HL Deb 07 December 1998 vol 595 cc774-7

6.46 p.m.

Lord Dubs rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 12th November be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this brief order, which makes a number of changes in Northern Ireland's rating legislation, is the last of its kind to come before this House under the Order in Council procedure. Future changes of this sort will be matters for the new Assembly to consider and legislate upon. Until the Assembly assumes its powers in the new year, however, there is a continuing need to ensure that the legislation is kept fully up to date. This order is intended to do just that.

Article 3 removes an entitlement to a reduction in the amount of rates chargeable following a revaluation during any period that an increased valuation is under appeal. At present the maximum rates recoverable during the appeal period is restricted to the sum of the previous year's rate bill and 75 per cent. of any increase due to the revaluation. This change removes from Northern Ireland legislation a provision which has no equivalent in Great Britain rates or council tax law. Should a new valuation be reduced on appeal, any overpaid rates will, of course, be refunded in full.

Where the owner of, or more usually the rental agent for, a property instead of the occupier has agreed in writing to pay the rates, where the rent is paid at intervals shorter than quarterly. Article 4 reduces the different types of "allowances" or discounts available from three to one. At present a 7.5 per cent. allowance is available where an owner or agent agrees to pay the rates only in relation to periods of occupancy. In certain circumstances this enables rate refunds to be claimed by owners in respect of past periods of vacancy, long after the property has been reoccupied by tenants and, in view of the large numbers of properties involved, the facts relating to alleged earlier vacant periods may be difficult or even impossible to establish. Such a system is clearly open to abuse and requires firmer regulation.

This 7.5 per cent. allowance will be discontinued along with an obsolete 5 per cent. allowance which no agent has claimed in 25 years. Agents agreeing to pay the full year's rates, whether or not a property is continually occupied throughout the year, will continue to qualify for a 10 per cent. allowance. The following Articles 5, 6 and 9 all mirror changes introduced in Great Britain by the Local Government and Rating Act 1997.

Article 5 should be read in conjunction with Schedule 1. These provide for a scheme of rate relief in rural settlements. Schedule 1 requires the Department of the Environment to maintain a list of rural settlements in Northern Ireland and provides for the only general store or post office in such a settlement to benefit from a 50 per cent. reduction in rates. It also enables the Department of the Environment, in certain circumstances, to grant relief, at its discretion, of the full amount of the rates on such properties as well as to properties, the use of which are considered to benefit the local community.

Article 6 provides for all Crown property in Northern Ireland, which mainly consists of government offices, to be subject to rates. The practice whereby the government make "contributions in lieu of rates" will be discontinued. Similar changes are planned for Great Britain in just over a year's time.

Article 7 exempts from rate liability buildings used for the scientific testing of livestock and poultry for the purpose of identifying top breeders. For example, this will assist a pig-testing centre, the only one of its kind in the United Kingdom, at a very difficult time.

Article 8 will enable the parts of prisons used primarily by the prisoners themselves to be valued and rated as being used for domestic purposes and subject, therefore, to domestic rates. Those parts include cells, libraries, kitchens and so forth. The rest of the prison, used for security and administration purposes will continue to be liable to non-domestic rates. This is a technical change only and brings arrangements for the rating of Northern Ireland prisons into line with those in Great Britain.

Article 9 removes the liability of sporting rights to rates; for example, fishing rights. Sporting rights which are separate from the occupation of land and valued in their own right will be removed from the valuation list. Those rights which are currently valued along with the land will no longer be reflected in the rateable value of the land.

Article 10 and Schedule 2 make minor technical and consequential changes none of which affect rate bills or rate payers directly. Article 11 is necessary to enable the Foyle Fisheries Commission to continue to levy its fisheries rate after the general exemption of sporting rights under Article 9. Otherwise the commission would have to forgo a small, but important source of revenue.

At the beginning I described this order as brief. I hope the House will agree nevertheless that these are important and useful changes which in some cases benefit ratepayers directly and in others improve economy and efficiency in rate collection procedures.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 12th November be approved—(Lord Dubs.)

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, perhaps I may raise one point. Under Article 8 of the order the rate on parts of prisons in Northern Ireland will now apply. I am told that that will raise around £250,000 from the Northern Ireland Prison Service. Will the Minister tell the House whether the Northern Ireland Prison Service will receive an extra £250,000 to pay that bill or is the money expected to come from savings made within the prison service?

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, in general, this order is welcome. I particularly welcome the provision for general stores in rural settlements. I was a supporter of the same clauses with respect to the rest of Great Britain and am glad to support them in the case of Northern Ireland.

I have only one question for the Minister. Can he tell the House what the financial effects of the order will be? Clearly they will benefit some rate payers at the expense of local authorities but, conversely, local authorities will benefit with regard to central government. It would be interesting to have an idea of the changes in the financial flows that are involved as a result of the order. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, suggested one in respect of prisons. I am not sure that it works out quite as cleanly as he suggested, but it would be helpful to know the financial effects.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, I too have a special interest in Article 8 referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, but for a different reason. I have read the remarks of the Minister in another place dealing with this order and he said: Article 8 will enable the parts of prisons used primarily by prisoners to be valued and rated as being used for domestic purposes and will be subject, therefore, to domestic rates. Such areas include cells, libraries and kitchens. The rest of a prison, used for security and administration, will be liable for non-domestic rates". He then went on to say, This change is intended to bring Northern Ireland legislation into line with that of Great Britain".—[Official Report, Commons, Fifth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation; 3/12/98, col. 4.] I do not challenge that. However, the effect will be rather different. We have in effect—whatever people may choose to call it—what is perceived by evil doers in Northern Ireland as an amnesty. It is exclusively for murderers and, in theory, it is not supposed to apply to future murderers. My guess is that the legislation will be amended at some stage in the future so it will be a sort of conveyor-belt operation. The major prisons will then be entirely empty unless we can find enough sex offenders and drug peddlers to prevent them from being completely de-rated with the consequent loss of revenue to the prison service. I therefore lend my support to the plea from the noble Lords, Lord Lester and Lord Cope, that the prison service be recompensed for loss of revenue.

On a more serious note, but a brief one, it is probably too early to define the future of the "regional" rate and the balance of liability for financing the water services in future in Northern Ireland. On previous occasions I drew attention to the chaos resulting from the planning section of the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland encouraging housing developments where essential services such as water, sewerage and electricity were not available. Thus the heaviest financial burden of updating and providing those essential services has unfortunately fallen on the water authorities.

Added to that, the water authorities are required to engage in schemes and expend vast sums of money to comply with European regulations as well. I can never quite understand that. The last time I went to a continental country—a member of the European Union—the captain warned us within an inch of our lives in two respects: first, be very careful about the strength of the sun; secondly, on no account must we drink the local water but should buy it in bottles. Therefore, I do not see why the UK is penalised.

More seriously, will the water service deficit become a burden on the council rates, the regional rate or on Treasury subvention? Also, what may be the resulting danger of an accelerated campaign for revaluation? It is never a popular device and was certainly unpopular in 1977–78 because there had been such a long period before the previous revaluation. It would be helpful to have some information on that point.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I am grateful for the comments that have been made. Perhaps I may deal with the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux. I am not sure whether it fits in well with this debate but if I understood him correctly he was asking about possible increases in the regional rate. He related that to the burden on the water services to provide water to new housing developments which did not have access to it. Perhaps the noble Lord will permit me to write to him. I should be delighted to enter a discussion on it, but it would be better if I wrote to the noble Lord.

The noble Lord, Lord Lester, asked about the consequences of the change in procedures as regards the Prison Service. The Prison Service will be relieved of the £250,000 which will not be charged. It will not have to pay that, but that means that, in turn, the Assembly will have its income reduced by the same amount. There will, therefore, be a financial knock-on effect on the Assembly's money. I am not sure at this stage whether it is possible for me to quantify the effect of all the measures. I should prefer not to do that as it is difficult. I hope that the noble Lord will allow me to write to him if any clear figures come to light, rather than make rough estimates which might have to be revised later. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.