Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300 - 311)



300  I would like to receive those figures more formally.

  (Mr Gibson) I would imagine they are already in the Library. If not, we will make sure they are. They are part of our normal two-year census of employment in Northern Ireland.

301  This is a formal request to have them extracted! Thank you.

  (Lord Dubs) We will make sure that those figures are sent to the Committee.


302  We are coming up to six o'clock. You have been extremely patient and very comprehensive in your answers. There are one or two loose ends I would just like to pick up before we close. This is not something which has been previously covered. I would just like to ask Lord Dubs to remind us how many crossing points of the border there are which could in fact sustain a loaded tanker?

  (Lord Dubs) Chairman, I do not think I know that. I am going to look to my officials to see whether they know.

  Chairman: It can be added to the information being given to Mr McWalter.

Mr McWalter

303  We have seen evidence of loaded tankers going down what are called boreens in Northern Ireland so I think the answer is going to be rather large!

  (Mr Gibson) I suspect there are a large number, but if we can get any tangible information for the Committee we will certainly send it to you.


304  There are two loose ends in terms of evidence which the Economic Secretary gave in relation to information which we had earlier been given by Customs & Excise and I would just like to clear them up while we are all together. I think at a very early stage in our examination the Economic Secretary said that differential duty rates were not permitted under EU law.

  (Ms Hewitt) There would have to be a derogation.

305  That qualification resolves it. If I may say so, the original statement avoided being categorical.

  (Ms Hewitt) Forgive me. It must have been later in the discussion I did refer to the issue of derogations and the ones that existed for Member States that, as it were, brought those differentials with them into membership of the EU.

306  I was not thinking simply of the differentials which were brought in at the time of the original negotiation. I will tell you what Customs & Excise told us: "The United Kingdom would have to apply for a derogation under Article 8(4) of Directive 92/81. No derogations have been granted to permit reduced rates to be applied in particular regions other than those agreed during the course of negotiations of the Directive itself." I acknowledge that, and you have answered it by saying that we would have to apply for a derogation.

  (Ms Hewitt) We would have to apply for a derogation. No new derogations have been granted.

307  There are Italian examples in addition to the Greek island ones which you gave us.

  (Ms Hewitt) Yes, I think they are Italian and I think there is a French derogation and the Greek one, but no new derogations have been granted and I do not think there is any prospect that even if we applied for one we would get it.

308  I want to go back to the exchange you had with Mr Hesford about the French scheme, where I had the impression you were not being encouraging about the ability to apply the French experience to Northern Ireland.

  (Ms Hewitt) No, I am not particularly encouraging. In essence the difficulties are exactly the same as for the Dutch scheme. It would primarily be a matter for the Northern Ireland Office and Northern Irish ministers to decide in the light of competing resources because any scheme of this kind is going to cost money and the question then is what is a lesser priority which money will not be spent on, or less money will be spent on, in order to make the resources available. The Dutch scheme I have looked at in somewhat more detail than the French scheme.

309  So far as the French scheme is concerned, as I understand it they have requested a derogation for reduced rates of excise duty on diesel used by commercial vehicles for 12 tonnes or over up to a particular level of annual consumption. So you would acknowledge that a derogation could potentially occur? I say that because Customs & Excise advised us in their own memorandum on February 18th that provided the same terms were available to anybody buying fuel in France, in other words of other nationalities, "this would not offend any state aid principle because it is not of regional benefit."

  (Ms Hewitt) I believe that is correct.
  (Lord Dubs) I think the French scheme is not regional, it covers the whole of France and I think there would be some difficulty in principle in applying that sort of scheme to Northern Ireland.

310  I was not seeking to suggest that that would be a recommendation. I just wanted to make sure that we were clear on the facts in terms of the answers which we had been given.

  (Ms Hewitt) The test is always does this constitute an illegal state aid.

311  Customs & Excise advised us that in this particular instance it would not. My third observation is an observation and not a question, but it does go back to the unwillingness of Ministers to meet delegations until very recently. I cannot be absolutely certain, but I think it was on March 24th that Mr Ingram told me that no delegation had at that time been seen by any Northern Ireland Office minister. So we are talking about a development which really has only occurred in the course of the last three months or so. This Committee, just as we would not claim any credit for the Customs & Excise seizures before we called upon them, believes strongly in the Chinese principle that there is no limit to what we can achieve provided we do not mind who gets the credit! We are not in any way suggesting that it is our questions which have led to a greater willingness of Ministers to see people from the outside world. I believe I am right in saying that the CBI have published a statement this week saying that in fact what we have been talking about today is now beginning to have an effect on the Northern Ireland economy and that simply underlines the importance of the inquiry to us as well as to you. I am conscious that a coincidence has occurred and I really have no way of knowing whether Mr Gibson is pleased about it or not, but I believe I am right in saying that Mr Gibson retires from the Northern Ireland Civil Service at the end of this week. Whether he would have liked to have been somewhat other than here today I cannot tell, but because he has given evidence to us on a number of occasions, this Committee would like to wish him a very happy retirement from the Northern Ireland Civil Service and to express our appreciation for the way in which he has given evidence to us in the past.

  (Mr Gibson) Thank you very much. I have always been well received and I have always enjoyed the verbal interchange—I think battle would be the wrong word! Thank you very much. I appreciate that.

  Chairman: We are extremely grateful to you both for coming together on the same day and we particularly appreciate the way Lord Dubs fielded a series of questions in an area which is not his natural responsibility.

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