THE RMT trade union is staging a public meeting to make its case for nationalisation of the Northern Isles ferry service directly to the Shetland community.
Both Shetland Islands Council and Shetland MSP Tavish Scott, who is unable to attend next Friday’s meeting, have stated a preference for the contract to be put out to tender in recent weeks.
Scotland’s transport minister Humza Yousaf has said he views the idea of bringing the contract – currently held by Serco – back in-house as appealing, but opposition to CalMac in Shetland and Orkney appears to have complicated matters.
RMT regional organiser Gordon Martin told Shetland News he felt there was a positive case for nationalising NorthLink to “secure a better deal for passengers, workers, businesses and the taxpayer” from the publicly subsidised service.
The RMT claims contract holders Serco had “overseen a decline in performance, passenger numbers and freight movements whilst receiving a significantly higher subsidy compared to the previous operator”.
Last week SIC councillors sanctioned a formal response to Yousaf urging him to put the NorthLink contract out to tender after hearing that stakeholders in Shetland were strongly of the view that it is a “better value for money solution”.
Asked whether that undermined the RMT’s case, Martin said: “The council are perfectly entitled to make any kind of decision they think. The MSP for Shetland, Tavish Scott, has also said the people of Shetland are not interested in nationalising NorthLink.
“I don’t know who they’ve spoken to in coming to that decision, but we’re inviting people to come along and we’ll put forward our position and have a debate – that’s the whole plan.”
Martin said those who showed up to a meeting in Orkney in early February were “broadly supportive of the RMT’s position, as I believe are Orkney council coming round to our point of view”.
He added: “We’re having a public meeting and hopefully councillors and others [will take part]. Tavish Scott has already said he won’t be coming, which is unfortunate, because he claims to speak for the people of Shetland, but when he’s got the opportunity [to hear their views], unfortunately he’s declined the invitation.”
Scott said he was in no way snubbing the meeting, and he was simply unable to attend on the date in question.
But he remains firmly of the view that “I don’t think nationalising our services will help Shetland get a better ferry service”.
“The experience of tendering has been broadly positive,” Scott said, “and the service we receive has improved, and it is highly adaptive to in particular freight needs, which drives our economy.”
The Liberal Democrat MSP believes the unions are losing the argument, especially when it comes to bundling SIC ferry services into a wider national arrangement.
Scott added he was “philosophically opposed” to the idea of running local ferries from Edinburgh.
The six-year contract awarded to Serco in 2012, which has been temporarily extended while Transport Scotland determines the way forward, was worth around £240 million. It had been run by NorthLink in a joint operation between state-owned West Coast ferry operator CalMac and the Royal Bank of Scotland.
The RMT also believes the contract should be redrawn to include inter-island services run by the SIC as it “offers the best long-term solution to the funding gap which has blighted inter-island services for years”.
A Serco spokesman said the ferry operation was “a valued partner of the Scottish Government and the communities that it services and we are very proud of the lifeline service that we provide to the people and businesses of the Shetland and Orkney isles”.
“Since Serco took on the service in 2012 we have carried a total of 1.5 million passengers, an eight per cent increase since the start of the contract, as well as 20 per cent more vehicles,” the spokesman said.
“We have made significant improvements to both the vessels and the on board offering and 99 per cent of our passengers rated their overall experience as positive, which we are delighted about.”
- A petition to nationalise NorthLink has received over 1,100 signatures and the RMT is urging islanders and those with friends and family in Shetland, to sign it here.