Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 20 March 2001


Assembly: Voting

Assembly: Unparliamentary Language

Assembly Business: Adjournment Debate

Rates (Regional Rates) (No 2) Order 2001

Electronic Communications Bill: Final Stage

Oral Answers

Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister

Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure

Department of Agriculture and Rural Development

Inland Fisheries


The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Assembly: Voting


Mr Speaker:

At the end of the sitting on 6 March Dr Paisley raised a question about decisions by the Chair and the collection of voices. Standing Orders are clear that the Speaker shall judge whether a motion be carried by a collection of voices. Where the outcome is unclear the question will be put again. If the Speaker’s decision is challenged by a number of Members clearly pressing their case — even if only a few voices — the matter will be put again. If the "Aye" and "No" voices are similar, it will be put again. The Speaker will call for Tellers, and if Tellers are provided, the House will divide. I trust that the matter is now clear.


Assembly: Unparliamentary Language


Mr Speaker:

During questions following a statement by the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development on 12 March, a Member was alleged to have described another Member, from a sedentary position, as a "papish bigot". The Member was also alleged to have repeated the remark to another Member for having raised a point of order on the matter.

I have considered the matter carefully, and I am not aware of a precendent set elsewhere clarifying such a remark as unparliamentary language. That said, I find it inconceivable that such a remark could be regarded as anything other than a term of abuse. While I wish to ensure that we have robust debate in the Chamber, I do not see the case for abusive language. In that respect I consider that this term should henceforth be regarded as unparliamentary language in the Chamber.

However, I am not aware of any precedent set down elsewhere in respect of such remarks. The Member involved, if he did make such remarks, could not have expected the Speaker to consider his remarks to be unparliamentary language. Therefore, in terms of natural justice, it would be inappropriate to take any kind of retrospective action regarding the remark. However, I repeat that, from today, such remarks in this Assembly will be regarded as unparliamentary language. Also, remarks made from a sedentary position that are subsequently referred to by another Member during debate should be considered part of the proceedings of the Assembly and subject to the rule of the Speaker.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

Are you prepared to rule that the term "Protestant bigot" will also be sat on in this House? You cannot say something about one section of the community and not about the other. "Papists" are referred to in the constitution of the United Kingdom.

Mr Speaker:

That is quite true. I trust that we shall not see such invective used in the Chamber. With regard to the use of the term "papish" or "papist", immediate assumptions are being made, not only about a person’s religion but also regarding the standing and reverence in which he or she holds the pontiff. At least, one would suppose that that is what is meant by it. In fact, it is usually used as a simple term of abuse. I trust that other such terms — for example, "Orange bigot" — will not become part of the parlance of this Chamber.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

Or "Protestant bigot"?

Mr Speaker:

And, indeed, "Protestant bigot". It is unhelpful and it is unparliamentary. I am unaware of terms of that kind having been used in the Chamber. Then again, I am not here absolutely all of the time.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. What about "Unionist bigot"?

Mr Speaker:

We could quickly get into a situation where, off the cuff, I go through a whole series of remarks and make rulings in regard to them. That is not a helpful way to proceed. If Members sail too close to the wind, I will undoubtedly consider the matter — particularly when it is raised by a Member to whom such a remark is directed. When my attention is drawn to it, I will then consider the question and see whether or not it is appropriate, inappropriate, parliamentary or unparliamentary — as distinct from true or false, which is a different matter.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I understand that the Deputy Speaker who was in the Chair that day made a ruling on this matter. Are Deputy Speakers’ rulings now to be referred to you, or is it the case that such rulings cannot be challenged?

Mr Speaker:

The subject was raised again, in writing, on more than one occasion after the Deputy Speaker had ruled. Hence, a further ruling was necessary.

Mr McCartney:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I must confess that the use of this language is not something that I approve of. However, is the ruling in relation to the word "bigot", or is it in relation to "papish"? If one calls someone an "extremist bigot", a "sectarian bigot", a "papish bigot" or a "Prod bigot", the first word is simply an adjective specifying the type of bigot. What I am concerned about is whether the essential core of your ruling is "bigot" or whether it is the adjective preceding that word?

Mr Speaker:

It is not the term "bigot" of itself.


Assembly Business: Adjournment Debate


Mrs I Robinson:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. There is to be no Adjournment debate today. The Strangford MLAs have put down a motion concerning the plight of fishermen in Northern Ireland in relation to the cod recovery plan, which will come into effect on Friday. Also, the need of compensation for fishermen who have to tie up for the next five to six weeks —

Mr Speaker:

Order. The Member knows perfectly well that it is not in order to raise questions of that kind. It is a matter for the Business Committee. This is clearly not a point of order but an attempt to put the Member’s views on record at this time.

Mr P Robinson:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it possible for you to call the Business Committee together at lunch time to see if it would allow that Adjournment debate to take place this evening?

Mr Speaker:

I recall that Mr Robinson has raised this precise point of order in respect of various motions. My response has always been the same. It is not possible for the Business Committee to add matters to the Order Paper as published. I can understand that, with age and grandfatherly duties bearing down on him, the Member may have forgotten that, so I remind him of the rulings that I made in the past.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

On a further point of order, Mr Speaker. It should be clear to Members that if they do not discuss this plan today, they will not have any opportunity to do so, for it will be passed on Friday.

Mr Speaker:

The Member knows that it is the Business Committee, on which he and his Colleagues have representation, which decides what matters need to be on the Order Paper. The Committee will be meeting at lunch time today, as usual, and representatives may raise these questions if they wish. The question of order that the matter raises is clear.

Mr P Robinson:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This is a serious issue. In most, if not all, other elected bodies, Standing Orders allow for emergency debates. Can we not, through the Procedures Committee, see whether, when an emergency occurs, there can be a proper debate in the Assembly?

Mr Speaker:

There is no reason why the matter should not be raised through the Procedures Committee. The Member may talk to the Committee Chairman, Mr Conor Murphy, who will undoubtedly oblige by putting the matter on its agenda.


Rates (Regional Rates) (No 2) Order 2001


Mr Durkan:

I beg to move

That the Rates (Regional Rates) (No 2) Order (Northern Ireland) 2001 be approved.

This short statutory instrument specifies the regional rate poundages for the financial year 2001-02 and the amount of the domestic rate aid grant applicable to that year. It also revokes and replaces an earlier rule that has been made but which, as I will explain shortly, will not now be brought before the Assembly.

Members will recall that on 12 February, I announced in this Chamber that the uplifts in the regional rates previously incorporated in the Budget plans would be abated from 8% to 7% in respect of the domestic rate and from 6·6% to 3·3% in respect of the non-domestic rate. The Order that we are considering today prescribes the actual rate poundages that reflect these lower percentage increases. I will quickly describe each of the articles in the Order.

Article 1 provides legal definitions of the two main classes of rateable property. A specified hereditament means, broadly, a commercial property. Consequently, an unspecified hereditament is a domestic property.

Article 2 fixes 30·42p as the commercial regional rate poundage and 192·95p as the domestic regional rate poundage.

Article 3 specifies 69·15p as the amount by which the domestic rate is to be reduced. The domestic rate that ratepayers will actually pay will therefore be 123·8p.

Article 4 revokes an earlier Order, which was similar in every respect to the present Order except that it would have come into operation on 14 May instead of 1 April. Subsequent to the Order being made, it was revealed that a May start date for the new rate would have posed more significant operational difficulties for the Rate Collection Agency than had been realised.

10.45 am

A second Order was therefore prepared, and urgent steps were taken to complete it in a shorter time frame than previously intended. Before being halted, the original Order had not progressed far enough to be laid before the Assembly.

Members will be interested to know that in this coming year revenue raised from the regional rate will exceed £300 million, which will make a very significant contribution towards the expenditure plans set out in the Budget announcement in December. At that time, however, I made it clear that we would be keeping under review revenue forecasts and other related matters and that I would be prepared to reduce the proposed rate increases if the opportunity arose. Members will recall that, as a result of the December monitoring round, some room to manoeuvre emerged. Having listened carefully to the views of Members and ordinary ratepayers, I was pleased to announce to the Assembly on 12 February the reduced percentage increase now included in today’s Regional Rates Order.

I stress that the regional rate is an important part of the funding for our public services. As a result of last year’s spending review, our total spending on services under the control of the Executive has increased by 8%, as expressed in the departmental expenditure limit set for us by the Treasury. That is a much more relevant comparator in this context than is the rate of inflation. Increasing the regional rate by 8% would have done no more than keep constant the proportion of spending which is funded from the regional rate. However, as I have explained many times, the level of local revenue raised here is relatively low, and the Treasury has pressed consistently for a relative increase. We were able to reduce the increase in the domestic rate to 7% because the information on valuation showed that the level of revenue would be higher than had been expected.

I do not deny that major issues remain in relation to financing local services, and I am taking three initiatives towards resolving them. With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, and for the information of Members present, I should like to make a few brief remarks on each one.

First, a comprehensive review of rating policy is now under way. An interdepartmental steering group has been set up, and work on the review will be taken forward as quickly as possible. The role of local revenue raising in our Programme for Government will be explored, including its impact on households, commerce, industry and the voluntary sector. Fairness in the system, and the relationship between the regional Government and the district councils will also be examined. Widespread public consultation will take place later this year, and I hope that the review will be completed by spring 2002.

Secondly, I am pleased to confirm that I am bringing forward a scheme for mandatory rate relief for shops and post offices in rural settlements. Additional discretionary relief will also be available for such businesses and other undertakings by way of a qualifying settlement. That will benefit the local community, and the scheme should be in operation by October 2002.

Thirdly, a non-domestic revaluation for rating purposes is in progress. Work on this will continue until the autumn of 2002. A new valuation list will be issued before the end of December 2002 and will come into force on April 2003. The valuations in the new list will reflect the social, economic and demographic changes which have taken place since the revaluation six years previously.

I am certain that Members will agree that these three initiatives, along with the reduction in the previously announced rates increase represented by today’s Regional Rates Order, demonstrate clearly that I and my ministerial colleagues in the Executive are prepared to listen when representations are made to us and to act in the best interests of the whole community — even when difficult issues have to be faced and equally difficult choices have to be made.

I commend the Order to the Assembly.

The Chairperson of the Finance and Personnel Committee (Mr Molloy):

A Cheann Comhairle, go raibh maith agat. The Finance and Personnel Committee discussed the Regional Rates Order at its meeting on 15 March, when officials explained the background to it. Generally there were feelings of unhappiness among members of the Committee about the rates increases. Members, however, agreed to support the Order — a motion being carried by three votes to two, with one abstention. That shows the disagreements and concerns that there are within the Committee on this matter.

I ask the Minister to ensure that in the review the issue of rates as a means of taxation is looked into. The Committee has voiced concerns on a number of occasions that this is a crude system of taxation that is, in some ways, discriminatory as it does not take into account the services that are provided within a district area or the difference between urban and rural areas. Members of the Committee had difficulty accepting any suggestion that the level of rates increase in the North should be linked to increases proposed by other Assemblies. Members also resented the implication that the Treasury would be able to use the adoption of a lower rate here as a weapon in negotiations on the Barnett formula.

Over the last year members raised the possibility of using savings from the in-year monitoring rounds to offset increases in rates. In the follow-up to the December monitoring round, the Minister did use such money to reduce the planned increase in the non-domestic rate. However, the reduction in the domestic rate was linked to increased valuations. That is unfortunate because the Minister pointed out that the proposed rise in the domestic rate will only bring in £4 million. That is a lot of pain for very little gain, and the pain is going to be on the domestic dweller because the rates are once again being hiked up.

The Committee made the point a number of times, and we welcomed this fact that the reduction in the non-domestic rate will help small businesses and towns that are suffering. I welcome the idea of the rural rebate put forward by the Minister. It is most welcome that consideration is starting to be given to the rural areas. I hope that this will not be abused by out-of-town shopping centres that might try to make the case that they are now rural. The Minister will have to ensure that this is not abused by different operators. There is quite a difference between an out-of-town shopping centre with a large turnover paying a reasonable rate and an in-town shopping centre, shop or business paying a large rate because it is based in a town centre. I hope that in the review the Minister will ensure that adequate concern is shown to the changes that are happening in town centres. Town centres are not now the viable propositions they once were. A user of premises in towns does not have the free parking, the services or the flexibility that a user of an out-of-town shopping centre has. There has been a change of character in the whole business of shopping.

I must make the difference between my position as Chairperson of the Committee and my own position, although they are similar. The Committee decided to support the motion although concern was expressed. I say again that we need to look at the review of the rates system. We need also to make sure that revaluations do not become simply paper exercises that look at the square footage of a property and then increase the rates accordingly.

We need to look at the turnover and viability of the business and ensure that the rates reflect that, rather than simply measuring the building and putting a square footage price on it. I hope that that will be taken into consideration in the review, together with the concerns that have been raised both by Members in the Committee and the Assembly and by the general public in relation to the domestic and non-domestic rates.

The Committee supports the motion.

Ms Lewsley:

The issue of the rates has already been debated in the Chamber, and the pros and cons of rates have been raised many times. However, the real argument is not about rates, but about how we continue to make effective public spending decisions and how we finance them. Some people here take a very simplistic approach — that we need to cut the rates or cut elements of the North/South bodies. That cannot be tolerated any longer. The North/South bodies are an integral part of the Good Friday Agreement and, as such, need to be funded.

The real issue is the economics of the real world and the steps that we need to take to improve our schools, hospitals and infrastructure as a whole. Those are the demands on the public exchequer. Our only indigenous fund raising mechanism is the rates. We need to explore more innovative means of supplying resources to the public sector.

The fact that this Budget is administered by local Ministers will help to reassure the Northern Ireland public that local issues will be addressed and that there will be an opportunity for innovation and, in particular, for Departments to become more proactive, rather than reactive, with their budgets.

Value for money is essential to promote optimum return for the limited resources available. That will involve allocating funds to particular areas of need and social deprivation. The targets defined in the Programme for Government have to be regularly reviewed and examined to enable us to turn them into realistically achievable objectives. However, we cannot do that without adequate funding. I welcome the Minister’s commitment in the Programme for Government and the Executive to explore new, innovative ways of finding finance. I understand that the Minister is actually taking steps to do that. One of the ways, for example, is the rural rate relief scheme, which makes provision for two types of relief from rates for non-domestic properties in rural settings. One is 50% relief for a single general store post office; the other is a discretionary relief for properties used for community benefit. Those will benefit local communities by maintaining essential services in rural communities and promoting social inclusion for some of the most disadvantaged sections of our population.

I believe that the Finance and Personnel Committee as a whole needs to look at ways to complement the Programme for Government, to find new finance and to support the Minister in doing that. Many Members know that the Committee is looking at some research into public/private partnerships and private finance initiatives. No one here thinks that we should not be meeting the needs of all our constituents. We all want better education systems, schools, hospitals and infrastructure. We have to stop this constant criticising and bringing forward glib solutions to a very difficult and complex situation. It is about time we harnessed our energies in support of what the Minister, Mark Durkan, is trying to do with regard to balancing need and fairness.

I ask Members to support the motion.

Mr Dodds:

We return to the issue that will continue to dog the Minister for as long as he continues on the road down which he is planning to take the Assembly. There is a basic inequity about imposing on householders an increase in the regional rate that is over twice the rate of inflation.

11.00 am

That is the basic fact that we are dealing with in the House today. No matter how they try to run away with it or talk round it or obscure it, the Members of this House know that this is not a fair approach. They know the context in which this increase is being proposed: 8% increases in each of the last two years already and, under the Minister’s Department, plans by the Executive to have increases far above the rate of inflation for the next two years as well. This is not a one-off for non- domestic ratepayers; this is part of a five-year programme of yearly increases way above the rate of inflation.

There was outrage and outcry in this very Chamber among those who have just spoken when increases of a similar nature, extent and range were proposed for Northern Ireland Electricity and when there was even a suggestion of an increase in Housing Executive rents of 2% above the rate of inflation. What outrage that provoked. Members should also bear that in mind. All sides of the House were concerned that this would run against the basic tenets of targeting social need (TSN), and the same people come here today and tell us that an increase of 7% for domestic ratepayers is wonderful and acceptable. Indeed, when the Minister announced a couple of weeks ago that he was taking the massive step of reducing it from 8% to 7%, they were clapping and cheering. I wonder how many of them have asked their rate-paying constituents whether they think that that is an acceptable level of increase.

The Minister has said that he listened carefully in respect of the non-domestic rate increase. Although I do welcome that fact, I must say that when he announced it in his statement to the House in February, he did it on the basis of having gone back to the figures. In fact, if I remember well, he was at pains to tell us that it was not as a result of popular pressure or of pressure from the House. Rather, he said that it was something that he had always intended to look at in the light of the figures and the revenue implications. Now he tells us that it is a result of his having listened carefully. Well, I urge him to listen a bit more carefully. I urge him to listen to working families. He should listen to those who are earning just above the rate that would qualify them for rate rebates and housing benefit and to people who complain about the basic unfairness of increases of above 8% in the regional rate over the last two years, of 7% this year and of more to come. He must listen to this as well as to the opinions of traders and small shopkeepers. I would be grateful if the Minister were to outline his plans for the next two years, perhaps in his response at the end of this debate. He did say in his initial statement that rate increases of 8% were planned for the financial year after this one as well as for he year after that.

I also urge him and those parties who will troop into the Lobbies today to support this increase to listen to what their members are saying in councils up and down the Province. I understand that the Finance and Personnel Committee is today going to hear representations from a cross-party delegation from Belfast City Council, which is coming before the Committee to voice concerns about general rating issues as well as about the level of the increase in the regional rate. Members of the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party and other parties who will today vote to increase the regional rate for domestic ratepayers by over twice the rate of inflation should really be listening to their councillors and to what their representatives at the coalface have to say about this issue.

Mr P Robinson:

A person’s rates bill is made up of the regional rate, which the Minister is setting, and the district rate, which councils set with real prudence in the pursuit of tight fiscal policies. Is there not something dreadfully unfair about that system? For instance, Castlereagh — the best council in Northern Ireland — boasts the lowest rates in the Province.

There is a nil increase in the district rate there. Then the Minister comes plodding in, hiking the rates by 7%, and people get the impression that, somehow, councillors are also to blame.

Mr Dodds:

Mr Robinson has made an entirely fair point, which will be endorsed readily by ratepayers and people in general.

It is also the case that in Belfast City Council — which you, Mr Speaker, will know something about, given your past membership of that body, as will other Members — all parties have been trying to keep the district rate down as far as possible to the rate of inflation. Increases in the district rate level by Belfast City Council have been kept to the bare minimum.

Time and time again, the Department of the Environment, as it was called under direct rule, stepped in with swingeing increases in the regional rate to the horror, anger and spoken outrage of Belfast City councillors. Some of those councillors are present today among the SDLP Members. The Ulster Unionist Members are not present. Assembly Members who are also members of Belfast City Council expressed outrage at these levels of increase while wearing their council hats. However, in the Assembly, they say "It is OK. We are going to increase the rates at more or less the same level for domestic ratepayers as that which we expressed outrage at as councillors." It makes people wonder what has made the difference.

I am grateful to Ms Lewsley for making it clear from the outset that the increase is important because North/ South expenditure is an integral part of the Budget. She was very clear about that, and all Members should bear in mind that right at the heart of this matter is the fact that the money is needed because North/South expenditure is integral and cannot be done away with.

There are tens of thousands of people out there who do not look at it that way. They look at trying to meet their household bills and manage their weekly budget as being more important than implementing the all-Ireland aspect of the Belfast Agreement.

Undoubtedly, some people — including the Minister — will say that we need the increases because of the programme of expenditure we have set out. That is why, throughout the debate and discussions, the Democratic Unionist Party have been up front about our views. We did not just say "Cut the expenditure." We went further and said where the cuts could be made. We make no apology for saying that they should be made in the expenditure on the all-Ireland bodies.

Increases in North/South expenditure have been outlined before. In some cases they are of the magnitude of 50%; in others it is 100%. In total, taking into account the North/South tourism body, it amounts to £18·1 million.

There may be Members in the House who want to justify that, but I think it is unjustifiable. When you look at the sort of figure we are talking about — £4 million — which would be needed to reduce the 7% increase to approximately the rate of inflation for domestic ratepayers it is not a lot of money. This is especially so when we consider the sort of largesse and the amount of money that the Minister informs the House about during monitoring rounds.

I make no apology for repeating these figures because they need to be hammered home to some people who think that £1 million here or £4 million there is not much. I remind Members that for every million pounds saved from North/South expenditure we could pay for 200 heart operations in Northern Ireland, 25 new homes could be built, or 300 homes that have no heating at the moment could be centrally heated. We could have 1000 homes adapted for people with disabilities. That is a far better way to spend the money than on North/South expenditure — if the Minister is looking for a different way to spend it.

The case for reducing the regional rate for non- domestic ratepayers to the rate of inflation, while maintaining an increase of more than double the rate of inflation for domestic ratepayers, is simply unsustainable. There is no justification whatsoever for that. The Minister could easily find that money. He could find it in the way that we have outlined. Others have described other means of finding it.

The Minister came to this House previously and said that there was no room for manoeuvre. I suspect that when he heard the reaction, the outcry, the deputations and the representations, he made a move, but he did not go far enough. On behalf of my party and others outside this House, I appeal to the Minister to think again, if not this year then at least next year. If he is prepared to ram this through with the support of his Colleagues in other parties, then let him think next year and the year after, and not impose this unfair and inequitable burden on domestic ratepayers in future years.

Mr Close:

I welcome the opportunity to have another crack at this iniquitous tax. It should be remembered that when we started this particular battle, a flat 8% increase was proposed right across the board. That increase had come about through the application and implementation of a former regime that ruled and controlled the finances of Northern Ireland.

I remind Members that, from 1979, that regime was a Conservative regime. We all know how the Tories feel about those impoverished and less-well-off people in Northern Ireland. It can be put in a few words. They could not care less about those people.

However, we now have a devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland. The political parties in Northern Ireland, some of them with very nice names referring to their democracy and social conscience, decided that they were going to roll over and implement exactly the same type of policies and increases as previous Tory overlords had proposed for the people of Northern Ireland: they were going to adopt an 8% blanket increase on an iniquitous tax that is known as the regional rate.

Battle commenced. There was a total outcry throughout Northern Ireland from all right-thinking people, who expressed their opposition to such a swingeing increase in an iniquitous tax like the regional rate. Gradually, slowly but surely, a little bit of progress was made. We managed, for reasons that I shall not go into, to get the regional rate reduced.

Dr Birnie:

If the tax, as the Member has said on at least four occasions, is iniquitous, what is the alternative? Is it a poll tax? Is it higher income tax for Northern Ireland? We need to hear that.

Mr Close:

The iniquity lies in the fact that it is unfair. It takes no account whatsoever of ability to pay and it strikes those who are less able to pay it. Is it fair that a senior citizen living on her own should have to pay the same sort of rate bill as a family of up to six adults living in a similar dwelling? Is that fair? Can anyone advocate that type of system and say that that is fair play and recognises the needs of our citizens?

I welcome the review of this system that the Minister has already announced. It goes without saying that the system is not being reviewed because it is fair or because it is the best system for raising money or for squeezing money out of individuals. We will all be reviewing the system because it is recognised as unfair and iniquitous. There is that word again.

11.15 am

Mr Leslie:

I am glad that the Member has rectified the lack of clarity of his thoughts on this matter. If he thinks that it is unfair to levy the tax per household, irrespective of the number of people in the household — and there seems to be some strength in that argument — is he saying that it would be fair to levy the tax per adult head and not per householder?

Mr Close:

The hon Member knows quite well that that is not what I was saying. I refer the Member to a verse that I think is from Ecclesiasticus:

"In a shaken sieve the rubbish is left behind. So too the defects of a man are found in his talk".

The Member should pay attention to that before he rises to interject. This could be the last time that the Assembly has the opportunity to recognise that it is a listening Assembly — that it listens to the electorate, the people of Northern Ireland, and to the pleas of those who are less well off. This could be the last opportunity for the Assembly to prove that, having listened, it is prepared to take action.

I get a bit fed up with people who jump to their feet in here and speak about Members who criticise the regional rate, alleging that they propose simplistic solutions. For as long as I can remember every single council in Northern Ireland has objected for reasons similar to those that I am exposing and expounding. I have sat on local authorities for 28 years and not once in that time have I heard one councillor from any party in Northern Ireland say that the regional rate was a good thing or show support for it. Each year when the rates are set every party objects to the swingeing increases. What has changed?

The only thing that has changed is that some people who once sat on local authorities now have some power. How do they use that power? That is the fundamental question, and that is what we are trying to get to the bottom of. We are pleading for those people to apply the same rules and regulations and show the same social conscience that they applied and showed when they sat on the local authorities and voted against large increases in regional rates. Do not change your tune because you have become a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, because people will not forgive you for that.

However, we have made some progress because we have managed to have the non-domestic rate reduced to 3·3% and the domestic regional rate reduced to 7%. The issue was raised at the last meeting of the Finance and Personnel Committee. The Committee has a scrutiny role and an advisory role. What advice did the Committee give to the Minister? The Committee divided, and there were three votes for the increase in the regional rate, two votes against it and one abstention. That was not what you could call an enthusiastic vote of support for the increase. That was not a tremendous endorsement of the Order before us today. Views on the matter are split, and we should still be able to oppose the Order.

If we really are democrats, and if we really believe in the possibility of change and of making life better for the citizens of Northern Ireland, we should take the opportunity today not to accept this Order.

How much money are we talking about? If the domestic regional rate is reduced to the same level as the non-domestic regional rate, in other words an increase of 3·3% instead of the 7% that is proposed, we are talking about around £4 million. That is a drop in the ocean compared with the overall level of public expenditure in Northern Ireland, but it is not a drop in the ocean given the individual rates bills that will drop through letterboxes in Northern Ireland in a matter of weeks. It is not a drop in the ocean to the senior citizen who finds himself or herself with a large rates bill in a few weeks’ time. It is not a drop in the ocean to the family that falls just outside the benefits regime and is struggling to clothe and feed its children.

That type of increase will drag those people unremittingly into the poverty trap that the Assembly should be endeavouring to squash out of existence rather than add to it through such large increases. References to and comparisons with what takes place across the water are absolutely irrelevant. We know that our fuel prices are far higher. We know that it costs more to clothe and feed children here. We know that car tax and insurance costs are far higher in Northern Ireland. Let us compare like with like.


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