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Seaborne Freight

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:41 pm on 8th January 2019.

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Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling The Secretary of State for Transport 1:41 pm, 8th January 2019

The Government are working towards ensuring that we leave the European Union in March with a sensible agreement for the future, through the withdrawal agreement that the House will consider next week, but any responsible Government need to plan for all eventualities. As part of that work, the Department for Transport has been undertaking a wide range of activities to mitigate the impact on the transport system of a potential no-deal EU exit, particularly around the movement of freight. For example, my Department has been delivering measures such as the Haulage Permits and Trailer Registration Act 2018, which puts systems in place if a permit system is required to ensure that UK heavy goods vehicles can continue to be used in the EU.

We have also put in place Operation Brock as a replacement for Operation Stack, in order to deal with disruption at the channel ports. This is not simply a Brexit-related measure. We do not want to see any repeat of the issues that Kent faced in 2015, with the closure of the M20. If there is any disruption at the ports, for whatever reason, Operation Brock should keep the motorway open while we prepare the long-term solution of a lorry park. Yesterday, Kent County Council and my Department carried out a live trial of one part of Brock, on the route from Manston. We were satisfied with the number of vehicles that took part, which was more than enough to determine a safe optimum release rate from Manston to the port of Dover via the A256 and caused minimal traffic disruption along the route.

This is a range of examples of the sensible contingency planning that a responsible Government are carrying out to ensure that we are prepared for a range of outcomes. We remain committed to ensuring that movement across the UK border is as frictionless as possible, whatever the outcome. However, without planning, there could be significant disruption to the Dover strait, particularly if no agreement is reached. Given the importance of these routes to the UK economy, it is vital that we put in place contingency plans to mitigate any disruption that might occur in a no-deal scenario.

The Department is working with the port of Dover and the channel tunnel—as well as with our French counterparts, at both official and ministerial level—to ensure that both operate at the maximum possible capacity in all instances. Those discussions are positive and I am confident that everyone is working constructively to ensure that the Dover-Calais route—particularly at the port of Dover—and the tunnel continue to operate fluidly in all scenarios. However, in order to ease any pressure on those routes, my Department has completed a proper procurement process to secure additional ferry capacity between the UK and the EU. Following this process, three contracts were awarded to operators, totalling a potential £103 million. Almost 90% of that was awarded to two well-established operators: £46 million to Brittany Ferries and about £42 million to DFDS. These contracts provide additional capacity on established routes, and through additional sailings and, in some cases, additional vessels, into ports in northern Europe and other parts of France.

A third, smaller contract, which is potentially worth £13.8 million, was awarded to Seaborne Freight, a new British operator, to provide a new service between the port of Ramsgate and Ostend. Let me stress that no money will be paid to any of these operators unless and until they are actually operating ferries on the routes we have contracted. No money will be paid until they are operating the ferries. No payment will be made unless the ships are sailing, and of course, in a no-deal scenario, money will be recouped through the sale of tickets on those ships.

As I believe the House knows, Seaborne is a new operator looking to reopen that route, which closed five years ago. As a result of this, we ensured that its business and operational plans were assessed for the Department by external advisers, including Slaughter and May, Deloitte and Mott MacDonald. These included Seaborne’s plans to charter vessels for service, as is common across many transport modes including airlines and rail operators. We also conducted searches on the directors of Seaborne via a third party, and found nothing that would prevent them from contracting with the Government.

I make no apology for being willing to contract with a new British company, particularly one that has a large number of reputable institutional backers. We contracted with Seaborne Freight because the service it proposes represents a sensible contingency in the event of disruption on other routes. I am also pleased that this award supports the port of Ramsgate, which operated as a commercial ferry port as recently as 2013 and has taken roll-on roll-off services as recently as last year. I am looking forward to seeing ferry services resume from this port. The infrastructure work required to make that possible has already started, and it is one of the most visible and symbolic elements of how seriously my Department is taking contingency planning for all Brexit eventualities.