EU Exit Preparations: Ferry Contracts

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:37 pm on 5th March 2019.

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Photo of Drew Hendry Drew Hendry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 3:37 pm, 5th March 2019

It is a great pleasure to follow—well, everybody.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Alan Brown, and you, Mr Speaker, on granting this debate. It is important when such issues occur that the Government and their Ministers and Secretaries of State actually be held to account and not be allowed to duck and dive their way out of their responsibilities.

The Secretary of State is increasingly popular with some people—those employed by law firms—but he is not popular with anyone else. Let’s recap. He contracted a company with no ships or terms and conditions of their own and after no proper assessment. He has given no answers, there has been no accountability, he takes no responsibility, he basically does not have a clue, and the public have been left with a bill of at least £33 million, not counting the £800,000 in consultant fees and whatever else. Coming from a constituency ravaged by the effects of universal credit over the past six years, I find that deeply insulting to all the people suffering under the policies of this Government.

We have heard from other right hon. and hon. Members about the litany of failure that the Secretary of State has visited upon his ministerial career; it is well rehearsed and I will not go into it again. Nobody has confidence in this Secretary of State, and yesterday we found out, because he was too feart to appear, that even he does not have confidence in himself as Secretary of State. What he does have is a brass neck wider than a ship’s bell. What a snapshot of this Tory Brexit chaos and this Tory Government: defending the indefensible time after time, instead of doing what they should have done right away, which was rule out a no-deal Brexit.

The Secretary of State’s decision to award Seaborne Freight a contract worth £13.8 million attracted widespread criticism when it was announced. Seaborne was founded only two years ago and, as I said, had no ships or trading history. That has been raised by many of us in the Chamber since the beginning of the year, which was the first opportunity we had. Although the company had never run a channel service, it was one of three firms awarded contracts totalling £108 million to lay on additional crossings. As we have heard, the Department for Transport spent £800,000 on consultancy services when evaluating Seaborne, and was warned of significant risks that came with the tender. Despite that, Seaborne was awarded the contract.

As my hon. and learned Friend Joanna Cherry has pointed out time and again, concerns were also raised that the EU procurement rules had not been followed in the awarding of the contract. That has been brought home by the Eurotunnel action, which has been settled out of court. Eurotunnel had said that it would take legal action, and it did. The Department argued that because this was an emergency there was legal justification, but there was doubt about that, because the emergency scenario of a no-deal Brexit had been raised well in advance. This was a disastrous decision. The cost to the taxpayer of the Transport Secretary’s incompetence is now well beyond any joke.