Belfast Telegraph

Level of rates debt at all-time high in Northern Ireland

By Adrian Rutherford

Rates evasion has hit an all-time high in Northern Ireland with 120 legal actions a day going to court over non-payment, it has been revealed.

Arrears topped £160 million in each of the last three years, the Finance Minister said.

The level of debt has more than doubled in recent years, and relates to both domestic and business premises.

A total of 127,769 occupancies have been issued with court proceedings in the last three years.

The figures were released by Finance Minister Simon Hamilton following an Assembly question from Strangford MLA David McNarry. Mr Hamilton said that rate debt at the end of the last financial year, ending in April, was £162,761,922.

It included £80,097,027 from domestic rates and £82,664,895 from businesses.

The total outstanding has fallen from the previous year, when debt arrears totalled £168,561,314. In 2011/12 the debt totalled £161,421,654.

Other figures show the number of court actions launched because of non-payment has reached its highest level.

In 2013/14 legal proceedings were launched against 43,851 occupancies - 120 a day on average.

That is up from 42,607 in 2012/13 and 41,311 in 2011/12. It is not specified how much of the debt has been recovered.

Last year a report by Stormont's Public Accounts Committee noted how rate debt had almost doubled in the previous five years. Its report revealed how arrears had rocketed from the £88m which was outstanding in 2006/07.

Mr McNarry said: "Clearly the Department of Finance and the rates agency are unable to get a grip on arrears.

"But it is ridiculous that it seems normal in allowing a black hole of uncollectable rates. We need to find out why so many people have fallen into arrears and see if they can be helped."

A spokesman for the Finance Department said Mr McNarry's analysis of the rate arrears figures was "inaccurate". "The total debt figure includes any debt carried forward from previous years," he said. "The £160m of rating debt should be looked at in the context of rates raised to a value of £4.7bn. In addition, Land & Property Service (LPS) has reduced the total by more than £6m last year."

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