Press Association, published 18th September 2006

Business leaders in Northern Ireland entered the mounting row over rates reform today and called on the Government to cap domestic rates and introduce a discount for single occupiers.

After a week of public and political protest, the Institute of Directors came down on the side of the protesters.

The institute challenged Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain to say whether he really believed it fair some local homeowners would be paying bigger bills than London millionaires living in the best areas – or whether he just didn't care.

Chairman Frank Bryan said the organisation supported the principle of paying a fair price for public services but said the system the Government plans to introduce next April cross the line of what was fair and equitable.

He said: "The new rating system has revealed anomalies which will produce genuine cases of hardship".

"When – as has become clear – some local homeowners will be paying higher rates than millionaires living in the best parts of London, the question has to be put to the Secretary of State whether he believes the system is equitable – or does he not care?"

But while attacking the Government, Mr Bryan did not side with the local politicians, but said the rates issue highlighted the need for political progress.

Businesses were not interested in crocodile tears from elected representatives who had the means to resolve their differences and provide the leadership expected of them, he said.

"They work together in local councils and it is hard for the rest of us to understand why the Assembly is so different," said Mr Bryan.

Finance Minister David Hanson constantly made it clear last week that complaints were falling on deaf ministerial ears.

The official line from Stormont was that if people didn't like what the Government was doing they should pressure their MLAs to make a deal before the November 24 deadline for the restoration of the Assembly and for the local parties to them take responsibility for issues like rates reform.

by Ian Graham, PA