MPs get little answer from government over Seaborne Freight

 

The secretary of state for Exiting the European Union has declined to answer if or when the government would release the legal advice behind the £13.8m Seaborne Freight Ltd contract, which has faced a barrage of criticism in recent days.

The SNP's Joanna Cherry MP asked the question in the House of Commons on Monday (7 January) following a written statement to Parliament from transport secretary Chris Grayling.

The ministerial statement sought to explain aspects of the deal including why it has been negotiated behind closed doors without a tender.

”Local
Ramsgate - where Seaborne Freight would operate from

'A negotiated procurement procedure without prior publication was concluded as allowed for by Regulation 32 of The Public Contracts Regulations 2015.

'An accelerated competitive process was carried out in order to ensure that capacity can be put in place in time for a no deal exit whilst at the same time securing value for money for the taxpayer.

Ms Cherry asked: 'They [the regulations] seem to envisage an emergency situation brought about by events unforeseeable by the contracting authority.

'It seems to me, Mr Speaker that is has been foreseeable by the Government and by everyone in this country for some time that there might be a no deal situation. So are the government going to publish the legal advice that enabled them to proceed under regulation 32 (of the public contracts regulations 2015) and if so when can we expect to see it?'

Mr Barclay MP declined to answer the specific question.

He said: 'The reality is it is the responsible thing for a government to do, to ensure we have additional capacity and with the timescales short it was necessary to follow a specific procurement route as the secretary of state has set out.'

The Guardian has also reported that the permanent secretary at the DfT demanded a written ministerial instruction for some aspects of no deal Brexit spending. Such an instruction usually only happens when the civil service questions a chosen strategy or its value for money. 

In response to a question from Meg Hillier on whether the Department for Transport was 'up to the job' of assuring Parliament it is prepared for Brexit.

Mr Barclay conceded that Ms Hillier would probably be looking into these contracts as part of her role on the Public Accounts Committee, which last year criticised the DfT for appearing to be under-prepared for a no deal Brexit.

It also complained about a lack of transparency in its preparations through its non-disclosure agreements with business.  

Labour MP Paula Sherriff took up the issue and asked 'why a company that doesn't own any ships and appears to have some very spurious terms and conditions on its website - [a reference to Seaborne Freight having apparently copied and pasted its terms and conditions from a food takeway website] - has been awarded a contract worth over £13m?'

She followed up by asking whether the same level of diligence will be used if any further contracts are issued.

Mr Barclay said: 'The reason is quite straightforward against a finite deadline in terms of time of leaving the European Union, we do need to put in contingency plans.

'It was the case that we were hoping to have secured the deal which would have meant we would not have needed to put in that no deal contingency arrangements but given the level of uncertainty that has been necessary and that is the responsible thing for a government to do to prepare for eventualities.'

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