SHETLAND MSP Tavish Scott says the Scottish Government is “discriminating” against Northern Isles residents by announcing ferry fare cuts on routes serving west coast islands – prompting his SNP rival to counter that he is making “wild accusations” and pitting islanders against each other.
Scott reacted furiously to the Scottish Government’s announcement of fare cuts of nearly 50 per cent on 14 west coast routes on Monday morning.
He said the SNP administration’s “overt and political discrimination against the people of Shetland and Orkney is laid bare”.
Services to Barra, Mull, Eigg, Skye, Raasay, Cumbrae, Muck and Rum will benefit through a cut to single passenger fares averaging 44 per cent, while car fares are to be reduced by an average of 55 per cent.
The SNP’s Shetland candidate for Holyrood in 2016, Danus Skene, accused Scott of a “cheap smear” by suggesting the islands were being punished for not voting SNP in the past and said he was deliberately distorting the issue.
Skene pointed out that fares to and from Aberdeen would be more expensive if Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) was applied, while work is ongoing between Shetland Islands Council and Transport Scotland to address fares on local authority-run ferries.
But Scott described the west coast announcement as “a transport kick in the teeth to the people of the Northern Isles”.
He said: “Many Shetland families returning after the October school holidays will wonder what we have done wrong.”
“Why are Shetland travellers not benefiting from fare reductions of 50 per cent to take the car to Aberdeen? Why does this nationalist government only help the west coast of Scotland with fare cuts? This blatant discrimination is a disgrace.”
When he, as a minister, introduced airfare cuts it “applied to the Western Isles who elected an SNP MP” – yet the Northern Isles had seen “increases imposed on both passengers and cars in every year of the eight years” since the SNP took power.
“It would be totally wrong to discriminate against an island because of how they vote,” Scott continued. “Yet that is now the inescapable conclusion that local people come to. Because we have the audacity not to vote SNP we are being punished.
“There can be no greater illustration of the cynical politics played by the SNP than their disgraceful ferry fares policy.”
He added: “In 2016 we must replace a cynically political government with one that has a fair transport policy based on need, not how islands vote. When and if people respond to the nationalist government’s islands consultation they will want to highlight this disgraceful, unfair and discriminatory policy.”
But transport and islands minister Derek Mackay dismissed that as “utter nonsense”, while Skene responded by saying it was “time that the Lib Dems showed a little integrity in their arguments”.
He said the government was introducing RET on ferry routes it was directly responsible for where that resulted in a saving on existing fares.
“Because so much of the cost of ferry transport is associated with landing rather than the distance of the journey itself, the implementation of RET makes particularly dramatic savings on shorter routes,” Skene said. “So yes, the west coast implementation of RET is a major support for west coast islanders.”
But the ferry cost per mile for a car on the much longer journey between Shetland and Aberdeen was “below the real cost of driving, which the AA calculates averages at over 60p a mile”.
He said the SNP’s commitment to RET would bring down Shetland fares “if and when its implementation is to the advantage of Shetland passengers”.
Skene said Shetlanders travelling to Aberdeen were being “massively subsidised by the terms of the NorthLink contract which Tavish himself signed off as the minister responsible in 2005”.
He said the isles received “much more subsidy per journey than anyone on the west coast, but it is all being spent on the grossly inefficient contract negotiated by the Labour/Lib Dem coalition”.
“For example, the present inappropriate ferries costing £100 million will cost over £200 million over 20 years because of the terms of the financial leasing arrangement with the Royal Bank,” Skene continued.
“The effective subsidy of a passenger between Lerwick and Aberdeen provided by the taxpayer is in the region of £300. This is way above the support given on the west coast, however comparisons are made.”
He said the SNP government was determined the next generation of ferries and contracts would “deliver better service and better value for money”, to be achieved by working with isles councils and transport organisations through the “STAG” process.
Skene acknowledged that RET would bring down fares on inter-island ferries within Shetland and said the SNP recognised the “exceptional burden” this placed on the local authority.
“The answer is not for the Scottish Government to take over SIC ferries,” he said. “Management should be local. But negotiations are in hand to provide new support for the SIC in meeting the costs of providing internal ferry service. This support will be a major equivalent to the support for islanders represented by the RET implementation on the west coast.”
He added the SNP was committed to helping islanders overcome the disadvantages they face due to ferry costs.
“That is true for islanders in both the north and the west, and wild accusations by Tavish Scott must not [be] allowed to pit islanders against each other.
“Judging others by his own standards, Tavish presumes that the SNP government is rewarding SNP voters in the west at Northern Isles’ expense. It may have escaped his attention that the SNP vote in the Northern Isles has risen of late.”
A spokesman for minister Mackay hit out at “a bogus and boomerang attack which only serves to remind people that Tavish Scott did nothing to bring down ferry fares for people in the Northern Isles while he was transport minister”.
He echoed Skene’s statement about RET distances, adding the government was committed that “no one will pay more for an RET fare than their current standard single fare, therefore the intention is to phase in the introduction of RET to the Northern Isles over a longer timeframe”.
Mackay’s spokesman added that the SNP was “doing all that we can to keep the cost of commuting down” including an increase in the Air Discount Scheme from 40 to 50 per cent and a freeze on government-subsidised services for 2016/17.
“While Tavish Scott carps from the sidelines, the Scottish Government will do everything we can to support island communities.”