MLAs fuming at unpaid rates of more than £140m as crackdown on evaders promised by O Muilleoir
More than £140m in rates is unpaid in Northern Ireland, new figures reveal.
Arrears are running at "unacceptable" levels - nearly four years after a Stormont spending watchdog said the issue must be urgently tackled.
As of April 2016, the total amount of unpaid rates was £142,700,000.
That is equivalent to around a tenth of Northern Ireland's £1bn-plus total annual rates bill.
The figures were obtained by DUP MLA Keith Buchanan.
Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir revealed the end of year debt in each of the last three years was:
- £142,700,000 in 2015/16.
- £156,600,000 in 2014/15.
- And £162,100,000 in 2013/14.
The figures relate to both domestic and business premises.
The annual figure includes any debt carried forward from previous years.
Mr Buchanan said he was concerned that the Executive was missing out on vital funds.
"We are all aware of the demands on the public purse, and we need to find out the potential revenue which is not coming in, and why," he said.
In January 2013 a report by the Assembly's Public Accounts Committee found the amount of rates debt in Northern Ireland had doubled in the previous five years.
MLAs said the body responsible for collecting rates, the Land and Property Service (LPS), must explore all ways to help those in rate arrears to pay their debts.
Ulster Unionist finance spokesman Philip Smith said the figures were still unacceptable.
"Arrears are running at 10% of the overall rates bill," he said.
"I appreciate that you will always lose some money, but this is running at a scale beyond that which is acceptable.
"We need a clear action plan from the minister and LPS. The minister's constant mantra is that public finances are under pressure, but here is an opportunity to claw some money back."
According to LPS, if someone doesn't pay their rates or makes an arrangement to pay their bill, legal action will be taken against them.
Mr O Muilleoir warned that rates evaders would be chased down.
"We must also accept that we are in a challenging economic environment and many people are struggling to pay their bills," he said.
"LPS continues to see large numbers of individuals and businesses facing bankruptcy, administration and liquidation.
"I can assure you that LPS takes a serious view of non-payment of rates and rigorously pursues all debt.
"However, this must be balanced against assisting ratepayers who are genuinely struggling and require some additional flexibility to help pay their rate bills."
Mr O Muilleoir said the 2013/14 debt figure of £162.1m was reduced to £142.7m at the end of the 2015/16 rating year.
This dprovided additional income that can be invested in critical front line services such as health and education, he said.
"While LPS will make efforts to support those who are struggling to pay, they must, and will, rigorously pursue those who don't pay," the Finance Minister added.
"Where ratepayers fail to pay or do not enter into payment arrangements or break those arrangements, LPS will take court action and seek to recover the debt through the Enforcement of Judgments Office, or will instigate bankruptcy proceedings."