In light of the Executive's failure to find a bidder for the Campbeltown to Ballycastle ferry route, which was a major disappointment to many people in Argyll and Bute, why was Dalriada Shipping, which was willing to take on the contract, rejected? It was classed as a new entity, despite the fact that the company is owned by Pentland Ferries, which successfully runs services between the Scottish mainland and Orkney without any subsidy. Dalriada has again offered to run the Campbeltown to Ballycastle service using the boat that previously operated on the route. Will the minister give me and those in Argyll and Bute who would benefit from the service assurances that Pentland Ferries' excellent track record will be taken into account this time when Dalriada's new offer is considered?
I apologise to Mr Mather, who will ask exactly the same question later.
All that I can say at this stage is that, with officials in the Enterprise, Transport and Lifelong Learning Department, I am examining the options, following the exercise that was undertaken under the European and domestic procurement rules that we must follow, with which Mr McGrigor is familiar. It was not a case of the Executive or anyone else failing; it was a case of no compliant bid coming forward. I hope that Mr McGrigor is aware of that—I am sure that he is.
I absolutely appreciate the point about the economic importance of the route, and we will continue to consider all the options. I hope to make a further announcement on the matter as soon as I possibly can.
The minister will know that the announcement of the preferred bidder for the new franchise for the ferry service to the northern isles is anxiously awaited. Is he in a position to inform the Parliament about that? Will he give an assurance that, when the new bidder is identified, every effort will be made to ensure both that adequate shipping arrangements for livestock are secured and that there is a seamless transition for onshore and seafaring staff, passengers and freight users?
As Mr Wallace knows, we had hoped to be able to announce the preferred bidder by the end of February. Following some further work and further economic and financial analysis, we are able to confirm today that Caledonian MacBrayne is the preferred bidder for the northern isles tender. A process will now be undertaken to establish the precise contract details. That will take some time, but I hope that, by the early summer, we will be in a position to confirm the contract and the operation that is to be undertaken in the northern isles.
Mr Wallace makes a fair point about the continuation of the service being as seamless as possible. It is indeed our intention to work hard to achieve that. I will write to him on the matters relating to staff, but as far as bookings for passengers and freight businesses are concerned, we want to ensure that the service continues as it has done and that there is no disruption to booking arrangements.