In 2013, I met the Freight Transport Association about those very issues. The UK Government estimate that nine out of 10 UK-registered HGV operators should experience no overall change due to reductions in vehicle excise duty. The Republic of Ireland remains our second largest market for sales, after Great Britain, and it is a particularly important market for SMEs. I am aware that rising transport costs are a concern for many local firms. I have, therefore, tasked my Department and the Northern Ireland Centre for Economic Policy with conducting research on the cost of doing business. That research will examine a range of cost areas, including transport costs, and seek to benchmark costs for Northern Ireland firms against the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her answer. Does she agree that, given the impact such a levy would have on cross-border economic development, it is of a cross-cutting nature? Therefore, will she encourage the Environment Minister to bring a paper to the Executive on the matter?
It is not a matter for the Environment Minister; it is a matter for Westminster. They have decided that they are going ahead with the levy. In some ways, I understand why they have decided to do that. Many of our road hauliers have to pay tolls and charges when they travel across Europe. Even when they travel in the Republic of Ireland, they are subject to road charges and tolls. Therefore, it was felt that we needed to give a level playing field to our hauliers. The Freight Transport Association actually welcomes the road user levy. There were concerns about the Irish Government, in discussion with the UK Government, exempting the levy for the whole of the Northern Ireland road network, but that has not been the case. The Westminster Department considers Northern Ireland part of the scheme as well.
I thank the Minister for her answers, and I welcome her back from her business trip to Singapore. I am sure that we will hear some good news later on.
Does the Minister believe that it is right for the Republic of Ireland to push for Northern Ireland roads to be exempt from the levy while Northern Ireland hauliers are paying toll charges when using roads in the Republic of Ireland?
As I said, it is a Westminster matter. It has been decided to exempt seven kilometres of road in Northern Ireland that goes in and out along the border so that there are no enforcement difficulties.
That is in and around the A37 and A3, which, as I said, weave in and out of the Republic of Ireland. It would be unfair for our hauliers to have to pay the tolls that they have to pay. I know that the cost of doing business across Europe has risen. I am waiting for that report from the Northern Ireland Centre for Economic Policy. I look forward to the evidence base that it will bring me. It is unfair that they should be expected to pay tolls when people who come from the rest of Europe, including the Republic of Ireland, do not pay a charge in Northern Ireland. It is the right compromise. I hope that we will continue to keep an eye on that to make sure that our hauliers are not disadvantaged.
I have listened very carefully to the Minister. I am sure that she will agree with me that what we and hauliers want more than anything is a unified and coordinated approach to this. She will be aware that the Minister for Transport, Leo Varadkar, is meeting his counterparts in the UK at the end of February. What is she doing to ensure that we do not end up with a situation where there is ping-pong between North and South and that, in fact, there is a coordinated and unified approach to a very serious problem?
Perhaps that is more a matter for the Minister for Regional Development, who shadows Leo Varadkar on this issue in the North/South Ministerial Council. I will certainly pass on the Member's comments on the matter. As I understand it, the whole issue of being able to enforce related to that stretch of road that goes in and out of the Republic of Ireland. That is why they have determined that it is exempt from the regulations and that it is only in the rest of Northern Ireland that they will be applicable. The Department for Transport has taken the view that exclusion of those particular roads will not affect the overall cohesiveness of the scheme in Northern Ireland. I very much hope that that is the case. I hear what the Member is saying, but he should reflect on the fact that the Freight Transport Association welcomes the scheme in Northern Ireland. It made that point to me back in March of last year.
With regard to the pressures that are being placed on hauliers, is the Minister aware of the difficulties that are being created for Northern Ireland hauliers by excessive delay in the Southern authorities' refunding of VAT that they are entitled to on fuel purchases? Is there anything that she can do to try to expedite those matters?
I am aware of that issue because it has been raised with me at a constituency level as opposed to a ministerial level. However, again, it is probably more an issue for the Department for Regional Development. I am, of course, content to pass on the Member's concerns to the Minister so that he can raise it with the appropriate authorities in the Republic.