South Thanet MP Craig Mackinlay has backed the government deal with Seaborne Freight for ‘extra capacity’ on a Ramsgate/Ostende ferry service in the event of a no-deal Brexit, despite questions over the firm’s ability to fulfil the contract.
The firm has been awarded a £13.8million government contract to provide extra ferry capacity even though it is a start-up company with no vessels or track record as yet.
Seaborne say operations will start in late March – to coincide with the UK withdrawal from the European Union – initially with two ships and 200 staff.
But, despite prolonged negotiations no announcement has yet been made that a deal has been signed with Thanet council for the route and today (January 8) Ostend’s new mayor Bart Tommelein told the BBC it was “impossible” that Ostend would be ready by the March deadline and that he will be coming to Ramsgate next week to discuss the situation.
A service had been mooted to start in March last year but the date came -and went – with no sign of progress.
However, Mr Mackinlay says he is backing the Government’s contract after the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, assured him in the House of Commons today that there will be no taxpayer cash for Seaborne Freight unless they deliver the service.
Mr Mackinlay sought reassurances from the Secretary of State during an Urgent Question on Seaborne Freight tabled by Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary, Andy McDonald MP, during which MPs questioned the Government about the £13.8m contract.
He said: “If the government were to do no planning for Brexit eventualities, they would be condemned and now they are actually doing sensible planning, they now face derision.
“I’ve met with Seaborne Freight – they’ve shown themselves to be the only interested party over a number of years in running new services between Ramsgate and Ostend and that was even before this contingency planning.”
In answer to Mr Mackinlay’s question Mr Grayling reiterated the Government will not pay monies to Seaborne unless and until they provide the ferry service agreed in the £13.8m contract.
The Transport Secretary added: “It’s disappointing to hear the Labour Party so opposed to the regeneration of the Port of Ramsgate.
“It’s not so very long ago that the Labour Party represented Ramsgate in Parliament. They do not deserve, given this negative attitude, ever do so again.”
After the question time Mr Mackinlay added: “I welcome the dredging and improvements now taking shape at the port of Ramsgate at no cost to local taxpayers.
“The Transport Secretary has been absolutely clear: if there is no service there will be no money.
“In the meantime our port will be upgraded and the sea approaches, always subject to extreme silting, will be dredged at somebody else’s expense. This is a regeneration bonus for Ramsgate.”
Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said he doubted the deal was lawful and claims it “violates every current best practice guidance issued by Whitehall.”
Questions have also been raised over how ship and passenger safety surveys, under the International Safety Management Code (ISM Code), can be carried out before ships put to water given the tight timeframe and whether an operating manual and shore office inspection can be produced in time.
However, a statement from Chris Grayling, issued yesterday, says: “The Seaborne contract is subject to the achievement of a range of key milestones including in relation to finalising funding and vessel chartering agreements.
“As with many operators in the sector, it is not uncommon that they do not own their own vessels and will be chartering them through third parties. The department has reviewed their plans for sourcing vessels with the support of external advisers. A number of large institutional investors are backing this service and the government’s contract represents a small part of the overall investment required by Seaborne to open this route.
“These lenders undertake their own rigorous due diligence before making financial commitments, providing a further level of assurance to government. Seaborne and my department are also working closely with Thanet council to ensure that Ramsgate Port is ready to take new services. A programme of work to prepare the infrastructure is underway.”
A Seaborne Freight spokesman said: “There are massive commercial sensitivities we have to consider, and manage, on issues such as funding and vessels when handling a large, complex project such as this and as is now slowly becoming recognised through media comments by those with knowledge of our industry the level of information available about Seaborne at this time is quite normal.
“The DfT have made it very clear that before they awarded the contract to Seaborne they had carried out detailed due diligence on us and our plans, under NDA’s of course, and were satisfied.”