HC Deb 15 July 1980 vol 988 cc1351-9
Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

I beg to move amendment No. 217, in page 114, line 27, at end insert 'section 146 and Schedule 25'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we may take the following amendments:

  • No. 248, in Schedule 25, page 209, line 29, at end insert 'and Northern Ireland'.
  • 1352
  • No. 258, in page 213, line 40, after 'Wales', insert 'and Northern Ireland'.
  • No. 265, in page 219, line 44, after 'Wales ', insert 'and Northern Ireland'.
  • No. 266, in page 220, line 2, after 'Wales ', insert 'and Northern Ireland'.
  • No. 267, in page 220, line 5, after 'WALES', insert 'AND NORTHERN IRELAND'.

Mr. Powell

We have now arrived, unawares so to speak, at a whole new and important topic—that of the enterprise zones. One might almost have read the Bill, so deftly is it drafted, and not have noticed that the enterprise zones were in it at all. They occupy of the text of the Bill—[Interruption]—I see that this is not a secret which I have probed for the first time—only two lines.

As has been known in other legislation, all the meat is in the schedule—in this case, schedule 25. Of that form of drafting, which may have its convenience, though it is on the face of it surprising, I make no complaint; but when we come to clause 156 we find that the all-important clause on the enterprise zones, clause 146, is not one of the clauses that apply to Northern Ireland. Thereby hang a number of considerations which I believe are of more than local importance. Indeed, they are of constitutional importance.

The creation of the enterprise zones will inaugurate fiscal and other privileges in the areas that are contained in them. The remissions of taxation that are involved—that is, the tax benefits—are considerable; indeed, they are the most important single aspect of the enterprise zones, which is why the enterprise zones featured in the Budget speech itself on 26 March. It is, therefore, though not wholly a fiscal provision, substantially a fiscal provision; for a provision, as we well know, which remits taxation, or relieves of taxation, is just as much a taxing provision as one which imposes it.

Curiously enough, although those tax benefits will be conferred by the Finance Bill, when it becomes law, the definition of those upon whom they are to be conferred is not contained in the Finance Bill. Paradoxically, the Finance Bill grants remissions but does not itself indicate to whom, specifically, those fiscal benefits are to inure.

For that we have to look to the Bill now before the House, which provides the ways and methods by which, in Great Britain, the enterprise zones will be constituted. So only by taking together this Bill when it becomes an Act and the Finance Act when it is on the statute book shall we have both the creation of the privileges and the definition of those who are to benefit by them.

That is not so in Northern Ireland, The enterprise zone—if there is to be one—in the Province will be defined not under the provisions of this Bill but by a different machinery altogether, under modalities of which hon. Members and others in Northern Ireland have been informed by a communication from the Northern Ireland Office, but which differ in some important respects from those that will be applied to Great Britain by the provisions of schedule 25 to the Bill.

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My submission is that that is an objectionable feature in principle. In this short debate I am anxious in no way to trench upon the constitutional debate about the future Government of Northern Ireland. I have no difficulty in avoiding doing so, because, as far as I know, it is unchallenged that tax affairs and fiscal provisions, under any conceivable arrangement by which Northern Ireland could be governed as part of the United Kingdom, are imperial subjects. Upon the face of it, it is only just and right that the laws of taxation that cover all the Queen's subjects throughout Britain should be contained in the same instruments and applied and enacted in exactly the same way. I claim that there is an impropriety in the arrangement whereby the Finance (No. 2) Bill will open the door to fiscal privileges in Northern Ireland, but those who will be allowed through the door will be defined and groomed under different provisions, and subjected to different conditions from those applying to the enterprise zones in Great Britain. My first plea therefore is that the provisions in the Bill should be applied to Northern Ireland by an appropriate amendment to the application clause.

I wish briefly to consider the practical effect of that. In Great Britain, the prac tical initiative in the creation of an enterprise zone will lie with the relevant local authority. If hon. Members will look at the first paragraph of schedule 25 they will see set out the bodies in England and Wales—and, we propose to add, in Northern Ireland—that are to be invited to prepare a scheme under the schedule. It is true that the ultimate initiative, the invitation, proceeds from the Secretary of State; but the practical proposals are wisely and properly to be left in England and Wales to the local authorities, who should be in the best position to advise and to set out the form of a scheme.

It would not be a draftsman's pun if the words "district council" were, by the proposed amendment, applied also to Northern Ireland. There are district councils in Northern Ireland too. The House may be surprised to learn that there is a district council—its technical description is such—that is specially concerned with the mooted enterprise zone in Northern Ireland, namely a zone in the city of Belfast. Technically the city of Belfast is a district council.

In the most friendly manner I defy the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, whom we welcome to the Treasury Bench for this debate, to stand up and assert that the city of Belfast would be less well equipped to prepare a scheme for an enterprise zone than any other authority that could be nominated, including, with all respect, the Secretary of State himself.

We are to have a debate tomorrow morning in the Northern Ireland Committee in which we shall be able to examine in more detail the tentative proposals of the Secretary of State for the Belfast enterprise zone. Nothing that I wish to say trenches upon that debate. I am concerned with the principle that just as much in that Province as in any other part of the United Kingdom it should be the people who know, the local authority, who should be entrusted with the duty—given that in principle there is to be an enterprise zone—of saying how it should be bounded and constituted and for what purposes and in what way it should be organised.

The Minister and I know that in Northern Ireland the district councils, even so distinguished a district council as the city of Belfast, do not possess certain powers which are exercised by district councils and other local authorities in Great Britain. Perhaps the function of planning could be mentioned as one particularly relevant in this context. But the Minister will also be aware that in practice for many years in Northern Ireland, by a procedure which is certainly beneficent, the district councils are invariably consulted by his Department on all planning decisions, and that it is the rarest thing for a planning decision finally to be given by his Department which does not carry the approval of the relevant district council. Indeed, we in Northern Ireland are now separated only by a paper-thin partition—though some of the thinnest partitions sometimes prove to be the most impenetrable—between consultation and executive authority. For practical purposes it is the district councils in Northern Ireland which already have the decision on planning matters.

I hope that the Minister of State will not ride off by saying that there is not a true analogy on both sides of the Irish Sea because neither the city of Belfast nor any other district council in Northern Ireland actually possesses the planning powers, technically and statutorily. I ask him to admit that, for all the purposes that are requisite in drawing up these schemes, the city of Belfast is as well equipped and as democratically constituted as any local authority on this side of the Irish Sea. My hon. Friends and I would therefore argue strongly that it is not merely a matter of constitutional propriety that schedule 25 should apply in Northern Ireland as in Great Britain, but that there would be great practical advantages in its doing so. The Secretary of State and the Government might well be saved thereby from certain blunders.

The second difference to which I want to draw attention relates to the order-making power. I have in mind paragraph 5 of the schedule, under which an order is to be made which, at the end of the preliminary procedure, will designate the enterprise zone. Here in Great Britain, this is to be done. by statutory instrument subject to annulment"; but with Northern Ireland excluded from the schedule, as at present, the enterprise zone will be set up in Northern Ireland by the fiat of the Secretary of State. It is true that the order by which he does it will be laid before Parliament, but unless I am much mistaken—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—that order will not be subject to any parliamentary procedure whatsoever.

Once again, I do not want to trench, and do not need to trench, upon the well-trodden ground of the difference, under direct rule and the 1974 Act, between order-making procedure in Northern Ireland and the statutory instrument regime in Great Britain. I submit that that is not relevant, simply because we are here dealing with a United Kingdom matter; we are dealing with taxation, the remission of taxation, and with the definition of those who are to benefit by it.

The proposition which I put, and to which I would invite the Minister to address himself, is that it is plainly unconstutional—I go further than saying that it is improper—that those matters should be decided in one part of the country by a ministerial order which attracts no parliamentary action at all, when in the rest of the kingdom the order that brings them into effect is subject to parliamentary procedure.

I submit, therefore, on behalf of my hon. Friends and myself—indeed, on behalf of the Province of Ulster—that we are fully entitled to be brought within the procedure for the creation of enterprise zones which is to be enacted by this Bill, and that practical advantages would flow from doing that as well as constitutional propriety being satisfied.

The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Philip Goodhart)

As one might have expected, the right hon. Member for Down South (Mr. Powell) raised a number of important and interesting constitutional points. There are basically two reasons why the Government cannot accept the amendment.

First, it has been the policy of successive Governments during direct rule to legislate for Northern Ireland by Order in Council, under the Northern Ireland Act 1974, on matters which would be the responsibility of a Northern Ireland Assembly and on which there is already a separate body of Northern Ireland law.

Clearly, there has been discussions about the best legislative means of implementing enterprise zone policy. The test that was used was to ask the question: would it be appropriate to return this issue to a devolved Assembly? The answer to this question was "Yes". It was thought that the non-fiscal element of the enterprise zone legislation, along with most other local government planning and land matters, would be returned to such an Assembly.

The right hon. Gentleman will understand that I do not want to reopen Wednesday's constitutional debate but, given the possibility—or probabality—of returning to devolved government, we believe that it is appropriate to legislate for Northern Ireland in this field in what might be called the normal way, namely, by framing an order containing provisions corresponding to clause 146 and schedule 25. That order is now being prepared.

Secondly, as the right hon. Gentleman said—and he is as aware of this as anyone in the House—the powers of district councils—

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

Before the Minister leaves the previous point, may I point out that his argument related entirely to the non-fiscal aspects of the enterprise zone arrangement. Surely he and the Government realise that what takes place under this schedule includes the fiscal with the non-fiscal, and that that is the whole burden of the argument which I put before the House.

Mr. Goodhart

That is an interesting argument, and I am told tentatively that there are examples, particularly in housing—I refer to mortgage relief—and that there are precedents for that way of approaching the matter. But I have not had time to check those precedents, and therefore I have not mentioned them to the House.

9.15 pm

I return to the district council side of the right hon. Gentleman's argument. The powers of district councils in Northern Ireland are different and are much more limited than those of local authorities in Great Britain. While I would not challenge the competence of members of the Belfast city council in any way, I say that it is clear that it employs a smaller staff, and does not command the expertise in this area that local authorities in Great Britain command.

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman paid tribute to the responsiveness of the planning staff of the Department of the Environment and noted how often the Department accepted the advice of district councillors on planning matters. That is wholly right. But the ultimate responsibility is and must remain with the Department of the Environment.

I have, of course, already discussed the enterprise zone question formally with the appropriate committee of the Belfast city council, and I have discussed it with the Belfast co-ordinating committee, on which the council is well represented. I have no doubt that I shall be discussing the issue with it again.

To give the Belfast city council direct power to devise an enterprise zone scheme would be a constitutional change of some significance, which should be introduced not by the back door but as the result of an amendment to the Bill.

Mr. Gerard Fitt (Belfast, West)

Is the Under-Secretary of State aware that tomorrow in the Northern Ireland Committee we shall be discussing the subject of the enterprise zones? The attitude that he is now taking is that the matter is a fait accompli. Even if the 12 hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies take an opposing view to that of the Government, they will be listened to, but the decision will have been taken tonight.

Mr. Goodhart

With due respect to the hon. Gentleman, we shall discuss at some length tomorrow in the Northern Ireland Committee the shape and scope of the enterprise zone. I am anxious to hear the hon. Gentleman's view, just as I am anxious to hear the views of other hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies. There is room for considerable flexibility on that matter, but there is no room for flexibility on the question of how we should legislate on the matter.

By legislating in the way suggested by the right hon. Gentleman, we would be introducing a considerable constitutional change regarding district councils. I understood the right hon. Gentleman to be wholly opposed to extending the powers of district councils in this way. Therefore I look forward to the discussion that we shall have in Committee tomorrow morning. Meanwhile, I cannot advise the House to accept the amendment.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

It is obvious from what the Minister said that there is a constitutional issue which he recognises has not yet been fully resolved. He claims to be aware of certain partial precedents for the remarkable thing that we are doing—namely departing from the principle of fiscal legislation applying to the kingdom as a whole. Fiscal legislation under direct rule or under any conceivable devolution would apply directly to Northern Ireland as to other parts of the United Kingdom.

This is a matter which in subsequent stages of the Bill will need reconsideration and the Government will need to answer the questions which have been posed tonight. Therefore, it would perhaps be more appropriate for the amendment to be negatived than for me to seek to beg leave to withdraw it.

Amendment negatived.

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