Fake charity shops used to dodge rates facing crackdown
Bogus charity shops used by landlords to avoid paying rates are facing a clampdown, the Finance Minister has warned.
But Arlene Foster ruled out charging full rates on vacant commercial properties, predicting that some landlords here would only smash up buildings or let them to charities to avoid paying.
Yesterday also saw signs of tension between the DUP and Sinn Fein when the republican party refused to fully back a motion to allow for Civil Service redundancies.
Sinn Fein spokesman Daithí McKay MLA said it was "badly drafted legislation and is totally unsuitable for the North".
The voluntary exit scheme provided much of the financial underpinning for the Fresh Start Agreement.
Mr McKay said he was opposing it "because these proposals would have a particularly adverse effect on those on low pay".
He said the trade union movement shared his concerns, but their objections had been ignored.
Earlier yesterday the Finance Minister pledged to tackle the charity shop issue as a review of the rating system goes on. They are only charged 50% of normal rates in Northern Ireland, compared to 100% in England and Wales.
Ms Foster estimated that increasing the tax to British levels could raise £30-£35m a year but she believed "some landlords would take precipitate action to make sure that they would not have to pay 100% rates".
"Maybe they would destroy their premises," she said.
She believed in some cases it was a fiddle letting premises out to charity shops. "There are some very good charity shops that provide a function and a service to the community." But she added: "I have seen examples where that is not the case, and a charity shop might be open for a limited number of hours one day a week. By doing that, the landlord has avoided rates liability. We will have to look at that in more detail."
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness also answered questions, and had to defend himself against criticisms from the SDLP over Sinn Fein's agreement to Westminster passing welfare cuts here. The Assembly voted to allow the Government to finally roll out universal credit and other welfare changes in Northern Ireland as part of the recently agreed Fresh Start deal.
"The fact that we went that technical route, which has the sunset clause which ensures the powers reside in this Executive, actually saves our institutions £40m, which we can put to good use on behalf of the people who sent us to this house," he said.
Asked about the fact that the agreement had failed to agree a way to deal with the legacy of the past, Mr McGuinness admitted that accepting the activity of British agents within the IRA was challenging for republicans.
He said that he believed we would soon find a way forward on legacy issues.