A shipping firm handed a £13.8m contract to run extra ferries in the event of a “no-deal” Brexit, has defended itself amid criticism it doesn’t currently have any ships.
Questions were raised over the Government’s preparations after it emerged Seaborne Freight was one of three companies awarded contracts totalling £108m last week to lay on additional freight crossings to ease the pressure on Dover.
Seaborne said it was on track to start twice-daily sailings by the end of March – when the UK is due to leave the EU – having initially planned to launch Ramsgate-Ostend crossings during February.
The company said in a statement that it had been working since 2017 on plans to reintroduce ferry sailings from Ramsgate starting in early 2019.
It said that a “development phase” included “locating suitable vessels, making arrangements with the ports of Ostend and Ramsgate, building the infrastructure, such as bunkering, as well as crewing the ferries once they start operating”.
The company plans to start with two ships in late March and increase to four by late summer, the statement added.
A Department for Transport spokesman said: “This contract was awarded in the full knowledge that Seaborne Freight is a new shipping provider, and that the extra capacity and vessels would be provided as part of its first services.
“As with all contracts, we carefully vetted the company’s commercial, technical and financial position in detail before making the award.”
Seaborne said its difficulties included narrow berths at the Kent port.
Its statement also said: “It was intended to start the service in mid-February but this has now been delayed until late March for operational reasons.
“This coincides with the Department for Transport’s Freight Capacity Purchase Agreement with Seaborne which is part of their preparations to increase ferry capacity in the unlikely event of a no-deal Brexit.”
Ministers faced questions over the contract from across the political divide.
Paul Messenger, a Conservative county councillor for Ramsgate, questioned in a BBC interview whether the government had carried out sufficient checks on the firm, saying: “It has no ships and no trading history so how can due diligence be done?”
Labour MP Tonia Antoniazzi, a campaigner for a second referendum, said: “We know our ports aren’t ready for a no-deal disaster, but is hiring a firm that’s never dealt with this kind of thing before really going to help?
“This idea should have been sunk before it saw the light of day”, she concluded.
Ramsgate has not had a cross-Channel service since operators TransEuropa collapsed in 2013.