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DfT criticised over "Whitehall Farce" of Seaborne Freight

11 February 2019 (updated on 11 February 2019)

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The Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Andy McDonald asked an urgent question in the Commons following the Government's cancellation of a controversial ferry contract.

The Department of Transport (DfT) faced criticism earlier in the year when it awarded a contract to provide a Ramsgate-Ostend ferry service, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, to Seaborne Freight, a company that didn't own any ships.

Responding to an urgent question on 9 January, the Secretary of State for Transport said that Seaborne Freight had been thoroughly vetted, and that no money would be paid to them, or any other ferry provider operating no-deal contingency routes, until the agreed routes were operational.

The news broke on Saturday 9 February that Arklow, an Irish freight company who were backing Seaborne had withdrawn from the deal, "without warning".

Shortly afterwards, a spokesperson for the Department for Transport announced that the contract with Seaborne would be cancelled as it had become clear that they could not meet their contractual requirements.

Addressing the Commons in response to the urgent question Chris Grayling, the Secretary of State for Transport, said,

"By last week the company [Seaborne Freight] had secured firm options on ships to operate on the route, and had reached provisional agreement with Ostend and was close to doing so with Ramsgate. However, late last week despite previous assurances, Arklow Shipping suddenly and unexpectedly withdrew their backing from Seaborne. In the light of this, and after very careful assessment, I took the decision to terminate this contract."

Responding for the opposition, Andy McDonald said,

"What began as a debacle has now descended into a Whitehall farce [...] I repeatedly warned the Secretary of State that this was the wrong decision at the time, as did industry".

He went on to criticise the Department for Transport for taking shortcuts in the procurement process and trying to deny responsibility. The Shadow Secretary called on the Minister to resign.

Mr Grayling called his opponent's comments "hogwash" and the Department for Transport says it is in "advanced talks" to find another ferry firm to replace Seaborne Freight in its no-deal contingency planning.

Image: Bill Boaden, Geograph

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