Chris Grayling’s transport department has left taxpayers footing an £85m bill because of a “rushed and risky” Brexit procurement of ferry freight capacity, a financial watchdog has said.
MPs on the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) have laid into the transport secretary’s handling of Brexit planning and voiced fears that preparations for the October 31 deadline risk running out of time.
PAC chairwoman Meg Hillier, whose committee scrutinises public spending, said, in a report on transport planning released on Wednesday that the department had squandered cash and failed to build ferry capacity to deal with post-Brexit emergencies.
Grayling, who may not keep his job when a new prime minister is elected, was also urged to “keep a close eye” on Brexit spending.
She said: “In just four months’ time, on October 31, the UK is expected to leave the EU yet momentum appears to have slowed in Whitehall.
“Departments must urgently step up their preparations and ensure that the country is ready.
“The taxpayer has been landed with a £85 million bill with very little to show for it following the rushed procurement of ferry freight capacity.
“This £33 million Eurotunnel settlement comes on top of the money paid to cancel the ill-fated ferries deal.
“Public benefits from the settlement with Eurotunnel amount to little more than window dressing.
“The department needs to keep a close eye and ensure that Eurotunnel deliver what is promised.”
The PAC’s new report said: “Prior to the previous planned departure date of March 29, 2019, we had raised concerns with a number of departments about the rate of progress with the preparations.
“With little lead time left, the Department for Transport undertook a rushed and risky procurement of additional ferry capacity which opened it to a court challenge from Eurotunnel, which had been excluded from the procurement, and which culminated in an out-of-court settlement costing £33 million.
“Coupled with the £51.4 million cost of cancelling the contracts with the ferry operators, the total cost of this procurement to the taxpayer stands at around £85 million.”
The report said the Transport Department “must learn from this episode”.
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has come under heavy fire from the opposition over Brexit planning.
MPs said they were “concerned” that Government departments “appear to be waiting for clear instructions on what they should now plan for on Brexit”.
The PAC stated: “We acknowledge that without political certainty it is challenging, but the government needs to inject direction into departments’ preparations for leaving the EU with a deal, without a deal, or any delay, as a matter of urgency.”
The report found: “Momentum appears to have slowed in Whitehall, with preparations for the UK leaving the EU on October 31 not happening quickly enough.
“The Department for Transport says that its immediate arrangements for leaving the EU were stood down after April and that it was reviewing the ‘sensible course to take to step those up again’.
“We remain concerned that departments’ preparations are being left too late. The window for decision-making for any departure on October 31 is short and key deadlines for decisions are passing every day.
“The Government must ensure that departments urgently step up their preparations on the assumption that the UK could be leaving the EU on October 31 and be ready to implement them.”
With the Government needing to make “imminent” decisions about ferry freight options, the PAC said: “The Department for Transport should set out within weeks what it has learnt from this procurement to ensure it does not expose the taxpayer to unnecessary risk and excessive cost in the future and particularly in its preparations for October 31.”
A Department for Transport spokeswoman said: “The freight capacity contracts were taken out as an insurance policy for the UK to ensure that key medical supplies could be guaranteed in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
“This step was in response to changed assumptions about potential delays in the Dover strait, and the agreements were entered into as soon as a cross-Government collective decision was taken that they were needed.
“Two weeks ago the department outlined a new framework proposal to provide a list of operators capable of delivering this vital freight capacity without the Government committing to any agreements at this stage, with market engagement already underway.”
Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said the report exposed the Government’s “shambolic” no-deal preparations.
“It is beyond belief that he should be given another opportunity to squander public cash and throw our transport networks into chaos,” he said.
“This country cannot afford Chris Grayling.”