Document 10: Land and Property Services (LPS) e-mail response to Commissioner 22 March 2021
From: Snowden, Ian
Sent: 22 March 2021 17:30
To: McCullough, Melissa Dr [information redacted]
Cc: [information redacted]
Subject: RE: Confidential: Information request
Good afternoon Dr McCullough
In response to your questions, I can advise as follows.
1. Mr McHugh was sent a remittance advice note in the post rather than by email. This was because we did not hold e-mail details for that rate account. There was no other form of e- mail communication from LPS to Mr McHugh or his office about the payment of the £10,000 grant.
2. A pdf copy of the remittance issued by post is attached. There is no evidence of any other remittance, notification or correspondence by post or otherwise from LPS to Mr HcHugh or his office in connection with the payment of this grant.
3. The bank account that the money was paid into was Sort Code [information redacted] and Account Number [information redacted]. Account NI have undertaken a trace on the payment (see e-mail attached entitled ‘FW: URGENT BACs Trace DFE Grant – Confidential – 12-03-2021’) which confirms that this was the account the payment was sent to. Please note that the actual name of the account will not be shown by BACS, only the name that was submitted in our payment file (normally the payee name).
4. The £10,000 grant was paid back by cheque on 26 October 2020. An image of the cheque and the associated Account NI records is attached in the document entitled ‘Timing for lodgement.docx’. In addition, this is the extract from the daily Failures and Returns spreadsheet provided by Account NI
5. You may be aware that I was asked to give evidence to the Assembly Finance Committee on 18 November 2020 in relation to the £10,000 Small Business Grant. The timing was driven by media coverage of the payment of grants to four MLA and MP constituency offices and a number of wind turbines. During the course of that hearing I gave an explanation of how the payments came to be made. The Hansard transcript will provide some useful information. However, the key points are:
- The £10,000 grant was an emergency measure to address the immediate economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. The basic eligibility criterion was that the business had to qualify for Small Business Rates Relief, although a number of exclusions were applied (see the next two points in particular). In order to deliver the support quickly, a decision was taken to issue automatic payments to those businesses that qualified for Small Business Rates Relief which paid their rates by Direct Debit and for which we held bank account information.
- The Minister for the Economy instructed that payments not be issued to MLA and MP constituency offices. LPS staff undertook a search of all Northern Ireland MP and MLA constituency offices in order to identify them in the rating list and exclude them from payment. Because of the December 2019 General election and the restoration of the Assembly with a large proportion on new co-opted members in January 2020 this exercise had to be undertaken from scratch as no up to date was available.
- The member of staff who was primarily responsible for preparing the files ran a script to identify the MP and MLA offices in the list of all properties in receipt of Small Business Rates Relief (which may therefore be eligible for the grant). This was one of several similar pieces of code that were written at the same time to identify other kinds of property to be excluded as part of the process of creating the payment file. An error was made in writing this particular script which meant that although the MP and MLA offices were flagged in the main list, they were not removed from the payment file. As I explained in the Assembly Committee, this was an simple error made by a member of staff who was working under enormous pressure at this time. The error was identified and corrected for the 4th and subsequent payment files.
- No application was submitted by any of the political offices paid in error as all had their rates paid by Direct Debit and we held the necessary bank information. All of the automatic payments issued without application were paid in one of the first three payment runs on 26 March, 31 March and 3 April 2020. All subsequent payments were made in respect of applications submitted.
I was contacted early on 26 October 2020 by a member of staff at the West Tyron Sinn Fein office in Omagh asking for details on how a grant could be repaid. As I was on leave on that date, I passed the request on to a member of staff to answer. I was only became aware subsequently, as a consequence of the media coverage, that the request was in respect of the Sinn Fein Office in Strabane.
I hope that information is helpful.