Chris Grayling has defended his decision to award a £13.8m contract to charter extra ferries to a “start-up” company that has no ships, as part of no-deal Brexit preparations.
The transport secretary said he would “make no apologies for supporting a new British business” after widespread criticism of the award of the contract to the British firm Seaborne Freight, which has never previously operated a similar service.
“It’s a new start-up business, government is supporting new British business and there is nothing wrong with that,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“We have looked very carefully at this business, we have put in place a tight contract that makes sure they can deliver for us. I don’t see any problem with supporting a new British business.”
He said the firm would be ready to deliver services from April and had been “looked at very carefully by a team of civil servants who have done due diligence on the company and reached a view they can deliver”.
The contract is one of three agreements worth a total of £107.7m signed by the government to help ease congestion at Dover by securing extra lorry capacity in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
Seaborne hopes to operate freight ferries from Ramsgate from late March, beginning with two ships and increasing to four by the end of the summer.
The local Conservative councillor Paul Messenger was the first to raise concern in public about awarding such a lucrative contract to a firm with no prior experience. “It has no ships and no trading history so how can due diligence be done?” he told the BBC.
He said the company had not moved “a single truck in their entire history … I don’t understand the logic of that”.
Grayling dismissed the criticism on Wednesday, saying: “I am not quite sure what an individual Conservative councillor would be able to tell us.”
He said the Department for Transport was confident the ferries would run by April. “We haven’t plucked this out of thin air,” he said.
Seaborne was established two years ago with the aim of running freight ferries between Ramsgate and Ostend in Belgium. The company said it had been financed initially by shareholders to source suitable vessels and make arrangements with ports as well as building the infrastructure and crewing the vessels.
“It was intended to start the service in mid-February but this has now been delayed until late March for operational reasons,” the firm said in a statement earlier this week.