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The honourable Member’s question refers to the rate relief that is available under the small business rates relief scheme. He will be aware that as far as I, as Finance Minister, am concerned, there are limitations in the provision of direct assistance to businesses. The only significant way that I can provide financial assistance is through the rating system, and I will be providing enhanced relief for our smaller post offices through the forthcoming small business rates relief scheme. Indeed, as I mentioned earlier, I am engaged in securing Executive approval for the introduction of the draft enabling legislation for that scheme in the Assembly, and that must be introduced without further delay.
The post office element of that scheme was worked out following detailed discussions between officials from my Department and local and national representatives of the National Federation of SubPostmasters. Indeed, evidence that that organisation provided influenced final policy.
In other parts of the United Kingdom, county councils are mindful of the important community functions of local post offices and have turned them into information and access points for public-service delivery. Would the Minister consider such a scheme for Northern Ireland to secure the future of our remaining post offices, particularly those in rural areas?
I will certainly take on board the Member’s point. However, our plans mean that many small post offices will not have to pay any rates at all.
That will result in an average saving of £1,620 a year. Others will have to pay only 50% of their rates liability, which will result in an average saving of £2,580 a year. The Member will also be aware that, in recognition of the economic downturn to which Members referred today, I announced a freeze to the non-domestic regional rate. That will help all post offices and all other businesses at this time of recession.
We all know the value of post offices, and we all support the post office network. If other measures can be taken for post offices, other Departments need to be pressed and challenged about what they can do. My Department is limited in what it can do, but, through the measures on rates, it is making a considerable contribution to helping post offices. I am sure that the Member will wish to pursue some areas with other Departments.