Calls for minister to stop Freeport work amid conflict of interest allegations

Labour has called on a Government minister to recuse himself from all work to do with freeports after his involvement in the “murky” Teesworks project on the North-East coast.

Speaking exclusively to The Yorkshire Post, Angela Rayner, the shadow levelling up secretary, said that Jacob Young has a “blatant conflict of interest” in the department’s investigation into Teesworks.

Last night sources said that Mr Young was asked to step down from two roles in organisations linked to the redevelopment project which has been hit with allegations of corruption in recent months.

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According to transparency documents, Mr Young stepped down from roles on the South Tees Development Corporation (STDC) Board, as well as the Teesside Freeport Board, which he has sat on since May 2020 and May 2021 respectively.

Levelling Up Minister Jacob YoungLevelling Up Minister Jacob Young
Levelling Up Minister Jacob Young

Mr Young served in the unpaid roles at STDC until 18 September and on the Teeside Freeport Board until 27 September according to his register of interests.

The Redcar MP was made a junior minister in Micahel Gove’s department on 18 September after his predecessor, Dehenna Davison resigned due to chronic migraines.

Ms Davison previously led announcements and debates on Freeports while a junior minister.

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Mr Young has previously lobbied for the creation of a Freeport on Teesside while speaking in Parliament in January 2021.

“This blatant conflict of interest makes a mockery of Michael Gove’s Departmental investigation into the murky events at Teesworks,” Ms Rayner told The Yorkshire Post.

“Jacob Young – now a Minister at the heart of the department responsible for the investigation into Teesworks - played a part in the poor decision-making which led to a damaging build-up of unanswered questions and breakdown of public trust.

“It is a matter of great public interest that proper scrutiny and transparency is afforded over this project of national importance -the people of Teesside, Hartlepool and Darlington, as well as businesses and investors must receive the answers they deserve

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“In the name of transparency, the Minister has a responsibility to recuse himself from any ministerial duties relating to freeports, Teesworks and the investigation in writing before Parliament returns for the new session.

"The whole Department must be seen to be acting with total propriety to ensure confidence in the inquiry. This act would engender trust in the process and if there is nothing to hide there should be no issue.”

Michael Gove announced in May that there would be an independent review into Teeworks where a panel would investigate allegations of corruption, wrongdoing and illegality and report on governance arrangements and value for money.

The review is expected to report back in the Autumn.

The announcement came after significant pressure from local MPs and media reports which ministers and Ben Houchen, the Mayor of Teesside, felt undermined the work being done in the area, in addition to the wider Freeport initiative championed by Rishi Sunak.

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Central to questions over the project are concerns that hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers money have been spent clearing the Teesworks site, with two developers, Chris Musgrave and Martin Corney, set to profit despite limited evidence they have invested in the project.

Issues around the transfer of assets on the site, whether proper procurement rules were followed, lack of oversight of local bodies, and the potential waste of public money used to launch legal action, are yet to be fully clarified by local stakeholders.

Though there were calls from opposition MPs, as well as Mr Houchen himself, to appoint the National Audit Office, the public spending watchdog, to review the project, these suggestions were rejected by Mr Gove.

A DLUHC spokesperson said: “Following appointment, Minister Young was asked to declare any relevant interests and take appropriate action to ensure no conflict of interests, such as by stepping down from roles where appropriate. This is the responsibility of every departmental minister following the process set out in the ministerial code and is standard procedure.

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“Minister Young has not been involved and will not be involved in the independent review relating to Teesworks, and processes are already in place to manage the minister’s wider constituency interests as per the ministerial code.”

A Tory source said: “This is pathetic political game-playing from Labour in an attempt to deflect from the years of neglect they inflicted upon Teesside and the suspension of a local Labour MP.”