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I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the issue of free zones. I thought I was likely to end up moving this amendment at about 10 pm last Wednesday, so it is a pleasure to have it on in prime time but, recognising the value of this time, I will be as brief as I can.
The point about this amendment is that free zones were legislated for way back in 1979. Indeed, they featured, not least during the 1980s, as part of a broader industrial strategy. I do not propose today to debate the merits or otherwise of free zones, because there are arguments that cut both ways. They are, by their nature, a distortion: they distort the customs and regulatory framework in favour of specific geographical locations. None the less, there can be significant benefits associated with that happening in circumstances where one needs to advantage certain geographical areas. That is why, for example, they have been used in the past, and are used widely around the world, in relation to some more disadvantaged economic areas, and specifically in relation to ports of entry—not just seaports but airports and the like. The reasoning there is that the ports of entry to an economy are often in competition not so much with other parts of the geography of that country as with other ports in neighbouring areas.
The European Union has a general disinclination towards free zones because the single market effectively creates one single customs territory. Arguing against myself, if we were to be in a single customs territory with the European Union, the question of free zones would probably not arise at all—but if we are not to be, it ought to arise. Under these circumstances, it would be good to legislate in the Bill to encourage Her Majesty’s Treasury to bring forward both a consultation allowing the merits of free zone designation and its use in this country to be debated, and proposals to Parliament about how that designation might be deployed.
There are ports that are interested in this, and the Treasury’s approach—that it is happy to consider free zone designation under the 1979 legislation—is understandable. But it is for the ports themselves to decide whether they wish to do this. I understand some ports may wish to; Teesport and Humberside are interested, and Associated British Ports is interested. If we leave the European Union and do not form part of a customs territory with it, they may well bring forward proposals. In the interests of the legislative approach to this, we should have something that encourages that to happen as quickly as possible in an ordered way. That is why the deadlines in the amendment are swift: to initiate a consultation within three months, and to report on that consultation within six months. In quite short order after exit day, we in this country could see to what extent our ports would need and benefit from free zone designation to enable them to compete more effectively with other ports—not least those on the other side of the North Sea or the English Channel.
That is the reason we should think about this. Those bringing their goods to Europe have never previously had to think about customs or other formalities, or the imposition of duty on those goods if they are brought to the United Kingdom and then re-exported elsewhere in Europe. Unfortunately, they may have to think about that.