THE SCOTTISH Government’s “chaotic and embarrassing mismanagement” of ferry services was raised in parliament on Thursday as MSPs sought updates on the Northern Isles ferry contract.
Islands minister Paul Wheelhouse reaffirmed in the chamber that there was little he could say at the moment about CalMac Ferries’ ongoing legal action launched against the government after rival bidder Serco was picked for the next Northern Isles ferry contract, which is now due to start in early 2020.
He did, however, say the government “regrets” that legal action is being taken by CalMac, which is owned by Scottish ministers.
The issue of ferries was first raised by Conservative list MSP for the Highlands and Islands, Jamie Halcro Johnston.
CalMac and current operator Serco were the two bidders in the running for the £345 million contract, but the former claimed it offered the best price before launching legal action.
Halcro Johnston asked for an update on the legal process, with Wheelhouse responding: “Scottish ministers are limited in what can be said at this stage of legal proceedings in order not to prejudice the outcome of those proceedings.
“Arrangements are being made to extend the current contract so that the services operate as normal throughout the period, which will ensure that communities, passengers and businesses who rely on the services and the staff who work on them will not be affected during the proceedings.
“Furthermore, the proceedings do not affect our commitment to fare reductions on the Aberdeen, Kirkwall and Lerwick routes from January 2020, which will proceed as promised.”
Halcro Johnston then pointed to the delay in rolling out reduced fares on all routes across the Northern Isles, while he criticised the government over its funding of inter-island ferries in Shetland and Orkney – saying the “Scottish Government’s mismanagement of Scotland’s ferry services has been chaotic and embarrassing”.
Wheelhouse, however, pointed to a 97 per cent satisfaction rating for ferry services connecting Shetland and Orkney with Aberdeen.
He added that the government is in “positive dialogue” with the Shetland and Orkney councils about the fair funding of internal ferries for 2020/21.
“The figures that they have supplied to us have been fed into the budget process—which has, of course, been delayed by Jamie Halcro Johnston’s Conservative Party’s government delaying its budget statement, potentially until as late as March,” Wheelhouse said.
Orkney’s Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur, meanwhile, said the fact that the government had been faced with legal action from its own ferry company was a “remarkable spectacle”.
He asked whether calculations had been made for the likely cost to CalMac Ferries and the government of the legal action.
“We regret that legal action is being taken, but we also recognise that CalMac operates at arm’s length from the government and that it has the right to legal challenge of the government about a commercial tender exercise,” Wheelhouse said.
“Obviously, we hope that the process can go forward as quickly as possible at minimal cost to CalMac and the Scottish Government.”
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