Brexit: Fears over multi-million-pound government contract awarded to company with no ferries

Deal 'sums up the farcical approach to entire Brexit fiasco', say Lib Dems

Monday 31 December 2018 00:16 GMT
Brexit: What will happen in 2019?

The government’s preparations for a no-deal Brexit have been questioned after it emerged a £13.8m contract to run extra ferries has been awarded to a company with no ships.

Seaborne Freight, which has not previously operated a ferry service, was one of three firms tasked with laying on additional crossings to ease the pressure on Dover.

It aims to operate freight ferries from Ramsgate in Kent to Ostend in Belgium, beginning with two ships in late March and increasing to four by the end of the summer.

But a Conservative county councillor for Ramsgate said he did not believe it would be possible to set up a new service from the port by the scheduled date of Brexit on 29 March.

Paul Messenger also questioned whether the government had carried out sufficient checks on the firm, telling 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 said in a statement it had been working since 2017 on plans to reintroduce ferry sailings from Ramsgate from early 2019 and has been “financed by the shareholders” during a development phase.

The company said this had involved ”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”.

It 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 (DfT) 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 firm was founded by industry veterans, its chief executive Ben Sharp told the BBC.

Ramsgate has not had a cross-Channel service since 2013, when operators TransEuropa collapsed.

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Sir Ed Davey said: “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.

“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.

“People must be given the final say on the Brexit deal with a people’s vote where they have the right to choose to remain.”

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Labour MP Tonia Antoniazzi, a supporter of the Best for Britain campaign for a second referendum, said: “Never has it been clearer that our government is selling us down the river over Brexit.

“A firm that has never run a ferry service before has been awarded a multi-million pound contract and they don’t even have any ships.

“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.”

A DfT spokesman added: “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.”

The DfT has also signed a £47.3m contract with Danish company DFDS and a £46.6m contract with French firm Brittany Ferries to increase capacity on their routes.

Ministers have been accused of “recklessly” spending public money on last-minute preparations for a disorderly Brexit, which will be the default scenario if MPs cannot reach an agreement.

Details of the deals were published quietly on Christmas Eve and reveal that Whitehall officials warned that a “situation of extreme urgency” exists in “roll-on roll-off” ferry capacity if the UK leaves the EU without a deal.

Additional reporting by Press Association

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