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Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: 26 September 2007

COMMITTEE FOR FINANCE AND PERSONNEL

OFFICIAL REPORT

(Hansard)

Review of Domestic Rating

26 September 2007

Members present for all or part of the proceedings: 
Mr Mervyn Storey (Deputy Chairperson) 
Mr Roy Beggs 
Dr Stephen Farry 
Mr Simon Hamilton 
Ms Jennifer McCann 
Mr Adrian McQuillan 
Mr Declan O’Loan 
Ms Dawn Purvis 
Mr Peter Weir

Witnesses: 
Ms Alison McCaffrey ) Department of Finance and Personnel 
Mr Brian McClure 
Mr Patrick Neeson

The Deputy Chairperson: 
The next item on the agenda is the review of domestic rating. I welcome the return of Mr Brian McClure, who is head of the rating policy division in the Department of Finance and Personnel. I also welcome Mr Patrick Neeson and Ms Alison McCaffrey.

Mr Brian McClure (Department of Finance and Personnel): 
Good morning, Mr Deputy Chairperson. Committee members should have a copy of the consultation report. Would the Committee like me to give a high-level overview of the report and pick out some highlights, or would members prefer that I answer questions?

The Deputy Chairperson: 
It would be preferable if you could provide an overview, and then, because we have an allotted time for this subject, we could ask questions.

Mr McClure: 
The report begins with an introduction, as all reports do, and then goes on to the summary of key reforms that were introduced by direct rule Ministers for April 2007. The report merely aims to summarise the views expressed by those who responded to the consultation, and I provided the Committee with figures for the respondents the last time that I was here.

Everything cannot be covered in the report. Even today, we received a phone call from an organisation saying that we had not referred to it, on a specific issue, in the report. We could not have done that, because to do so would have made the report 150 pages long and virtually unreadable. Therefore, we have attempted to capture the flavour of the responses. For a better view of the individual responses, people should consult the rating reform website. However, there has been a technical hitch in that we have been unable to put all of the responses on the website. We hope to have that rectified by close of play today. I apologise for that.

Our intention was to publish the responses at the same time as the report. Instead, they are going to be 24 hours late. However, once the responses are available, people will be able to examine them in detail. It is important to note that the report does not contain further analysis of the options on which respondents have commented nor does it give any recommendations. Of course, the Minister will not be in a position to make any recommendations until he has received the Committee’s views on the important issues that are the subject of the review.

Section 2 of the report covers ‘Strand 1 Options’, which have been broken down into two strands. Strand 1A refers to those changes that can be made to the existing system by April 2008. In other words, it refers to those changes that can be given effect, fairly easily, through subordinate legislation, which provides for a much speedier route for policy change although it will still require the Assembly to pass legislation. We have divided the issues that fall into that category from the more long-term ones. I will outline the strand 1A options in a moment.

Strand 1B options are changes that will require primary legislation, but in the context of the existing system.

That section begins with general comments made by respondents about the merits, or otherwise, of the capital-value system. Those comments range from the difficult issue of the ability to pay, district rates, regional rates, and asset-rich/income-poor, which is a thread that flows through a lot of the responses. Then we move on to the strand 1A issues, of which I will focus on two or three.

First, 42 responses referred specifically to the maximum cap, which is a difficult issue. A slight majority was in favour. However, it is worth noting that of the responses from representational organisations only six were in favour of a cap, or a lower cap, whereas 18 were opposed, which is interesting. We have attempted to summarise the issues. The fair rates campaign is in favour of a cap at around £300,000 capital value.

The consultation found overwhelming support for the rating of vacant domestic property. Some of the support suggested that more work needed to be done, but most of the responses, particularly from organisations, were in favour of the measure being introduced.

There were a number of responses about amendments to the rate relief scheme. As I have said before, parts of the low-income relief scheme can be changed quite easily. One of those that attracted comment was the savings limit. The fair rates campaign has been lobbying hard for the savings limit that applies under rate rebate to be increased to £50,000 for pensioners. We will be looking at that.

There was a lot of concern from organisations about whether the revision of the existing provision for education and training relief targeted students, or if landlords benefited more.

The transitional relief scheme allows a three-year phasing-in for those who were affected most adversely by revaluation. Some people have suggested a profiling of that scheme again, and the citizens advice bureau has suggested that it should be graduated. However, there were not many responses on that. That is all of strand 1A. As I explained, strand 1A is for measures that can be implemented easily for April 2008.

Strand 1B refers to options under the existing system, or the retaining and improving of some of the main elements of the capital value system. A number of options were presented in the terms of reference. The most contentious issue by far was the single-person discount. A high number of respondents were in favour of that. That is a feature of council tax in GB. Fifty respondents, including all ratepayers, were in favour of its introduction. Parity with the rest of the UK was the main rationale that respondents gave for that.

However, some respondents, notably the Alliance Party, acknowledged that it was a fairly blunt relief, which should, perhaps, be targeted more at single pensioners.

A single-pensioner’s discount also attracted responses; eleven of which — four from ratepayers and seven from organisations — referred to it specifically. Virtually all those supported its introduction. That is the flavour that the Department is getting from consultation. People believe that relief should be given to those who are most in need and that there is justification for providing automatic discounts for particular groups because of issues arising from take-up, and so on. That is borne out by the responses. The Ulster Unionist Party supports a non-means-tested, automatic discount for pensioners as well, arguing that it gives security to those who have worked hard and saved throughout their lives.

The curiously titled “circuit-breakers” is another way of saying that there should be an income limit on the amount that people are expected to pay on property tax. There were only five responses to that, which perhaps reflects the lack of information that is available on it; people may not have felt able to comment in detail. Some of those who responded were in favour.

Under the existing capital-value system and, indeed, under the old net annual value (NAV)-based system, it is traditional that farmhouses are treated differently from other houses, so that gives rise to a discount. Some have argued that the discount should be enhanced. Six organisations that responded to the consultation sought enhanced discounts for farmers to reflect the user restrictions that apply to planning applications or permissions. They felt that the existing discount — which, I believe, equates to around 20% — should be greater.

Finally, with regard to strand 1, the World Wide Fund for Nature has put forward an interesting proposal on providing a rates credit for those who invest in specified energy-saving improvements, such as insulation, which could be partially funded by energy producers through the voluntary energy efficiency levy agreement. The Department is examining that in detail and consulting counterparts in GB where a similar scheme exists under the council tax.

That was a quick run-through of the strand 1 issues. Strand 1 can be divided into those measures that can be easily introduced by April 2008 and those that will take a bit longer because of the need for primary legislation. Strand 2 options examine alternatives and supplements to the rating system. That includes the banding of capital values — in other words, a kind of council tax solution. Twelve respondents to the consultation referred to that specifically. The Ulster Unionist Party believes that it deserves a little more consideration before any final decision is made. The fair rates campaign has argued for an eight-banded model.

It is worth mentioning that one of the key features of the council tax system is not just the banding of values, but the fact that it is quite restrained. People who are at the bottom of the system pay a third of what those who are at the top pay, so the council tax system has a one-to-three progression. That is a deliberate feature of the system, which recognises that council tax is not just a property tax, but a charge for local services. The Fair Rates Campaign is interested in that as a possible option. However, it has argued for a slightly different model with a one-in-five progression.

Local income tax is a difficult issue.

We received a substantial response on that. There were fifty respondents — 25 ratepayers and 25 organisations. Thirty-five respondents supported its introduction, and 15, including several ratepayers, were opposed to it.

The organisations that supported the introduction of local income tax — or, at least, supported further work being carried out to consider its introduction — included the Fair Rates Campaign, the General Consumer Council, Age Concern, Castlerock Causeway Coast Community Consortium, the National Federation of Post Office and BT Pensioners, Lisburn City Council and various others. The Ulster Unionist Party strongly opposed it. The Alliance Party, as members know, favoured it, although it argued that it should apply only to the regional rate and not to the district rate, because of the difficulties of administration if applied at a local level.

There was little comment on, or support for, sales tax. Perhaps people think that, given the land border that we share with the South and globalisation of the marketplace, for example, with the rise in internet buying, a sales tax might not be effective. Fifteen respondents commented on it, but only two offered what I would describe as qualified support, and 13 opposed it.

Land-value taxation is an interesting option. I know that the Chairman is interested in the further work that the Department is carrying out with the University of Ulster. Some of the respondents were interested in land-value taxation as a potential alternative, or supplement, to the existing rating system. Ten of the respondents, two of whom were ratepayers and eight were organisations, referred specifically to land-value taxation. Three of those respondents supported the introduction of such a tax, two offered qualified support and five opposed it. That is a mixed bag of responses to a pure land-value taxation system.

One subset of that is the possibility of introducing a derelict-land tax, which would apply to land that is unused, derelict or otherwise not on the market. That gathered some support from respondents, 11 of whom referred specifically to the issue. Six of those, including ratepayers, supported its introduction, four offered qualified support, and one was opposed to it. Many of the respondents saw that tax, not merely as a revenue-raising measure, but as something that could satisfy other policy aims, such as economic development or the provision of affordable housing.

In section 4, water-reform policy issues were at the top of the list. The Department did not ask directly for views on water charging; we asked about it as an issue in relation to rates. Unsurprisingly, many respondents took the opportunity to voice their opposition to water charging. Many people were of the view that there should not be a separate charge for water, but that it should be — and already was — included in rates bills.

Other issues in this section included second homes and relief for permanent residents, and those measures had pockets of support. Some comments were made about revaluation. Concerns were voiced about the impact of a revaluation, if the existing system were to be retained. Finally, there were a couple of concerns about the appeals system.

That was a quick run through the report; I hope that I have given the Committee a flavour. The report is not comprehensive; it is intended to be a signpost that will enable people to consider the issues in more detail through examining the individual responses that will be on our website by the close of play today.

The Deputy Chairperson: 
Thank you. The Committee appreciates having sight of the report before it was published, and that all the information will be on the rating review website so that people can see the specific submissions that have been made.

The Committee is interested in having more information on one issue that has come up several times. Does the Department have any cost-and-benefit analysis of the various caps and reliefs that will be available? The Committee urgently needs information on the revenue that would be lost and on the number of households that would benefit, as members must get their heads around the issues contained in the consultation report.

Mr McClure: 
Yes, the Department has a lot of information and would be happy to share that with the Committee fairly quickly. People have commented on a myriad of options, and it will be helpful for us to compile a shortlist of around 20 options, which we can provide as soon as possible. We have done much of the analysis on costs and on the likely numbers of people who will benefit, and we have done various other assessments.

Ms Purvis: 
Numerous reliefs were introduced in April. Difficulties with take-up have been mentioned. Do you have any up-to-date information on the take-up levels and costs?

Mr McClure: 
We have not advised the Minister about this. We receive information daily, and we had an interesting meeting yesterday with colleagues in the Department for Social Development (DSD), who have carried out analysis using the family-resources survey to help us gauge the success or otherwise of the relief scheme. We understand that significantly less than 50% of the people who we think are eligible under the relief scheme are actually claiming relief. It is no surprise that people in the social-rented sector and, to a large degree, the private-rented sector are well covered in the advice that they receive about entitlements. However, take-up rates among those in the owner-occupied sector are significantly lower, and the Minister recognises that that is a serious problem that must be addressed.

Ms Purvis: 
Is it possible to make those figures available?

Mr McClure: 
Yes, the Department intends to share all of the analysis. Currently, we have only preliminary results from DSD and we have not yet advised the Minister. However, we will bring the analysis to the Committee at the earliest opportunity. We will supply the information in advance of the Committee meetings in October.

Ms Purvis: 
That information will help the Committee when it considers direct-relief, single-person discounts and passport relief. It seems that there is a better take-up with respect to passport relief.

Mr Weir: 
As regards lack of take-up, we have seen this trend with a number of other benefits. Do you have any figures showing the distribution of take-up compared with the level of relief that people receive? In other words, if the level of relief is tapered — for example, in the case of pension credit where the level of relief is varied — lots of people tend not to claim if they feel that what they will get will be marginal and will be only a couple of pounds.

You mentioned that less than 50% of eligible people claim that relief. Will you supply us with figures that suggest variations in the levels of relief? If the figure is 50% across the board, perhaps it is variational. I may be proved wrong, but the take-up may be extremely low for those who are only entitled to low levels of relief.

Mr McClure: 
We raised that point with officials from the Department for Social Development yesterday, and they will forward that information to us. However, they made an interesting point that some people do not claim as they think that they may not be entitled to anything, but that quite often they are wrong about that. They have misconceptions about the support that is available to them, but we hope to provide the Committee with a breakdown of the levels of claimants. We received the first cut of that information yesterday, but we have asked officials from the Department for Social Development to supplement that with a breakdown of claimants.

Mr Hamilton: 
Before the review, much of the debate about the new system centred on the capital-value system and its introduction. However, from reading the report, I note that, out of over 100 respondents, only 29 criticised the new system. In fact, there was actually some support for the capital-value system. With that low level of attention on capital values and discussion on relief, discount schemes, etc, is there some satisfaction with, or acceptance of, capital values? Are people more interested in getting a system that is fairer on particular groups, such as pensioners or single people?

Mr McClure: 
There may be a higher level of acquiescence, and I gauge that from the amount of correspondence that the Department receives. Aside from the correspondence that this has generated, we have noticed a remarkable reduction in the correspondence that we have received from ratepayers on various policy issues. I am unsure whether it is fair to jump to the conclusion that silence is acquiescence, but that is all that I have to go on. You are asking me a question on which I cannot give an objective view.

Mr Hamilton: 
I understand that. There is a lot more in the consultation on relief and discounts.

Mr McClure: 
There is more focus on the fact that some people do not like the system, so we should find ways of improving it.

The Deputy Chairperson: 
It is the same with people in Northern Ireland acquiescing on paying money.

Dr Farry: 
There were 119 respondents to the consultation, and we must bear in mind that it took place over the summer. What is the Department’s view on that level of response? Is it encouraged or discouraged?

Mr McClure: 
There are two aspects to that. First, 42 organisations, including 12 district councils, responded. That surpasses the organisational responses for the main consultation on the capital value system, so that is a healthy response. I mentioned at the previous Committee meeting, and it was quoted in the newspapers, that only 77 ratepayers took the trouble to respond, and that is disappointing. Does that mean that people put more faith in the representative organisations?

Dr Farry: 
Are most consultations conducted by the public sector? The vast majority of respondents tend to be from organisations rather than from individuals.

Mr McClure: 
That is correct.

Dr Farry: 
So, is that level of response from individuals different from the norm?

Mr McClure: 
I can only go on our experience with rating policy. More ratepayers responded in the early stages of the reforms that were introduced in April 2007 than responded to this consultation.

Dr Farry: 
Will you confirm that equality impact assessments will be carried out before any of the different options and strands are finally implemented?

Mr McClure: 
It depends what the measures are. Some are mitigating and address a shortcoming; therefore, a full equality impact assessment will not necessarily be required. However, some of the main policy changes must be subjected to equality impact assessment.

Dr Farry: 
Was the decision to create a cap of £500,000 subject to equality impact assessment? Was that decision not part of a political deal to bypass the process?

Mr McClure: 
You are right; it more or less bypassed the process.

Dr Farry: 
For that reason, it would be critical if the cap, in particular, were considered further.

Mr McClure: 
Given that we have linked all the capital values with the census, it would be quite easy for us to carry out that work, and we can dig quite deep if necessary.

Dr Farry: 
At the beginning of the report, you referred to a lot of respondents using the phrase “ability to pay”. That is difficult to define. However, when the Minister introduced the reform, he used that phrase frequently. Therefore, I presume that the Department of Finance understands exactly what it means.

Mr McClure: 
The Department takes the phrase to mean that:

“Most of the respondents appear to view it as directly relating tax liability with current income.”

Dr Farry: 
Is that a consensual view that has been worked out from responses, or is it the Department’s view?

Mr McClure: 
That is the respondents’ consensual view. Most respondents appear to view it as relating tax liability with current income.

Dr Farry: 
What is the Department’s definition? Given that the Department used the phrase, one would assume that it has an understanding of what it means.

Mr McClure: 
The way in which the Department has always looked at it, in the context of the capital-value system, is by linking relief to inability to pay, which usually boils down to income and savings. Therefore, the converse of that —ability to pay — is a relationship between tax liability and income and/or savings.

Dr Farry: 
Without going into too much detail on circuit breakers, does the Department require a mixture of the bureaucracy that is involved both in property evaluations and in the income-and-benefits system, which is entirely separate? Does the Department need to find a mechanism to bring those together?

Mr McClure: 
Administration will be very difficult, because certain verification processes may be required with HM Revenue and Customs, which is loath to share that information. Therefore, there are problems with that aspect of administration and with how that will align with the housing-benefit system. The Minister does not want to do anything that would jeopardise the housing-benefit budget for Northern Ireland. If such a mechanism were introduced, it could reduce the gross liability; therefore, housing benefits will be lower and HM Treasury will benefit.

Dr Farry: 
I appreciate there was not a huge response on green taxes, but can you assure me that the Department will consider fully that option in the strand 2 options, not least because of the debates that are occurring across the water?

Mr McClure: 
I specifically mentioned the suggestion of the WWF — formerly the World Wide Fund for Nature. The Minister, who takes the issue very seriously, has already met with that group and has asked the Department to thoroughly investigate that option. There are other environmental options, such as charging for refuse collection, or tax credits.

Dr Farry: 
I do not accept that the nature of the responses demonstrates acquiescence or that people are happy with a capital-value system. There is a slight paradox, in that although people may not be jumping up and down over rates reform, they are jumping up and down about water charges.

It is envisaged that water charges will be applied on a capital-value basis, and that the amount of money being raised through water charges — steep as that will be — will be dwarfed by that raised through domestic rates. There is, therefore, still an underlying problem with capital-value charging, and that must not be swept under the carpet.

Mr McClure: 
I agree, and that is why I was careful to say that I could not give an objective answer.

Mr O’Loan: 
What is meant by derelict land? Does that include derelict buildings?

Mr McClure: 
It is unused land or buildings such as old industrial sites.

Mr O’Loan: 
Why is there such a distinction between individual capital valuation — which we have — and the council-tax system of banding?

Mr McClure: 
The big difference is that council tax is a restrained tax: it is artificially restrained so that those at the bottom pay no more than one third of those at the top. Therefore, Band A council tax payers will pay one third of Band H payers — the top band. Council tax is not proportionate, unlike the individual capital-value system. Under the latter, a householder’s bill is related directly to their house’s capital value, which is not the case with council tax. That is the fundamental difference, but there are other differences such as the application of the banding of values, which allows a restraint to be applied.

One might ask whether we would want to apply a restrained tax in Northern Ireland, and if so how it could be done. It would be achieved by applying graduated-tax rates to various levels of value, and views were canvassed on that option. However, that suggestion did not receive a lot of comment, and those who did comment said that it was not an attractive option because of the impact it would have on ratepayers in the lower values. It is not like capping, which would not wash back as much as a graduated-tax system. If rates were to be capped at a fairly high level, the wash-back to other ratepayers would not be substantial. However, if rates were to be applied through a graduated-tax system, people at the lower end would pay significantly more.

Ms J McCann: 
You mentioned the difficulties in administrating the circuit-breaker system. It seems that the people most disadvantaged by the current rating system are those on low incomes and who do not fulfil the criteria for housing benefit. Pensioners, for instance, may have bought their homes at discounted prices and now face rates that will be based on the value of those homes. If the circuit-breaker system is not a viable option, is there another option — apart from the relief system — that will assist people in that category?

Mr McClure: 
I gave you some of the cons about circuit breakers. However, the option has not been ruled out. Nothing has been ruled out because the Committee has to consider all of the issues before the Minister makes up his mind, and he has expressed an interest in circuit breakers.

The intention of the low-income relief scheme was to assist those who are not entitled to housing benefit, but who are just above the threshold for rates relief. The effectiveness of that scheme and its adequacy are also being tested in the consultation. Various thresholds can be increased. Under the current special rates-relief scheme, the increase is tapered. That means that people are able to earn more than the income threshold and still be eligible for relief. It also applies additional allowances for single-pensioner households and pensioner-couple households, and that was something that came out of the St Andrews Agreement.

Other measures can be taken, however, such as increasing the savings limit for pensioners. Many pensioners have built up savings for their old age, and those savings are limited to £16,000. The Assembly has the power to say that the special rates-relief scheme should allow for more generous savings. The Lyons report, which looked at council taxes and other issues in England, recommended that savings could be increased to £50,000. The fair rates campaign believes that the savings limit should be increased.

There could also be enhanced relief for people with disabilities and for carers. There is a whole range of different options that could be deployed, and the Assembly has the power to do that.

Mr Beggs: 
The short-term decisions that have to be made are the changes that could be enacted before April, and those changes would have to be incorporated into the Budget planning process. There are a couple of issues on the plus side that could raise money — the vacant-property tax and the derelict-land tax. First, have you any figures that show how those changes would impact positively on the Budget?

Secondly, you indicated that some of the schemes that have been introduced for rate relief have had only a 50% take-up. What analysis has there been as to why that take-up has been so poor? Have you assessed which groups are not applying? Is it mostly pensioner groups? There is work to be done on those issues. We need to know the cost of, and the timescale for implementing, each of those schemes.

Finally, I would like to see a simple, straightforward process for the introduction of those new rate-relief schemes. Ending up with half-a-dozen different forms would be over-bureaucratic, and the advantages of the money saved would be lost in the administrative burden and a poor take-up rate because of the degree of complexity. I hope that you will be able to build in a straightforward, simple process that is easy to administer, that makes it easy for people to apply and that caters for changes in their circumstances.

Mr McClure: 
Your first point relates to factoring some of the schemes into the Budget or the comprehensive spending review (CSR). The derelict-land-tax system would need primary legislation, and it would require all the impact assessments associated with that. That would be a medium-term option; it is not something that could be done quickly. Although the vacant-domestic-property issue could be legislated for fairly easily, there are issues with implementation. While it may be brigaded with all the other immediate strand 1 issues, there would be some operational constraints on its introduction; it could not be done for October 2008.

You asked about the revenue that those schemes are likely to generate. We have information on that from Land and Property Services. The University of Ulster is doing some modelling work for us, and rating policy division is doing its own, although that is not yet complete. However, when we looked at revenue four years ago, we reckoned that around £4 million would be generated. That figure could be significantly higher now.

The Deputy Chairperson: 
That report is scheduled to be brought to the Committee on 10 October 2007.

Mr McClure: 
Such schemes may not benefit the Budget immediately as they will fall outside the next couple of years. Thereafter, vacant-property rating —

Mr Beggs: 
Why does it take two years to bring about change? I am astonished; surely some consultation could take place over four to six months.

Mr McClure: 
As I said, it is not the legislative issues that are a problem; we could put together the required legislation this morning to be implemented in time for next year. However, there are operational issues with Land and Property Services. They have to get details about the owners of each and every vacant house in Northern Ireland and charge accordingly, because the taxation system is occupier-based.

We have sought advice from Land and Property Services on this issue, and I do not believe that their systems are capable of dealing with that before April 2009 — perhaps beyond that. I will come back to the Committee with a more informed view.

As I have already said, the rating policy division in the Department can draw up the regulations, which could be passed through the Assembly pretty quickly. However, the timescales involved with that implementation delay the process. It is very difficult to implement immediately, because it is an occupier-based taxation system.

Mr Beggs: 
I am surprised. I thought that the Department recently had a new computer system installed — at a huge cost. If the Department were a business, it would have been thinking further into the future about its capabilities, and the changes would have been implemented much faster. The speed of change is grindingly slow.

Mr McClure: 
As I said, the rating policy division is responsible for policy, and all it can do is implement the Minister’s decisions and draw up the legislation. If necessary, the division can draw up that legislation regarding vacant-property rating in time for April 2008.

The issue of derelict-land taxation may require further consultation and an impact assessment, and it will require primary legislation to be passed through the Assembly. That process, at best, could take 18 months but will probably take two years.

The second part of the question concerns benefit take-up. We are using information from the family resources survey, and we are working on that in order to identify the potential shortfall in benefit take-up. We believe that it is substantially lower than 50%.

There are many and various reasons for people not claiming the benefits to which they are entitled. Those reasons include: a lack of communication; cultural issues; people making the wrong assumptions — a belief that, because they own their house, they are not entitled to benefits, or because they are not Housing Executive tenants. Many people have strange perceptions about that issue. There are also groups that are hard to reach — people who just do not have the right information.

The Commons Select Committee on Communities and Local Government published a useful report into take-up of council tax benefit. Much consultation was conducted for that report, and it was analysed in detail. The report outlines some of the reasons that people do not claim that benefit. We will consult that report on the points that are relevant to Northern Ireland.

Mr McQuillan: 
My problem concerns the second homes issue on the north coast. What is the Department’s thinking on that issue?

Mr McClure: 
At the moment, the Department and the Minister are in contemplation mode. We are engaging with the Committee, and we hope to have the Committee’s views. It is a difficult issue. We have to consider whether that issue, and affordable housing settlements on the north coast, should be dealt with through the taxation system, a system that is currently based on occupation. Views were expressed that owners of second homes should be charged a supplementary rate, or a rate levy; that would be difficult to implement. There are several perspectives for the Minister to consider.

On Mr Beggs’s point, anything that we do must be as simple and effective as possible, and that philosophy applies to the issue of second homes. Some take the view that, if a levy is not charged for second homes, a discount should be granted to permanent residents. That is another way to look at it. How does one come up with a simple set of rules to easily administer such a scheme? The issue is still on the table for consideration, and we would value the Committee’s opinion.

The Deputy Chairperson: 
Thank you for coming. Obviously, a huge amount of work has to be done by the members of the Committee in order to formulate an opinion, and we will be keen to bring those thoughts to the Minister to aid his contemplations on the decisions that he has to make.

Thanks to Patrick Neeson and Alison McCaffrey, who had a relatively easy task this morning, and to Brian McClure for answering the Committee’s questions. No doubt you will be back to see us in the next few weeks.

Mr McClure: 
Patrick and Alison do all the work back at the office.

If any of my answers were inadequate, I am more than happy to fill in the gaps and provide whatever analysis we have on the costs of the various options, the number of beneficiaries and any wider considerations relating to those options.

The Deputy Chairperson: 
Thank you.

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