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Free Ports

Volume 670: debated on Thursday 23 January 2020

3. What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential economic merits of free ports. (900348)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is championing the merits of free ports across the Government, in conjunction with Treasury Ministers, including the Exchequer Secretary, who is the constituency neighbour of my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill).

On 12 December, a blue wave swept up the Yorkshire coast from the mouth of the Humber to the mouth of the Tees as coastal communities, some for the first time, put their trust in the Conservatives to deliver on their priorities. Does the Minister agree that the former SSI British Steel site on the south bank of the Tees would be an ideal site not only as a deep water terminal for the export of polyhalite fertiliser, but as Britain’s first free port?

My right hon. Friend is right. That blue wave was also a cleansing wave that is allowing new thinking. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced our free port policy in Teesport in August. We recognise that more free ports, not least in the Teesport area, can create jobs, rejuvenate communities and boost local economies. We will continue the job creation miracle that has gone on under this Government and, with my right hon. Friend’s help, free ports will be an important part of that.

Could we rise above party politics on this? [Laughter.] Mr Speaker, they don’t blame me, do they? I understand that free ports are fashionable at the moment. If the Minister can persuade me that there will be no disadvantage to businesses in Huddersfield and Yorkshire—I have a long history of co-chairing the Yorkshire group of MPs—we could be persuaded that free ports are a good thing. Will he give us a bit more detail?

A day when the hon. Gentleman rises above party politics is one when we know a significant shift has occurred in the body politic, but I will try to take the question in the spirit in which it was intended. We are consulting and engaging widely, including with devolved areas of the country, to ensure we come up with exactly the right package to be able to assure even the most sceptical, albeit now non-party political people like the hon. Member, that free ports really can galvanise further job development and prosperity.

It is important that this policy does not lead to market distortions and displacement of activity around ports. Does my hon. Friend agree that the key to making this a success is to build on the unique competencies and excellence of individual ports, such as the port of Milford Haven in my constituency, with its unique energy expertise?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is about tailoring the policy to the particular, ensuring we have something that does not lead to distortion but does lead to additional inward investment. We have gained more foreign direct investment in this country than any other European nation. That is one of the fundamental reasons why we have more people in work as a percentage of the population than the US, Germany or France, and why we have the lowest youth unemployment in our history. I am determined that the free port policy will be well-tailored to the individual circumstances of each area, while ensuring there is no distortion.

As the Minister will know, free ports existed in this country until 2012, when they were abandoned under the coalition Government due to a lack of evidence for their economic benefits. Will the Minister guarantee that if new free ports are introduced, jobs and investment will not simply be displaced from elsewhere in the country, labour rights and standards will not be undermined, and the UK will still be able to meet the level playing field standards that may arise from any future trade deal with the EU?

It may come as news to Labour, or at least its Front Benchers, that we will not be a member of the customs union as we were in 2012. Leaving the EU provides the opportunity to do things differently. We are taking a new cross-Government approach to developing ambitious free ports to ensure that towns and cities across the UK can begin to benefit from the trade opportunities that Brexit brings. It is about time that Labour Front Benchers started to recognise the upside to Brexit instead of always talking this country down.