SNP ministers are accused of acting “in contradiction of party policy” in the decision to help the Tories open two freeports in Scotland.

It comes after the UK and Scottish Governments said in January that two freeports – areas outside of normal regulations – would be opened in the Cromarty Firth and the Firth of Forth. Deputy First Minister John Swinney praised it as “a milestone achievement”.

However, Peter Henderson, an SNP group leader and former director general with HM Revenue and Customs, said such areas are “notorious for money laundering, smuggling, people trafficking, and the dumping of surplus goods”.

READ MORE: I oversaw Scotland's last freeport. Here's the problem with them

Henderson, who as part of his work with the HMRC oversaw the freeport at Prestwick airport until its closure in 2012, said that the change of leadership at the top of the SNP offered a chance to re-evaluate the Government's freeport strategy.

Swinney said previously that a “rigorous” selection process meant applicants had shown “a strong determination to embed fair work practices, including payment of the Real Living Wage, and to enshrine net zero initiatives in their work”.

However, writing for The Sunday National, Henderson said a “core problem is that the Scottish Government lacks the guaranteed legal powers over freeports to enforce the safeguards it says it wants”.

READ MORE: Richard Murphy: The SNP may regret lending UK its support on freeports

The SNP group leader in South Ayrshire and previous leader of that council, Henderson (below) outlines a litany of issues he sees with freeports “based on evidence worldwide and considerable personal experience in this area”.

The National:

These concerns encompass depopulation of rural areas, tariffs, counterfeit goods, fraud, environmental standards, and concerns that claims of economic benefits are not evidenced.

He also warned that they could undermine devolution, telling the Sunday National that governance of freeports is essentially for Westminster, not Holyrood.

Writing for the Conversation, Paul Gilmour, a criminal justice lecturer at the University of Portsmouth who spent two decades in the police force, also warned that freeports “risk harbouring criminal activity and helping criminals evade authorities”.

He warned there was a “link between freeport trading and a near 6% increase in the value of counterfeit goods being shipped into a country”.

READ MORE: Ross Greer: Freeports in Scotland are effectively subnational tax havens

It is understood that Ivan McKee, the business minister, had been leading for the Scottish Government on the issue of freeports, before Finance Secretary Kate Forbes took direct control.

After Nicola Sturgeon announced plans to step down, Scottish Secretary Alister Jack specifically mentioned them in his comment on her resignation.

He said: “I particularly appreciate the work that she undertook to help us deliver two new freeports in Scotland, bringing thousands of jobs and millions of pounds of investment.”

A spokesperson for the SNP Trade Union Group (SNPTUG), the party’s largest affiliate body with some 12,000 members, said that the remark showed “just how keen the Tory government in Westminster is on forcing them through”.

The National:

“This should send clear warning signals both to the Scottish Government and those scrutinising the details and legal underpinning of the specific deals,” they said.

“Freeports are effectively a backdoor into the economy for corporate interests and tax avoidance, and the fact that they are economic zones outwith normal political regulation inherently undermines devolution, as well as posing innumerable problems for both national and local economies.

“Freeports have been abandoned across Europe and North America after numerous scandals involving corruption, smuggling, money laundering and tax evasion. Even Margaret Thatcher rejected the idea.”

READ MORE: SNP Trade Union group demands answers on plan for 'green freeports'

At the SNP conference in 2021, party members overwhelmingly (by 476 votes to 16) said that freeports in Scotland should only move forward if six conditions were guaranteed to be met. These were:

  • 1. All businesses operating within the zone must pay the Real Living Wage as a minimum, as well as abiding by Fair Work practices.
  • 2. Trade Union recognition must be mandatory.
  • 3. Local government must receive sufficient financial investment to carry out any required services to these zones.
  • 4. All businesses operating within the freeport zone must be operating to assist the Scottish Government in achieving its ambitious Net Zero targets.
  • 5. Local Communities adversely affected by the operation of the Freeport must be fully compensated by those businesses operating within it.
  • 6. All relevant controls by relevant agencies must be in place – i.e. Health and Safety, environmental controls, law enforcement, etc.

The SNPTUG said that in ignoring these conditions, SNP ministers were “therefore in contradiction of party policy”.

The Scottish Government did not respond to The Sunday National’s request for comment.