HL Deb 22 February 1979 vol 398 cc2012-7

3.55 p.m.

Lord MELCHETT rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 7th February, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, this order extends relief from rates in two main areas as a result of the recommendations made by the Lawrence Committee. That committee was appointed in September 1976 to look at the rate liability of bodies providing facilities for sport, recreation and community activities in Northern Ireland. In addition, Articles 5 and 6 of the order extend to Northern Ireland the rate relief provided for disabled people in Great Britain by the Rating (Disabled Persons) Act 1978.

Article 3 increases the level of rate relief available to facilities used for sport and recreation from 35 per cent. to 65 per cent., but restricts this relief to the parts of the premises actually used for sport and recreation. A detailed list of the sports covered by this relief will be drawn up in consultation with representatives of local authorities and the Northern Ireland Sports Council. Article 4 provides for partial exemption from rates for premises occupied by voluntary bodies which are used for recreational and charitable purposes. This will allow the occupiers of suitable halls now outside the scope of rate exemption to reduce their rates bill by allowing their premises to be used for community purposes. Articles 5 and 6 remove the burden of rates from special domestic facilities needed by a disabled person living in the property, and provide rate exemption to organisations providing welfare facilities for the disabled.

I have no doubt that this order will be widely welcomed by the whole community in Northern Ireland, and particularly by those involved in voluntary and charitable work, and by disabled people. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 7th February, be approved. —(Lord Melchett.)

Viscount LONG

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House is most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, for the information he has just given to us, and especially as he has been working very hard for the last hour or so on a Bill concerning the boundaries of Northern Ireland. Now he is once again back on the Front Bench, working. We on these Benches agree that this order will certainly be very helpful to the disabled and will also be beneficial to certain bodies and organisations providing recreational and sporting facilities, both indoor and outdoor, in Northern Ireland.

The existing law of Northern Ireland restricts rate relief to property classified in the Rates (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 as playing fields or fields used for certain specified kinds of recreations"— almost exclusively, if I may say so, by the look of the order, of the indoor variety. Also, the Department of Finance, which in Northern Ireland is the rating authority, has, as I understand it, no discretion to grant or withhold relief, or to vary its amount. It is obliged to apply relief at a fixed level of 35 per cent. on playing fields and premises designated under the 1972 order. Therefore I believe that this new order, as it increases the percentage from 35 to 65 per cent., as the noble Lord has said, goes a long way towards being very helpful to the recreation authorities.

It will also, I believe, allow premises used for community purposes to qualify for relief in proportion to the amount of time during which the premises are used for charitable purposes. I think these changes were recommended by a committee known as the Lawrence Committee, which did so much work in order to bring about these changes. That committee was set up quite a long time ago in 1976 and its report was given to Parliament in 1978. Two of its recommendations concern sport and recreation and also the disabled. That, in itself, as I have already said, is a great help to the bodies concerned.

I do not think that the order will put Northern Ireland exactly on a par with Great Britain so far as rate relief goes for sporting or recreation facilities. I am wondering whether the noble Lord would confirm that we still have not brought Northern Ireland into line with those facilities of Great Britain. Great Britain has elected local institutions, which are subject only to very general statutory conditions, and they are permitted to grant or refuse rate relief as they think fit. But in Northern Ireland the duties of levying and collecting rates have since 1973 been in the hands of the Local Government Department, responsible only to the House of Commons. This appears to be a weak point and shows a lack of effective democratic scrutiny of regional administration in Northern Ireland. I wonder whether the noble Lord would care to comment on that point.

We on these Benches are very pleased to see the order and agree with what is in it, but I wonder whether I may ask the noble Lord one or two questions. Though this order was received in Northern Ireland without any controversy, it appears that the sporting authorities there were slightly unhappy with the rating of clubs. If I have not given the noble Lord enough time, perhaps he can reply later. For example, rating relief is calculated on only part of a club, such as a committee room or a room used for the raising of funds, and the rest of the club may not get relief. I wonder whether the noble Lord could give his attention to that point, because the sporting authorities are slightly worried about it.

Also the Department of Finance already has power to grant relief on property used for cultural as opposed to community activites, and the Lawrence Committee felt that there was no need for any change. However, the Committee formed the opinion that the existing provision for rate relief was not generally known to people in Northern Ireland. Therefore, I should like to ask whether the Government are doing anything about this and spreading the word around, so that people in Northern Ireland can get this relief. Having said that, and also having given the noble Lord a little more work to do, may I say from these Benches that we are quite happy with what has been put into this order.

4.3 p.m.


My Lords, if I may reply to the noble Viscount's point about the scrutiny of local government functions in Northern Ireland it is of course the fact that since the abolition of Stormont there has been a gap between the functions exercised by local authorities in Northern Ireland and the Westminster Parliament. That is why the noble Viscount's Party and the Government both agree that we wish to see a devolved Parliament in Northern Ireland exercising real powers and real functions, that is acceptable to both communities in Northern Ireland, and to Parliament in Westminster. And it may be that the fixing of rates, and other matters connected with rates, is something which would come under the scrutiny of such a devolved legislature. Members of another place may have an opportunity to debate the question of rates in the near future.

But as the noble Viscount knows, this order is concerned with exemptions which are made and which are fixed. As he himself pointed out, the Lawrence Committee sat for a long time—because this is quite a complicated area—and made recommendations which, by and large, were accepted by the Government and are implemented in the order. The noble Viscount mentioned the question of not allowing rate relief for portions of premises which are not used for recreational purposes. That is the case, as I mentioned very briefly in my opening remarks and it might be helpful if I expanded on that a little. The exemptions are designed to ensure that those premises which are used most for sporting purposes, and least for fund-raising, get the maximum.

In other words, if a club consisted simply of playing facilities and changing rooms, it would get full exemption from the rates, because all the premises would be used for recreational purposes, and things connected with them, such as changing rooms. If, on the other hand, a club is 99 per cent. a lounge bar and disco, with one squash court tacked on at the end, then it will get very little rate relief. Its ability to raise money for itself will be very considerable. I know, from personal observation of the accounts and from visiting a number of sporting clubs in Northern Ireland, that many of these clubs are in an extremely healthy financial position because of the profits that they make from the sale of alcohol.

I do not think that it would be right or, indeed, expected by many of these clubs, if not all of them, that they should receive substantial additional finance from the public purse through rate relief, given the substantial profits that they are making by the sale of alcohol. Although the noble Lord has been told that there are some sporting organisations which are not entirely happy about this, on the whole I think that it is fair to say that the representatives of the sporting organisations in Northern Ireland are reasonably happy. Obviously, everybody would like rather more than they are being offered, but the way that this has been done is recognised as being fair and sensible, taking into account the ability—or the lack of ability—of clubs to raise funds for themselves.

The noble Lord also asked me about the extent to which we are publicising the availability of rate relief. I think that the noble Lord has hit on a real problem, particularly for smaller groups and community organisations. Most sporting clubs would be aware of the relief available, either through the governing body of their sport, or through publicity given by the Sports Council for Northern Ireland, or through their regular contacts with the Department of Education's Sports Branch about capital grants for sporting provision and about the help and relief that is available. But there is a problem, as I say, in the case of smaller organisations.

When the Lawrence Committee was sitting, I encouraged community organisations—whose representatives have regular meetings with me—to give evidence to that committee. Once this order becomes law in Northern Ireland, I shall certainly encourage them to have a look at the provisions and I shall encourage those who are eligible to claim relief. If I may, I will draw what the noble Lord has said to the attention of the Sports Council for Northern Ireland who, I am sure, will also do all that they can to encourage sporting organisations to claim the reliefs that are available.

On Question, Motion agreed to.