Chris Grayling urged to ramp up no-deal Brexit preparations or risk ferry fiasco repeat
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling must ramp up no-deal Brexit preparations or risk a repeat of the ferry fiasco which cost taxpayers tens of millions of pounds, MPs have warned.
The Public Accounts Committee said ministers had to hammer out new contracts for extra ferry capacity “very soon”, given the UK is due to leave the EU with or without an agreement on 31 October and the process can take at least three months.
The Department for Transport had hoped to secure extra ferries in the event of quitting the EU on 29 March to ensure vital supplies such as medicines continued to flow.
However the Government had to pay more than £51m to cancel agreements with DFDS and Brittany Ferries after Theresa May opted to push back Britain’s exit date.
They were also forced to shell out £33m to Eurotunnel in an out-of-court settlement after the operator accused them of handing out “secretive” contracts and sued them.
In a new report the committee said: “The Department recognises that it needs to learn from this flawed procurement.
“However, there is a real risk that the short time left before 31 October will force the Department into further high-risk procurements, which it wants to avoid.
“Given the lead time needed to put ferry capacity in place, which the Department says can take a minimum of three months, any new procurement process would need to begin very soon.”
They added that the “rushed procurement of ferry freight capacity” in a bid to be ready for the initial deadline had meant the department had to take “excessive risks”.
DFDS and Brittany Ferries, were awarded contracts worth around £100m, while Seaborne Freight – a firm with no ferries - was awarded a £13.8m contract, which was cancelled in February.
PAC Chair Meg Hillier said: “In just four months’ time, on 31 October, the UK is expected to leave the EU yet momentum appears to have slowed in Whitehall. Departments must urgently step up their preparations and ensure that the country is ready.
“The taxpayer has been landed with a £85m bill with very little to show for it following the rushed procurement of ferry freight capacity. This £33m Eurotunnel settlement comes on top of the money paid to cancel the ill-fated ferries deal."
Labour seized on the report's warning, with Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald saying: "This report exposes the government’s shambolic no-deal Brexit preparations. The Transport Secretary’s incompetence has already cost taxpayers tens of millions of pounds.
“It is beyond belief that he should be given another opportunity to squander public cash and throw our transport networks into chaos. This country cannot afford Chris Grayling."
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “The freight capacity contracts were taken out as an insurance policy for the UK to ensure that key medical supplies could be guaranteed in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
“This step was in response to changed assumptions about potential delays in the Dover strait, and the agreements were entered into as soon as a cross-Government collective decision was taken that they were needed.
“Two weeks ago the department outlined a new framework proposal to provide a list of operators capable of delivering this vital freight capacity without the Government committing to any agreements at this stage, with market engagement already underway.”