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House of Commons Hansard
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11 February 2019
Volume 654

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To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the cancellation of a contract with Seaborne Freight as part of the Government’s contingency planning for a no-deal Brexit.

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In December, following a collective Government decision and a procurement process involving my Department and the Treasury, we contracted with three shipping companies to provide additional ferry capacity as part of contingency planning for a potential no-deal EU exit.

Let me make it absolutely clear that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, the Government’s priority will be to ensure the smooth operation of both the port of Dover and the channel tunnel, and we are introducing measures at the UK end to contribute to that. However, any sensible Government plan for all eventualities. That is why we agreed contracts worth around £100 million, with the bulk of the award—£89 million—going to DFDS and Brittany Ferries to provide services across seven separate routes. Built into those agreements are options to add capacity on two other routes from those companies, should they be required. That capacity could be needed to guarantee the smooth flow of some key goods into the UK, particularly for the NHS. It is worth my reminding the House that, in the event of no deal and constriction on the short strait, the capacity would be sold on to hauliers carrying priority goods.

In addition to the £89 million-worth of contracts with DFDS and Brittany Ferries, the Department entered into a £13.8 million contract with Seaborne Freight to provide ferry services from the port of Ramsgate to Ostend. At the time of the award, we were fully aware of Seaborne’s status as a start-up business and the need for it to secure vessels and port user agreements to deliver a service. However, the shorter distance between the two ports meant that the route could provide us with shorter journey times and lower cost, making it a potentially attractive part of the package.

Seaborne’s proposition to the Department was backed by Arklow Shipping, Ireland’s biggest and one of Europe’s largest shipping companies. For commercial reasons, I have not been able to name Arklow Shipping or mention its involvement to date, but its support for the proposition from the outset and the assurances received by the Department provided confidence in the viability of the deal. Arklow confirmed to me that it intended to finance the purchase of ships and would be a major shareholder in Seaborne. It also confirmed to me its view that the Seaborne plans were “both viable and deliverable”. Those assurances included clear evidence about the availability of suitable vessels from the continent and about the formal steps that Seaborne, via Arklow, had taken to secure the vessels. However, releasing that information into the public domain could have driven up the cost of the vessels significantly and might even have resulted in their being removed from the market, where supply is extremely scarce. I have therefore had to refrain from saying anything publicly about this to date.

My Department monitored closely Seaborne’s progress towards meeting its contractual commitments. By last week, the company had secured firm options on ships to operate on the route, had reached provisional agreement with Ostend and was close to doing so with Ramsgate. However, late last week, despite previous assurances, Arklow Shipping suddenly and unexpectedly withdrew its backing from Seaborne. In the light of this, and after very careful assessment, I took the decision to terminate this contract. My Department concluded that there were now too many major commercial issues to be resolved to enable Seaborne to establish alternative arrangements and finance in the time needed to bring ferries and ports into operation.

As I have repeatedly made clear, not a penny of taxpayers’ money has gone, or will go, to Seaborne. The contracts we agreed with the three ferry companies are essentially a commitment to block-book tickets on additional sailings after the UK leaves the European Union. So actually we have taken a responsible decision to make sure that taxpayers’ money is properly protected.

I can confirm that the contracts with DFDS and Brittany Ferries remain on track and will provide us with valuable additional freight capacity into the UK in the event of disruption following EU exit. We also have contractual options to replace the Seaborne capacity with additional capacity on routes in the North sea, and this is an option we will be discussing across the Government in the coming days.

While the focus of this Government is to secure a deal with the European Union, as a responsible Government we will continue to make proportionate contingency plans for a range of scenarios. That is the right thing to do.

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What began as a debacle has now descended into a Whitehall farce. This Minister is rewriting the textbook for ministerial incompetence in office. I repeatedly warned the Secretary of State that this was the wrong decision at the time, as did industry, yet he chose to ignore those warnings. He told the House last month that this procurement was done properly. It has since emerged that the Department for Transport took shortcuts on the Seaborne Freight procurement. The deal was signed off by a sub-group of a sub-group and the main form of oversight, the procurement assurance board, never looked at it.

The Secretary of State points the finger at Arklow for the contract cancellation. Is it really a good time to further insult the Irish, and is the Arklow angle not a distraction from his decision? He has produced a letter from the company more than a month after the contract was signed; it does not prove anything regarding due diligence. He told this House that the Seaborne contract award was

“responsible stewardship of public money.”—[Official Report, 8 January 2019; Vol. 652, c. 191.]

Sadly, the exact opposite is true, yet again.

The Secretary of State’s decision to award the contract to Seaborne led Ramsgate port owner Thanet Council’s budget deficit to grow by nearly £2 million in the last year. His personal intervention to halt the budget vote last Thursday has compounded those losses. Two days later, he pulls the plug on Seaborne, leaving the council high and dry with mounting losses. What is more, taxpayers face a legal bill of nearly £1 million to fight Eurotunnel following his decision. So can he say how much cancelling the contract will cost the taxpayer and specifically the costs incurred in his own Department? He simply cannot keep blaming others for his own mistakes. This disastrous decision sits squarely with him and his office. Is this Transport Secretary’s approach to transport and wider Brexit contingency planning not off the Richter scale of incompetence? And for the good of the nation and the sake of some semblance of faith being restored to this shambolic Government, should he not now, at long last, do the decent thing and go?

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I have to say that the hon. Gentleman brings new meaning to the term “utter hogwash”. First, he clearly was not listening when I said that we have spent no money on this contract. My Department is doing a lot of work on no-deal Brexit preparations, as are other parts of Whitehall—that is the prudent thing to do—but we have not spent any money on this contract. The contract was in fact assured jointly by my officials and officials in the Treasury.

The hon. Gentleman says the letter is worth nothing, but let me just quote from the letter, from the managing director of Arklow Shipping, one of Europe’s biggest shipping companies with operations in Rotterdam and Ireland, which covers chartering, technical and crewing, and finance. He said:

“Arklow Shipping has been working with Seaborne for twelve months in connection with Seaborne’s proposals to develop new freight services between the UK and continental Europe. Arklow Shipping is therefore familiar with Seaborne’s agreement with Her Majesty’s Government to provide additional freight capacity in the event of the UK’s departure from the European Union on a no deal basis.

3. In support of the current proposals to develop the shipping route between Ramsgate and Ostend, Arklow Shipping intends to provide equity finance for the purchase of both vessels and an equity stake within Seaborne which will be the operating entity of this project.

4. Seaborne is a firm that brings together experienced and capable shipping professionals. I consider that Seaborne’s plans to deliver a new service to facilitate trade following from the UK’s departure from the EU are both viable and deliverable. I will be working closely with the team at Seaborne to ensure that they have appropriate support from Arklow Shipping to deliver on their commitments to Her Majesty’s Government.”

Enough said.

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Does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment that Arklow Shipping, a major Irish shipping company and the main backer of Seaborne, has pulled away from this contract? Can he give assurances to Thanet District Council and local taxpayers that the cost of keeping Ramsgate in a state of readiness as part of the Brexit contingency planning, which we are all happy to do, will not fall on local taxpayers?

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I share my hon. Friend’s disappointment. We are spending a lot of money on contingency planning and resilience in Kent, and I personally regard the port of Ramsgate is an important part of that. He knows that I am committed to continuing to work with Thanet District Council, and I would like to see ferries come back to Ramsgate. Whatever happens, we must make sure that we keep open opportunities for the future, in my view.

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Last month, the Secretary of State said that he had full confidence in Seaborne, and just last week he lobbied Thanet Council on its budget plans for Ramsgate. Does this not tell us everything we need to know about his judgment? His argument that Seaborne accounted for only 10% of the proposed additional services and that it did not matter if it did not deliver was nonsensical. Flouting EU procurement rules on unforeseen events by arguing that this was an emergency situation was also fundamentally flawed, given that he awarded a contract to a company with no ships. He says that he has been in negotiations with Seaborne for 12 months. How is that an emergency situation? He has now created his own emergency procurement process.

How many representations has the Secretary of State’s Department received on the procurement process, and are those representations still live, given the two contracts worth £89 million that he has awarded? Are we ever going to see the legal advice and the due diligence that was supposed to have been undertaken? Also, he has not answered the question on why this contract was not referred to a procurement assurance board. What will this missing 10% of capacity mean for Dover? What impact will it have on the port there? To keep HGV freight moving, what is his Department doing about the backlog of 9,000 ECMT permits? Given that he has now reached a stunning new level of incompetence, which must have been really hard to achieve, when will he go?

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I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman was listening to a word I said. He asked a question about no ships. I can confirm that, as of last week, two ships had been identified and that options were in place to operate the route. This makes it even more disappointing that Arklow was not able to continue its support. He asked a question about negotiating for 12 months. That was Arklow, not my Department. He asked a question about the legal position. The legal position was signed off by officials in my Department and by the Treasury and by my accounting officer. The hon. Gentleman also asked about extra routes. As I mentioned in my remarks, we already have options for additional capacity in the North sea. Those routes are clearly longer and more expensive, but they are available to us. He asked about the ECMT permits. The current position is that the European Union has been very clear that we will continue with the current arrangements. I know of no reason why that should not happen, but we have bilateral arrangements that we can fall back on if it does not.

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Setting aside the utterly synthetic outrage dribbling from Opposition Front Benchers, and further to the answer given to my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay), I should like to tell the Secretary of State that Councillor Bob Bayford, the leader of Thanet Council, has made it plain that Thanet wishes to act in the national interest and will continue to seek to do so, but it cannot act alone. There is a contract that Thanet has not yet signed, and will not now sign, with Seaborne Freight. That contract is ready for signature. Is there any reason, given the precedent set with Manston airport, why the Department should not sign that contract and take over the port itself for the duration?

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As my hon. Friend knows, I have had discussions with the leader of Thanet District Council over the past few days, and I have been clear that there is a strong case to include Ramsgate port in the resilience work being done in Kent to prepare for a potential no-deal Brexit. We must also be mindful of the council’s financial position and ensure that it is not exposed to financial risk as a result of the broader resilience work happening across Kent.

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Questions remain about the legality of all three contracts for additional ferry capacity. The Government used an accelerated procurement process to award the contract to Seaborne Freight, which can be done only in urgent and unforeseeable circumstances. The Department said that the circumstances were the

“unexpected and unforeseeable limitations on the extent to which the market had… been able to”

put “in place contingency plans” for a no-deal Brexit. Given that the Government have consistently provided reassurances that that there will not be a no-deal Brexit, how was it “unexpected and unforeseeable” that the market was unable or unwilling to put in place contingency plans for this scenario?

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The particular prompt for this procurement exercise was a change in the assumptions last autumn about the level of potential disruption around the channel ports. That prompted us to look again at what the capacity requirements might be to maintain supply of essential services into the United Kingdom, particularly for the NHS. It would be prudent for any Government in such a position to plan for all eventualities. I want the UK to leave the European Union with an agreement, and we are working hard to achieve that, but we would not be doing our job properly if we were not preparing for all eventualities.

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I offer strong support to the Secretary of State because, unlike the Labour party, he is actually undertaking contingency plans for all eventualities. On that point, will he update the House on the other two ferry contracts, their status and when they will come into operation?

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My right hon. Friend makes an important point. I have heard nothing from Labour bar attempts to disrupt the Brexit process. There has been no support for contingency planning or for a deal. All Labour Members seem to want to do is to act against the national interest, which is typical of the Labour party today. Its Members are more interested in themselves than in the country.

As for the other two contracts, they are proceeding according to plan. The routes will be ready, but I hope that they will not be needed, because I hope that we will leave the European Union with a deal. However, we must be ready, and we will be ready.

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The Secretary of State spent a great deal of time maligning the RMT union, which had simply been asking that Ministers ensure that the Brexit ferry contract ships are crewed by British seafarers on decent pay and terms and conditions negotiated through the recognised trade unions. Can the Secretary of State answer a straight question? In answer to the previous urgent question, he talked about the advantages of developing a facility at Ramsgate, so will he confirm whether Ramsgate will be now be used at all in the event of a no-deal Brexit?

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I believe in competition, so I would like Ramsgate to operate a ferry service whether there is a no-deal Brexit or not, and I know that the leader of Thanet District Council would like to see the same. It is a good port that has played an important role in the past. However, we will continue to work with the council not only to secure the short-term needs of the port of Ramsgate, but to help it promote the port as a viable option for the future.

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We have heard a lot of nonsense about the company not owning any ships, but is it not the case that the majority of rail operators in this country do not own any trains and that many airlines wet lease aircraft, meaning that not only do they not own the planes, but they do not directly employ the crew?

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My right hon. Friend makes an important point. I have said that the Labour party does not like business anymore, but it does not understand business anymore. Many Labour Members will go on holiday this summer using airlines that own no planes, because that is how business works, but they lost any understanding of how business works long ago, and I see no sign of that changing.

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Last month, the Secretary of State came to the House waxing lyrical about his support for start-up businesses, meaning Seaborne Freight. Is he not even remotely embarrassed that the project has fallen to pieces despite Government support? Will he not at least say sorry to the House for the mess that he has made?

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This is a start-up business that did not succeed because its principal backer changed its mind. That is to be regretted and it is a great shame but, as a Minister, I will never make an apology for the Government trying to work with new small businesses. Again, the Labour party does not like small business and does not want us to work with small business. When we do, it shouts and screams. Well, I think the Government should do more for small business, and I am going to carry on doing so.

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My right hon. Friend cannot possibly be criticised for entering into a contract, which cost the taxpayer no money, with a new business backed by one of the biggest shipping owners in Europe. Is it not eccentric of Arklow to behave in the way it has and to abandon a contract it supported a fortnight ago? Is there any question of the Irish Government’s involvement either to help or to hinder one of their biggest businesses?

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It is not for me to ascribe any motivations to Arklow for the decision it has taken. I regret it having taken that decision, and I think it is a shame, particularly as it gave clear commitments to Seaborne at Christmas time and to my officials and me in January before changing its mind suddenly. I do not know what prompted that decision. I just think it is a very great shame.

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What will it take for this Secretary of State to get the sack? Let me see if the following would cause the Prime Minister to issue him his P45: breaking EU procurement rules. Does the Secretary of State really believe he can claim no deal is an emergency that came to light only in October? If it did, it is his fault for underestimating the disruption caused at the ports. Is he confident that this argument is going to stand up in court?

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I have been absolutely clear that this procurement was dealt with very carefully by officials in my Department and in the Treasury who fully understood the legal implications of it, and it was approved by my accounting officer. I will not comment on any other legal matters.

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The whole House knows that the Secretary of State has been one of the most assiduous Cabinet members in working on contingency plans to make sure that we execute the national interest in leaving the European Union. Has he looked at the possibility of not simply Dover to Calais and Dunkirk but Dover to Zeebrugge? That is a short sea route going to Belgium, not France.

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Absolutely. I am also aware that the port of Zeebrugge has made a lot of preparations for the post-Brexit world. One of the things that can help to ease pressure on Dover would be an additional route from Dover to Zeebrugge. I am very keen to see the port of Dover carry on through the Brexit process without significant disruption, and I will do everything I can to help it achieve that goal, but it is sensible to have some easing of pressure on both Dover and the tunnel to give guarantees on services such as the NHS. I will be doing everything I can to make sure things remain as normal as possible for Dover.

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Given that this is just one example of hapless contingency planning that we are aware of, and that there may be all sorts of other haphazard things going on, should not the Secretary of State commit to more transparency about contingency planning more broadly? He knows that the Operation Yellowhammer papers on trade and transport went before the Cabinet last week, and there was a discussion at full Cabinet about whether those papers should be published. Which side of the argument was he on? Was he for publication?

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Let us be clear, first of all, that Cabinet minutes are not published. I have been pretty transparent over the months in explaining what we are doing on the aviation front and the haulage front. We have been having regular contact with industry, and we are working very closely with the aviation sector and the haulage sector. I do not think we can be accused of hiding what we are doing. The reality is that I am standing here today precisely because we did not hide what we are doing, as we published the detail of these contracts.

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May I send a message to the Secretary of State? The south-west and Plymouth are open for business, and I am sure that my constituents who work in that city would really welcome any further opportunities that a contract would present.

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend; it has been good to see Members from around Plymouth welcoming the extra traffic that would flow through Plymouth as a result of these contracts. I should also take the opportunity to provide a message of reassurance to Hampshire, where we have done extensive work around the port of Portsmouth in respect of just a couple of extra sailings a day. Let me put it clearly on the record that there is no expectation of major road disruption affecting the surrounding areas of either Plymouth or Portsmouth.

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The UK Government have been aware of the possibility of a no-deal Brexit since article 50 was triggered in March 2017, so can the Secretary of State tell us why this contract, which was awarded only at the end of December 2018, proceeded under regulation 32 of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015 without competitive tendering? Will he state clearly for the record, as I have asked this question of him and other Ministers five times now: what were the reasons of extreme urgency and the unforesee- able events that justified his Department proceeding without competitive tendering under regulation 32?

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The hon. and learned Lady was not listening a moment ago when I answered that very same question from the Chair of the Select Committee. I said that the thing that prompted the move was a change to the assumptions on the levels and length of disruption that might arise in a no-deal Brexit scenario.

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Part of the criticism that my right hon. Friend’s Department has received has arisen because Seaborne Freight was seen as a company that had no track record in shipping. We now know that Arklow was the company behind Seaborne Freight, and it had a huge amount of experience in shipping. What more can be done, in terms of no-deal preparations and more broadly, to ensure that when new start-up companies that are backed by well-established companies present themselves to government the House can understand the relationship between those start-ups and the companies backing them?

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We always have to take steps to be careful about commercial confidentiality, particularly when a company is in a complex negotiation, as was the case in this situation in respect of new ships. I was clear to the House when I spoke a few weeks ago that Seaborne Freight had substantial backers. It is really important that when Ministers stand up and say, “Look, we know they have substantial backers”, the House does not disbelieve that, because actually it has proved to be true.

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The Secretary of State has said that no money has been spent on this process, so could he tell us how many of his officials were working for free during this process? He says no money has been spent, but what about the embedded cost? The time each official and each Minister has spent on this project is cost, so will he publish the costs of how much time has been spent on this debacle? If he will not resign, will he at least apologise for this mess?

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Dear oh dear, they keep trying, don’t they. We have hundreds of civil servants across Whitehall working on no-deal preparations to make sure that we are ready in case it happens. I am clear that we do not want no-deal, but we are taking the necessary precautions. The problem is that the Labour party does not believe that should be happening.

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With regard to no-deal preparations, will the Secretary of State confirm to the House, once again, that we have signed the common transit convention, which means that import duties and customs declarations do not have to be sorted out until goods arrive at their final destination? In his reply, will he also mention that the mayor of Calais has said that Calais will be open for business even in the event of no deal?

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Both of the points made by my hon. Friend are absolutely correct. My view is that the common transit convention solves many of the problems. We cannot be 100% certain, because we have not had confirmation from the French yet about how they would manage border posts in Calais, notwithstanding the common travel convention, but he is absolutely right that it should enable trade to flow through smoothly. I have been clear in saying regularly that I expect those ports and the tunnel to operate pretty much normally, but we have contingency in place just in case that is necessary.

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A fake lorry traffic jam in Kent, rail timetable chaos, which is still affecting commuters and local businesses in my constituency, and now a cancelled contract with a ferry company that owns no ferries—is the Secretary of State proud of his record?

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There was no fake traffic jam; it was an exercise to test the movements of vehicles into and out of Manston in Kent. The timetable troubles were caused by a project where Government were investing in rail infrastructure in the north-west—something that never happened under Labour—which ran late. As I said a moment ago, this shipping company identified and got firm options on two ships but was unfortunately not able to carry on because its backers pulled out.

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Despite the hogwash and doom-mongering from the Opposition Benches, the Secretary of State is absolutely right to ensure that there is contingency planning for every eventuality. For the avoidance of doubt, will he confirm that the taxpayer’s interests have not been damaged and that he will continue to take all necessary steps to ensure that we are ready, deal or no deal?

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Absolutely. This is essential Government spending across Government. We have to be ready for all eventualities. I make no apology for the fact that the Government are spending money on preparing for no deal, but my view is that the best kind of contract for the Government is one for which we pay no money until the service is delivered and, of course, that is what we had in this case.

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Over the past year, a new start-up based in my constituency, Carmarthen Bay Ferry, has successfully operated an excellent service for the people of Carmarthenshire and tourists, linking Glanyfferi in my constituency and Llansteffan on the other side of the Towy estuary. In the light of their arrangement with Seaborne Freight, will the British Government have a look at the Carmarthen ferry model to see how to run a successful ferry operation?

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I am not sure that operating a freight haulage operation across the English channel is quite the same as operating what I am sure is a fine business in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but I wish it well for the future anyway.

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“When the facts change, I change my mind” is a quote widely attributed to John Maynard Keynes, someone normally highly supported on the Opposition Benches. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State confirm that the facts have changed and it is only prudent that Government policy changes to reflect the new reality?

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Absolutely. We set out a plan, and I was clear that we did not expose the taxpayer to risk. The events of last week happened, so we changed our mind. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The best thing for the Government to do is to pursue the right policy at the right time.

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It is touching to see this arch-Brexiteer Secretary of State relying on the good will of an Irish shipping company and the Dutch dredging firm that dredged the port of Ramsgate. Will he tell us whether that dredging was carried out under the appropriate licences and who will pay for it? He talked about due diligence; Arklow told “Channel 4 News” that it did not agree to the contract with Seaborne and blamed the UK Government for moving too fast. If Arklow could do the due diligence on Seaborne, why could not the Secretary of State?

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I can only refer the hon. Lady to what I quoted earlier:

“I will be working closely with the team at Seaborne to ensure that they have appropriate support from Arklow Shipping to deliver on their commitments to Her Majesty’s Government.”

It is there, plain, in black and white.

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There has been much ridicule of Seaborne Freight because it did not own any ferries but, to build on the theme of the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), is the Secretary of State aware that Uber does not own any taxis and, indeed, Airbnb does not have any hotels, either? Does he agree that it would be more ridiculous if the Government had not planned for a no-deal scenario and had refused to award any finances to it, as the shadow Chancellor advocated?

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This is the point: the Labour party wants to disrupt Brexit. It wants us to leave the European Union but will not approve the deal and does not want us to prepare for no deal, so it has no policy at all. Frankly, as I have said on more than one occasion, Labour is not fit to be an Opposition, let alone a Government.

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Did the Secretary of State’s decision to cancel the contract with Seaborne predate the letter from Arklow—yes or no?

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In the light of the decision to end Seaborne’s contract, what discussions has the Secretary of State had with other providers about their providing extra capacity?

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We made provision in the contracts that we signed with Brittany Ferries and DFDS for additional capacity on other routes, to additional routes that were not in our original mix. Those are options that we are free to take up and we will have cross-Government discussions in the next few days to assess current needs and forecasts and see whether that is required.

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The Secretary of State says that there are no costs to Government, so for the avoidance of any doubt, will he place in the Library the costs of any legal fees and the numbers and types of civil servants working on both the pre-work and the cancellation? Will he tell us the total cost of all that to the taxpayer?

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My Department is accruing a bill of many, many millions of pounds, preparing for a no-deal Brexit in a whole variety of different areas—we are working on maritime, aviation and haulage—and I regularly answer questions about those amounts through written questions. I am also always happy to place information on those amounts in the Library of the House.

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I am sure that, like me, the Secretary of State finds it interesting to come into this Chamber one day and hear complaints about the potential impact of no deal, and to come in here the next day and hear complaints about the efforts to mitigate those impacts. Will he confirm what work has been done to ensure that the main routes across the English channel—the Eurotunnel and the main crossings between Dover and Calais—will continue working even in a no-deal scenario?

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My Department and I are working on detailed plans to ensure that the pressures on both the tunnel and the port of Dover are as small as possible. I am very confident, as I have said on more than one occasion, that things will move pretty smoothly through there. The purpose of this additional capacity is to ease some of those pressures and to prepare for contingencies if they are required.

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The Secretary of State has mentioned several times now his reliance on his Department, but in the end the buck stops with him. When evaluating these bids, it is worth noting that Deloitte did not make a formal assessment of Seaborne’s financial stability because it was not incorporated until April 2017. Mott MacDonald provided a technical assessment of that and the review flagged up significant execution risks relating to the Seaborne bid. We may not all be experts in everything we talk about, but surely the public expect a level of common sense when it comes to things as big as this. Where was the common sense of the Secretary of State when it came to this contract?

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The common sense came in two forms: first, when Arklow Shipping confirmed to my Department in writing in December that it was supporting this; and, secondly, because we had a contract where no payment was made until the service was delivered.

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Spectators to this debate may think that the greatest of catastrophes has happened, but all this debate really reveals is the Conservatives’ support for innovation, for small business and for delivering on Brexit, and the Opposition’s opposition to that.

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I keep saying that I find it baffling that the Opposition should be opposed to giving a chance to a small business when the taxpayer was exposed to no financial risk at all, particularly when that small business had a major international backer. It is inexplicable.

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On successive occasions, the Secretary of State has assured the House that he carried out full due diligence tests of this contract before he awarded it, but I for one am none the wiser about what those due diligence checks consisted of. Today, will he answer the question that he failed to answer when he last appeared before the House on this matter? In April last year, Seaborne Freight issued an investor briefing that claimed:

“Detailed port agreements with Ramsgate and Ostend negotiated and agreed.”

We now know that no such agreements existed. Did his due diligence checks not reveal that and, if not, what kind of due diligence was it? Or did they reveal that and, if so, what weight did he attach to the fact that Seaborne had issued an inaccurate investor briefing?

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The comfort that we had was that the three professional advisers advised us that credible plans were in place. That was reinforced by written confirmation from Arklow Shipping that it was supporting the proposal and by the fact that we protected the taxpayer’s interests by ensuring that no funds would be paid over unless this was delivered. The fact that, last week, we had a firm that had options on ships and agreements reached in principle with both ports, suggested to me that it was on the right track. It was just a shame that the backers did not feel able to continue.

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In another triumph of the Department’s no-deal Brexit planning, the Secretary of State’s junior Minister wrote to all Members of Parliament about the hauliers who, presumably, will use these sea routes, saying that 3,816 international permits had been awarded, but there are 526,000 HGV hauliers in this country, so fewer than 1% will be able to get a licence. Is this really going to work in the event of no deal?

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As you will be aware, Mr Speaker, the European Commission has already said that it wants haulage to continue. It does not expect a permit-based system to be required. But in the event of a no-deal Brexit, we have bilateral agreements with a number of other EU member states that come into effect. We have put in place a system to distribute the ECMT permits precisely because we want to make sure that all bases are covered. However, we wrote to hauliers last week saying that they were being issued as a formality. Nothing that has happened so far would lead us to believe that those restrictions will be there.

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I thank the Secretary of State for his answers so far. Has he had the opportunity to review the unexplainable action of Irish firm Arklow Shipping in relation to its agreement with Seaborne Freight? Was there a signed contract or is it the case, as some stories today indicate, that the Republic of Ireland and the EU are doing all they can to frustrate Brexit?

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I do not want to attribute any possible reasons for Arklow Shipping pulling out. It was a shame that, just at the point when everybody had draft contracts in place ready for signing, the company backed away. It is a regret that that is the case. I would have liked to have seen this new service come into effect, if only to ensure that the port of Ramsgate had alternative business for the future, but I am afraid that it is not for me to comment on the motivations of the company involved.

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Perhaps when the Secretary of State is finally fired for his incompetence over this issue, he might get the consolation prize of being invited on to Comic Relief’s special edition of “The Apprenticeship”, where we can see him on “Team Seaborne”, trying desperately to fill in the capacity that he has failed to provide as Secretary of State. I think we could all do with a laugh on that front. The reality is that the financial risk is neither here nor there. There are barely 50 days to go and the Secretary of State has still failed to provide that vital freight capacity, so where is it coming from? Is he going to ask the Ministry of Defence to provide this emergency capacity?

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Dear, oh dear; you do get them from the Opposition, Mr Speaker. The hon. Gentleman has clearly not been listening to a word I said. I said that we have options available on two other routes in the North sea. Those routes take longer and are more expensive, but we have had them in reserve all along. I judged and we judged—my Department felt—that it would be better if we could have access to a shorter route from Ramsgate to Ostend. That has not worked out and we now have the option to return to the original choices.

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Putting aside the further reputational damage caused, is the Secretary of State fully satisfied that he has handled this affair to the very best of his ability? If this embarrassing shambles was indeed him at his very best, what on earth has to happen on his watch to make him resign?

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Dear, oh dear. I will simply say that I am always going to do what I believe to be in the national interest, and that is what I and my team in the Department have been doing.

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One of the many things that this shambles reveals is the Government’s utter lack of preparedness for a no-deal Brexit. To avoid any more embarrassments for the Secretary of State, is not it high time that his Government rules out a no deal?

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If the hon. Lady wants a non-no-deal Brexit, she should line up behind the deal that the Government have reached with the European Union, but if she is not prepared to vote for it, she should not complain when Ministers are preparing for all eventualities.

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The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) has been very unfair; I am sure the Secretary of State is handling this to the best of his ability.

The Secretary of State was very careful not to answer the first part of the question from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who directly asked whether there was a contract between Arklow and Seaborne. Is not it the case that the Secretary of State knows full well, as reported in The Irish Times today, that there were numerous discussions between Seaborne and Arklow, but there was no contract or even formal agreement in place—and yet he went ahead?

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I do not think that Opposition Members are listening at all to what I have said. The agreements were all in place and ready to be signed, but the reality is that, at this moment, Arklow took a step back and did not want to continue. We had commitment now, a month ago and at Christmas time that Arklow was backing this proposal, but to be on the safe side—to be sure—we set up a contractual structure that meant that the taxpayer had no exposure unless the service was delivered. That was the right thing to do.

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Last month, the Secretary of State said to this House:

“We contracted with Seaborne Freight because the service it proposes represents a sensible contingency”—[Official Report, 8 January 2019; Vol. 652, c. 190.]

Given what we now know and with the benefit of hindsight, will the Secretary of State have the humility to come to the Dispatch Box and say sorry?

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It was a sensible contingency. If we require that capacity now, we will have to use longer routes through the North sea, when it would be better to go from Ramsgate to Ostend. We have the resources, facilities and capacity available to deal with what we have identified as the needs of organisations such as the NHS.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) asked the Secretary of State whether, at the point of signing off the contract, he knew that Seaborne Freight had not got in place the agreements with the port authorities in Ramsgate and Ostend that it was saying that it had got. This is about due diligence—was it done?

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I can only think that Opposition Members have not been listening to a word I have said. I said at the start that we knew that they had not got the arrangements in place. That is why we put in place a tight contractual structure that involved no financial commitment from the taxpayer until they had got those things sorted out.

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We have heard today that there was no legal contractual agreement between Arklow Shipping and Seaborne. The Secretary of State has confirmed that the reason for pulling out of this contract was the announcement on Friday. If that is the case—if he only knew about it on Friday—then how can the DFT spokesperson be correct that he is in advanced discussions with other shipping companies?

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Precisely because, as I said, we already had secured options that would enable us to provide alternatives.

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Throughout this ridiculous Brexit shambles, Brexiteers have liked to lean on historical events to justify the metaphors for some of their Brexit fantasies. Was this calamity actually engineered by the Secretary of State, so that he could paint himself as some kind of latter-day Horatio Nelson—“I see no ships”? Well, we see no competence. Will he resign?

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Actually, I did see ships—they were lined up ready to go on this route. It is a shame the backers pulled out.