by Tom Moseley
Belfast Telegraph
Saturday, 3 March 2012

The Secretary of State has been accused of snubbing an important debate on the future of Northern Ireland’s economy.

Owen Paterson was expected to attend a Westminster debate on Thursday night, but instead attended to constituency business.

There were no ministers from the Northern Ireland Office present — despite the fact that rebalancing Northern Ireland’s economy has been Mr Paterson’s top project since taking office.

North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds said he was “disappointed”, while Labour Treasury spokesman Owen Smith said the people of Northern Ireland would not be impressed.

Mr Paterson’s opposite number, Labour’s Vernon Coaker, sat through the three-hour debate. Speaking afterwards, he said: “It was both disappointing and surprising that the Secretary of State snubbed the debate.”

The minister’s aides said he had a pressing engagement in his North Shropshire constituency.

And a Conservative Party spokesman accused Labour of being “bereft of ideas”.

He added: “Owen Paterson has done more to put this issue on the agenda than any other living person.”

Exchequer Secretary David Gauke said Mr Paterson would read the debate on Hansard.

During the debate, Stormont Finance Minister Sammy Wilson said that Northern Ireland might not be able to afford a reduction in its corporation tax rate.

He said that if estimates of a £500m cost to the public sector proved accurate, the move would not be “fair or sustainable”.

The DUP man said that at the price quoted, the benefits would be wiped out by the short-term hit of a reduction in Westminster’s block grant to Northern Ireland.

Businesses are calling for the setting of corporation tax to be devolved to the Executive to allow it to compete with the lower rate in the Republic.

But it is proving difficult to ascertain the cost to the economy.

Responding, Mr Gauke admitted there were “significant challenges” in estimating the impact of a reduction.

Factfile

Obstacles to devolving powers to set corporation tax levels include working out how much of large companies’ business is carried out in each UK region, and the need to address any impact on other regions. Companies might also try to “artificially manipulate” the reporting of profits to benefit from Northern Ireland’s rate, the Government believes.

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