Trade minister Ivan McKee has said it is “possible” Holyrood will decline Rishi Sunak’s free port offer, despite interest from councils and harbour authorities across Scotland.
The SNP minister said the policy, which would grant applicants special, tax-free status in a bid to boost trade, was a “shiny squirrel” to distract from the “other bad stuff going on in the trade arena”.
Opposition MPs slammed the remarks on Wednesday afternoon, saying the Scottish economy would be disadvantaged as a result.
Several ports in the north-east, including Aberdeen, are understood to have been interested in obtaining the status.
Unbelievable. Yet more evidence that the Scottish National Party simply do not care about the Scottish economy, Scottish jobs or driving up investment in our country. Utter disgrace of a government. https://t.co/UbLAOrfulX
— Andrew Bowie MP (@AndrewBowie_MP) October 7, 2020
Highland Council was also interested in the proposal, with deputy council leader Alasdair Christie saying last year the scheme had “significant potential” for the region.
But Mr McKee told MPs free ports might not be the right “fit” for Scotland.
The minister said modelling had been done on the shape of Scotland’s future economy and it pointed to a “high-tech, high-productivity, high-wage, high-innovation economy”.
“The traditional free port model, where you’re importing widgets, bolting them together and exporting them again, doesn’t necessarily fit into that model,” he said.
Mr McKee said his department had received “very little information” from the Treasury on the plan and as result it was “very difficult for us to make a determination as to whether we see these as adding value”.
He pointed out, however, that there were a “number of risks” – from economic displacement to illicit activity.
“The way we see it, is that it’s hard to escape from the conclusion that something has been pulled out as a shiny squirrel to draw attention away from all the other bad stuff that is going on in the trade arena.
“It’s very much a sticking plaster on what’s a huge gaping wound.”
Asked if the Scottish Government would reject the offer to have a free port, he said: “That’s possible, absolutely.”
“It really depends on what the shape of the offer from the UK Government looks like.”
‘Utter disgrace of a government’
North-east MP Andrew Bowie said the remarks were “unbelievable”, adding: “This is yet more evidence that the Scottish National Party simply do not care about the Scottish economy, Scottish jobs or driving up investment in our country.
“Utter disgrace of a government.”
Scots trade minister Ivan McKee has told MPs it is 'possible' the Scottish Government will turn down the chance to have a free port https://t.co/Dv7VAelTXm
— Dan O'Donoghue (@MrDanDonoghue) October 7, 2020
Tory MSP Michelle Ballantyne added: “This is a startling lack of ambition from Ivan McKee.
“A number of Scottish ports are interested in bidding for free port status, which would turbo charge Scottish exports and boost local economies.
“Turning down such an opportunity is both foolish and narrow minded.”
English ports will be able to start bidding for free port status in the weeks ahead, with the first ports expected to open by the end of 2021.