The shadow transport secretary has said the contract with Seaborne Freight is 'likely to be unlawful', as the Government refused to release legal advice or details of the procurement process behind the deal.
The tidal wave of criticism that followed the Department for Transport’s £13.8m contract award with Seaborne Freight appeared to reach its zenith in the House of Commons this afternoon (8 January) and saw transport secretary Chris Grayling drowning in criticism.
MPs were not pacified by Mr Grayling's statement: ‘Let me stress no money will be paid to any operators unless and until they are actually operating on the routes we have contracted; no money will be paid until they are operating the ferries, no payment will be made unless the ships are sailing and of course in a no deal scenario money will be recouped from the sail of tickets on those ships.’
His chosen tactic in response to all urgent questions over the debacle was to simply refuse to answer any.
- declined to release legal advice on the deal
- declined to comment on the chequered history of two of Seaborne’s directors - which has seen other businesses and the taxpayer left out of pocket
- refused to answer what backup plan he had if Seaborne Freight was unable to deliver on the contract
- refused to comment in any detail about the due diligence process behind the award
- refused to name a single vessel the company has secured or if he had been told about a single vessel
- refused to comment on other vessels the company previously tried to secure
- refused to comment on why the contract did not go out to tender but was agreed behind closed doors given the regulations that allow such a process stipulate 'unforeseen circumstances', which MPs argued no deal did not qualify
- refused to discuss Seaborne Freight's commercial plans altogether.
Refusing to comment on Seaborne Freight in a parliamentary session about Seaborne Freight made for tough going and indeed tough watching. Just as Mr Grayling quickly ran into repetition, the MPs ran dry on heckles, moans, groans, exasperated sighs, guffaws and in the end a low rumble of general disbelief greeted almost every non answer.
The secretary resorted to insults to fight his way through. He sneered at the ‘idiocy’ of the opposition, its ‘utter tripe’ and claimed it was motivated by a ‘visceral hatred of small business’.
Labour’s Andy McDonald delivered an extensive broadside: ‘A company with no money, no ships, no track record, no employees, no ports, one telephone line and no working website or sailing schedule. Two of Seaborne Freight’s directors would not past normal due diligence requirements. One of them Ben Sharp is already under investigation by another department. Did the DfT consult other departments about Mr sharp's fitness as a company director?'
Mr McDonald told MPs Mr Sharp owes over £1m to one company and is in debt to ‘many more companies besides’.
He concluded that ‘this contract is very likely unlawful and violates every current best practice guidance issued by Whitehall’.
Mr Grayling answered with what became a common refrain for the afternoon: ‘I am not even going to address the idiocy that the honourable gentlemen has come up with. He has made a number of allegations, which I suggest he goes and makes elsewhere.’
Luciana Berger MP said that another company director at Seaborne, Brian Raincock, had his previous company go into liquidation in April 2017 owing £585,000 to the taxpayer. Again Mr Grayling, would not comment on the private tax arrangements of an individual.
MPs were keen to know if HMRC would see any of this money back following the Seaborne Freight deal. But this plea also failed to move the secretary of state.
Mr Grayling did reveal that the DfT only received ‘three compliant bids [for the work], all of which we judged acceptable and all of which we accepted’.
The other two contracts, which covered around 90% of the work, went to Brittany Ferries and DFDS.
Craig Mackinlay Conservative MP for South Thanet added: ‘I have met with Seaborne Freight and they have shown themselves to be the only party to be interested over a number of years in running new services between Ramsgate and Ostend and that was before this contingency planning.’
The last freight service operating from Ramsgate collapsed in 2013 leaving Thanet District Council, which manages the Port, with a £3.3m bill.
For its part the DfT refused to answer all questions from Transport Network regarding its internal procurement process for the contract.
Mr Grayling also found time to refuse to comment on reports in the Financial Times that a DfT commissioned report by University College London, which argued that just an extra 70 seconds of customs checks in the event of a no-deal Brexit per vehicle would leave trucks facing a six-day queue to board ferries at Dover. Extra processing time of 80 seconds per truck would lead to 'widespread permanent gridlock'.
A concept the House had, in the last half an hour, become very familiar with.