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Northern Ireland MLAs call for fuel-tax relief

By Steven McCaffery

Northern Ireland should benefit from a fuel duty relief scheme currently helping motorists in parts of Scotland, the Assembly has said.

Parties hit out at the Westminster Government's three pence rise in fuel duty, as Northern Ireland is already burdened by some of the highest petrol and diesel prices in Europe.

Sinn Fein called for the Executive to seek the devolution of the power to set the fuel tax but unionists voted through a compromise, asking instead for the existing relief scheme to be extended.

Daithi McKay said all politicians accepted that the difference in fuel prices on either side of the Irish border placed local motorists and fuel traders at a disadvantage.

"British Government policy is not set, in regard to this matter, with the interests of the people and businesses in the north as a priority. I think that is quite clear," said the Sinn Fein representative.

"It is more about businesses in places like the south of England than the petrol station owners in Newry and Derry, and that will always be the way."

However, the DUP's Simon Hamilton said: "No one doubts that Northern Ireland drivers are paying amongst the highest price per litre for petrol and diesel in the whole of the UK. But why lobby for something that HM Treasury are unlikely to entertain when a more realistic alternative that would cost us nothing is available?

"We are calling for not just a halt to the planned duty increase in August but also the introduction of a scheme similar to the pilot in operation in Scotland, which reduces the price per litre by 5p at no cost to the Scottish Executive.

"Aren't we better pursuing a scheme that HM Treasury has already agreed to in principle for elsewhere in the UK because of how peripheral the Hebrides and Northern Isles are?

"We can also argue that such a scheme could help raise revenue for the Treasury as it could help address the millions they are losing each year because of smuggling and fuel laundering.

"The DUP wants to see fuel prices fall and take some of the burden off drivers, but what Sinn Fein are suggesting simply doesn't make sense."

The alternative proposal won majority support after the Ulster Unionists also raised concerns that devolving the power could hit the block grant from Westminster.

The SDLP had called for a commission to assess the devolution of further fiscal powers, including fuel duty.

Traditional Unionist Voice MLA Jim Allister said republicans were intent on cutting all ties with Britain and that was the driving force behind such economic policies.

Mr McKay said price hikes were hitting motorists but were having a devastating impact on hauliers.

"In terms of the figures that come from research in regard to the amount of fuel duty that is generated here, research shows in 2008-09 that £921 million was generated through fuel duty here," he said.

"And in comparison, to place that in context, corporation tax that year garnered £711 million.

"If we can see the economic benefits of negotiating corporation tax powers, then why can we not see the benefits of a parallel situation where other economic powers such as fuel duty can be devolved?

"At the moment fuel duty revenue is apportioned here to the north, according to its proportion of consumption. So I think there is room to enter into negotiations to secure that."

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