Transport secretary Chris Grayling has defended a £13.8m ferry contract being given to a company with no boats on the grounds that the Government is supporting new British business.
Last week the Government awarded Seaborne Freight the work to run a freight service between Ramsgate (pictured) and Ostend to assist with post-Brexit cross-Channel congestion.
Ferry services have not operated from Ramsgate since 2013. A previous operator - TransEuropa - collapsed owing £3.3m to Thanet Council, which runs the port.
No picture of a Seaborne Freight vessel was available
The BBC subsequently reported that Seaborne Freight has never run a ferry service before and it does not currently appear to have any vessels.
Mr Grayling told the BBC’s Today radio programme: ‘I am expecting the channel ports to operate normally in all Brexit circumstances. I have had detailed discussions with my French counterparts they want to keep the channel ports moving freely and I’m confident that will happen. We are putting in place a bit of extra capacity before the start of the Brexit process just to ease the pressure on the ports.’
He added: ‘I make no apologies for supporting a new British business. The reality is, it’s a tightly drawn-up contract that requires them to deliver – but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with government supporting a small business.'
It was put to Mr Grayling that the firm owns no ships and has no track record. He responded: ‘Well, it’s a start-up business. The Government is supporting new British business, there’s nothing wrong with that. We’ve looked very carefully at this business, we’ve put in place a tight contract to make sure that they can deliver for us, but I don’t see any problem with supporting a new British business.
Last week Conservative Kent county councillor Paul Messenger told the BBC that it was impossible for the Government to have carried out sufficient checks on the firm.
Mr Grayling said: ‘I’m not quite sure what an individual Conservative councillor 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, have reached a conclusion they can deliver, and this was an invitation to tender they bid for – they were one of three companies that bid successfully to deliver services for us. We put in place a different contract to the other two operators who are big and established, to make sure they can deliver for us.’
Asked whether it will be possible to get the port of Ramsgate up and running again as a ferry port in time for a no-deal Brexit, Mr Grayling said: ‘We believe they are on track to be able to run ferries in April, yes.’