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Rates (Amendment) Bill: Second Stage

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 11:15 am on 19th January 2016.

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Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP 11:15 am, 19th January 2016

I beg to move

That the Second Stage of the Rates (Amendment) Bill [NIA Bill 75/11-16] be agreed.

I very much welcome the opportunity to open the debate on this short Bill, which brings forward two targeted measures to amend legislation pertaining to the commercial rating sector. I have touched upon some of these issues in the preceding debate, so I ask Members to bear with me if some points are reiterated within this Second Stage. However, given the day that it is — the Chair has alluded to the fact that we may be here for a considerable number of hours — I have no doubt that, as Minister for Finance, I will later hear many arguments repeated and repeated and repeated in relation to these issues, so I suppose, Mr Speaker, that you can forgive me for indulging in a bit of repetition for a moment.

Before turning to the detail of the Bill, I want to take the opportunity to thank the Finance and Personnel Committee for its policy work on this issue in recent months. I also think it is an important issue for our citizens and for the public. If the public took the time to see the huge amount of work that our Committees carry out, I think that they would really appreciate the invaluable contribution that Committees make. This is no less the case in terms of the policy work on this issue in recent months. In particular, I want to thank the Finance and Personnel Committee for the helpful evidence sessions that it held with sports bodies and the hospitality sector at the end of last year.

I also want to express specific thanks to the Chair of the Finance Committee. The new sports and recreation relief power within this Bill, and the subsequent subordinate legislation will, I believe, serve to complement much of his work in this area in recent years. I also want to take time to acknowledge the fact that the Chair of the Committee has actively supported the accelerated passage motion for this Bill, both earlier today and at a related Committee session back in November when the new First Minister, as the then Finance Minister, put her case for an accelerated process. I commend him for his responsible cross-party approach to the Bill, drawing a line in the sand on previous disagreements in this area despite his own clear policy preferences. That is appreciated, and sometimes that does happen where a particular Bill happens to be a private Member's Bill and there is a disagreement. However, I think we are endeavouring to find a way through the differences. Today is an attempt to find that agreed position.

The Bill concludes a much broader range of rating legislation taken forward by my Department through this mandate and takes the opportunity presented in the closing months of the mandate to progress some final adjustments in respect of commercial rating.

I will start this debate by providing an overview of the Bill's contents and the policy background before moving into the detail of the clauses. First, I will deal with the new sport and recreation provision. Members will be aware that my party has long had an interest in securing provision in this area, on the proviso that the final policy is a measured one that weighs up the interests of the wider body of commercial ratepayers.

Earlier in this mandate, during a debate on this issue, a commitment was given to examine the relief provided to community and amateur sports clubs. As was noted in the accelerated passage debate earlier, my Department's work on this commenced straight away. The first step was to engage with DCAL, the policy-competent Department in this area. There followed a period during which the Culture, Arts and Leisure Minister undertook her own analysis of the policy options available in this area alongside Sport NI with a view to reporting back to DFP. That work effectively ceased, however, when a private Member's Bill consultation was launched by the Culture, Arts and Leisure Minister's party colleague Mr McKay. As a result of that intervention, my Department had to turn its attention to the specific proposals advocated in Mr McKay's Bill. My Department highlighted several concerns with the approach taken in those proposals.

Many of the issues raised by my predecessors were not new; indeed, they were central to the 1979 Lawrence report on this issue. They were raised again by the Northern Ireland hospitality sector, which had notable concerns about the proposals in Mr McKay's Bill. Put very generally, the hospitality sector raised competition issues with Mr McKay's proposals. Those issues centred on the fact that any proposal to enhance sport and recreation relief to 100% could have the effect of placing licensed sports clubs — those with a liquor licence — in such an advantageous position so as to affect trade in the wider licensed hospitality sector. Those concerns were relayed on numerous occasions.

I do not propose to outline again the detailed issues at play in balancing those considerations today. Members can read about them in their own time in the Finance Committee's minutes of evidence. If they want to take some time during this afternoon's Budget debate, I am sure that would be one way in which they could spend their time profitably. Suffice it to say that my Department will also be moving to undertake the required outstanding consultation work on its preferred policy in this area in line with the progression of this Bill. The consultation work with the wider business sector will aim to fill in the gaps in due process that were unattended to in the process undertaken by Mr McKay.

The private Member's Bill consultation also broadly coincided with an important EU state aid case taken against the UK Government in respect of the preferential treatment of community amateur sports clubs in the rest of the UK under corporation tax and business rates. The case was taken by the Association of Golf Club Owners in 2013. That state aid case effectively halted development on all areas associated with any policy change in this area between the filing of the complaint and the judgement, which was not received until the end of April 2015. Following the judgement, my Department moved to finalise a Bill with an enabling power to enhance sport and recreation relief to 100% in certain prescribed cases.

The introduction of the Bill was again delayed by the introduction of the competing private Member's Bill just prior to the summer recess. The Member introduced his Bill in the full knowledge that a departmental Bill had been prepared. My predecessor, who is now the First Minister, correctly viewed the option of introducing a second Bill on the same policy area at that stage as undesirable in terms of the impression it would give of the Assembly as a legislative body. To that end, this Bill comes before you today under the accelerated passage process so as to complete its passage before the end of the mandate. No alternative was open to us.

Members will be pleased to hear that the second policy given effect to by this Bill had a much smoother development process. The idea was put forward by Mr Peter Murray of the Buttercrane Shopping Centre in Newry. The policy goal was modest and would see a policy put in place to permit commercial window displays advertising shops and businesses. Its result would be to help the appearance of town centres while simultaneously highlighting other businesses in the immediate area. Building on this idea, my Department undertook a targeted consultation on the issue last year and reported on the issue to the Committee in April, after which the Committee signalled that it was content with the policy, subject to any refinements thought necessary by the Department in developing the legislation that we see before us today.

Let me be clear: no one sees this micro-policy as the answer to the issues presented by vacant units on our high streets. That trend is rooted in several factors outside the control of the rating system, let alone this Assembly. It is an issue for Members, for me as an MLA for my own constituency and for all of our colleagues in this Chamber. The issue of vacant properties persists, and it remains a challenge for us today. However, we can play our part. The empty shops rates concession had its origins in an idea put forward by my colleague Mr Sammy Wilson and also by the Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce. It has since been replicated all over the United Kingdom and has now seen 525 new businesses occupying premises in Northern Ireland.

We also took forward our own revaluation exercise in Northern Ireland. Lisney commented on the effects of this process in Belfast only last week, stating that:

“Occupational demand in Belfast city centre's prime retail area has experienced a notable increase in 2015, as improved consumer sentiment and the rates rebalancing took effect.”

I think that is something to be noted; it is something to be welcomed. It is something which, I think, indicates that progress has been made. I view this short Bill as the completion of a cycle of primary legislation associated with commitments made by my predecessors during this Assembly term.

Turning to the detail of the legislation, clause 1 provides a power for the Department to increase the rates reduction under the article 31 sports and recreation exemption in the Rates (Northern Ireland) Order 1977 in certain cases. Article 31 of the 1977 Order provides for a reduction of 80% in the normal rate in respect of certain hereditaments which are shown in the net annual value (NAV) list as being used solely for the purposes of a prescribed recreation. A prescribed recreation is a recreation, whether conducted outdoors or indoors, which, in the opinion of my Department, demands an appreciable degree of physical effort and which is of a kind specified by DFP by subordinate legislation. Such prescription is periodically reviewed and can be found at present within the Rates (Recreational Hereditaments) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007.

Subsections (1) and (2) of the clause will insert a new paragraph (5A) into article 31 of the 1977 Order which enables my Department, by regulations, to provide that the reduction in the normal rate provided under that article may be increased from 80% to 100% in cases prescribed in regulations.

Subsections (1) and (3) of the clause provides that the regulations made as a result of the new provision will be subject to affirmative resolution control by this Assembly.

Members will wish to note that I am presently minded to use such powers to increase the level of rate reduction from 80% to 100% in the case of hereditaments in which intoxicating liquor is not sold.

That is dependent, however, on further research and analysis by DFP, and on consultation with stakeholders and others. My Department will soon be launching a consultation on the issue in order to be in a position to utilise the new enabling power in due course. The consultation will fill in the gaps in due process left from the previous initiative associated with the private Member's Bill and the useful sessions undertaken by the Finance Committee on the policy area.

Clause 2 ensures that, where shop fronts or shop window displays are used in empty retail premises, ratepayers will effectively continue to receive 50% empty property relief or an exclusion, if that is applicable. Without that, rates would otherwise be charged at the full occupied rate. It is a measure that was originally trialled in 2012, on foot of a suggestion from Belfast Chamber of Trade. The suggestion related to non-commercial window displays. However, the new clause extends the potential use to commercial window displays. The provision is initially time-bound but can be further extended should the policy prove to be successful.

The clause outlines the properties that will be covered and provides that the depth of the window display must not exceed 1·5 metres, while the area of the window display must not exceed 5% of the floor area of the part of the building fronted by the window display. The geographical area to be covered by the regulations will be laid out in subsequent legislation by the Department, in line with the provision's commencement. Given the ongoing issue of empty shops, the clause will play a small part in allowing shopping areas to be made more vibrant and attractive to shoppers and in promoting nearby businesses, without any ratepayers being penalised.

Clause 3 and the schedule give effect to consequential repeal provisions.

The remaining clauses simply deal with the interpretation and commencement of the Bill’s provisions. I look forward to the support of the Assembly in taking forward those important measures.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Speaker 11:30 am, 19th January 2016

Thank you, Minister. Before I proceed, I want to draw the House's attention to an issue that I have had to address before. Members will note that officials sit in the Officials' Box, and they are there for a very specific purpose, which is to provide support and advice on matters of detail or issues that may arise in the Chamber. They are not, under any circumstances, there to provide contact or communication with Members during a debate. Their role is completely non-party political. They provide support to the Minister. Unfortunately, this morning, a Member spent several minutes in the Box with officials, and I noted that. That Member need not expect to be called to contribute to the debate, because I have no way of judging what the content of that conversation was. Members should take note of that, because I intend to ensure that it does not happen again.

Photo of Daithí McKay Daithí McKay Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I was going to have a wee chat with Brian there later on, but I think that I will hold my whisht for now, Mervyn.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Speaker

Do you want to speak here? Be careful about that.

Photo of Daithí McKay Daithí McKay Sinn Féin

A Cheann Comhairle, as I mentioned in my contribution to the previous debate, it may be useful to outline to Members the Committee's preliminary scrutiny of the principles of the Bill, in the context of supporting the Department's request for accelerated passage and to inform the contributions of Committee members to the debate.

I start by addressing the more straightforward of the two substantive clauses, which is clause 2. DFP wrote to the Committee in November 2014 regarding a targeted consultation. That followed a proposal put forward to disregard the commercial use of window displays in empty shops in determining rateable or chargeable occupation.

Although it was noted that all respondents were supportive of the proposals, it was pointed out that some concern was expressed by the ministerial advisory group, which felt that there should be stringent controls or safeguards to limit abuse or prevent an unfair competitive advantage. In response to Committee queries on that point, DFP advised that it was not minded to include such controls since the operation of the scheme would be as simple as possible, but safeguards could be built in through subordinate legislation. The Minister may, therefore, wish to pick up on that point later in today's debate.

We must continue to look for innovative measures to help to support and nurture businesses in our towns, which have, over recent years, been blighted by the economic downturn, as a result of which many businesses continue to struggle, as Members will be well aware. The provisions in clause 2 are, therefore, a very welcome development.

I move on to the enabling provision in clause 1. The Committee was advised that the Department will propose in its consultation on the regulations that the enhanced rate relief be limited to community amateur sports clubs (CASCs) that do not have liquor licences. In noting that the estimated cost of this enhanced relief would be in the region of £750,000, members sought to establish the number of clubs that would see this benefit. In response, departmental officials advised that the calculations were based on an estimate of the 70 to 80 clubs that currently qualify.

To inform the contribution of its members to today's debate, the Committee agreed to schedule oral briefings from a panel of the main amateur sporting bodies and umbrella groups as well as from applicable business sector representatives. Those briefings took place before the Christmas recess, and the discussions focused on the merits or otherwise of the Department's proposed approach in the regulations that CASCs with licences to sell alcohol would not be able to avail themselves of the enhanced relief — the additional 20% on sporting facilities — despite paying 100% rates on the bar area. That raised the issue of whether the sporting facilities of licensed clubs will, in effect, be penalised compared with those of unlicensed clubs.

The Committee questioned the sporting bodies in particular on the perception that clubs with licensed premises may have a competitive advantage over the hospitality sector. The sporting bodies, including Ulster Rugby, the GAA, the IFA, the NI Sports Forum and Sport NI, highlighted a number of points in response. Amongst other things, they pointed to the social and economic value that CASCs bring to their communities and made the argument that CASCs with licensed premises reinvest any profits in improving their facilities, which exist for community benefit. A notable point that arose from the evidence was that, of the 46 rugby clubs, only two or three do not have bars. It was clear, therefore, that the Department's proposed regulations under clause 1 would not provide any major benefit to local rugby clubs overall.

From the other perspective, in the evidence from Hospitality Ulster and some local businesses, the Committee heard concerns that, in some instances, licensed CASCs openly have regular weekly functions to generate income and that that can impact on the ability of local bars and restaurants to compete.

One area discussed during the panel briefings was the potential for applying a revenue or receipts threshold when assessing rates relief to licensed CASCs. At its meeting on 9 December, the Committee discussed the issues with departmental officials, including whether there would be scope to empower local government with similar powers to those applying in Britain. This would leave councils, which have local knowledge, to apply the enhanced relief. The Committee commissioned the Assembly Research and Information Service on that point, and its research was circulated to members just in time for today's debate. I am sure that the Committee will wish to share that research with the Department.

It would be useful if the Minister could comment on that and on the other issues that I referred to when he makes his winding-up speech. In particular, it would be helpful to have clarity on the envisaged timetable for the subordinate legislation under clause 1 and, more generally, on how the delegated powers will operate, including whether they will be consistent with provisions in the Rates Order.

I will now make a few comments from a personal position and on behalf of Sinn Féin. I appreciate the Minister's kind words this morning.

Regardless of the fierce disagreement at Second Stage of the private Member's Bill — there is no need to rehearse those arguments — we should continue to try to seek consensus on this issue.

My concern is that there is a possibility of creating, in effect, two tiers of community and amateur sports clubs. As the Committee found out, there is a disproportionate impact on rugby clubs, almost all of which find themselves on the wrong side of the divide. That said, I recognise that the Department has moved on the issue. In its proposals, as outlined by the previous Minister, it uses the CASC criteria, as I proposed, and introduces 100% relief as proposed — just not for clubs with bars. In light of that, I am considering bringing forward amendments to try to address the imbalance. That imbalance is not in the Bill, which is quite wide in scope, but in the policy direction that the previous Minister outlined.

In conclusion, the Bill is a move in the right direction. Whilst there are still differences between my position and the Department's position, given that Consideration Stage and Further Consideration Stage are coming up, there are opportunities to have further discussions and conversations about where we can reach consensus. It may not be possible at the end of the day, but the Assembly will have an opportunity to debate this further and vote on which way it feels the Department should move forward on community and amateur sports clubs.

Photo of Ian McCrea Ian McCrea DUP

I will start from where the Member has just ended. I am a wee bit concerned by the news that he intends to table amendments. We talk about not getting an opportunity to scrutinise legislation, never mind getting an opportunity to see the amendments. I hope that he will share those amendments with the Committee to, if nothing else, at least give us an opportunity to consider them. I appreciate that he has carried out a piece of work on community and amateur sports clubs and should know the issue inside out by now. I know, however, from speaking to clubs, especially those that do not have a bar, that they are crying out for this.

As the Member said, there is an issue with clubs that have a bar, but I believe that this is the right way to go. I think that the situation is unfair, and, even if we learnt nothing else from those in the hospitality sector who compete against larger clubs that host events, as well as against hoteliers and whatnot in the locality, we learned that we need to be mindful of that. We hoped that the Department and the Minister would work alongside those in the hospitality sector to see whether there was some way of dealing with the anomaly, as they see it, of charging according to income rather than the building. <BR/>I have no doubt that the Member is very passionate about this, but I believe that keeping the position that clubs with a licensed bar get only 80% relief is the right way to go. I have no power over the Member and cannot stop him tabling amendments, but I hope that he takes that into consideration and brings any amendments to the Committee so that we at least get a bit of an idea of where he is going.

For me, clause 2 is equally, if not slightly more, important. Whilst the rating of sports clubs is already at 80%, it will move those that do not have the bar up to 100%.

In respect of town centres and shopping centres, the Bill will allow:

"commercial window displays to be disregarded from occupation for rating purposes."

For me, we need language that ordinary people can understand. I know that there are technical terms in the legislation, but, for someone like me, it is important that we put it in terms that people will understand. From my understanding of it and if I put it in terms that I understand, if there is an empty premises that is receiving reduced rates and a shop nearby wants to advertise in it, it is deemed as occupied and is therefore charged 100% rates. Should the Bill be passed today, it will hopefully give that a 50% reduction and bring it in line with the empty shops. I think that is certainly a good thing. I believe the business community brought it forward to the Minister's predecessor. She listened and acted, and I think it is a good thing that the Minister is bringing it forward here today. Hopefully, it will see our town centres and shopping centres being revitalised, especially vacant shops.

This is a good piece of legislation. Accelerated passage is not something that we wanted to do. It is disappointing that we could not resolve this in the previous private Member's Bill, but, nonetheless, we are where we are. I certainly support the passage of the Bill.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party 11:45 am, 19th January 2016

I thank the Minister for his introduction. We have a long day in front of us, so I will not labour the points. There are about 20 Bills, I think, going through at various stages, and if we did not give this one accelerated passage, it would not make it through. It is a good Bill. They are good provisions, and we support them, but I do not think we should overuse the accelerated passage tool. Some of the blame for its current use has to be placed with the dysfunction that has characterised the Assembly for much of the mandate.

We welcome the provisions. There are wider issues about our rating scheme. It is the one tool that we have, and we use it a lot. We are in danger of rating schemes becoming illegitimate. When there are so many exemptions, other people are picking up the slack and it loses some legitimacy. I have submitted a detailed response to the live consultation on that, which primarily reflects the views of traders in my constituency.

Window displays are useful, and they can take the bad look off dereliction. Anything that allows people to use those spaces creatively to mitigate the effects of empty premises is welcome. In my previous job, we used empty shop fronts for exhibitions and so on, and that can be done, whether it is other businesses, voluntary groups or anything that can enhance the area. However, we do not want to overplay the Potemkin village aspect of things; we need entrepreneurship and real vibrancy back on our high streets. Just covering up dereliction is not something that we want to do, but it is useful.

We also fully support the community and amateur sports club provision. This is the departmental version; we supported the private Member's version too. We want the consultation to proceed, and we hope that the subordinate legislation on that will come forward sooner rather than later.

Photo of Leslie Cree Leslie Cree UUP

I support the Second Stage. The Bill, as other Members said, contains two provisions. The first is an enabling provision to grant enhanced rate relief under article 31 of the 1977 Order to certain premises used for recreational purposes.

The second relates to the use of certain window displays in empty shops. The scheme has been operating as an interim measure and appears to have worked well. Clause 2 will extend the application until 31 March 2017.

Clause 1 attempts to create a situation where sports premises can attract 100% rate relief.

As has been referred to, the Bill is similar to a private Member's Bill that recently fell at the Second Stage. Licensed premises will not be entitled to the additional relief, and regulations to clarify the eligibility conditions will be produced by the Department. They will, of course, be subject to affirmative resolution by the Assembly in due course.

The situation in the rest of the United Kingdom is similar to what is being proposed. England and Wales allow registered charities 80% relief on rates for premises that are wholly or mainly used for charitable purposes. Registered community amateur sports clubs receive 80% relief on the rates for premises that are wholly or mainly used for the purpose of the club or for other CASCs. In Scotland, mandatory rates relief is given to registered charities and registered CASCs where the premises are used wholly or mainly for charitable or club purposes. In addition, a discretionary relief is available that may make up the remaining 20% in England, Wales and, indeed, Scotland. The Assembly is playing catch-up. I support the Bill's Second Stage.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Second Stage of the Rates (Amendment) Bill. I am standing in for my party colleague, and Committee member, Judith Cochrane who cannot, unfortunately, be with us this morning.

The Bill seeks to amend the Rates (Northern Ireland) Order 1977 in two ways: first, by amending article 31 and permitting a reduction in rates for hereditaments that are prescribed as recreational by DFP; and secondly, by amending schedule 8A to the order by inserting that window displays do not constitute an occupied building, therefore making the owner eligible for empty property relief.

I turn now to clause 1. I am sure that Members will recognise the general concept, as it was spoken about in the Chamber on 20 October 2015. At that time, the principle was contained in the private Member's Bill, as mentioned, of Mr Daithí McKay, Chair of the Committee, and was to lower the rates paid by community amateur sports groups. Whilst my party colleague Judith Cochrane spoke in favour of the private Member's Bill that day, she also highlighted some of her concerns. On that point, I put on record my support for the proposal, given the significant benefit it would bring to sports clubs around Northern Ireland. It would demonstrate that, at a legislative level, we are appreciative of the benefits they bring to physical and mental health, the positive community spirit they can nourish and the divisions in communities that they can break down. Through the rates reduction, sports clubs, which can provide so much public service but have faced greater overheads in recent years, can reinvest money to develop and expand their reach and activities.

I turn now to clause 2. We have something vastly similar in nature but different in scope. It demonstrates support for businesses operating in difficult times. Within that clause, which amends schedule 8A, we have a recognition of hereditaments that are empty, but which avail themselves of a shop window, as having unoccupied status. That acts as an incentive to maintain the facade of an unoccupied business, which is something that our current system fails to do. At present, as I understand it, commercial properties that are unoccupied but have a window display are ineligible for 50% empty property relief. That is financially detrimental to business owners who could seek to start up another business in that property. In addition, it does not act as an incentive to maintain the facade of the unoccupied building and support surrounding businesses.

In conclusion, clause 2 will demonstrate to the business sector and the public that the Assembly fully supports SMEs in Northern Ireland. Moreover, I believe the quoted figure of £750,000 to be a small sum to pay if it supports existing businesses. Indeed, that measure will act as encouragement for those who have gone out of business to maintain an attractive window display. As a result, surrounding businesses will not suffer the loss of income that is so often the case in areas that have been struggling. To elaborate further on this point; I have spoken to my party colleague in East Belfast and the positive impacts that such a measure had during the Giro d'Italia in 2014 were confirmed to me. During this time, unoccupied shops were given an attractive facade, with a positive financial impact being noted by local businesses in the area.

On behalf of the Alliance Party, I support the Rates (Amendment) Bill that has been brought by the Department of Finance and Personnel. I believe that it will bring positive outcomes for everyone in Northern Ireland at a community and indeed business level.

Photo of Gary Middleton Gary Middleton DUP

As this is my first time speaking since the new Finance Minister has been in place, I want to welcome him, thank him for all the work that he did in his previous role and wish him well in this role. I trust that he will do as good a job in this post as he did in his previous one.

Of course, I rise to support the Bill and the comments of my colleagues who have spoken before me. I believe that it is a good-news Bill; one that should be non-contentious. For that reason, I plan to keep my comments brief. We had several very useful evidence sessions with various sports organisations, be it Ulster Rugby, the GAA or the IFA, to name a few. We also heard from the hospitality sector of course. In hearing from these organisations, it is important that we get balance in doing all that we can to support sports clubs in the difficulties that they face whilst also supporting the hospitality sector and ensuring that there are no unfair advantages.

Clause 1 allows the Department the power to increase rates reduction and, in some cases, exemption in relation to amateur sports clubs that do not have a liquor licence. That will harmonise the treatment of such clubs with that of community halls. It is also positive that the clause will not preclude clubs from gaining full relief if they obtain occasional licences. I know of quite a few clubs in my constituency, Foyle, that hold charity fundraising events and other specific events. They will be eligible for that.

Under clause 2 on shopfronts and window displays, those commercial and non-commercial premises will continue to receive 50% empty property relief. I think that that benefits not only those who own empty shops, but existing businesses in allowing them to advertise. Ultimately, we want to see empty shops being filled. I think that this will be a welcome step to try to encourage city centres to be more vibrant and user-friendly. Thankfully, we are starting to see a lot fewer empty shops in towns and city centres. In my constituency, we saw the benefits of window dressing during the UK City of Culture year in 2013. The place looked well and was attractive to tourists.

There are no issues with clause 3 or the rest of the clauses. I support the Bill and encourage everybody to unite behind it.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I congratulate the Minister on his new role. He will be aware of what I am bringing forward here. He mentioned earlier that he will hear arguments repeated time and time again. I can assure you, Minister, that you have not heard this argument repeatedly; not in the past four years, today or, probably, in the next four years. With regard to the Bill and the opportunity that presented itself following Daithí McKay's private Member's Bill on rates relief for community amateur sports clubs, I feel that there has been the exclusion of one particular sport from the Rates (Recreational Hereditaments) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007. That is the sport of pigeon racing. Clause 1 refers to the Rates (Northern Ireland) Order 1977. It is that order that actually sets out the prescribed definition of recreations as recognised by LPS. As I said, they are set out in the 2007 order. I am well aware that pigeon racing is not recognised as a sport either by Sport NI or currently by DCAL, but that is an issue that I am working on with them both at a Northern Ireland level through the Northern Ireland Pigeon Association and a UK level through the Royal Pigeon Racing Association. The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure has been in support of that.

I am trying to take the opportunity through the rates relief Bill to amend the LPS hereditaments order from 2007, because it is disingenuous that some sports are listed under that 2007 prescribed activities list but are not recognised as sports by Sport NI. I feel that there is an opportunity to introduce pigeon racing in that, and that would allow it to avail itself of the 80% rate relief that is currently there or potentially give the Minister the opportunity, through regulation, to bring that up to 100% rate relief. By bringing this forward as part of the Bill, I am also giving the Minister an opportunity to be a trailblazer and a champion for pigeon men and women across Northern Ireland.

I could go on at great length about why I believe pigeon racing should be recognised as a sport and how I hope it will be in future. The European sports charter sets that out quite clearly. The Minister referred to it and to where his Department takes guidance from. That definition allows sport to be described as:

"improving physical fitness and mental well-being, forming social relationships or obtaining results in competition at all levels."

I believe that that scope is wide enough to include pigeon racing.

Some of the Minister's officials have recommended that pigeon clubs take the opportunity to become charities. I do not think that that is a realistic possibility for many clubs across Northern Ireland due to their membership and demographic, especially the age range. It would exclude more clubs than it would allow.

In his opening comments, the Minister mentioned the possibility of bringing forward changes in regulations rather than through the Bill. He will know that, at this minute in time, I am minded to bring forward an amendment to the Bill, but if I could have a conversation with him and see that it might be better done under regulations, I am prepared to do that for the sake of the sport. When he is taking forward his targeted consultations — I think that that was the phrase that he used in his opening comments — and when his departmental officials are drawing up a list of the groups that they will specifically target for that consultation, I ask him to include the Royal Pigeon Racing Association, the Northern Ireland Pigeon Association, the Irish Homing Union, northern region, the Ulster Federation and the East Down Combine of pigeon clubs. I want to put a marker down that, through the progress of the Bill, I would like to take the opportunity that has been presented to include pigeon racing under its scope.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP 12:00 pm, 19th January 2016

I had almost forgotten that Mr Swann was an avid follower of pigeon racing, but I am sure that my constituents will be glad to hear his comments as I have quite a few who are involved in it.

In welcoming the Minister in one of his first appearances in his new role, I will use a sporting term. I am not sure whether he views it as promotion or a relegation, but, being a member of the Finance Committee, I view it very much as a promotion. It does not get any bigger in politics than being on the Finance and Personnel Committee and being Minister of Finance and Personnel.

Issues raised by the Buttercrane centre gave development to a policy area in the Minister's Bill. It is one great example of how responsive the Assembly and Executive can be when businesses identify a problem and lobby and campaign. We and they can then change the policy and identify where it could make an impact. From listening to the debate, there certainly seems to be widespread support for that being how we improve. I am sure that the Minister's constituency is no different from mine.

With the revaluation and the change in councils, rates have been a major issue across my constituency over the past 18 months and there have been concerns about the amount to be paid. Businesses in small towns like Rathfriland or Kilkeel are struggling with rates and now see them as a major burden. We will have to continue to look at that. I am very supportive of what the Minister proposes for vacant shops and shop windows and how we can do that to support small businesses.

I turn to community amateur sports clubs. In Committee, I was supportive of some of the early contributions of Mr McKay on his private Member's Bill. I am very supportive of the concept, because of the work that our community amateur sports clubs do. Tens of thousands of people give of their time and talent every week to coach, work and support, whether it is cutting the grass, playing or whatever, to build a club. The benefit that that gives to our communities is enormous. On the Health Committee a number of years ago, we looked at suicide and self-harm. The link between good physical health and good mental health is long-established. Community cohesion and health and well-being are things that we should support.

The Minister's dilemma is probably how he finds the balance between what is affordable and what we can do to support genuine community amateur sports clubs and, on the other hand, how we make sure that that does not disadvantage businesses in towns that are paying rates at full value and may be struggling in some cases to meet their rates bill.

I am supportive of where the Minister is going with this. My one big concern, which, I suspect, he will know — Mr McKay touched on it as well — is around rugby clubs. Recently, I have been in a few rugby clubs, even in his constituency. I urge him to see if there is anything we can do to give more support to the 46 or 47 rugby clubs that may get only limited benefit from the changes. Those clubs are very much in the community amateur sports clubs bracket. They run events in-house to raise money to reinvest in their facilities and equipment to keep the team going. We all know the enormous cost of keeping four or five teams out on the road and playing in tournaments. That is a real drain on any club's resources. How can we help? Is there something that we need to look at to extend it to rugby clubs? At the minute, one of the downsides of this might be that we do a lot to help a great many clubs and that is to be welcomed, but we leave rugby — a major component of our amateur sports sector — without the help and support that it would otherwise qualify for.

On the whole, I welcome the Bill and its progress to date, but with that one issue around rugby clubs and whether we can look at other ways to mitigate that or bring them into the bracket.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I thank Members for their contributions. The comments have been interesting. We have gone from Mr Swann taking flight in relation to pigeons to Mr McCallister advocating — rightly so — for rugby clubs, as well as other comments. I trust that I will come to each in turn in a few moments.

First of all, I want to address the issues raised by the Chair. Again I place on record our appreciation and thanks to the Committee and the Chair for the way in which they have approached this issue. The Chair raised the issue of controls and safeguards, particularly the window displays provision. I want to give him some assurance on that. The Bill contains a power to limit the area to which the new power applies. Likewise, as I noted, the Bill is subject to a sunset clause to allow for a trial period, so I think that that, in a sense, gives us some specific focus in relation to the duration. Might we look at extending it? First, we need to see how it goes in the trial period. My successor or I, whoever it will be, will then give consideration to the future of that issue.

The Department will also shortly undertake the targeted specific consultation for an eight-week period on the use of the enabling power. It will set out the details of the scheme in the subordinate legislation. That covers, to some degree, the issue that Mr McCallister raised. That will give opportunities to sports clubs to comment on the proposals and to give their view.

I will deal with the issue of rugby clubs. I think that it was the Chair who gave us the figures on the number of rugby clubs that had licensed premises, and I think that there are only two or three that do not. Those that do are in receipt of 80% relief from their rate, so I do not think that it is a fair representation to say that one element of amateur sport provision, particularly one that makes an invaluable contribution to our communities, is somehow now disadvantaged and is not being given the same priority or importance: it is. Under the existing rules, they have that 80% relief, and I think that they value and appreciate that.

The Chair asked when the sport and recreation enhancement regulations would be in place. The regulations will be taken forward following the commencement of the Bill. That is, in turn, dependent on the date when the Bill receives Royal Assent. As I stated, in-year implementation during 2016-17 may be possible, subject to the consultation outcomes and the view of Land and Property Services. Obviously, there are considerations that we have to take into account as far as land and property is concerned.

The Chair also referred to local government. While I take the Member's point regarding local government discretion, this issue needs to be treated with care. As a previous Minister for Social Development, I know all too well the concerns that local government has at this time in relation to giving local authorities additional powers. There was a mixed view out there on the regeneration powers. Some said that they wanted those powers and were disappointed that we had made the decision not to proceed. Others took the view that, because of the change from 26 councils to the new 11 councils, there is a bedding-in period and there are many challenges. The Member, who comes from the same constituency as me, will know that, in our council, where previously you were dealing with four authorities, you are now dealing with one. It is a particular challenge, and we see played out on an almost weekly basis the issues between Ballycastle, Ballymoney, Coleraine and Limavady. It becomes very parochial, and I suppose that is also a huge challenge for the other authorities.

I am sure that the Member would not want a system that risks or inadequately places another pressure on local government. That issue needs some more time to be thought through. The other issue is that we will want to do it in consultation with local authorities because we would not want to just present it to them and not give them the opportunity to raise concerns.

She is not present, but I thank Claire Hanna for her comments about my appointment. I look forward to carrying out my role and my responsibility to the best of my ability. It is a daunting task; however, that should never put you off trying to raise the bar for your personal achievements in life, and I thank the First Minister for giving me that privilege.

The Member raised the issue of empty retail units and asked what more we were doing on that. As I said in my opening comments, we all face this in our constituencies, to a lesser or greater degree. What I would say about the commercial window display is that that is only one measure. The issue of vacant retail space is complex and has many causes, and a variety of initiatives will be required to address it. The answer most likely lies outside the rating system, but I trust that we have endeavoured to our do our part. We led the way with an empty shops rates concession, with 525 businesses getting up and running in Northern Ireland with a 50% discount off their rates for the first year.

Elsewhere, we have seen the beneficial effects of the re-evaluation exercise in getting prime retail areas back into occupation in Belfast city centre. I am well aware that it is always a challenge — I think that Mr McCallister referred to this — for Ministers and Departments to get policy and practice as fair and as equitable as is possible. I know that, as a result of the revaluation, elements of the retail sector have spoken to us, even prior to me taking the post of Finance Minister, about their belief they were treated unfairly, with a huge jump from what they had paid previously to what they were now being asked to pay. I am conscious of those issues. That is why there is an attempt in the Bill to be as balanced and as fair as we can, although I think that Mr Swann might not appreciate that that is the case. We have that challenge.

Ms Hanna also referred to clause 1 and asked whether there were wider plans for reviewing the policy. I have to have an open mind. Having come into the post, I take on board much of what has been done heretofore. However, when other issues come our way, whether it is an issue of rating or whatever, it is only right and proper that we have an open mind. The review has a far-reaching remit, and we will look at all aspects of non-domestic rating in the round. I am aware that, in my constituency, for example, conversations and meetings have been held. We have taken note of some of the comments made by some of the retailers in our constituency, particularly those about Ballymena. I also note the point raised by the Member for South Belfast about accelerated passage, and I think that I have addressed those issues.

Mr Cree raised concerns around community amateur sports clubs and policy in GB. Community amateur sports clubs in the rest of the United Kingdom get the same mandatory relief — 80% — as sports and recreation facilities occupying those properties. To qualify for discretionary top-up relief in GB, providing up to 100% relief, a community amateur sports club must satisfy additional criteria set out by the local authority. There is that slight variation, and it cuts across local government. Slight additional criteria are set out by the local authorities.

Mr Middleton also raised the issue of empty retail units. I think that we have covered that in our response to other Members.

Let me come on to the issue raised by Mr Swann about pigeons. It is no anomaly that Mr Swann raises an issue to do with pigeons, but I am not going to make a play on words about his name. I am happy to meet him to have a discussion, because he raises a concern, as we all have to do as public representatives when we are lobbied on an issue. If you have a particular interest or have a particular organisation come to you, it is right and proper that we give due consideration to whatever that issue is. However, the Bill may not be the best vehicle for extending rate relief to pigeon clubs.

I will quote article 31 of the 1977 Order, which details prescribed recreation. Maybe the Member will think it through, and we will then have a discussion on it. It states:

"'prescribed recreation' means a recreation, whether conducted indoors or outdoors, which in the opinion of the Department demands an appreciable degree of physical effort and which is of a kind specified" by DFP through subordinate legislation. We will, I think, get into a bit of a debate about where the appreciable degree of physical effort comes from. In that case, it comes more from the pigeon than from the pigeon owner. I am happy to give way to the Member.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP 12:15 pm, 19th January 2016

I thank the Minister for that point. Bearing in mind the business that is to take place over the rest of the day, I said to the Minister when I was making my contribution that I could get into that debate at length. I am sure that he is aware that the Rates (Recreational Hereditaments) Order 2007 already covers activities such as model powerboating, model airplane flying and wildfowling. In my belief, it is about the racing, flagging and training of pigeons, not the actual physical racing, in which it is the pigeon rather than the owner that competes. I will give the Minister that. There are, however, activities already covered that involve the same degree, if not a lesser degree, of physical activity as that of the owner of the pigeon, but I am not going to get into that debate today.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I thank the Member for his intervention. I will come back to him shortly to confirm when we will meet. We will have a lengthy discussion on the issue. He makes his point well. It is not my place to put that issue aside and not give it the consideration that it deserves.

In conclusion, I thank Members for their contributions to the debate.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I did not think that you were coming to a conclusion so quickly.

You mentioned the local authorities. Is the Minister aware of the real concerns of seven local authorities that have lost some £3 million in the past year? They will be even further disadvantaged. There has been a meeting between the authorities and the Environment Minister, but will you reconsider the loss to those local authorities, which will probably put them further into poverty?

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

The Member is right about the concerns that have been expressed. An element of that refers to the work of and the decisions taken by the Environment Minister. The authorities have been speaking to the Minister about that. In my previous role, I gave commitments and was in the process of working with local authorities on another element of their budget. I am now in the position of Finance Minister, but, in all these things, I am more than conscious of the concerns that they have. As Finance Minister, as, I trust, I did when in DSD, I will have an open-door policy for local authorities and anyone else who comes in with concerns. The Member makes the point well on their behalf.

I commend the Second Stage of the Bill to the Assembly.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That the Second Stage of the Rates (Amendment) Bill [NIA Bill 75/11-16] be agreed.