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Mr. William Ross: I do not know how far back the provision dates, although I suspect that its genesis can be found in 1920. However, we have come a long way from the Government of Ireland Act 1920, and since that time, several attempts have been made to set up devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, and devolved institutions have successfully been set up in Wales and Scotland. If the provision has for a long time applied to Northern Ireland, why does it not now also apply to Scotland and Wales? If it does not apply to Scotland and Wales, there can be no good reason for its continuing to apply to Northern Ireland. Given that we now have uniform systems in the three devolved regions, is it not time that all parts of the kingdom were treated exactly the same in terms of the collection of taxes?
Mr. Letwin: I hope that it will not be regarded as churlish if I follow up a point that is necessarily retrospective. This year's Finance Bill, like last year's, contains many clauses--other than those that deal with the aggregates levy--in respect of which the notes on clauses are genuinely helpful and explanatory. However, it is symptomatic of the way in which the aggregates levy has been presented that, in addition to the drafting of the provision being--perhaps necessarily--dense, the notes on clauses are a masterpiece of the gnomic. There is nothing that explains anything that cannot be seen on the face of the Bill--indeed, I venture to say that they are a genuine waste of paper.
I imagine that that regrettable situation is rooted in the same cause as the provisions as a whole--namely, that the measure has been produced on the trot and as a result of some late decision taken, much to the industry's surprise, suddenly to implement the aggregates levy. Presumably, there was stuff sitting on a shelf somewhere ready for production after the announcements made in previous Budgets, and when someone suddenly said that the provision was to be introduced, it was taken down at high speed. That is the charitable explanation for the fact that the notes on the clauses dealing with the levy, unlike those on many of the other clauses, tell us nothing. It might also be the charitable explanation for the fact that, even though it was the only new tax that he was introducing, the Chancellor did not mention it in this year's Budget statement.
'except that, when any tangible moveable property which would not be regarded as aggregate for the purposes of this Part is imported, it shall be aggregate to the extent determined in regulations by the Commissioners.'.
'"United Kingdom" means the United Kingdom except Northern Ireland.'.
Amendment No. 24 would exempt Northern Ireland from the tax. I have no doubt that my Friend the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) will have something to say about that. Aggregate is taxed in its basic form when it is used for commercial exploitation in this country. It is also taxed in its pure form when it comes into this country to be used for that purpose. However, it is not taxed when it is imported in products such as pre-cast concrete. We are concerned that pre-cast concrete will be made in the Republic of Ireland and then imported easily into Northern Ireland without liability in respect of the aggregates levy.
Pre-cast concrete is only in small part cement, but it contains a large proportion of aggregate, so the House should be under no illusion but that a substantial amount of aggregate is involved. The same applies to ready-mixed concrete, which has a life of about an hour and a half, so its range of movement is about 20 miles by road. One can therefore assume that the entire 20-mile strip along the Northern Ireland border will become an aggregate-free zone, as pre-cast and ready-mixed concrete is imported from the Republic.
Amendment No. 26 seeks to draw attention--I confess that it does so fairly deviously--to the importation of asphalt from Normandy. As I said, ready-mixed concrete has a shelf life of about an hour and a half. Asphalt has a life of about 36 hours, and is rather like ready-mixed and pre-cast concrete, as it comprises a small amount of bitumen that glues together a large amount of concrete. It is used for making roads. We are advised that it is perfectly feasible for asphalt to be made in northern France and shipped into this country with substantial savings. Indeed, we are told that that already occurs.
The Financial Secretary said earlier that the transport costs would offset the impact of the levy, but that will certainly not be the case in Northern Ireland. He hinted that he would say something about Northern Ireland, and I hope that he will do so. We are also advised that if sufficient quantities of asphalt are imported from northern France, it will be far more economical to use such materials than to pay the tax in this country.
Mr. David Heath: Although the amendment rightly deals with imports to the United Kingdom, does the hon. Gentleman accept that exactly the same arguments apply to exports of concrete products? There is a double effect in relation to such products, as not only the levy but the transport costs to which he referred must be paid. That causes a distinct competitive disadvantage.
Mr. Ottaway: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. If I remember correctly, the matter to which he refers was dealt with in an amendment that will not be considered because of this stupid guillotine business to which we have been subject. There is no credit when aggregate is exported in pre-cast concrete products.
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) will have much to say about these matters, and I hope that the hon. Member for East Londonderry will also make some comments. As time is short, I shall sit down and make way for others to speak.
It was almost impossible to include our intentions in an amendment to an interpretation. That is a ridiculous way in which to proceed with such an important matter. We would have liked to debate a new clause which set out our intentions properly. However, the Government decided to timetable the proceedings, and we have therefore had to use the device in the amendment. I hope that the Financial Secretary will not stoop to claiming that a problem arises from the odd casting of the amendment. That is his responsibility, not ours. We do not stand by the amendment's words; if he wants to take away the point and include it in another provision, that is fine. We are trying to protect many jobs, and I shall discuss that shortly.
I want to explain the reasons for the problem. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) rightly pointed out that we are dealing with a symmetrical problem of export and import. We are also tackling the problem of competing with imports--import substitution--and the ability of our exports to compete with home-produced items elsewhere in the word--export substitution.
The amendments deal with only half the problem, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said and my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South acknowledged. It is clearly our intention, and it ought to be the Government's intention, to deal with the whole problem.
The problem is acute, but I get the impression from the responses that we have received from the Financial Secretary throughout the evening that he does not think that that is the case. He is not given to the practice, to which some Ministers and other hon. Members are occasionally given, of making things sound as though they are all right when he does not think that they are. I have, therefore, a real worry that he is being completely honest when he says that he does not think that there is a problem. I think that he is wrong, and if he is convinced that there is no problem, it is unlikely that he will change the text, however wrong it is.
I hope that I can begin to open the Financial Secretary's mind sufficiently, so that the discussions with the industry to which he referred will be treated by the Government not in the spirit of an annoying delegation that needs to be batted away, but a genuine inquiry to discover whether the industry passionately believes, as I do, that there will be a real problem, and whether the industry is probably right because it has done its sums.