COVID-19: Rates Exemption 2020

Oral Answers to Questions — Finance – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:00 pm on 30th June 2020.

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Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP 3:00 pm, 30th June 2020

7. Mr Buckley asked the Minister of Finance, in the light of COVID-19, what businesses will be able to access a rates exemption for the year 2020. (AQO 514/17-22)

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I am pleased to say that, because of COVID-19, I took the decision to support all businesses here with a rates exemption from 1 April. That rate relief applied to 55,000 properties and included the commercial, manufacturing and service sectors, which are not supported in GB. Most businesses, however, have suffered as a result of COVID-19. I then increased that to a four-month rates holiday, which will save businesses some £135 million in total.

A targeted rates relief scheme will operate from 1 August to provide rates support to in the region of 30,000 businesses in the particular sectors identified, following research carried out by Ulster University, as having the greatest need. The sectors included are retail, with some exceptions; hospitality; leisure; tourism; and childcare. Our three main airports are also included. That will save businesses an additional £178 million in business rates. It is important to remember that a raft of other reliefs and exemptions will continue after 1 August, such as industrial derating, charitable exemptions and small business rates relief, to name but a few.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

The Minister will know, because I have corresponded with him on the issue, that this is a crucial lifeline for businesses. You talk to businesses out there, and it is the very reason that they will continue trading. We need a clear, definitive list of those targeted, however, with a creative approach from his Department being required to help those businesses that might fall through the cracks.

Given the support that the exemption will bring to mitigating the loss for businesses this year, can the Minister indicate any further measures that he may bring forward for his Department to look at to assist business with recovery?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

We have taken the rates relief process up to the end of the financial year. There may be merit in other measures, and I will certainly continue to consider other sectors. Remember, however, that that money would then have to come off the Executive's Budget, so we would need Executive approval for that.

The rates relief, the business support grants and so on have been hugely valuable and a huge support to business. I understand that some businesses have not been able to avail themselves of measures for a variety of reasons, but they have been a lifeline for those that have, as you say.

We are anticipating some announcements from Treasury over the next number of weeks about support for economic recovery. The Executive will watch with interest, and the Department of Finance will be paying close attention to see whether there are any consequences that flow to us from those announcements. The Executive are now very much focused on economic recovery. Whatever we can add to that particular pot, we will. We are looking at other areas, such as Peace Plus money, better use of financial transactions capital, the investment fund and other pots of money that may become available to the Executive that we can use to assist our economic recovery. That is very much the focus of the Executive at the moment.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

You will be aware, Minister, that I, as Chairman of the Finance Committee, have been asked to talk with other regional Finance Committees about getting to a point at which we are looking to deal with some specific issues as part of the future financial settlement. One such issue is the importance of a reduction in VAT. To get some support for businesses, I ask the Minister whether he will join us and say directly to the Chancellor that we wish to see VAT reduced to 15%, or lower if we can.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I have an ongoing and regular discussion with Treasury. I spoke to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on Friday afternoon, I think, and we raised a range of issues, as do the Scottish and Welsh Finance Ministers. The tourism and hospitality sector, as the Member will understand, is one of the sectors most deeply affected. It is one of the sectors that will struggle to recover, because whatever it can save of the summer season will quickly be lost, and it is then into a very lean time of the year again.

We will continue to press the Treasury on a range of measures. We are talking to it about air passenger duty (APD). We will continue to talk to it about VAT. We understand that there are some considerations over there about what to do on those issues, so we want to ensure that our interests are represented and that things that we consider beneficial to our sectors are very much on the table.

Photo of Sinéad Ennis Sinéad Ennis Sinn Féin

The Minister will appreciate the need for public services to work efficiently, and with that in mind, will the Minister give an update on the 'New Decade, New Approach' commitment to review arm's-length bodies?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

Yes, I brought a paper to the Executive in the last number of weeks. It was a commitment in 'New Decade, New Approach' that, with a view to rationalisation, we would undertake an analysis of the arm's-length bodies. The Executive agreed to my approach and we have circulated a questionnaire around the various Departments. We are then going to make an assessment of arm's-length bodies, associated bodies and non-departmental public bodies, and their value, role and what they contribute in the here and now, and how we may be able to do things better in the future with regard to more efficiency. When that assessment is complete we will bring the paper back to the Executive for discussion on the future of arm's-length bodies, as is in line with our commitment under NDNA.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I remind Members to connect their supplementary question to their original question or I may not permit it to be asked.