HC Deb 21 February 1979 vol 963 cc439-78

4.12 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Tom Pendry)

I beg to move, That the draft Rates Amendment (Northern Ireland) Order 1979, which was laid before this House on 7 February, be approved. This order has two main objects—to ease the rates burden on property used for sport, physical recreation or for community purposes, and to provide rate relief for facilities for the disabled. The order would amend the Rates (Northern Ireland) Order 1977, which is the principal order relating to rating in Northern Ireland. It also proposes minor modifications to valuation procedures not directly connected to these main provisions.

I believe that right hon. and hon. Members will be interested in the background to this legislation. The proposals about rating relief for physical and community recreation arise from the report of a committee, under the chairmanship of Professor R. J. Lawrence of Queen's university, Belfast, which was appointed in September 1976, to consider the rate liability of bodies providing facilities for sport, recreation and community activities for the public, or a substantial section of it, and in doing so take account of the practice in comparable fields in Great Britain ". The committee consulted widely with interested organisations. It studied in detail evidence submitted orally and in writing from bodies concerned particularly with the easement of the rates burden on their members. It also gave great weight to the well-considered and expert evidence submitted by the Association of Local Authorities, and, indeed, the proposals made by that body became the cornerstone of the recommendations made by the committee. Having also given detailed consideration to the position in Great Britain, the committee produced a report with which, subject to some reservations, the Government were in agreement. The report was issued for public consideration, and in the main public comment was favourable.

The report stressed the importance of sporting and recreational facilities being available in Northern Ireland. It recommended that organisations providing such facilities should be encouraged by widening the scope of rate relief and raising its level. The report also said, however, that only those portions of a hereditament that are actually used for the purposes of sport or physical recreation should qualify for relief, and that all other portions, whether bars, restaurants, card rooms and so on, should be fully rated. The report further stressed that rigorous conditions were necessary to prevent abuse and to safeguard the interests of the general body of ratepayers. The Government endorsed this approach.

A proposal for a draft order was prepared and published for consideration. I read all the comments submitted in writing and listened carefully to oral rep-representations made to me. The district councils have also been consulted both individually and through the Association of Local Authorities, and have indicated that they are satisfied that the draft order covers the points made by them to the Lawrence committee, and in particular concentrates relief on helping the sporting aspects of clubs while protecting the general body of ratepayers. In finalising the draft order now before the House, I have endeavoured to meet as far as possible the points put to me.

Article 3 of the draft order provides for the existing level of 35 per cent. rate relief, which currently applies to the total net annual value of certain sporting hereditaments, to be increased to 65 per cent. This increased relief will in general be restricted to the portion of the hereditament which is used solely for the purposes of a prescribed recreation. This means that, in particular, the bar or restaurant in a club will not qualify for rate relief, but this is reasonable as such facilities themselves provide an income for the organisation. It also means that those sporting bodies which obtain little or no supportive income from such facilities would benefit to a greater extent than at present.

The proposals are broadly in line with the position in Great Britain, where local authorities as rating authorities have, and freely exercise, a discretion in granting corresponding relief. Such relief is on average generally in the region of 50 per cent., and the Lawrence committee thought—and the Government agree—that, overall, Northern Ireland should be given something similar. We believe that 65 per cent. is the correct figure. This takes, into account not only the restriction of relief to the recreational portions of the hereditament but also the need to encourage in Northern Ireland those voluntary clubs and activities which offer opportunities for constructive social effort, particularly in areas of social deprivation.

In line with the recommendations of the Lawrence report, rating relief under the order will be restricted to voluntary bodies which do not employ persons who play for reward other than as a coach or instructor. As the House knows, the Department of Education in Northern Ireland provides aid to professional football clubs under a grant scheme which is more appropriate than rate relief. Organisations which have less than 20 per cent. of their valuations apportioned to solely recreational use will receive no relief, while those of 80 per cent. and more will receive relief on their full net annual value. So as to provide a smooth progression of the level of relief up to 100 per cent., relief for hereditaments which are treated as 50 per cent. or more recreational will be scaled. Relief is thereby weighted in favour of hereditaments which are predominantly recreational, and this weighting will compensate for possible marginal exclusions under the necessarily strict conditions regarding use solely for a prescribed recreation.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

The Minister referred to a smooth graduation being provided for by the provisions of article 3 Is it not the case that, for example, there is a jump from 49 per cent. to 71 per cent. in the derating at one point in the scale, and similar jumps of roughly 20 per cent. at higher points? Is it really true to say that the graduation is smooth?

Mr. Pendry

I do not believe that the right hon. Gentleman has got it right. I should like to give him some examples of how this is progressive and smooth, and I shall do so later.

I have considered with particular care the words "used solely" in defining those areas which would be regarded as recreational and would qualify for relief. It has been put to me that this term was much too restrictive, and that it would exclude from relief rooms which while used for the sporting activities of a club might also on some occasions be used for non-recreational activities—for example, a weekly dance in a room which was otherwise used only for sport.

I think, however, that if we are to achieve the aims which the Lawrence committee recommended so strongly—and I remind hon. Members that these were that help by means of rate relief should be directed towards sporting activities of a club and not the social side, and that there should be strict control of relief to protect the general body of ratepayers—it is essential to have very clear lines between what portion of a club's premises is sporting and what portion is not.

It would be impracticable to have a grey area here, because the circumstances could differ so widely between clubs, and varying interpretation could be quite unfair to clubs and to the ratepayers. I should also say again that the 20 per cent. addition, where a club's sporting apportionment is above 50 per cent., and it is therefore mainly sporting, is intended to take into account very small areas about which there may be doubt whether they qualify.

I was particularly impressed by the arguments put to me on this problem at a meeting with members of the Sports Council for Northern Ireland. I have a high regard for the views of this body and noted its concern. While, as I explained to it, I think it necessary to retain the use of the word "solely", I would wish to be certain that the order did in the event achieve what both the Lawrence committee and the Government had in mind. I therefore intend that the Department of Finance shall review the matter in 1981 at the end of a two-year running in period. It will look carefully at what the effect of the order has been in clubs, because the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

Such a review will show whether any of the disadvantages that some now fear have in fact come about. In carrying out the review, the Sports Council and local authorities will be looked to for advice and guidance. That is the fairest way to deal with the problems that were presented to me by such bodies as the Sports Council.

I have also decided, in view of the representation made to me by various bodies during the consultation period on the proposals for the draft order, that it is necessary to introduce special provision to allow relief on car park spaces used by participants in sports although they may also at times be used by non-participants. Similarly, I have decided that the order as first drafted was too restrictive when applied to certain portions of hereditaments constructed or adapted for special use, such as the bathrooms or changing rooms and stores. The order has been redrafted accordingly at article 3(1).

I have also given careful thought to representations made to me that some clubs may, under this draft order, be worse off than at present. Any such clubs would be predominantly social rather than sporting. Whilst I think that their number will be small—smaller than perhaps is anticipated by those who have fears about this—in order to be as helpful as possible I have decided to assist any organisation affected in this way. Therefore, the order has been amended during the consultation period to help clubs in this position.

There will be a transition period of two years, during which clubs will pay in each of those two years respectively only one-third and two-thirds of the increased amount in their new rates. This means, for example, that where a club's rates would be £100 more in 1979–80 under this order than under current legislation, they will pay only an increase of £33. In 1980–81 that increase will be only £66, and not until 1981–82 will they be called upon to pay the full increase to which they are liable.

Mr. James Kilfedder (Down, North)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, despite the amendments about which he has informed the House, most recreational clubs in Northern Ireland still feel strongly about the restrictive quality of the word "solely"? Will he consider changing that to "mainly"? We are all anxious to ensure that these recreational clubs should survive economically and provide leisure facilities, particularly for young people.

Mr. Pendry

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern. We believe that we have it right, but, in order to be sure, the fairest way would be to have this two-year running-in period, so that we can see where we are going. The object of the order is to help sporting clubs. At the end of that period we shall be in a better position to know whether we have struck the right chord. We could be wrong; that is why we are building this into the order.

I have thus tried to be fair to those who will have to adjust to this new legislation, which rightly weights rating relief in favour of organisations which are predominantly recreational.

The Government recognise the important contribution which physical activity makes to mental and physical well-being. They therefore endorsed the Lawrence report's recommendation that in order to qualify for relief a hereditament must be used for sports, whether indoor or outdoor, which demand an appreciable degree of physical effort. A list of such sports will be set out In an order made by the Department of Finance for Northern Ireland after consultation with the Association of Local Authorities for Northern Ireland and the Sports Council for Northern Ireland, through whom the interests of other sporting bodies, in particular the Northern Ireland Council of Physical Recreation, would be channelled. Under current constitutional arrangement Under current constitutional arrangements, such an order will be subject to annulment by Parliament.

In addition to rate relief for sporting bodies, Professor Lawrence's committee also looked into that for bodies concerned with community activities for the public. The report of the committee stressed the shortage of premises available in Northern Ireland for community activities and it recognised that this could not be remedied quickly. It therefore sought ways to encourage the use of existing halls which belong to a variety of organisations and which are to be found all over Northern Ireland.

The committee recommended a widening of the scope of current rate relief for such halls. Therefore, article 4 of this order provides for the extension of rate relief to hereditaments used for purposes regarded as charitable under the Recreational Charities Act (Northern Ireland) 1958. This relief will be granted provided that, first, the occupying organisation is not established or conducted for profit, secondly, the premises are used for qualifying purposes for at least 10 per cent. of the time in a year, and, thirdly, any charge for the use of the premises is restricted to the amount necessary to defray only reasonable expenses such as heat and light. An important clarification which I have introduced into the draft order is that neither the occupier nor the user is required to be a charity in order to qualify for rate relief. He has only to use the premises for recreational charitable purposes.

This article is specifically designed to encourage owners of halls to allow other bodies to use their premises for the public good. It deviates from the standard rule of rating law that a body can obtain rate relief only where its functions qualify. It should—and I hope it will—by making it possible to reduce their rate bill, provide a strong incentive to voluntary bodies occupying suitable premises to allow others to use their halls for community purposes. This is an important aim and one I am keen to see succeed. It will thus increase the stock of accommodation available for the public use and benefit.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

The Minister's comments will be widely welcomed in Northern Ireland. We have a number of halls that could be used in that way, but many of these halls are used for religious activities. Would that come under the general term of a charitable activity, in the same way as Sunday schools and harvest thanksgiving services?

Mr. Pendry

No, but I should like to consider some of the functions that flow from a religious organisation in such a hall, and I shall reply to the hon. Gentleman.

The Government attach importance to this matter, and in particular recognise that their rates bill is a major impediment to the continued existence of small halls in rural areas. I therefore sought a special method of providing rates relief for those halls which might otherwise find difficulty in attaining the qualifying percentage use. I recognised that their rural location and the sparsity of population in their area might give them only a limited opportunity to use or offer their premises for community purposes. Such special difficulties, in my opinion, justify a special solution. I have therefore provided that the criteria for qualification will be linked to potential use in addition to actual use, thus taking account of any special difficulties in scattered rural communities. I trust that this will be seen as a real effort by the Government in giving them an added incentive to allow their halls to be used as widely as possible by the local community.

I now come to the provisions of rate relief for disabled persons, which I am sure will have the wholehearted support of the House. The rate relief currently available to disabled persons in Northern Ireland is limited to accommodation for a disabled person's vehicle. This order will extend to disabled persons in Northern Ireland the easement in their rate burden provided for the disabled in England, Wales and Scotland in the Rating (Disabled Persons) Act 1978, which becomes operative on 1 April this year.

Article 5 provides that the burden of rates will be lifted from those domestic facilities which are specifically required for meeting the needs of a disabled person who lives there, whether or not he is the owner or tenant of the house. It also covers a garage or parking place completely separate from his home used by a disabled person for keeping his vehicle. In short, this article provides, as I think eminently justified and desirable, that any domestic facilities specifically for meeting the needs of and used by a disabled person are free of rates.

The Rating (Disabled Persons) Act 1978 provides that in England and Wales set amounts of rebate will be given for special facilities regardless of the valuation of the hereditament. In Scotland, however, relief will be based on the valuation of the special facilities concerned. The order follows the Scottish procedure, which I consider to be more suitable to Northern Ireland and which has the support of the Northern Ireland Committee for the Handicapped, which co-ordinates the views of those bodies concerned with disabled persons in Northern Ireland.

Article 6 provides for the exemption from rates of hereditaments used by institutions for the provision of care and after-care, training, welfare services and special employment for disabled persons.

Article 7 provides for the clarification in Northern Ireland terms of "disabled person" and "illness", and links the former to the recently enacted Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons (Northern Ireland) Act 1978.

Articles 8, 9 and 10 provide for minor consequential and other amendments.

The provisions covered in articles 3 and 4 are estimated to cost about £60,000 in 1979–80. The cost of rate relief for disabled persons, as set out in articles 5 and 6, is most difficult to estimate but can be regarded as insignificant in terms of rate revenue.

The provisions of this draft order will direct rate relief to areas where, I think right hon. and hon. Members will agree, it ought to be given and where it is really needed.

Mr. Powell

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Member, but I fear that he may be on his peroration. He has not yet fulfilled his promise to me to explain article 3 more fully in order to eliminate my apprehension of a jump from 49 per cent. to 71 per cent. Perhaps this would be an appropriate moment for me to interrupt him.

Mr. Pendry

I thought that when I replied to the debate I would give the right hon. Member more details. I would prefer to do that, because I am sure that I can cover the point that he is making. This is the one area in which we must get information over to as many people as possible, and it is my Department's intention to see that that is done. This could be considered a complicated stepping-stone operation, but it is intended to assist.

With those words, I commend the order to the House.

4.33 p.m.

Mr. Airey Neave (Abingdon)

We feel that Professor Lawrence and his colleagues on the committee are to be warmly congratulated on their concise and clear report. It was obviously very useful to the Government in coming to the decisions that they have announced. I should like to thank the Under-Secretary of State for the clear way in which he presented the order, with which we agree.

I was glad that the Under-Secretary listened to the Northern Ireland Sports Council, because obviously it raised important points.

This order certainly improves the position of the disabled and it is to be warmly welcomed by Members on both sides of the House and throughout the Province. The Under-Secretary pointed out that at present the rate relief is quite inadequate. It is available only for premises which house the chairs and the vehicles that the disabled use. Under this order Northern Ireland will be brought broadly into line with the rest of the United Kingdom where the Rating (Disabled Persons) Act applies.

I was glad to hear the definition of a disabled person. In this case it means a person to whom section 1 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons (Northern Ireland) Act 1978 applies. It is Northern Ireland legislation and not Great Britain legislation, and that is quite right.

There is no fundamental conflict between this order and our views. We favour the principle of rate remission in relation to recreation and the disabled and we would certainly encourage local authorities to use the powers that are available in these areas. At the same time, we recognise that final decisions should be taken locally to suit local needs, which means that local authorities should retain their discretionary powers. This is why the order will not put Northern Ireland on exactly the same basis as the rest of the United Kingdom. I do not think that it would be possible to achieve a common standard in the existing circumstances, because in Great Britain elected institutions, subject only to very general conditions, are permitted to grant or refuse rate relief as they think fit. This is clearly explained in the Lawrence report.

The fact that the duty of collecting rates in Northern Ireland is in the hands of a Government Department highlights once again the lack of effective democratic scrutiny of regional administration in the Province and underlines the need for an elected regional authority if a system of devolved government cannot be fully agreed. On the other hand, the large element of flexibility permitted in Great Britain through local authorities cannot be introduced through this measure because of the absence of elected rating authorities. The district councils have, of course, certain discretion in fixing rates.

The Under-Secretary dealt fully with the question of recreation. I welcome his proposals. Whether they go far enough I do not know, and no doubt right hon. and hon. Members representing Northern Ireland seats will wish to comment on this matter. It is right that it should be reviewed after two years, in 1981, and the reduced amounts which the hon. Gentleman suggested should be paid will be welcome. There is considerable feeling about this. No doubt the Under-Secretary will tell us when he replies whether this matter has been fully resolved to the satisfaction of the Sports Council and whether its members are fully satisfied, for example, on the question of committee rooms and whether they are covered by the proposed amendments.

It is clear that to include only those portions of a hereditament being used for recreation is too strict and that the Under-Secretary has in mind a more flexible attitude. We certainly welcome that. I have had an opportunity to read a letter that the Under-Secretary wrote to the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), and I agree that there has been a considerable improvement in the Government's attitude. I raise the question of the management of clubs. Certain rooms are vital to that, and committee rooms would seem to be a case in point. I hope that the Under-Secretary will look at that.

The various social activities conducted on club premises—for example, fund raising, without which the clubs would collapse—are essential to the survival of those premises. I do not think it was the intention of the Lawrence committee that relief should be so narrowly circumscribed Perhaps the Under-Secretary could tell us a bit more about that.

On the question of cultural activities, the Lawrence committee saw no need for any change, but its members formed the impression that the existing provision for rate relief for cultural activities is not generally known. The committee recommended that increased publicity should be given by the Government to this aspect of rating law. Are the Government taking appropriate steps to ensure that the provisions for rating relief for cultural activities are more widely known?

The Under-Secretary mentioned charities and charitable organisations. Strictly speaking, these were not within the terms of reference of the Lawrence committee, but in paragraph 54 of its report it criticised the existing procedures for registration of charities, which are unclear in some aspects. The report states: it would appear that there is no official source of advice and guidance on these matters in Northern Ireland. In his foreword to the report, the Minister commented on the complex intense legal problems surrounding this issue ". He promised to consult interested parties about charities. My hon. Friends and I should like to be told how the consultations are going.

Rating reform was raised in the recent report of the working party. Paragraph 10 of the report indicates that the Department of Finance is still—six years later—trying to find the most equitable method of striking a regional rate. I recognise that it is an involved matter, but some time has elapsed and that draws attention to the need to indicate to ratepayers the services to which they contribute.

The Minister must realise that there will be requests for a fuller debate on the regional rate. I am sure that he has read the letter from the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Mr. David Cook, which was published in the Belfast Telegraph on 17 February. On the general subject of rate reform, he pointed out that the Layfield committee did not report on Northern Ireland. He felt that, despite the existence of the working party, a ful-scale inquiry was still needed. The Lord Mayor believed that the working party report did not go far enough.

I shall not pursue the matter further except to say that I believe that the House should have the opportunity to discuss fully the regional rate. The Government have said that no final decisions have been reached, but the provision of information on the services to which ratepayers contribute through the regional rate is a necessary reform.

With those matters in mind, my hon. Friends and I agree with the order.

4.42 p.m.

Mr J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

On the principal subject covered by the draft order, there was general satisfaction in the Province when the Lawrence committee was established in 1976, and considerably more satisfaction when the committee's report was published in 1977, simultaneously with a broad acceptance of its recommendations by the Government In his prefatory letter to the report, the then Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland announced that the Government would legislate accordingly as soon as possible, subject to consultation.

No one denies the importance of consultation; but that alone is not sufficient to account for the lapse of one and three-quarter years—between June 1977, when the report was accepted, and 1 April 1979, when the new law will come into effect, presumably for the new rating year. Incidentally, I hope that in winding up the Minister will clear up the question whether the new provisions will be fully effective for the whole of the new rating year, 1979–80.

So a whole year has been lost; for the public of Northern Ireland were justified in expecting that the legislation would be produced a year earlier. In that case, they would have enjoyed a year sooner the advantage of the recommendations of the committee that were accepted by the Government. That cannot be made good now. It follows that the public of Northern Ireland have been cheated of one year's value of the Lawrence report recommendations.

If the Government had needed to legislate in the proper fashion, that might have provided an excuse; but the procedure of legislation by Order in Council under direct rule deprives them of the plea of time. The Minister will, I hope, forgive me if I place on record the disappointment felt in the Province which succeeded to the general satisfaction that prevailed in 1976 and 1977.

I turn to the question: who pays? For there may be misunderstanding about the cost—it is described as cost in the Lawrence report, and the Minister described it in that way—of these reliefs. Without prejudice to the desirability of the reliefs, we should be clear who is paying for them. I believe that I know; but I will try my theory on the Minister and when he winds up he will mark my examination paper and tell me if I am right.

There are two elements to the rate in Northern Ireland—the district and the regional rate. In the case of the district rate it seems clear that the burden is transferred to other ratepayers. To that extent, it is a rearrangement of the rating burden. That makes it no less desirable; but the people of Northern Ireland should not feel that they have been given something like manna from heaven from outside the Province. However well justified, this is a rearrangement of the existing burden.

I am not so clear about the regional rate, because it is not a rate at all but an assessment of what the average ratepayer would be paying if he lived in a comparable part of Great Britain, plus or minus adjustments. What he would be paying in that imaginary situation in Great Britain is partly the result of the Exchequer grants payable in support of rates. If I am right so far, I should like to know whether, in respect of the regional rate, the full cost of the redistribution still falls upon the ratepayer or whether a notional adjustment of Exchequer grants is to be made for the notional area with which we are compared in fixing the regional rate in Northern Ireland. In other words, does one pennyworth of the cost of these concessions come from the Exchequer, or does 100 per cent. come from the ratepayers in Northern Ireland? I hope that that point has been seized by the Minister, because it is desirable that we should know precisely who is paying and who is bearing the burden.

I do not believe anyone would cavil at the principle of the three major changes made by the order. The first is the improvement, with some exceptions, of the rating relief enjoyed in respect of sporting and recreational hereditaments. It puts Northern Ireland at a slight advantage when compared with the corresponding but varying relief in Great Britain, and there is no harm in that. The hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) rightly said that no direct comparison of rating is possible between the Province and the rest of the United Kingdom because Northern Ireland has no responsible rating and spending authorities; and I should like to underline his point about the urgent need for a debate on the rating system and on the working party report. On behalf of himself and his colleagues, my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) has strongly represented to the Government that there should be a full-scale debate on that matter. It may be that it would be more effective in the Northern Ireland Committee; but it ought in any case to be a full-scale debate and we ought to have it before the beginning of the new rating year—in other words, in March. It would be absurd for rate demands to be sent out and the usual misunderstandings, complaints, queries and puzzlements to arise in the Province, and then, after all that had subsided, for us belatedly to get around to debating the general subject.

I am not trying to distract attention from our immediate subject; but we can hardly talk about any rating measure without realising that the general debate hangs over us like a cloud whatever relatively subordinate matters we deal with.

The second major element in the draft order is relief for community use of halls that are not in charitable or community ownership. Only those who axe familiar with Northern Ireland can fully appreciate the benefit that could accrue from that measure. There are many parts of Northern Ireland, particularly in rural areas, where there are no community halls other than those created for a special purpose—Orange halls, Hibernian halls and so on—which are often made available for purposes not connected with the bodies that own them, and which are the only thing approaching community halls to be found in those areas.

As one goes around and notices the amount of money and local initiative which went into building those halls a century or a century and a half ago and sees how difficult many of them are to keep up, one is bound to wish that the maximum use might be made of them. I say that with no prejudice to the full execution of the purposes to which they are dedicated; but it is absurd if those buildings are not providing, as fully as desired, the community service which they could. In many parts of Northern Ireland there is a desperate need for publicly available accommodation for meetings and community activities of all sorts.

The third major element of the draft order is rating relief for the accommodation of disabled persons in Northern Ireland to be brought up to the standard established in the rest of the kingdom by the Act of last year.

Anyone must approve and welcome those objectives and the broad manner in which they are carried out in the draft order, but, for the avoidance of doubt and the improvement of the understanding of the draft order, I wish to discuss specific aspects. If hon. Members from other parts of the kingdom who are crowding the Benches—no doubt in expectation of the later debate on the European Economic Community, which also always attracts a large attendance—find some of the details dry and a little uninteresting, they ought not to complain. They should remember that for representatives from Northern Ireland the asking of questions on the provisions of a draft order is our only equivalent to the consideration of legislation in Committee. Hon. Members should share our grudge that we do not yet, in all respects, enjoy the privilege of being able to join in the proper form of legislation.

I have a series of queries and requests for clarification. I hope that the Minister will bear with me if, for the purpose of clarity, I use the pages of the draft order rather than the articles, because we find one numbered article inside another and that is a confusing method of notation.

I start by referring to page 3 of the draft order and paragraph (5)—the provision that enables a reduction to be made only for that part of the year in which a hereditament is used in the relevant manner. Clearly there is a broad fairness in such a time apportionment, but there is a worry—and nothing that the Minister said resolved the problem—that some of those premises may be devoted to sports or recreations that are essentially seasonal, so that the hereditament, in the nature of things, would be used for only part of the year. If the result is that the hereditament will get only part relief, it would be as unfair as the general principle is clearly justified.

Paragraph (6) on page 3 deals with the definition of a prescribed recreation. There are two qualifications. A prescribed recreation is one which in the opinion of the Department demands an appreciable degree of physical effort ". One can hardly say that the term an appreciable degree of physical effort is a precise and clear limitation. No category of activities immediately springs to mind when one hears that expression. The vagueness—and any anxiety due to the vagueness—is not diminished when it is to be in the opinion of the Department that the activity demands that degree of physical effort. I find that most of our activities demand an appreciable degree of physical effort ". I do not know how it is with the Minister; but I imagine that most of his activities require some degree of physical effort. He may, however, be disappointed to reflect that that effort, by itself, will not be enough, for there is a second qualification. The recreation must be of a kind specified by the Department ". The Department will pick and choose between activities and recreations demanding an appreciable degree of physical effort ". A number of doubts and difficulties have arisen here. The order requires consultation with the Sports Council for Northern Ireland and the Minister indicated that consultation would not be restricted to the council; but I put to the Minister the proposition that the contents of the list are, in effect, what will decide the application of the order, and that the draft list ought therefore to be published by the Department well in advance, so that opinions upon it can be given by members of the public, criticisms can be publicly raised, and hon. Members can have the opportunity of knowing in advance what is to be done.

Of course, that would not be so necessary if paragraph (6) did not contain the usual lie that the order will be made subject to affirmative resolution. As the Minister candidly explained, that does not mean what it says. It means the opposite. The order will be made subject to negative resolution, and there will be no debate on it—unless we organise a special debate, out of time, in the Northern Ireland Committee. It follows that the Minister should be in a position to undertake that the list, whatever it is or is not to comprise, should be published well in advance and be open to public scrutiny.

However, I wish to make one or two comments now. In paragraph 68 of its report, the Lawrence committee said that it expected the list to exclude any kind of recreation that obviously is not in need of rate relief ". I find that an objectionable proposition in principle. If we are giving rate relief to certain activities—rate relief which is only available if those activities are not conducted on a profit-making basis—I cannot see why there should be any discrimination between one kind of recreation and another according to whether it obviously is not in need of rate relief. Rate relief is not given on a means-test basis. It is given on a basis of definition. It seems to me a contradiction to the general principle of what is being done if the Government follow that unwise recommendation of the Lawrence committee.

I do not know whether the object was to keep out fox hunting, stag hunting, or even hare hunting—I believe that there is the odd harrier pack, although they occasionally riot after fox—but it could happen that all kinds of recreations which are just as much so as those proposed to be put in the list would be excluded on the unsatisfactory basis that "everyone knows that only the rich pursue those recreations and there is plenty of money for them anyhow".

There has been circulated a draft list compiled by the Sports Council. It is the list of activities for which it now recommends or organises various forms of grant. I notice that it includes riding. So I presume that riding stables, if they are not profit-making, will be included in the derating. I am not sure, therefore—I shall not ride this hobby-horse any further—that there would be any justification for exclusion if those who left the stables to ride were to have a pack of hounds in front of them. I can assure the hon. Gentleman, if he does not know it from personal experience, that that does involve an appreciable degree of physical effort ". So we want much more clarification and much more opportunity to discuss the all important list of prescribed recreations.

I come next to that word "solely", which already has caused so much heartburn amongst those who may be benefited by the order and has been mentioned already three times in the debate. Until the Minister spoke, I thought that I had understood the function of the word "solely". I thought the point was that hitherto hereditaments had been taken as such and therefore, if the word "solely" had been used hitherto, it would have excluded a great many from this relief if they were not wholly devoted to the purposes of a prescribed recreation. But the relief is now to be on a new basis—on the basis of taking the hereditaments to pieces, looking at them part by part, and seeing which parts are directed to the purposes of the recreation.

If that is so, I am a little worried by the significance of the word "solely" still being attached to part of a hereditament already isolated for the purposes of attracting rate relief. There was a case mentioned by the Minister which gave me even more anxiety. He said that a room which was otherwise used purely for recreation purposes might once in the year or occasionally be used for a dance. What I did not understand was whether in his view that would mean that "solely" would exclude that gymnasium or room unless it could try to get in under "part of the year". So we need to understand the way in which the word "solely" is to be construed under the new system of dividing up a hereditament and identifying only those portions dedicated to recreational purposes.

My anxieties were further heightened when the Minister seemed to say "This may or may not work out, but do not worry, for we shall have a review in two years." If the Minister were as sure as the Department has purported to be in its negotiations with the Sports Council that there is nothing to worry about in the word "solely", I do not see why the consolation of a review after two years should be held out. It would be much better to get the thing right now, especially as in the intervening two years premises which should have attracted rate relief may have failed to do so. I am afraid the Minister will have to go further on the subject of that wicked little word "solely".

I come to the question which I put to him, the answer to which, perhaps wisely, he deferred to his reply to the debate. Let me try to explain where my difficulty lies. I take him to the final paragraph on page 3 of the order. Where the amount of the total rateable value apportioned to purposes of recreation is between 20 per cent. and 50 per cent., that apportionment stands for the purpose of derating, if I may use that word: that is the apportionment which attracts the 65 per cent. relief. Thus, if 40 per cent. of a hereditament is apportioned to prescribed recreational purposes, it is only to that 40 per cent. that the 65 per cent. relief applies.

Let me now give an example to illustrate my difficulty. Here is a hereditament of which 49 per cent. is so apportioned. It gets 65 per cent. relief on 49 per cent. But if the apportionment is 51 per cent., 71 per cent is the proportion to which the 65 per cent. is applied. So there is a gap between 49 per cent. and 71 per cent., and no one is in the middle. It is rather like going straight from 1 B.C. into 1 A.D.: one comes out of the zone in which only the actual apportionment attracts the 65 per cent. into a zone where it is the apportionment plus 20 per cent. which attracts rate relief.

Mr. Pendry

Twenty per cent. of 50 per cent. in this case would be 60 per cent. and not 70 per cent. Perhaps that makes the position rather more clear.

Mr. Powell

I am sorry to have to tell the Minister that he will have to deal with the problem at greater length and spell it out in more detail to help me. I am sure the deficiencies are mine; but, in case they are more widely shared, the hon. Gentleman's time will not be wasted. I quite understand what happens at 80 per cent. and upwards: Eighty per cent. and upwards attracts 65 per cent. upon the full 100 per cent. But I am still stuck over the difference between the 20 to 50 per cent. zones and the 50 to 80 per cent. zones. Perhaps the Minister will come back to that when he replies to the debate.

The last of the major difficulties of construction in which I am convinced I am not alone relates to what the Minister called "potential use". Article 4(2)(b) on page 5 refers to the total number of sessions that might reasonably be regarded as available for all active uses in that year… I am not sure whether that is the point in the order where potential as opposed to actual use comes in. Whether it is or not, I find it a difficulty about "potential use", which I should like the Minister to explain. I use as an example an Orange hall in a fairly isolated area. Perhaps half a dozen times a year there may be circumstances in which an application is made and granted to use the hall for community purposes. So those sessions go towards the totting up process—an ominous phrase but one that will be understood—for qualifying for relief. But how can we possibly imagine the number of sessions which would have been devoted to community use in that hall if only more people had asked for it? The potential use is very much larger. It may be that the hall is used only once a week, and possibly less than once a week, for the purposes for which it was created. Is it not therefore potentially available for the rest of the year?

I hope that the Minister will explain much more clearly how potential use, as opposed to actual use, is to be estimated and calculated. This will be specially important in the rural areas. It may make the difference between this order helping to preserve halls in existence and not doing so.

The last section of what I fear is a somewhat dreary survey of the order relates to the matters in which this draft order differs from the proposals for the draft order. They represent the improvements which the Government have introduced as a result of further reflection or the comments made to them. The first is the extension to parking places and to any part of a hereditament constructed or adapted for use by such persons (or by persons who have engaged or intend to engage in the recreation) as a bathroom or lavatory or for use wholly or mainly for the storage of their clothing or of equipment ". It is certainly something if people who play basket ball can have derating on their car park and derating on the place where they keep the balls and where they change and take a bath after this considerable "degree of physical effort", but I am not sure that such facilities exhaust what might be called the inevitable and direct appurtenances of physical recreation.

What about the spectators? Many of these sports, in the nature of things, require as part of the premises the minimal essential accomodation for spectators—I am not thinking of bars and entertainments—and for those who accompany the teams. Is the Minister sure that those elements are necessarily covered by this tightly drawn definition of ancillary parts of the premises? It does not seem to me, or to the Sports Council, that the order is drawn wide enough. I hope that in its interpretation and application the letter of the law will not be jealously observed; otherwise, some absurd anomalies will be created.

There is also the provision for phasing out the relief or a part of the relief which is enjoyed at present but which will be lost in due course under the order. The Minister owes it to the House and the Government owe it to the public in Northern Ireland to be more explicit about their estimate of the number of establishments and organisations which will come under that provision.

What proportion of the people who are now enjoying the lesser degree of relief is it calculated will lose relief altogether or receive it on a reduced scale? It should be possible to make an estimate. Samples are presumably taken. Samples were probably taken for the purposes of the Lawrence committee. One accepts that there may be the occasional instance where there will be this phasing out of two years; but it is a little alarming to be presented with this major provision for phasing out when one hopes that there will be very little phasing out at all.

The third improvement I noted is in article 4(l)(f)(iii), where the point is taken that where a body itself engages in qualifying activities it is the expenses actually incurred by it and not the expenses necessary to defray costs which are the upper limit of what may be charged for the facilities. I put it clumsily, but I hope that I may have conveyed the point to the Minister.

I now have three or four minor queries, though I hope that they will be not so minor as to be despised by the Minister. In page 4, paragraph (3)(c) contains the words: by reason of the substitution of article 31 made by this Order. I cannot understand what is meant by those words, nor can I find any place in the order, though I may have missed it, where something else is substituted for article 31 of the principal order. Perhaps the Minister could draw my attention and that of other hon. Members to it

On page 6, paragraph (7) provides: If too large an amount "— that is, of rates— has been paid or allowed by way of rebate, the excess shall be recoverable summarily by the Department as a debt ". I do not understand why excess rates which have been paid by a ratepayer should be recovered summarily by the Department as a debt. Does the Department recover them from the rating authority in order to repay them to the unfortunate ratepayer who has paid too much, or is there a drafting error? I have made my best endeavours, but I cannot construe it. I hope I shall have the Minister's help.

My last minor irritation is the last article of all, at the bottom of page 9. There is no doubt good reason why justices of the peace no longer need to be indemnified where a warrant of distress is granted in respect of a defective rate; but as we are taking the portentous step of amending section 4 of the 1849 Act, we should have some explanation why what we are doing in the order makes this necessary.

I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the House for a lengthy and necessarily largely boring disquisition on the order, but I accompany my apology once more with the observation that it will no longer be necessary to inflict on the House or the Chair this not wholly effective form of interrogation of the Government when Northern Ireland is once again fully and invariably legislated for in the same way as the rest of the Kingdom.

5.19 p.m.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

This order has been awaited in Northern Ireland for some time, and the delay is greatly to be regretted. The Secretary of State talks continually of the benefits of direct rule, this benign type of government, but it is evident today that it is ineffectual, that it operates at the cost of the ordinary individual and that it is detrimental to the well-being of the people of Northern Ireland.

Unlike the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), who has just left, I look forward to the day when this matter, which is important to the people of Northern Ireland, will be discussed by Northern Ireland representatives in a Parliament and action will be taken by that Parliament to meet the needs of the people. Nevertheless, in this almost incomprehensible order, we have to deal with problems affecting the welfare of the people of Northern Ireland.

It is an appalling fact that rates in Northern Ireland have soared in recent years because of the delay in revising rateable values. Some halls in which I am particularly interested and which were rated reasonably have now had their rateable value increased far beyond the ability to pay of those concerned.

We must keep in mind the dark back-cloth against which we are dealing with this subject. The rates of business and other premises have multiplied over the past couple of years.

There is a form of appeal against rating assessment. How many appeals in Northern Ireland have been proceeded with and how many have been successful? The feedback that I am getting is that it is useless even to appeal, because the system does not seem to work and the vast majority of people see no tangible result. Will that system continue under the order?

When the appeals are heard, I assume that the Department will already have had the list prepared under which people will be in or out of the system. As the right hon. Member for Down, South said, that list must be published, and in good time, so that people understand the situation.

Although relief on recreational premises is necessary and will be valuable, the heart of the matter is the emphasis on the word "solely". As the hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) asked in an intervention, would it not have been better, while trying this out for two years, to use the word "mainly"? Then, if the Secretary of State felt that the matter was not proceeding satisfactorily, he could reconsider it. Why not give the benefit of the doubt the other way?

I urge the Minister to consider that matter. He said that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, but I believe that that means that it would be better to use the other word. If a review were necessary, it could be done in two years.

In the order there is a strange reference to physical effort…of a kind specified by the Department, after consultation with the Sports Council for Northern Ireland ". Does that mean that the council will give the Minister a list of sports requiring that degree of physical effort, and that then the Department will decide on the final list? This could be interpreted in a very large way.

Some people have suggested—the Minister would not know about this—that in these halls some rites and ceremonies take place which require a great degree of physical effort. One wonders whether the Minister had them in mind in this provision.

Of course, everyone will welcome the relief which is given for the disabled. It is an act of justice, and it is good that justice will be done and be seen to be done.

Article 4 is the article under which many halls in Northern Ireland will seek some relief. As the Minister knows, Northern Ireland is dotted with Orange halls, with halls connected with the other Loyalist orders—such as the Apprentice Boys of Derry—and with Independent Orange halls. Then there is a whole series of Protestant halls used both by the Orange institutions and for other religious purposes. There are some band halls. On the other side of the religious divide, there are the halls belonging to the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

Many of these halls meet a specific need in individual places. One hall in my area is used for a monthly meeting 10 months of the year, but it is also used on Sunday for a Sabbath school and for special religious services on many Sunday evenings. That is an example of a hall used primarily for religious purposes, although it is not owned or controlled by any religious body. The body that owns or controls it uses it less than the other bodies.

Would it not be wise to exempt such halls on religious grounds? At the moment, provided that a church hall is attached to a place of worship, it is completely exempt. Many of the church halls of Northern Ireland are exempted from a strict interpretation of the rules for rating relief.

There are activities in some halls which one cannot enter except by paying for a ticket to get in. There are organisations which meet in them to make a profit. Bingo sessions are held in many of these halls, yet they are completely exempt. They escape under the religious tag, although much of the activity in them is not religious and has nothing to do with religion. For example, bingo, in my view, has nothing to do with religion, and the same applies to some of the other activities carried on in these halls. Yet, as I have said, I know of a hall which, although it is used far more for religious purposes, finds itself caught under the rating laws at present operating in Northern Ireland.

I press that question upon the Minister for his consideration. I had thought that when this matter came to the House such an issue would have been taken on board, since strong representations have been made about it both in the committee and to the Department. I ask the Minister to be good enough to enlarge upon this important issue when he replies.

As has been said, some of these halls are in isolated areas. Many of them are shuttered up for the best part of the year. In addition, many of them are seldom used outside the activities of the particular Loyalist orders which control them, for two simple reasons: first, the request is not made, and, secondly, some of the activities which people might want to engage in would not be acceptable to the hall trustees.

How is a hall to be judged by its "potential"? I shall give an exaggerated example so that the Minister may know what I mean. Let us assume that there is a certain Hibernian hall in North Antrim, and a group of people desire to have a meeting in that hall. Let us assume also that both the religious and the political convictions of that group would be entirely contrary to those of the trustees. One could hardly expect the trustees of the hall to be excited about the prospect of letting their property to such a body. The same could apply on the other side of the divide to an Orange hall.

We need the Minister to define what he means by "potential". The opportunity for people to claim and get relief will depend on that definition.

Another option has come about, namely, the lining up of these halls with particular church bodies. It is an amazing fact that if a hall is lined up with a church body it can carry on all manner of activities and be relieved of rates simply because it is aligned with a church body. I know of certain halls which are now lined up with local churches in order to share the privileges which a church hall could have, so that as a church hall they will have a far greater privilege than they would receive if they had no religious status. The Minister must take all these matters on board.

I turn now to the question of band halls. Will music be looked upon as recreation? We in Northern Ireland pride ourselves on our bands. Those who go to various demonstrations know something of the potential of the musical ability of the people of Northern Ireland. This is part of our culture, and a very important part.

Will a band hall be able to claim exemption? These band halls are used almost solely for band practices, for keeping the instruments and for a meeting place. Will they be completely exempt? I see that the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) has come to hear the music. He has acquired quite a skill on the mouth organ, and perhaps he will claim some exemption from rates on a certain house now taken over by the Housing Executive. Will the Minister please clarify the position of band halls?

Next, we want to know about drumming clubs. Anyone who takes part in this recreation, if I may use that term, uses quite a degree of physical energy. I know that the hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) is an expert, and I am sure that he would agree with me that drumming takes an appreciable degree of physical effort. I understood that once upon a time the hon. Member for Armagh and the former Member for Armagh had a drumming contest, and both of them expended an appreciable degree of energy in that contest. Is a hall used by a drumming club to come under the relief?

People in Northern Ireland are asking these questions, and they should be answered here today. They go right to the grass roots of the community and everyone is interested in them. I am sure that the Minister will feel that it would be wrong for such halls as I have described to close altogether. Whether or not he agrees with the organisations which run them, they bring people together, they have a cultural contribution to make, and they are part of the whole structure of Northern Ireland.

I revert to the question put by the right hon. Member for Down, South. Who does the paying? It is sad that we are having this debate today before we have a full debate on rates, and especially the regional rate, in Northern Ireland. The House should have taken time to consider the whole rating system, especially the regional rate, so that we could know exactly where we were going. We could then have discussed the order in a better and perhaps more informed way.

Apart from the points which I have raised—which the Minister may think are overwhelming—I welcome the tenor of the order and the relief which is offered. I congratulate him also on one other matter, and he may take it that, of course, I should oppose any attempt to give relief to the alcoholic beverage bars which would be set up in some halls. If people want to indulge in that sort of thing, let them pay for it. It is not for the general public to give them relief for it, and I appreciate the Minister's stand in that matter, which is widely welcomed by a large section of the people of Northern Ireland.

5.39 p.m.

Mr. John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

My hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) expressed the gratitude of Her Majesty's Opposition to the Lawrence committee, and there will be universal assent to that. There will be general agreement also—though on the Labour Back Benches and the Liberal Bench it will be a case of silence by absence signifying consent—that the order should be approved.

Every right hon. and hon. Member who has spoken thus far has said that it is essential that there be a general debate on the whole rating system. The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) suggested that it might well be held in the Northern Ireland Committee, and that seems appropriate. When the Under-Secretary of State replies, I hope that the House will receive clarification on the forms of recreational activity that will qualify, how they will be selected and put on the list and what appurtenences—this was raised by the right hon. Member for Down, South—may be included.

Orange halls, Protestant halls and Hibernian halls were referred to by the right hon. Member for Down, South and the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley). Community halls are especially important to the social life of the Province.

The hon. Member for Antrim, North took an imaginary example featuring a Hibernian hall. On the other hand, I recall being told by the former Member for Armagh, to whom reference has been made, that at a certain place an important convention was to take place in the local Orange hall and it was normal for the reverend mother of the nearby convent school to provide the extra chairs required. That is not an untypical irenic aspect of Ulster life, that should be more widely known.

I confine my remarks on the order to article 3 and the reduction of rates on recreational hereditaments. The hereditaments include those of the Gaelic Athletic Association. Before I say another word on the subject, may I say that I admire the proper activities of that body. It is part of the rich and manifold tradition of Ulster and is worthy of encouragement. However, as the House knows, in GAA rule 15 what are called British soldiers, navy men and police are banned from membership. It is a commentary on the antiquity of that offensive ban that Royal Air Force men are not excluded. I do not know whether any British airman has put the matter to the test.

Ministers will know that I have called attention to the scandal when the House has debated previous rating legislation. I also sought the advice of Archbishop O Fiaich. I did so before Christmas. The primate has not so far replied.

There is no justification in history or logic for identifying Gaelic culture and sport with a certain faith or allegiance. The Gaelic League in its early days embraced unionists as well as nationalists, and there have been Gaelic-speaking lodges of the Orange order. Nevertheless, I am not concerned to argue that such a society is not entitled to limit its membership, although recent race relations legislation has invaded that right. However, I contend that taxpayers and ratepayers, including members of Her Majesty's Armed Forces and the police, should not be expected to subsidise such an organisation while it continues to discriminate. The GAA benefits from grants, although not to the same extent as bodies with a completely open membership. The order is concerned with another form of subsidy—derating.

I conclude my remarks by putting some questions to the Minister for his consideration. Does he think that the GAA should continue indefinitely to benefit from rating relief while the discrimination is continued? If he thinks that it should continue indefinitely, does he think that that would accord with section 19 of the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973? The hon. Gentleman will know that Mr. Justice Murray had occasion to refer to that in open court.

If the hon. Gentleman thinks that the relief should be continued despite the continuance of the ban, what are the Government and the Northern Ireland Sports Council prepared to do to try to persuade the GAA to revise its rules, at least for Northern Ireland? Are the Government prepared to sound a gentle warning that the relief cannot be counted on for ever if the GAA persists with the ban? I doubt whether members of the GAA who are involved in this insult to servants of the Crown would wish to renounce the protection that those servants give. Without the servants of the Crown who are banned, there would be small chance of peaceful recreation and sporting activity in Northern Ireland.

5.45 p.m.

Mr. James Kilfedder (Down, North)

The presentation of the draft order emphasises once again that Northern Ireland is being treated unfairly and that the Ulster people are being treated as second-class citizens within the United Kingdom. I am not able to move an amendment to the order. If that were possible, I should do so. Every other Member representing other parts of the United Kingdom may table amendments to legislation dealing with Great Britain. If I had the opportunity of introducing an amendment, I should wish to replace "solely" in the new article 31 with "mainly". The article as it stands will deal unfairly with sporting and recreational clubs and will cause them further financial difficulty.

I have spoken to the Under-Secretary of State about the draft order. I have written to him about it and he has received representations from some of my constituents. I am sad that he has not been able to accept the arguments put to him. I only hope that he will reconsider the matter. No matter what other hon. Members may say, I am an optimist. I hope that he will reconsider his position before he replies.

With that proviso, I generally welcome the changes outlined in the draft order. However, I deplore the Government's failure to recognise that no amount of tinkering around the edges of the rating system is likely to meet the main criticism. Before I comment on the provisions of the order, it is necessary to reiterate for the benefit of those who have no personal experience of the Northern Ireland rating system that it has none of the elements of democratic control that are commonplace in England, Scotland and Wales. That is highlighted by the fact that rates in Northern Ireland have soared, and Ulster people wish to complain. I wish to protest to the Government about that on their behalf.

I should like to see shortly a debate on rating in Northern Ireland. No accounts are kept by the education and health boards or by the Department of the Environment—the latter is the body responsible for roads, sewerage and water—to show the cost of rateborne expenditure.

The rates in Northern Ireland are fixed not by the democratic decision of Ulster people but by the decision of a local authority in the North-East of England. The rate for Humberside is taken by the Northern Ireland Department of Finance and fixed for home owners and businesses in Northern Ireland irrespective of cost implications.

As no accounts of rateborne costs are kept, the Minister will be unable to say how far the changes proposed in this order will affect local government finance. The reason is simple. He does not know because, under the present undemocratic system and structure in Northern Ireland, there is no way of exactly determining the costs. The changes should have been made in the original rates order. The fact that these changes must be introduced now indicates laxity, ineptitude and haste by the Government when introducing the original rates order.

I was surprised that the Minister said that this matter would be reviewed in two years. He should have made sure when bringing forward an order of this kind, which we are not able to amend, that it would clearly benefit people in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, the changes will do nothing to lessen the burden of rates on private householders. That burden is intolerable.

The details of this order are inadequate in some respects. For example, the Sports Council is to be consulted about the physical nature of the recreational use of a hereditament. Does this mean that the Sports Council will be available to answer questions by an aggrieved ratepayer in the event of an appeal? Furthermore, why should the Department of Finance consult with the Sports Council? Why should it not consult with the Department of Education, which has financial and parliamentary responsibility for the Sports Council?

There are 1,200 halls in Northern Ireland. About 900 are Orange halls. Many are in a dilapidated state. Most were built more than 100 years ago. These halls serve an extremely useful function in the community. Many halls exist in the rural areas. However, they need money for their upkeep and, for instance, for car parks. Will the Minister consider helping these halls financially if they are used more extensively for community purposes? Will the Minister aid them by making financial help available for the creation of car parks? That would be a great asset to old-age pensioners, members of tenants' associations and other people using cars in rural areas. There is therefore a great need for car parks. Will the Government give aid for the provision of catering facilities and the upkeep of roofs? It would be helpful if something could be done in those respects.

I refer to the word "solely", about which the Minister received representations. The Minister gave the impression—I do not think that it was deliberate—that the order would confer great benefits on most, if not all, sporting and recreational clubs in Northern Ireland. Does he agree that a good many sporting and recreational clubs will not be better off as a result of the enactment of this draft order? A number of clubs must pay increased rates. Therefore, I repeat my plea to the Minister to reconsider his refusal to delete the term "solely" from the draft order.

A club exists to provide recreational and sporting facilities. However, it needs all the money it can get if it is to ensure the continuance of full activities for which the club was established. The Minister will agree that wherever a room or rooms in a club are used, for instance, for fund raising activities, that contributes to the survival of that sporting and recreational club. More than likely it will help to increase the facilities that it provides for the people of the community.

It is the wish of all Members of Parliament that as many recreational facilities as possible should be provided in Northern Ireland so that young people will not be at a loose end and, as a consequence, be caught up in unlawful or antisocial behaviour.

5.57 p.m.

Mr. Wm. Ross (Londonderry)

I welcome the concessions for disabled people contained in the order. They will receive a general welcome throughout Northern Ireland, and I should like to associate myself with that welcome. I believe that the disabled need all the help that they can get. Great costs are incurred by many individuals in altering their homes when disabled children are born. I am happy that the burden of rates that could result from such alterations is now to be removed.

The Minister will have noted, as a result of the time that he spent in Northern Ireland, the large number of halls in the Province which play a large part in community life there. He will also be aware of the shift of population and social attitudes which has resulted in financial difficulties for those halls. Many of the halls throughout the country were formerly used for dances. Now the singing pubs provide for that kind of recreation. I do not think that that change can be welcomed when we consider the toll of life and limb that has resulted. The results of the change are apparent to me as I lived through the period when it took place. I always thought that turning public houses into dance halls and places of general entertainment was a grave mistake for which Northern Ireland paid a high price.

The second feature in recent years has been the large numbers of community halls which have been erected in Northern Ireland. My experience of community halls is that if people are interested enough to form committees of energetic people to run them, they are of great benefit. If there is not a sufficiency of people to take the trouble, the halls become white elephants. The halls must be sited in areas where there is continuing enthusiasm. The enthusiasm must come from a considerable number of people. We must build such halls in urban areas. They are of very little use in the really small communities and in the rural parts of Northern Ireland.

The new problem is that every little estate in Northern Ireland wants a community hall. I hope and trust that the order will open so many doors that some of that outcry will die away. Many halls are not used at all except by the bodies to which they belong. There is no good reason why those buildings should not be put to community use in Northern Ireland.

The apparent concession in rates contained in the order for Orange halls, Ancient Order of Hibernian halls, band halls and so on will not in the long run be seen as a concession. It is, in fact, something that will repay the community very many times over, because the change in the use of those halls that will result, as the benefits inherent in the order seep down through the community and become more clearly understood in the community, will be such that much public expenditure that is at present being demanded will be found to be no longer necessary.

I hope that the Minister and his colleagues will impress upon the council authorities—and especially the recreation officers of local councils—the opportunities which will now be available to the owners of halls and to the community at large, without any real cost to the community. Indeed, there will be a great saving to the community in the use of these halls.

A second body of people who could be approached to use their good offices in this respect are the education and library boards and their members, and especially the very few elected members that the education and library boards have. These are people who live in the community and are aware of the needs of the community that they serve. They could be very valuable in broadcasting the advantages contained in the order to the community at large as well as to those who are in ownership of the various halls.

I hope that the Minister, when he replies, will deal with the position of community halls in general, and especially with the position of town halls which are no longer being used by the council for its officers or staff but which are now used solely for community purposes. There are several such halls in my constituency, the two principal ones being in Coleraine and in Limavady. I should like to know whether these halls, which belong to the council, will be liable for rates or whether they are exempt under this order or under some other order. It is a matter of some importance to the people who use the halls, and I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity of dealing with it.

6.3 p.m.

Mr. Pendry

I first thank those hon. Members who have participated in the debate and have helped to make it such an interesting one. I am sure that they will understand that I cannot answer fully now the questions fired at me. I undertake, in the usual way, to send to each Member a detailed answer to his questions.

I thank the hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) for his general welcome to the order. He mentioned the question of the regional rate. It is right, I believe, that we should have a full debate on it, and arrangements will accordingly be made for that. I hope that that will be regarded as a good start to my reply to the debate.

The hon. Gentleman referred to cultural activities and asked what we were doing in that respect. He referred to a paragraph in the Lawrence report concerning relief for science, literature and art, and suggested that there should be wider publicity for the already existing relief. My Department is already taking steps to ensure that there will be adherence to that reference in the Lawrence report. We shall make sure that we get the message across more forcefully than we have up to now.

The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) made several points. I will take on board most of those points and write to him in detail, but I should like to refer to some of them now. He asked about those clubs which will receive relief for only half of the year—for example, clubs which may use their playing fields for just a portion of the year. If a playing field is used only seasonally, this will be reflected in its valuation, and relief will apply on the full rateable value. However, should a playing field come into use for the first time midway through the rating year, it will receive relief for only half the year.

Mr. Powell

I am not sure that that answer, although I understand it, is fully satisfactory. After all, this is essentially a rating relief measure, and to say to a ratepayer "Your rating assessment, 100 per cent., is not very high, therefore you ought to be quite satisfied with less than the full relief which the order is awarding", is no satisfactory answer. I quite accept that if a pitch is usable for only half the year, the rateable value will to that extent be less, but that does not seem to be any reason for knocking it down by 50 per cent. on top of that before applying the rate relief. I hope that the Minister will look again at this point, because I think that there is an element of unfairness, although I understand his reply.

Mr. Pendry

I shall look at that again to see whether there is any unfairness. The points which emerged throughout the debate underlined the fact that one cannot win all the time. We believe that we have got it right, but we could be wrong. To meet the points raised by hon. Members on behalf of their constituents, we considered the question of providing an interim period of time. I think that we should be applauded for taking that kind of stand and for giving two years in which to see whether we have got it right. We can look at what happens during that period. However, it appears that somehow or other we have done the wrong thing. I thought long and hard before I did it, and I was sure that I had done the right thing.

The points raised by hon. Members will, as I have said, be considered. It should be remembered that during this period the full rate will not have to be met by those who are worse off. There will be some clubs which will be worse off, but we hope that their number will be fewer than most people seem to believe. At the end of two years, therefore, if it is felt that there have to be modifications, we shall place them honestly before this House. I hope that in giving that assurance I have been able to encompass a number of doubts. During the two-year period we shall be looking very closely at the anomalies which are brought to our attention.

The right hon. Member referred to what he felt had been a lengthy procedure in dealing with the report. The Government considered it in great detail before coming to a point of view. That necessarily took time in this very complicated area. Discussion took place following the publication of the report in March 1978, and legislation was drafted and published in November 1978. I do not think that there was as great a delay, therefore, as some hon. Members seem to suggest. If the debate has proved anything, it has proved that this is a very complicated area, and I do not think that in the circumstances the Government took any great length of time in coming to their conclusions.

The right hon. Member for Down, South raised the question of cost. He put it fairly, saying that the cost would be spread between the district rate and the regional rate and, therefore, the Exchequer. The right hon. Gentleman placed it in the right context, and I concur with what he said.

Mr. Powell

Perhaps the Minister will be good enough to verify my point as to whether the notional Exchequer contribution will bear its due share of the reduction in the rate poundage which results from the order. I think he took the point, but I wonder if he will look at that.

Mr. Pendry

Yes, I give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance.

A question was raised—again by the right hon. Member for Down, South—about the word "solely". I do not wish to go over the ground time and again, but this was looked at closely by the Department. We concluded that in the main that was the right word to use and that the other words that were used were wrong. If we are wrong, that will be shown in our two-year investigation.

The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) raised a number of points. I do not think it can be said that rates in Northern Ireland have soared out of all proportion in comparison with the rest of the United Kingdom. Rates in Northern Ireland have generally kept abreast of the situation here. On the point that the hon. Member raised about how many appeals have been taken, I can give a guarantee that this matter is being looked into, and a detailed letter will be sent to him on this issue. I shall also look into the use of halls by drumming clubs, and I shall write to him on that matter also.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) raised a matter which I had not specifically looked into previously. This really is a separate matter and one which I shall have to look into afresh and write to him about. It is not something that comes out of this order, and I hope that he will accept that.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Surely this is one of the largest bodies which is likely to benefit from the derating.

Mr. Pendry

The point is that if we were to go along that particular avenue it would defeat the whole purpose of the Lawrence report, which is, as we have said, the cornerstone of this legislation, but we shall look at this in the new context.

Mr. Harold McCusker (Armagh)

Bearing in mind an answer which the Undersecretary of State gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), is it not the case that the very people excluded by this offensive rule will now have to pay extra rates in order to give relief to the GAA?

Mr. Pendry

Not at all. I shall say no more than I have already said. I shall look into this matter in isolation and write to the right hon. Member for Down, South.

The hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) gave a general welcome to the order, which I thought was quite an achievement because he has been a consistent critic of it. I took some comfort from that.

On the question of consulting the Sports Council, we have not closed our minds to consulting other bodies. The important thing is that we get on with the job and get a prescribed list which is acceptable to those in Northern Ireland who are affected.

After giving a guarded and generous welcome to the order, the hon. Member for Down, North went on to say that he hoped the Minister would not think that he would be conferring any great benefits on sports clubs in Northern Ireland. I think that that is wrong. In the vast majority of cases the hon. Gentleman will find—and I am sure that at the end of the two years we shall be able to convince most people, if not all, of this—that this order will benefit the vast majority of clubs in Northern Ireland. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is wrong in that regard.

Mr. Powell

Will the Minister kindly refer to the point about publishing the draft list? Quite apart from consultation with various bodies, will he let right hon. and hon. Members and others have a sight of the proposals well in advance?

Mr. Pendry

Yes. I did not miss that point, because I intended to refer to it in relation to the points raised by the hon. Member for Down, North. However, that is fair comment, and we must do that. The main point is that we have to hurry along and get this list out as quickly as possible. But that does not mean that we do not have to do it thoroughly. We ought to be able to publish that list and have public comment on it.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Does that mean that we shall have a chance to comment on it, or will it just be presented to us as something that has been decided by the Northern Ireland Office in consultation with the Sports Council?

Mr. Pendry

Hon. Members have been able to comment on this order at any stage. Certainly when anyone has come to see me to discuss it there has never been any hesitation on my part. In this context, hon. Members have every opportunity of making their comments known to the Department.

The hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross) made one or two points. Certainly the Government will spell out the new provisions to clubs and halls and make sure that they are as widely publicised as possible. With regard to town halls and their community use, I am not aware of the difficulties mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, but again I shall look into them and make sure that he has a detailed reply.

This has been a lengthy debate but, as I said earlier, it has been a very informative one for me, and one which does credit to the House. The provisions of the order do a great deal for the sporting and recreational bodies in Northern Ireland. We have met the main recommendations of the Lawrence committee, and in doing so I believe that we have done a great service to the sporting clubs and the sporting fraternity in Northern Ireland. Therefore, I commend the order to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That the draft Rates Amendment (Northern Ireland) Order 1979, which was laid before this House on 7th February, be approved.