The Northern Ireland economy faces similar challenges, but recent history also means that it faces a different set of circumstances compared with the rest of the UK. That point has been made by a number of speakers, including the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson). Although the years of peace following the Good Friday agreement have seen prosperity on the rise in Northern Ireland, it still faces a number of difficulties. The Government are concerned that employment in Northern Ireland is overly reliant on the

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public sector. Private sector employment in Northern Ireland lags considerably behind the rest of the UK. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that whereas 61% of people aged 16 to 64 are employed in the private sector in England, only 45% are in the private sector in Northern Ireland.

However, I am optimistic about the future of Northern Ireland. As we have heard, Northern Ireland already attracts a large share of UK foreign direct investment, and that is generating new employment. The Government, and in particular the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, have been tireless in promoting more opportunities for private sector growth and employment as part of our commitment to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy. I doubt if there have been many, if any, Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland who have shown the focus and energy that the current Secretary of State has on that point. Indeed, he made an important speech this week on that very subject.

Vernon Coaker (Gedling) (Lab): Where is he?

Mr Gauke: I am sure the Secretary of State will enjoy reading this debate in Hansard. I do not think that a good test of a Secretary of State is whether they read the debate in Hansard or whether they sit mute during the course of a three-hour debate.

The Government have established a joint ministerial working group on rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy, consisting of Ministers of the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive, to consider issues raised by the consultation. We are committed to working with the Northern Ireland Executive to promote a more sustainable, private-sector led recovery in Northern Ireland. Of course, the issue of corporation tax is a key consideration when it comes to supporting private sector growth.

Analysis in the “Rebalancing the Northern Ireland Economy” consultation document shows that reducing the corporation tax rate in Northern Ireland has the potential to increase investment there. Furthermore, devolving any tax rate varying power must satisfy the Azores criteria, as a number of hon. Members pointed out. The Azores criteria are in the European Court of Justice judgment on Commission v. Portugal, which set out the conditions that need to be met to be compliant with EU law and, as noted in the Government’s consultation paper, it is expected that Northern Ireland would meet the Azores criteria of institutional, procedural and fiscal autonomy.

However, although strong support has been shown in favour of corporation tax devolution, it has not been unanimous. The process presents its own challenges in the form of administrative burdens on Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and businesses to ensure compliance. Designing a devolved regime is likely to be difficult and it will take time and involve extensive consultation with business. Bespoke rules are likely to be needed to cover a range of situations and forms of income, as well as a series of transitional rules. Furthermore, there are significant challenges in estimating the impact of corporation tax devolution on revenue, a point raised by a number of hon. Members, including the Chair of the Select Committee.

One issue with estimating total corporation tax revenue in Northern Ireland is that the only geographical data that companies currently provide is the address of the

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country where they are registered, which may have no relationship to where their activity is undertaken. My hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury raised that point both this afternoon and in the Select Committee’s report, questioning why HMRC and the Treasury do not have the figures. An accurate system would depend on companies operating in Northern Ireland supplying apportioned data on profits, losses, expenses and allowances. For some, that would be simple; for others it could be costly and administratively burdensome. At present, there is no need—indeed, no point—for them to do so. That is why the numbers are estimates, rather than based precisely on what profits can be attributed to Northern Ireland.

Further costs associated with a reduction in corporation tax rates for Northern Ireland include the behavioural effects that could arise from a difference in corporation tax rates between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK; for instance, through profit shifting, where companies artificially manipulate transactions so that their taxable profits arise in low tax jurisdictions, or tax motivated incorporations, meaning that companies adopt incorporated status to reduce their tax liability. The impact of those behaviours has the potential to be significant. “Rebalancing the Northern Ireland Economy”, states that indirect tax effects could be considered when calculating the adjustment to the block grant, as long as doing so complied with the Azores criteria and the UK fiscal framework; the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) raised that specific point. As the report recognises, designing an appropriate mechanism presents a number of significant challenges, and considerable work is needed to consider the issues involved.

The Government agree that further work is required for forecasting the potential costs of implementing a reduction in the rate of corporation tax in Northern Ireland and the type of systems that could be introduced to allow it to be monitored. Possible mechanisms will be looked at by the working group that was set up by the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive. However, no decision has been taken on whether to allow such effects to be taken into account in the event that corporation tax is devolved and the rate reduced. The working group had a meeting in December and there is another meeting next Wednesday, 7 March. I look forward to seeing the Finance Minister once again at that meeting, and I hope we can make progress on working together to assess the costs in this area.

Several responses to the consultation pointed out that devolution of corporation tax responsibilities could pose risks to relatively deprived regions elsewhere in the UK. The Government will need to consider that before taking a decision on whether to devolve corporation tax powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly. For instance, the issue of how a lower Northern Ireland rate might be ring-fenced in a manner that balances protection from avoidance or manipulation against burdens on companies will be considered further as part of the work plan. Here, as in the other devolved Administrations, the Government are seeking to strike a balance. We want to ensure the empowerment of all devolved institutions. At the same time, however, we must maintain the success of the shared economy on which all countries of the UK depend. We need to ensure that any proposals support the competitiveness of the UK by maintaining

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incentives for businesses to trade, invest and be headquartered in the UK, while not imposing unreasonable burdens on them.

Air passenger duty was raised by a number of hon. Members. Last summer, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report into air passenger duty highlighted the unique geographical position of Northern Ireland, which of course shares a land border with the Republic of Ireland. It went on to note the serious effects of competition from substantially lower rates of duty in the Republic of Ireland, which threatened the viability of direct services between Belfast and the United States in particular. As the Committee observed, direct long-haul flights make an important contribution to the Northern Ireland economy, supporting trade and tourism.

The Government agree that direct long-haul services are vital to the future prosperity of Northern Ireland. In September, we took the decision to announce a cut in APD for direct long-haul flights from Northern Ireland. That change took effect from 1 November 2011. We have also reflected on the views expressed during the APD consultation, which ran until December last year. The Government of Northern Ireland are very clear in their desire for aspects of APD to be devolved, to provide a lasting solution to the unique challenges they face. In a direct response to that request, and in the unique circumstances that apply to Northern Ireland, on 21 February 2012, the Government announced that the power to set APD rates for direct long-haul flights departing from Northern Ireland will be devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, under the 2012 Finance Bill.

Additional points were made about scrapping APD on domestic flights. We have to bear in mind that we have a very big deficit. We have to be careful about reducing taxes. If we reduced or scrapped APD in such circumstances, it is difficult to see how it could apply for Northern Ireland only, and one has to take into account the overall cost. The Government response on APD is very clear. Devolution will allow the Northern Ireland Assembly to protect the crucial air link to the US, and offer a real chance for new long-haul services, which will support both business and tourism in Northern Ireland.

On other tax measures, in addition to corporation tax and APD, the Government will continue to consider the feasibility, legal constraints, potential timetable and impacts of other tax options. They include capital allowances, R and D tax credits and an employers’ national insurance holiday, all of which received support from some respondents to the consultation. Several suggestions were made about the administration of individual measures, which the Treasury and HMRC will consider alongside other submissions on those policy areas. The joint ministerial working group programme will also consider those alternative tax measures alongside its main focus on corporation tax.

Specific measures were referred to in the debate. On the aggregates levy, there are ongoing discussions with the Commission. We expect a European Court of Justice judgment later this month, but I assure hon. Members that the Government remain committed to finding a solution.

The carbon price floor is a UK issue, but I know that there are particular concerns in Northern Ireland. The Economic Secretary is working on those matters, including

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in the context of Northern Ireland. We heard a point about VAT—about targeted reductions for tourism, home renovations and so on. Both of those, if applied nationally—or, indeed, a general cut—would be very expensive. As has to be explained from time to time to the official Opposition, it would result in more borrowing, which the Government do not wish to see.

The Government have introduced a number of UK-wide measures that have benefited Northern Ireland. They include cuts in the headline rates of corporation tax, increases in the employers national insurance contribution thresholds, and increased R and D tax credits for small and medium-sized enterprises, as well as reforming the enterprise investment scheme and the venture capital trusts scheme to help provide access to finance. On the point about access to finance, we will say more in the Budget in a few weeks’ time, but I hear the comments made by a number of hon. Members.

I appreciate that we are running out of time. I have not been able to address every point that has been raised during the debate, but I stress that it is vital that the Westminster Government and the Northern Ireland Executive continue to work together to restore the entire UK economy to prosperity.

Mr Dodds: Will the Minister address my point about regional aid and the consultation by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on assisted areas in Northern Ireland?

Mr Gauke: We are working with ministerial colleagues, and the whole Government are seeing what we can do. The right hon. Gentleman has made his points clear; they are on the record and we hear them.

The Government are working hard to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy. A ministerial working group is meeting next week to discuss many of the issues raised here today. We look forward to working together over the coming months to find the best way to meet hon. Members’ concerns.

5.40 pm

Mr Laurence Robertson: I thank all hon. Members for taking part in a useful debate, and I thank the Minister for replying. I will be brief.

I know how the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) feels when he sees buses, bits of which were made in his constituency, going down Whitehall. I felt the same when I saw propellers, made by and large in my constituency, on various aeroplanes taking me to different parts of the world recently, including Hong Kong, Vietnam and Nigeria. That reinforces in me the idea that high-spend, high-tax economies are things of the past: if ever they had their day, they do not have it any more. We live in a competitive world. The only way that we will retain prosperity in the UK—in Northern Ireland and anywhere else—is by being competitive. That will not be achieved by spending more money than we earn.

Although the Minister has correctly outlined some of the difficulties in devolving the responsibility for corporation tax to Northern Ireland, I am convinced that they can be overcome. Nothing worth while is ever easy.

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The option, of course, would be to reduce the corporation tax rate in the UK to 12.5%, which would be acceptable and simple to do. In the absence of that policy in the Budget—I imagine—the Minister needs to consider seriously devolving to Northern Ireland the power to vary the corporation tax rate. The hon. Member for

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Pontypridd (Owen Smith), who spoke for the Opposition, is right. As I said, it is not a silver bullet, but it is a golden opportunity.

5.43 pm

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).