§ 8.35 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. James A. Dunn)
I beg to move,That the Rates Amendment (Northern Ireland) Order 1977, a draft of which was laid before this House on 10th February, be approved.The proposed order will amend the law in Northern Ireland relating to rates and the valuation of property for rating purposes to achieve a broad parity with England and Wales.
There are three main changes. First, the order extends domestic rate aid—which reduces the poundage of regional rate chargeable on dwellings—to apply to the private dwelling part of premises used partly for residential purposes and partly for other purposes. Secondly, it gives a right of appeal on the question whether rates on premises used for recreational purposes are subject to reduction. Thirdly, it allows rating relief for charity shops.
A number of amendments related to or consequential on these changes are provided for, as are others of a comparatively minor and unrelated nature. They are providing for the right to pay rates by instalments in respect of all properties used partly as private dwellings; extending the right to discount on rates or to rate rebate in certain cases; removing from the benefit of industrial derating all parts of industrial premises which are used for the purposes of a dwelling-house; and amending two date errors in the 1972 order, rectifying minor incorrect uses of language and simplifying the procedure for revising the valuation list.
Regarding the proposal to give rating relief to charity shops, this follows directly on the enabling legislation passed in this House on 6th August 1976—Rating (Charity Shops) Act 1976—which was not extended to Northern Ireland because of differences in the rating laws of the two territories.
§ 8.38 p.m.
§ Mr. John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)
The Under-Secretary has explained the order clearly. However, I should like to offer a few observations on rates.
1732 The rise in rates announced for the financial year 1975–76 came as a shock. There has been no revaluation for 20 years, so that many of the individual increases were swingeing. To many people in a small way of business, they seemed about the last straw. Like their brethren on this side of the water—and I speak as Patron of the Epping Forest Chamber of Commerce—the Northern Ireland business community must cope with much tiresome legislation, vexatious form-filling and the duties of honorary, unpaid but conscripted tax collectors.
In English constituencies, however, we do not yet suffer the terrorism which has been directed against not merely their property but their very lives. The Secretary of State perhaps should not have been so testy when the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Bradford) voiced his constituents' anxiety at Question Time. In an earlier debate my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson), in an admirable speech, praised the courage of the business community. The terrorist is unable to quench the Ulster spirit of business as usual.
For 1975–76, rates rose by an average of 32 per cent. I wonder what the increase will be for 1976–77. I wonder how much of the increase is attributable to inflation and how much to the leeway to be made up in the pursuit of parity with other comparable parts of the United Kingdom. I understand that the 32 per cent. average increase for 1975–76 was composed of a 25 per cent. estimated increase in comparable areas on this side of the Irish Channel and a 7 per cent. leeway payment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) and I visited the chamber of commerce and received its deputation when the increases for 1975–76 were made public. Thanks to the kindness of the hon. Members for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) and Londonderry (Mr. Ross), I have met representatives of the commercial community in their constituencies. There was strong talk of the traders withholding payment. How many have done so, to what extent have they done so and in which parts of the Province has it been done?
Article 6 of the order provides for what might be called easy payments. It is a welcome provision. Also welcome 1733 is the extended right to discount for prompt payment. Will the Minister explain why discount is allowable only on the domestic element of hereditaments used partly as dwellings? Should there not be a general incentive for early and prompt payment?
Article 4 deals with relief from rates in respect of recreational hereditaments and for appeals thereon. Does the article cover indoor recreational facilities? I believe it does not. Is the Gaelic Athletic Association a beneficiary of this relief? The GAA plays an important part in the social life of the Province. For myself, I admire Gaelic sports. Indeed, it is suggested that consideration be given to periodical Ulster games meetings for those who play and watch the various British and Irish sports. Jubilee Year might have been a good time to start.
Does the Minister think it right that sports council and Government assistance should be given to a recreational organisation that discriminates improperly? Many people would consider it improper, to put it mildly, for the GAA to exclude those who serve in the Royal Navy or the Army, although the discrimination, quaintly, does not appear to extend to the Royal Air Force or the Royal Marines. This is a matter for Professor Lawrence's committee to consider. I understand that the committee met for the first time on 22nd October. When are we likely to have its report?
§ 8.48 p.m.
§ Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)
I briefly take up the remarks of the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) on the right of appeal and facilities for appeal in the case of halls used for recreational purposes. Although we are grateful for this improvement it is rather limited. We assume that valuation in the first instance must surely have been related in some way to the renting value of the building. For the life of me I cannot see how this comes about. I cannot understand how a valuation of £360 should be placed on a building that has an income of a mere £17 a year. This is why I say that the appeal is of limited benefit.
Even if the appeal were successful and secured a reduction of one fifth, one-quarter or one-third in the amount origi- 1734 nally assessed, it would still be beyond the bounds of possibility that any board of trustees would be able to foot the bill and remain in business. When we consider the part that these buildings play and the contribution they make to the community, we must urge the Government to look again in the near future at the whole system of their valuation. There is an element of self-interest in this matter. If we try to impose this scale of charges, the trustees will close the doors whether the appeal is successful or not. There will then be a total loss to the rating authorities.
I want now to deal with rates as they affect traders. There is provision under various headings for payment to be made by instalments and so on. We must face the fact that traders have been confronted with an absolutely staggering increase as a result of 20 years' neglect in keeping valuations up to date. Traders accept that situation. They are not refusing to pay. The fact is that they do not have the money with which to pay. We are defeating the object of the operation if they are forced to pay this lump sum and are thereby put out of business. The doors will be closed and there will be unemployment and total loss again to the rating authorities.
In addition to the concessions on appeals, I suggest that the Minister should consider giving some guidance to rate collectors to display a little more flexibility in dealing with traders. They should engage in what traders and good dealing people call sensible bargaining and be reasonable about the payment of arrears. Rate collectors should work out arrangements with traders to enable arrears to be cleared as and when the traders can afford it. I am not referring to payments in advance by instalments. That is a different matter.
If we are to have any chance of making the order work for this year, which is an emergency situation, we must be prepared to be more flexible. In the longer term it is in the interests of the Government, the rating authorities and the traders to co-operae in order to get over the hump this year.
§ 8.49 p.m.
§ Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)
I should like to ask two or three questions about matters on which the Minister will 1735 be well briefed, because they were raised in the form of comments on the proposals for this draft order at an earlier stage.
The first question relates to one of the subjects covered by the order—namely, the treatment of divided hereditaments which are partly domestic and partly non-domestic. Will the ratepayer—the occupier—have any option in the case of such premises whether or not he avails himself of the facilities which the order introduces? I understand that in many cases it will be advantageous for the ratepayer of a divided hereditament, who has hitherto been industrially rated, to opt in future to be part domestically and part industrially rated. Nevertheless, I think that there will be cases where it would be advantageous to the ratepayer overall to continue in such an instance to be industrially rated and not to avail himself of the provisions for apportionment. My first question, therefore, is: is the new arrangement for apportionment mandatory or can the ratepayer opt?
My second question relates to the provision for appeal in cases where recreational rating was previously finally decided by the Department but will now be appealable to the Lands Tribunal. I want to know whether in such cases, in deciding such appeals, the Lands Tribunal will have to be guided by previous decisions of the Department or whether it can now build up its own code. In other words, can it look at a new case which comes before it without regard to the way in which the Department has previously settled similar cases, or will it be bound by departmental precedent when sitting upon appeals now allowable by virtue of this order?
My third point has already been touched upon by the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison)—that is to say, I hope that the Minister will be able to tell the House something of the progress on the study of the question whether the charitable category for rating purposes should be extended to include certain halls. The inquiry has already been in existence for about four or five months, I think, and this is a matter on which it should now be possible to arrive at a conclusion fairly quickly. I hope that the Minister, therefore, will be able to tell the House that we can shortly look forward to having a report from this committee and that consequently many 1736 more recreational halls will be brought within the derated category.
Rating above all subjects is extremely difficult to get through to the general public. I know of no subject on which those who set out to expound the law and how it works encounter more incomprehension—so much incomprehension that one is inclined to think that there is a voluntary element hidden away in it somewhere.
This order brings benefits to certain ratepayers—for example, to a number of occupiers of hereditaments hitherto industrially rated. It brings potential opportunities to those operating charity shops and those who wish to challenge the refusal of the Department to rate recreational premises preferentially. How do the Government suppose that these changes in the law will become known to those who might benefit from them?
I return here to a very sore subject. Normally, when there is legislation in Great Britain to make changes of this sort, all kinds of bodies have been involved in it beforehand and the debate, participated in by more hon. Members, itself brings to the attention of those concerned the fact that there is a change in the law which may be to their advantage.
I want to ask the Government to go as far as they can in remedying this. We are coming close to the period when rate demands are sent out. I imagine they will be going out in the next two or three weeks over most of Northern Ireland. Would it be possible, for example, as the order will go through in a few minutes, for a note of these changes to be included either with the rate demand to all ratepayers, or—more likely—with the rate demand going to the relevant sorts of ratepayer?
It is impossible to underestimate the difficulty which the public in Northern Ireland have in finding out how the law which affects them is being changed. It is our business in this House to devise ways, so far as possible, of counteracting that difficulty. The debate we are having at this moment and the exposition of the order by the Minister is unlikely to be headline news tomorrow afternoon in the Belfast Telegraph. I am sure that it ought to be, but we know that it will not. In fact, it is extremely unlikely that any of the Northern Ireland newspapers will carry a report of the change 1737 in the law which is being made by the House tonight.
Hon. Members can do something to help, by planting reports of what transpires with the local newspapers circulating in their constituencies, but when all this has been done there is still a communications gap, which we ought constantly to be trying to narrow.
I therefore ask the Minister—he will not be able to reply to this off the cuff, but there are those who are listening to us—to consider seriously whether the rating authorities can be encouraged to bring to the attention of those concerned, in connection with the new rating year—though actually some of these provisions are retrospective to the present rating year—the undoubted improvements in the law of valuation for rating which this order makes, in case they may benefit by them.
§ 8.56 p.m.
§ Mr. Dunn
On the question of industrial use and the apportionment—I must tell the House that there will be no different treatment in Northern Ireland from that accorded the rest of the United Kingdom in relation to discount payments. I am not aware that discount payments are available to those who pay industrial rating in Great Britain. It would be unwise to introduce concessions of that kind in Northern Ireland when we are already dealing in advance of the United Kingdom in general with some other concessions, namely, the separation between industrial use and the portion occupied as a dwelling house.
As for appeals, the Lands Tribunal makes its own decisions having regard to case law and the evidence submitted to it by both sides. As far as I am aware, the appeals system applicable in the United Kingdom generally would in general be applicable to Northern Ireland. Although it is suggested that there should be a change, I am not aware of which change has been sought by those making the representations. The appeal procedure is there. The appeal can be made direct in the first place to the valuation officer and after that consideration can be given to approaching the Lands Tribunal on the very complex problems that will arise.
1738 As far as I am aware, for recreational and other community purposes there is a 35 per cent. deduction from the rates payable. The Lawrence Committee is looking more intently at a wider range of derating than has been suggested. Although the committee has not met as often as hon. Members might wish, nevertheless evidence is being collated and representations are being made to the committee. I hope that at an early date we shall receive the committee's report and recommendations.
Particular reference was made to the GAA. It is receiving the benefit to which it is entitled in the same way as any other applicant. While I cannot say that there is a 35 per cent. across-the board de-rating—there may be some local branches involved that have not made the necessary application—I stress that they are entitled to benefit and if they apply they will be afforded it.
I cannot say offhand to the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) how many traders withheld payments and in which specific areas of the Province this occurred. I shall write to him on that matter. From my general recollection I think that there was some reluctance—perhaps even resistance—but that has considerably diminished and there has been a greater response to the payment of rates than I expected initially. My officers in the rating department try to help in every possible way.
The hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) suggested that we should look at the means used to collect instalments of arrears. As he gave me notice that he was going to ask this question, I have raised it with my officers today. I assure him that it is the policy of the Department never to refuse any reasonable offer of rate payment, whether of arrears or forward instalments. There is not statutory requirement to allow the payment of rates by instalments, but we are introducing such a system under this order.
Following representations made to the Secretary of State, the Department has by Press advertisements invited commercial ratepayers who are having difficulty in meeting their rate demands to contact local rate officers in order to 1739 make arrangements to pay by the instalment method. In this way we are maintaining a flexibility of approach to accommodate individual cases.
I hope that the hon. Member will be satisfied that, while we are trying to approach these issues with some uniformity, we feel that there must be flexibility. It has been my personal experience that often when people are very vociferous about their rate payments inquiries reveal that they are not just one payment in arrears, and perhaps not even one year in arrears. Very often the arrears go much further and wider.
§ Mr. Molyneaux
I think that the Minister will agree that the rent collector on the spot will be in a position to judge and identify those cases of genuine hardship, and those cases where there is a genuine intention on the part of the ratepayer to meet the demands.
§ Mr. Dunn
I note what the hon. Member has said. I shall follow that through and, if necessary, write to him again.
I think that I have answered all the questions put to me other than the very important one about explanatory notices which might be sent out with the rate demand that is circulated in the near future. There may be some complex problems involved in this which may put a burden on local councils. I shall look at this and write to the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). If this proposals is not possible in the present rate demand distribution, it may be possible at a future date.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That the Rates Amendment (Northern Ireland) Order 1977, a draft of which was laid before this House on 10th February, be approved.