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Robinson hits out at civil servants for delay on tax

The First Minister has again blamed the delay in devolving corporation tax-setting powers to Northern Ireland on civil servants in Westminster.

Speaking to senior members of the Northern Ireland business community on Wednesday night, Peter Robinson pulled no punches in his assertion that Treasury civil servants have been putting obstacles in the way and delaying the consultation process between the Executive and Westminster on the issue.

"There are those in the Treasury who are absolutely determined - in fact I'm not sure there are any in the Treasury who are anything other than determined - to stop Northern Ireland from getting this power," he said at law firm Tughans' summer reception in Queen's University's Riddell Hall.

Mr Robinson made similar comments at a gathering of business leaders in London at the end of last month where he said the civil servants in the Treasury have "a mind of their own".

The main rate of tax paid by businesses across the UK stands at 24% but there has been a push by business organisations and the Executive for tax-setting powers to be devolved from Westminster so that this rate could be reduced to 12.5%, in line with the Republic's.

Mr Robinson, who would like to see corporation tax reduced even further to 10%, said he felt there was political support to devolve tax power at cabinet level at present, much more so than compared to a previous attempt to devolve tax powers when he was finance minister and had been in consultation with the then Chancellor Gordon Brown.

Then, the Varney Report carried out by Sir David Varney, a Permanent Secretary of the Treasury, said the costs of a cut to corporation tax here might have no prospect of being recovered in the long run.

"By the appointment of Varney it was very clear that by having someone from a Treasury background that it was foregone outcome. Now we have a different set of circumstances because we have a ministerial working group representing the Executive who are supportive of having power devolved, as are the Northern Ireland Office and the Secretary of State."

But there concerns amongst some in the pro-corporation tax devolution camp who are worried that by targeting civil servants in the Treasury, Mr Robinson is in fact further impeding the decision making process.

Mr Robinson said the final decision will rest with the cabinet and that the Executive is pushing to have it made this summer, although even if a positive outcome emerges it may be some time before corporation tax setting powers are actually devolved given legislative and practical issues. But the First Minister said: "I'm not terribly worried about when we get the power, as long as we get it. Then we can go to companies in Northern Ireland and tell them to plan for the next five years, plan for the next 10 years on the basis of lower corporation tax."

The last meeting of the ministerial working group is due to take place on Monday. He doesn't expect a recommendation to emerge but will continue to press the cabinet for an answer.