Representations to the Government on the domestic rating reforms in the past 12 months have included responses to a consultation on the draft Rates (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, as well as other more targeted consultations on individual aspects of the reforms. In addition, the Government have met political parties, Government agencies, local government, representatives of the community and voluntary sector, and other stakeholders to discuss the reforms.
If I may say so, I will not take lessons on unfair taxes from a member of the party that introduced the poll tax. What I will say to the hon. Gentleman is that the British Government are looking to the Lyons report in respect of England and Wales and alternative forms to the current council tax. Sir Michael Lyons will publish a report in due course and my right hon. and hon. Friends will consider it. One thing that we will not do is reintroduce the poll tax.
With reference to the water and sewerage services order, does the Minister agree that the judgment of Justice Weatherop yesterday in Belfast did not warrant the Government’s jubilant press release, as the Regional Development Department was found wanting in the consultative process—so much so that the court attached a judicial declaration to the legislation for Parliament to consider? Is that not a unique situation? Will the Minister now properly and adequately consult major stakeholders? As the political imperative of Friday 24 November was cited in the case and is now effectively departed, will he postpone consideration of the legislation next Tuesday?
The Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns), is dealing with the matter of water charges. Yesterday in court, there were 16 counts for the Government to consider and the judge rejected 15 of them. The Government are looking at the 16th count, but will continue to lay the order next week. We will proceed to introduce water charges because a significant revenue element needs to be brought forward. As finance Minister, I need to secure it in order to improve services in Northern Ireland. We will continue with the process and examine the legislation in the light of yesterday’s judgment.
That is gracious of you; thank you, Mr. Speaker.
Will the Minister kindly confirm and clarify the doubt that has arisen because of the slippage of the 24 November deadline that there will be a cap on rates and additional relief for pensioners in Northern Ireland?
We have considered strongly in the light of representations made at the same time as the agreement the points made by hon. Members throughout the House. We have set a cap at £500,000 and we have said that we will consult on additional measures to help pensioners, but I must emphasise that they are part of the St. Andrews agreement. If we do not secure agreement on those matters on Friday, I will have to reflect seriously on what I do about the rates order and other proposed changes, which were conditional on that agreement.
The Minister said that he was
“anxious to ensure that no-one in Northern Ireland suffers undue hardship as they adjust to this new rating system”.
Will he now confirm and make it abundantly clear that, if we do not have devolution on 26 March, the Government will still keep the rate cap as in England and that, indeed, he will provide extra relief for pensioners in Northern Ireland?
I have said that issues about rate cap and pensioners arose as a result of representations from parties during the St. Andrews agreement. In the event of no agreement taking place, I will have to reconsider whether we wish to progress down those lines with regard to the cap and help for pensioners. We introduced those proposals because of the St. Andrews agreement; if there is no agreement, I will have to reconsider what I do in the light of that action.
The Secretary of State and his ministerial team have often, and quite rightly, said that decisions about the future of Northern Ireland should be taken by local politicians from the Province. Indeed, they asserted just as much yesterday. Given that the DUP, the UUP and the SDLP voted against the draft Rates (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 in Committee on 25 October, how can its introduction be justified against such local opposition?
The hon. Gentleman will know that we have been consulting on the matter, as the direct rule team, from the start of 2002, when the Assembly brought forward proposals to introduce changes. All parties in Northern Ireland are committed to changing the current system. They have differences about how we do that but, in the absence of devolution, we have a duty to look after the good government of Northern Ireland. We shall progress the order on that basis.