HC Deb 23 October 1973 vol 861 cc1199-203

2.56 a.m.

The Minister of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. David Howell)

I beg to move, That the Finance (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1973 (S.I., 1973, No. 1260), a copy of which was laid before this House on 30th July, be approved. This order is a purely financial measure to effect changes in some Northern Ireland taxes—estate duty and stamp duty—which were normally dealt with in Northern Ireland legislation, although under the new Constitution Act these matters will be handled at Westminster. It also contains some miscellaneous financial provisions. The most significant of the tax changes have been enacted for Great Britain in the Finance Act 1973. The remainder are minor amendments to bring Northern Ireland legislation on estate duty and stamp duty into line with Westminster legislation.

The order was made on 27th July under urgent procedure, was laid on the 30th, and is already in operation. The contents of the order could not be finalised until July because of the possibility of late amendments during the passage of the Finance Bill here at Westminster for which provision might need to be made in the order. That proved to be the case in relation to a certain amendment.

It was important that certain of the provisions in the order, particularly those concerning stamp duty, should be in operation on the same date on which the corresponding changes in Great Britain were to come into operation—that is, 1st August. There was no choice but to use the urgent procedure, caught as we were in the delay until the passing of the Finance Bill and the need to get the stamp duty in operation by 1st August.

At this very late hour I will confine myself to a brief description of the contents of the order. On estate duty, the major change—this is in Article 3—applies to shares and securities quoted on a recognised stock exchange or to holdings in authorised unit trusts. Where, in relation to deaths occurring after 6th March 1973, any person accounting for estate duty on such investments realises them within 12 months of the death, he will be able to claim that the total of the sale prices should be substituted for the values at death of the investments realised. This parallels a provision in the Finance Act here.

A further important change—this is in Article 4—is a provision enabling all information which a prudent prospective purchaser of unquoted shares and securities might reasonably require if he were proposing to purchase them by private treaty to be taken into account in determining the principal value of those shares and securities for the purposes of estate duty. This again parallels a provision in the Finance Act at Westminster.

Apart from these changes, the order also extends the powers of the Ministry of Finance—Article 5—to accept objects of historic or artistic value in satisfaction of estate duty and to make provision for exemption from estate duty to be granted in cases where a member of the Armed Forces dies as a result of the aggravation by war service of previously existing disease—that is in Article 6.

Finally, in this part of the order, it preserves the operation of existing estate duty law in relation to overseas pensions formerly paid by the Governments of territories which have ceased to be British colonies. That is Article 7.

Stamp duty, companies capital and loan capital duty are replaced by a duty on share capital chargeable at the rate of 1 per cent. That is covered by Articles 8 to 10, and again it is in line with our Finance Act.

The more important miscellaneous provisions in the order are concerned with removing doubts about the powers of Northern Ireland Departments and other Northern Ireland public bodies to borrow abroad, and with removing the existing limit on the amount of investment grant which can be paid in Northern Ireland to any one firm in any one year. There is, in fact, no limit in Great Britain, so this provision brings Northern Ireland into line with Great Britain. Those two items are covered by Articles 11 and 15.

There is provision in Article 14 that attendance allowance shall be omitted when calculating reckonable income for the purposes of rate rebate, again bringing what is a relatively new rebate system in Northern Ireland into line in this respect with Great Britain.

Finally, technical amendments are needed to clarify references concerning the Stock Exchange in existing legislation and to clarify the borrowing powers of the Ministry of Finance. Those are covered by Articles 12 and 13.

3.1 a.m.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Leeds, South)

We opposed the Finance Bill when it went through the House, and, if we were logical, I suppose that we should oppose this financial order for Northern Ireland. However, it is inappropriate that we should do that. The House knows our views on the Finance Act.

On the additional provisions relating to Northern Ireland, I simply observe that, whatever happens about the Assembly and the powers to be transferred to the Assembly, we in this House shall shortly have to put our minds to debating matters of finance applying to Northern Ireland. It would be inappropriate that I should do that tonight. We had our views on the Finance Bill, and we prefer to let the matter rest at that.

3.2 a.m.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

The Minister made clear that the matter before us is not one which would be discussed in the Assembly and it is a matter for this House. Taking a dig at me, perhaps, hon. Members have rightly said that my protest would have been stronger if I were supporting the undemocratic Northern Ireland Constitution Bill. But on this matter they cannot argue that way, because it will be reserved to this House.

This is an important order, and there are matters in it which were opposed by the Opposition on the Finance Bill, but, at a few minutes past three in the morning, I do not think that anyone—not even an incorrigible Ulster Protestant—would attempt to keep the House long in its deliberations. But this I do say. In future, when the House of Commons has to consider matters which cannot be discussed in the Assembly, a way must be found to give us reasonable opportunity to amend and to oppose things with which we do not agree.

The Government will have to pay close attention to that, for if—I do not say for a moment that it will happen—we have a viable Executive and a viable Assembly, the matters discussed in this House must be dealt with in a democratic fashion. It is certainly not democratic, at five minutes past three, to say "We cannot enter into argument tonight, and even if we did we could only vote against the order". I do not think that any hon. Member would want to vote against the provisions in this order, which are helpful to the people of Northern Ireland.

There is one part of the order that I welcome—the exclusion of the attendance allowance when reckoning income for rate rebate. That provision will help the working-class people of Northern Ireland. I am glad that it is now part of the law of Northern Ireland.

I should like to know in which foreign market the Minister suggests that borrowing will take place. There is reference to borrowing in sterling or foreign currency. What foreign currency has the Minister in mind? Where will he borrow money for the various Northern Ireland projects? I shall be interested to know that, especially in reference to the question put in the previous debate about foreign interests coming into Northern Ireland. I should like to know whether we shall borrow in the Japanese market or the German market.

I hope that the next time we discuss the finances of Northern Ireland we shall have an opportunity of a full-scale debate. I welcome anything that brings Northern Ireland into parity with the rest of the United Kingdom, however, so I give my blessing to that part of the order.

3.7 a.m.

Mr. David Howell

I am grateful to hon. Members for the way in which they have received this order. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) has a point when he talks about the time at which we are debating these important financial matters, which will remain the responsibility of Westminster once the Constitution Act comes into effect. We were all dismayed at the course that events took this evening and the way in which debates about procedure tilled in time which we had hoped we might take up on this most important matter. I accept my hon. Friend's point as a fair one.

As to foreign currency, I am not in a position to tell my hon. Friend the precise market, but I am assured that foreign market currency is available for this kind of borrowing, once doubts are removed about the legal powers of the Northern Ireland Assembly and other public bodies in Northern Ireland to borrow. Given the removal of these doubts, all these bodies will be in a position to borrow, and I understand that they will be able to do so.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Finance (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1973 (S.I., 1973, No. 1260), a copy of which was laid before this House on 30th July, be approved.