Emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the latest developments in the UK Government ferry contract awards for no-deal preparations.
May I first thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the debate? You asked me earlier if I was happy now, and I was happy, but given that I had such a short time in which to prepare for the debate, I hope you will forgive me for doing a bit of cursing as well.
I am very glad to have secured the debate. We have a Transport Secretary who has tried to duck some important issues and has had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to the Dispatch Box. We can see him saying, “Here we go yet again.” The head-shaking has started, and the chuntering: we are talking nonsense, and we do not understand anything. That is why this emergency debate has been granted.
Let me say to Conservative Members who objected to the debate that it is about transparency and accountability, and about how the Government are being run. They should share the concerns of Scottish National party Members about the lack of that transparency and accountability, and the fact that these no-deal preparations have been a pure and utter shambles.
Assuming that the hon. Gentleman wishes to respect democracy and therefore to deliver on the Brexit decision of the British people, may I ask what plans he has to ensure that life-saving, life-enhancing medicines will cross the English channel post Brexit?
Well, let’s see. Perhaps I would ensure that no deal was off the table, so that there would be no hint of that cliff edge with no medicines coming through. That is what I would do to start with. We should also consider extending article 50, to try to give this incompetent Government time to make some real preparations, although I have no faith in the possibility that any more time would actually work for them.
I have mentioned transparency and accountability. Let me record my thanks to the journalist who first broke the story about Seaborne Freight in the new year and to the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office for the work that they have done so far in assessing the diligence. Members on both sides of the House have raised some important questions: for instance, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) first raised the matter of the likely illegal tendering process.
We have still to get to the bottom of the overall process. It started in secrecy; it has been shrouded in secrecy ever since; and the Transport Secretary’s non-answers and evasions have not helped us to secure any further clarity. His Department has form when it comes to procurement issues. I remember, years ago, the collapse of the west coast main line franchise, which came about following another court action challenge. That resulted in Virgin receiving a direct award to extend its services, which clearly does not provide the best value for money for the taxpayer.
If the Transport Secretary believes so much in competition and privatisation, we have to ask why so many rail franchises have received direct awards, because that is the complete opposite of competitive tendering. The Southern rail franchise model has clearly failed, and much of that failure has been due to the inaction of the Transport Secretary, and the fact that somebody just wanted to have a fight with the unions rather than trying to improve markets and get services up and running.
That is the background to some of the systemic procurement failings in the Department for Transport, and it brings us neatly to where we are now. When the information about the award of the Seaborne Freight contract first surfaced, it was almost like a sick joke. This was an emergency contract for a company to provide emergency services. The hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) referred to vital services to keep medicines running. The Government, and the Transport Secretary, chose to pick up a ferry company that had no boats, had negative equity of £374,000, and had no history of running ferry or freight services. Both Brian Raincock, one of the directors, and Ben Sharp, the chief executive, had had companies liquidated when they owed money to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Raincock’s debt was £600,000. I remind the House that HMRC is, effectively, all of us taxpayers.
What, then, constituted the due diligence, and what red flags were identified at that time? We have still to hear the answers to those questions. It turned out—I touched on this earlier—that the due diligence heralded by the Transport Secretary was actually very limited. It was very high-level, that meant that it was not due diligence. The companies which carried it out confirmed that they could not make a proper assessment of the merits of Seaborne being given a supposedly vital contract.
We need to ask some questions, and the Transport Secretary needs to start answering. How on earth did Seaborne get hand-picked for direct negotiation, given the circumstances? Saying that it accounted for only 10% of the vital services is no answer. Saying that that the Government were supporting a vital British start-up company is certainly not an answer. Why should we hand-pick start-up companies for vital emergency services? That makes no sense whatsoever. It was so wrong that it led to a £33 million settlement for Eurotunnel. The Transport Secretary is shaking his head. Hopefully he is managing to multi-task and listen to these points, and will respond to them at the Dispatch Box.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the £33 million for something that never materialised—the phantom ferry contract—is not dissimilar to the £30 million that the Secretary of State’s predecessor committed to the garden bridge? There is nothing to show for that either. It was not even directly a transport project. The hon. Gentleman mentioned rail upgrades. Vital rail upgrades elsewhere in the country were cancelled when the money was committed to this project. It is taxpayer money, and Members should not laugh at this appalling waste.
I thank the hon. Lady for highlighting yet another miserable failure, with more money being thrown down the drain. It is interesting that Eurotunnel was paid £33 million for vital services, given that that seems in one way or another to replace the contract of Seaborne Freight, which was given only £14 million. So we really do have to ask what extra we are getting for the £33 million, or is this all the compensation that Eurotunnel walks away with and the taxpayer has no chance of recouping? Again, the Transport Secretary really needs to explain this.
The Government have argued that direct negotiation was possible under regulation 32 of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015, which relates to emergency situations brought about by unforeseeable events. So, after more than two years of no-deal planning, we suddenly had an unforeseen event—an unforeseen event, however, that allowed such protracted negotiations and £800,000-worth of due diligence. I would like the Transport Secretary to explain how long those negotiations were ongoing in this supposedly emergency situation, because £800,000 of consultants’ money amounts to a fair bit of time in negotiation, so he needs to explain when the actual emergency situation kicked in.
The argument from the Dispatch Box was that Seaborne Freight would only receive the money if it delivered the service, but that misses the point, because if it did not deliver the service, the emergency service it was contracted for would not happen, and that would leave the Government in a right mess in terms of no-deal preparations. The Transport Secretary has also argued that Seaborne has not cost the taxpayer any money. Hopefully he will re-explain these figures, because I would like to know how £800,000-worth of due diligence, at least some of which was on Seaborne Freight, has not cost any money. How did going to court and defending the Government’s position not cost any money? How did an out-of-court settlement with Eurotunnel at £33 million not cost any money that was related to Seaborne, because I am pretty sure a key plank of Eurotunnel’s objections was the fact that the Transport Secretary gave an important contract to a company with no ships? Meanwhile Eurotunnel is a company that obviously provides successful cross-border services. It is no wonder it was at court.
I would also like to ask the Transport Secretary whether there are any more objections outstanding: any more risks of court action. In response to a written parliamentary question I was told that a limited number of representations were received. In my book, a limited number is more than one. We have already had one court case to date; are any more court cases pending?
Are we absolutely sure about that? Given the Transport Secretary’s ability to count, “A hae ma doots,” as they say.
The Transport Secretary has never been able to answer what the loss of the 10% Seaborne contract would actually mean for the impact on Dover? Dover is so sensitive that even 10% would have a massive effect. We have heard about the fact that a minute and a half to two minutes of additional checks per lorry could lead to 30-mile tailbacks. Fortunately, under the Transport Secretary’s competent planning for no deal, we know that the Government have planned for at least 10,000 lorries by doing an exercise involving 89 lorries, driving up and down the motorway! [Interruption.] Yes, and the bin wagons. So 89 lorries driving up the motorway and parking up at Manston airport successfully proves that this Government can handle no-deal preparations! I am relieved; I am happy at that. I hold to my faith in the Transport Secretary.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that according to reports what those lorries were mostly doing was sitting stationary while the drivers were drinking cups of coffee, so I am not sure the Secretary of State will have learned too much from that?
Well, at least the lorries were not polluting the air so much if the drivers were just sitting drinking coffee; I am sure they enjoyed the exercise anyway. This illustrates a key point, however: if the Government are seriously saying that they are ready for a no-deal Brexit, they need to up their game in what they are doing and show some level of competency. I do not see many Conservative Members wanting to justify that exercise or how the Government handled that.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he share my concerns about the lack of planning for other ports around the country? The Department for Transport and Ministers have been very lackadaisical about making sure that, if there is a no-deal scenario, those ports will be able to operate?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I assume she is speaking in particular about ports in the north-east of England, and it seems that the Department for Transport has not engaged with any of the Scottish ports either. This is all about mitigating things around Dover, which is fine as Dover is clearly the biggest and busiest port, but one way to mitigate the traffic impact at Dover would be to stop as much traffic as possible travelling from the north to the south and to look at these other ports, and doing some real strategic planning. Strategic planning is severely lacking from the Department for Transport.
I have listened to what the hon. Gentleman has been saying with great interest. He will understand that, as I represent the constituency of Dover, this subject is very dear to my heart. In any negotiation, we have to have contingency planning. That is very important and it is right that the Department for Transport takes measures to ensure that, if there are disruptions at France, as has been threatened by some French politicians, it has alternatives and different ways of getting goods in and out of the country notwithstanding that. Does he not think that in principle the Department for Transport was acting in the national interest?
We could argue that in principle the Department for Transport was trying to do the right things in terms of contingency planning because, let’s face it, a no-deal Brexit could happen. But in practice, it has been a pure and utter failure—a shambles. That is the difference. Contingency planning needs to be absolutely that—putting in place proper, robust procedures for the contingencies. It is clear that that has not happened.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman has, like me, read with interest the National Audit Office detailed report into this. It goes through the decision making in the Department for Transport and it does not come across to me as highly critical. It highlights that
“The additional freight capacity is intended to allow government to prioritise the flow of critical goods into the UK and to enable imports to flow as freely as possible in the event of no deal.”
It has to be in the national interest that we make sure we get medicines and other critical goods into the country and that we are prepared for every eventuality. Does he not accept that as a matter of principle—yes or no?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for gamely trying to defend the Government position. Fair play to him; he is the only one willing to do that. I would like to see him argue to all the members of the Public Accounts Committee that that NAO report was reassuring and that the evidence it took was reassuring, because that is not what I have heard from PAC members. So again I disagree.
If this were a real and robust process, the Government would have defended themselves to the hilt in court. They would not have caved in and done an out-of-court settlement. Again, that is indicative of where the Government are and the lack of confidence they had once they were eight-balled by Eurotunnel.
I also read the NAO report said that warnings were ignored in the “rushed…ineffective” and “inappropriate” privatisation, creating “significant risks”, that it wasted £500 million and that the number of recalled prisoners skyrocketed. But that was about the Secretary of State’s careless probation service legacy. So he clearly has a track record. As a master of understatement, he said that those reforms had not worked as well as he had hoped.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I spoke earlier about the systemic procurement failures in the Department for Transport. It is clear there is a common thread between the systemic failure in the privatisation and procurement of probation services and the man who is now in charge at the Department for Transport, who is sitting here lackadaisically thinking everything is okay in the world and he is doing a fine job. I am sorry but that is not the case and that is not how it is seen in the wider country.
I will now return to some questions raised in the Chamber that have still not had satisfactory answers. The permanent secretary at the Department for Transport told the PAC that the Department had awarded Seaborne the contract before Arklow confirmed its backing. So the Transport Secretary needs to be able to provide further clarity on that. We return to the question: where were the written guarantees that he was supposedly assured about from Arklow before it walked away? It is shameful that it turns out that as far as we know no written guarantees were given by Arklow, yet when it walked away some of the most hard Brexiteers, the right-wing Brexiteers, said it was an Irish conspiracy because Arklow is an Irish company. That is shameful. It was the Department for Transport not doing its due diligence
Additionally, the director general at the Department for Transport said that it was no longer possible to complete procurement and operation for any large amount of further capacity across the channel before the end of March by either sea or rail. Can the Secretary of State explain that? Can he explain how the sudden £33 million settlement with Eurotunnel, if it is going to provide all these vital services at the end of March, stacks up against the fact that the previous argument was that the Department no longer had time to be able to source those additional services?
In relation to Seaborne Freight, the Secretary of State said that
“we have spent no money on this contract.”—[Official Report, 11 February 2019; Vol. 654, c. 619.]
I ask him once again if he could please spell out the real financial implications of that award to Seaborne Freight and the handling of the direct negotiations.
At the risk of being called a Government nark—which I am not often called at the moment—I want to ask the hon. Gentleman this question. If this emergency debate is so important to Scottish National party Members, where are they?
I feel as though I have more friends in here than I would have down the pub on a Friday night. This is a really good turnout for the SNP. There are only 35 of us, so this is a good turnout. But wait a minute—I do not understand that intervention. Once we discount the Parliamentary Private Secretaries and Government Front Benchers, how many Conservative Back Benchers are in the Chamber? How many are rushing to speak in this debate and to defend the Government’s handling of this? That is the question that the right hon. Gentleman wants to ask himself.
I am sure my hon. Friend is aware that the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) is a leading member of the European Research Group, which advocates a no-deal Brexit. Given that this issue pertains to no-deal Brexit planning, why are there so few members of the European Research Group here?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy. Through him, I wanted to respond to the Labour gentleman sitting at the back there—[Hon. Members: “He’s SNP as well.”] Oh, I am so sorry. That means there are about 13 of them. I do apologise. Most members of the ERG are, as I speak, working towards how our country can be free, so they are otherwise engaged—
Order. There has been a certain amount of frivolity on the matter of attendance at the debate, but perhaps we can now return to the theme of the debate rather than having a constant competition as to who can be more amusing at others’ expense on the matter of attendance.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
I shall return to the substantive point of procurement. I touched earlier on rail franchising. The Secretary of State always says that he believes in competition. If he believes in competition, why did he have this secretive direct negotiating process? What is competitive about that? How could that provide value for money for the taxpayer? Will he come to the Dispatch Box and justify the expenditure and give us a detailed rationale of how he has managed to provide any value for money for the taxpayer in this entire process?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, which proves either that she does not listen or that the Transport Secretary does not understand the meaning of spending money. It actually resulted in an out-of-court settlement of £33 million, in legal fees—we still have to hear how much—in further risk to the Government and in the due diligence costs. That seems to be quite a hefty expenditure loosely related to the Seaborne contract.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way one more time. I am glad to see Scottish MPs taking an interest in the matter of trade across the English channel. I am looking again at the NAO report, which makes it clear that the Department considered that it had to use a faster process. He castigates the Department for not advertising the contract and doing the usual procurement, but the report states:
“The Regulations also allow for the award of a contract through a ‘negotiated procedure without prior publication’”,
when time is of the essence. That is clearly what the Department did. Given the fact that the clock is ticking, it is hard to say that that was an unreasonable thing to do.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for trying once more. The EU referendum was in June 2016, and as I have said, the Government are supposed to have been doing no-deal planning for over two years. So why did this suddenly become an emergency issue? At what point did the Transport Secretary go, “Oh shoot! We might have a no-deal Brexit! We need to put in some plans to deal with that.” So again I rebut the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. By the way, it is also a fact that the Transport Secretary did not even bother to visit the port of Dover until October 2018, even though it was supposed to be so critical. Why did it take him so long to go and see those operations in person?
Was the hon. Gentleman as surprised as I was to hear that no costs had been incurred in this? He has highlighted the £800,000 that was paid out to consultants, but there was also the cost of dredging the port. We were told by the permanent secretary that that was paid for by Seaborne, yet the contract was cancelled. Is the hon. Gentleman as surprised as I am that Seaborne bore the cost of that itself—or was it borne by someone else?
I am actually very surprised at that. I put in a written parliamentary question asking how much the Department for Transport had paid towards the dredging of the port at Ramsgate, and the answer I was given was that it had paid nothing, so I shall be challenging that further. We need to get to the bottom of this, because we know full well that that operation was not done for nothing and that the Transport Secretary was lobbying Thanet Council to keep the port open because of his negotiations with Seaborne. There is more to run on this, and I thank the shadow Secretary of State for bringing it up.
Returning briefly to Eurotunnel, we know that the out- of-court settlement was effectively a Government cave-in. The thing about that Government cave-in is that we have learned that they are going to keep 10,000 documents secret for reasons of commercial confidentiality, which will make it much harder for us to get the bottom of this. We know that they had no confidence in their own position because they settled out of court.
We also need to understand why the Health Secretary came to the Dispatch Box yesterday to tell us that this was such an important contract as it would keep medicines coming into the UK. He said that that was why the Government had negotiated the £33 million settlement with Eurotunnel. He suggested that it was not about compensation but about vital services and improvements. I repeat that we need clarity on this. If that £33 million was related to the provision of vital services, why did Eurotunnel take the Government to court? Why was Eurotunnel not identified as a reputable provider before, when the Government were looking at Seaborne Freight? How much of that £33 million compensation for Eurotunnel has gone forever? What services are we going to see? What updates will the House be given on the progress of those vital services that the Government have procured?
The Transport Secretary has been lax on updating the House from start to finish. We had one ministerial statement at the outset, which he thought would head off the bad press about Seaborne Freight. We have subsequently had to table three urgent questions, and we are now having this emergency debate. And of course, he has sometimes not even turned up to the Dispatch Box. The fact that he is unwilling to come to the Dispatch Box, state his case clearly and leave himself open to questions from Members says everything about his confidence in his own competence.
A procurement matter that I touched on yesterday is that it looks as though Bechtel is going to sue the Government over the HS2 tendering process, so will the Secretary of State identify what other departmental risks exist in relation to procurement? What review of the procurement process has he instigated? Who is heading up the review and when will it report on this matter? It is quite clear that some sort of procurement review is absolutely vital.
I will finish by again describing the Transport Secretary’s litany of failures. We heard about the near £600 million cost of privatising the probation service following his time at the Ministry of Justice.
I cannot confirm that. The right hon. Gentleman is quite comfortable with his legacy there, so I will leave that to him; what he said is on the record. No one else seems to appreciate his legacy, including the current Justice Minister, who is trying to deal with the mess.
I cannot believe that the Transport Secretary stood up and defended his probation service reforms. I serve on the Select Committee on Justice, and the Ministers who replaced him and his team at the Ministry of Justice have said time and again that the service is a shambles. I am absolutely amazed that he stood up to defend it. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I agree wholeheartedly. To be fair to the current Transport Secretary, he allowed VTEC, the Virgin-Stagecoach consortium, to walk away owing the taxpayer £2 billion and said that that was not a bail-out. If I let somebody off from owing me £2 billion, it would seem that I had bailed them out. As I touched on earlier, he also has a lot of culpability in the Southern rail franchise and in how the model was set up, and he has been unwilling to get involved in industrial disputes. In fact, in a way he wanted the disputes to continue because of his views on the unions. We had the Northern rail timetable fiasco, where the Government again tried to argue that the taxpayer was not liable, but when Network Rail pays compensation to a franchise holder, that money comes from the taxpayer. All that is in addition to the £800,000 on due diligence and the out-of-court settlement with Eurotunnel. It has been a farce from start to end, but the Transport Secretary is not willing to accept accountability.
When hearing these lists about how the opposite of the Midas touch has affected so many aspects of public policy, we should not forget the introduction of English votes for English laws, which was undertaken when the Transport Secretary was the Leader of the House. EVEL turns the House into a shambolic laughing stock whenever we try to use it.
Order. The hon. Gentleman must confine himself to the subject matter of today’s debate, the terms of which have been specified and which the Secretary of State will answer. This cannot be a general ad hominem attack on the Secretary of State or a replay of other matters that happened at an earlier point in the Secretary of State’s career to which Members want to object.
I will take your guidance, Mr Speaker, and perhaps spare the Transport Secretary any more of his litany of failures.
The right hon. Gentleman has already survived what was effectively a vote of no confidence, but I have several times called for him to be sacked, as has the shadow Transport Secretary, and he should do the right thing and step aside. It is abundantly clear that his handling of this shambles has been truly shameful. I will be interested to hear what he says at the Dispatch Box, but I have no confidence in his handling of this matter and he really should think about walking.
As I have explained to the House on several occasions, the Government entered into contracts with ferry operators to provide additional ferry capacity and services into the UK as part of no-deal contingency planning. However, as we have heard clearly this afternoon, the reality is that the SNP does not believe in preparing for no deal. Even though the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) accepts that it is a possibility, a risk and a danger, he does not support us in preparing for the risk of a no-deal exit—[Interruption.] The Labour Front-Bench team say, “Take it off the table,” but we can only take no deal off the table by reversing Brexit or agreeing a deal. The reality is that Labour and the SNP have spent week after week trying to prevent a deal, voting against the deal and trying to disrupt the process of getting towards a deal. Frankly, they are acting in anything but the national interest in doing so. We, however, have been acting in the national interest in preparing for all eventualities.
We have been preparing for a no-deal exit for months and months. There was a particular reason, as I will set out in a moment, for this particular procurement at this particular time, but my Department has been working for months to prepare for the risk of no deal. That can be seen in the new international aviation agreements, in Kent, where we have put in alternative resilience systems to the deeply disruptive Operation Stack, and in many other things.
It is not just here that we see the Opposition parties not acting in the national interest, because the same applies to statutory instruments. It is a constant refrain. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the only way of taking no deal off the table is by voting for the Prime Minister’s deal? It is time for the Opposition parties to put narrow party politics aside.
Absolutely. All that we have heard for months is, “Why are the Government getting this wrong?” but we have had no tangible or realistic plans from the Opposition. At every opportunity, they simply work to disrupt the Brexit process. Labour stood on a manifesto that respected the referendum result, but the party is doing anything but respecting the result. If it continues to disrupt the Brexit process, it will pay a heavy price in its heartlands, where people voted for Brexit.
I have been reading the NAO report with considerable interest, and it says:
“Over the summer of 2018, government departments stepped up their contingency preparations for no deal.”
The truth of the matter is that Government policy changed in summer 2018 to step up contingency planning, so the Department for Transport acted from that point onwards because wider Government policy had changed from that point onwards.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, although I must say that we started some of our planning well before then. However, it is certainly the case that last summer, as we saw the progress in the negotiations, the Government stepped up their preparations for no deal, as any responsible Government should. It is quite extraordinary that the Labour party seems to believe that we can just wave a wand and take no deal off the table. We have voted to leave the European Union, and we will either leave the European Union with a deal or without a deal, or we will reverse Brexit. Those are the only three options.
It is right that Government did indeed step up their no-deal preparations, as my right hon. Friend has quite rightly told the House, but one of the points of debate has been the speed at which the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been prepared to release funding to individual Departments to facilitate those preparations. Does my right hon. Friend think it would be helpful in future if the Chancellor were to lean forward a bit more to ensure that all preparations are fully funded in good time?
I will leave my right hon. Friend to make his point, because I do not want to start debating discussions within the Government.
The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun asked why we started this procurement when we did. As I have said, we and the national health service had been preparing for disruption at the ports lasting approximately six weeks after exit day. However, based on the negotiations, on comments coming from Brussels and on what we saw happening on the other side of the channel, the analysts changed that assumption late last autumn and recommended that Government prepare for a longer period of disruption.
At that point, the Department of Health and Social Care rightly highlighted the fact that that would put significant pressures on their stockpiles of drugs. The Government therefore collectively decided following discussions in Cabinet Committees to go to the ferry industry to secure capacity to guarantee the delivery of drugs to this country in the event of a no-deal Brexit. That was a collective decision, and it was the right decision. We talked to all the current ferry operators working across the North sea and the English channel, plus any other operator with tangible plans to do so. That is where the procurement came from.
Is this not the key question, however? Did the right hon. Gentleman have advice from his officials that negotiations solely with ferry companies would result in a legal challenge by Eurotunnel, which ultimately he has now paid off with a £33 million investment from taxpayers?
We knew, in accelerating the procurement process, that there was a legal risk. That has been highlighted in the NAO report. However, it was my judgment, the judgment of my accounting officer and the judgment of those who vetted the plan across the Government that that was a risk that we should take, given the need to ensure that we had a supply of drugs into the country in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
We took a collective decision, in the light of the legal advice, which was taken by me, by my accounting officer, and by those who approved this across the Government, and we did so—[Interruption.] We did so because we judged it important to ensure that we had a proper supply of drugs to the NHS in the event of a no-deal Brexit. I challenge Labour Members, as they chunter from the Front Bench, to say that they disagree with ensuring a supply of drugs to the UK in a no-deal Brexit.
I have been listening very intently to what the right hon. Gentleman has been saying. The thing that really surprises and shocks me is the fact that there is a complete lack of humility with regard to the fact that £33 million of public money—taxpayers’ money—has been wasted. Could he just stand up and say sorry to them?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that proper preparation is an important role of the Government, and that frightening people unnecessarily, particularly those who are vulnerable and dependent on medicines, such as those with epilepsy, is completely irresponsible and unkind? Can he confirm to my constituents that the medicines will be available, regardless of whether we have no deal or Brexit on the Prime Minister’s deal?
Does the Secretary of State not understand and accept that today he is laying bare the advice that he received—and that he acted in contravention of that advice and he lost? We are not asking for an absence of preparation for contingencies; we are asking for a modicum of competence, and he has singularly failed.
I am going to make a bit of progress, because I have given way many times.
Let me touch briefly on the issue of Seaborne Freight, which was raised exhaustively by the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, and on which I have answered question after question in the House. First, to be clear, the agreement with Eurotunnel was not about the contract with Seaborne Freight; it was about the procurement process, and particularly about the continuing contracts we have with Brittany Ferries and DFDS for additional ferry capacity into the UK, to provide us with resilience. I have spoken exhaustively in the House about Seaborne Freight. I am disappointed that the contract had to be terminated. I stand by the decision to give that company a chance, particularly since it was backed by Ireland’s biggest shipping firm at the time. We have, as a Government, paid no money at all to Seaborne.
The hon. Gentleman keeps asking me about spending money on due diligence. We spend money on due diligence for contracts that we do not award as well as for contracts that we do award, because rightly and properly in government due diligence is applied to a tender of any sort. That is what we did in this case, and what we do in all other situations. That, again, is the right thing to do.
So it is absolutely clear—I want to be absolutely clear—that when it comes to the Eurotunnel litigation, the settlement struck between the Government and Eurotunnel was separate to the issue of the Seaborne debate, and it was struck, I think, in a way that is designed to ensure that the taxpayer actually receives value through the addition of important facilities at the border that will smooth the flows.
It was a challenge to the procurement process, on which I said I took detailed legal advice at the time of procuring, which I and my accounting officer took into account when awarding these contracts. We expected that if a legal challenge were brought, any court determination would be brought well after Brexit and would not disrupt the process. All this, as the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun will be aware, has already been looked at by the National Audit Office. We have invited it to take a further look, but I stand by the decisions that we took.
These decisions were not simply taken by me and by my Department; they were decisions taken collectively, in the national interest.
Order. Look, I understand passions are high, but the hon. and learned Lady must not say that the Secretary of State is not telling the truth, because that—[Interruption.] Order. That is an imputation of dishonesty. The hon. and learned Lady may think that the Secretary of State is wrong, but I am afraid before the debate proceeds further she must withdraw that charge.
Mr Speaker, I simply reiterate: the settlement that we have reached with Eurotunnel is going to pay for improved facilities at the border, to improve flow, to make sure that our border through the tunnel works more smoothly in future, particularly in the post-Brexit world. That is a simple, factual point about the settlement that has been reached.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way one more time. He knows that the port of Dover could see the legal risk of the process that he had undertaken, but decided to act in the national interest. Will he make sure that the port of Dover is not in any way disadvantaged in relation to this matter?
I have to say that the management of the port of Dover have been exemplary for the last few weeks in co-operating with us, not only over this but in preparations for no deal. They rightly judged that it was not in their corporate reputational benefit to try to block the delivery of drugs to the NHS in a post-Brexit world. I am disappointed that not everyone took the same view.
I am going to make some progress.
I simply want to reiterate the point. We have taken the decisions. We collectively, in the Government, back in November; we collectively, a couple of weeks ago; we collectively, about this settlement, have taken the view that we need foremost to put the national interest first. We need to make sure that this country is ready for a no-deal exit, even though we are working very hard to make sure that that does not happen. We are working very hard to make sure that we are prepared for all eventualities. That is the responsible thing for the Government to do. Sometimes you have to take some risks in doing that, but I think sensible Governments take risks in the national interest. I and we and all of my colleagues who took this decision collectively, stand by this decision; we are deeply sorry that it did not work out in the way we had intended, but the reality is, it was the right decision to take, because we were putting the national interest, and particularly patients in our national health service, first—and that, Mr Speaker, you would expect any responsible Government to do.
It is good to see the Transport Secretary finally in his place today, after I tried and failed to bring him to the House yesterday. Instead he sent the Health Secretary as his human shield, but that came as no surprise, considering how the Transport Secretary has made a habit of treating this House with disdain. Perhaps he will reflect upon that.
I thank the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) for securing this debate. Understandably, the Health Secretary was not able to answer the questions put to him yesterday, so I am going to have another go at getting some answers out of the Transport Secretary, but I am not holding my breath. In the papers filed at court in the weeks before the case was due to be heard, the Government lawyers described Eurotunnel’s case as “embarrassing”. They were bullish and confident, yet in the early hours of the morning of 1 March a settlement was reached between the Government and the company. This sequence of events raises many still unanswered questions.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is at least an apparent conflict between the reported out-of-court settlement of £33 million and the Secretary of State’s claim that the £33 million is to pay for “improved security”, and that we ought to be trying to get to the bottom of whether that is accurate?
I tried to intervene on the Transport Secretary on this point. Was the hon. Gentleman as surprised as I was that only after an out-of-court settlement with Eurotunnel had been agreed was this suddenly all about medicines? We had all the other urgent questions and medicines were never mentioned, yet we come to the Eurotunnel settlement and suddenly this is a health-led initiative. Does he share my surprise?
Yes, I was greatly surprised, but the hon. Gentleman has to concede that there had to be some justification for bringing the wrong Secretary of State to the Dispatch Box, and if a hook could be found to hang that on, that was as good as any. It was a nice try, but it failed totally.
Has my hon. Friend noticed that every time the Government get something wrong through their incompetence, the excuse is that it is “in the national interest”, yet when Labour Governments make mistakes it is a different thing altogether?
My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point. I am just astonished that people can hide behind what they perceive as being the national interest; I fail to see how it is in the national interest to pour millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money down the drain. I do not call that being in the national interest at all.
I understand that the hon. Gentleman is about to turn to some of the questions he would like the Secretary of State to answer, but does he agree that one of them should be about the due diligence process that was carried out? The company that carried out that due diligence says that it could not ask the normal questions of Seaborne Freight because it was such a new entity. So how could the Government be in any way confident in their risk aversion in awarding that contract to Seaborne in the first place?
That is a very good question, and I have raised the point myself. Those who were inquiring into the bona fides of these companies were restricted in the scope they were given. Why on earth they did not look into the track record of the individuals concerned at Seaborne is beyond me, as these things are well known. A mere cursory search of Google tells us about the track record of Ben Sharp in his dealings in the Gulf, but seemingly that was not considered. The hon. Gentleman makes the point well.
Let me return to the settlement that was achieved on 1 March. I want to know why the Department for Transport was so confident about winning the case only a week before. What brought the sudden change in strategy towards the legal challenge? The Department clearly thought it could win. Who intervened? What was the view taken by other Departments—the Department of Health and Social Care Health, the Treasury and Downing Street? Why did they take a different view from the Department for Transport? Why did the Government not settle earlier? Why did they leave it so late? Why did they continue to employ Monckton Chambers and a QC and two barristers, who do not come cheap? How much was spent on this case, both on Government legal fees and Eurotunnel’s fees? Will the Secretary of State say who made the decision to settle with Eurotunnel over the £33 million provision of emergency medical supplies in the event of no deal?
I am grateful for that clarification that it took a Cabinet Committee to make such a mess of things. Can the Secretary of State specifically say what is in this standard settlement—or are there other clauses within it? Ordinarily, when such cases are settled, they are done by reference to a consent order, in which there would be a paragraph dealing with the sum of money to be paid. In these circumstances, it may say “£33 million” and it may say the date upon which that sum is to be paid. It may also say that the costs are to follow the event. So we want to know the answers to those questions.
I absolutely agree with the hon. and learned Lady on that. Having been in practice for the thick end of 30 years, I have never entered into a settlement where the defendant has told me what I am going to spend the money on. That is absolutely ludicrous, so we need to know the answers.
Earlier, the hon. Gentleman said that the Secretary of State was being used as a human shield. Is he aware that many Conservative Members have considerable sympathy with the Secretary of State? We believe he has been urging his colleagues for the past two years to undertake contingency planning for no deal but was frustrated by other people, perhaps in the Cabinet, who did not want to do that. If mistakes are to be made because these decisions have been taken at the last moment, it is not the fault of the Secretary of State, but he is too much of a gentleman to argue that in his own defence.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that revealing clarification about the obvious chaos that the Government are in over these important issues. They do not speak with a concerted and singular voice, and people are falling out with each other left, right and centre. That comes as no surprise to me whatsoever.
The hon. Gentleman clearly has a lot more experience than I do in matters of collective responsibility. Let us take the previous intervention at its word. If a Secretary of State is clear that the collective responsibility of the Government is preventing him or her from doing the job properly, is not the only honourable course of action for that Secretary of State to resign? So what the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) has done by speaking in his defence is say that the Secretary of State should not resign now, as he should have resigned months ago.
That is a fair observation. We have heard that the Secretary of State was prevented from undertaking contingency planning in the first place because of disputes in the Government and that it took the Government to make a collective decision because nobody could come forward to take a decision on this settlement themselves. That really does characterise a Government in chaos and meltdown. Can the Secretary of State say which Departments contributed towards the £33 million? Yesterday, the Health and Social Care Secretary did not know whether his Department had contributed, so will the Transport Secretary please clarify which Department or Departments paid that bill?
Although I do not agree with the action that Eurotunnel took, it has to be said that this £33 million is clearly being invested in border infrastructure. I would like to see and have been calling for similar investment in Dover. Does it not occur to the hon. Gentleman that this money could have been very well spent as “no regrets” spending to improve our border security and trading links?
I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that that is a ridiculous proposition. Is he saying for a single second that this is wise investment and that it takes a court case for people to come to the right conclusion about investing in our border provision? Is he really suggesting that that is the way to drive public policy? Is he suggesting that we drive Government policy through the litigation process, whereby a claimant puts a case to the Government to say, “This is what you should be doing.”? He cannot possibly sustain that as an argument.
The hon. Gentleman is making a facile point. My point is simply that the Secretary of State, confronted with opportunism, has made the best of a bad job to make sure that the investment is used to the good of the country, not to fatten the profits of Eurotunnel. In a difficult situation, he has done the right thing, trying to act in the national interest while being consistently undermined by the Labour party, the Scots Nats party, the TIGgers and everyone on the Opposition Benches, who have been continually trying to undermine this country’s leaving the European Union.
If the hon. Gentleman really thinks that expending £33 million when the Government did not want to or need to is a sensible way forward and a sign of success, I really do not want to see what failure looks like. That is outrageous. Saying that £33 million was the maximum amount to be paid implies that payment was conditional on particular outcomes being achieved. There is a lack of clarity on whether the Government can claw back money from Eurotunnel if it is not used on Brexit preparations. So do such provisions exist?
On that point, was the permanent secretary at the DFT correct to say of the Seaborne contract award:
“I am confident that our process was lawful, and obviously the Department and I acted on legal advice in determining how to take that process forward”?
Has the Secretary of State’s Department therefore thrown £33 million of public money down the drain by not contesting Eurotunnel in the courts? Or is it the case that because of the Prime Minister’s catastrophic Brexit negotiating tactics, which have brought us right up to the cliff edge with 24 days to go before we leave with a default no-deal Brexit, the Government’s failure to plan for such a devastating outcome has meant that they have given themselves no option but to pay out this money to Eurotunnel? Surely nothing says more about the shameful and destructive Conservative party than how, in the year 2019, a UK Government are having to make such costly decisions about prioritising medicines over food supplies. This disaster is only of the Conservatives’ own making.
The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care was wrong to claim that yesterday’s urgent question was not related to Seaborne even though the legal action was brought about in response to the award of a contract to Seaborne Freight. He did not explain why, if it was not related, as he stated, an agreement was reached with Eurotunnel now rather than in November or December. It is one way or the other.
Once again, the hon. Gentleman has conveniently forgotten that 90% of these contracts for the things on which the NHS is depending are with DFDS and Brittany Ferries. I wish that at some point he would be frank with the House and explain the full gamut of what we are talking about.
That is not the first time the Secretary of State has put up this false argument, as if 10% of the goods flowing into this country through these ports and by this method are somehow irrelevant and unimportant. It is a ludicrous proposition. If damage was caused to 10% of the trade coming in, we would be in an incredibly difficult position.
The hon. Gentleman cannot add up. This contract brought 8% of the equivalent, in total, with DFDS and Brittany Ferries, and the contingency buffer was made up by Seaborne on the basis of buying tickets in advance that we would not pay for unless the ship sailed.
I cannot add up? I really think that is pot calling kettle. The Secretary of State has not been able to count for years; he is costing us a fortune.
Andrew Dean from law firm Clifford Chance warns that this may not be the end of the matter. Mr Dean, who used to advise the DFT and is a procurement specialist, says it is quite likely that the Eurotunnel deal will be challenged. What contingency planning has been done in relation to such a challenge, and what public funds, if any, have been allocated as part of such plans? The Secretary of State talks about having received legal advice and listened to it; perhaps he could tell the House what advice he has received about the risk of yet further satellite litigation because of the deal he has done.
The Government talk about the UK maritime industry being market-led. Is it not the case that the Secretary of State’s blundering interventions have directly undermined the industry? He promised to ensure continuity of supply for six months in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Key to that was not increasing traffic around Dover, yet the Eurotunnel/Getlink route still goes through the same bottleneck road network on either side of the channel.
The Secretary of State appears to be puzzled by the anger of the House. Allow me to explain why Members and the public are so furious: this latest fiasco would be enough to warrant the resignation of the Secretary of State even if it were an isolated incident, but it is not a one-off; rather, it is the latest costly error in a series of blunders—blunders that could have been avoided were a different, more competent Secretary of State in post.
The hon. Lady makes a valid point. An awful lot of people are looking at these eye-watering sums and thinking about what else could benefit from such interventions. That really makes my point for me: the Transport Secretary’s record is that of a departmental wrecking ball. Almost every decision he made as Secretary of State for Justice was damaging and eventually reversed, at significant cost to the taxpayer. As Secretary of State for Transport, he has repeatedly thrown our transport networks into chaos, wasting obscene amounts of public money. A £2 billion bail-out for Virgin Trains on the east coast line; his failure to prepare airports for drone attacks; his awarding of contracts to Carillion when the company was on the verge of collapse; the rail timetabling chaos; the privatisation of probation services; the banning of books from prisons—the list goes on and on.
Research into the total cost of the Secretary of State’s mistakes, both in his current role and at the Ministry of Justice, found that he has cost the taxpayer £2.7 billion. That money could have paid for the annual salaries of 118,000 nurses or 94,000 secondary school teachers. Instead, it has been squandered. He has even wasted more money than the Prime Minister offered as a Brexit bribe to towns. Shamefully, all this has been allowed by the Prime Minister, who keeps him in post because she is short of allies in the Cabinet. The country is being made to pay a heavy price for her political weakness. This would be unacceptable at any time—
The right hon. Gentleman says, “This is really poor” from a sedentary position, and I agree with him: this is really, really poor. It would be unacceptable at any time, but it is especially outrageous following the years of austerity and neglect that have left our towns and communities hollowed out and our public services in crisis.
The hon. Gentleman is giving an excellent speech. Does he agree that if the SNP Government in Edinburgh or the Labour Government in Cardiff were guilty of this sort of profligacy with public money, we would never hear the end of it from Conservative Members?
The hon. and learned Lady is exactly right: it is one rule for the Tory party and another for everyone else. [Interruption.] No, it is not a funny issue. The right hon. and hon. Members on the Government Front Bench would condemn such waste, and with some justification; they really cannot complain when other people hold them to account for their continuous errors and wastefulness.
There are now 8 million working-age adults in poverty, while child poverty has grown to more than 4 million and rising; councils have had their funding slashed by half; violent crime is rising; and school budgets are seeing cuts for the first time in 20 years. In my constituency and many others throughout the country, there is appalling poverty and people are struggling. We are told that there is not the money to properly fund our schools, hospitals or social care services, yet the Prime Minister always finds the money to indulge the Secretary of State’s latest blunder. A further £1.9 billion has been spent on planning for a damaging no deal. For some, it seems, austerity is over. It is one rule for Tory Ministers and another rule for the rest of us. This cannot be allowed to continue. On behalf of the country, I implore the Secretary of State to resign.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) on securing this debate. He has been far more efficient and effective than the official Opposition, who did not seek this opportunity.
It seems to me, representing one of the channel ports as I do, that the issue is that the people of Britain voted to leave the European Union. Some 17.4 million people voted to leave and we need to make a success of it. They voted to leave because they believed in Britain and in the kind of land of opportunity that we could build. They believed in the kind of future that we could make outside the European Union. That vote needs to be respected.
Having backed remain myself, after the vote I listened to my constituents, who said, “Let’s leave,” and I spent time on contingency planning. Two years ago, I set out a detailed report about how we needed to be ready on day one, deal or no deal; how we could overhaul our entire customs systems, our road infrastructure and our border infrastructure; and how that investment would be no-regret spending because a more efficient border system would provide economic growth. That is not just my case; it is what Jon Thompson, head of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, said in evidence to the Treasury Committee when I raised the possibility of a single Department for borders. That is why I say that it is no-regret spending to invest in our borders, our border security and our border systems.
The shadow Secretary of State rejects as absurd the view that we should make such an investment. No doubt it would not be made by a Labour Government—they did not make it last time, so they would not do it now. They are not serious about border security, and they have a leader who believes that every single migrant should be allowed to wander into the country.
In case the hon. Gentleman wants to cite my words accurately, I said that the litigation route was a peculiar way of going about investing in infrastructure. Waiting until somebody sues us before we decide what to do—surely to goodness, that is not the way we should go about business when developing policy in this country.
Did my hon. Friend note, as I did, that under the stewardship of the last Labour Government, the UK transport system fell from seventh best in the world to 33rd? Perhaps that is an indication of how well the Labour party would look after our transport system in the future—if it gets the opportunity, which I hope it will not.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This Government have invested substantially in transport. I believe we need more investment in roads to the ports, as has been set out in transport reports, and in infrastructure at our ports. It is so important, particularly as we leave the European Union, that we invest in our trading systems and ensure that the ferries, the channel tunnel and all other logistics work efficiently, swiftly and well. That is why, two years ago, I set out the fact that we needed to plan to be ready on day one, deal or no deal.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s congratulations on securing this emergency debate, which suggests that he agrees that it is needed because the Government are not answering questions properly. He is making a point about contingency planning; I respect the fact that he is talking about planning ahead two years ago and about no-regret spending. Does he know any more than other hon. Members present about what security improvements are coming after the £33 million settlement with Eurotunnel? The Transport Secretary certainly has not explained them.
I do not represent the tunnel, which is in Folkestone and Hythe; I represent Dover. However, I have been keen to press the Secretary of State to ensure that Dover receives similar investment and that it does not lose out, and I look forward to his confirmation that that will be the case.
Away from the party games, we all know that the problems in the British transport system are so intractable that any Secretary of State would face them. Many Conservative Members think that if the rest of the Cabinet had listened to my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary two years ago and started no-deal planning at the time, not only would the EU have taken us seriously and offered a much better deal, but we would not have made the mistakes that have clearly been made. It is not the Transport Secretary’s fault.
I thank my hon. Friend for making exactly the point that I am coming to. I set out how we needed to invest to be ready on day one, deal or no deal; as I argued at the time, to get the best negotiation, we needed to be able to get up and walk away from the table. I also set out detailed legal reasons why we did not owe any of the divorce bill—another point that was important to our negotiation.
The Government as a whole—the Cabinet—decided not to spend money at that time. The Cabinet decided not to invest at that time. The Cabinet decided not to take forward contingency planning at a substantial level until after the Chequers discussions. To visit that on the Secretary of State would not be fair, right or proper.
I have given way quite a lot, so I will make some progress.
The Secretary of State has worked hard in the national interest to make sure that contingency plans, once authorised, have been taken forward. I pressed him on the point, because I wanted to see a new route from Dover to Zeebrugge in Belgium, but it would have required a level of intervention that is difficult under the procurement rules. As it was, he undertook procedures that were known within the Department to be legally risky, but were seen as being in the national interest because of the time available. I have to agree that that decision was in the national interest. It would have been very easy for the port of Dover to go for an opportunistic legal action on the basis that it was being shut out of the process, but it would not have been the right thing to do.
Everyone across the country could see what the Secretary of State was trying to achieve: to take pressure off the port of Dover and the channel tunnel in case there were difficulties with France. That was a concern at the time because of the kind of rhetoric that was coming from the French President, Monsieur Macron. Now that things have moved on and we know that the European Union will extend transit on a no-deal basis, the risk of such difficulties is much less, but that was not known at the time. It is right that the Secretary of State and the Department take measures based on the information before them.
Therein lies the heart of this debate. The Opposition are saying that the Secretary of State should not have taken this action at all. They are attacking him for taking contingency planning measures.The kernel of their argument is that he was wrong to take them. I think that that is incredibly opportunistic. As I said, he may or may not have been allowed out of the traps as early as many of us in this House would have liked, but once he was away, he took the measures that were necessary.
Beyond the whole issue of contingency planning, some important improvements are needed in our country. The reason we need contingency planning is that we have not invested in our border systems and infrastructure as perhaps we might have done in the past. To set out the case for my constituents and the people of Kent, we need to ensure that our infrastructure is better prepared, because—irrespective of Brexit—we have big queues in Kent and problems on the ferries and in the tunnel.
Contingency planning or no contingency planning, there needs to be investment in more lorry parking in Kent, and the Department for Transport needs to be more effective in taking it forward. The roads to the port need upgrades. In particular, the A2 dualling, which was taken out of the programme by John Prescott in 1997 as one of the cuts in the early days of the then Labour Government, is long overdue and needs to be brought back as quickly as possible. It is also incredibly important that contingency plans work on a balanced basis between the tunnel and the port of Dover.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that our case is not that there should be no contingency planning, but that if the contingency planning had been done in a timely fashion and under proper procurement rules, it would not have put the Government at the legal risk that has now cost them at least £33 million?
The difficulty with the hon. Lady’s point is that she and her party are trying to lay the blame opportunistically at the Secretary of State’s door. My point is that the Government as a whole should have released the funds and made the decision to invest in our borders. Irrespective of this debate and of Brexit, that investment is in the national interest because our country will benefit from having more efficient, effective, safe and secure borders and from more efficient trading systems. Fewer people will be able to enter the country unlawfully, and people who are here unlawfully can be helped back to where they have come from.
We need to ensure that our trading systems are efficient and effective not just for our trade with Europe, but for the trade that we already do under World Trade Organisation terms. The more efficient we make them, the more economic growth we will get. Again, those are not my words, but those of Jon Thompson in evidence to the Treasury Committee—and he runs HMRC.
I am saying that the Secretary of State is not at fault, but neither are members of this Government. It is too many Members of the House of Commons who are at fault for not heeding the votes of 17.4 million people who say that we should leave the European Union at the end of March. It is about carrying into effect the referendum mandate, which the Scottish National party, the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats and the TIGgers have continually declined to do and sought to stop at every single turn. This House should respect the decision of the British people because this House asked the British people to make that decision; and that decision, having been made, should be respected.
People in this House are at fault, and they know who they are. To a person, those people know that they have not been doing their bit to ensure that we carry into effect the democratic will and decision of the British people. It is entirely shameful of the Opposition parties to have opportunistically attacked this Secretary of State, when the whole House knows that the Secretary of State has been working hard and doing his bit in the national interest to ensure that Brexit is a success and that we are ready on day one at the end of March.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) for securing this important debate. It is interesting to follow the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), who asked us to respect the decision of the people. Well, SNP Members respect the decision of our constituents and the people of Scotland, who voted 62% to remain, and we will continue not just to respect that, but to stand here and defend their decision. The hon. Gentleman spoke about this utopia voted for by the people who wanted to leave—this wonderful place that would be the UK out of Europe. However, he failed to recognise that people voted to leave because they were neglected, forgotten and ignored for years and years. Those areas had not been invested in and, as a result, there was a vote. But it was a vote of anger and protest, not for the mess that we are currently in.
During yesterday’s urgent question on the Eurotunnel payment, the Secretary of State for Health insisted 24 times—I have been through Hansard—that these contracts were about the unhindered supply of medicines. He also went on to say:
“I find it astonishing that Members on the Opposition Benches continue to make the case that this is not about medicines; it is all about medicines”—[Official Report, 4 March 2019; Vol. 655, c. 710.]
I just wonder what part of the contingency planning process awards contracts to a company that has no ferries, when this is all about the vital supply of medicines. It makes no sense whatever.
Given that the Secretary of State for Health yesterday answered questions for his pal, the Secretary of State for Transport, I assume that there will be a reciprocal agreement today. I hope that the Secretary of State for Transport, before he leaves, will answer some questions about health. If this is all about the unhindered supply of medicines, we need him to answer some questions about medicines. In particular, I want him to answer some questions about medical radioisotopes. I have been asking about this issue for more than two years without any proper information coming forward. I asked yesterday, and I previously asked a fortnight ago during Health questions on 19 February. It is a shame not to see the Health Secretary here today as he is so good on transport. On 19 February, he said that any issues with the supply of radioisotopes would be dealt with because the radioisotopes would be brought in by air. He also said that this planning was at an advanced stage. That was a really useful statement. If this contingency planning is indeed at an advanced stage, I would be keen to hear about the arrangements—about what is actually happening to ensure that we have radioisotopes for medical diagnosis and cancer treatment.
Most of our medical isotopes currently come through Dover or Coventry airport. If we assume that they are going to be coming through Coventry in the event of problems at Dover, we can also assume that there is expertise there to deal with it. Coventry airport deals with isotopes efficiently and effectively at the moment, but has there been increased capacity planning? We now know about the £33 million, and we have heard statements today that this will improve the services and ensure that everything runs smoothly, but I wonder how much has been spent on increasing the capacity at Coventry airport. If we are at an advanced stage of planning, I wonder how much training and upskilling has been done for staff in Coventry. Dealing with radioisotopes needs special skills and training, but I am sure it will be fine because we are at an advanced stage.
The UK is not self-sufficient when it comes to producing these materials. Around 80% of the materials we get come from Europe—from the Netherlands, Belgium and France—but, unlike medicines, they cannot be stockpiled. As soon as they are produced, they begin to decay, and the longer the delay, the smaller the dose of useful isotope that remains. There are two isotopes that are important in this process. The first is molybdenum, which has a half-life of 66 hours. Just to be clear, half-life means that after 66 hours it is half as effective as it was, and after another 66 hours it is half as effective again. This means that if we have a delay of even under a week, only a quarter of the useful substance will get to us. Once we get the molybdenum, we use it to generate technetium, which has an ever shorter half-life of only six hours. That has to get to patients quickly, but it would soon become utterly unusable. Not only does that have implications for patients’ health; it also has cost implications. If the original molybdenum does not get to us quickly, we will only have a half or a quarter of the stuff we thought we could use. That is problematic.
In 2008, a channel tunnel fire interrupted the supply of medical radioisotopes from the continent. Even this brief disturbance affected services. In 2015, industrial action in Calais resulted in radioisotopes being flown in via Coventry airport. The concern is that the situation that we face now is far greater than any of these incidents and much harder to mitigate, and the duration of the disruption is almost impossible to predict.
There are major questions over the UK’s ability to safeguard measures such as air freight deliveries of radioisotopes. Even assuming that aviation is completely unaffected by Brexit, there will be additional costs, and there is no guarantee that the supplies will be smooth, predictable and uninterrupted. There is uncertainty over the sourcing of radioisotopes from the European Union. We are currently part of Euratom, through which we are able to source them. Yes, of course, we can go further afield, but we cannot go to South Africa anymore because it has shut its reactor down, so supplies are even more limited. We could go to Canada, but as I have already explained, the time factor would make that problematic. This situation has serious implications.
Radioisotopes represent just one fragile and time-sensitive supply chain, but the challenges are considerable. With multiple links in the supply chain simultaneously threatened, the potential for serious disruption is immense, as we are seeing just now. The costs could be substantial, not least to the 1 million UK patients who depend on these services every single year. I am sure that the emergency planning has taken that into account. It is a pity that the Transport Secretary has gone because I would like to hear about the contingency planning for getting these medicines to the UK. In fact, since members of the Government are now able to switch roles, I would also like to hear how he is sourcing these medicines. I want to know what spending has taken place in Coventry.
Finally, I thank the Secretary of State for Transport for agreeing to appear here today. It is nice that he was here for a bit. I look forward to hearing more about the unhindered supply of medicines that we have heard about.
Sit down. The hon. Gentleman did not put in to speak. He is signalling that he wishes to speak, and that—[Interruption.] If he leaves me to make the judgment and tell him what the situation is, he will benefit from the instruction that I am about to give him. Working on the basis of an informal time limit, it would be helpful if colleagues did not exceed 12 minutes each. I call Mr Kevin Foster.
Thank you for your guidance, Mr Speaker. I will of course observe that courtesy. I would not wish to prevent other Members from having the opportunity to contribute to this debate.
It is interesting to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), particularly given her interest in Coventry airport. As a former deputy leader of Coventry City Council, I know that one of the issues for that airport is that it is quite an underutilised resource since passenger flights from it were ended a couple of years back, when, sadly, the then Labour Government decided not to allow the airport permission for a terminal that would have allowed that service to become financially sustainable. Helpfully, there is quite a large resource there and an ability to develop it further. I hope that gives her some reassurances. Certainly, it is an airport that could contribute a lot more to our economy more generally. I will now focus my remarks more on Torbay.
There is a bit of a groundhog day feeling to this debate. Those who come here to tell us how dreadful no deal would be and to raise legitimate concerns about what that may mean for business and the economy, normally the next day pop back to complain about measures to mitigate no deal. There was always going to be a need to try to move with some urgency, particularly in relation to what the contract is actually about. We keep on talking about the ferries, but what we were actually talking about yesterday is the fact that this is about securing the supply of vital medicines into the UK if there is disruption at the border.
It is worth noting that there was not a contract just with Seaborne Freight; that is how it is regularly portrayed, for pretty obvious reasons. There are also contracts with DFDS and Brittany Ferries, which represent the majority of the capacity. Those contracts are still in place, even though the one with Seaborne Freight is not. As I said in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), whose speech I found quite informative and useful, this is about the balance of the debate. Let us be candid: if the Secretary of State had refused to take a decision to create additional capacity, we would probably be here debating the potential lack of capacity for medicines to be transported into this country in a no-deal scenario. Instead, we are debating whether the legal risk was the right one to take. That is ultimately the nub of this debate.
In any scenario, we cannot say 100% exactly what the legal risk will be. No one presenting a legal case to court, particularly with any move towards reaching an out-of-court settlement, is going to start with the gambit, “We think we’re done—now we’re going to come here and negotiate.” That would clearly be an absolutely ludicrous position to adopt at the start of any discussions. I have taken part in such discussions myself. Both sides are always going to start with the fact that they feel their case is strong. We would be surprised if Eurotunnel walked in the door having decided that its case was not.
I thank the hon. and learned Lady for her intervention, which gives me an opportunity to confirm that this is not about £33 million going straight into Eurotunnel shareholders’ pockets—it is about spending it on specified outcomes. I am perfectly content to see what the settlement is being used for.
I will continue with my speech for a few moments.
This is not about just handing over £33 million. It is about the fact that investment will follow with a company that—let us be blunt—the Government work very closely with on a range of issues. If there were disruption at the border, the Opposition would immediately be having a go and complaining about it, yet now they are complaining about measures to try to mitigate disruption in case of a no-deal outcome.
For me, this is about that balance. The Secretary of State would have had to look at the legal risk versus the risk of no medicines coming into the NHS. That is the nub of the decision. If every decision went perfectly, there would never be a debate in this Chamber about it. That is what this fundamentally boils down to. [Interruption.] If the shadow Secretary of State, who is chuntering from a sedentary position, is saying that he would not have awarded the contracts and that he would have taken the risk on the supply of medicines in a no-deal scenario, that is a position that he could defend. I do not think that would have been the right decision. My personal view is that it would be better to take a legal risk than a risk with vital life-saving medicines, but he can try to defend his view if he wishes to.
The Secretary of State has argued that the £33 million will not be going directly to the Eurotunnel shareholders because of the improved services, border systems and security. Can the hon. Gentleman clarify for the House what these additional services are, because we would all appreciate that?
The hon. Gentleman has had his answers to his points. He may not like the answers he gets, but he has had them and I will not take a further intervention.
Some people have come here today talking about the fact that we should take no deal off the table and that would make all this absolutely pointless. I am afraid that we cannot simply take no deal off the table. We have to do one of two things. To be fair, the Scottish National party and the Liberal Democrats take the consistent position that they would look to ignore the referendum result by revoking article 50. In effect, they would take no deal off the table by staying in the European Union. The only other option to take no deal off the table is to agree a deal with the European Union. That is where we see the inconsistency of many of Labour’s positions. It is all very well Labour Members saying, “I don’t like this deal; I don’t want that deal,” but, unless they are prepared to say that they would revoke article 50—there are two parties that are still on that platform; I do not agree with that but it is at least a coherent position—then it is absolute nonsense to come here and say, “We don’t like any of the deals but we demand that no deal be taken off the table.” That is absolute tosh and rubbish.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I did read the White Paper put out by the Scottish National party a few years ago that was a bit of a work of fiction. My understanding, unless he wants to correct me, is that his position is that he wishes to remain in the European Union.
I take it from his non-answer that the hon. Gentleman has not bothered to read that document. What the Scottish Government put forward over two years ago showed a willingness to make a significant compromise. They would have been willing to consider a deal that kept us in a single market and customs union if it allowed Scotland—and, indeed, Northern Ireland—to have the wishes of our people respected. It is a pity that he clearly has not bothered to read that document. Although his Government have completely ignored it, I would still recommend it to him because it might yet show us a way out of the shambles that they are creating.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. As I say, I naively thought that his position was to stay in the European Union, because that is what I keep hearing in virtually every debate on Brexit that the Scottish National party contributes to. I recall the SNP Government’s proposals on staying and it makes the point: why on earth would anyone want to be outside the European Union while following all its laws, all its rules and all its customs obligations, and probably ending up still within its common fisheries policy, which, as we know, has had such an impact on the north-east of Scotland? It would continue to do so if we stayed in the European Union. We would be obliged to be part of it, despite the claims by the Scottish National party.
This debate is about having a go at no-deal preparations, while at the same time complaining that the impact of no deal would be too great. There is a real opportunity next week to put an end to all these discussions by voting for a deal. It is an opportunity for some Opposition Members to come off the fence and be clear about their options: the deal that has been negotiated, which is realistic and can be passed, or joining the SNP in voting to stay in the European Union. It is easy to make party political points. It is easy to have a go and criticise decisions that you know you probably would have taken. [Interruption.] Sorry, Mr Speaker—decisions that they know they would have taken; the only decisions you take are on who is called to speak and procedural matters in this House.
That is the nub of this debate. Ultimately, it was a legal risk versus a risk to medicine supply. Many Members sitting in the Chamber know what they would have done in those circumstances. The contracts with DFDS and Brittany Ferries are still in place, providing the majority of this capacity. Next week, people will have to start choosing between the alternatives that are actually on the table, not ones that they pretend might be.
Shortly after the Secretary of State awarded contracts to ferry operators as part of his no-deal contingency planning, the Transport Committee, which I chair, received two submissions to our inquiry into freight and Brexit alleging that the Secretary of State had acted illegally in doing so. Although it has already been published, I would like to make the House aware of the written evidence submitted by Dr Albert Sanchez-Graells. He is a reader in economic law at the University of Bristol Law School, a former member of the European Commission stakeholder expert group on public procurement, a member of the European Procurement Law Group and a member of the Procurement Lawyers Association Brexit working group, so one would think that he probably knows what he is talking about.
Dr Sanchez-Graells was clear in his evidence to our Committee that
“The award of three contracts for ‘additional shipping freight capacity’ in the context of the Government’s ‘No-Deal’ preparations raises important illegality concerns.”
He said that, under regulation 32(2) of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015,
“‘extreme urgency’ only exists where an unforeseeable event renders impossible the observance of the time-limits laid down for calls for tenders.”
He said that the award of the three contracts for additional capacity seems “likely” to be in breach of that regulation,
“as there was time to comply with the 60 calendar days’ time limit required by alternative, transparent competitive procedures with negotiation.”
He went on to say:
“Even if it was accepted that there was no time for alternative competitive procedures… the award to Seaborne Freight (UK) Ltd still raises issues of potential illegality. The Secretary of State for Transport has justified the award as an act of support for a new British start-up business. This fact, coupled with…the lack of readiness of the port infrastructure…undercuts the rationale of the extreme urgency of the procurement and heightens the likely illegality of the award.”
We now know that the Department faced a legal challenge from Eurotunnel and that settling the case has cost UK taxpayers at least £33 million.
I am afraid that the Secretary of State has shown a repeated failure to operate in an open and transparent manner. He avoided questions in the House yesterday, but as I said, that does not mean that these questions go away. I understand why he is not in his place. However, I expect to receive written answers to these questions, as I assume that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), who is sitting on the Front Bench, does not intend to respond to them this afternoon.
These are the questions that I want to raise. It is reported in The Times today that the Secretary of State wanted to fight Eurotunnel’s legal action over the award of contracts to ferry firms but was overruled. Is that true? What legal advice did the Government receive on the likely success of Eurotunnel’s action? How was the sum of £33 million arrived at? Is the fact that the Secretary of State was overruled an indication that he does not enjoy the confidence of the Prime Minister or his Cabinet colleagues? I believe he mentioned that it was decided by a Cabinet working group.
When the Secretary of State was not here yesterday, we had the rather ludicrous spectacle of the Secretary of State for Health trying to cover for him and explain. He said that
“the purpose of the decision is to ensure that unhindered flow of medicines.”—[Official Report, 4 March 2019; Vol. 655, c. 700.]
However, he failed to answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) about how much of the £33 million being paid to Eurotunnel is being contributed by the Department of Health and Social Care. We still need an answer to that question, and I expect to receive one.
I will not be surprised if my Committee has additional questions. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), who unfortunately is not able to be here for this debate, has described the level of this settlement as “absolutely outrageous”, so I am sure he will share my wish to understand how it was arrived at. How much of Eurotunnel’s £33 million settlement will be spent on border measures in Calais, rather than in the UK? Is it right that the UK taxpayer will be paying for these measures, rather than Eurotunnel or the French Government?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. We would like to receive further information about the basis on which this settlement was reached and the legal risks that it entails.
Finally, I return to the question I asked yesterday, to which I received nothing but bluster. If there is a Brexit deal, or if indeed there were no Brexit, how much of the taxpayers’ £33 million do the Government expect to recover from Eurotunnel? I take it from the Secretary of State’s earlier response that the answer is none. I would be grateful if we received answers from him to those questions.
It is essential that the Department for Transport is subject to proper scrutiny and held properly accountable for its waste of public money. It is very disappointing that the Secretary of State once again had to be dragged to the Chamber. At least on this occasion he was here, but we still do not have proper answers on these important matters, which the public deserve.
I am grateful to be able to speak in this debate. I want to start by dealing with the red herring we frequently hear from Conservative Members that this debate is about impugning the Government’s responsibility to prepare for a no-deal Brexit. It is not about that. It is about their ability to make those preparations competently and without squandering taxpayers’ money.
Of course, the Government have to prepare for no deal because they are insistent on keeping no deal on the table, and last week they voted against the SNP amendment that would have taken it off the table. As some Conservative Members have generously accepted, no deal could be taken off the table by a number of routes, including an extension of article 50 or the option of revoking it—the lifeline thrown to the British Government by a number of Scottish politicians, including myself. In that respect, I declare an interest, with the backing of the Good Law Project.
Let us get that red herring off the table. This is not about the Opposition querying whether the Government should prepare for a no-deal or Brexit. This is about the Opposition doing their job and holding the Government to account for making those preparations in a shambolic, chaotic fashion that is wasteful of public money.
Last week, the Government settled out of court litigation brought against them by Eurotunnel for the legal reasons laid out by the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood). They paid more than £33 million to buy off the risk of losing the action and having to pay more, and the action was brought because they had failed to put three contracts—not just Seaborne Freight, so far as I am aware, but all three contracts—out to competitive tender. That £33 million was in lieu of a larger sum that would have had to be paid out in damages if the court case had gone ahead and the Government had lost.
That is why I, as a lawyer, am so puzzled by the insistence of the Secretary of State for Transport and the Secretary of State for Health that this £33 million will somehow pay for increased security at the ports. In my long experience of 30 years—20-odd years at the Bar and a number of years as a solicitor—I have never heard of such a stipulation in an out-of-court settlement in this type of case. That is why I was so puzzled, and perhaps expressed my puzzlement in terms that were unparliamentary.
I want to know. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), is looking at his phone and is not interested in what SNP Members have to say, as usual, but this is not going to go away because I am going to pursue it with Eurotunnel and others. I want to know—[Interruption.] Well, perhaps he could just listen and be quiet while he is listening. I want to know whether Eurotunnel—
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it customary for the Member who is speaking to provoke a Minister into looking at her directly and then to say that he is somehow interrupting her. It seems to me it would be far better if the hon. and learned Lady went on addressing the Chair and left the Minister to listen, like the rest of us.
The hon. Gentleman has his own interpretation of the chronology of events, which those attending to observe our proceedings can make a judgment about for themselves, and that is one point of view. If I may say so, there is another point of view, which is that the hon. and learned Lady was somewhat disquieted, not to say mildly irritated, by the junior Minister’s evident fascination with the contents of his electronic device. It might be thought courteous not to be focusing intently on the said contents when a Member is addressing the House. I hope the hon. Gentleman will not take offence when I say that he is in the end a very loyal sort of person, and it is not terribly surprising that he should spring to the defence of his ministerial colleague and fellow parliamentarian. It was very gracious of him and a nice try.
It may have been a nice try, but I am not going to leave this one alone. I want to know how much of that £33 million will be repaid in the event of there being a deal. I think I know the answer: it will be nil. I want to know whether there was any legal agreement that any amount of that £33 million was to be spent on improved security, and if so, to what extent. I will not be leaving those issues alone either today or in the future.
I was the first person, to my knowledge, to raise this issue on the Floor of the House or in Committee earlier this year. When I got hold of a copy of the contract with Seaborne Freight, which was readily available on the internet, I, like any lawyer worth their salt, looked up the public contracts regulations and realised that it looked very much as though the Government had avoided the competitive tendering process that they are bound to carry out under law.
That is why I raised this issue with the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union in the Chamber on 7 January. I am going to go through the chronology because I want to make the point that I have raised at least half a dozen times the question of what was the urgent or unforeseeable event that justified there not being a competitive tender, and that on no occasion have I received the answer that has been given today by the Secretary of State for Transport that it was to do with a decision taken collectively by the Government last autumn to improve the supply of medicines in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The very first time I heard such an explanation was on the television at the weekend, when the Secretary of State for Health used it, and he of course used it again yesterday. However, it is very odd—again, this informs my puzzlement and frustration earlier this afternoon—that we have never heard that explanation before.
Let me go through the chronology. On 7 January in this Chamber, I asked the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union why the contract with Seaborne Freight had proceeded under the negotiated procurement procedure without prior publication—that is to say, not competitively—because it seems to me that it must have been foreseeable for quite a long time that there might be a no-deal situation and it was therefore hard to say that no deal had come out of the blue and was urgent or unforeseeable. I received the usual non-answer from the Secretary of State. I will not bore hon. Members with the contents of the answer—they can look it up in Hansard—but there is nothing about a requirement to prepare for the urgent supply of medicine and, indeed, no kind of explanation at all.
The following day, 8 January, I raised the same point with the Secretary of State for Transport on the Floor of the House. I said I was concerned about the legality of the procurement process, that I had a copy of the contract notice and that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) reminded the House earlier that day, no deal has always been a possibility because the Prime Minister said right at the beginning that no deal is better than a bad deal. I asked the Secretary of State what the urgency was and whether the Government had set aside any funds in the event of legal action. I got a non-answer, other than to say it was a “matter of extreme urgency”, and there was no reference to the supply of medicine.
The following day, 9 January, I raised the matter in some detail with the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), at a question and answer session before the Exiting the European Union Committee. I am proud to say that the segment where I questioned him went viral on the internet. I asked him a number of times to tell the Committee what the urgent and unforeseeable event was that justified these contracts not going out to competitive tender, and he was unable to tell me.
If the explanation that it had been a collective decision by the UK Government to put these contracts out non-competitively to secure the supply of medicines, I would have expected the Minister in charge of no-deal planning at the Department for Exiting the European Union to know that. The fact that he did not know and, under sustained questioning, did not mention it does raise a suspicion in my mind that it is an explanation that has been invented after the fact, rather than an explanation that has always been the case.
I will finish the chronology, and then I will give way.
That was on 9 January. Later, I put in a written question:
“To ask the Secretary of State for Transport, what unforeseeable events led his Department to award contracts for additional shipping freight capacity under Regulation 32 of The Public Contracts Regulations 2015.”
I received the reply:
“A negotiated procurement procedure without prior publication was concluded…to ensure that capacity can be in place in time for a No Deal exit whilst at the same time securing value for money for the taxpayer.”
There was no mention of the need to secure the urgent supply of medicines in the event of no deal, but there was a mention of value for money for taxpayers. Do the Government still think they have provided value for money for taxpayers, given what we have heard this afternoon? I very much doubt it.
On 31 January, I asked the Attorney General about this matter. I asked him whether he was concerned that the Government could face legal action in respect of their failure to put these contracts out to competitive tender, whether he had been asked to advise on the matter and whether any money had been put aside for the contingency of such court action. He fell back on the Law Officers’ convention not to answer that question, but he certainly did not mention that the reason why these contracts had been awarded as a matter of urgency and non-competitively was the need to secure the supply of medicines.
On 11 February, I raised this matter with the Secretary of State for Transport. I asked:
“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 unforeseeable events that justified his Department proceeding without competitive tendering”?
He said it was
“a change to the assumptions on the levels and length of disruption that might arise in a no-deal Brexit scenario.”—[Official Report, 11 February 2019; Vol. 654, c. 624.]
Perhaps the junior Minister could take a note that I want to know from the Secretary of State for Transport why he said on 11 February that the explanation was a change to the assumptions on the levels and length of disruption that might arise, and why he is now saying that it was a decision back in the autumn to secure the supply of medicines in the event of no deal.
I will finish the chronology, and then I will give way.
Finally, I raised the point again on 14 February with the Secretary of State for Transport, asking him what he meant by a “change in the assumptions”. I asked:
“Would he care to elaborate on exactly what he meant by that? Does he think that that defence will stand up in court?”
Those were my exact words. He said:
“I recall explaining on Monday precisely what the circumstances were, and I do not want to detain the House any longer by repeating an answer that I gave to the hon. and learned Lady three days ago.”—[Official Report, 14 February 2019; Vol. 654, c. 1038.]
Again, he had an opportunity to say that the explanation was a requirement to secure the urgent supply of medicines in the event of a no-deal Brexit, but he did not. In fact, he told me that he had already told me precisely what the circumstances were, three days before, when he referred to a change in assumptions and said nothing about medicine.
I am going to give way to the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) in a moment, but the point I am making is that this is just an example of the number of times that I have pursued this question. I know that other hon. Members have done so, too, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Kilmarnock and Loudoun and for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan). They have pursued in some detail their concerns about the supply of medicines after a no-deal Brexit, and never has anyone said to them, “Don’t worry, we so are concerned about this that we have risked breaking the law on competitive tendering to sort it all out.” That is why I am highly sceptical.
I thank the hon. and learned Lady for giving way, and I have been listening carefully to her submissions. The question of purpose is dealt with in the National Audit Office report, which states that the decision was meant
“to prioritise the flow of critical goods into the UK”.
Specifically, the report says that in September and October 2018, the intention was to
“‘ensure that capacity and flexibility exists for government to prioritise the flow’ of certain…goods”.
In November 2018, the Department’s business case was
“to ensure that capacity and flexibility exist for government to enable the prioritisation of…certain goods”.
It seems to me that critical goods were always in the mind of the Department, so I am not sure that her submissions to the House are borne out.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that, because he actually reinforces the point that I sought to make. The National Audit Office has that information, and the House of Commons has had it today and yesterday, but my point is that on repeated occasions when I asked a number of Ministers from different Departments what the explanation was for this urgent need to tender non-competitively, not once did any of them mention what we are told was a collective decision to do it for a particular purpose. I therefore question whether that explanation has been invented after the fact.
The hon. and learned Lady is doing a brilliant job of exposing the facade that has been put up to excuse this reprehensible behaviour, but is the bottom line not that the Government knew that they were in breach of their own procurement rules and that Eurotunnel was going to win? That is why they settled the case.
That is the bottom line. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.
I am going to draw to a conclusion, because I know that others want to speak. The history of this whole event, which the Government now say that they all knew about as it was a collective decision, has been one of evasion and obfuscation. I and others are left with the inevitable conclusion that they are trying to cover up a monumental error of staggering negligence in their preparations for a no-deal Brexit, which is costing the British taxpayer a lot of money. I would like to point out that Scottish taxpayers did not even vote for all this nonsense in the first place, and their representatives in this House have, apart from the Scottish Tories, done their best to try to get a no-deal Brexit off the table.
I came to the House this afternoon planning to ask for the resignation of the Secretary of State for Transport. That has been asked for by others already. But now that we know that this was a collective decision and that the Government are taking collective responsibility for it, let me say that in any normal, healthy and functioning democracy this scandal would bring the Government down.
What a farcical situation. It gives me no pleasure to say that this Government have become a laughing stock to people not only in this country but throughout Europe and the world. In many ways, that is epitomised by one individual: the Secretary of State for Transport.
It came as no great surprise that Eurotunnel was aggrieved by the decision taken by the Secretary of State for Transport and his colleagues. I am no expert on procurement policy or tendering law, but it strikes me as common sense that there should have been a tendering process, especially as it was very obvious that the Government were making a decision late in the day in response to a predicament of their own making. If they were serious about considering a no-deal Brexit, they should have begun the preparations as soon as this House triggered article 50. They decided not to, and to delay it, so they found themselves in a predicament and decided not just to avoid the law but to consciously, perhaps, break it as well.
When the Secretary of State for Transport announced that the procurement process was not being followed, he announced to the House that three contracts were being issued—for three “compliant bids”, as he said. Towards the tail end of that ministerial statement, I asked a question that I thought was pretty innocuous, and I expected a certain reply. I asked:
“In the interests of transparency, will the Secretary of State indicate to the House which companies were considered for the contracts?”
At that point, I realised that the procurement process had not been followed, but I assumed that the Secretary of State had at least had a shortlist and decided from that which companies were best equipped to fulfil the requirements. The response was significant, because the question was totally ignored. The Secretary of State simply said:
“We received three compliant bids, all of which we judged acceptable and accepted.”—[Official Report, 8 January 2019; Vol. 652, c. 202.]
In other words, there was not just an avoidance of the procurement process or a dilution of it; there was a complete and utter conscious avoidance of it. Instead, we had cherry-picking—of the worst kind—of the three companies.
We have learned now that the Government have paid £33 million to Eurotunnel to avoid the case going to court, because it is pretty clear that the Government did not have a leg to stand on. The question that has already been asked is where that is coming from. Are there contingencies available that we do not know about? Will there be further public expenditure cuts? Where precisely will this £33 million of unplanned expenditure come from?
It is important to recognise that Eurotunnel had plenty of time to prepare if it had been given the opportunity to make a bid. There was clearly no urgency when the Government chose to take the action they did. It is also important to recognise that although the Government have said that they are coming to an agreement with Eurotunnel and will pay that £33 million, they have unusually stipulated what the money will be used for, as has been mentioned. We understand that the money is for the development of infrastructure, security and border measures that will guarantee the flow of vehicles carrying urgent and vital goods to help keep supply chains moving that are essential to both industry and consumers. It is interesting that the Government have stipulated that, and it begs the question that has already been raised by the shadow Secretary of State: what is the legal basis for taking such action and making such a stipulation?
Andrew Dean, an expert in procurement law who works at the law firm Clifford Chance, used to advise the DFT and is widely recognised as an expert in his field, said:
“If Eurotunnel were required to develop or redevelop infrastructure that delivers or supports a public function as part of this settlement, there is a risk it could be construed as another piece of public procurement without open and transparent competition… In which case the government would be back to square one, with other potential providers able to challenge the process.”
My question to the Minister is this: has the Department considered that possibility? What advice is he currently receiving from his departmental legal team on where the Government now stand? There is a distinct possibility that they are going from the frying pan into the fire. They have apparently solved one problem of their own making, but they have another problem, also of their own making, that they will possibly have to confront in the very near future. That is an important issue.
All of us are extremely concerned about the situation in which we find ourselves. At one point I thought the Government were surely not serious about considering the possibility of a no-deal Brexit. I suspect that initially they were not serious about pursuing it, but as time has gone on and the negotiations have been more and more unfruitful they have found themselves inevitably in the situation of having to make quite extreme, ill-thought- out contingency plans. I hope very much indeed that the Government do not have to introduce those plans. The message has gone out from right across this House, as well as from industry, the trade union movement and civil society generally: for goodness’ sake, even at this late stage, end this farce once and for all, and take no deal off the table.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) on securing the debate, and you, Mr Speaker, on granting it.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), who is no longer in her place, earlier speculated on why it was the Secretary of State for Health who responded yesterday. I am sure Members are aware that requests have gone out to civil servants in all Departments—for example, the Department for Education—saying, “Please, please, please, will you come and work for one of the Brexit Departments?” It may be that the Secretary of State for Health was simply responding to such a request from the Department for Transport to go and bolster the numbers in that Department.
Mr Speaker, you rightly pre-empted the introductory comments a number of Members wanted to make in relation to the Secretary of State’s rather cluttered hall of shame. Had you enabled us to dwell a little bit on the other matters for which the Secretary of State has been responsible, or indeed irresponsible, this debate would have continued for much longer. I will just say, “Probation, timetable fiasco, drones” and move on to the subject of Seaborne. Before I do, it is worth pointing out on the timetable fiasco that in correspondence with me the Secretary of State refused even to reveal that the Department for Transport had any responsibility for that. That is rather indicative of the way he approaches things, as is his unwillingness to issue an apology for anything he has been responsible for. I think he actually sneaked in a very small apology earlier today, I think for the first time, although it was collective responsibility that he seemed to be admitting to. Maybe that is a positive development.
I have a chronology. It is not as detailed, erudite or in-depth as anything from the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), but I thought I would go through recent statements by the Secretary of State to see where he has referred to no deal, just to see his level of awareness of the prospect of no deal. I started googling, as everyone does these days, and the first reference was from last month. Nothing surprising there. Apparently, because of the Secretary of State’s completely disrespectful manner and what he has been saying about a no-deal Brexit, he has been banned from the port of Calais. That augurs well. I understand he may have had to leave the Chamber because there is currently a go-slow at Calais. It does not augur well for our future relationship if Calais has sought to ban our Secretary of State for Transport because of his attitude to no deal.
Going back a bit further to September 2018, Mr Barnier was apparently ticking off one of our departed Secretaries of State for Exiting the European Union, the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), over his no-deal letters. In September 2018, therefore, there was clearly an awareness of no deal. In August 2018, hauliers were warning our Secretary of State for Transport that he had no plans for no deal, so clearly in August he was being warned that he had no plans. Going back a little bit further to February 2018, some Members will remember that the Secretary of State for Transport was saying that in a no-deal situation we would be growing our own—farmers in the UK would be doing the growing, but presumably some of us would be too—potatoes and other vegetables in our own back gardens. He had also made the same comment in October 2017.
At that point, I gave up. It was clear that however much more trawling I did, I would find earlier references the Secretary of State had made to the risk of no deal. Clearly, for him to say now, or to have said a couple of months ago, that no deal was an emergency about which there was no knowledge within the Government, is not borne out by the facts that are very easily there and available for people to dip into if they choose to do so.
More recently, the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West has been particularly insistent on pursuing him over the contracts, as have other Members of the SNP and Members of other parties. I wrote to the Secretary of State in January. My final question was: “Are the contracts in accordance with procurement rules?” I made lots of other points in the letter, most of which were answered, but that final point was not answered. I do not know why. A lot of other things were said in the reply to my letter, including that it was because of me personally and my Liberal Democrat colleagues that we were going to have no deal, rather than the 118 Conservative Members who voted against the Prime Minister’s deal. Apparently, it was all my fault. However, the point about whether the contracts were in accordance with procurement rules was completely ignored in the response I received. The response was not from the Secretary of State, of course; it was from the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani).
I would like to conclude, as I know other Members wish to speak. We have had to bring the Secretary of State, or his representative on Earth in the shape of the Secretary of State for Health, before us a number of times and it is hard to find new material to go over, so I will just finish by saying that in any other Government at any other time the Secretary of State would be sacked by the Prime Minister. In any other Government at any other time, the Secretary of State would in fact have resigned before he was sacked, but this is not any other Government at any other time. Our calamitous Secretary of State remains in post mainly, I suspect, because he was in charge of the Prime Minister’s leadership campaign when she became our Prime Minister.
Order. There are two remaining speakers. Just as a helpful guide to both hon. Members, the average length of Back-Bench speeches has been approximately 10 minutes. Neither hon. Member need feel a driving ambition to exceed that very satisfactory self-imposed time constraint.
I am grateful for the chance to speak in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) on securing it, and I thank you for approving it, Mr Speaker.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) could have conducted this debate on her own, because in the space of what I am reliably informed was about 10 minutes, she utterly dismantled any shred of credibility that the Secretary of State and the Government had left. She has made a succession of attempts to get a simple answer—I can vouch for that, because I was often either behind or beside her when she did so—but one has not been forthcoming. The charitable explanation of that is, as she suggested, that the Government made up the answer just a few days earlier. The less charitable, but, I fear, correct, answer is that they responded to every single question with a deliberate attempt to place obstacles in the way of Members of Parliament and prevent them from doing their job. This Parliament is supposed to be getting back sovereignty as a result of Brexit, but the Government’s first, and often only, response to proper parliamentary inquiry is to stonewall, swat away questions and often to insult the motivations of those asking the questions.
It was a bit rich for the Secretary of State to talk about how many times he has answered these questions. He has not answered them at all. He has responded to them, but has not yet given an answer. Although my right hon. Friend could not, within the terms of parliamentary order, say that he has not been telling the truth, it is fair to say that he has not been telling the whole truth. Although not telling the whole truth is not unparliamentary, it can sometimes have the same effect as telling a complete untruth. Although the explanation that the contract is about securing emergency medical supplies has apparently been talked about in Government circles since August or September last year, it has been used as an explanation for Members of Parliament only for the past few days. It simply does not wash.
I agree that the explanation about medicines is entirely dubious. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, even if it were true, the fact that our Government—in peacetime, not wartime—are having to prepare to air freight in medicines because of the risk that they will get stuck at the border is condemnation enough of their complete incompetence?
Absolutely. The single biggest example of incompetence coupled with complacency—it must be said that a lot of the official Opposition were guilty of this—was triggering article 50 and setting a two-year deadline that we cannot unilaterally get out of, after which we will leave without a deal, before the Government had any idea what no deal meant. It is notable that, although the Prime Minister’s mantra was, “No deal is better than a bad deal,” we just heard the Secretary of State announce that, two years after the referendum, they suddenly discovered that no deal would be a lot more disruptive than they realised. I will just mention in passing that when the Government discovered that a no-deal Brexit would be much worse than they realised, they were allowed to change their minds, have another think about it and do something that they had not done before, but 60 million citizens of these nations have not been allowed to have another think and perhaps another go at a decision now that they have been told what they could not have been expected to know in June 2016 about the disastrous consequences of no deal, because Her Majesty’s Government were blithely unaware of it until August or September last year.
We are told that the reason why the Government brought in this new company was the desire to support a new start-up business. Well, bravo. I would always support that, but it completely annihilates the claim that the reason for urgency was that this was a potential life-or-death medical supplies requirement. If there is a service that cannot be allowed to fail because people’s lives would be at risk, who in their right mind would give the opportunity to undertake that work to somebody who had never done the job before? I am sure that health services and health authorities all over the United Kingdom do what they can to give work experience and job opportunities to young people who have not had too great a time at school, but they would not under any circumstances put them behind the wheel of an ambulance with a blue light and ask them to go and save lives, but that is, in effect, what the Secretary of State is telling us the Government did with this contract. Either the contract was innocuous enough that we could afford to give it to a business that did not exist, because nothing would go wrong if the whole thing collapsed, or it was a life-or-death contract that, for reasons of urgency, had to be signed very quickly. If that was the case, it was an act of utter folly to award it to anyone who did not already have an impeccable record in the running of ferry services.
I commend the efforts of the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) and the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) to protect the Secretary of State by saying, “It wasn’t the Secretary of State who was incompetent; it was everyone else in the Government.” My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West has given us the way out of that.
What does the fact that this Parliament does not have the authority to table a vote of no confidence in the Secretary of State for Transport tell us about this model of parliamentary democracy? We do not have the authority to instruct a Prime Minister to remove a Minister from office, and we do not have a say over who the Prime Minister appoints or does not appoint to any post in the Government. We must be one of the very few allegedly democratic Parliaments in Europe that does not get a say before Ministers are appointed. Ministers in the Scottish Government have the same Crown appointment as Ministers in the UK Government, but the First Minister of Scotland will not put them forward until they have been agreed by a motion of the Scottish Parliament. The First Minister herself did not accept the commission from Her Majesty until her appointment had been recommended and agreed by a vote of the Scottish Parliament. Maybe that is one of the 1,001 improvements to democracy we need in this place, so that in future Ministers are appointed and unappointed not at the whim of the Prime Minister but by a vote of their peers in this Parliament and can removed from office when this Parliament loses confidence in them, rather than only when the Prime Minister decides they have become too much of an embarrassment.
Throughout this Brexit shambles, any number of serious issues have been raised—life-or-death issues, issues with the potential to devastate our economy, issues such as citizens’ rights that have the potential to ruin the lives of millions of our fellow citizens, issues with the potential to wipe out entire sectors of industry and put tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of people on the dole—and each and every time the knee-jerk, first-choice response from Her Majesty’s Government has been to throw it back at the person raising the concern. If it comes from Labour Members, they are told, “Well, if you lot had been in power, it would have been an even worse disaster.” What kind of a way is that to run a Government? I can understand why a lot of people would have concerns if the current Leader of the Opposition became Prime Minister—I would have my concerns as well—but if the only thing the Government can say to defend themselves is that the Government-in-waiting would be even worse, they are a Government well past their sell-by date.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West has repeatedly and rightly raised valid concerns—I hope she will continue to raise them because she has right on her side—and the response from numerous Ministers has been ridicule: she did not know what she was talking about, she was trying to make trouble, she was just an SNP Member, the SNP did not want to leave the EU anyway so how could they possibly have any good ideas for making Brexit less damaging? That would be unacceptable for a Government with a majority of 150. For a Government who threw away their majority and do not command majority support in the House or the nations, it is a despicable way to behave. If that is the best they can do, not only the Secretary of State but the whole Government have to go.
It is a great pleasure to follow—well, everybody.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), and you, Mr Speaker, on granting this debate. It is important when such issues occur that the Government and their Ministers and Secretaries of State actually be held to account and not be allowed to duck and dive their way out of their responsibilities.
The Secretary of State is increasingly popular with some people—those employed by law firms—but he is not popular with anyone else. Let’s recap. He contracted a company with no ships or terms and conditions of their own and after no proper assessment. He has given no answers. There has been no accountability. He takes no responsibility. He basically does not have a clue, and the public have been left with a bill of at least £33 million, not counting the £800,000 in consultant fees and whatever else. Coming from a constituency ravaged by the effects of universal credit over the past six years, I find that deeply insulting to all the people suffering under the policies of this Government.
We have heard from other right hon. and hon. Members about the litany of failure that the Secretary of State has visited upon his ministerial career; it is well rehearsed and I will not go into it again. Nobody has confidence in this Secretary of State, and yesterday we found out, because he was too feart to appear, that even he does not have confidence in himself as Secretary of State. What he does have is a brass neck wider than a ship’s bell. What a snapshot of this Tory Brexit chaos and this Tory Government: defending the indefensible time after time, instead of doing what they should have done right away, which was rule out a no-deal Brexit.
The Secretary of State’s decision to award Seaborne Freight a contract worth £13.8 million attracted widespread criticism when it was announced. Seaborne was founded only two years ago and, as I said, had no ships or trading history. That has been raised by many of us in the Chamber since the beginning of the year, which was the first opportunity we had. Although the company had never run a channel service, it was one of three firms awarded contracts totalling £108 million to lay on additional crossings. As we have heard, the Department for Transport spent £800,000 on consultancy services when evaluating Seaborne and was warned of significant risks that came with the tender. Despite that, Seaborne was awarded the contract.
As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) has pointed out time and again, concerns were also raised that the EU procurement rules had not been followed in the awarding of the contract. That has been brought home by the Eurotunnel action, which has been settled out of court. Eurotunnel had said that it would take legal action, and it did. The Department argued that because this was an emergency there was legal justification, but there was doubt about that, because the emergency scenario of a no-deal Brexit had been raised well in advance. This was a disastrous decision. The cost to the taxpayer of the Transport Secretary’s incompetence is now well beyond any joke.
My hon. Friend is making a fine point. Does he share my surprise that when the Government have effectively been shown to have broken a law of competitive tendering, the Transport Secretary’s defence is, “I am really disappointed that Eurotunnel took me to court.”? He breaks a law, and then blames the company that was wronged in the first place.
My hon. Friend, who, along with other colleagues here, has been at this since the beginning, has made the point that the Transport Secretary takes no responsibility. He is willing to accept none of the criticism. I would say that he is Teflon, but the public know that he is not, because all this sticks to him. However, he has not had his just deserts: either being sacked from his job, which should have happened, or resigning from it.
The point about the Transport Secretary’s intervention in his other lives is well illustrated by his attitude to judicial review. He did not like people taking the Government to court, so he made it more difficult for them to do so. Is that not consistent with his attitude to this matter?
I agree with the shadow Transport Secretary. It is indicative of the way in which the Transport Secretary has performed throughout his ministerial career, and, indeed, it is now indicative of the Government themselves.
The Government’s settlement with Eurotunnel confirms what everyone except, it seems, the Transport Secretary knew: that flouting EU law on the basis of so-called unforeseen events was a completely untenable position. The only development that was foreseeable was that he would make a hash of anything that he touched. He now even has his own website, tracking how much money he is costing the taxpayer. That becomes a great deal less humorous when we see the amount: £2.7 billion as of this morning, although—as we know from the Transport Secretary—that may have gone up while I have been speaking.
Before the Government’s settlement last week, Eurotunnel said:
“It appears …that the secretary of state is seeking to maintain extensive claims to confidentiality in relation to large numbers of disclosed documents and appears to intend that large parts, if not all, of the trial should be held in private.”
Moreover, we have again seen a failure to disclose answers to the questions asked in the Chamber.
Let me end by asking some more questions. The Transport Secretary says that there has been a changed assumption. No, there has not; there has been complacency and arrogance. There was an urgent question about this issue yesterday, following a weekend of silence from the Transport Secretary. Why did he duck it, and send the Health Secretary to answer it in his place? Has he any shred of respect for the principle of ministerial accountability?
The question remains why Eurotunnel was overlooked in this first place. As I have said, the secrecy is of real concern. How much documentation is still hidden from public view? If the no-deal contract is not invoked, how much money will still be paid to Eurotunnel? With engineering firm Bechtel set to sue the Government over the HS2 tender process, what other departmental procedural risks still exist? Is it not the case that any other individual working on a business deal would have been sacked by now for wasting the amount of money the Secretary of State has wasted to date? What message does that send to the public? The message it sends is that failure, waste, ignorance, complacency, arrogance and contempt for the public are to be rewarded by the Tories.
Once again, I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this debate. I also thank all Members who have taken part, particularly the two Conservative Members, whose contributions in trying to defend the Transport Secretary unwittingly made our case for us in terms of how big a farce this has really been. There was a ludicrous defence of the Transport Secretary by the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), who stated the whole Government were to blame for being too late in undertaking contingency planning. With the Transport Secretary also advising us suddenly of a collective Cabinet decision, we now know we have collective Cabinet incompetence, which says all we need to know about this Government and the leadership of the Prime Minister.
Despite having had nearly three hours of debate, the reality is that we still have no clarity about what the £33 million to Eurotunnel gets us and what, if anything, is being withheld by the Government in event of a withdrawal agreement being reached. We have had no reasons for the court climbdown on Eurotunnel’s challenge; nobody has been able to answer the questions on isotopes from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan); and we have had no justification for how this whole procurement exercise is suddenly a medicine-led exercise. We have had no clarity or justification on the rationale for pursuing an exemption in competitive tendering on the basis of the regulation 32 exemption for unforeseeable circumstances, and no answers to the detailed questions from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry).
Many Members have called for the Transport Secretary’s head, although, as I said earlier, it goes much wider than this. There was a classic oxymoron from the Transport Secretary: in defending his approach to the contingency planning he said that sometimes risks have to be taken. It undermines the point of contingency planning if he is actually willing to take risks. I will finish with this: the longer he stays in post is a risk too far for the United Kingdom. Again, I thank Members from across the House for their contributions.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the latest developments in the UK Government ferry contract awards for no-deal preparations.