Questions have been raised over the Government’s preparations for a no-deal Brexit, after it emerged a £13.8 million contract to run extra ferries has been handed to a company with no ships and which has not previously operated a service.
Seaborne Freight was one of three companies awarded contracts totalling £108 million last week to lay on additional crossings to ease the pressure on Dover.
The company aims to operate freight ferries from Ramsgate to the Belgian port of Ostend, beginning with two ships in late March and increasing to four by the end of the summer.
The company said in a statement that it had been working since 2017 on plans to reintroduce ferry sailings from Ramsgate starting in early 2019.
It said that a “development phase” included “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”.
The company plans to start with two ships in late March and increase to four by late summer, the statement added.
A Department for Transport spokesman said: “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.”
Seaborne said its difficulties included narrow berths at the Kent port.
Its statement also said: “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 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.”
Ministers faced questions over the contract from across the political divide.
Paul Messenger, a Conservative county councillor for Ramsgate, questioned in a BBC interview whether the government had carried out sufficient checks on the firm, saying: “It has no ships and no trading history so how can due diligence be done?”
Labour MP Tonia Antoniazzi, a campaigner for a second referendum, said: “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”, she concluded.
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