Chris Grayling’s decision to grant £108 million worth of contracts to Seaborne Freight, DFDS and Brittany Ferries has been described as a “secretive and flawed procurement process” by the company which operates the Channel Tunnel. The Department for Transport (DfT) defended the process, arguing the “extreme urgency” of preparing Britain for Brexit by March 29 justified the swift action. However, at a High Court hearing in London, Eurotunnel’s barrister Daniel Beard QC said the procurement process for “additional capacity for transport of goods across the English Channel” had been “undertaken without any public notice being issued”.
Mr Beard told judge Mr Justice Fraser Eurotunnel only found out “when contract notices were published three days after Christmas”, adding it was “quite remarkable” his client had not been informed given its recent history in running cross-Channel services.
In a jibe at Mr Grayling’s heavily criticised decision to grant a contract to Seaborne Freight, Mr Beard submitted that Eurotunnel was “an operator who actually ran a ferry service three years ago”.
He said his client was therefore not “speculating” about its ability to run cross-Channel services but “has actually done it”.
Government contracts must be advertised through a publicised competition but Eurotunnel’s parent companies, Channel Tunnel Group Ltd and France-Manche SA, said they were not made aware of the opportunity which they called an unfair subsidy.
The £13.8 million Seaborne Freight contract collapsed over the weekend prompting calls for Mr Grayling to resign.
The lawsuit is a new setback for Mr Grayling but the Prime Minister has said she has “full confidence” in her Transport Secretary’s ability.
Seaborne Freight had been scheduled to run services between Ramsgate and Ostend in Belgium once Britain leaves the EU on March 29.
Ewan West, representing Mr Grayling, said the procurement process was only for maritime freight meaning Eurotunnel “could never have provided that capacity” and “could not have complied” with the contract anyway.
In court papers, the government said it does not accept that it acted unlawfully.
A Department for Transport spokeswoman defended the government, saying it had carried out a “competitive procurement process to secure additional ferry capacity between the UK and the EU, which is in line with proper procedures”.
An expedited four-day trial will begin on March 1, Judge Fraser said, because there are “very important public interest matters” and “the urgency of the matter is in my judgement somewhat obvious”.
However the government criticised the speedy trial as “wholly unrealistic”.
The government added its resources are “extremely stretched in the run up to the UK’s departure from the EU” and “inevitably that means they are diverted from other priorities”.