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Rates Bills

Oral Answers to Questions — Finance – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:00 pm on 17th October 2016.

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Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP 3:00 pm, 17th October 2016

4. Mr Stalford asked the Minister of Finance to outline how Land and Property Services provide an explanation to individuals of how their rates bill is calculated. (AQO 477/16-21)

Photo of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his question. Each rate bill issued by Land and Property Services gives detailed information on how the bill was calculated. The bill is essentially based on the statutory valuation of the property; in other words, the capital value of a domestic property or the net annual value of a non-domestic property. The district rate and regional rate relevant to the calculation are quoted individually. The rates assessment is then shown and is calculated by multiplying the capital value or net annual value by the sum of the district rate and regional rate. The time period that the rates bill relates to is explained, with any balance brought forward from previous years shown separately.

There is more here for the Member, but I think I am getting to understand his point. This is complicated for many businesses that receive their rates bill. We go to some lengths to explain the system in the current rates bill, but I welcome any suggestions as to how we could do even better.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Does the Minister appreciate the sense of bewilderment that people face when the bill arrives and there has been a significant increase from the previous year, but they do not see any commensurate increase in the service that is provided? When we served together on Belfast City Council, our council sent people a rates bill that showed them how their money was being spent and how the bill was calculated. Does the Minister think that that is something that his Department would be prepared to roll out Northern Ireland-wide?

Photo of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his supplementary. I will make two points. Invariably when you and I meet businesses that have received their rates bill, they are not sure what it is for. There is a lack of information that part of it goes to central government to fund hospitals, fix the roads, encourage investment and so on and that part of it goes to councils to pay for the many services that they provide, including leisure centres and picking up the bins. So, we could do a better job of explaining the global question around rates. We could also do a better job of showing business ratepayers that we appreciate what they are doing. I do not know if bewilderment is too strong, but, if the Member would find it useful for me to meet any of the retail or traders' groups in his constituency to discuss how best we could explain what the rates are for and how they can appeal them or understand them better, I would be happy to do that.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his answers to date. How many rates bills were reduced following reassessment in the last financial year?

Photo of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin

I could not tell you that off the top of my head, but if you are referring to non-domestic appeals we can certainly find the answer for you.

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

When is it likely that LPS will introduce electronic billing?

Photo of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin

When the Member for South Belfast was talking about the detail in rates bills when they are received, he was referring of course to the paper version. It is my wish that we have electronic billing for those who require or request that, and we are moving in that direction. We had a meeting last week about trying to speed up the pace of the digital revolution in Land and Property Services. I believe that we will get there. It also happens that the software system that we are using is quite outdated. I have cleared the funding for a new system that will be 21st century fit for purpose. As part of that, we should be able to introduce e-billing by 2019 or 2020.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

Can the Minister provide an update on the level of rates arrears across Northern Ireland? Furthermore, can he detail how much of the debt has been written off over recent years?

Photo of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin

I am happy to get the exact figures for the Member. The good news is that our rates arrears are at their lowest since the crash. That is testament to the hard work of LPS. I think that the Member will accept that there is a balance in these matters. We want to make sure that everyone pays the money that is due, and we want to make sure that the burden is shared equally and evenly, but we do not want to close down good businesses because they have difficulty paying their rates. We try hard to get the balance right, including organising a system of payments for those who are in arrears. I am happy to get the exact figures for the Member, but I know from the last briefing that LPS was pleased to report that arrears are at their lowest in six or seven years.