The government’s no-deal Brexit preparations have been criticised after it was revealed a firm contracted to run extra ferries has never run a ferry service.
Seaborne Freight has been awarded a £13.8 million contract to run a freight service between Ramsgate and Ostend.
The BBC has reported that a local councillor said it would be impossible to launch before quitting the European Union because it had “never moved a single truck in their entire history”.
Seaborne Freight was formed less than two years ago to revive the Ramsgate-Ostend line, and has insisted it will launch its service before March 29 - the date when the UK is due to leave the bloc.
The firm had been founded by shipping industry workers and two ships would be operational “very quickly”, it said.
The Department for Transport said it had awarded the contract in “the full knowledge that Seaborne is a new shipping provider”, and that it “carefully vetted the company’s commercial, technical and financial position in detail before making the award”.
The DfT also signed contracts with French firm Brittany Ferries and Danish company DFDS to ease pressure on Dover as part of a £100 million deal.
The revelation has been described as “farcical” by the Liberal Democrats,
Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesperson 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.
“The government could, and should, take the threat of a no-deal Brexit off the table. It is being used only to try and scaremonger people into backing their deal. It is now costing the country millions - it is inexcusable and people won’t be fooled.
“People must be given the final say on the Brexit deal with a people’s vote where they have the right to choose to remain.”
Labour MP Tonia Antoniazzi, a supporter of the Best for Britain campaign for a second EU 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.”
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.”
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”.
It added: “It was intended to start the service in mid-February but this has now been delayed until late March for operational reasons.
“This coincides with the Department for Transport’s Freight Capacity Purchase Agreement with Seaborne which is part of their preparations to increase ferry capacity in the unlikely event of a no-deal Brexit.”
Ramsgate has not had a cross-Channel service since 2013, when operators TransEuropa collapsed.
A Department for Transport spokesman added: “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.”
The additional crossings are understood to be the equivalent of around 10% of the current traffic on the Dover Strait and will see ports in Poole, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Immingham and Felixstowe used.
Contracts were not put out to tender, with the DfT saying it was a “situation of extreme urgency” brought about by “unforeseeable events”.
DFDS was awarded a contract worth £47.3 million and the contract with Brittany Ferries is worth £46.6 million, with the company adding 19 return sailings to three routes between the UK and France.