Posted on Thursday 17 January 2013 by Ulster Business

Simon Hamilton MLA

The Strangford MLA will be the man holding the purse strings at Stormont when he takes over the key role of Finance Minister later this year at a time when Westminster is likely to make further cuts.

Simon Hamilton says he is not planning to replicate the style of his current boss Sammy Wilson when he succeeds him as Minister of Finance and Personnel.

Hamilton is presently Assembly Private Secretary to the outspoken Mr Wilson and having been notified two years ago that he would replace him, has had plenty of time to prepare for the post.

While the Strangford MLA is likely to tread a similar policy line as his DUP colleague, it seems clear we'll notice a difference.

"I've known Sammy for a long time and get on well with him. But there's only one Sammy so I'm not even going to try to emulate his style. Working alongside him as his Assembly Secretary I am having an input into his decisions already so there is a clearly a commonality of approach on big issues. People won't see a massive change in approach to policy, just maybe a difference in style," he said.

"It should be as seamless a transition as you can get, although I am mindful that no matter how much preparation you do, when that day comes that the buck stops with you, it will be a bit of a shock," he added.

Hamilton walks around Stormont with the confident air of someone who both knows his political environment well and has long been identified as a rising star by his party.

Politically active since his days at Queen's University, he was first elected as an MLA in 2007 and gained a variety of experience to prepare him for the Ministerial position, sitting on the Assembly's Finance & Personnel, Enterprise, Trade & Investment and Environment committees, as well as chairing the Social Development committee.

"I didn't want to run the risk of being pigeon holed into one area of expertise. However, I was put on the Finance committee from day one, and it didn't take me long to realise it was the one I was going to enjoy. It's not for everyone, it is technical and it's not as immediately relevant to constituency work as maybe health or education would be, but it's very important," he said.

Hamilton started his career in the private sector in the audit department of PwC and, while he doesn't over-egg this experience, he believes it has proved beneficial.

"I got an understanding then of how diverse the economy is in Northern Ireland and also how dependent we are on the public sector for employment. I got to see that there are a lot of people who are passionate about what they do and in many cases are world class at what they do," he said.

"I got a feel for why certain businesses were doing well, why some were contracting. I meet a lot of businesses through my constituency work or here at Stormont and I don't understand everything they are doing. But the skill I learned is that you need to listen and then do what you can to help."

The role of Finance Minister has traditionally been seen as being primarily focused on protecting the block grant that Northern Ireland gets from Westminster. Hamilton doesn't fully agree with that perception, but says there is a need to focus more on the outcomes of what is done with that money.

"Governments and administrations generally are often guilty of just allocating a chunk of cash for this and a chunk of cash for that, and being more interested in the inputs than the outcomes and following that money through the system to see if you're getting value for money and the outcome you intended at the start," he said.

"It is a cultural thing about how government works. Sometimes we are averse to doing new things and innovating because of the fear it won't have the desired outcome."

The onus, at times of economic difficulty, is on the devolved government to make sure it is delivering for the people who elected it, he adds.

"The Assembly's first term was about survival. That isn't good enough in a second term, or third or fourth term. We are here to deliver services for the people who put us here and like any business or household if you pay something in you expect a return. If you're awash with cash as we were a few years ago then you don't have the same concern about value for money and the performance or outcomes. Out of the crisis there's an opportunity to ask what are we spending the money on and what are the outcomes we're getting from that. It is a cultural shift," said the MLA.

Hamilton expects the UK government's austerity measures to stretch to 2018, which will have clear impacts on public spending here. This will mean Government here has to think differently and could mean a greater role for partnerships with the private and third sectors.

"You've got two choices in these circumstances. Either you do less with less or more with less. That's easy to say and hard to do," he said.

"I don't think we should be shy about saying we don't have all the answers here. There's a lot going on elsewhere in the British Isles and Europe where governments have faced the same problems we are facing but have used it as an opportunity to innovate. There's sometimes a feeling that the words innovation and government don't go together, but if you look around the world there are good examples of governments doing things differently to deliver the public services the public expect," he added.

"We look at the size of the public sector as a weakness in Northern Ireland, and there's no doubt we'd like the private sector to be bigger, but with so much money having gone into the public sector there are skills and attributes and potential in the public sector that we haven't tapped into."

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