The Transport Secretary has defended the government’s decision to award a multi-million pound contract for no-deal Brexit ferry services to a company with no ships.
Chris Grayling said the £13.8million deal with Seaborne Freight, which has never run cross-Channel ferry services before, was an example of the government “supporting new business”.
“It’s a new start-up business, government is supporting new business and there is nothing wrong with that,” Grayling said.
Seaborne was one of three firms awarded contracts totalling £108m to lay on additional crossings to ease the pressure on the port of Dover if Britain leaves the EU with no agreement on cross-border trade.
Critics said the move showed Brexit was descending into “farce”.
But Grayling told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme that Seaborne had been properly vetted before being chosen, after concerns were raised over its ability to fulfil the contract.
“We have looked very carefully at this business and have put in place a tight contract that makes sure they can deliver for us,” he said.
“This has been looked at very carefully by a team of civil servants who have done due diligence.
“We believe they are on track to run services from April, yes.”
Seaborne aims to operate freight ferries from Ramsgate in Kent to the Belgian port of Ostend, beginning with two ships in late March and increasing to four by the end of the summer.
It was established two years ago and has been in negotiations about running freight ferries between Ramsgate and Ostend, but no services are currently running.
Narrow berths in the port mean there are few suitable commercial vessels available.
In a statement at the end of December, the company said it had been working since 2017 on plans to reintroduce ferry sailings from Ramsgate from early 2019.
This has descended into farce.Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran
The business has been “financed by the shareholders” during a development phase involving “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”.
Grayling also told Today that he expected Channel ports to operate normally after Brexit, however the UK exited the trade bloc.
Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, who supports the Best for Britain campaign for a second referendum, said: “This has descended into farce. Supporting new business is one thing, awarding a multimillion-pound ferry contract to a company with no ships is quite another.
“If Chris Grayling is serious about supporting new British business he might wish to reconsider his position on the damaging Brexit his government is pursuing and give the people the final say.”