In my opening remarks in reply to the debate I adverted to the bipartisan calls for the designation of areas at many ports around the country as free ports. I said that it would be counter-productive if there were to be a proliferation of free ports and I am sure that there is general consensus on that point.
In opening the debate I referred in general terms to the regime to be applied here and I dealt with the free port situation in the UK. These points were also touched upon by many Deputies in the course of their contributions to the debate and I do not intend to deal with this matter at length.
There are, however, two points which I wish to make. Six free ports have been or are being established in the UK, including three airports and three ports. In Ireland, by comparison, we have one free airport and will shortly have one free port. Having regard to the comparative size of the two economies I feel that we will have an adequate number here for the present and, as I have said, we should hasten slowly and learn along the way.
I want to echo what a number of Deputies have said. The free port regime here must conform to EC rules, and free ports in the EC simply cannot be compared with those in less developed countries such as Taiwan where cheap labour is available and concessions in other respects go far beyond what we can or would wish to provide here. I agree that the free port should be operated in as liberal a fashion as possible and that customs documentation and control should be as simple as possible. The customs regime, however, must be consistent with EC requirements and must ensure that irregularities will not arise.
I noted that there was a general appreciation among Deputies on the point I made earlier that the purpose of a free port must be to generate additional economic activity, and not simply to divert activity from elsewhere in the State. There would be little merit in improving the fortunes of one area if that were to be done at the expense of another area which, perhaps, itself was experiencing its own share of economic hardship. I agree with Deputy Wilson that the emphasis in the free port should be on manufacturing industry, although I would be favourably disposed to any project which generated additional employment. I think that Deputy Doyle's warning against free ports as glorified bonded warehouses is apposite in this regard.
A number of Deputies expressed the view that the VAT regime to be applied at Ringaskiddy should be as liberal as possible. As I explained earlier, the VAT regime is not provided for in the Bill but rather will be applied by regulations to be made by the Revenue Commissioners under the VAT Act. This is in keeping with the enabling nature of the Bill before the House. I will bring the views which Deputies have expressed on this to the attention of the Minister for Finance, but I feel that the approach advocated by some Deputies runs counter to the basic objective of generating additional activity and jobs rather than diverting normal trade from elsewhere.
As regards the manner in which the Ringaskiddy free port is to be developed and operated, I indicated in opening the debate that I had a fairly open mind on these matters. I referred to a number of options which could be considered and, in particular, to the possibility of a joint venture between Cork Harbour Commissioners and private sector partners which will shortly be investigated by the commissioners. I think it entirely right that the possibility for private sources of funding should be explored as one option for financing the development of the free port.
I note that this concept was welcomed by Deputy Wyse. This is not being ideological, as Deputy Wilson seemed to imply, but simply practical. Deputy Lyons spoke in favour of Cork County Council being involved in the operation of the Ringaskiddy free port. I would have no objection to considering the county council or any other local body for participation in a Ringaskiddy free port company if such a concept is decided upon as the appropriate mechanism through which to control and manage the free port. If I understood Deputy Wilson correctly, he suggested that there might be some implications of that nature in it. We are simply being practical. There is no question of being ideological in this respect.