Wednesday, January 30, 2019

More Controversy Over Brexit Cross Channel Ferry Deal as Grayling Under Fire - Again

Transport Select Committee Chair Says Response 'Cursory and Extraordinary'
Shipping News Feature
UK – Once again Transport Secretary Chris Grayling finds himself at the centre of controversy after letters between himself and the Transport Select Committee, which has been looking at his much maligned agreement to grant £107 million to three cross Channel RoRo ferry companies, one of which is a start-up the has never even owned or run a ship. Now the release of correspondence between Committee Chair, Lilian Greenwood MP, and Mr Grayling again puts the Secretary in an invidious position.

Following the agreement to finance the three companies, DFDS, Brittany Ferries and the untried British registered Seaborne Freight, Mr Grayling said by financing the latter he was supporting British business, a statement which was criticised as potentially breaching state aid regulations.

Ms Greenwood’s original letter raising numerous doubts regarding the process was further prompted by submissions from anti Brexit campaigner Dr Andrew Watt and Dr Albert Sanchez-Graells, a Member of the European Commission Stakeholder Expert Group on Public Procurement, both questioning the legality of the arrangement. Ms Greenwood’s first missive can be read in full here.

The Secretary for Transport’s reply, dated 24 January, points out that, whereas one of the accusations the deal faces is that he should not have used emergency powers to award the contracts without competition, as this option is only available under the Public Contracts Regulations 2015 ‘in situations of extreme urgency brought about by events unforeseeable by the contracting authority’, the time available for the manifest works needed to ensure ferries were available in time to mitigate a ‘no-deal’ made this urgent enough to invoke such powers.

Mr Grayling’s response to the Committee, in which he stands by his Departments position, can be read here. Ms Greenwood however has been singularly unimpressed by the sparse answer and has now responded thus:

“Shortly after the Secretary of State’s announcement that the contracts had been awarded, the Transport Committee received two written submissions to our inquiry into Freight and Brexit, which alleged the Department acted illegally in securing these contracts without a full procurement process. The authors of the evidence raised significant concerns which led us to write again to the Secretary of State, asking him to respond to the allegations.

“It seems extraordinary to me that the Government’s response fails both to provide any additional insight into why the Department used emergency powers in the award of the contracts, and to respond to the substance of our questions about the Department’s process for securing them. This was an opportunity for the Secretary of State to put the record straight.

“This cursory reply is no way to respond to the Committee’s efforts to scrutinise the Government’s decision to use emergency powers to award contracts worth hundreds of millions of pounds. We made the Secretary of State aware that the Committee would make the exchange public and today, we publish this correspondence so that the questions we have raised and the Department’s response can be open [to public scrutiny].”

The Secretary’s woes however do not end there. Maritime union RMT can always be relied upon to question any situation concerning British seamen and the standards under which they operate. Now, following this bout of correspondence, it is demanding answers from the government over the terms and conditions of workers on their Brexit ferry contracts, and the publication of their legal advice on the procurement process.

The RMT has taken protests to the DfT and Ramsgate and Portsmouth ports demanding that the jobs on the new services go to British seafarers on union-recognised wages and conditions, but complains that the Secretary has not responded to its three key demands namely, that UK employment laws are fully complied with, union recognition by the companies is mandatory and that all ferries are fully crewed with UK ratings‎. RMT general secretary Mick Cash said today:

“There is a growing scandal over the award of these Brexit ferry contracts and the behaviour to date of Chris Grayling suggests that he is orchestrating yet another stitch up of the British seafarers while ladling out public money to the likes of Seaborne Freight.

“The Government have already refused to say whether they will abide with employment law such as paying the UK minimum wage on these publicly-funded services and now it seems there is a real case to answer that they have also breached of procurement law in the awarding of the contracts. This is a national disgrace that gets murkier by the day and the Government now need to come clean and publish the legal advice they received around the awarding of these contracts.”

Meanwhile what of Seaborne Freight? The ferry company without any ships. The company is currently advertising for the roles of Stevedore and Operations Assistant at the Port of Ramsgate and has already received numerous applications for jobs there and in Ostend. However of suitable vessels there is no news.

Photo: Wot no ships? Doubts have been expressed that Ramsgate Harbour could deal with the calibre and volume of vessels needed for meaningful, regular RoRo cross Channel trade.