Grayling claims 'no risk' in £14m Brexit ferry contract

PUBLISHED: 20:00 31 January 2019

British Transport Secretary Chris Grayling. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images.

British Transport Secretary Chris Grayling. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images.

2018 Getty Images

Chris Grayling has defended his controversial decision to grant a £14m contract to a ferry firm in the event of a no-deal Brexit despite it having no ships.

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The transport secretary was widely criticised for awarding Seaborne Freight the contract in December having never run shipping services or operating any commercial vessels.

In an interview with The House magazine he insisted there is “no risk” with the deal.

He also hit out at the level of public criticism he receives, suggesting that as a “prominent Brexiteer in the Cabinet” he has become a “lightning rod for the anti-Brexit brigade”.

Seaborne was one of three firms awarded contracts totalling £108m.

The deal is hoped to ease pressure on Dover when Britain leaves the EU.

The UK operator will control freight ferries from Ramsgate in Kent to the Belgian port of Ostend, beginning with two ships in late March.

This will be increased to four ships by the end of the summer.

He also said he did not expect Kent to come to a “grinding halt” even if there were lorry jams caused by the imposition of customs checks at the Channel ports.

Seaborne was established two years ago but does not have any services running.

It has also been accused of failings, including copying part of its website from that of a takeaway firm.

Grayling told The House: “It’s not a risk. The point is that we have carried out a tender exercise; we’ve invited ferry companies to come forward with proposals.

“They’ve come up with a bid that has passed external validation. Because they’re a new business, because they have not got everything into place yet, the deal we have done says we pay nothing unless and until they deliver the service.”

Asked about how giving a ferry deal to a firm with no ships looked, he added: “I’m interested in doing the right thing. I’m not interested in playing for press coverage.”

Grayling said the government’s plan would “take a little bit of pressure off the Channel ports in order to make sure that we can get essential supplies for organisations like the NHS into the country” if there were jams in Kent.

He said: “I remain quite optimistic now that the flow of traffic through the Channel ports will carry on relatively normally even in a no-deal Brexit. But people would expect us to be ready.

“I do not expect Kent to run to a halt, even if there are lorry jams, there are now places for those lorries to go.”

The transport secretary has also been in the firing line over new train timetables which caused major disruption last summer.

Passengers in the north and south-east of England suffered delays and cancellations for several weeks after train timetables were changed on May 20.

He attacked the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT union), saying it “regards Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party as too right wing to affiliate to”.

Grayling added: “I’ve also made some big calls - like the expansion of Heathrow, the right thing to do for the country but politically difficult and unpopular with some vested interests.

“A lot of people out there want to frustrate the democratic will of the British people who voted to leave the EU and because I’m a prominent Brexiteer in the Cabinet who backs the Prime Minister’s deal I’m a lightning rod for the anti-Brexit brigade.”

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