THE SCOTTISH government has rejected claims that it made mistakes awarding the £243 million northern isles ferry contract to the multinational company Serco in May 2012.
The comments come after Labour’s shadow transport spokesman David Stewart last week accused the government of wrongly dismissing a cheaper bid from the existing operator NorthLink.
Shetland MSP Tavish Scott is now calling for public finance watchdog Audit Scotland to investigate the way the contract was awarded, and transport union RMT is demanding a public inquiry.
The awarding of the six year ferry contract three years ago has been mired in controversy ever since Serco were announced as the winners, despite their lack of experience operating ferry services.
One of the three unsuccessful bidders, Streamline, is in the process of taking the government to court over they way their tender was treated.
Industry sources have confirmed Stewart’s claim that NorthLink, who had been operating the service for the previous 10 years, submitted a lower bid than Serco.
However the detailed tender document was returned unopened after civil servants deemed the company had failed to meet the required quality standards regarding the freight service they were offering.
NorthLink’s directors were astounded by the decision, as they believed the “competitive dialogue” process should have addressed any such concerns before final bids were submitted. In fact they believed the transport officials had got it wrong.
They were further upset that Serco’s success was made public before they were able to tell their own staff their bid had failed and they would be working for a new company.
There was also no way NorthLink could follow Streamline’s example and challenge the decision in the courts as its parent company David MacBrayne was owned by the government.
Tavish Scott has now drawn up his own questions about the way the contract was awarded which he will table in the Scottish Parliament on Monday. He also plans to raise the matter with Audit Scotland.
“To say the NorthLink bid did not meet the quality standard is laughable as they were already running the service quite successfully,” he said.
“I think there are some pretty obvious questions to be asked about whether there was a cheaper bid and why it was not awarded the contract.
“The government can obviously claim commercial confidentiality, so I think Audit Scotland would be the only organisation that could look into this objectively and discover what happened.”
In a statement issued this weekend, Transport Scotland insisted: “The tender process for the Northern Isles Ferry Service back in 2012 was fair, balanced and properly conducted within strict procurement rules.
“The competitive dialogue process allows tenderers to amend their bid during the process, but unfortunately NorthLink’s bid still failed.
“The Scottish Government could not have known if the NorthLink bid was lower than Serco’s bid. As NorthLink’s bid failed on the quality criteria, their financial submission was returned to them unopened, as is standard practice in procurement exercises like this.”
The government has also rejected claims by the RMT union that it wants to privatise the Clyde and Hebrides ferry services, which come up for contract renewal next month.
RMT national secretary Steve Todd claimed: “There is a growing feeling that Transport Scotland and the Scottish government are heading, full steam to privatising Clyde and Hebrides ferries services, with the winning bid being announced after the Scottish parliamentary elections in May 2016.
“We hope the Scottish government does not continue to head down the Blairite route of privatising public services, but the revelations over their treatment of CalMac’s NorthLink bid does not bode well for Scottish ferry workers and the lifeline services they provide remote communities and passengers.”
Transport Scotland responded: “The award of the Northern Isles Ferry Services contract to Serco did not equate to ‘privatisation’. “These services have always been run by a commercial operator with government funding.
“There has NOT been, nor will there be, any plans for privatisation for the Northern Isles Ferry Services or the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services.”