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Leaving the EU: Ports

Volume 652: debated on Thursday 10 January 2019

4. What steps he is taking to reduce potential disruption to travel at UK ports in the event of the UK leaving the EU without a deal. (908475)

9. What steps he is taking to reduce potential disruption to travel at UK ports in the event of the UK leaving the EU without a deal. (908480)

The Department has been working for some time to ensure that traffic can continue to flow through UK ports as frictionlessly as possible in all scenarios when we leave the European Union. This has included engaging closely with others across Government, and with ports and their representative bodies. As regards ferry capacity, I refer the House to the two statements I made earlier this week.

The Government will forgive the House some scepticism about their efficacy and intention in this regard. Surely the Seaborne fiasco shows that only one of two things can be happening: either there is abject incompetence in the preparations for no deal; or the Secretary of State and his Department are not really taking them seriously. Which is it?

What is disappointing is that I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman, as a Scottish Member, would welcome the additional opportunities for Scottish business as a result of expanded services from east coast ports to northern Europe provided by DFDS, which is a very substantial part of the contracts that we have let.

Seaborne Freight has negative equity of just over £374,000, with one director being investigated by the Government for a trail of debt related to previous companies, yet due diligence did not flag this up. Can the Secretary of State confirm whether that is because due diligence guidance was to look not at individuals’ trading history, but only at Seaborne’s proposals? Why was such guidance provided?

As I said in the House earlier this week, we will not be paying Seaborne until ferries operate. From the point of view of business in Scotland, we have made sure that there are additional routes available from the east coast ports to northern Europe. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, which I hope will not happen, that should be a really valuable alternative for Scottish business, and the hon. Gentleman should welcome that.

How long has the Minister’s Department estimated it will take to recruit and train the thousands of additional customs officers who will be required if we leave without a deal, and what conversations has he had with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs about this?

I am very confident, as I have said, that HMRC will be ready. Of course, the point is that, at the moment, we do not collect customs tariffs or carry out checks. The Government have said very clearly that our prime priority in a post-Brexit world will be the fluidity of trade; other things can follow. Security, of course, remains of paramount importance, but beyond that, other things can follow. That is the approach the Government have taken.

I have two ports in my constituency, with ferry connections running from Milford Haven and Fishguard to Ireland. Those ports assure me that they have the skills and the capacity to handle a variety of Brexit scenarios, but all they see at the moment is the promise of further argument and gridlock in this place. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we have a duty in this House to provide a way forward for this industry? Those who take comfort in just opposing everything are failing in their responsibilities.

I agree with my right hon. Friend. The reality is that it is all well and good Labour Members saying, “We don’t want no deal,” but then they are going to vote against the deal. They have not come up with any credible alternative plan, so I am afraid I take with a very large pinch of salt most of what the Labour party says at the moment.

Will the Secretary of State confirm to the House that the Government have signed the common transit convention, which means that, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, customs declarations and import duties, as now, will be required to be paid only when the goods arrive at their final destination?

That is absolutely correct. In very many international trading scenarios using the common transit convention, customs processes can be at the start and the end of the journey. That is one reason why I felt able to say to the House earlier this week that I was confident that, in all circumstances, trade would continue to move relatively freely.

It has been reported that the Secretary of State’s Department is in talks with two rail freight companies about options to provide additional services via the channel tunnel and High Speed 1 to ensure supplies of food and medicines in the event of blockages at Kent ports. It is also claimed that the Department has written to Southeastern trains warning of possible disruption to its services if additional daytime freight movements are required. Is his Department really contemplating emergency rail timetables in the event of a no-deal Brexit? Has he written to Southeastern regarding such contingency plans? Should the many thousands of rail commuters in Kent be bracing themselves for possible disruption?

The Secretary of State’s responses in Tuesday’s urgent question on the Seaborne fiasco were disgraceful. He has awarded an emergency ferry contract to a company with no boats, no ports agreement, no personnel, debts and key personnel with dubious trading pasts. Parliament needs answers. How was Seaborne identified as a company that merited direct negotiations for an emergency contract?

It is a bit like the proverbial stuck gramophone record. I said very clearly, earlier this week, that we have let contracts with a number of operators, of which Seaborne represents about 10%, and we pay no money unless the service is delivered. To clarify further what the Chair of the Transport Committee said a moment ago, we are talking to a number of other potential outlets, in case extra capacity were to be needed—rail, ports, maritime—but nothing else has been decided. We have not issued instructions to any rail company about disruptive timetables and we have not taken any further steps to put additional measures in place. We are simply checking the lie of the land so that we can respond to all eventualities.

This is an emergency contract that the Secretary of State thought was so critical it could circumvent EU procurement rules for direct negotiation, yet he says, “It’s only 10%” and “Don’t worry, if they don’t deliver, they don’t get paid.” That means they don’t deliver that emergency service. We know how sensitive Dover is; there are predictions of delays that could lead to 30-mile queues. If that 10% is not delivered, what is the impact on Dover?

This is why 90% of the new contracts are with DFDS and Brittany Ferries. As I said, I am disappointed that the Scottish National party does not welcome the DFDS contract that will provide additional routes from east coast ports to northern Europe, which will be beneficial to Scottish business.

Putting to one side the ridiculous and desperate allegations of the Secretary of State that Labour is anti-business and his banal allegations over Brexit, I point out that the Seaborne fiasco lays bare his total incompetence and the complete failure of due diligence. Before granting the ferry contract, was he aware of the debt or the promissory note between Ben Sharp, now Seaborne’s CEO, and Mid-Gulf Offshore, acknowledging Sharp’s indebtedness to that company of over $1 million, which remains unpaid?

That clearly got under the hon. Gentleman’s skin because he really does not like Government supporting new start-up businesses. The reality is, as I said earlier this week, that due diligence on this contract was done by Slaughter and May, Deloitte and Mott MacDonald, as he would expect, and off the back of that we formed a contract which we pay nothing for until the service is delivered.

Here’s another one the Secretary of State might not answer. As a result of this debacle, a variety of legal challenges to the Secretary of State may well flow from, among others, existing freight service providers with capacity. On Tuesday, he said that Seaborne will be able to run ferry services immediately, but on Wednesday the Government said that Seaborne will not be able to open the route between Ramsgate and Ostend until late April at the very earliest. Surely that puts Seaborne in default of its contract to deliver services from 29 March and the contract is therefore void. In those circumstances, should not he reverse his appalling judgment and cancel the contract without delay?

We will hold all the companies that have presented us with proposals to the terms of their contracts.