Source: The Hindu
Among the steps the British government took in recent months to show its preparedness for a no-deal Brexit was the decision to award a contract to run additional ferry freight services between the southeast English town of Ramsgate and the Belgian city of Ostend.
The £13.8-million contract for the supply of additional freight capacity was awarded to British company Seaborne Freight to avoid “potential disruption of trade”, the government contract noted, explaining that the tender opportunities for the contract had been limited because of the “extreme urgency” of the situation. It was the smallest of three freight supply contracts awarded, but quickly came under the spotlight after it emerged that Seaborne Freight, which had started operating only in 2017, had never operated a ferry route and did not own any ship.
The body representing Britain’s road haulage industry expressed deep scepticism as to whether the company could be ready on time, given the vast amount of work (including staff recruitment and training) that needed to be carried out by the end of March, when Britain is due to leave the EU.
However, Britain’s Transport Minister Chris Grayling remained adamant that it was the right decision. He defended the decision as support to a “new British business” on a BBC radio show. However, days later, the story continued to unwind as it emerged that Seaborne Freight’s terms and conditions section on its website appeared to have been lifted from those of a takeaway/delivery service, referring to the placement of an order, and recommending that customers check goods “before agreeing to pay for any meal/order” and ensure the delivery address was correct.
While the fiasco prompted much online and offline jesting, many pointed to the worrying message it sent about Britain’s ‘no-deal Brexit’ preparedness (currently the default scenario for 11 p.m. on March 29 if MPs fail to come behind a withdrawal agreement that can also win support of EU leaders).
Still, the government remained adamant that the contract had been appropriately awarded, pointing to its team’s “extensive experience” of operating ferry services, and the backing it had got from a number of “large institutional investors”. However, it emerged last week that one of those alleged backers had only been intending to invest and had now “unexpectedly” withdrawn from those plans. “In light of this and after very careful assessment, I took the decision to terminate this contract,” Mr. Grayling told Parliament last week, as he faced down calls for his resignation.
However, the cancellation has not ended the scandal as Britain’s National Audit Office revealed that £8,00,000 had been spent on external consultants to assess the three bids and also noted that the department had judged the bid from Seaborne as a “high risk” proposition, noting it had neither ships nor binding contracts to use the ports it was contracted to operate from. Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn suggested that the controversy was symbolic of the government’s “costly, shambolic and deliberately evasive” handling of Brexit.
Even beyond the symbolism, the situation raises major questions about Britain’s preparedness for no-deal. According to government assessments, “severe disruption” of the normal flow of goods between Britain and the EU is expected to last up to six months. The Seaborne row will continue to haunt the government. The British and French firms responsible for operating the Channel Tunnel launched proceedings against the government over the freight service contracts. The trial is set to take place in March.