EU Exit Preparations: Ferry Contracts

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:21 pm on 5th March 2019.

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Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union) 3:21 pm, 5th March 2019

I congratulate Alan Brown on securing the debate, and you, Mr Speaker, on granting it.

Carol Monaghan, who is no longer in her place, earlier speculated on why it was the Secretary of State for Health who responded yesterday. I am sure Members are aware that requests have gone out to civil servants in all Departments, for example the Department for Education, saying, “Please, please, please, will you come and work for one of the Brexit Departments?” It may be that the Secretary of State for Health was simply responding to such a request from the Department for Transport to go and bolster the numbers in that Department.

Mr Speaker, you rightly pre-empted the introductory comments a number of Members wanted to make in relation to the Secretary of State’s rather cluttered hall of shame. Had you enabled us to dwell a little bit on the other matters for which the Secretary of State has been responsible, or indeed irresponsible, this debate would have continued for much longer. I will just say, “Probation, timetable fiasco, drones” and move on to the subject of Seaborne. Before I do, it is worth pointing out on the timetable fiasco that in correspondence with me the Secretary of State refused even to reveal that the Department for Transport had any responsibility for that. That is rather indicative of the way he approaches things, as is his unwillingness to issue an apology for anything he has been responsible for. I think he actually sneaked in a very small apology earlier today, I think for the first time, although it was collective responsibility that he seemed to be admitting to. Maybe that is a positive development.

I have a chronology. It is not as detailed, erudite or in-depth as anything from Joanna Cherry, but I thought I would go through recent statements by the Secretary of State to see where he has referred to no deal, just to see his level of awareness of the prospect of no deal. I started googling, as everyone does these days, and the first reference was from last month. Nothing surprising there. Apparently, because of the Secretary of State’s completely disrespectful manner and what he has been saying about a no-deal Brexit, he has been banned from the port of Calais. That augurs well. I understand he may have had to leave the Chamber because there is currently a go-slow at Calais. It does not augur well for our future relationship if Calais has sought to ban our Secretary of State for Transport because of his attitude to no deal.

Going back a bit further to September 2018, Mr Barnier was apparently ticking off one of our departed Secretaries of State for Exiting the European Union, Dominic Raab, over his no-deal letters. In September 2018, therefore, there was clearly an awareness of no deal. In August 2018, hauliers were warning our Secretary of State for Transport that he had no plans for no deal, so clearly in August he was being warned that he had no plans. Going back a little bit further to February 2018, some Members will remember that the Secretary of State for Transport was saying that in a no-deal situation we would be growing our own—farmers in the UK would be doing the growing, but presumably some of us would be too—potatoes and other vegetables in our own back gardens. He had also made the same comment in October 2017.

At that point, Mr Speaker, I gave up. It was clear that however much more trawling I did, I would find earlier references the Secretary of State had made to the risk of no deal. Clearly, for him to say now, or to have said a couple of months ago, that no deal was an emergency about which there was no knowledge within the Government, is not borne out by the facts that are very easily there and available for people to dip into if they choose to do so.

More recently, the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West has been particularly insistent on pursuing him over the contracts, as have other Members of the SNP and Members of other parties. I wrote to the Secretary of State in January. My final question was: “Are the contracts in accordance with procurement rules?” I made lots of other points in the letter, most of which were answered, but that final point was not answered. I do not know why. A lot of other things were said in the reply to my letter, including that it was because of me personally and my Liberal Democrat colleagues that we were going to have no deal, rather than the 118 Conservative Members who voted against the Prime Minister’s deal. Apparently, it was all my fault. However, the point about whether the contracts were in accordance with procurement rules was completely ignored in the response I received. The response was not from the Secretary of State, of course; it was from the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Ms Ghani.

I would like to conclude, as I know other Members wish to speak. We have had to bring the Secretary of State, or his representative on Earth in the shape of the Secretary of State for Health, before us a number of times and it is hard to find new material to go over, so I will just finish by saying that in any other Government at any other time the Secretary of State would be sacked by the Prime Minister. In any other Government at any other time, the Secretary of State would in fact have resigned before he was sacked, but this is not any other Government at any other time. Our calamitous Secretary of State remains in post mainly, I suspect, because he was in charge of the Prime Minister’s leadership campaign when she became our Prime Minister.