EU Exit Preparations: Ferry Contracts

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:57 pm on 5th March 2019.

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Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice and Home Affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 2:57 pm, 5th March 2019

It may have been a nice try, but I am not going to leave this one alone. I want to know how much of that £33 million will be repaid in the event of there being a deal. I think I know the answer: it will be nil. I want to know whether there was any legal agreement that any amount of that £33 million was to be spent on improved security, and if so, to what extent. I will not be leaving those issues alone either today or in the future.

I was the first person, to my knowledge, to raise this issue on the Floor of the House or in Committee earlier this year. When I got hold of a copy of the contract with Seaborne Freight, which was readily available on the internet, I, like any lawyer worth their salt, looked up the Public Contracts Regulations and realised that it looked very much as though the Government had avoided the competitive tendering process that they are bound to carry out under law.

That is why I raised this issue with the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union in the Chamber on 7 January. I am going to go through the chronology because I want to make the point that I have raised at least half a dozen times the question of what was the urgent or unforeseeable event that justified there not being a competitive tender, and that on no occasion have I received the answer that has been given today by the Secretary of State for Transport that it was to do with a decision taken collectively by the Government last autumn to improve the supply of medicines in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The very first time I heard such an explanation was on the television at the weekend, when the Secretary of State for Health used it, and he of course used it again yesterday. However, it is very odd—again, this informs my puzzlement and frustration earlier this afternoon—that we have never heard that explanation before.

Let me go through the chronology. On 7 January in this Chamber, I asked the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union why the contract with Seaborne Freight had proceeded under the negotiated procurement procedure without prior publication—that is to say, not competitively—because it seems to me that it must have been foreseeable for quite a long time that there might be a no-deal situation and it was therefore hard to say that no deal had come out of the blue and was urgent or unforeseeable. I received the usual non-answer from the Secretary of State. I will not bore hon. Members with the contents of the answer—they can look it up in Hansard—but there is nothing about a requirement to prepare for the urgent supply of medicine and, indeed, no kind of explanation at all.

The following day, 8 January, I raised the same point with the Secretary of State for Transport on the Floor of the House. I said I was concerned about the legality of the procurement process, that I had a copy of the contract notice and that, as my hon. Friend Alan Brown had reminded the House earlier that day, no deal has always been a possibility because the Prime Minister said right at the beginning that no deal is better than a bad deal. I asked the Secretary of State what the urgency was and whether the Government had set aside any funds in the event of legal action. I got a non-answer, other than to say it was a “matter of extreme urgency”, and there was no reference to the supply of medicine.

The following day, 9 January, I raised the matter in some detail with the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Chris Heaton-Harris, at a question and answer session before the Exiting the European Union Committee. I am proud to say that the segment where I questioned him went viral on the internet. I asked him a number of times to tell the Committee what the urgent and unforeseeable event was that justified these contracts not going out to competitive tender, and he was unable to tell me.

If the explanation that it had been a collective decision by the UK Government to put these contracts out non-competitively in order to secure the supply of medicines, I would have expected the Minister in charge of no deal planning at the Department for Exiting the European Union to know that. The fact that he did not know and, under sustained questioning, did not mention it does raise a suspicion in my mind that it is an explanation that has been invented after the fact, rather than an explanation that has always been the case.