The Buena Vista Health Club

Jim Wells
Image caption The DUP's Jim Wells is heading to Cuba on a fact finding mission

From listening to the callers to Thursday's Nolan Show, the jury is out on whether the Stormont health committee's decision to send its chair, deputy chair and an official to Cuba in December is an imaginative attempt to learn from a socialist health model hailed throughout the world, or a flagrant abuse of the committee's travel budget.

The UUP's John McCallister, defending the trip by Sinn Fein's Sue Ramsey and the DUP's Jim Wells (which he reckons should cost around £5,000), points out that not all committee members are travelling and that Cuba has been widely admired for achieving excellent results on a fraction of the NHS's financial resources.

His committee colleague, Alliance's Kieran Mccarthy, is not convinced, wondering if equal knowledge could be gained from a good examination of the internet, or by contacting Cuban health professionals via Skype.

'Nice break'

One refreshing aspect to the trip is that the destination isn't the USA - I've lost count of the number of ministers and other elected representatives who have headed across the Atlantic to New York or Washington on fact finding visits. But the fact that Cuba looks like a nice break in cold December may provoke a cynical response.

Image caption Sinn Fein's Sue Ramsey will accompany Mr Wells on the health trip

Something the public may not realise is that Stormont has its own research branch, in which hard working individuals produce reports for committees and MLAs on all manner of topics. For example if you visit the health committee site you can see that, this year alone, reports have already been produced on issues as diverse as child protection, malnutrition, hospital waiting times and car parking charges.

Scanning back through past reports I can't see one on the Cuban health model. No doubt such a report will be compiled by the official involved on the December trip. However the public might be less cynical if the first step any committee took was not to despatch politicians overseas but to commission a preliminary report, then, if deemed necessary, to consider sending a single Assembly researcher out to do the research they are paid to provide.

'Priceless exchange'

Flicking throught the reports, I came across this one prepared on the Stormont Autism Bill. This reminded me of a priceless exchange from Wednesday's finance committee evidence session between the Attorney General, John Larkin, and the SDLP's Dominic Bradley.

Probably the most newsworthy element of Mr Larkin's evidence was his expression of doubt that Jim Allister's Special Advisers Bill would meet all the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, Mr Bradley used his questioning to air an old grievance, but didn't get much joy from the Attorney General's response.

The exchange is worth looking up on the BBC's Democracy Live, but if you don't have time here's my transcript, which begins with Mr Bradley picking up from a comment by Mr Larkin that he's prepared to offer some legal advice to Assembly members.

Dominic Bradley: "Does that assistance extend to individual Assembly members?"

John Larkin: "I think from time to time it could, yes."

Dominic Bradley: "Why then did you decline to give me advice when I asked for your advice on the Autism Bill?"

John Larkin: "Well it's a very good question, but there are all kinds of reasons which I can't go into now as to why I can't answer it."

Dominic Bradley: "I thought we had enough of that this morning."

John Larkin: "Well I won't beat around the bush. There are a variety of reasons why I can't answer that question."

Dominic Bradley: "Well maybe you would write to me and explain."

John Larkin: "I'm not even sure I can do that but if you write to me I'll see if I can answer your question."

Dominic Bradley: "I did write to you, but you didn't answer."

John Larkin: "Well that's right you got an answer but it wasn't the answer that you particularly...." (indecipherable due to laughter but I assume the attorney general said his answer wasn't the one Mr Bradley had been looking for).

Let's hope our fact finders in Cuba have more luck getting responses from the Havana health care workers.

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