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EU Exit Preparations: Ferry Contracts

Volume 655: debated on Tuesday 5 March 2019

Application for emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)

I wish to give formal notice to request an emergency debate under Standing Order No. 24 to discuss a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely the latest developments in UK Government ferry contracts for no-deal preparations.

Good governance goes hand in hand with transparency and accountability, and to date we have seen absolutely none of that in relation to the Transport Secretary’s handling of the no-deal ferry contracts. In fact, every time more information has come out, more questions have been raised and have gone unanswered. In a point of order yesterday, I highlighted my frustration about the non-answers. Yesterday, the Health Secretary answered from the Dispatch Box and gave the same blithe responses as the Transport Secretary. It is simply not good enough. We have had a written ministerial statement, three urgent questions and several oral questions, including eight SNP questions at the last Transport questions, and all we have received are arrogant, condescending responses.

We are still to find out how Seaborne was identified as a suitable provider of what are supposed to be vital services in the event of a no-deal Brexit. It is a company with negative equity, no history of running ferry or freight services, no ships and no port agreements to run the ferry services, and Ramsgate port is still to be dredged to have the depth required for ferries. We were told that due diligence had been undertaken, but it turns out that the Department for Transport limited it. Then we learned that there were no financial guarantees, so when the possible backer walked away, the deal collapsed. We need to know how much of the £800,000 due diligence costs were spent on the abortive Seaborne contract.

The Transport Secretary’s lines of defence—that he was supporting a start-up company, and that cancellation did not matter because it would not cost the taxpayer money—stretch the phrase “inadvertently misleading the House” to the absolute limit. We were advised that direct negotiation was possible under regulation 32 of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015, which relates to an emergency situation brought about by unforeseeable events. Given that the Government claim to have been planning for a no-deal scenario for two years, how was this unforeseen? What legal advice was provided?

Eurotunnel took the Government to court and was paid an out-of-court settlement of £33 million. Why did the Government cave if they were confident of the legal position? Why is it now argued that the £33 million settlement is actually prudent planning for a no-deal Brexit and is required to keep our vital medicine supply chain going? We need clarity and a breakdown of compensation cost versus the so-called service improvement.

There is anger in the House, and Members have not had their queries answered. I am asking for this debate so that we can get the Transport Secretary to the Dispatch Box to provide real, meaningful answers.

The hon. Gentleman asks leave to propose a debate on a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration—namely, the latest developments in UK Government ferry contract awards for no-deal preparations. I have listened carefully to his application, and I am satisfied that the matter raised is proper to be discussed under Standing Order No. 24.

Has the hon. Gentleman the leave of the House? [Interruption.] Somebody is objecting. [Interruption.] I do not want to be unkind to the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), but I am not sure he altogether understands our procedures perhaps as well as he ought to do and as well as I do. In fairness, he is graciously conceding from a sedentary position that the threshold of 40 has been reached. I thank him for his courtesy.

Actually, you lot are ahead of yourselves. People tend to stand up before they need to. [Interruption.] Order. I am saying this because I believe in the public intelligibility and accessibly of our proceedings, which is important. If there is an objection, as there was from the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East, 40 Members or more must rise in order that the debate can go ahead. More than 40 Members have done, and therefore the Standing Order requirement has been satisfied.

Application agreed to (not fewer than 40 Members standing in support.)

The debate will be held today as the first item of public business after the ten-minute rule motion. The debate will last for up to three hours, and will arise on a motion that the House has considered the specified matter set out in the motion of the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun.

Well, Mr Brown. I hope, at least for now, that you are satisfied with the result of your prodigious efforts. The debate will come in due course.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Have you had any indications, given the current situation, of whether the Secretary of State for Health or the Secretary of State for Transport will be responding to the debate? It is important, given the detail of the matter to be debated in the House today.

I am happy to accommodate the right hon. Gentleman. The presence of the Secretary of State for Transport is not ornamental. He has come into the Chamber, and my very clear understanding from him is that he wishes to speak in the debate. My expectation is that he will speak relatively early.

Order. There is no need for the hon. Lady to chunter “Ahoy there!” from a sedentary position. That is very eccentric behaviour. It is not the sort of thing I would ever have done as a Back Bencher, I feel sure. We will leave it there. I welcome the Secretary of State to the Chamber.

Bill Presented

Gender-based Pricing (Prohibition) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Christine Jardine, supported by Jo Swinson, Wera Hobhouse, Layla Moran, Stella Creasy, Jess Phillips, Tonia Antoniazzi, Hannah Bardell, Tom Brake and Jamie Stone, presented a Bill to prohibit the differential pricing of products and services that are substantially similar other than being intended for, or marketed to, a particular gender; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 22 March, and to be printed (Bill 348).