Rates (Amendment) Bill: Further Consideration Stage

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 1:00 pm on 1st February 2016.

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Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP 1:00 pm, 1st February 2016

I call the Minister of Finance and Personnel, Mr Mervyn Storey, to move the Further Consideration Stage of the Bill.

Moved. — [Mr Storey (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration.

The amendments have been grouped for debate in my provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There are two amendments, which will be debated in a single group. Both amendments deal with the entitlement to rates reductions. I remind Members intending to speak that they should address their comments to only the amendments. If that is clear, we shall proceed.

We now come to the single group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 1, it will be convenient to debate amendment No 2. I call Mr Daithí McKay to move amendment No 1 and address the other amendment in the group.

Photo of Daithí McKay Daithí McKay Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I beg to move amendment No 1:

In page 1, line 8, at end insert

<BR/>

&quot;(5B) Without prejudice to the generality of paragraph (5A), prescribed cases in regulations under that paragraph shall include, subject to such conditions as may be prescribed, where a hereditament is occupied by a community amateur sports club.


 


(5C) The first regulations under paragraph (5A) shall be no later than 30 September 2016,&quot;,


 


(b) in paragraph (6) insert at the appropriate place —


&quot;&quot;community amateur sports club&quot; means a registered club within the meaning of section 658(6) of the Corporation Tax Act 2010;&quot;.&quot;

The following amendment stood on the Marshalled List:

No 2: After clause 1 insert



&quot;Specified recreations: pigeon racing


 


1A. In the Schedule to the Rates (Recreational Hereditaments) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007 (list of specified recreations), where appropriate insert &quot;Pigeon Racing&quot;.&quot; — [Mr Cree.]

Amendment No 1 is a straightforward amendment. At last week's debate at Consideration Stage, I gather that there was consensus on the need to make regulations within a fixed timescale. The thrust of the amendment is to ensure that the first regulations under paragraph (5A) be made no later than 30 September 2016. It is also useful to put community amateur sports clubs (CASCs) in the Bill.

I take this opportunity to thank the Minister for his engagement with me on this issue last week. I, of course, would have preferred it if we could have dealt with the issue of CASCs with bars with licensed premises as part of the extension of the rates relief, but the Assembly ruled otherwise. Nonetheless, I hope that the Department will take the opportunity, ahead of the introduction of the regulations, to find a solution or an option for those clubs. My primary concern is that there is a greater disincentive for clubs with bars to build further facilities for their communities and associations. I say that particularly as a rural representative. Of course, on the other hand, clubs without bars will no longer have that disincentive, so, if they decide to build a new pitch or hall, there will be no added rates burden.

The Finance and Personnel Committee has heard of possible options, including assessing according to the different levels of turnover, changing how club bars are rated etc. The Department now has an opportunity to consider the options more fully. I hope that it will bring forward recommendations that represent a step forward for those clubs. All community amateur sports clubs play a vital role in our community. That point has been laboured at other stages of the Bill, so, hopefully, that will be the case.

In regard to amendment No 2, put forward in the names of Mr Leslie Cree and Mr Robin Swann, Sinn Féin has no issues with the pigeon-racing amendment. There are many and a very wide variety of recreations on the list of sports already. Some might argue that some of them are lesser sports than pigeon racing, and some may have a contrary view. I see no reason why that should not be included as well. No doubt, if it is passed by the Assembly today, it will give Mr Swann something to tweet about — or should that be coo about? I give my support to amendment No 2.

Photo of Ian McCrea Ian McCrea DUP

My comments will be very short, as we have discussed and debated this a number of times over the last couple of weeks. The Member, to be fair, as I have said before and will say again, has been to the fore of trying to promote this issue. It was unfortunate that we had to go down the route of bringing it forward in the Minister's name and not his, but we are where we are. The Member brought forward his amendment last week, which, unfortunately, did not go through. We had a quick chat about it. In respect of my conversation with the Minister, the fact that the Member took up the offer to consult with the Minister and figure out a way forward on this gives a wee bit of assurance that, when these things happen, things can move forward.

In that sense, it is a wee bit unfortunate that, in respect of the amendment from the Ulster Unionist Party, consultation has not really happened with the Minister. We had an issue with Mr McKay's amendment last week because consultation had not taken place. However, it now has, and we are therefore able to support it. Unfortunately, that consultation with the Minister has not happened with the Ulster Unionist amendment, and there are still some questions around pigeon racing. I have nothing against it; I have some such clubs in my constituency, although, as far I am aware, they do not have premises that would benefit from this rate relief. I am not saying that I do not sympathise with them, but we do not have enough information to be able to support the amendment from the Ulster Unionist Party.

However, as the Minister outlined the last time we debated the Bill, his door is open for a conversation with Mr Swann. Mr Swann has flown off to America, which may be why we have not had the consultation. Who knows what might happen between now and the end? We are content to support the amendment from Mr McKay, but unfortunately we cannot support the amendment from the Ulster Unionist Party.

Photo of Leslie Cree Leslie Cree UUP 1:15 pm, 1st February 2016

I rise to speak primarily to amendment No 2, although we support amendment No 1.

I start by noting that it was my colleague Robin Swann who drove amendment No 2 forward. As has just been said, he did fly off to America. It is interesting that we have not heard a tweet from him since, but it will be a good test to see if he can home his way back.

[Laughter.]

Unfortunately, he is unable to be here, and I am only too happy to take this forward on his behalf.

The issue was raised at the Bill's Second Stage by Mr Swann, and I want to expand on three points: why the Bill is an opportunity to pursue this, why pigeon racing should be included as a prescribed recreation by Land and Property Services (LPS) and how pigeon racing can meet the requirement to satisfy the definition of a sport.

The first clause of the Bill refers to the 1977 Order, and it is that Order that is the parent legislation for the Rates (Recreational Hereditaments) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007, which sets out the prescribed definition of recreations, as recognised by Land and Property Services. I believe this Bill is the best vehicle for correcting an oversight, whereby pigeon racing is excluded from the LPS list of prescribed activities. As Mr Swann stated at the Second Stage, that would give the Minister an opportunity to be a trailblazer and a champion for pigeon men and women across Northern Ireland. Mr Swann asked me to make sure I put that in.

In previous exchanges with officials and special advisers, it was implied that pigeon clubs as registered charities was the answer. However, that is not the case, and it is an easy cop out because it would place a disproportionate burden on clubs that have the ability to take up the opportunity, against any benefits that they might achieve. The application process via the Northern Ireland Charities Commission is daunting in itself, never mind the financial cost of obtaining and retaining certification, and likely would outweigh any benefits that clubs might accrue through rate relief. The inclusion of pigeon racing in the list of prescribed activities will allow it to avail of the 80% rate relief, despite what happens in other clauses.

At Consideration Stage, the Minister made reference to:

"article 31 of the 1977 Order, which details prescribed recreation."

He quoted it as stating:

"'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".

At that stage, my party highlighted what it believed to be an irregularity, because it is disingenuous that some recreation sports are listed under the 2007 prescribed activities list but are not recognised as sports by Sport Northern Ireland.

The Land and Property Services list of prescribed recreations, which is predicated on the Rates (Recreational Hereditaments) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007, includes camping; model power boating; recreational walking; paddleball; bicycle polo; and power boarding. All those sports or, perhaps more accurately, recreations can avail themselves of the rates relief that can be obtained through the current legislation, never mind what may be possible through any future legislation.

What makes those activities different from the other 125 that are named as "prescribed recreations" is that they are not recognised by any of the UK sports councils as disciplines of other sports or on a stand-alone basis. That has been confirmed by Sport Northern Ireland. I believe the premise to exclude pigeon racing due to a perceived lack of physical activity of the pigeon man or pigeon woman to be misguided. In any event, if the Department or LPS were to be exact in that stipulation, how could they and the UK sporting bodies explain — I will give you another list — ballooning, model aircraft flying, gliding, which is a special case, wildfowling, yoga and rambling as activities that require a greater degree or level of physical activity than that involved in pigeon racing? In fact, to refuse to treat pigeon racing equally in the rates legislation with those non-sporting activities is wholly discriminatory and should not be condoned by the House.

There is a lot of work being undertaken to get official recognition for pigeon racing as a sport. When that is achieved, LPS will have to amend the list anyway, so it may as well do it now when it has the chance. The arguments being put forward will demonstrate that a significant amount of physical activity is undertaken by the pigeon owner in preparation for and during pigeon races. We are not putting forward an argument regarding the physical activity of the pigeon owner to be recognised solely on the basis of a race. When you take the definition of "sport" as laid out in the Council of Europe's European sports charter of 1999, you see that it states:

"'Sport' means all forms of physical activity which, through casual or organised participation, aim at expressing or improving physical fitness and mental well-being, forming social relationships or obtaining results in competition at all levels."

It is that definition that is recognised in law, and that is crucial to the argument. For the purpose of the debate, I will break the definition down. It states:

"physical activity, which, through casual or organised participation".

It cannot be denied that pigeon racing is organised through the Royal Pigeon Racing Association, the Irish Homing Union, Northern Ireland Provincial Amalgamation, Ulster Federation and East Down Combine. The rules and regulations in place, especially for dispute resolution and anti-doping, leave many sports trailing in their wake. The definition also states that "sport" means all forms of physical activities that:

"aim at expressing or improving physical fitness and mental well-being".

How can it be argued that the 25 to 30 hours per week of physical activity that is undertaken by pigeon men and women ranging in age from 10 to 90-plus do not improve physical fitness? It can and will be shown that the amount of physical activity undertaken by the pigeon man or woman as part of one pigeon race is greater than the combined activity of more than 10 athletes at an athletic meeting. How many 80-year-olds actively compete in athletic events?

Where "mental well-being" is concerned, it can be shown that pigeon men and women need to have significant mental capabilities to participate in the sport. Striving to be the best requires mental toughness, the ability to deal with stress and excellent memory capacity.

Turning now to "forming social relationships", I will say that that is a lot of what pigeon racing is about. Pigeon racing was breaking down political, religious and class barriers long before anything or anyone else. In what other sport can you compete against the pensioner next door and the Queen of England on the same day? Pigeon clubs provide the only social contact for some older pigeon men and women and an opportunity to meet friends on a weekly basis. Given that the majority of pigeon men and women are over 60 years of age, such social contact is, we argue, essential for their physical and mental well-being.

Photo of David McNarry David McNarry UKIP

I am intrigued by the debate, never having raced a pigeon in my life. I am wondering whether communications in my old party are still carried out by pigeon carrier. On a more serious note, can the Member inform the House of the training element that goes into pigeon racing and the physicality that he is talking about, which I think is a good point? Can he maybe give us an insight as to how long it takes to train a pigeon and what that entails? Are other pigeons involved in that or is it purely human contact?

Photo of Leslie Cree Leslie Cree UUP

Thank you very much for the question. It is an interesting one.

Photo of David McNarry David McNarry UKIP

I just want an answer.

Photo of Leslie Cree Leslie Cree UUP

I have to say that it is not just the actual pigeon racing: you have to feed the birds and clean them out every day. Indeed, there is a lot of toing and froing. I am no expert on pigeon racing, but my father kept pigeons. He, in fact, had us doing a lot of the work. Not only was he doing sufficient recreation, working at them every day, but he had us doing it as well. It is one of those things that perhaps you do not fully understand unless you are involved in it directly. There is all that ongoing treatment; looking after the birds, doing small runs, taking them out, letting them free and hoping that they come back. There is quite a lot of work in it.

Moving back — I am almost finished — I was talking about the mix of people and the social interaction. Nowhere is this more evident than in the annual charity pigeon shows in Dublin, Lisburn and Blackpool, where pigeon men and women in their thousands gather together, as it says here — I was going to say flock together — to meet friends and colleagues to compare experiences and simply enjoy one another's company once again. The opportunity to put something back into society through the millions of pounds given in charitable donations is something that all pigeon men and women can rightly be proud of. Pigeon clubs are also an excellent source of education for younger members. They learn discipline; respect for their fellow members, especially the older members; and a sense of fairness and honesty. Trials in America using pigeon racing as a means of breaking down gang culture in inner cities have proved very successful; something that we could all learn from here. We would draw similarities —

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Leslie Cree Leslie Cree UUP

I will if the Member is short and to the point.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I cannot guarantee that. I thank the Member for giving way. He has been very informative. I did not know that pigeon racing has helped to break down gang culture in the United States. Is it not the case that, although what he is saying and trying to achieve is worthy, he is going about it the wrong way? There should be legislation to change the list of prescribed recreations rather than doing that in the way in which he is trying to go about it.

Photo of Leslie Cree Leslie Cree UUP

I thank the Member for his intervention. Clearly, we are where we are. Mr Swann raised the issue at Second Stage. Not a lot of consultation was carried out. That does not make it right that these people should be overlooked. As I said at the start of my presentation, that has to be addressed sooner rather than later.

Getting back to the gangs issue, we would draw similarities in a lot of respects to boxing clubs in Northern Ireland. Again, many Members here will have experience of the good work that they have done in breaking down these sorts of barriers.

Although it is not strictly required in the definition, pigeon races can be and are competed locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. They are competed at club level; regional level, with the nine counties of Ulster being divided into 11 geographical regions; and nationally across the whole of the nine countries of Ulster. In addition, the King George V Challenge Cup is competed for by members across the whole of Ireland. That is why Mr Swann has been working with the excellent Northern Ireland Pigeon Association at a Northern Ireland level and through the Royal Pigeon Racing Association at a UK level to have pigeon racing designated as a sport. The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure has been in support of that.

I will conclude by urging Members to support amendment No 2.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will speak briefly on these, because we have covered them at length. Amendment No 1 is, I suppose, a softening of the previous amendment. We remain supportive of that. Amendment No 2 deals with the new clause. I will try to kill two birds with one stone and address them both. In the context of the other activities that are outlined, we think that it is compatible. In the target demographic that the Member has outlined who participate in the sport, we think that it is appropriate. There is a relevant social benefit. We will let this one fly. We think that the policy does have wings and that those clubs should get their rates cheap, cheap.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP 1:30 pm, 1st February 2016

Thank you to the Members who spoke about the two amendments. I will try to resist using some of the analogies that were used already during the debate.

Photo of David McNarry David McNarry UKIP

Are you a hawk or a dove on this issue?

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I do not want to enter into the internal workings of UKIP and whether it uses pigeon carriers or whatever it is. That is entirely an issue for the Member's party.

On amendment No 1, I advise the House that I met Mr McKay to discuss the new amendment and agree a form of words that would develop the amendment that he tabled at Consideration Stage. At that stage, I highlighted that there were elements of his proposed amendment that would have been acceptable to me and that would fall within the stated aim of the Bill, as it was introduced, and my preferred policy position for further consultation. The present amendment complies with those standards, and, although I am not convinced that it adds material value to the Bill, it certainly does not conflict with its aims as agreed at Executive level when it was originally introduced.

As I stated last week, I have no difficulty committing my Department to making the first set of regulations by the end of September. That requirement is again encompassed in the amendment being considered at present, and I am content to endorse it. Likewise, I am happy to include a reference to community amateur sports clubs in the Bill now that such a requirement no longer affects the generality of the new enabling power brought forward in the Bill. The change also avoids the enabling power being pinned down too tightly and should help allay the concerns raised by Mr Cree at Consideration Stage in that it will allow the consultation process to take place without artificially confining the enabling power for the enhancement. It is important to underscore and underline that. I can, therefore, endorse the second part of the amendment.

On the outworking of the revised clause, I will make a number of points in relation to the next steps. Now that the Bill has taken its final shape, my Department will undertake a targeted consultation on the use of the clause in the coming days and weeks. That consultation will present my preferred policy that unlicensed community amateur sports clubs get the enhancement of 100%. Given the law of unintended consequences, I think that it is wise and logical to have a starting point for developing policy in that area.

I have taken heed of the views of other business sectors, which were reiterated and well articulated in front of the Finance Committee just before Christmas, and I think that it is safe to say that any club with a successful bar can already count itself lucky in comparison with commercial bars in their area and that getting a minimum of 80% relief on their sporting facilities could not exactly be deemed unreasonable. Ms Hanna made a valid point on that issue at Consideration Stage. I accept, having met Mr McKay last week, that policy can and should evolve over time and that this support measure can be refined in due course. While the preferred policy will take the starting point of enhanced relief in the sector, there is the case of community amateur sports clubs that operate a small bar that serves a few pints to members and visiting teams after a match. I and, I am sure, my successor will be happy to review that issue at a later stage.

We have a review of the whole system of business rates running at the moment, and that is asking some difficult questions about the way reliefs are targeted. That includes the rules around the existing 80% scheme for amateur sports clubs and whether that needs changed. I do not think that there is a way that we can develop a balanced, sound, effective and working policy to allow some clubs with bars to get 100% rate relief and for the regulations to be taken through the Assembly by September.

I would like to put on record that I am happy for such matters to be looked at further in light of the outcomes of the specific consultation exercise on that area and in the fullness of time when we have looked at the whole issue of reliefs in the round following the wider non-domestic rating review. <BR/>Incidentally, that review highlighted the differences in valuation treatment of clubhouse bars and restaurants compared with normal licensed premises. In the final analysis, the valuation method is normally left to the courts to decide and is not something that anyone would normally legislate for. It is, however, a factor in considering future rate relief policy and the competition issues that make this policy area so complex. To understand how complex it is, I recommend that Members review the evidence sessions organised by the Finance Committee before Christmas, which will give them some indication of those complexities.

Should amendment No 1 pass, I am content with the final form of the clause and endorse the wording brought to the House by Mr McKay following our meeting.

I thank the proposer of amendment No 2 for his commitment to the issue. Mr Swann is out of the country, so I thank Mr Cree for meeting us this morning and having a discussion, albeit we would have preferred an opportunity for a longer discussion prior to the amendment being tabled, which created a difficulty and challenge for us. I underscore the commitment of Mr Swann — he has been a strong advocate on the matter — and his colleagues. Unfortunately, I am still in a position of being unable to support the amendment. The proposer will be aware from recent responses to questions for written answer from my predecessor and my response to him during the Second Stage debate that such an amendment is untenable. It is more appropriate that the change proposed in the amendment be in the subordinate legislation that lists prescribed sports and recreations. In response to his amendment, part of the usual standard for revision of the list of sports and recreations is a compulsory requirement for consultation with sporting bodies and representatives of local councils under article 31(6). Members will note that such a consultation process is not in evidence for this amendment.

Leaving aside the appropriateness or otherwise of the amendment, it is legally unworkable in practice as it expressly refers to a statutory rule, the Rates (Recreational Hereditaments) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007. The use of the express legislative reference in the amendment means that, if that statutory rule were to be replaced, the provision inserted by the Member would have no effect and would fall into disrepair.

I am happy to undertake a review of prescribed recreations for the Member, should he think that that would be of benefit. Such a process could, however, go both ways. The proposer of the amendment has, understandably, pointed out anomalies in the existing list — those were well listed by Mr Cree — such as model powerboating, model airplane flying and wildfowling. I agree with the Member that those pursuits are not exactly in keeping with the principle enshrined in the governing primary legislation that the activity should involve:

"an appreciable degree of physical effort".

I estimate that the inclusion of those anomalous activities has no practical effect because no rateable premises are associated with them, so their removal from the list would be a straightforward tidying-up exercise, which I am sure the Member would support. Hopefully, a commitment for further review in this area will provide some reassurance to the Members who tabled amendment No 2.

Photo of Daithí McKay Daithí McKay Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I will keep my comments relatively short. I thank the SDLP, the Ulster Unionist Party and, indeed, the DUP for giving their support to amendment No1. I fully take on board the Minister's comments that he felt that this work would be carried out anyway by the Department, but I think that it is worthwhile that the Assembly gets the assurance that, whoever the incoming Minister may be, there is pressure to ensure that it is done for community amateur sports clubs.

The Minister commented on the work of the Finance Committee, and it was quite interesting to hear the different views and options that were put before the Committee. I welcome the commitment from the Minister and the Department to review the issue of community and amateur sports clubs with bars. This is a complex area. There are different rates for different bars, and perhaps the Department could put forward proposals to bring some clarity. I do not envy it in that task, but I think that it is very worthwhile that we look at the issue and see what we can do for clubs that are not covered by the 100% exemption.

As I said earlier, we support amendment No 2. Mr Cree put forward the argument that other sports already included do not require much exertion at all, so adding pigeon racing to the list should not be a big ask. We will support amendment Nos 1 and 2.

Amendment No 1 agreed to.

Amendment No 2 proposed:

New Clause

After clause 1 insert

<BR/>

&quot;Specified recreations: pigeon racing


 


1A. In the Schedule to the Rates (Recreational Hereditaments) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007 (list of specified recreations), where appropriate insert &quot;Pigeon Racing&quot;.&quot; — [Mr Cree.]

Question put, That amendment No 2 be made. The Assembly divided:

<SPAN STYLE="font-style:italic;"> Ayes 55; Noes 29

AYES

Mr Agnew, Mr Allen, Mr Allister, Mr Attwood, Mr Beggs, Mr Boylan, Mr D Bradley, Mr Cochrane-Watson, Mr Cree, Mr Dallat, Mr Dickson, Mr Diver, Mr Durkan, Dr Farry, Mr Flanagan, Mr Ford, Mr Gardiner, Ms Hanna, Mr Hazzard, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Ms Lo, Mr Lynch, Mr Lyttle, Mr McAleer, Mr McCallister, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCartney, Ms McCorley, Mr McCrossan, Mr McElduff, Ms McGahan, Mr McGlone, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McKay, Mrs McKevitt, Ms Maeve McLaughlin, Mr McMullan, Mr McNarry, Mr A Maginness, Mr Maskey, Mr Milne, Mr Nesbitt, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr Ó hOisín, Mr Ó Muilleoir, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mrs Overend, Mr Alastair Patterson, Mr Rogers, Ms Ruane

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Cree, Mrs Overend

NOES

Mr Anderson, Mr Bell, Ms P Bradley, Mrs Cameron, Mr Campbell, Mr Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mrs Hale, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Lyons, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Mr D McIlveen, Miss M McIlveen, Lord Morrow, Mrs Pengelly, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Storey, Mr Weir

Tellers for the Noes: Mr I McCrea, Mr G Robinson

Question accordingly agreed to.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

That concludes the Further Consideration Stage of the Rates (Amendment) Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

As Question Time begins at 2.00 pm, I suggest that the House takes its ease until then.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)