Britain and Ireland’s largest union, Unite, is calling for transport secretary Chris Grayling to resign in the wake of the ‘no-deal Brexit’ ferry service contracts.
The £107 million deal with three firms, including Seaborne Freight which proposes to run a Ramsgate/Ostend service, has been slammed for ignoring the role of Eurotunnel.
The ferry services under the contracts have to be operational by March 29, the day Brexit comes into force.
The aim is to alleviate pressure on Kent’s roads which would come with a ‘hard border’ and could lead to a backlog of traffic, particularly HGVs, trying to access Dover Port and the Eurotunnel.
Unite represents over 350 members at Eurotunnel who, the union says, now fear for their jobs despite the service being the fastest and only permanent connection to the continent. Unite says the workers are worried that the government contracts will be used to entice existing customers away from Eurotunnel.
Legal action threat
In a letter, acquired by the Financial Times it has emerged that Eurotunnel’s chief executive Jacques Gounon has written to Mr Grayling accusing him of engaging in anti-competitive practices, confirming that Eurotunnel could undertake the work and threatening legal action, if similar contracts are not awarded.
Unites representatives at Eurotunnel have also written to Mr Grayling demanding that the contracts decision is revised so their company is no longer excluded.
Unite national officer for the rail industry Harish Patel said: “How on earth could Chris Grayling and the entire Department of Transport simply ignore Eurotunnel when planning for a ‘no deal’ Brexit?
“These revelations reveal new levels of incompetency at the department and demonstrate that it is simply incapable of undertaking the most basic planning exercise.
“This latest fiasco underlines that the entire transport industry has lost all confidence in Chris Grayling and he should resign immediately.
“This must be the first time in history that the awarding of government contracts could lead to the loss of jobs rather than their creation.
“The Department of Transport must revisit these contracts and ensure that Eurotunnel is fully included in its ‘no deal’ Brexit planning.”
National attention has focused on the Seaborne deal – worth £13.8 million – due to the start-up firm’s lack of ships and no prior track record.
But 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.
Despite prolonged negotiations no announcement has yet been made that a deal has been signed with Thanet council for the route and 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.
Seaborne has rebuked the claims. Spokesman Kevin Root said: “We are now in the final phase of the project and we are approaching the point of signature with Ramsgate and Ostend, with services due to commence in March.
“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.”
Dredging work at the port, which Seaborne says it is funding, started last week in preparation for the proposed service.
There has not been a cross-Channel operation at Ramsgate since the collapse of TransEuropa in 2013 which left Thanet council owed an unpaid debt of £3.4 million accrued by the ferry firm in port fees.
Negotiations with ferry service providers since that date have been fruitless.
However, in November Thanet council said the Port of Ramsgate could have the potential to provide enough sailings to divert 3,360 lorry movements per day from the planned Operation Brock queuing system on the M20 and M26.