I have spoken with my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary on this matter. The Government remain fully committed to reinstating the aggregates levy credit scheme in Northern Ireland. The Treasury is in regular contact with the devolved Administration to co-ordinate the provision of evidence to the European Commission to support a new scheme.
I thank the Minister for that reply. He will be aware that the withdrawal of the scheme is having a severe impact on a hard-pressed sector in Northern Ireland. It is also having an impact on the public purse in its effect on capital expenditure. As well as talking to the Treasury, will the Minister consider together with the European Commission whether a recasting of the overall agricultural levy scheme could help to get Europe round its undue hang-ups?
The hon. Gentleman signed the early-day motion on this matter tabled by the leader of his party, the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), who is in her place. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has twice met Gordon Best, the director of the Quarry Products Association, and we are seized of the importance of this industry to Northern Ireland and of the unfairness with the Republic. All I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that the Treasury is continuing its negotiations with the Commission and that the proper place for suggesting ideas is through the Treasury to the Commission. The Government remain committed to addressing this very serious—
I represent an area that contains seven quarries which employ more than 100 people and generate a multi-million industry that exports to all parts of the globe. Will the Minister confirm that he will work industriously with the Northern Ireland Executive and, indeed, the Treasury to ensure that the exemption for the quarries continues in the near future?
It is quite handy having the Chief Secretary to the Treasury here to listen to Northern Ireland questions. We should try to arrange for it to happen more often.
The Government remain very disappointed by the suspension of the aggregates levy credit scheme, but, although disappointing, it is unavoidable. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about his constituents in Strangford, but this does not affect only Strangford; as I have said, the industry is important throughout Northern Ireland. We are in a difficult position, but I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are working closely with Treasury Ministers, as indeed are the Executive in Northern Ireland. The Finance Minister himself discussed the matter recently with the Economic Secretary to the Treasury.