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Seafood industry warns against taking ferry contract in-house

Shetland's seafood industry is calling on the Scottish government for the Northern Isles ferry contract to go out to tender rather than taken in-house. Photo: Shetland News

INDUSTRY organisation Seafood Shetland has added its weight to calls for the Northern Isles ferry service contract to go out to tender instead of being taken in-house.

Chief executive Ruth Henderson said the proposals from the Scottish Government to bring the service into public ownership was something that “we have very serious doubts and is a move which we cannot support.”

It comes after Shetland councillors agreed to write to Scotland’s transport minister Humza Yousaf to urge him to put the contract out to tender.

The government has extended the existing Northern Isles ferry contract, held by Serco NorthLink, until October 2019 while it determines the service’s future direction.

It is considering whether the contract can be undertaken by the government itself, and consultation with stakeholders ongoing.

Henderson said that “support for such a move will certainly not be found from the Shetland seafood sector or, indeed, any of the industry’s hauliers.”

She said it is in the best interests of private companies to run “the best service at the most cost-efficient price”, which benefits the industries.

Over half of Serco NorthLink’s freight income from Shetland comes via the seafood sector.

Shetland accounts for the second highest volume of white fish landings in Scotland, while it is responsible for nearly one third of UK farmed salmon output.

“The seafood industry and our transport operators believe that the current tendering process has given industry and stakeholders the opportunity to reflect and feed into the changing needs of the islands,” Henderson added.

“We appreciate that although seafood forms a large portion of the islands’ exports – indeed it has an estimated annual turnover in excess of £400 million – it is by no means the only consideration, so proper consultation ahead of awarding contract is vital to forecasting, shaping, and meeting the particular needs of our community.”

The service was first put out to tender in 2002, with NorthLink Ferries – a partnership between state-owned West Coast ferry operator Calmac and Royal Bank of Scotland – running the route until 2012 when it was awarded to multinational services provider Serco.

Henderson added that there is a “good working relationship” currently in place with Serco NorthLink and added that renewals of the contract “ensure that the service evolves”.

“Overall, we question Transport Scotland’s ability to maintain and develop a service that is essential to the islands’ future,” she said.

“The previous iterations of NorthLink, which were part-owned by the Scottish Government, did not deliver savings to the public purse and made no effort to attempt to investigate efficiencies and ways to improve the service.

“In contrast, the current system has delivered a dynamic, evolving, focused and constructive service which is working well for Shetland. We are certainly not against continuing to have an ever-evolving service – indeed that is a priority for us – but the proposed in-house route is one about which we have very serious doubts and is a move which we cannot support.”

Transport union RMT, meanwhile, is due to hold a meeting in Lerwick on 16 March to make its case for nationalising the Northern Isles ferry service.

General Election - 12 December 2019