Ministers blasted over 'farcical' no-deal Brexit contract for shipping firm with no ships
Government planning for a no-deal Brexit has been branded "farcical" after a shipping firm which currently has no ferries was handed a £13.8m emergency contract.
Seaborne Freight was one of three companies who signed a deal to provide additional crossings to ease the pressure on Dover if Britain leaves the EU without a deal.
But the firm has not previously run a ferry service and has yet to get any crossings in place, prompting fresh questions for the Department for Transport.
Conservative councillor for Ramsgate Paul Messenger said he did not believe it would be possible to set up the new routes in time for a potential no-deal exit on March 29 next year.
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."
Seaborne is due to run two freight services from Ramsgate to the Belgian port of Ostend by March, with two more added by the end of next summer.
Labour MP Tonia Antoniazzi, speaking on behalf of the anti-Brexit Best for Britain campaign, said: "We know our ports aren't ready for a no-deal disaster, but is hiring a firm that's never dealt with this kind of thing before really going to help?
"We know our ports aren’t ready for a no-deal disaster, but is hiring a firm that’s never dealt with this kind of thing before really going to help? This idea should have been sunk before it saw the light of day."
Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesperson Sir Edward Davey also seized on the row, saying: "That the Government has reportedly signed a contract with a ferry company with no ferries pretty much sums up their farcical approach to the entire Brexit fiasco.
He added: "The Government could, and should, take the threat of a no-deal Brexit off the table. It is being used only to try and scaremonger people into backing their deal. It is now costing the country millions – it is inexcusable and people won’t be fooled."
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."
The Department for Transport also defended the contract, which did not go out to full competition because of what official documents called a "situation of extreme urgency".
A spokesperson said: "This contract was awarded in the full knowledge that Seaborne Freight is a new shipping provider, and that the extra capacity and vessels would be provided as part of its first services.
"As with all contracts, we carefully vetted the company’s commercial, technical and financial position in detail before making the award."
There have been no cross-Channel services from Ramsgate since 2013, when operators TransEuropa collapsed.