The Bill, as everybody knows, gives statutory effect to the taxation provisions which I announced in the budget on 27 January. As I promised to do in the course of the corresponding debate last year, I have circulated an up-to-date Explanatory Memorandum with the text of the Bill. The memorandum contains a detailed description of the provisions of the Bill, taking account of the amendments which were made in the course of its passage through the Dáil. I hope that this will facilitate the Seanad's discussions on the legislation.
Before I comment on the main provisions of the Bill I would like to avail of this opportunity to review briefly for this House the Government's overall economic strategy, to summarise recent financial and economic developments and to say something about the Government's approach to the important and topical question of tax reform.
Since the Government came to office they have made clear that policy would be focussed on the closely-related objectives of improving the public finances and revitalising the economy. The two objectives are inseparable. The crisis in the public finances which the Government faced on taking office had to be resolved if the economy was to be put right. We realised that, unless confidence in the Government's ability to manage the public finances could be restored, there would be a bleak outlook for investment and, in turn, for growth and employment, which depend so crucially on investment.
The recent ESRI commentary has highlighted that, for a number of years past, the level of private investment in the country, and especially investment by indigenous business, has not been high enough to support the rates of economic growth we need. How could this be otherwise, against the background of massive interest rates and the debilitating debt burden that had resulted directly from the crisis in the public finances?
We are not, therefore, concerned with solving the budgetary and debt problems merely for their own sake, as some kind of a detached or clinical exercise in accountancy. Tackling these problems is, rather, an essential part of the solution to our overall economic problems. It is a necessary condition both for protecting living standards in the future, which could have collapsed if the debt problem had been allowed to grow, and for creating the investment and jobs which are so badly needed, given the scale of unemployment and the social and economic pressures that it involves. Those who try to present a choice between "dealing with the budgetary and debt problem" and "creating growth and employment" are presenting a false choice. They are, in fact, two sides of the same coin.
This is why the Government are determined to pursue the overall strategy they have laid down from the outset. This involves action on various fronts — not just in the area of the public finances — to create the right conditions in which investment and growth can occur. As well as the all-important intangible factor of confidence, to which I have referred, this strategy requires a strengthening of the competitive position of the economy, so as to boost exports, and securing low interest rates, so that business can hope to obtain a realistic return on its investments. In addition, there is a comprehensive programme of development to build up various sectors of the economy and exploit our natural advantages.
It is now clear that 1987, the first year in which this strategy was put to the test, was a year of considerable economic achievement. Despite the tough budget, GNP grew by over 4 per cent, one of the best growth rates in the EC. Industrial production rose by 10 per cent and exports grew by 15 per cent in volume terms. The current account of the balance of payments moved into surplus for the first time in 20 years and inflation-fell to almost 3 per cent — its lowest level since the mid sixties. Interest rates tumbled to their lowest level in ten years. This was a major turnaround from the situation a year previously.
I am confident of continuing economic progress in 1988. Already this year inflation has come down further. Interest rates have also fallen again. Exports are growing strongly, and the trade surplus has increased. Private investment should also advance significantly this year. There is, in fact, recent evidence from the Confederation of Irish Industry that this is already happening.
Earlier in the year, I expressed the hope that real GNP would again show some positive growth this year. The indicators to date, although they are still few in number, support our assessment of economic prospects. Indeed, some economic commentators have become more optimistic in recent months. I note that the ESRI, which in January anticipated that GNP would simply hold its own in 1988, has marked up its forecast to about 1 per cent, and holds out the hope that we could do better. The latest unemployment figures also show a move in the right direction. All this is encouraging but, as I have said, we cannot lose sight of the fact that sustained growth and all-important job-creation depend, above all, on resolving the basic problems of the economy, particularly those of the public finances.
Senators will be aware that the Exchequer returns for the first quarter of 1988 showed that this year's budget targets were firmly on course. I am glad to be able to report that the latest available information confirms that this is still the case. I am resolutley determined that there will be no slippage. By the end of the year we will have reduced Exchequer borrowing by five percentage points of GNP as compared with 1986. Impressive progress has thus been made towards stabilising the debt burden on the economy.
As the Central Bank has pointed out in its latest annual report, there is still, however, some considerable way to go. The level of debt, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of national output, will continue to increase in 1988. We would, therefore, be fooling ourselves if we felt that the borrowing and debt problem could now be relegated to the back burner.
Determined efforts are still needed to achieve our immediate goal of stabilising national debt as a percentge of GNP. This will represent a watershed and will provide somewhat greater room for manoeuvre in budgetary policy. But simply to hold the debt stable may not prove an acceptable or tenable goal for the longer term. This could leave the economy and public finances exposed to external factors, such as changes in interest rates and exchange rates and swings in the economic cycle. In the long term we must work towards bringing Ireland's debt level back towards the norm in other countries. It is for these reasons that a sizeable budgetary adjustment will again be needed in 1989, entailing further sizeable expenditure cuts. Expenditure reviews, aimed at achieving these savings, are already in train.
The success achieved by the Government to date in bringing the public finances under control has prompted renewed interest in the possibilities for tax reform. This is only as it should be: our rates of taxation, especially income tax, are far too high. They have depressed initiative and growth in the economy. Our problems in this regard have been brought into even sharper focus by the income tax reductions that have recently taken place in the UK.
The tax changes in the Finance Bill represent a significant start on the road to tax reform. The Bill provides for a major extension of income tax bands, as well as increases in personal allowances and exemptions, which will ensure that every income taxpayer in the country will benefit. The full year cost of £152 million is hardly insignificant in our circumstances. Concessions on this scale would have been unthinkable a year ago. There is also a major revamping of the corporation tax code, in line with the changes taking place internationally. We have radically overhauled the collection and assessment arrangements, in the interests of a fairer and more efficient system. As well as the changes in the Bill there is, of course, the extension this year of the social insurance system to include the self-employed.
These major changes are being made without interfering with essential progress in reducing the level of Exchequer borrowing. Reform of the tax system must be achieved without adding to borrowing and debt. At a time when we are still borrowing nearly £1,500 million simply to pay our way, we cannot vote ourselves large tax reductions without finding the resources elsewhere — whether by way of additional expenditure cuts, over and above what will be needed anyway to continue progress on the budgetary front, or by a broadening of the tax base. Any other approach would simply not be credible or feasible.
The debate on tax reform must, then, be undertaken on the basis of careful costing of proposals and specific suggestions as to how they are to be financed. If people are in favour of eliminating some of the existing reliefs — such as mortgage interest relief, VHI relief, life assurance relief or exemption of lumpsum retirement amounts — they should say so. Equally, specific suggestions for measures to broaden the tax base should be advanced. The impact on different sections of the community, especially the least well-off, must also be looked at. This is the only meaningful way to achieve constructive debate on tax reform.
I want to emphasise that I will welcome such dialogue. Having made a notable start this year, despite the constraints on us, the Government are determined to achieve further tax reform as quickly as possible. We have shown that we are prepared to make decisions in this area. Talk of all-party committees on tax reform is, at the end of the day, merely a recipe for fudging and indecision. The Government have the courage to take the initiative and this they are doing. I can assure this House again that we will achieve the necessary reforms without any weakening of our targets for the public finances since this is the only way that real, lasting tax reductions can be secured.
The proposals for harmonisation of indirect taxes in the European Community, as part of the completion of the internal market by 1992, will have an important bearing on the restructuring and reform of our own tax system. The Government have made clear that they are fully committed to the internal market project which should bring significant benefits to the Community.
We have participated positively in the various EC fora which have been considering the EC Commission's tax proposals to see if an agreed package can be drawn up. I took part last weekend in the informal meeting of Finance Ministers at which tax harmonisation was a major topic. Discussions will continue in coming months.
It has, of course, been necessary for us to count the cost to the Irish Exchequer of the Commission's proposals as they stand and it is necessary to be realistic in terms of what this would amount to. The figures I have quoted on various occasions — £470 million in the first year and £350 million annually thereafter — are realistic and take full account of extra tax buoyancy as well as extra spending power in the economy which would result from lower indirect taxes.
However desirable lower taxes might be in principle, the loss of revenue on this scale would add to our very serious budgetary problems and cannot be ignored. I have drawn attention to this in the discussions at the weekend. There is not just the revenue loss. Important economic and social consequences are also involved in the major structural changes which would accompany the new rates of indirect taxation. All of these aspects are being considered. I will now turn to the principal provisions of the Bill.
Sections 1 to 3 implement the income tax changes announced in the budget. Senators will be aware that these arose from the Government's commitments under theProgramme for National Recovery. The changes will, as I have said, cost an estimated £152 million in a full year or £91 million in 1988. By contrast, reliefs costing just over £30 million in 1988 would have sufficed to fulfil the Government's commitment for this year. On a cumulative cost basis, too, the Government have gone far beyond what was promised in the programme: this year's reliefs will cost more than £400 million over the next three years, compared with the £225 million undertaking given in the programme.
The PAYE allowance is being increased from £700 to £800, while the 35 per cent rate band is being extended by £1,000, from £4,700 to £5,700 in the case of a single person and by £2,000, from £9,400 to £11,400, in the case of a married couple. On top of this, the Bill provides for increases in the personal allowances of £50 for a single person and £100 for a married couple, with comparable increases in the widowed, widowed parent and single parent allowances. I should mention in this context that, following a commitment I gave during the debate on last year's Finance Bill, section 3 provides that widowers taxed under single assessment in the year in which they are bereaved will be put on the same footing as widows in similar circumstances and will be entitled to the equivalent of the married personal allowance in that year. Finally, the Bill provides for increases in both general and age exemption limits.
Other items of importance are dealt with in the remaining sections of Chapter 1. Section 4 renews the £286 PRSI tax allowance for the current year, while section 5 provides for a special arrangement in regard to crediting farm tax paid in 1986 against income tax over a three year period. I accepted an Opposition amendment to this effect in the Dáil in order to honour a commitment made by the previous government. Section 6 abolishes the prohibition on part time directors and employees from participating in the approved share option scheme provisions of the Finance Act, 1986.
I would draw Senators' attention also to section 22 of the Bill. The purpose of this section is to exempt, from tax, payments made under the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, now called the Enterprise Scheme. Senators will be aware that the aim of the scheme is to assist people on the dole to set up their own businesses. In the absence of a specific provision to exempt payments under the scheme from tax, the Revenue Commissioners had, in accordance with general and case law, been treating the payments as trading receipts and, therefore, liable to tax. Following an Appeal Commissioners' ruling on the matter, the tax treatment of scheme payments had been under consideration and I am happy to tell the House that I have decided to exempt them from tax altogether. Section 22 provides accordingly and will apply to payments made since the beginning of the scheme.
Section 8 of the Bill gives effect to the extension of the deduction at source system for certain fees paid to medical professionals under health insurance policies. Senators may recall that in my Second Stage speech to this House last year I indicated agreement with the principle that the withholding tax should be applied to payments to medical personnel under health insurance policies with the Voluntary Health Insurance Board. I pointed out, however, that there was a problem since the payments were made directly by the VHI to the insured person rather than to the medical professional and I indicated that I would look at the position to see what could be done.
After consideration of the situation the Government have decided that the withholding tax should be extended to apply to specified payments by all health insurers licensed under the 1957 VHI Act. To facilitate the operation of the tax section 8 of the Bill provides that the health insurer will be required to pay the balance of the relevant claim — after deduction of the tax — direct to the medical professional concerned rather than to the subscriber. This will overcome the problem which I referred to last year. The Explanatory Memorandum to the Bill sets out in detail the legislative system for the extension of the withholding tax.
I would like to assure Senators that the measure does not affect the existing rights of subscribers under their health insurance contracts. The coverage provided under insurance policies will be as before and the only change will now be that the relevant payments to medical professionals will be made directly to the professional involved on behalf of the subscriber.
It has also been suggested that medical consultants may feel it necessary to increase their fees because of the new system of deduction. There would be no justification for any such increase in fees. The new system involves no more than a payment on account in respect of tax due at a later date on the payments in question. Thus no additional tax liability is imposed on the medical professional who will get credit for tax withheld under this system.
In the budget, as part of the reforms I referred to earlier, I announced a comprehensive package of inter-related measures to bring about a major and permanent improvement in the tax assessment and collective system. These changes, which are now being given legislative effect in the Bill, will ensure a system that will be more efficient and fairer to the generality of taxpayers.
The main changes are set out in Chapter II, comprising sections 9 to 21 of the Bill, and arise from the decision to move towards a system of full self-assessment for corporation tax and for income tax for the self-employed. The provisions are explained in detail in the relevant sections in the Explanatory Memorandum to the Bill. In broad terms, the objectives of the new arrangements are to place more responsibility on taxpayers for meeting their own tax obligations, to reduce the levels of estimated tax and to streamline and significantly reduce the number of appeals.
I was very pleased with the positive reaction to the new arrangements which emerged during the Dáil debate on the Bill. There was general consensus that the new measures represented a significant move in the right direction with benefits for both the Revenue and taxpayers alike.
Senators will note that while a substantial part of the overall statutory framework for the move to self-assessment is being put in place, the computation of his own tax by the taxpayer himself is not a mandatory requirement at this stage. The taxpayers concerned will, indeed, be receiving new forms on which they can themselves compute and pay tax, but completion of the form and payment of the tax due on that basis will be a voluntary, non-statutory arrangement for the present. Nonetheless the provisions in Chapter II represent a major initial step on the road to full self-assessment.
The move to new return and assessment arrangements is accompanied by two other measures aimed at eliminating tax arrears and improving collection. These are the incentive to clear up arrears of tax, which is provided for in section 72 of the Bill, and the introduction of power for the Revenue Commissioners to attach the financial assets of tax defaulters, which is provided for in section 73.
The combination of the new arrangements for tax assessment and the introduction of the power enabling the Revenue Commissioners to attach debts due to tax defaulters, which I will elaborate on shortly, will result in tax defaulters facing a much more hostile climate in the future. This is only as it should be. In the changed circumstances, defaulters are being given a once-off incentive to clear their arrears of tax. The incentive arrangements set out in section 72 provide for the waiving of certain outstanding interest charges and penalties, where the taxpayer brings his total liability to income tax, surtax, corporation profits tax, corporation tax, capital gains tax, value-added tax, PRSI, health contributions, employment levy and income levy up-to-date at any time between 27 January 1988 and 30 September 1988.
The incentive scheme ends on 30 September 1988 and the power of attachment will come into force on 1 October 1988. I have been informed by the Revenue Commissioners that there has been a huge volume of inquiries in relation to the incentive and I am confident that it will make a very significant contribution to the clearance of arrears this year.
Section 73 of the Bill gives effect to the power of attachment. The section provides that, where the Revenue Commissioners believe from information available to them that a third party has an amount of money owed to a tax defaulter, they may direct the third party to pay the amount to them up to the amount of tax due by a defaulter. The power of attachment will thus provide the Revenue Commissioners with a speedy and cost-effective response to default. This is essential if the fight against tax default and tax evasion is to achieve success. The power of attachment is available to Revenue authorities in other countries, notably the United States and New Zealand, and its introduction here was recommended by the Commission on Taxation.
The Explanatory Memorandum sets out in detail how the attachment process will operate. Concern was expressed by some Deputies in the Dáil debate as to the effect the power of attachment would have and it was suggested by some that the proposed power was draconian. I would stress to Senators that the proposal is far from draconian. It is a limited, carefully balanced provision which only applies in a clearly defined set of circumstances. As I have said already, the concept is well established in other countries and it is an essential element in the move towards full self-assessment. My predecessor pointed out in the January 1987 booklet on self-assessment, and I quote:
A satisfactory range of enforcement measures must also be available and fully implemented. This is of paramount importance. These measures could include a power of attachment to allow for seizure of financial assets.
Indeed, the range of powers mentioned in the booklet went a good deal further than attachment. The essential point to bear in mind is that it is the taxpayer himself, by not meeting, and continuing not to meet, his legal obligations — and thus exploiting most taxpayers who meet their obligations — who leaves himself open to the use of the provision.
Section 71 of the Bill deals with the question of poundage fees levied by sheriffs and county registrars in the execution of warrants of tax liability. In the case of the sheriffs the yield from these poundage fees is used to meet their operating costs.
The current widespread practice among sheriffs and county registrars is to demand poundage in a letter to the defaulter setting out the amount of debt due and warning of seizure if payment is not made. In many such cases payment of the debt by the defaulter is accompanied by payment of the poundage to the sheriff or county registrar without the latter ever entering into possession of the defaulter's goods. Doubt has been raised as to whether poundage is legally payable by defaulters in such circumstances. The purpose of section 71 is to remove this doubt. This will ensure that sheriffs remain adequately remunerated for their important function which has already given rise to a significant improvement in tax enforcement.
There are a number of important incentives in Chapters III and IV of the Bill that will help in our efforts to build up the economy.
The package of tax relief commonly referred to as "Section 23", which had lapsed with effect from end-March 1987, is being reintroduced for a three-year period in sections 27, 28 and 29 of the Bill. The measures will allow the construction expenditure cost incurred after budget day, on providing certain rented residential accommodation, as a set-off against all rental income. Costs associated with the conversion of certain qualifying property will similarly be relieved. In addition, the cost of refurbishment of substandard property for rental accommodation will qualify for relief against the rental income from that property. These measures will significantly assist the construction industry, and should be seen as a generous and realistic encouragement to that sector, in the current tight budgetary situation.
Section 26 provides for the application of a common terminal date to the tax and other incentives for all the designated areas. Thus the five county boroughs of Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Galway will now be able to avail of these incentives up until 31 May 1991, as with the other nine recently-announced designated areas. This also will be of considerable assistance to the construction industry and serve as a further incentive to the urban renewal process.
Section 30 exempts investments made by pension funds in financial futures and options from income tax, corporation tax and capital gains tax. The measure is intended to help promote the development of these new types of financial transactions within the State.
Section 41 introduces a new relief which is intended to encourage the repatriation of funds from abroad. It will allow dividends earned abroad by the subsidiaries of Irish companies to be brought back to this country, free of tax, subject to certain conditions. The funds will have to be used in an investment plan which is directed towards the maintenance or creation of employment here. The prior approval of the Minister for Finance will be required for each and every qualifying investment plan under this section. There is considerable interest in this new relief and I am glad to note that, as a result of it, one major company has already announced that it plans to make new investments at home over the next year.
The Bill contains a number of measures which are designed to assist the development of the International Financial Services Centre being established in the Custom House Docks area and which has major job potential. The first 24 projects involve definite employment commitments amounting to over 750 jobs. These jobs are new jobs which would not otherwise have been provided. Indeed, the projects in question would not have been attracted at all to this country or would have been on a much smaller scale without the stimulus of the incentives which we have provided in the docks area.
Section 36 has three separate aspects. First, it removes the requirement that activities which are to be carried on in due course in the Custom House Docks area should be located in temporary accommodation pending the availability of suitable premises in the area. The purpose of this requirement was to ensure that companies approved for the Financial Services Centre should move into the area as soon as possible. Experience has indicated, however, that this aim can be met more satisfactorily by means of an appropriate condition in the certificate of approval. Secondly, the section extends the special 10 per cent rate of corporation tax in the centre to speculative commodity trading which is essentially financial in nature. Finally, it brings the investment income of life assurance companies and the income and capital gains of unit trusts located in the centre within the ambit of the 10 per cent rate.
Section 37 allows a deduction for tax purposes for interest on loans paid by a company in the centre to a non-resident parent company. Section 38 grants an exemption from withholding taxes on interest payments made by companies in the centre to lenders outside Ireland. The section also extends the concession on withholding taxes to companies in the Shannon zone which qualify for the 10 per cent rate of corporation tax.
Section 42 provides for the exemption from corporation tax of the profits of the Custom House Docks Development Authority itself. The reason for this exemption is that the Authority will be required to surrender to the Exchequer all its surplus funds, having retained sufficient funds to allow it to fulfil its statutory self-financing requirement. The exemption is in line with similar exemptions for the profits of Bord Gáis and the Central Bank, which were also introduced for the reason that their surplus income is surrendered to the Exchequer.
Major changes in the corporation tax system are provided for in the Bill. The principal features are the phased reduction in the first-year accelerated capital allowances for plant, machinery and industrial buildings from the present 100 per cent to 50 per cent by 1 April 1989, and a parallel reduction in the standard rate of corporation tax from 50 per cent to 43 per cent. These changes, which are provided for in section 33, and Chapter V, are in line with the international trend which has seen the introduction of lower corporation tax rates in tandem with a reduction in the available tax reliefs.
The Government believe that these changes will bring greater economic efficiency, and equity, to the tax code, and will also play a part in creating employment, particularly in the services sector. The reduction in capital allowances will not be applied to contracts entered into on or before budget day, to the special building incentives for urban designated areas, to qualifying services activities in Shannon and in the Custom House Docks area, to projects which are being negotiated with, and which will be approved by the industrial development agencies before the end of this year, or to plant or machinery for a hotel or hotel extension where the building contract has been entered into between budget day and 1 June 1988. These measures are provided for in section 51.
Section 32 is a complex section which is concerned with distributions of dividends by companies to their shareholders. Since 1980 an arrangement called the Primary Fund has applied to such distributions. Under this a company had first to distribute all its dividends from its 10 per cent profits. With full advance corporation tax in operation, this arrangement is no longer necessary, and the section will allow for dividends to be treated as coming proportionately from the mix of profits in the preceding year. There will be a corresponding mix of tax credits.
However, in view of various representations made in connection with the section, I introduced certain amendments on Committee Stage in the Dáil. These will allow for the postponement of its general application until 6 April 1989 to give companies more time to plan for its introduction, but will also give any company which so wishes the option of applying the new rules from 6 April 1988. In addition, specific difficulties arising out of the payment of interim dividends and related interest on section 84 loans have now been removed. I have promised also to take another look at the section before next year's Finance Bill to see if it can be further simplified or improved.
Section 53 gives effect to the levy on pension funds. At the outset I would like to reiterate that the levy will be a once-off imposition. Following detailed discussions with representatives of the pensions industry, the basis of implementation has been changed from that originally mentioned in the budget. It will now be charged on an inputed investment yield based on the asset value of pension funds, with a deduction for pension payments made in 1988. Small self-administered schemes will be exempted as will non-group schemes run by life assurance companies. The revised provisions will make for simpler administration of the levy and will not affect the target yield to the Exchequer.
Section 64 increases the bank levy from £25 million to £36 million for 1988. Six million pounds of the increase is due to the withdrawal of the proposed £10 stamp duty charge on ATM cards. The bank levy has not been increased since 1983 and bank profits have risen very considerably in that period. The tax contribution from profits in the banking sector continues to be very small in relation to such profits. The increase in the levy to £36 million is, therefore, fully justified.
Part II of the Bill confirms the budget changes in excise duties. Part III of the Bill, relating to VAT provisions, confirms the budget day changes and also contains a technical amendment which is a necessary complement to the introduction of the power of attachment.
The imposition, by section 61, of 5 per cent VAT on electricity has not resulted in any extra burden on domestic consumers because of a simultaneous and equivalent reduction in ESB prices. VAT-registered businesses have actually had the benefit of a reduction in costs since they now pay a lower price for electricity and get their VAT back.
Section 62 confirms the reduction in farmers' flat-rate VAT addition from 1.7 to 1.4 per cent. I had signalled my intentions clearly in this regard in 1987 if arrears of unpaid levies were not cleared up satisfactorily. Unfortunately, the situation did not significantly improve so the reduction in this rate was necessary. I will take another look at the position in the run-up to next year's budget.
The technical amendment in section 60 is necessary to ensure that legitimate VAT debts do not disappear as a result of attachment. Many traders are on what is called the "cash receipts" basis which means that they only account for VAT when they actually receive payment. Where debts due to the defaulting trader are attached, there would be no receipt by him, even though he has made a taxable supply of goods, and technically VAT liability would not arise. The amendment will prevent such a loophole by deeming the defaulter for VAT purposes to have actually been paid.
Section 74 applies to income tax, corporation tax, capital gains tax, capital acquisitions tax and stamp duties the general principle of the Status of Children Act, 1987, namely that relationships between persons are to be determined without regard to whether the parents of any person are or have been married to each other, unless the contrary intention appears. I am particularly pleased to be able to introduce such a section in this year's Finance Bill.
I trust that these comments will assist Senators in their understanding of the main provisions of the Bill, the thinking behind them and their relationship with overall economic and budgetary policy.
I commend the Bill to the House.