No-deal Brexit news: Seaborne Freight win contract despite having 'no ships'

James Morris

Questions have been raised over the government's preparations for a no-deal Brexit after it emerged a £13.8 million contract to run extra ferries has been handed to a company which has no ships and has not previously operated a service.

Seaborne Freight was one of three companies awarded £108 million contracts last week to lay on additional crossings and ease the pressure on Dover.

The company aims to operate freight ferries from Ramsgate to the Belgian port of Ostend, beginning with two ships in late March and increasing to four by the end of the summer.

But a Conservative councillor for the Kent port town said he did not believe it would be possible to set up a new service from Ramsgate by the scheduled date of Brexit on March 29.

The ferry contract for Ramsgate is supposed to ease the pressure on Dover, pictured. But a local councillor said it would not be possible to set up a new service from Ramsgate in time for Brexit day, while also saying the company with the contract 'has no ships' (Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images)

And Cllr Paul Messenger questioned whether the government had carried out sufficient checks on the firm, telling the BBC: "It has no ships and no trading history so how can due diligence be done?

"Why choose a company that never moved a single truck in their entire history and give them £14 million? I don't understand the logic of that."

Seaborne was established two years ago and has been in negotiations about running freight ferries between Ramsgate and Ostend, but no services are currently running.

In a statement, the company said it had been working since 2017 on plans to reintroduce ferry sailings from Ramsgate from early 2019.

The business has been "financed by the shareholders" during a development phase involving "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".

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Sir Ed Davey said: "That the government has reportedly signed a contract with a ferry company with no ferries pretty much sums up their farcical approach to the entire Brexit fiasco."

A general view of the harbour in Ramsgate, Kent (Gareth Fuller/PA)

And Labour MP Tonia Antoniazzi, a supporter of the Best for Britain campaign for a second referendum, said: "Never has it been clearer that our Government is selling us down the river over Brexit. A firm that has never run a ferry service before has been awarded a multi-million pound contract and they don't even have any ships."

"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."

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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."

Reporting by Press Association.