The government is facing legal action from the operators of the Channel Tunnel over the way it awarded its ferry contracts, just days after one that was given to a firm with no ships collapsed.
Eurotunnel and France-Manche SA, also owned by parent organisation Getlink, are taking the Department for Transport (DfT) to court over the procurement process for the contracts, which were awarded to Brittany Ferries, DFDS and Seaborne Freight. Over the weekend the government was forced to cancel the £13.8m contract with Seaborne – which owned no ferries – after its backers, Arklow Shipping, stepped away from the deal.
Eurotunnel declined to comment.
Yesterday in the Commons transport Chris Grayling was forced to answer an urgent question on the collapse of the contract. Grayling responded: “At the time of the award, we were fully aware of Seaborne’s status as as startup business and the need for Seaborne to procure vessels and port-user agreements in order to deliver a service."
He said that Arklow's backing initially “provided confidence in the viability of this deal”.
“As I have made clear, not a penny of taxpayers’ money has gone, or will go, to Seaborne, he added.
However, Grayling's statement to parliament appears to be contradicted by the fact that, according to a report by Whitehall’s spending watchdog, the Public Accounts Committee, the DfT spent approximately £800,000 on external consultants Slaughter and May, Deloitte and Mott MacDonald.
A DfT spokesperson said: “We undertook a competitive procurement process to secure additional ferry capacity between the UK and the EU, which is in line with proper procedures.
“As a sensible government we continue to make plans for all eventualities. These contingency plans include securing extra freight capacity between the UK and Europe in the event of no deal.
“The government routinely obtains external advice.”
Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said the "debacle" over the Seaborne contract had "descended into a Whitehall farce".
"I repeatedly warned the secretary of state that this was the wrong decision at the time, as did industry."
He went on to criticise the Department for Transport for taking shortcuts in the procurement process and trying to deny responsibility. The Shadow Secretary called on the Minister to resign.
The DfT has said it is in "advanced talks" to find another ferry firm to replace Seaborne.