Review of Rating Policy

Oral Answers to Questions — Finance and Personnel – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:45 pm on 16th September 2002.

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Photo of Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell Social Democratic and Labour Party 3:45 pm, 16th September 2002

9. asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to provide an update on the review of rating policy.

(AQO 119/02)

Photo of Sean Farren Sean Farren Social Democratic and Labour Party

I announced the launch of the consultation stage of the review of rating policy on 27 May 2002. A dedicated web site has since gone online, and three public conferences have been held. There has also been a series of meetings with groups, organisations and district councils. Furthermore, evidence has been given to the Committee for Finance and Personnel, the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development. Consultation ends in mid-September, but I have decided to extend the deadline for Committees and district councils until 7 October. The consultation period will be followed by an assessment of responses. I hope to present a report on identified options to the Executive later this year. If significant change is endorsed, the legislative process will commence in 2003.

Photo of Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell Social Democratic and Labour Party

It is important that the public have a say on the issue. Only last week, I took part in a seminar run by the Federation of Small Businesses in the Long Gallery, at which those present participated eagerly and expressed their views. Can the Minister give us a flavour of the public response to the consultation so far?

Photo of Sean Farren Sean Farren Social Democratic and Labour Party

I appreciate the curiosity about statements at those meetings. Members will fully appreciate that it is taking officials some time to collate and tabulate all the reactions, comments and recommendations made during the consultation.

I will, however, give a flavour of what has transpired. In June three public consultation conferences were held in Enniskillen, Belfast and Derry to discuss domestic and non-domestic rating issues. Representatives from local businesses, district and borough councils, public sector bodies and the voluntary sector attended the conferences, as did members of the public. Total attendances were disappointing. However, since the web site went live, it has been visited on more than 17,400 occasions, resulting in the consultation paper being downloaded more than 7,000 times. Clearly, society is availing of electronic communication to a greater extent than it is attending consultation meetings.

Several meetings were held with specific interest groups, including the Association of Local Government Finance Officers, charitable groups, the business sector and trade union groups. Two forums were held during August, with the landed professions — estate agents, valuers and surveyors — and with district council personnel through the Northern Ireland Local Government Association.

In addition, by mid-September the head of the Rating Policy Branch will have addressed council meetings in Fermanagh, Castlereagh and Omagh. Meetings have also been held with the Northern Ireland Federation of Clubs, the Confederation of British Industry, the Northern Ireland Independent Retailers’ Association, the Northern Ireland Voluntary Association and the Federation of Small Businesses. A wrap-up conference has been organised for 23 September in Belfast.

We have attempted to consult widely, and many organisations and groups have approached us seeking the attendance of officials to explain the issues. I trust that the consultation process has been as comprehensive as possible during the past few months.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Minister has outlined that a wide range of business interests and professional groups have responded to date. Can he advise Members of the degree of the response from domestic ratepayers to date? Would he acknowledge that a greater public response would be expected if more details were available of how the changes might ultimately affect individual households? Why was such indicative information not included in the consultation paper?

Photo of Sean Farren Sean Farren Social Democratic and Labour Party

Although many organisations might appear to represent the non-domestic sector, every representative is resident somewhere, and, I imagine, interested in domestic rates. All aspects of the review were considered. I am reasonably assured that as comprehensive an opportunity as possible has been afforded to both domestic and non-domestic interests to address the issues.

The amount of downloading from and the number of visits to the web site show the high volume of interest across both areas.