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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 June 2007, 09:24 GMT 10:24 UK
Stormont for beginners
By Mark Devenport
BBC NI Political Editor

The opening days of the new Stormont must have been confusing for the voters.

Motions are debated and voted upon, but ministers insist they are not binding. What is the point of having a parliament, if its discussions don't count?

What is happening in the new Stormont assembly?

In truth, the Stormont chamber is still in a running-in period.

It is waiting for the Executive to make decisions on big issues like water charges and for the new ministers to work their ideas up into proposals for new laws.

But some early bills are starting to come before the chamber - these include proposals for the reform of welfare benefits.

So how will these bills become law? A bill starts its life with a minister, a committee or an individual member who can present the measure to the speaker, Willie Hay, for his consideration.

If Mr Hay's office believes the bill falls within the Assembly's remit, it will then be introduced and debated in the Assembly chamber.

After that it is referred to one of the Stormont committees, so that Assembly members can scrutinise the details of any measure.

The committee will report back to the Assembly, allowing other members to consider the details and propose amendments changing the law.

The Assembly then reconsiders the measure and a final vote is taken.

Once a measure is approved, the speaker asks the Northern Ireland Secretary to secure Royal Assent from the Queen.

The bill becomes law and is then known as an act. Referring the matter to the monarch is a purely formal stage in the process.

The Assembly can only pass laws on devolved matters, such as health, education, the economy, agriculture, the environment and so on.

Areas which may be devolved in the future, such as policing and justice, are known as "reserved matters".

Areas which the government does not intend to devolve such as foreign policy and external defence are known as "excepted matters".

Whilst individual politicians can introduce their own bills, in practice bills brought by ministers, with the approval of the Executive, are likely to take priority.

In the early days of the Assembly, most motions have been voted on by a simple majority. But if there is a contentious measure in the future, parties will insist it is treated differently.

Carson's Statue
Devolution returned to Stormont on 8 May

Under the rules of the Assembly, important decisions or bills which involve the commitment of financial resources have to win cross-community support.

This means either winning the backing of both a majority of unionists and a majority of nationalists, or the support of 40% of both sides and more than 60% of all Assembly members.

As things stand, both the DUP and Sinn Fein represent more than 60% of their respective designations.

If 30 members of the Assembly are concerned about a decision, they can petition for it to be referred back to the Executive.

On the Executive, if any three ministers are concerned about a decision by one of their colleagues, they can insist on a cross-community vote amongst the 12 members.

Apart from passing laws, the Assembly has a role in holding Executive ministers to account.

Assembly committees shadow the work of individual departments and, on Mondays, from early June, ministers will appear in the Stormont chamber to answer Assembly members' questions.

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