My Lords, I will speak on the Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) (No. 2) Bill in particular. I declare an interest, as shown in the register, as the owner of two non-domestic properties in the cities of Armagh and Belfast and the chairman of a company that owns 14 properties in different towns across Northern Ireland. The issue of rates is, therefore, important to me and those who work with me.
The subject of this Bill should, of course, be for the Stormont Assembly, as several noble Lords have already stressed. I am a strong supporter of devolution and was very much involved in the negotiations that led to the Belfast agreement. I believe in shared government at Stormont—a cross-community Government comprising Catholics and Protestants, Unionists and Nationalists. That is the best way forward for Northern Ireland. The imposition of GB rule on Northern Ireland is not a solution, but Sinn Féin makes this devolution unlikely. For at least one year it has stalled the creation of devolution. It does not want responsibility for unpopular decisions at Stormont as it prepares for the southern Irish general election, which could be within the next year. The campaign for equality of Irish with English is only an excuse for delaying the restoration of the Executive at Stormont, as only 1% of the people of Northern Ireland speak Irish daily—much less than those who speak Chinese, Polish and Portuguese. It was wrong to link rates and the renewable heat incentive scheme together in the Bill. The RHI scheme is a major and controversial subject in itself and I am glad that the Minister—I hope that he still is a Minister because I have just heard that the Government were heavily defeated by 149 votes in the House of Commons—has decided that the Committee stage of the Bill will be next Tuesday and not rushed through tonight. That is appreciated.
I welcome the decision to keep rates on non-domestic properties to zero plus inflation, as some retailers in Ulster towns—like elsewhere in the United Kingdom—are suffering from online competition and closing down. In contrast, life is buoyant in border cities such as Newry and Armagh, as the Irish cross the border in their thousands each day to do their shopping. The reason for that is, of course, the change in exchange rates following the Brexit referendum. Last year, Irish shoppers spent £415 million in Northern Ireland. It is expected that this year they will spend a further £500 million on daily shopping in Northern Ireland.
Has the reorganisation of local government, from 26 councils down to 11 super-councils, resulted in savings, as was suggested at the time? There seems to be a growing democratic deficit in local government in Northern Ireland. People no longer know who their local councillors are; it used to be that they were known individually. Some of the new super-councils are making major decisions in committee, where even the media are often excluded. Approval of the committee’s decisions is at monthly council meetings by a nod of the head, without proper public debate. There needs to be greater transparency in the affairs of some of the 11 new super-councils in Northern Ireland.
“As I said, this situation has resulted from a decision of the European Commission on state aid rules, and failure to do this”— to pass the Bill—
“will mean no subsidies being paid to anybody”.—[
The European Commission, therefore, is very much a problem when we discuss the whole of the RHI scheme. As the decision on the scheme must be made by
Finally, the problem with the RHI is that almost 2,000 businesses feel that they were badly misled by decisions made by both the DUP and Sinn Féin at Stormont. Both were involved, not just one. The problem appears worse, as people in the rest of the United Kingdom will be getting £20,000 per year for a biomass incinerator, whereas their equivalents in Northern Ireland will be getting only £2,000 per year. Likewise, the scheme in the Republic of Ireland will be more favourable than that in Northern Ireland.
People in Northern Ireland who got involved in this scheme on the recommendation of politicians now feel very aggrieved at this unfair treatment. These RHI proposals are very complicated and we will debate them at greater length in Committee next week. However, many feel that they were misled. A number might be forced into bankruptcy—it is as serious as that. The form in which the changes in the RHI scheme are presented, almost as an afterthought to announcing the annual rates, is mischievous, to say the least.
I oppose this Bill, and should either Her Majesty’s Opposition, who are not particularly present this evening, or the Liberal Democrats, who also are not noticeable by their presence—there must be something going on in the other place—propose amendments next Tuesday, I will probably vote with them.