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RMT union meeting on nationalising NorthLink routes

A DEBATE will take place next month on the RMT transport union’s call for ferry services to Orkney and Shetland to be taken into public ownership.

The Scottish Government announced shortly before Christmas that it was extending Serco NorthLink’s existing contract, which had been due to expire in April 2018, while it decides whether or not to put the new contract out to tender.

The RMT has been calling for renationalisation for some time and has now arranged a meeting in Orkney on Wednesday 7 February and has invited speakers including union representatives, Scotland’s transport minister Humza Yousaf, Highlands and Islands MSPs, Orkney Islands Council leader James Stockan and Serco NorthLink managing director Stuart Garrett.

In a Holyrood debate on 20 December, Yousaf said it was “the Scottish Government’s preference to directly award ferry contracts to an in-house provider, subject to the views of local communities and stakeholders”.

He added that officials were still working on the “potential impact of complex state aid requirements on making such an award”.

Union figures will use next month’s meeting to make the case for public ownership and operation of the contract, previously run by NorthLink Ferries under the David MacBrayne group until 2012.

They argue that services provider Serco, which was controversially given the £240 million contract nearly six years ago, has “overseen a decline in performance, passenger numbers and freight movements whilst receiving a significantly higher subsidy compared to the previous operator”.

RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “RMT members are proud to deliver this lifeline ferry service for local communities and visitors. Rather than subsidise privateers for a worsening service these lifeline ferries need to be brought into public ownership so they operate in the best interests of the people who use them.”

RMT national secretary Steve Todd said Northern Isles communities deserved “lower fares,  more frequent sailings and improved on-board services, on properly staffed and funded vessels. We believe a growing and more reliable service can only be achieved through public ownership and operation.”

Shetland MSP Tavish Scott said after last month’s parliamentary debate that there were “clear views from Orkney and Shetland in favour of tendering”, though others have suggested that is not a uniform view.

But Highlands and Islands Green MSP John Finnie said he felt the service “should be run exclusively in the public interest” as happens on the Clyde and Hebrides routes operated by CalMac.

“Serco, like any other multinational, has a statutory obligation to generate profits for its shareholders, to whom the idea of ‘public service’ means nothing,” he said.

A spokesman for Transport Scotland said the government intended to award ferry contracts directly to public sector operators “if certain criteria can be met and subject to the views of local communities”, adding a policy review was continuing.

  • The meeting will take place from 7pm-10pm at the Ayre Hotel, Kirkwall on Wednesday 7 February.
General Election - 12 December 2019