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Boris Johnson widens push for Singapore-style free ports in UK

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government is expanding plans to create free ports in the UK, which he says will boost the post-Brexit economy.

[LONDON] Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government is expanding plans to create free ports in the UK, which he says will boost the post-Brexit economy.

An advisory panel that will look at setting up as many as 10 such ports will be unveiled on Friday by Trade Secretary Liz Truss during a visit to PD Ports Ltd Teesport in north-eastern England, where local Mayor Ben Houchen has championed the concept.

Goods entering free ports are exempt from import taxes and tariffs and often benefit from simplified regulations, helping bring economic success to locations such as Singapore and Hong Kong. Mr Johnson says membership in the European Union (EU) has held Britain back from setting up free ports. He has previously called for about six such zones to be established.

Port of Tyne, Milford Haven and London Gateway have also expressed an interest in the bidding process, according to the government.

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But the idea has been criticised as backdoor route for tax evaders. The European Commission last month said free ports were vulnerable to money laundering or terrorism financing.

Barry Gardiner, trade spokesman for the opposition Labour Party, said the plans wouldn't attract new investment and growth but rather shift jobs within the UK.

"Free ports and free enterprise zones risk companies shutting up shop in one part of the country in order to exploit tax breaks elsewhere, and, worst of all, lower employment rights," he said.

Rishi Sunak, who replaced Liz Truss as Chief Secretary to the Treasury last week, has been another champion of free ports, saying they could create more than 86,000 jobs in Britain.

"We will focus on those areas that could benefit the most, as we look to boost investment and opportunity for communities across the country," he said in a statement.

In another move, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid ordered HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) to prioritise no-deal Brexit planning. In a letter to the outgoing HMRC chief executive Jon Thompson, Mr Javid said the tax authority must "deliver a functioning regime" on the day Britain leaves the EU, according to a person familiar with the matter.

On Thursday, Mr Javid allocated an additional £2.1 billion (S$3.5 billion) to spend on preparing for a no-deal exit from the EU on Oct 31, of which a portion would go towards preparing customs and border operations.

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