I am only too happy that there should be consultation on the terms of the specification, but the decision has to be for Ministers of the Government of the day.
The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. McKelvey) asked whether passenger vessels will carry freight in future. I can assure him that the service specification requires the operator to provide capacity for the carriage of passengers, cars, commercial vehicles, freight and livestock.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the European regional development fund. It has always been possible since the beginning of the tendering process for ERDF money to be made available for vessel replacement. That is not a new issue. The Government's response makes that clear.
Some hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell), asked whether I could delay the tendering process. It would not be sensible for the Scottish Office to halt it at this late stage. To do so would cause further uncertainty before lifeline services could be secured by block grant contract. There could also be a danger that tenderers would withdraw. We believe that final bids are due this week, so we do not believe that that would be in the public interest. Of course, if a general election is declared, the normal rules will apply to decisions made during the election period.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie) asked a very relevant question about standby vessels. The final service specification requires tenderers to make proposals for continuing service during refits and repairs. These will be examined very carefully during the evaluation of bids, and we will be keen to ensure that proper arrangements are put in place in respect of breakdowns and relief vessels, and, indeed, cover for annual overhauls.
My hon. Friend also asked about new vessels. It is probable that the requirements of the Stockholm agreement on passenger ferry service safety survivability will make it inevitable that new vessels are introduced in 2002. New build options are being considered as part of the competitive tendering process.