Curious case of the Brexit minister, an invitation to Portsmouth’s port and the letters that did not exist

Fareham MP Suella Braverman. Picture: Duncan Shepherd
Fareham MP Suella Braverman. Picture: Duncan Shepherd

Fears of lorries stuck along the M275 due to a backlog at Portsmouth’s port under a no-deal Brexit were dismissed by the British government.

The News revealed last month how director Mike Sellers, who leads the Portsmouth City Council-run port, was eyeing up a parcel of land in Tipner to stack up lorries and containers if delays led to congestion.

Such were his concerns he wrote – once on April 10 and once on July 17 – to Fareham MP Suella Braverman, a minister in the Department for Exiting the European Union, inviting her to visit.

Officials at Dexeu later briefed The News that replies had been sent back to Mr Sellers. But now a freedom of information request submitted by The News reveals that Mrs Braverman replied to the port’s invitation just once – four days after the FOI was submitted on August 17.

Yesterday Mrs Braverman said: ‘I have made it clear that I am happy to visit.’

Last month, and not yet having received a reply, Mr Sellers told The News: ‘The one thing that we have found really frustrating is that we’ve written – and personally written twice – to the Fareham MP Suella Braverman on this to invite her to the port to talk to us, Brittany Ferries, about our concerns over Brexit and so she understands what our concerns are but she hasn’t even responded to those letters.’

The letters reveal Mr Sellers first wrote in April after watching a BBC report on the minister visiting Southampton port, telling Mrs Braverman that the trade at the port she went to was 90 per cent outside of the EU.

‘However, major ferry ports such as Portsmouth International Port (Pip), are the European gateways handling significant freight on a “just-in-time” basis,’ he wrote.

He added: ‘I would like to invite you to visit Pip and understand from the port and our customers the concerns we have over the uncertainty and the need for “frictionless” trade through our port.’

When no reply came from Mrs Braverman, Mr Sellers wrote again after being sent a copy of the letter Gosport MP Caroline Dinenage received.

Ms Dinenage had suggested Portsmouth could be a ‘test port for new customs processes’.

Mrs Braverman – whose constituency neighbours Gosport – replied, and said: ‘Your letter and proposals have been passed to my officials, who may be in touch, including if an opportunity becomes available for me to meet with you.’

Armed with a copy of this, Mr Sellers’ second letter – dated July 17 – said he would ‘value some clarity over some of the content’.

He added: ‘Portsmouth has the most shipping routes to northern Europe and is the second largest ferry port in the UK. Our stakeholders would also value a visit and a discussion with you.’

There was no reply from Mrs Braverman until August 17 - eight days after The News revealed the no-deal Brexit preparations being made by the port and four days after the FOI request was sent in.

Mrs Braverman yesterday said she has offered the port several dates to visit and the government is engaging with the port, with the shipping minister having already visited.

Her August letter said: ‘The government is aware of the conerns of Portsmouth International Port, such as access to skilled workers and the UK’s future trade agreements, as well as more specific issues including post-exit customs regimes.

‘I can assure you that we are seeking the best possible deal for the UK and we are working with stakeholders in order to ensure a smooth transition in the future.’

Former barrister Mrs Braverman outlined the transition period agreed with the EU, insisting ‘businesses will be able to trade on the same terms as they do now up until the end of 2020’.

She added: ‘The prospect of leaving negotiations with “no deal” has receded significantly.’

But she pointed out that Devon MP Chris Heaton-Harris is now the Dexeu minister responsible for borders.

Finishing her reply to Mr Sellers, she added: ‘[He] would very much like to hear your views regarding our exit from the EU.

‘We would therefore like to offer you a meeting. Our officials will be in touch to arrange the details.’

And on her own visit to Portsmouth’s port – a 10-minute drive from her constituency office – she said: ‘My own parliamentary officials may also be in touch to organise a separate visit.’

Gerald Vernon-Jackson, leader of Portsmouth City Council which owns the port, said: ‘Four months of not bothering to respond to something that’s really important to the economy of this country is a disgrace.

‘Either it was a deliberate thing that the minister decided that she couldn’t say anything because the government is in such a mess, or the government is in such a mess.

‘She’s an MP whose constituency includes parts of Portsmouth Harbour.

‘It’s really important to people she responds, and to only respond after four months and only to do it in response to an FOI from The News is really disgraceful.’

The FOI found Mrs Braverman had told Portsmouth South MP Stephen Morgan that the ministers had more than 350 recorded ‘Dexeu-organised engagements with stakeholders since July 2016’, had attended more than 80 roundtable discussions and met with thousands of businesses.

In the letter to Ms Dinenage, Mrs Braverman said she had personally visited Southampton, Heathrow, the Eurotunnel and Dover.

A Dexeu spokesman said there had been a ‘mix up’ over its comments on the letters last month. He said: ‘Our team which deals with correspondence appears to have thought you were referring to the two letters from local MPs about the port and it was those which they confirmed we had responded to.’

He added: ‘We understand how critical it is to keep trade flowing when we leave and that is why we have been engaging extensively with ports, including Portsmouth.’

Ms Dinenage said she has not met the Fareham MP in a ‘ministerial capacity’ but they regularly talk about Fareham and Gosport shared interests.