Chris Grayling defends awarding Brexit ferry contract to firm with no ferries

Posted On: 
2nd January 2019

Chris Grayling has hit back at criticism over a decision to hand lucrative no-deal Brexit ferry service contracts to a brand new firm with no ferries.

The Port of Ramsgate in Kent

The Transport Secretary said there was “nothing wrong” with the Government supporting new businesses and insisted the port of Ramsgate would be operational if Britain leaves the EU with no agreement with Brussels in place.

Seaborne Freight was awarded a £13.8m contract to provide additional crossings between the Kent terminal and the Belgian port of Ostend to ease the pressure on Dover if Britain leaves the EU without a deal.

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But the Department for Transport was criticised after it was revealed the firm has not previously run a ferry service and does not own any boats.

Paul Messenger, the Conservative councillor for Ramsgate, said he did not believe it would be possible to set up the new routes in time for a potential no-deal exit on 29 March.

He told the BBC: “It has no ships and no trading history so how can due diligence be done?

“Why choose a company that never moved a single truck in their entire history and give them £14m? I don’t understand the logic of that.”

Quizzed on the row this morning, Mr Grayling told the Today programme: “I am not quite sure what an individual Conservative councilor would be able to tell us.

“The reality is that this has been looked at very carefully by a team of civil servants who have done due diligence on the company and have reached a view they can deliver.”

And he said: "I make no apologies for supporting a new British business.

"I don't think there's anything wrong in the Government supporting small business."

Pressed on whether the company would be able to get services up and running on time, the Cabinet minister replied: “We believe they are on track to be able to run ferries in April, yes.”

The firm, which is only two years old, is one of three that secured Government contracts to deliver the emergency ferry provision.   

Referring to the terms of the agreements, the Transport Secretary noted: “We put in place a different contract to the other two operators who are big and established to make sure that they deliver for us.”  

Seaborne said in a statement that it had been working to reintroduce ferry crossings to Ramsgate since 2017, and had been "locating suitable vessels, making arrangements with the ports of Ostend and Ramsgate, building the infrastructure – such as bunkering – as well as crewing the ferries once they start operating".

The company added: "It was intended to start the service in mid-February but this has now been delayed until late March for operational reasons.

“This coincides with the Department for Transport’s Freight Capacity Purchase Agreement with Seaborne which is part of their preparations to increase ferry capacity in the unlikely event of a no-deal Brexit."