Local Government Rates and Other Matters Bill 2018: Second Stage

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am very pleased to bring this important Bill before the Seanad. The purpose of the Bill is to modernise the commercial rates system. Commercial rates make up approximately one third of local government current income every year and are the single largest income source for local authorities, providing income of almost €1.5 billion per annum, between 15% and 53% of total funding for local services at individual local authority level. It is critical that the Bill is enacted before the summer recess to ensure enactment of critical rates related provisions and that local authorities do not lose out on any revaluation buoyancy, to ensure rates can be applied immediately after revaluation, and to provide for alleviation and abatement schemes. The amendments are required in good time for local authority 2020 budgets in the autumn. Separately, there are a number of other important amendments to planning and residential tenancies Acts that need to be enacted before the summer. The legislation governing the levying and collection of commercial rates is spread across numerous enactments, many of which date from the 19th century. The primary legislation relating to rates is the Poor Relief (Ireland) Act 1838, so the legislation is long overdue.

The drafting of the Bill has been informed by extensive consultation with rating experts in the local government sector and the Valuation Office. We have also taken on board important feedback from local authority members and ratepayer representatives. In general, ratepayer groups have welcomed the intent of the proposals. They recognise that further improvements to rates collection levels are necessary, both to ensure that local authorities are equipped to provide services to the local community and to ensure that ratepayers are not subsidising those who do not pay. While this legislation is very important in its own right, it is also an important building block in the context of overall improvements to the valuation and rating system under way and planned. These include a review of the Valuation Tribunal, extra resources for the Valuation Office revaluation and revisions programme, and a review of exempted properties, which is ongoing. These important initiatives are being prioritised for implementation in the autumn. If necessary, there will be legislation in the autumn. Further consultation with stakeholders will take place in that context.

A key intention of this legislation is to encourage ratepayers to engage with their local authority more and sooner in the process. That will mean that the annual rates collection process is more effective and efficient for both parties. It is important that the relationship between local authorities and ratepayers is positive, given the critical role of commercial rates in local government and the vital role of local businesses in villages, towns, cities and rural areas. Local authorities that better understand the local business environment, and ratepayers' businesses are better equipped to design alleviation and abatement schemes and to arrange suitable and equitable payment plans. Consultation with business and the public is critical.

In recognition of a challenging operating environment and to support businesses, the Department has, in recent years up to and including this year, requested local authorities to exercise restraint in setting the annual rate on valuation, ARV. To their credit and notwithstanding the pressures on their own finances, local authorities have adhered to these requests. The national average ARV has not changed significantly in recent years.

I will now go through the main provisions of the Bill. Section 1 provides for the interpretation of terms used in the Bill. Section 2 provides clarification on the local authority’s role in the adoption of the annual rate on valuation. Section 3 provides that a local authority shall consider the local authority’s budgetary needs in determining the applicable annual rate on valuation. Section 4 provides the power for local authorities to levy rates on the occupiers of relevant property, as identified in Schedule 3 to the valuation Acts 2001 to 2015. It confirms the long-standing provision that the commercial rates liability is calculated by multiplying the valuation determined by the Commissioner of Valuation by the ARV adopted by the local authority at its budget meeting. Importantly, this section also modernises the rates process in two ways. It provides for additions and amendments to the valuation list to become immediately effective for rating purposes. It also provides for the pro rata levying of rates where the ratepayer changes during the year.

Section 5 provides for the storing and publishing, by the local authority, of the contents of the rate book in electronic format. This is a critical modernising requirement. Section 6 provides a power to limit the level of ARV that can be adopted by the local authority. Section 7 provides that local authorities may offset any rates owing to them against an amount that the local authority owes to that ratepayer. Section 8 provides that the collection of rates and interest due on unpaid rates pursuant to this Bill are under the care and management of the local authority.

Section 9 provides that a local authority may provide a temporary abatement for vacant properties, subject to a maximum relief which may be specified by the Minister, to ensure that all property owners other than those whose rates liability would be below a de minimis threshold make some level of payment to the local authority and that vacant property is discouraged throughout the country. It is proposed that any revenue accruing from reductions in the vacancy refund would be added to the general municipal allocations of the municipal districts in the local authorities.

Section 10 provides local authorities with the power to establish a database of relevant property and to delegate this function to the local government management agency as a type of shared service. Section 11 provides an obligation on the owners and occupiers of relevant properties to provide relevant information to the local authorities. Section 12 provides local authorities with the power to apply interest to unpaid rates. The provisions are based on the provisions in the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997, which provide for the addition of interest to unpaid taxes to the Revenue Commissioners. This provision is focused on incentivising positive engagement with the local authority at the earliest possible time rather than increasing revenues. Therefore, the interest would only accrue from the 1 January of the following year where a ratepayer has refused to enter into an agreed payment plan with the local authority.

Section 13 provides for obligations on the owners of a relevant property before the sale of that property to pay any rates and interest payable. This provision only applies to rates liabilities accrued by the owner when the owner is also the occupier of the property. Section 14 provides that any unpaid rates and any interest accruing is a charge on the property where the owner is the liable person.

Section 15 provides for local authorities to introduce rates alleviation schemes to support specific national and local authority policy objectives. This is one of the major provisions of the Bill. This could include Realising Our Rural Potential - Action Plan for Rural Development; local economic and community plans developed by local authorities; and planning objectives set out in development plans and local area plans. The approval of schemes would be a reserved function of elected members. We are all agreed that consultation will have to be a feature of the development of these schemes.

Section 16 provides for the appointment of local authority staff as authorised officers by the chief executive for the purposes of the Act. Section 17 provides those authorised officers with certain power to enter relevant property in certain circumstances. Section 18 provides that the Minister may make regulations under the Bill. Section 19 is a standard provision relating to expenses in the administration of the legislation. Sections 20 and 22 are technical amendments to rates enactments on foot of this Bill.

Section 21 provides for amendments to the Valuation Acts 2001 to 2015. The section includes technical amendments in respect of amendment of the effective dates for rates and the timeframes allowed to public utility undertakings and other ratepayers undergoing valuation by the Commissioner of Valuation. Importantly, the section amends section 56 of the Valuation Act in respect of the making of a rate limitation order. A rate limitation order is set for local authorities following a revaluation to ensure it is revenue neutral by setting the upper limit for rates income in the following year. This amends the rate limitation order formula to take account of rates loss in valuation of appeals. A further amendment to section 56 mitigates an unintended consequence of potential loss of income to local authorities undergoing a standard revaluation that coincides with the valuation of a new global utility. This amendment to the rate limitation order formula will ensure that any extra buoyancy from new or revised global utility valuations can be accounted for in the formula and will not be offset by rate increases by other ratepayers in that particular local authority area during the revaluation process.

Section 23 provides for transitional arrangements for the Office of the Planning Regulator and the regional spatial and economic strategy. It is required to ensure that the Minister has a robust legal basis to issue a direction, if necessary, to ensure the regional spatial and economic strategy is consistent with the national planning framework or other key strategies. The proposed amendment will apply only in respect of the three current regional spatial and economic strategies that commenced prior to the establishment of the Office of the Planning Regulator.

Section 24 is a minor technical amendment to give the Cork councils an extra year to review their development plans to facilitate the significant workload and range of complex issues arising from the revisions to local government boundaries in Cork and to take account of the southern regional spatial and economic strategy.

Section 25 is a technical amendment to the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) Act 2019. The Act inserted a description into section 19 of the works that would bring about a substantial change in the nature of the accommodation that would warrant an exemption from the 4% rent increase restriction applicable in rent pressure zones. Concerns were raised that it would not be possible for works undertaken to protected structures to satisfy this description and that this could result in the loss of such units from the rental sector. In recognition of this and to encourage continued investment in this type of rental property, the first rent set under the tenancy of a protected or proposed protected structure dwelling not rented in the previous 12 months can be the market rent. Thereafter, the 4% annual rent increase ceiling will apply.

Section 26 amends the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) Act 2019 relating to the application of the legislation to student specific accommodation, whether occupied under licence or a tenancy, and the arrangements for the commencement of annual registration for tenancies generally and for the student specific accommodation sector. This is important to close off a potential loophole before the summer rush on student accommodation to ensure tenancies are protected.

Section 27 provides for the repeal and revocations of various provisions of rating law to be replaced by the new provisions. Section 28 is a standard provision in respect of the title of the Bill and for the commencement of the various provisions contained in it.

As well as simplifying the processes for levying and collecting rates, the Bill addresses some issues which will have a positive financial impact on local authorities, in particular the amendments to the rate limitation order ensuring that a revaluation exercise is revenue neutral rather than loss-making for a local authority and that revisions and additions to the valuation lists are immediately applicable and rateable. In addition, the provisions I have described in sections 9 and 15 relating to rates abatement and alleviation schemes further empower elected members and their local authorities to devise and achieve policy objectives through locally targeted schemes because the local elected members have local knowledge. The rates alleviation schemes will allow local authorities to make schemes to support local and national policy objectives and challenges particular to their local areas. It will allow local authorities to support specific objectives to promote community, social and economic development, urban planning or rural regeneration. Again, I envisage that the regulations will provide that such schemes can be made for specific local electoral areas or municipal districts.

As part of this process and the local authority budget process generally, public consultation and engagement should play a central role. A specific model of consultation has been provided for regarding the local property tax and I am open to expansion of that model to encompass the wider local authority budget process. Specifically, with regard to rates, I believe there should be an ongoing engagement between local authorities, ratepayers and the community, facilitating discussion around issues such as urban planning, rural regeneration and the public realm. It also provides an opportunity for local authorities to outline the projects and services funded by rates income.

During Report Stage in the Dáil, I accepted an amendment from Deputies in Fianna Fáil to provide for public consultation in the rates abatement scheme process and I committed to inserting an amendment along the same lines for rates alleviation schemes in the next appropriate item of legislation to be brought forward from the Department. Furthermore, section 14(5) of the Bill includes a broad regulation-making power for purposes relevant to the Bill. The Minister and I will consider whether that provision can be relied upon to ensure a public consultation such as that envisaged by this amendment can be held.

In respect of the matter raised by local authority members concerning the rating treatment of their offices, I have made a commitment to local authority members' groups, and now want to make a clear commitment to the House, to address this issue as a matter of urgency. I recognise that it is a matter of concern to members that an office they establish and from which they serve their communities as elected representatives could be liable for commercial rates. I, therefore, commit to addressing this issue, separate from the current Bill process, so that an early resolution is found which is satisfactory for all concerned. In this regard, I will meet a delegation of local authority members on 16 July. As I pointed out earlier in my contribution, I intend to ensure, whether by primary legislation or other means of regulation, that the current review of premises that are exempt - the Schedule 3 and 4 review - will be implemented in the autumn of this year. If primary legislation is required, then so be it.

This Bill is the first significant rates legislation to be proposed in many years and given the importance of rates income to the funding of local government, it is important to modernise the fundamentals of rates.

In summary, the Bill will modernise key aspects of the legislative code to make rates and the legislative basis of rates more transparent for ratepayers and streamline the process of the making of the rate within local authorities to improve efficiency and remove some of the archaic processes that do not fit with modern administrative practices. These include the two moiety system, which is still on the books, so to speak, in local authorities. In terms of the rates book, the provision which allows for electronic rates books in future is long overdue. The Bill will also improve local authorities' suite of collection tools to enable them to build on recent improvements in rates compliance, thus ensuring the levying of rates is fairer for all ratepayers and that those who pay on time are not subsidising those who delay or seek to avoid payment. It will protect a vital source of revenue for local authorities to ensure their capacity to continue to deliver vital local services for our citizens and businesses alike.

I thank the staff of local authorities for their input into the work supporting the development of the Bill. I also thank my staff and colleagues in the Office of the Attorney General for their hard work. This Bill will significantly improve the commercial rates regime for all concerned. I look forward to engaging with Members in the House.

I thank the Minister of State. I appreciate the opportunity to speak on this important legislation, on which I have received many submissions. I was impressed by the briefing I received from the Department. It is worth stating that much work goes into these issues and sometimes those who do the work are forgotten. Well done to the Minister of State's officials for the briefings we had with them.

This legislation comes at a time when we need a comprehensive discussion on local government funding. Reductions in central government contributions have resulted in local authorities becoming ever more reliant on local businesses for their revenue. Local authorities are responsible for local economic development and commercial rates can cripple some small businesses. Rates are, therefore, a big issue.

In 2019, business contributions will directly account for €1.55 billion, or 34%, of the total local government budget. That represents a 14% increase in the total value of commercial rates collected since 2010. Some €300 million in rates goes uncollected each year and only four local authorities have collection rates of more than 90%. These are Fingal County Council, Kilkenny County Council, which is the Minister of State's constituency, Roscommon County Council and Dublin City Council. A further 18 councils collected between 80% and 89% of their rates, seven collected between 70% and 79% and two collected less than 70%. Those differences are staggering.

As it stands, this legislation does not go far enough. I and my colleagues in Fianna Fáil support the principles of the Bill and will bring forward amendments to enhance it. I will have amendments, including on councillors, ready for tomorrow's debate.

The Bill should be improved by adding a further relief, staggering payment changes over a long period and increasing efficiencies in rates collection. The Government has spoken of overhauling commercial rates for years but it is only now getting around to doing it. For some businesses, these changes will come too late but if we do this right, we will be able to support businesses in our towns and counties and encourage the vibrant economies that keep this country competing globally.

New commercial rates incentive schemes are needed to encourage regeneration, entrepreneurship and staggered investments. The Bill implements some rate relief mechanism but does nothing to enhance collection efficiency, does not provide for the staggering of payments and will not comprehensively tackle the plight of rural towns, which is an issue I raise constantly with the Minister of State, particularly in respect of Carlow.

In the long run, the system should be reviewed by a new commission on taxation for business to ensure it is fit for purpose in the 21st century e-commerce environment. The current valuation process is leading to a dramatic shift in the rate levels businesses pay. This may be the difference between businesses staying open or going under. Fianna Fáil is proposing a number of measures to help alleviate the burden of commercial rates on businesses. I welcome the efforts in the Bill to consolidate and revise outdated elements of historical laws into a new Bill and to implement the introduction of a targeted rate and waiver schemes. I am a firm believer in waiver schemes and as a member of a local authority, I always knew how important they were.

The current revaluation process undertaken across nine counties is leading to a major rate increase for a wide number of businesses. Dramatic increases threaten to close vulnerable businesses. We cannot have a policy of closing businesses in Ireland, especially in rural Ireland, where the issue of commercial rates is felt most keenly. That is a very important issue to me.

Fianna Fáil is proposing that the level of increase to be levied on any one individual business be capped. Any increase should be allowed to be staggered at the discretion of the local authority over a five-year period. This will mean increases will be limited and spread over time and there will no longer be single large increases as is currently the case. I am sure the Minister of State has had many representations on this issue, which is significant.

We need to secure balanced regional development. We propose putting a rate relief scheme on a statutory footing to allow local authorities to reduce or eliminate rates on new businesses in town centres and rural areas for two years. That is crucial. Local businesses must be consulted on the development of the new incentive schemes. It is important that the Minister of State speak with businesses because they are the generators of revenue. Local government is merely the collection mechanism for us. Businesses that convert upper floors into accommodation should also be eligible for rates relief. We will work on providing such relief in this Bill to secure this goal. We hear daily about all these issues, as does the Minister of State.

Many businesses struggle with cashflow issues or short-term profitability problems. We propose putting in place a formal mechanism under which businesses would be able to appeal to local authorities to restructure debt payments on the basis of an inability to pay.

The Government should ensure that every local authority prevents job losses, allows for enhanced data collection and offers a choice of direct debit payments rather than two lump sum payments to help businesses cope with cashflow issues. That will save jobs, boost efficiency and help raise revenue for local services.

The revaluation process must be scrutinised, including the cost and timelines, which are far too slow. We must provide local authorities with the tools to enhance their relationship with local businesses, thereby creating an environment in which everyone is working together. That is crucial.

Recently, at the Business Picnic in the arboretum in Carlow, an important event in the calendar for businesses throughout Ireland, many speakers noted that teamwork and good staff are at the heart of businesses. Importantly, they pointed out that all the big online players are setting up bricks and mortar offerings to enhance their customers' experience. Bricks and mortar offerings require staff, create jobs and bring spending into the local economy.

We talk about the online shopping world undermining the real shopping world but if we all worked together on issues such as the future of commercial rates we would enhance local businesses and build the local economy, which in turn can build better communities. That has a ripple effect. However, we need to review the entire system in an era where, increasingly, shopping has shifted online because it is about achieving a balance.

We need to demolish the myth that commercial rates are the only revenue raising measure in a town. This week, I asked my local authority to consider my proposal of a loyalty card for Carlow which one would load up to pay for parking. That would allow one to spend money locally and perhaps enjoy special offers but, above all, pay for parking easily and efficiently, thereby creating a flexible parking charge system that encourages short-term stays, rewards return shoppers and removes disproportionate fines. I hope my idea will be considered. The Minister of State might back my proposal for a loyalty card, which I believe should be used by all local authorities.

I hope many ideas are considered so that we can increase our competitiveness together. We could talk about other ideas to generate new income in towns - for example, a renewed emphasis on buildings and use flexibility, a reform of urban design frameworks that utilise the archaeological framework of Irish towns, creating strong public transport links for ease of access and encouraging the diverse use of empty units by start-ups and community groups. We can also look at reforming retail planning guidelines, encouraging start-ups, inviting greater footfall on town streets and engaging in public flag projects to create safe, clean streets, ensuring that towns are inviting and are family-friendly areas at all times.

We need to look at providing greater access for those with a disability to our towns and cities and at generating more money in the local economy instead of sending everyone to shopping centres and large towns where the revenue is enjoyed by other citizens. We must engage with everyone. We must give businesses a say and give communities and locals a real voice in shaping the future of our towns. If we consider our towns in terms of value and providing value for money, we can encourage shopping locally because everyone will benefit. We will take Committee Stage tomorrow and I will table some amendments.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank his officials for holding meetings on this legislation, which I found very helpful. I learned more from them than I have done in many other places. I acknowledge their presence and thank them for giving us their time.

I acknowledge also the work of Ms Niamh Larkin who was responsible for a value for money audit on the Local Government Audit Service, specifically on commercial rates and local authorities. I recommend every Member, Minister and local government to read the document. There is a section on local councils. What is it about councillors? We elect councillors to hold the executive to account. Despite what chief executives or county managers might say, there is legislation that permits elected members to ask their chief executives about the write-off of rates every year and for them to produce a schedule and a list. Indeed, the legislation also provides for them to publish the schedule of defaulters in respect of rates. Why are we not doing so? We are talking about more powers for city and county councillors but they have powers. I recommend, as mandatory reading for every person involved in local government, the report by Ms Niamh Larkin, director of audit in the Local Government Audit Service, published in December 2018.

In particular, I reference the section which mentions section 26 of the Local Government (Financial Procedures and Audit) Regulations 2014, SI 226 of 2014 which provides for the production of a schedule of uncollected rates, reporting thereon to the elected members of the council and the option to publish a list of defaulters rather than the authority writing them off. Ms Larkin, the director of audit in the Local Government Audit Service, states there was no evidence of the local authorities publishing the list of uncollected rates and the ratepayers concerned in recent years.

Local councillors have powers to hold their executives to account on many issues but this is a particular one. Every chief executive must produce an executive order for write-offs. When we talk about payments, we need to look at the write-offs. Nobody, but nobody, should have a write-off that is not due to him or her. Good due diligence and auditing processes must be monitored to ensure nobody falls through the net. I am not suggesting anyone is writing them off but there need to be a good reasons, and councillors need to question them.

I am conscious this Bill is time sensitive and I will not go into all of that, as the Minister of State said it all here. The primary objective of the Bill is to have one single consolidated rates legislation. Rates are currently payable in two halves or moieties, as we call them, in the calendar year. This legislation will replace the flexible payments, and that is to be encouraged. I welcome the proposal to establish a new database that will be operated by the Local Government Management Agency. That is positive.

I acknowledge this Bill provides more powers to city and county councillors, which is a good. Under this Bill local authorities will be able to introduce rates alleviation measures to support specific issues and not just any issue, or making it up as one goes along. They will have to demonstrate that these alleviation measures are based on things like the objectives of Project Ireland 2040, local business and incentive schemes, as the Minister of State rightly pointed out, and support entrepreneurship and start-ups. All that is very positive. Local government has a mandate through its local enterprise office, LEO, operations to support enterprise, which is important. Elected members wanted that mandate and they now have it, so let them exercise that.

The Bill seeks to encourage and stimulate economic activity through commercial rates exemptions. I understand that applicable objectives will be detailed in new regulations, which the Minister of State mentioned. Perhaps he would engage on that and bring that matter back to the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government to tease it out because it is the statutory committee within the Houses that deals with that.

Elected members can vary the basic local property tax rates on residential properties by plus or minus 15% but through a proper consultation process. I have suggested that if there is to be any deviation or change to rates, there must be public consultation. We have got to be very clear. We cannot advantage someone and disadvantage someone else in business. That is important and I am interested to hear more on that.

The revaluation process conducted by the Valuation Office is too slow and too expensive, and lacks transparency. I am aware of an industry in the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council area where it was suggested the council would have lost about €2 million because there were no valuation certificates and yet the same council, which was also the planning authority, had every detailed square metre of that development because it had gone through a planning process so that is strange. This idea of having a temporary situation in place is right as we cannot lose revenue.

When we talk about rates, we must be honest about local government funding. We need an upfront honest debate on how we will fund local government. We can have all the local government reform we like but if we cannot put a sustainable funding mechanism in place, we are in real difficulty. I have looked at the rates bases of some of the local authorities and there is a very high reliance on retail. Should there be a downturn in retail, some of these local authorities would be in trouble.

The Bill provides a mechanism for local authorities to issue preliminary valuation levies and commercial values, which I welcome. Each local authority will retain control. I read the transcripts of the debate in the Dáil and Fianna Fáil suggested that the Revenue Commissioners might be brought in to deal with this. I did not know whether that was a joke but I noted the Minister of State's response. I think it is best that we leave local councils to deliver because they know best the people in their communities and towns. We need an imaginative approach where we can come to reasonable arrangements when businesses are in distress and support them in paying their rates.

It is time we had an ongoing debate on local government funding, but at a later date. IBEC and a number of business people made a number of recommendations, which I will quickly summarise. They suggested that we monitor the operations and powers exercised by local authorities as a result of this legislation, which is reasonable and fair. They suggested including published transparent statistics on the efficiency of collections. We have got to improve the collections but I believe elected members could do much of that by keeping pressure on their chief executives. They suggested that they implement a centralised shared model for commercial rates collection. That is something we should not write-off. If this does not work and we do not see an improvement in the collection of rates, we should revisit that at some point. They suggested that they publish draft regulations on the rates alleviation scheme, setting out the parameters. I think the Minister of State covered that.

In essence, this is a good Bill and I will support it because it is the right thing to do. It is not perfect and needs some more tweaking. Let us get on with this and improve the rates system, which this Bill attempts to do. However, there will be a time when we will have to go back and address the issue.

Will the Minister of State clarify the potential for, or the suggestion that, rates may be introduced for the bed and breakfast sector. I am totally against rates for the bed and breakfast sector, particularly that part of the sector associated with agritourism. It is critical that the Government is consistent about supporting rural villages, towns and communities and that we do not introduce a situation where we have commercial rates on family-run bed and breakfasts.

I welcome the Minister of State and his officials to the House for the Second Stage debate on very important legislation. I will comment on some of the contributions made by previous Senators.

I agree that we should have a wider debate in this House about local government funding and the issues surrounding it. With the demand for more services for citizens and more powers for local authority members comes more responsibility in respect of raising finances, be it through the collection of commercial rates or local property tax, to improve amenities and services. We already saw the controversies that ravaged this country over the past years when water charges were introduced to try to improve water services. We saw the resistance. It is all fine to have the debates and demands for improvement of services, but we must have responsible debate and responsible proposals as to raising the finances to fund them. I certainly have experienced strong resistance where we have tried to improve services in this country through raising property taxes or water charges. If we want more services, we have to know how we are going to fund them.

The Minister made reference to the Poor Relief (Ireland) Act of 1838. In 2013, I brought forward a Private Members' Bill to amend that Act. At that time, where a commercial property transfer was happening and rates were still outstanding, the bill for the rates did not transfer with the tenant or the person who was responsible but stayed with the property. I am glad that my Bill influenced the Local Government Reform Bill 2014 to address that anomaly. It is important that we continually evaluate and improve the system of collecting rates to reflect a modern society and the needs and demands of our local authorities and the people they serve. There is always room for improvement. Some Members outlined inconsistencies in the collection of commercial rates. In a fair system, we need a consistent method of collection of rates. I am sure that, like me, the Minister and Members have had businesses come to them complaining about the high cost of commercial rates. When people are not paying their dues in commercial rates, the charge will fall elsewhere. It is important that we have a fair and efficient system of collecting rates. This legislation is going some way to addressing that. Local authority performance is something we need to continually measure and monitor. The Minister and his officials have continuous engagement with local authorities in that respect. Where local authorities are lacking, this needs to be addressed. Commercial rates are just one significant element of the funding mechanisms for local authorities, which are needed to deliver essential services such as amenities, open spaces and public lighting. It is essential that we modernise the legislation, some of which goes back to the 19th century.

On how the rates system works, the Valuation Office is responsible for implementing and maintaining the rating system. It is quasi judicial. It is independent, almost, of any political policy or interference, which needs to be recognised. A few years ago, Waterford went through the revaluation process. It can be a highly stressful time for businesses. As we know and as others are learning, there are winners and losers in the revaluation process. We always hear about the losers but we rarely hear about the winners. Some commercial properties see a hike in their commercial rates but there are many others whose rates are reduced. It has to balance out. We seldom if ever hear about the winners in those circumstances. We need a more transparent way of showing when a valuation happens to avoid controversy. It is in the best interests of public service to show how the funding is being used that is collected through commercial rates and where it is being spent within the respective local authority areas. There is room for improvement here. On local authorities selling to their ratepayers, these are the people who are funding them. Rather than just going with the hand out and collecting the money, which is their responsibility as a local authority, I believe there is a responsibility on local authorities to show ratepayers and citizens how their money is being spent. It can be done through a simple system. It is done in other jurisdictions and we should look to introduce it here in a better way. For a system to be successful, it has to be fair and equitable. I know the Bill is attempting to achieve that. It has to be transparent but it also has to be sustainable. If people are not paying, for whatever reason, it certainly will not become sustainable. It goes against the grain of good will and the good principle of people paying their rates for better services in the communities in which they do business and indeed reside.

It is the responsibility and reserve function of local authority members to set the annual rate and valuations at their annual budgetary meetings. Often, as we all know in this House, those meetings can be a place of hot debate where priorities are set and funding is then required to meet those priorities. Sometimes this may require an increase in the commercial rates and sometimes it may not mean that. It is down to elected members to set the priorities in their respective local authorities and then set their annual rate and valuation which is used in the formula to collect money from the businesses that operate in those areas.

There was mention of an allowance in the legislation for a waiver scheme. That is a positive step but I would guard against its abuse. For political popularity reasons, I would be afraid that some groups in councils which I will not name might look for waivers left, right and centre. I do not think that is the intent of the provision. It is more for policy objectives within the council. For example, it might be applied in order to incentivise new businesses in an area of decline, which would be most appropriate. I would be interested to hear more detail about how we can target the provision to ensure that local authorities are using it for the correct reasons, not for political purposes to gain popularity by bringing in waivers for the sake of it but rather introducing them to target areas in decline and to stimulate economic regeneration and development. The Minister of State might be able to address that at a later stage.

We need consistency in revaluation through the Valuation Office. We need a balance to be struck, for example, on whether to collect rates on vacant properties. Some people feel it is unfair if the owner of the property is struggling to get a business in and the local authority is still trying to collect the rates. Others would argue that if there is not an incentive for them to get a business in, it will remain vacant. There is a bit of a stick and carrot approach and a bit of balance to be struck in that area. Some politicians have said that they wish for the local property tax to be retained in the area in which it is collected. I have a concern around that. The principle of equalisation needs to be upheld in terms of funding of local authorities. We have places like Dublin doing extremely well and creating an economic vortex where businesses are strong and financially viable. Then we have other regions where businesses are struggling and the rate collection is not as high. Weaker regions and local authorities need assistance from stronger areas. I ask the Minister of State to take that into account. We need to be careful. It is all very well to say we will change the funding in local government systems here but we need to be careful that we do not make the weak any weaker than they currently are.

Sinn Féin will be supporting the Bill on Second Stage. While it is limited in scope, it will ensure that commercial rates are collected in a manner reflective of what small businesses are capable of paying. A formal structure for that process is welcome to local authorities and business alike, I am sure. I remember as mayor of South Dublin engaging with many businesses that struggled to pay their rates. The council always maintained that rates would never make the difference between a business surviving or not but we know it is much more of a grey area than that. I will come to that in a moment

Commercial rates make up a third of local authority income. They can be burdensome for struggling businesses that want to be compliant. Seasonal businesses come to mind. We should do all we can to help. The alleviation scheme in particular would be of great benefit to businesses that are struggling and which might find that payment falls due at the wrong time of the year or during a disappointing quarter. They may wish to be compliant but the rigid system works against them. As Senator Murnane O'Connor mentioned, there are way too many boarded-up shops and restaurants on the main streets of our villages and towns, and even in the villages of this city. Senator Coffey was speaking about the urban-rural divide.

I have spoken before in this House about our really cumbersome licensing system. Nightclubs and late-night venues all across the State are closing to be replaced by hotels. We need to make licensing independent of the backlogged and costly courts system through which nightclubs and late-night venues currently need to go.

Unpaid rates are a hindrance to local authorities. Over €300 million in unpaid rates is lost every year. This money could enhance our communities and local authority services. Many local authorities offered relief during the financial crisis for the sole purpose of saving jobs. A progressive alliance of Sinn Féin and the Labour Party did so in South Dublin County Council from 2009 onwards. Local authorities are best placed to decide on such reliefs and they should continue to do so.

I concur with the remarks made about the valuation system here and in the Dáil. The current system needs a good deal of change in order to be fair and transparent and to allow ratepayers to interact with and have confidence in the system. I will leave it there. Sinn Féin will be supporting the Bill. A colleague of mine will be moving a short amendment in my absence tomorrow. We hope for Government support.

I am sharing my time with Senator Reilly. I will not take too long. I welcome this Bill. It is innovative. I will just bring up a couple of points about it. My father was a rate collector and, at that time, rates were levied on every property. It was the property tax of the time. I always remember the two moieties. Not every business can afford to pay its rates in one go. That has to be considered sometimes. The size of the business may not allow for it. That should be included in the Bill. The two moieties should not be disregarded. They are there to help small businesses.

I have a quick query. If someone owns a property on which I hold a long-term lease and my business goes wallop, leaving the property vacant, who pays the rates on it? According to the legislation, it would be me, but my business has gone wallop.

I like the idea of the power to limit annual rates evaluation. I was on Kildare County Council in the early 2000s. I always argued that rates should not increase by more than the rate of inflation, which was approximately 2%. The authority came in and said they should be increased by 10%. That adds to the costs for consumers buying products afterwards. It also contributes to inflation. I welcome the idea that the Minister will be able to use the whip on local authorities that decide to abuse commercial ratepayers. The key thing I want to say to the Minister about that is that it must be consistent across the country. It cannot be 1% in Waterford, 2% in Kilkenny, and 3% in Kildare. It must be consistent because the businessperson likes to know what is happening in that regard.

I will speak on the various parts of the Bill later, but I will quickly mention a couple of ideas now. There are an awful lot of charity shops in my own town of Naas. Charity shops pay lower rates. Many of these charity shops are being run as commercial businesses. Their CEOs' salaries are greater than that of the Minister of State. They should be charged rates because they are taking a property that would otherwise be available to a small business. All of these charity shops make Naas look like a ghost town.

What the Minister of State is doing will probably increase the collection of rates. Local authorities should therefore look at putting aside a rainy day fund because not all of those commercial properties will always be as successful as they are now. During the downturn local authorities came to the Central Fund with cap in hand. In the event of another such downturn, the Central Fund will also be suffering so the local authorities should establish rainy day funds to cater for times when their rates bases are diluted. I will speak on the various sections on Committee Stage. I welcome the Bill.

I thank Senator Lawlor for allowing me this opportunity. I welcome the Minister of State and the Bill. As we all know, rates are essential. I will raise a number of issues if I may. A public crèche does not pay any rates whereas a private crèche does. In Fingal there is a very young population, great demand on crèche spaces, and not enough crèches. Parents struggle to afford childcare. Should we consider allowing and encouraging such local authorities to offer rates holidays, starting at 0% in the first year then rising to 25%, 50% and so forth over time?

I welcome the provision in the Bill that allows local authorities to use the rates system to underpin Government policy. I particularly think of fast food outlets. A town in my constituency has 13 such businesses along the main street. These should face a higher rateable evaluation, particularly new facilities being opened near schools or educational facilities attended by kids.

I welcome the Bill's clear allocation of liability. Under the Bill a new tenant taking over from an earlier tenant will only be liable for rates from the point at which he or she takes over the tenancy, which may be in the middle of the year. That is clear and I thank the Minister of State for that.

Could the Minister of State elaborate on the provisions mentioned in the Bill to make rates collection on new premises more efficient? Could we also use rates to rid our towns of the many derelict dwellings to be found on main streets? This is a real problem in some towns in north County Dublin. I know that our spokesperson, Senator Coffey, would say that Dublin is flying but, no more than any other part of the country, Dublin is not uniform in its wealth or well-being. There are some towns that are really suffering from dereliction on the main street. We need as many levers as possible to encourage people to make such premises available to those who would like to occupy them, which would result in more business and traffic in the town, rather than leaving them sitting there on a punt that they may at some time be worth a lot more money than they currently are.

The Minister of State is very welcome, as are his officials who have done a massive amount of work on this legislation. I will raise a couple of points. People have been talking about the funding of local government. Local government has been struggling with regard to funding since the abolition of domestic rates without proper provision being made for other funding. If that balance had been maintained, local authorities would receive several hundreds of millions more in funding than they currently do. The abolition of domestic rates without a proper plan to replace lost funding has greatly undermined local government. It was done as an electoral gimmick and local government has suffered as a result ever since.

I will go through some specifics of the Bill. I did not have an opportunity to table an amendment on this issue, but I would be grateful if the Minister of State would consider it. It is about archives. I am concerned that no amendment to section 11 of Schedule 4 of the Valuation Act 2001 is proposed as part of this Bill. The relevant section as currently worded refers to, "Any art gallery, museum, library, park or national monument which is normally open to the general public and which is not established or maintained for the purpose of making a private profit." This definition excludes archive services which are open to the public and not for profit.

Many archives are exempt under the current legislation as they form part of a religious body exemption under section 7 of Schedule 4, an educational institution, for example, a university, with exemption under section 10 of Schedule 4 or a national cultural institute with exemption under section 12 of Schedule 4. However, this is not the case with archives of the local authorities. The local authorities are required to collect and make available the archives of records of local government, as enshrined in section 80 of the Local Government Act 2001. At present, local government archives are required to pay rates on their premises, which puts a burden on them. I will not ask the Minister of State to respond on this today and I am sorry I did not have an opportunity to mention it before he came to the House, but perhaps he would examine this before tomorrow and possibly consider an amendment to cover it. I welcome the fact that he is meeting the local authority groups on 16 July. We also have an amendment tabled in this regard and hopefully it can resolve the issue, which I would welcome.

As Senator Coffey said, we must be very careful about the urban-rural divide. I believe strongly in social solidarity and that the strong should help the weak. That is correct. It is easy to say that Dublin is doing very well but Senator Reilly is quite correct. My local village is a village of charity shops. They have been suffering badly. The recovery has been positive in many ways and unemployment levels have dropped, but people are struggling as well. While businesses in the local village in Ringsend have closed and the residents have fewer services their property charges will be increased, depending on what is accepted. They are quite hefty for an inner city community and a two up, two down property. One could have a mansion in rural Ireland with the property tax that is being paid in urban Ireland.

There are many arguments with regard to improved services and so forth and I accept some of those, but if we expect people to pay property tax to provide money that will be spent in the local area we must compare apples with apples and oranges with oranges. The maintenance of national primary routes was taken out of the central authority and put under the local authority without any compensation. In Kildare the national primary routes are supported by central taxation but they are supported by local property tax in urban areas. That is not counted. The grant levels to residents in cities, euro for euro per head of population, are less than those in rural Ireland. That must be accepted. One can go through the level of property tax and taxation raised per head of population and see that the return to people in urban areas is very low. I accept that there are costs and that one can get better value for money due to population density, but it is a little unfair of Senator Coffey to make a sweeping remark about Dublin considering what all of us have gone through.

I have said I support equalisation, but it must be done through central taxation if we want more people to pay and buy into local property tax. We must look at people who are earning huge amounts of money and can afford to pay the taxation to afford the equalisation. People who are living in terraced houses are paying huge property tax compared to what people in Donegal, Leitrim or Waterford pay. There has to be a little fairness in it.

I will support this Bill but I would welcome a proper debate, with facts and figures provided beforehand, on how we can develop proper supports for local government. Local government must be supported to provide services and it is best that there is a local property tax to pay for services and that when people pay the tax they see the services are provided. There must be social solidarity and an equalisation fund, but I believe that should be done through central taxation, not through an additional tier of taxation that is mainly imposed on residents in Dublin. I hope this Bill is passed quickly and I do not intend to delay it further. I would be grateful if the Minister of State would consider what I said overnight and if he will respond to me on it.

I welcome the Minister of State and his officials to the House to discuss the important issue of rates. By and large, I support the principle of the Bill but I firmly believe it is tinkering at the edges of an issue that is long past its sell-by date. There must be a root and branch review of the rate collection system for commercial property. The world has changed and, as other Members mentioned, retail business on the high street is not what it was. Online shopping and other developments have changed the traditional landscape of the high street and it is difficult to see it returning any time soon. Senators spoke about the struggles of rural towns. Unfortunately, there are many vacant units on many streets of our towns and villages. Urgent action is required to address the decline of rural towns. That is a separate debate and one we must have sooner rather than later, but it is linked to the debate we are having this evening on rates.

There is also the dark cloud of Brexit hanging over all of us. I have said many times in the House that no country will be more exposed to Brexit than Ireland will be. By the same token, no part of the country is more exposed to Brexit than the rural towns located in the Border counties from Donegal to Louth. A revaluation process is taking place at present in nine counties, one of which is Monaghan. Senator Coffey spoke about the confusion of businesses in respect of the revaluation process. Many business owners are left scratching their heads when they get a letter from the Valuation Office outlining their new rate. I have encountered many such examples both in Monaghan town and in small villages such as Newbliss. In Newbliss, a lady who owns a petrol station business built a sizeable extension to the business to improve the service to her customers. She now finds that her rates bill has quadrupled. If the bill presented by the Valuation Office stands, it could result in the business closing down in that rural town and the loss of jobs.

As I have said previously, people in Border towns are very exposed. Business people are very afraid of what the future holds for them. Border counties always have the challenge that other counties do not have with fluctuations in sterling and so forth. The rates revaluation in Border counties should be suspended until we know what the position is with Brexit. Those counties are struggling to survive with Brexit, not to mind the struggle of trying to come to terms with a revaluation process that is resulting in sizeable increases in rates bills for many business owners.

Senator Coffey made the point, and it is a good one, that many businesses do not see a correlation between the rates they pay and what they get in return. That is a big problem. In many ways, they see rates as simply another layer of taxation. They have their turnover and they go to an accountant to do up their books. The accountant will tell them they owe X amount of money to the Revenue Commissioners and they will try to pay it. On top of that, a rates bill comes through the door. They do not see a correlation between that and the services being provided. We have a job to do in terms of selling to the business community exactly what it is getting for its rates.

That is a big issue, because I spoke to an accountant who had a practice in Monaghan town who was just about surviving and no more. He lived next door to two public servants, and when he did some work for them, he found that their net income at the end of the year was greater than his. Yet he had a rates bill to pay whereas they did not. They were using more water, electricity and services than he was, but he still had a bigger rates bill at the end of the year, which he could not understand. We have a job of work to do there as well as on the transparency of the evaluation process for arriving at valuations, specifically in the small rural towns and villages scattered throughout the country. That is an issue. I accept that there are good things in this Bill, which I support, but we need to have a conversation about the future rate collections attached to businesses.

Tá fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit ag an Teach seo, agus tugaim tacaíocht don Bhille atá sé ag cur inár láthair. I support this Bill and think it is bringing us in a positive direction. A few important issues have already been mentioned by my colleagues, and I hope the Minister of State and his team take them on board.

It has been noted that the rates collection process should be centralised. The local council could still carry out the administration and set the rates, but the process of collection could be more complete. The percentage of collections would be greater if it were centralised, and a number of services provided by local councils are centralised already, so it should not be too difficult to do. Another factor to be considered is the Valuation Act 2001. Some parts of that Act still need to be executed, so that needs to be looked at. This Bill refers to amendments to parts of that Act. Parts of this Bill are both interesting and important.

I know from speaking to IBEC, the Small Firms Association, ISME, and others about this Bill, that small and medium enterprises, SMEs, are supportive of it in general. They support paying their rates and do not have a problem with that. What they have a problem with, which Senator Coffey mentioned earlier, is that some people are paying the rates and others are not. That is a big issue.

Senator Coffey also raised the issue of transparency in how rates are calculated. What are the differences between one rate and another? That transparency is critically important. IBEC has suggested that there should be reasonably significant corroboration in the setting of rates and the business communities that are paying the rates, which is a good idea. Last year, the rates received from local businesses amounted to €1.55 billion, which is approximately 30% of the total budget for local government. However, that changes significantly from one area to another. For example, it is clear from the SME report I and other Senators put together that tourism is important in counties such as Donegal and Kerry, while it is not as relevant for SMEs in Dublin, so we should take those factors into consideration. If there is a recession in tourism, places like Donegal will be hit much harder than places like Dublin.

In response to Senator Humphreys, my sense is that Senator Coffey was not talking about the divide between urban and rural areas but about something quite different. He was referring to the issues of particular businesses, regardless of whether they were urban or rural. That is my interpretation of what he said. There are challenges for both urban and rural businesses, but rates are an overall, collective issue. Paying a rates tax transcends the urban-rural divide.

Business people want to know what happens to the money they are paying, and right now, we do not know what is happening to it. I may be wrong about this, so please correct me if that is the case, but it appears to me that local councils look at their expenditures for the year and the revenues they can expect to take in that year, and make up the balance in rates. If that is the situation, we need to change it. I could be wrong, but that is my understanding of how it works.

As others have said, we need to have a good solid debate on the overall role of councils. Local councils should have more authority and control over their local areas, because they know those areas well. We need a full and frank debate on the future of local authorities. Local elections were held recently, and councillors receive a salary in the region of €15,000 or €16,000 a year, but they deserve much more for the work they put in. Go raibh míle maith agaibh.

I will try to respond to the issues that have been raised. Some of my answers might be specific, and I might attribute other issues to the incorrect Senator, so I ask people to bear with me.

Almost every Senator spoke in support of the basic provisions of section 15, which provides for the introduction of alleviation or waiver schemes. Senator Murnane O'Connor was the first to speak on that and much of her contribution outlined potential schemes, which I fully agree with. As someone who once served on a local authority, it always struck me that the basis of rate collection in Ireland was grossly outdated. It needed to be modernised to be more reflective of how businesses operate nowadays, and we needed proper alleviation schemes. Senator Boyhan and others also flagged the necessity for those schemes to target those deserving of alleviation.

Senator Ó Céidigh and others correctly noted that both business groups and individual businesses sometimes feel they are paying rates while others are not, and that is one of their biggest annoyances. The first question I ask when I visit local authorities is about the rate of commercial rates collection in that area. It varies hugely from place to place, and Senator Murnane O'Connor went through some of those variations in her contribution. I agree with her that we cannot have a policy of closing businesses, and that is why we are introducing a new power for local authority members to hold public consultations and devise alleviation schemes. It was probably not necessary in the past because prior to 1977, local authorities consisted solely of ratepayers, both commercial or domestic. In recent years, however, fewer commercial ratepayers have been elected as members of local authorities. That has led to a lack of understanding on all sides, whether from the point of view of the elected representative, the business person, or the local authority official, about where the other is coming from. As Senator Ó Céidigh said, there is often a sense from business people that when there is a gap to be plugged in local authorities' budgets, a bit of horse trading about rates happens to bridge that gap.

I agree fully with Senator Murnane O'Connor about the issue of parking fees. While local authorities have relied on them over the years, if they want to revitalise their town centres, they need to address parking fees.

Senator Boyhan referred to Ms Niamh Larkin's publication of comparisons within the local authority sector. It is well worth reading and provides some interesting statistics on the levels of rate collection. The story varies somewhat between local authorities.

During the recession, some operated what was, to all intents and purposes, an alleviation scheme of their own. A number of them have been mentioned. With businesses in their areas under severe pressure, they adopted a policy of showing greater understanding in the context of rates collection in order to ensure that businesses did not close, particularly in the teeth of those recessionary years. This had a significant knock-on effect. The contribution that commercial rates make to the running of local authority services is considerable. I agree fully with Senators' comments on the need for greater awareness and disclosure on the part of local authorities regarding where the rates moneys they collect are spent. I might return to this point.

Senator Boyhan asked a "Yes" or "No" question about rates applying to the bed and breakfast sector. A review of exempted properties is under way. Currently, guest houses are exempted. Many non-owner-occupied guest houses operate as small hotels. There is a loophole. I agree with Senator Boyhan regarding family-run bed and breakfast establishments. They should not be rateable. There are those operating what are effectively small hotels, though, and those are not rateable either. Any taxation system requires not just certainty, but a level of fairness. The ongoing review is considering this and many other issues. For example, our commercial rating system does not have a facility for calculating a one-off rate for an activity in a public space. I am thinking of some of the concerts that take place in Marlay Park or the Phoenix Park. If they occurred at a venue that was subject to a valuation, however, rates would be paid. Times have changed since the 1838 Act was introduced, and we must ensure that our rates and valuation legislation reflect that.

Senator Coffey is dead right about us never hearing about the winners in the revaluation process. I have not encountered many. The Senator also spoke about local authorities' annual budgetary process. The Irish Poor Law Act 1838 was almost religious in its undertones. It was about the landed class giving alms, as it were, to those who required upkeep in times of hardship. That is the basis of our rates legislation. The system of local government has changed since then, but the legislative basis on which rates operate has not.

The Senator asked me to address section 15. Its central thesis is that the waiver or alleviation scheme must be based on and linked directly to objectives in a plan, be it a local area plan, a county development plan or the national planning framework, Project Ireland 2040. It cannot just be decided on the whim of individual local authority members. Rather, the scheme must have a policy basis if it is to enter into practice.

Regarding Senator Warfield's comments, the Bill is limited in one sense. In another, however, it is the first substantial overhaul of how we collect our commercial rates that we have had in many years.

Senator Lawlor referred to how the two moieties were a good thing. As proposed, the Bill's provisions will allow for payment plans. Such plans exist in other areas of business. This will allow businesses to negotiate a process with local authorities in order to ensure that payments can be made at a time when, in the formers' view, they are in the best position to pay commercial rates. The Senator also stated that charity shops pay no commercial rates, but that is not true. The back office part of the shop is not rateable, but there is no exemption under legislation for their commercial elements. That is not to say that individual local authorities do not have different ways of treating charity shops, though.

Senator Reilly spoke about the difference between publicly-funded crèches and private ones. The alleviation scheme to be devised by each local authority can take that matter into account. The Senator raised a point about fast food outlets as well. If that is a policy objective of a county development plan or local area plan, there is no reason for there not to be different rate provisions for those types of business. The Senator also spoke about derelict dwellings. There are major variations in commercial rates between local authorities. Some, like Louth, have active groups of officials who ensure that CPOs on derelict dwellings are pursued as a matter of course. It is for each local authority to do. As a member of a local authority 20 years ago, I remember getting it to purchase two dwellings that had long been derelict on the main street of a village. They were used to house two families on the local authority's housing waiting list.

Senator Humphreys asked about archives. I will not be able to table an amendment tomorrow, but I have communicated with the archivists and the group in question. The ongoing Schedule 4 review, which is chaired by an official from my Department, is considering what types of building are exempt. I agree with what the archivists are seeking, as those operations - I will not us the word "businesses" - should not have valuations. This is why, when speaking about the Schedule 4 review, I stated that if primary legislation and changes on valuations were needed in the autumn, we would get them.

The Bill is time sensitive because there is potential for a number of local authorities to miss out in the next budgetary year on substantial revenues if some of the changes proposed in respect of utility reviews are not adopted. That is why I am not in a position to accept amendments. However, I can certainly take their spirit on board. If necessary, we will have the facility later this year to evaluate. Rates legislation and valuation legislation are essentially two sides of the same coin.

Senator Gallagher mentioned a filling station in his constituency. Several representations have been made to me recently in respect of the valuations on petrol forecourts and other operations. As Senator Coffey outlined, the Commissioner of Valuation is independent in the exercise of duties under the 2001 Act. The fuel retail sector is involved in ongoing consultation and engagement with the Valuation Office regarding the revaluation methodology for service stations in the context of the national revaluation programme. The Irish Petrol Retailers Association made two submissions to the Valuation Office in January and June and met the office on Monday, 10 June. A follow-up meeting is planned for July. This relates specifically to petrol forecourts. I share the view of most Senators that the lone petrol station in a rural village that acts as a one-stop shop - it is the local shop as well as the forecourt - is a different type of operation than the larger forecourts that exist on our national primary routes.

In the context of the discussion with the petrol retailers group, the Commissioner of Valuation has said that if inconsistencies are thrown up and if information can be provided by retailers to show overvaluation, then he is prepared to look positively at reductions in those valuations.

Like others, Senator Ó Céidigh asked for a debate on local authority funding. I would welcome that very much once we have returned in the fall of the year. To varying extents local authorities depend highly on commercial rates but there are other sources of funding too. Local authorities must be able to avail of new sources of funding in future to fund the vital services they provide. The Senator spoke about transparency in how rates are collected. My Department is investigating the current provisions relating to the publication of the schedule of uncollected rates by local authorities. Senator Boyhan made this point as well. While bearing in mind the risk of sullying the relationship between local authorities and ratepayers, especially those ratepayers in payment plans engaging with local authorities, and in consideration of general data protection issues, officials are examining the provisions around publication of a schedule of non-payers and whether amendment is needed in updated local authority financial and audit regulations. The same applies in respect of transparency in how money collected from commercial rates is disbursed by local authorities.

I think I have more or less answered all the questions. Senator Lawlor asked who was liable for commercial rates when a building is vacant. It is the owner. The occupier will be liable only for the portion of the year that he is in occupation of the building. The moieties are gone. The Bill allows for more flexible payment schemes. As I have said, charity shops are not exempt from commercial rates as things stand.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Committee Stage ordered for Wednesday, 10 July 2019.