Shipless Brexit ferry company has 'no port deal' for emergency services

Government rocked by revelations about controversial start-up awarded key deal

*** BESTPIX *** DOVER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 30: UK Border Force Cutter,  'Search' berths at Ramsgate Harbour on December 30, 2018 in Ramsgate, England. The growing number of migrants attempting to cross the English Channel has been declared a "major incident" by UK home secretary Sajid Javid. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
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Questions swirl over "company from nowhere" that was awarded a £13.8 million-pound ($18 million) contract for shipping across the English Channel after Brexit.

Seaborne Freight is a new ferry company that owns no ships and has not completed operator contracts with the ports of Ramsgate in England and Ostend in Belgium to provide an additional route to the European mainland.

The government awarded three contracts to charter extra ferries to ease congestion if the United Kingdom fails to secure a trade deal before leaving the European Union in March.

The smallest contract was won by Seaborne raising concerns about whether the new service would be ready. A welter of allegations has since threw further doubts on the credibility of the company.

The Times newspaper and Channel 4 News both reported on the past activities of Ben Sharp, the chief executive of Seaborne. Channel 4 reported that he was managing director of Mercator, a company that specialised in secure shipping off the coast of Somalia during the scourge of piracy, was wound-up owing two local companies substantial sums. The Times said the company also had debts to the British taxpayer.

Chris Grayling, the Transport minister in charge of the tender process, has maintained that the department carried out due diligence on operator.

"I make no apologies for supporting a new British business," Mr Grayling said. "We have looked very carefully at this business. We have put in place a tight contract to make sure they can deliver for us."

Seaborne was also forced to remove terms and conditions of sales from its website after allegations that these had been lifted from a fast-food business and still contained details about refunds for a disappointing meal.

The United Kingdom is due to leave the EU on March 29, and the risk of a no-deal Brexit is growing -- a nightmarish prospect for many businesses, which are now planning for an economic shock.

Extra ships will be needed to work new routes across the Channel if the main terminals of Calais in France and Dover and Folkestone in Britain are clogged by customs checks.

Currently, Britain's membership of the EU means that trucks drive smoothly through border checks within the bloc. But in a no-deal Brexit, even a few minutes' delay at customs for each truck could mean vehicles backed up at ports and queued on feeder roads on both sides of the Channel.

To ease a potential backlog, the government has awarded Seaborne Freight a contract to operate freight ferries from Ramsgate to the Belgian port of Ostend.

Asked how the government knew the company could run an effective service, Mr Grayling said officials had carried out due diligence on the company. The decision to use the port of Ramsgate, he said, was not "something that we have plucked from thin air."

The beleaguered minister, who has been dubbed "Failing" in the press, campaigned for Brexit before Britain's EU referendum.  He has maintained a no-deal Brexit would not cause problems at British ports. "I am expecting the channel ports to operate normally in all Brexit circumstances" Mr Grayling said. "I am confident that will happen."

A statement from Mr Sharp said that the allegations about hundreds of thousands of dollars owed to Palm Charters and Mid-Gulf, the two Somalia-focused business parters, "is denied".

Mr Grayling now faces hostile questions in the House of Commons next week over the contract. Andy McDonald, the Labour party's transport spokesman, said he would seek accountability for Mr Grayling's claims that due diligence had been properly carried out.