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House of Commons Hansard
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Leaving the EU: Travel Disruption
14 February 2019
Volume 654
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5. What steps he is taking to reduce potential disruption to travel in the event of the UK leaving the EU without a deal. [909219]

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6. What steps he is taking to reduce potential disruption to travel in the event of the UK leaving the EU without a deal. [909220]

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18. What steps he is taking to reduce potential disruption to travel in the event of the UK leaving the EU without a deal. [909233]

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19. What steps he is taking to reduce potential disruption to travel in the event of the UK leaving the EU without a deal. [909234]

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21. What steps he is taking to reduce potential disruption to travel in the event of the UK leaving the EU without a deal. [909236]

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My Department is undertaking a comprehensive and wide-ranging programme of work to ensure that we are prepared for a scenario in which the UK leaves without a deal. We continue to work to ensure that the UK does not leave without a deal.

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I am grateful for that answer, which I am not sure even those on the Government Benches will buy. The Secretary of State told the House on Monday that Arklow had confirmed its backing for Seaborne Freight “from the outset”. Yesterday the permanent secretary to the DFT told the Public Accounts Committee that the DFT had awarded Seaborne Freight the contract before Arklow confirmed its backing. Those two statements are entirely contradictory, so who is telling the truth—his permanent secretary or him?

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It is very simple: the contract was conditional on Seaborne Freight producing a reference from Arklow, which it did.

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The director general for the Department for Transport said yesterday that it was no longer possible to complete procurement and operation for any large amount of further capacity across the channel by either sea or rail before the end of March. The Secretary of State’s handling of this issue means that there are now no plans in place for an alternative and a 10% shortfall in capacity. How does he plan to resolve this latest disaster?

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The hon. Lady clearly was not listening on Monday, when I indicated that we had options in contracts to provide additional capacity on longer sea routes to replace any that we might have had on the short sea routes.

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I can assure the Secretary of State that I was absolutely listening intently on Monday. From that position over there, the Secretary of State said on Monday, in relation to Seaborne Freight, that

“we have not spent any money on this contract.”—[Official Report, 11 February 2019; Vol. 654, c. 619.]

We now know that that is not the case and that his Department spent approximately £800,000 on external consultants for Seaborne. Will he now take the opportunity to set the record straight and apologise to taxpayers for what has amounted to a monumental waste of taxpayers’ money?

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I am afraid that, once again, SNP Members have their facts completely wrong. Interestingly, we have heard complaints from the other side that we did not do enough due diligence. Actually, as with all major Government contracts—Mr Speaker, you will recall that £90 million of contracts are going to Brittany Ferries and DFDS—we contract professional support when we let contracts of that size.

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The Secretary of State may wish to argue that he got his £800,000-worth since the consultancy did come back with concrete findings, including that Seaborne presented “significant execution risks” and that a “basic blush test” was the most that could be carried out on the company’s financials. Which of those two findings did the Secretary of State find most reassuring when deciding to proceed with the Seaborne ferry contract?

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The bit I found reassuring is that we let a contract where there was absolutely no upfront commitment from the taxpayer at all, and we paid nothing until the service was delivered.

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The Secretary of State said on Monday, “I believe in competition”, so why, after realising back in September that a no-deal Brexit would require increased freight capacity, did he embark on what has been called a

“secretive and flawed procurement process”,

tipping off some companies in private while leaving established companies, such as Eurotunnel, out of the loop altogether?

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We carried out a proper procurement process in discussion with all the leading ferry operators.

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A major contributor to travel disruption over many years has of course been Govia Thameslink Railway. Its incompetence was recently underlined when a disgruntled constituent wrote to GTR, asking whom he should complain to and whether he should write to Chris Grayling. He received the reply from GTR:

“Chris Grayling no longer works for the company”.

Can the Secretary of State tell us whether a no-deal Brexit will make it easier to withdraw the franchise from GTR at long last and end this nightmare?

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Happily, I have never worked for GTR. I would say to my hon. Friend that, if there are specific concerns he wants to raise about the franchise, he is very welcome to write to me. However, I am sure he is pleased that, over the last few months, the performance on that network has become significantly better.

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I am sure the Secretary of State, like me, will reflect that it is always interesting to hear those who complain about the potential impact of a no deal then complaining about efforts to mitigate it. Will he confirm that he believes, the same as me, that the biggest potential for disruption to travel would be to put an international border across the east and west coast main lines, as the separatists opposite want to do?

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Absolutely. Of course SNP Members fail to understand that their policies, if you follow European Union laws to the letter, require a hard border between Scotland and England. I have to say that I personally value the Union of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I value our friends in Scotland, of whom we have many on the Government Benches, and I think SNP policies would be deeply damaging to Scotland.

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No matter what the outcome in terms of the delivery of the democratic decision of the British people, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the electrification project between Preston and Manchester, going through the heart of my constituency, will continue to deliver more electric coaches for my constituents?

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I was very pleased to learn this week that the electric trains have now started running between Blackpool and Manchester through my hon. Friend’s constituency. Of course, it is worth remembering that that single electrification project represents a level of electrification many times greater than the Labour party managed across the entire country in its years in office— 13 years: 10 miles, which is fewer, by far, than that single electrification project alone.

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If I understand this right, the Secretary of State is claiming a triumph for having signed a contract with a company that had no ferries to provide no ferries and, because it cost the taxpayer no money whatsoever, that is okay. Is that where the Secretary of State is? We are still facing the south-east of England being turned into a huge car park if we were to leave with no deal, and what has he done about it? Absolutely nothing.

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As I set out, we have substantial contracts with two major operators to provide additional capacity, and we have put in place contingency measures in Kent, in case they are needed because of delays caused not in this country but on the French side. When I see what is happening in Calais and the preparations being made, I am increasingly confident that the flow of traffic through the channel ports will continue pretty normally. It is in everybody’s interest on both sides of the channel for that to happen, and it will certainly happen if we leave the European Union with a deal. It is disappointing, however, that the Labour party seems to want to stymie us leaving the EU with a deal.

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The Secretary of State’s handling of Seaborne Freight, and the way he is answering questions, proves that he lives in a parallel universe. The reality is that, with Eurotunnel taking the Government to court, his actions will cost the taxpayer at least £1.8 million and the costs are rising. Will he confirm how many representations have been made by other providers and whether there are likely to be further court challenges? Will he do the right thing and at least publish the legal evidence that the Government had, so that they can perhaps save some money in the long run?

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The hon. Gentleman is trying hard, but the simple reality is that we approached the market and the market brought forward proposals. We have two substantial contracts to provide additional capacity. We took on a third smaller contract, where there was no upfront exposure to the taxpayer at all. Unfortunately that was not delivered because even though the company had ships lined up and agreements lined up, its principal backer decided not to continue with the contract.

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The Secretary of State did not approach the market—it was all done in secret; that is not approaching the market. He is baffled by the criticism of his handling of this, which is incredible. Let us look at his handling of the mock exercise for lorries in a no-deal scenario, with 89 lorries mimicking 10,000. Under his watch, we have had the east coast main line bail-out, the Northern rail fiasco, the Thameslink fiasco, delays to High Speed 2, issues with drone legislation and contracts awarded to Carillion when it was obviously going bust. What does it take for him to do the right thing and go?

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The hon. Gentleman continues to produce in the House statements that I am afraid are simply inaccurate. The trial in Kent, managed by Kent County Council, worked very smoothly to illustrate the nature of movements in and out of the port of Manston. He keeps talking about Carillion. Carillion had no contracts with HS2. It was part of a consortium that was jointly and severally liable and that work has continued.