Follow us

Scotland’s fortnightly political & current affairs magazine

Subscribe

Subscribe to Holyrood
Scottish Government accused of 'hiding behind' state aid rules on Prestwick airport deals with US air force

Prestwick Airport

Scottish Government accused of 'hiding behind' state aid rules on Prestwick airport deals with US air force

During a heated exchange on Tuesday afternoon, the Cabinet Secretary for Transport Michael Matheson was asked to confirm the amount of money the loss-making airport has waived in deals allowing US military aircraft refuel at the site.

The Scottish Government has been accused of “hiding behind” commercial confidentiality and EU state aid rules in order to avoid answering questions about publicly owned Glasgow Prestwick airport and its dealings with the United States air force.

During a heated exchange on Tuesday afternoon, the Cabinet Secretary for Transport Michael Matheson was asked to confirm the amount of money the loss-making airport has waived in deals allowing US military aircraft refuel at the site.

Opposition MSPs accused Matheson of refusing to answer questions while the airport is at the centre of a US congressional investigation into potential conflict of interest involving President Donald Trump and his luxury Turnberry resort.

Mike Rumbles, the Liberal Democrat MSP for North East Scotland, asked Matheson to confirm the amount of service fees reportedly dropped by Prestwick airport for US military refuelling.

But Matheson refused to give any details on the government-owned airport’s dealings with the US, saying that although the government purchased the airport in 2013 that its commercial decisions do not involve ministers.

The Cabinet Secretary said: “Decisions on specific commercial deals are made by Prestwick without any involvement from ministers.

“Prestwick has been providing military handling since the 1930s and this continues to be an import part of its overall offering.

“The management of the airport continue to look for opportunities to grow the business including offering fixed base operations services to a number of customers all of which have been done on a commercial basis and at market rates.”

He added: “Generally speaking all airports will package fees and charges in a way that ensures they remain competitive. That is entirely standard practice”.

Rumbles’ question was in relation to evidence unearthed by The Scotsman that found that the US Government had paid nearly £14m to Glasgow Prestwick Airport since 2017 in order to use it to refuel aircraft and had dropped its usual fees for American planes.

Additionally, the newspaper found that the airport had been advertising President Trump’s luxury golf course to US military personnel who were routed through the airport – something that has been increasing in frequency since Donald Trump took office.

Following up on Matheson’s response, Rumbles said that “it isn’t good enough for the Scottish Government to hide behind the fact that Prestwick is an arm’s length commercial company” and asked the Cabinet Secretary to confirm when he was first made aware of the fee waiving.  

Matheson said it was “frankly nonsense” to suggest the Government was hiding from scrutiny.

He said: “In order to comply with state aid regulations and laws in this area, ministers can’t be involved in commercial decisions. What has been part of Prestwick’s work for decades now is providing fixed base operation services to a range of partners including the military.

“And the recent success with US air force is a reflection of its business plan to target elements of that particular business to increase growth in that area.”

Attacking Rumbles for his questions, Matheson said: “It’s very clear that the Lib Dems do not give two hoots about the Ayrshire economy and the importance Prestwick airport to it.”

Speaking after the exchange, Rumbles commented: “On matters of the future of Prestwick and its financial stability the government should be completely transparent.

“The minister refused to answer my questions or those of my colleagues on reports that Prestwick has been waiving service fees for the US military. By continuing to evade questioning in this fashion ministers are preventing parliament from properly scrutinising their actions.

“Taxpayers money has been poured into Prestwick and MSPs are being stonewalled in the search for serious answers about these finances. The government can’t pick and choose which issues they would like to talk about. The Transport Secretary should reflect on this exchange and set out in writing exactly what’s going on.”

The Scottish Greens’ co-convener Patrick Harvey also asked Matheson about the commercial dealings of Glasgow Prestwick airport.

He said: “Is it not offensive in a week when Scotland’s Kurdish community will be protesting outside the US Embassy at the withdrawal of its forces, leaving their comrades vulnerable to attack by Turkey. At a time when the US democratic procedures are investigating conflict of interest and a potential breach of the US constitution in relation to dealings with both Prestwick and Turnberry. Is it not offensive in that context for a Scottish publicly owned asset to be effectively subsidising the military operations of a dangerous far right regime?”

Matheson responded: “It doesn’t provide any subsidies; it operates on a commercial basis.”

Read the most recent article written by Ailean Beaton - Corbyn promises £70bn investment in Scotland if Labour wins election

Stay in the know with our fortnightly magazine

Stay in the know with our fortnightly magazine

Subscribe

Popular reads
Back to top