gas fracking licences as none had been issued.

But I have to say I find the debates we have to sit through on Monday and Tuesday more pointless than most.

On Monday, it was the Ffnance department's "Spring Supplementary Estimates". On Tuesday, it's the Budget Bill.

Now don't get me wrong - finance is very important and when we have the real budget debate in the autumn it's essential the executive gets the assembly's backing to move forward.

But this week's exercise always appears particularly pointless.

We are given a technical explanation that the "Spring Supplementary Estimates" are necessary to authorise the spending which departments have engaged in over the last financial year, whilst the "Budget Bill" is necessary to give the Executive the authority to spend money in the first three months of the next financial year.

It might seem all a bit technical, the officials assure us, but that's just the way parliaments do things.

What you get in the chamber is a debate about anything and everything.

The speaker vainly urges MLAs to stick to the point.

But since the point can encompass more or less anything on which any amount of money was spent many of the politicians can't resist the temptation to work some pet constituency project into the two days of exchanges.

So I decided to have a look at what Westminster does - how much of its valuable debating time does it devote to this money bill?

And I came across the Supply and Appropriation (Main Estimates) Act which according to the Westminster website goes through both the Commons and the Lords "on the nod" without any debate.


It turns out the more drawn out Stormont system is a child of the transition from direct rule.

Direct rule ministers gave Northern Ireland MPs the opportunity to debate the estimates as a nod towards accountability. After devolution, this tradition was carried on.

However, finance officials tell me they are hoping to simplify the Stormont system in order to have one main financial estimate per year rather than four.

They will also consider following Westminster's example in relation to nodding the financial estimates through.

Don't get me wrong - transparency has to be a good thing and, as the former Stormont finance clerk Alan Patterson suggested just last week, assembly committees could be more pro-active in holding their departments to account on their financial decision making.

Perhaps after the main budget has passed, individual ministers should make their own budget statements, rather than allowing significant announcements to filter out when Stormont is in recess.

But the ill-focussed exchanges in the chamber this week - which won't change the Stormont budget one iota - don't constitute a good example of parliamentary scrutiny.