Chris Grayling refused to apologize for the Seaborne Freight ferry debacle without a Brexit deal and called his criticism “puzzling” and “inexplicable”.
The transport secretary also reversed the famous quote from Horatio Nelson, saying “I saw ships” after being mocked for handing over a £ 14million contract to Seaborne, a company that did not own any ferries, to move supplies across the Channel.
Grayling had hoped Seaborne would transport crucial supplies between Ramsgate in Kent and Ostend in Belgium in the event of a no-deal Brexit, but canceled the contract last week.
This followed weeks of scathing reviews as Seaborne had no experience in ferry management, no staff, and appeared to be copying a section of their website from a takeout outlet.
On Monday, it was revealed that the government would face a legal challenge following the fiasco.
Eurotunnel, which operates the Channel Tunnel, said ferry contracts totaling £ 108million were awarded to Seaborne and two other companies in a “secret and flawed procurement process”.
In the High Court, the firm’s attorney said there had been “no public notice” of the tender. A judge has ruled that a four-day trial will begin on March 1.
Meanwhile, Grayling has faced calls for resignation, including from his own Conservative colleagues.
But on Monday in the Commons, he refused to apologize for the failure of the contract, which was intended to ease the pressure on Dover in the event of a no-deal.
On an urgent question in the House of Commons, Labor MP Angela Eagle asked if Grayling was “remotely embarrassed” about the failure and called on him to apologize.
The transport secretary replied: “It is a start-up that has not succeeded because its main funder has changed its mind.
“It’s unfortunate, it’s a great shame.
“But I will never, as a minister, apologize to the government for trying to work with new small businesses.”
Wayne David of Labor also asked for an apology, saying Grayling told the Commons last month that the Seaborne contract was a reasonable contingency.
“Based on what we know now, and looking back, will the Secretary of State now have the humility to come into this House, come to the shipping box and apologize?” “
Grayling replied: “It was a reasonable possibility, it means that if we need this capacity now, we will have to use longer routes in the North Sea.”
The Department for Transport (DfT) said it decided to terminate the contract after Irish company Arklow Shipping withdrew from the deal, and stressed that Seaborne would not receive taxpayer money.
In another response, Grayling told MPs: ‘I find it baffling that they (Labor) object to giving small businesses a chance when the taxpayer is not exposed to any financial risk, especially when this small one. company had significant international support. .
At one point, Grayling was mocked by SNP MP Drew Hendry, who joked:
“Throughout this ridiculous Brexit mess, Brexiteers have liked to rely on historical events to justify metaphors for some of their Brexit fantasies.
“Was this calamity really designed by the Secretary of State so that they could present themselves as some sort of Horatio Nelson of the last days?” “I don’t see any ships”.
“Well, we don’t see any confidence, is he going to resign?” “
Grayling replied, “I actually saw ships, they were lined up ready to take this route, it’s a shame they pulled out.”
The DfT said it was Arklow Shipping’s backing that gave it confidence in the viability of the deal and that it was sticking to the due diligence on Seaborne.
Grayling in the Commons quoted at length from a letter from Arklow Shipping giving assurances about Seaborne.
But Shadow Transportation Secretary Andy McDonald said: “What started as a debacle has now turned into a Whitehall farce. This minister is rewriting the manual of ministerial incompetence in office.
He said Grayling chose to ignore warnings from MPs and industry, also claiming that the DfT “took shortcuts” in the procurement process with Seaborne.
McDonald continued: “(Grayling) is pointing fingers at Arklow for canceling the contract – is it really the right time to insult the Irish more?”
McDonald asked how much canceling the contract would cost taxpayers, adding, “He just can’t continue to blame others for his own mistakes. This catastrophic decision belongs to him and his office.
“Isn’t it true that this transport secretary’s approach to transport and broader Brexit contingency planning is off the Richter scale?”
“And for the good of the nation, and for some semblance to be restored to this chaotic government, shouldn’t he now do the right thing and go?”
Seaborne was one of three companies to win contracts worth a total of £ 108million at the end of December to establish additional crossings to ease the pressure on Dover when Britain leaves the EU, although that she has never operated a Channel service.
The DfT is now in discussions with Brittany and DFDS to set up additional capacities on the North Sea crossings.
Meanwhile, a report from the National Audit Office found that the DfT identified Seaborne as “high risk” before awarding him a contract.
The issues included the fact that it was a new company, did not have ships, and the port of Ramsgate would need work to prepare it for ferries.
To this end, the DfT agreed to pay £ 3million to Thanet District Council for work at the port and also inserted clauses into the contract to protect taxpayers’ money.
However, due diligence did not uncover any allegations of improprieties involving the company and the directors which were reported in the press in January.
The terms and conditions on the company’s website, which appeared to be from a takeout company, “also did not reflect the terms and conditions agreed with the department” and were posted online in error.
Due diligence also consisted only of basic checks.
Deloitte was unable to probe Seaborne’s financial stability as the company was not incorporated until April 2017.
Mott McDonald, a consultant, however, noted “significant execution risks” with respect to Seaborne.
The law firm Slaughter and May, which controlled the ferry company, meanwhile only performed a “basic blush test” on Seaborne, including its filing history with Companies House, only no liquidation order had been issued against it and its directors were not disqualified.
Meg Hillier, chair of the House of Commons public accounts committee, said the report raised “serious questions.”
The committee will question DfT’s top official, Bernadette Kelly, about the process on Wednesday.
Hiller said: ‘The Department for Transport waited until September 2018 to start thinking about the risks to transporting goods on these important routes and has signed a £ 13.8million contract with Seaborne Freight albeit this is a new operation, not owning any ferry and having no binding contracts to use the specified ports.
“We will be lobbying the ministry for answers on how it awarded its three new ferry contracts, what it is doing to manage risk and exactly what it intends to do now. he canceled the contract with Seaborne. ”