Ferry Services

– in the Scottish Parliament on 22nd May 2013.

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Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-06658, in the name of Richard Baker, on ferry services. I inform members that timing is extremely tight, so any interventions must be taken in members’ own time. If members could take slightly less than the time allocated, that would be helpful.

I call Richard Baker to speak to and move the motion. Mr Baker, you have a maximum of 10 minutes.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

I hope that the debate will give Keith Brown a chance to do rather better on this occasion—we all live in hope. This is the third time in the current parliamentary session that Scottish Labour has initiated a debate on ferry services, and that is for two reasons: first, ferries provide a lifeline service for our island communities; and, secondly, the Scottish Government has been responsible for a series of serious mistakes in its approach to ferry services.

With the publication of the long-awaited ferries review last December, a raft of fare increases was announced that will result in fares to the Western Isles, Coll and Tiree increasing by an average rate of 8.2 per cent and, with the removal of road equivalent tariff funding for commercial vehicles, increases of up to 10 per cent in fares for such journeys. The recently published analysis that was commissioned by the Scottish Government shows that the removal of RET is having exactly the impact that members across the chamber warned ministers about. The increased costs to hauliers and island households amount to a tax on island communities.

Given those findings, and given the debacle of the withdrawal of the NorthLink service from Scrabster to Stromness due to the breakdown of the Hamnavoe, it is no wonder that the minister declined our request two weeks ago that he come to the chamber to make a parliamentary statement on ferries. Today, we bring the issue to him, and we will look for answers on both those issues. We also wish to highlight our concern over the proposal from CalMac Ferries for significant pay cuts for its port staff, although I am more hopeful that we will find a consensus across the parties on that issue.

Let me begin with the removal of RET from commercial vehicles. The consultants’ report that was published in April showed that the decision had resulted in a “significant negative impact” on hauliers. The report’s importance was neatly summed up by Gail Robertson of the Outer Hebrides Transport Group, who said:

“It is an instructive document that clearly shows the devastating, negative impact the removal of cheaper fares are having on island families and businesses. We can appreciate why Keith Brown was reluctant to publish this document - it nails and dispels many assertions that were untrue.”

The consultants’ report highlights that the removal of RET for commercial vehicles has had a negative effect on the margins of small hauliers in particular and has necessitated an increase in prices for network hauliers.

The report also raised the concern that, as many parts of the Western Isles are characterised by relatively high levels of deprivation, if higher fares and transport charges lead to a reduction in income and employment, the outcome could be a worsening of the position.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

If the measure was so vital, why did the Labour Government not bring it in when it was in power prior to the Scottish National Party coming into office?

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

Our commitment to RET was clear in our most recent manifesto. It is regrettable that the SNP has failed to stick to its commitments on this important issue.

The report found—as we and many others said it would—that the removal of RET for commercial vehicles would lead to higher prices for islanders, with 88 per cent of businesses who participated in the survey noting that the increase in commercial vehicle fares had been passed on to their businesses.

The other key aspect of the findings is that, despite what Alex Neil said in the previous debate on the issue, the report concluded that hauliers had passed on the savings from RET to their customers. That is why Chris MacRae of the Freight Transport Association said that the report showed that the removal of RET from commercial vehicles was a grave mistake that resulted directly in price rises on the islands and the weakening of fragile economies. He also said:

“The logistics industry was incensed last year when the then Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure and Capital Investment Alex Neil stated that hauliers were not passing on this benefit to islanders.”

He went on to say:

The Report illustrates that the point made by Alex Neil and other MSPs to be without any foundation and we would ask the current Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure and Capital Investment to issue an unreserved apology to the hard-working companies that do such work underpinning island economies.”

I am interested to know whether that apology will be forthcoming today and what material action the Scottish Government will take to rectify the mistakes that it has clearly made in removing RET from those commercial vehicles.

Photo of Angus MacDonald Angus MacDonald Scottish National Party

The general consensus on the island of Lewis is that the hauliers did not pass on the benefits of RET, so perhaps the member should speak to some of those people. In addition, the report points out that it was hard to assess the impact of the removal of RET against the general economic slowdown and the 16 per cent increase in haulage costs between 2008 and 2012, which was mainly due to fuel price increases.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

The member should perhaps read the report that was commissioned by his own Government, which found that RET had been passed on by the hauliers. I can tell the member that many people on Lewis know very well that the savings from RET were passed on to local businesses. They are now feeling the pinch because of the increase in prices as a result of a decision that his Government made. That is the prevailing opinion of which I have been made well aware. I would be interested to know what the Scottish Government will do to rectify the mistake that it has made.

We will support Mr McArthur’s amendment to our motion on RET, as we believe that he makes a reasonable point regarding the potential for piloting the application of RET in the northern isles, although we acknowledge that the costs would need to be scoped.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

If I have time, I will take an intervention from the minister later.

The second issue on ferries that we bring to the Parliament is one that Mr McArthur has raised on many occasions, which is the interruption to the crucial NorthLink service between Scrabster and Stromness, which has been of such concern to the community in Orkney, particularly as we approach the crucial tourism season. It is vital that we have certainty over the future of that vital service but, when the Hamnavoe broke down, Serco had no contingencies in place.

The background to the situation is, of course, the shambles of the award of the NorthLink contract, which saw a legal challenge mounted in court and the minister instructing CalMac, which had previously run the service, not to appeal its exclusion from the bidding process on a technicality. We raised a number of concerns about the process, and today we ask whether the issue of contingencies for incidents such as the one that has occurred with the Hamnavoe was properly factored into the procurement process.

I will take an intervention from the minister, if he still wants to intervene.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

I do, but it is on the member’s previous point. I just want to clarify something about RET. Is it the Labour Party’s position that RET should be applied to all commercial hauliers across Scotland and, if so, does that mean that it has now reversed its previous opposition to RET?

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

Mr McArthur’s amendment talks about a pilot. It seems to me that researching and studying the potential for the issues before we rule things out is not unreasonable.

I understand that if the NorthLink service had remained with CalMac, capacity would have existed to have a replacement ferry in a couple of days. However, when the contract was removed from the publicly owned CalMac and awarded to Serco, the minister hailed the announcement, saying that it would

“ensure that people travelling to and from Orkney and Shetland will continue to have access to safe, reliable and affordable ferry services in the future.”

However, over the past few weeks the Scottish Government has been paying for a service that it is not receiving. That is why we ask the minister to inform us what financial penalties Serco will incur and what action will be taken so that people can have greater confidence in the reliability of that crucial service in the future.

The experience of the award of the NorthLink contract shows the influence that ministers exercise over CalMac’s decisions, and the final ferry services issue that we bring to the chamber is one on which we ask ministers to exercise their influence in a positive way. Last week, members of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association organised a briefing with employees of CalMac who face a 25 per cent pay cut, at which MSPs heard from four employees who face the prospect of losing several thousand pounds of shift allowances annually if CalMac imposes the new contracts. That will affect around 70 mainly female clerical employees, many of whom work in rural parts of Scotland and many of whom are the main earner in their household.

Even with their shift allowances, those workers do not earn a high wage. One employee said that her current salary was slightly over £22,000, more than £4,000 of which she stands to lose if the proposals are imposed. Those employees frequently go beyond their duties in order to serve the passengers and, indeed, the communities with whom they work. Given that the jobs in question are crucial jobs in often fragile economies, that development is a particularly concerning one.

I have received a response from CalMac, with which I have raised those concerns directly, but they have not been allayed by that response. Although we have raised contentious issues in the debate, I am pleased that Labour members were able to support Kenny Gibson’s motion on the matter, and I know that the minister has also met members of the TSSA here in the Parliament. I hope that he can provide us with a positive response on that issue, at least.

I look forward to hearing the minister’s response on the other substantive concerns that we have raised. It is because our ferry services are of such importance to our island communities that ministers must ensure that they are affordable and reliable for passengers, and that they are properly supported. We believe that, in key areas, ministers have failed in that duty.

I move,

That the Parliament believes that the Scottish Government needs to take action to address a number of failings in its policy on ferries; calls on it to provide a detailed response to the report that it commissioned on the effect of the removal of road equivalent tariff from commercial vehicles, which found that this has had a detrimental impact on hauliers and island communities; further calls on ministers to outline what financial penalties have been levied on Serco following its failure to run the Stromness to Scrabster service because of a mechanical failure to MV Hamnavoe and what action is being taken to ensure that this service is not disrupted in the future; expresses concern that Caledonian MacBrayne’s proposals could see many port staff receive pay cuts of up to 25%, and believes that the Scottish Government should make clear in a statement that it does not believe that this publicly owned company should proceed with these proposals.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

We welcome the opportunity to discuss the commercial vehicles study. We commissioned it because we were determined to provide additional clarity for businesses and the local economies in the Western Isles, Coll and Tiree. We wanted to assess the socioeconomic impact on those communities of the removal of RET for commercial vehicles. The report was first published on Transport Scotland’s website on 26 April.

It is worth remembering that the decision to remove RET for commercial vehicles was partly a result of the cuts that Westminster imposed on us. It was a very difficult decision. Interestingly, this morning I was in Wales, where I listened to a report in which Carwyn Jones said that the Welsh Government had further difficult decisions to take because of cuts that it had experienced and cuts that it expected. Such realism is not evident among Labour members in this place, given their continued demands for more spending in virtually every area of Government.

We have done everything possible to make additional funding available for a transitional scheme. Over the past two years, we have provided £4.5 million for that. We have also introduced additional concessions and made a change that means that small commercial vehicles are now eligible for RET fares.

As the report said—and as Angus MacDonald pointed out—it is hard to assess the impact of the removal of RET against the background of the general economic situation in a recession. Between 2008 and 2012, there was a 16 per cent increase in haulage costs, which was primarily a result of increases in other costs, such as the 17 per cent increase in fuel costs, which account for a third of all haulage costs.

In the ferries plan that we published at the end of last year, which Richard Baker mentioned, we committed to use the study to inform the terms of reference for an overarching freight fares policy. Anyone who looked at the freight fares policy—and, indeed, the passenger fares policy—that the Parliament applied prior to 2007 would not be able to work out a rationale for why certain fares applied in certain circumstances while different fares applied in others. There was no objective rationale. We will try to provide such a rationale through the freight fares policy.

The need for that was confirmed in the report. Businesses in the Western Isles, Coll and Tiree stressed the need for a clearly defined long-term fares strategy. To take that forward, we have established a working group that will include broad representation from key stakeholders. The aim is to deliver a commercial vehicles fares structure for all Scotland’s islands that is fair, transparent and straightforward and which delivers the best value for taxpayers at a time of severe cuts to the Scottish Government’s budget. That is a stricture that any Government would have to adhere to.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

Given that the minister commissioned the report, what cognisance of it will he take when he sets out the policy? Will he take the economic development of the islands into account when he does that?

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

I have just mentioned that we have established a working group that will include broad representation from key stakeholders. In looking at the freight fares policy, it will take the report into account. I have forgotten the second part of the member’s question, but we would not have commissioned the report if we did not want to give it further consideration.

The aim must be a fair vehicle fare structure for the whole country. That said, it is vital that we do not lose sight of RET’s benefits, especially for passengers, cars and small commercial vehicles and coaches, and the major impact that there clearly is on tourism in the islands. In addition, we plan to improve from this winter the level of winter services offered to Barra, Lochboisdale, Coll and Tiree.

I will turn to the second point in the complex and multifaceted motion that Richard Baker has laid before Parliament: the MV Hamnavoe. The ship is obviously an important element of the lifeline ferry service to Orkney, but with regard to the breakdown of the starboard main engine—I have forgotten what Richard Baker called it, but it was fiasco, debacle or some such term—I have to say that no one can foresee these things. They happen from time to time; strangely enough, they have happened in the past under a Labour-Liberal Administration. When it happened this time, it was through no fault of the ferry operator, Serco NorthLink, whose technical staff ensure that all vessels are maintained to a very high standard, well above and beyond the required legal minimum.

Like any responsible transport provider, Serco undertakes regular contingency planning exercises to make appropriate provision for disruption. I know that the current situation is not ideal and I understand that the Hamnavoe is the preferred vessel for the people in Orkney. However, they are also able to get to Orkney with Pentland Ferries, John O’ Groats Ferries and the Aberdeen service, and the freighter MV Helliar has been set aside to help with passengers and freight. As the people in Orkney whom I met last week were very keen to point out, Orkney is not closed for business and capacity is being met through the different provisions that have been put in place.

It was simply not possible to source an additional vessel. Last week, I heard a suggestion from the Labour benches that we should have a separate vessel on standby in any event, but the cost of that on top of the contract would be enormous and run to millions of pounds. I do not think it right to spend taxpayers’ money in that way, which is why we have not done it.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

I think that I made the suggestion that the minister has referred to. I said that the boat would pay for itself by working the secondary route between Mallaig and Lochboisdale and that it could be taken off to cover other services in emergencies.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

I would have to check but I think that our estimated cost for the route runs into tens of millions of pounds. We cannot continue to spend money that we do not have; we need to have some realism on this issue.

As for the idea of commissioning another boat for another service that would then be used as a standby, does the member think that the people of Lochboisdale and Mallaig would be happy for the boat to be taken away and used somewhere else? I do not think so. As the member well knows, we do not have the money for such a project. I simply remind her of what Liam Byrne, the last Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said: “There is no money left.” That is the Labour Party’s legacy.

Provisions have been made. I have mentioned the three to four return sailings a day for passengers and vehicles on Pentland Ferries services; two return sailings a day on the service operated by John O’ Groats Ferries; Serco NorthLink’s own Aberdeen to Kirkwall sailings; and the two return sailings a day on the Helliar, which Serco has brought into the Scrabster to Stromness route. This is not what Serco wants; it wants the Hamnavoe back. The latest news is that we expect it to be back in service tomorrow, depending on today’s sea trials, but provision has been made in that respect and I have looked closely at the breakdown of Serco’s response.

On Richard Baker’s point about penalties, I think that I made clear in a previous topical question time that every time a sailing does not take place the penalty is around £7,000. Of course, the situation is complicated by the fact that the Helliar is undertaking some of the sailings so we have to work out how penalties will apply. However, Serco will face penalties for not providing the service.

I do not have much time left so I will address in my summing up the third issue raised by Richard Baker: the TSSA situation. I have made it clear to CalMac and in public statements that the matter is really between employer and trade unions, and I have insisted that discussions take place and that the trade unions are fully consulted. The parties are in the midst of those discussions and it is only right that they take their course, but I am interested in the outcome.

I move amendment S4M-06658.2, to leave out from first “believes” to end and insert:

“welcomes the implementation of road equivalent tariff (RET) to Islay, Colonsay and Gigha in October 2012 and the decisions to roll out RET to Arran in October 2014 and to all the Clyde and Hebrides routes in the current parliamentary session; further welcomes the planned investment of £333.1 million between 2012-13 and 2014-15 in Scotland’s ferry services, including an additional £2.5 million in 2012-13, and £2 million in 2013-14, to support hauliers to the Western Isles, Coll and Tiree, where fare increases have also been capped and small commercial vehicles benefit from the same fares as ordinary motorists, all against a backdrop of falling budgets from the UK Government; also welcomes the firm commitment to providing a high-quality ferry service across the Pentland Firth as part of the overall Northern Isles ferry service and the effective contingency arrangements that are in place following the mechanical failure that has affected the MV Hamnavoe; further welcomes the commitment of all parties to learn lessons from this incident to provide good, clear and effective communication with ferry users, and notes that, while the ongoing dispute with some of Caledonian MacBrayne’s port staff is a matter between the employer and the unions, it supports both parties in seeking an early resolution to avoid any impact on ferry services on Clyde and Hebrides routes.”

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

I, too, welcome this afternoon's debate and the opportunity that it provides to consider an issue of pressing importance to Orkney and the constituents whom I represent. I am also happy to confirm that we will support Richard Baker’s motion as well as the amendment in my name.

I will come to questions arising out of the Hamnavoe’s absence from the Stromness to Scrabster route over the last month in a moment, but first I want to address longer-standing concerns about the Government’s approach to RET as reflected in my amendment.

Nowhere is the Government’s cynicism and short-termism more in evidence than in its handling of RET. In deciding to focus the pilot phase of its cheap ferry fare scheme exclusively on routes that serve the Western Isles, ministers made it abundantly clear that their priority was not a coherent ferries policy for all of Scotland’s islands but a political calculation about how to shore up their support in a key Scottish National Party constituency.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

In a second.

That impression was only reinforced by nods and winks from ministers to local councillors in my constituency that Orkney needed to elect an SNP MSP if it wanted similar benefits to be directed northwards. Such deplorable behaviour tells me everything that I need to know about what makes the SNP Government stink.

Does Mr Gibson want to intervene?

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

Yes. I am sorry, but I have almost lost my train of thought. If RET was introduced for the Western Isles for political purposes, why was it not introduced for my constituency? I had a majority of only 48, and Alasdair Allan had a majority of more than 600, which in percentage terms was a significantly higher majority than mine. Liam McArthur has said a lot of nonsense.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

It is not just me who has made the argument; across Orkney, the anger that people have felt at what they see as a lack of basic fairness on the part of the SNP has not diminished over the years.

Orcadians have been fobbed off with various excuses in that time. First, we were told that Orkney would get RET after completion of the so-called pilot. Ministers then insisted that RET would push up prices on Orkney’s routes. That assertion was contradicted by the Government’s own calculations. Finally, there was concern that RET would divert traffic away from the Stromness to Scrabster route. The minister has been fairly relaxed about seeing that happen over the past month and previously when the Hamnavoe was sent to Bergen to satisfy the First Minister’s thirst for a headline.

Throughout, the impression has been that SNP Government policy has been driven by political considerations rather than a desire for consistency or fairness. I sympathise with the communities in the Western Isles, Coll and Tiree, which now feel let down, but we are seeing the inevitable consequence of a Government approach that has always been about the next election—or referendum—and not about putting in place long-term, sustainable arrangements for what are, after all, lifeline services to our island communities.

I turn to the more recent concerns that have arisen from the Hamnavoe’s serious engine failure at the end of last month.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

No, I will not.

Lessons need to be learned. The minister acknowledges that in his amendment and he accepted that during his visit to Orkney last Friday. Improvements are needed in communications, not just with the travelling public but with the wider community. Many are directly affected, as the minister heard from the Orkney tourism group representatives last week.

Wider questions are also being asked about the contract that was specified, negotiated and agreed between the Government and Serco. For example, all the details of the ferry replacement and redeployment provisions in that contract have been redacted from the version that appears on the Transport Scotland website. That is unfortunate, particularly as other bidders recall being asked to make specific provision in that regard during their negotiations with officials. I hope that the minister can shed more light on that in his closing remarks or in response to the freedom of information request that I have submitted.

I think that it is generally recognised that alternative tonnage is not readily available, but again questions have been raised about the effectiveness of the financial penalties that are in place. They appear to be dwarfed by the subsidy that Serco receives from the Scottish Government. Even if it is accepted that efforts were made to source a replacement for the Hamnavoe, it is difficult to argue that the contract’s penalty regime acts as any sort of incentive.

On the efforts to secure a replacement vessel, can the minister advise members on the reasons why it was decided not to proceed with redeploying the Hebridean Isles, for example? He will be aware that, earlier in the month, there was a strong suggestion that that vessel would be available, and it certainly would have provided more suitable passenger and freight capacity than MV Helliar.

It would be wrong for me to conclude without putting on record my gratitude for the work that has been done by many NorthLink staff over the past very challenging few weeks. I also acknowledge the efforts of Andrew Banks and Pentland Ferries staff in responding to the additional pressures that have been placed on their service. However, the minister must now accept that the description of the Stromness to Scrabster route as a lifeline service looks rather incongruous after the events of the past month.

Lessons need to be learned for the future, but answers are also required to the many questions that my constituents still have about the way in which the matter was handled and the effectiveness of contingency arrangements agreed between the Scottish Government and Serco.

I move amendment S4M-06658.1, to insert after “island communities”:

“; regrets the decision by the Scottish Government not to include any ferry routes serving the Northern Isles in either the pilot phase of the road equivalent tariff project or its subsequent roll-out”.

Photo of Mary Scanlon Mary Scanlon Conservative

I thank the Labour Party for keeping ferry services on the political agenda.

Although the motion is about more than RET, there is no doubt that the CalMac Ferries staff pay cuts, the impending industrial action and the problems relating to the catastrophic failure of the Hamnavoe are worthy of debate, given how important those lifeline services are to the communities that they serve.

My colleague Jamie McGrigor attended the TSSA union briefing last week. We have a lot of sympathy for the onshore staff, particularly those who face a reduction in their salary from £22,000 to £18,000.

We do not wish to take any side on this issue. Like others, we urge the minister to ensure that constructive talks take place between unions and management. Every member of staff has an important role to play, whether onshore or on a boat. We would not support strike action, which would affect ferry services to fragile island communities that are dependent on such services. We hope that a settlement can be reached soon.

The news of the mechanical failure on the Hamnavoe was devastating for all travellers, but it was not nearly as devastating as it could have been had there not been the alternative of the no-subsidy service across the Pentland Firth, run by Andrew Banks of Pentland Ferries, from St Margaret’s Hope in Orkney to Gills Bay. I regret that the Government failed to thank Pentland Ferries in its motion, but I listened carefully to the minister’s speech and I think that there was almost some gratitude there, which I think Mr Banks is worthy of. He has ensured that people and traffic continue to cross the Pentland Firth despite the temporary loss of the state-subsidised service.

On the third issue in the Labour Party motion—RET—the Scottish Government’s public relations approach to the cutting of RET in alleging that local hauliers did not pass it on is probably in the same category as Argyll and Bute Council’s approach to Martha’s meals, but the difference is that the council apologised to Martha, whose success in Malawi continues to grow. No such apology has been forthcoming for the Western Isles local hauliers. To blame them for not passing on the gains from RET to their customers was not only unfair and lacking in understanding of haulage costs but, predictably, it caused significant anger at the lack of empathy and understanding of the full impact on island communities and life.

We very much welcome the report by MVA Consultancy entitled “Impact of the Removal of RET Fares from Commercial Vehicles on The Western Isles, Coll and Tiree”. It confirms that the removal of RET for commercial vehicles

“in April 2012 has had a significant negative impact ... on the volumes and margins of small hauliers ... squeezed the margin of trader-hauliers ... necessitated an increase in prices for network hauliers”.

The figures are there for all to see. Comparing the period April to September for 2011-12 with the same period for 2012-13, we see that the Ullapool to Stornoway route had a fare increase of 50 per cent, a revenue increase of 22 per cent and a reduction in carryings of more than 18,000, which is an 18 per cent fall. For the same period on the Uig, Tarbert and Lochmaddy route, there was a fare increase of 50 per cent, a revenue increase of 32 per cent and a reduction in carryings of 7 per cent. In addition, the carryings on the Oban to Coll and Tiree route were down by 17.5 per cent over the one year.

Perhaps the Scottish Government thinks that the percentage increase in revenue is more important than the percentage loss in crossings, even when that is at 17 per cent. If that is the case, the Government needs to look more closely at the socioeconomic analysis in its own report. I caution the Government to look at the jobseeker’s allowance claimant count in the Western Isles, which is 2.9 per cent, compared with the Scottish figure of 3.9 per cent.

The historical issue of labour mobility from island to mainland is well documented. Were more jobs and opportunities available in the Western Isles, I have no doubt that many people would return home. I hope that the socioeconomic factors are given equal if not greater weighting than the increases in revenue that I have referred to. The Government can find plenty of opportunities for efficiency savings in the public sector without having to enforce severe hardship by slashing wages for essential onshore staff.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

We now turn to the open debate, with speeches of four minutes at this stage.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

First, let me say how delighted my island constituents are with the improvements to ferry services that the Scottish Government is delivering. Tomorrow, for example, there will be the first sailing for 75 years from Ardrossan to Campbeltown, which is a brand-new route that will be delivered three times a week. The MV Isle of Arran began on 6 May a five-month summer season, with sailings three times a day for five months of the year. That is a permanent fixture for the first time on that route. Of course, the Scottish Government plans to roll that out over a year, so we will have a significant increase in sailings.

In addition, road equivalent tariff will be rolled out to Arran from October next year, which will bring many more visitors and a great boost to Arran’s tourism economy, and the island of Cumbrae, in my constituency, will benefit from RET before the end of the parliamentary session. Over the next decade, the Scottish Government, through Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd, will invest £50 million to £56 million in two new vessels, which will come on stream in 2016-17 and 2022-23. Moreover, Brodick’s £18 million harbour development is due to come on stream by December 2015.

I do not recall Labour supporting RET much, either in the run-up to 2007 or subsequently. Richard Baker body-swerved my intervention and said that RET was in Labour’s 2011 manifesto. That might be so, but it is only because Labour saw that RET was working well under the SNP. It took the SNP—not the Tories, not Labour and not the Liberals—to bring in RET. In February 2008, Labour’s then transport spokesman, Des McNulty, said that the money should have been used to lower all ferry fares. In September of that year, he said that the policy was

“unfair, discriminatory and politically motivated.”—[Official Report, 10 September 2008; c 10624.]

It is Labour’s U-turn on the issue that is politically motivated.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

In a moment.

The Tories also seem to be converts to RET. As for the Lib Dems, in 2004 the Lib Dem Minister for Transport, Nicol Stephen, said:

“A road-equivalent tariff scheme would generate significant additional subsidy costs, which could be funded only by displacing high-priority transport projects. We have no current plans to introduce ferry fares based on road-equivalent tariffs.”—[Official Report, Written Answers, 11 May 2004; S2W-7850.]

Councillor McNamara, the leader of the opposition in North Ayrshire Council, said that introducing the RET subsidy to the Western Isles meant robbing the taxpayers of North Ayrshire. Perhaps Rhoda Grant agrees with Councillor McNamara.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

I am listening to the nonsense that the member is talking. Does he genuinely expect us to believe that lower fares for all ferry travellers would not be a fair settlement?

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

It is difficult to see where the Labour Party is coming from. It wants to raid the money tree and says that we should have RET and lower fares on every route—as well as all the other commitments that it makes across the entire portfolio. One wonders where such a huge amount of money is meant to come from. I dare say that we will hear nothing whatever about that in the debate.

On the TSSA issue, I thank Elaine Murray for her work in organising the meeting and for her support for a motion that I lodged on the matter. Although the motion is in my name, I consider it to have been lodged jointly with Elaine Murray. It has been signed by 41 MSPs.

There is great concern among SNP members about the impact of a 25 per cent cut on Caledonian MacBrayne employees—as there would be about any employees facing such a cut. I support what Richard Baker said on the matter. I realise that there are two sides to the story and that CalMac says that cutting wages is about ensuring a healthy work-life balance, but I am not convinced by that. Like the minister and other members, I want the dispute to be resolved in a positive way, as soon as possible and without diminution in pay for workers.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

Last month, the transport minister, Keith Brown, attempted to sneak out a damaging report that he himself had commissioned, which examined the impact of the removal of RET from commercial vehicles in the Western Isles, Coll and Tiree. The Scottish Government has looked into the effects of its own policy but refuses to admit that it got it wrong.

The removal of RET from commercial vehicles flew in the face of advice from local groups, such as the Outer Hebrides commerce group, which, prior to the report’s release, had highlighted the negative impact that the policy would have. The report confirmed that the islands were negatively impacted by the Scottish Government’s policy. Members have talked about the impact on hauliers, who were forced to increase prices to their communities. All that adds costs to households in the islands. The policy is basically the SNP’s island tax.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

Will the member answer the question that Richard Baker would not answer? Given what she just said, is it the Labour Party’s position that commercial hauliers throughout Scotland should be subject to RET? Is Labour making that commitment now?

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

That would increase costs to some hauliers and some islands. What we want is a price structure that will allow the economy of our islands to grow. That has always been our policy. RET in some routes would increase prices, so we are not looking for that at all.

A number of local businesses in the Western Isles, such as Carranoch Shellfish, have directly linked the removal of RET from commercial vehicles to job losses in their area. The Western Isles Council has said that the RET report confirmed that the removal of RET from commercial vehicles had hit the islands’ economy. It also showed that hauliers previously passed on the savings that they made from RET to consumers and that, since the removal of RET, prices have increased.

The Scottish Government should look again at the evidence laid before it in the report and act on it. All signs point towards the reinstatement of RET for all vehicles to the islands to protect and grow the island economies. The local businesses know it and the Scottish Government report shows it. When will the minister come clean, say that he got it wrong and reinstate RET in full?

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

Time is short, so I am not taking any further interventions because there are a couple of issues in our motion that I want to touch on.

The Orkney ferry service is highlighted in our motion. It was shown that there has been a lack of contingency planning in place when the engine of the MV Hamnavoe suffered catastrophic failure, halting the service since 25 April. One month later, it has not returned to service. Since the breakdown, no foot passenger service has operated on the route, damaging local businesses and tourism at a time when the economy relies on an influx of tourists and visitor numbers.

The Orkney folk festival starts tomorrow. Will the Hamnavoe run tomorrow? If not, what steps are being taken to ensure that foot passengers get there? Orkney relies on the service running; a month without it is entirely unacceptable. It is a lifeline service to Orkney’s busiest ports, and we need contingency services available to avoid that happening again.

I have suggested previously that the Scottish Government introduce a standby vessel. The minister has said that the community in Lochboisdale and Mallaig would not want a ferry if it were taken off other routes. What can I say? Any ferry is better than no ferry at all. Instead of the tens of millions of pounds that the minister cited, he should perhaps go back to the community in Uist that is procuring for a fraction of the cost. Unfortunately, the Government removed that money from the table.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The member must conclude.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

I also echo comments members have made about staff salary cuts.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I am afraid that the member must finish.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

I hope that the Government will urge CalMac to stop that retrograde step.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I am afraid that members at the end of the debate may have to lose a bit of time.

Photo of Dave Thompson Dave Thompson Scottish National Party

The small isles ferry services to Rum, Eigg, Muck and Canna are in my constituency. Just fewer than 200 people live in those islands. The last time I took a trip to Rum, it took two days for a one evening meeting because of ferry scheduling and all the rest of it. It also meant a five-hour trip around all the small isles. Although that was very enjoyable, it was stormy, so I was pleased that the MV Lochnevis is such a good sea boat.

New summer timetables have been introduced for the Lochnevis’s trips to the small isles. There are trips to Eigg six days a week, and trips to Rum, Muck and Canna five days a week. That is an increase on the previous number of trips. When we get road equivalent tariff, the use of the ferries to the small isles and so on will increase. I look forward to that. We also have a new Sunday service to Rum, Canna, Eigg and Muck, which is a great improvement. There is also a ferry from Arisaig out to Eigg and Muck on a Sunday and there are sailings from Knoydart at 10:30 and 12:30 on a Sunday.

I mention that because we need to make the most of those sailings. RET will make it cheaper for people to get to the islands and it will boost our tourism and the economy. However, we must look at such things holistically; we must get the trains to arrive at Arisaig and Mallaig at about the same time—or just before, preferably—as the ferries are leaving for the small isles. Allan Henderson, the provost of Lochaber, has written to ScotRail about the matter. I ask the minister to tell us in his summing up whether he has had any discussions with ScotRail about the possibility of tying in—this summer, if possible—the times of the trains coming into Arisaig and Mallaig with the departures of the small isles ferries.

The new timetable for the small isles provides a very good service. The only thing that is missing is the ability for islanders to make a return trip to the mainland in the course of a normal working day—to get to the dentist or the doctor, to go shopping or to do other things that they might need to do. The ferries review suggests pretty major changes to achieve that—a new daily passenger small freight ferry with a roll-on, roll-off for just two days a week. I do not think that that would be sufficient; we need more than that. It may well be that the best option is to keep the current enhanced service with the MV Lochnevis and to charter a passenger vessel, maybe fortnightly, to provide residents of the small isles with the ability to make a meaningful return trip to the mainland in the course of a normal working day. I would value the minister’s views on that.

The advantage of the Lochnevis is that it has a cafeteria and is a comfortable boat. People who have to spend five hours on it in stormy weather, as I have done, feel quite relaxed and safe because it is such a good boat for that part of the world and the waters there.

I will quickly touch on the staff situation. I was at the meeting with the TSSA that Elaine Murray called, for which I thank her. We got cross-party support there and motion S4M-06510 has cross-party backing. It is just a pity that the issue that it concerns could not have been separated out from the motion that is being debated today, or we might have got cross-party support across the chamber for it.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Come to a conclusion, please.

Photo of Dave Thompson Dave Thompson Scottish National Party

I think that I have just run out of time.

Photo of Rob Gibson Rob Gibson Scottish National Party

RET has been expanded and will be expanded across various other parts of our services because the pilot scheme is being rolled out. Of course, it is not perfect. We have learned about the concerns of large commercial hauliers in the Western Isles, and of the smaller ones, as well. My colleague, Alasdair Allan, said:

“the real unresolved issue, which the report highlights, is the need to find a system of charging ferry fares ... that is equitable across both small and large companies, and which is consistent across the whole ferries network.”

I agree with that and I believe that the Scottish Government can find a system and improve the scheme.

As far as the cuts and the Western Isles are concerned, the RET’s cloth has been cut because of cuts from Westminster. We have also seen a downturn in traffic in a particular year, as was mentioned by the Conservative spokesperson. We recognise the general trade downturn in visitors and many others who use the services. Therefore, we should be very careful before saying that the whole issue is down to cuts to RET.

In 2005, I asked Nicol Stephen questions about bringing in RET across many of the routes that we are talking about. Of course, like too many others, he concluded that

“RET would require very significant increases in subsidy.”

That answer demonstrates the boldness of the SNP Government in making sure that some improvements have been made in services in the Western Isles, the Inner Hebrides and now in the Clyde to help to start to improve circumstances.

Photo of Rob Gibson Rob Gibson Scottish National Party

I will not at the moment, thank you. I have heard Liam McArthur already.

I turn to the present situation regarding ferries and engine breakdowns. We have had the Clansman and the Isle of Lewis, and we have now had the Hamnavoe. The older vessels get, the more likely it is that they will have large breakdowns. That is not a “debacle”; it is a factor of age.

It should also be noted that very soon, at the end of this month, I am due answers from the minister to a written question about days lost and journeys lost since 2010. Looking back, we see that weather cancellations alone in 2006-07 meant that 104 journeys were lost. In 2007-08 the number was 62 and in 2008-09 it was 69. In 2009-10, which was an excellent year, only 14 journeys were lost. That was just on the Scrabster to Stromness route. The basic fact is that weather problems create as much difficulty as the month that has been lost because of the Hamnavoe’s unavailability. I hope that we can get those answers, so that we can have a rational review of the matter, not the “debacle” that was discussed earlier.

I support the seven Ullapool staff—the outport clerks—five of whom are full time, one of whom is part time and one of whom is full time in season and part time out of season. I signed the motion that Kenny Gibson lodged. I am delighted to say that those staff have support across the Parliament, but CalMac must speak to them and sort the issue out internally. We are not going to get any proper working relationship across the CalMac area until that happens.

Photo of Margaret McDougall Margaret McDougall Labour

I am pleased that the Labour Party has brought this debate on ferry services to Parliament today. The timing could not have been better, given the recent and worrying proposals by CalMac Ferries to cut port staff’s wages by up to 25 per cent. The issue is of great concern to employees, which is why I will focus on it in my speech.

CalMac’s outline proposals to cut the terms and conditions of employment of clerical staff, as stated in our motion, would see their hours remaining the same or increasing while most premiums would be scrapped, which would in effect bring about a pay cut of up to 25 per cent. Although CalMac is offering a buyout, that would offer protection and mitigate the cuts for only 18 months. We are talking not about the highest-paid staff, but about some of the lowest-paid staff in the company. There seems to be no logic to why clerks are being targeted.

The Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association estimates that more than 70 per cent of clerks are women, many of whom are currently the main breadwinners in their households. I, too, attended the event that has been mentioned by other members so that I could hear how the cuts would affect the staff and their families. One woman said that she stands to lose up to £600 a month. She is the main wage earner in her family and they are already struggling financially. If her pay is cut, she will not be able to afford to pay the bills or the mortgage. Another employee spoke about how he stands to lose the equivalent of his annual mortgage payment. Many of the staff live in areas where there are no alternative jobs available.

Those are the same staff who, in 2012-13, helped CalMac to achieve technical reliability and punctuality levels of almost 100 per cent and 100 per cent in customer service efficiency, but who are being rewarded with pay cuts. Does CalMac still expect to achieve those levels if it undervalues the staff who meet and greet its passengers?

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

I want to be helpful and to pass on some additional information. The member may know that the TSSA has responded to the CalMac proposals with its own counterproposals, which are currently being considered by CalMac, and constructive dialogue is going on just now.

Photo of Margaret McDougall Margaret McDougall Labour

I thank the minister for that intervention, which probably throws my whole speech out. Nevertheless, I will continue with some of it.

Many staff have to stay on if a ferry is delayed, and they do so willingly to ensure that passengers reach their destinations, but it seems that CalMac has no regard for that commitment and dedication.

There seems also to be no economic or business case for the cuts. The company made a pre-tax profit of £4.1 million in the financial year 2012-13 and paid back £5.8 million to the Scottish Government through the clawback mechanism.

Staff do not want to strike, but they currently feel that it is the only option left to them.

The minister says in the motion that he supports both the union and the employer, but CalMac is part of David MacBrayne Ltd of which the Scottish Government is the sole shareholder. I take into account what the minister has said, but I ask him to intervene and to meet both sides to ensure that a solution is found quickly so that the future and finances of the valuable employees are secured, so that they can be assured that they will not face these outrageous, life-changing and demoralising pay cuts, and so that ferry services are not disrupted.

Photo of Stuart McMillan Stuart McMillan Scottish National Party

I declare an interest in that my wife works part time for Caledonian MacBrayne, although she is not affected by the current dispute.

I will focus my short speech on a couple of the issues that have been raised, which are pertinent to West Scotland. The minister’s amendment highlighted the £331 million of planned investment up to 2015. That figure takes into consideration many aspects of ferries policy, one of which is construction of ferries. The Scottish Government deserves some credit for the £20 million-plus that has been invested in the two hybrid ferries that have been built at Ferguson Shipbuilders Ltd in Port Glasgow. The first, the MV Hallaig, was launched in December last year and the second, the MV Lochinvar, is being launched tomorrow. Those orders have safeguarded 75 jobs and created around 100 new jobs and up to 20 new apprenticeships. That was a tremendous economic boost to the Inverclyde economy and saw the first ship in five years being launched on the lower Clyde.

When the Scottish Government announced in November 2011 that those orders were to go to Ferguson’s in Port Glasgow, the news was warmly welcomed. The comments in the Greenock Telegraph online were incredible. One of them was:

“Real jobs. Absolutely magnificent. Well done to all concerned.”

It is important to highlight that those are the world’s first diesel-electric ferries and that they were designed in Scotland. I repeat: they are the world’s first. Everyone in Parliament can unite in celebrating that.

The second issue on which I will touch is the pay dispute between Caledonian MacBrayne and some of its staff who are represented by the TSSA. Unfortunately, I could not attend the lobby that took place in Parliament last week, but I signed the motion in the name of my colleague Kenneth Gibson. As others have, I have been contacted by the TSSA on the matter and I wrote to Caledonian MacBrayne to establish its position regarding the dispute.

It is disappointing that the dispute has reached the stage that it has reached. It is incumbent on Caledonian MacBrayne and the TSSA to continue their discussions. I note the comments that the minister made a few moments ago, but it is really important that the discussions continue until there is a satisfactory outcome.

I do not imagine that any business would want to amend staffing contracts lightly, but I believe that attempting to do so is a retrograde step. I hope that Caledonian MacBrayne refrains from proceeding with its proposals.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

I thank Richard Baker again for bringing the debate to Parliament. Given its importance to Orkney and the constituents whom I represent, I am prepared to forgive him for denying me the opportunity to attend the all-energy exhibition and conference in Aberdeen and to join others in celebrating the 10th anniversary of the European Marine Energy Centre.

In my opening speech, I made clear the anger that is still felt in Orkney—and, indeed, in Shetland—at the exclusion of our ferry services from the Scottish Government RET scheme. The scheme was initially targeted at the key SNP constituency of the Western Isles during a pilot phase that broke all records for duration, but which was suspiciously extended so as not to expire just before the Scottish Parliament elections in 2011. Even when it came to rolling out the scheme more widely, ministers felt inclined to include only routes on the west coast, including in Mr Gibson’s constituency.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick None

Excuse me, Mr McArthur. Minister, could you sit down, please?

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

There seems to be no credible justification for that discrimination. The ever-changing reasons that ministers advance for Orkney’s and Shetland’s exclusion serve only to reinforce the impression that it is all about politics, and not the desire to put in place an equitable or sustainable system.

The lack of sustainability is now giving rise to anger among hauliers in the west coast communities who find themselves being turfed back out of the scheme. By framing ferries policy on the basis of political and electoral calculations, ministers have not only hoist themselves by their own petard but have managed to take a great many haulage businesses with them.

I know from speaking to businesses in my constituency—notably in the tourism sector—that, in the meantime, the availability of RET on west coast routes but not to and from the northern isles has resulted in a loss of potential business over recent years.

A number of members commented earlier on the approach that Nicol Stephen took. However, I observe that, when he introduced the air discount scheme as the Minister for Transport, he made it clear that it needed to be affordable and would apply across the network rather than have routes that he felt were expedient being cherry picked.

On the fallout from the problems that have been experienced by MV Hamnavoe, I note that the minister has been persuaded to downgrade his diagnosis from “catastrophic engine failure” to “mechanical failure” since I last raised the matter with him in Parliament.

As I said previously, lessons need to be learned. The minister’s amendment insists that

“effective contingency arrangements ... are in place”,

but I do not think that he will have been left with that impression after his visit to Orkney last week. Notwithstanding the highly commendable efforts of NorthLink staff—and, indeed, the staff at Pentland Ferries—over the past month, questions remain about the contract that the minister and Serco signed last summer.

The scale of the fines that were imposed for failure to deliver what is a lifeline service seems to be small compared with the subsidy that is being paid by the Government. I accept that efforts to locate an alternative vessel were made, but it is not clear why certain options were not pursued successfully—notably in the case of the MV Hebridean Isles.

The minister will argue that Serco is painfully aware of the reputational hit that recent events have had on the company—it would be nice to think that that may yet prompt action in other areas. For example, Serco should again consider reinstating some of the middle-of-the-day sailings in order better to align its summer timetable with that of the tourist season in Orkney. The scale of the cut in sailings, which is sanctioned by the Government’s contract, is unacceptable, and it works against the efforts of people in the tourism sector in Orkney to extend the shoulders of the season. As Rhoda Grant pointed out, the Orkney folk festival is starting. It also seems to be worth while to reconsider the reduced discount for elderly, disabled and student passengers.

The services that we have been discussing are lifeline services, on which the islands that I represent rely. My constituents can accept that disruption to services happens from time to time, whether as a result of weather or because of mechanical problems. However, they expect to be dealt with fairly, equitably and honestly. For the reasons that I have set out, I believe that they have every right to feel let down by the Government’s approach.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

The Conservatives will support Liam McArthur’s amendment at decision time, but we will not support the amendment from Keith Brown. That is not because we have a particular opposition to any aspect of what the Government is doing on ferry policies; it is simply that we recognise the fact that there is a significant issue over how ferries are managed across Scotland.

As is often the case, the Government is wrestling with difficulties that have been wrestled with by successive Governments at various times. There are some things that the Government has chosen to do of which I am supportive. However, I must take this opportunity to point out one or two problems.

The first issue that I wish to discuss is RET. Members have suggested that the Conservatives are somehow converts to RET. The truth is that RET has been discussed within Conservative ranks behind closed doors for many long years, but it has occasionally been dismissed on cost grounds. Jamie McGrigor has highlighted the problems that are associated with withdrawal of RET from road hauliers, simply in defence of that vital industry for our island communities, which has been put in a very difficult position by the Government’s changes. RET was introduced in the Western Isles as a pilot scheme, but it was a promise that the Government appears to have been unable to keep.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

No, thank you.

The first of the excuses that have been made is that there is somehow not enough money coming from the south. That is a poor excuse for anybody to make, and it could perhaps have been predicted by the minister who originally introduced the idea.

The other reason that has been given for the withdrawal of RET from the road haulage industry is that, according to statistics, the industry did not pass on the benefit. I suggest that the statistics that Mary Scanlon produced indicate that that apparent failure to pass on the benefit simply masks the fact that costs were rising quickly and that, the minute RET was removed from the road haulage industry, the effects on traffic and trade were immediately obvious to anyone who studied the figures closely.

I must also cover the issue of overall cost. That is a more general issue, and I will deal with it in a fairly abstract sense. When a public transport service is provided, whatever it is, there is a vital balance to be struck between the fare payer and the taxpayer as regards the cost of running the service. The cost of running our ferry services has significantly increased, which is partly due to the introduction of RET for reasons that I understand and believe may be justified.

The problem, however, is that the Government has failed to address the overall cost of providing ferry services in Scotland. That is highlighted by the fact that, with the breakdown of the Hamnavoe, the short crossing across the Pentland Firth has not been stopped altogether. It is continuing by virtue of the service that is provided by Pentland Ferries in an unsubsidised system.

The Presiding Officer:

Bring your remarks to a close, please.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

The opportunity to control the cost of ferry services by using Scotland’s independent ferry sector is one that the Government must consider and use in the future to keep down the cost of vital services.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

I begin with the point that has just been made about Pentland Ferries. We very much appreciate the efforts of Andrew Banks, not just in relation to the business that he has taken on and the additional sailings, but in relation to the way in which he has managed his dry-docking arrangements to accommodate the additional passengers who want to use his service. However, like everyone else, he could have bid for the services that we put out to tender. He might well have considered doing that. We arrived at an open tender process in relation to NorthLink Ferries. The position is that we either subsidise and have that tender or we do not. I am not sure which option Alex Johnstone is saying that he prefers.

As for the points that Liam McArthur made, I have met him every time I have been asked to, given as much information as I can and provided answers to all the questions that he has asked. I have gone out of my way to ensure that he has as much information as possible. It is a disappointment, although it is perhaps inevitable, that that is usually followed by some very political statements.

I was more than happy to go to Orkney again to listen to the representations that people wanted the Scrabster to Stromness route to be written into the contract and that they wanted the 90-minute crossing. I was delighted to go again and talk to the council, the stakeholders and the tourism group. However, one bit of feedback that I got was that the constant politicising of these things by Liam McArthur is starting to annoy quite a number of people in Orkney. Perhaps he will want to address that. We heard some more of that cynicism in some of the comments that he made today, which is regrettable.

On the substantive point made by the Labour Party, I have now tried to find out from two Labour spokespeople whether Labour is committed to having a commercial RET for hauliers in the Western Isles or across Scotland. Of course, we know that, as was pointed out earlier, that would not apply in some cases, because it might increase fares for passengers, for example in Shetland. However, the Labour Party has not said whether it is committed to that. People in the Shetland Isles, the northern isles and the Western Isles will notice that, having been given the opportunity to say that that is what it would do, Labour has not said that. I think that I know why it has not done so.

Labour has also not said that it would definitely guarantee a new ferry for Lochboisdale because, of course, that would cost between £20 million and £40 million, with about £3 million to £4 million every year in additional subsidy. People in the Western Isles can draw their own conclusions about why the Labour Party has made the point that it has made yet made no commitment to such a ferry. It suggests that Labour members are playing politics with the interests of people in the Western Isles and elsewhere.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

If the member wants to make an explicit commitment and say that Labour would bring in RET across the country for commercial hauliers and buy a Mallaig to Lochboisdale ferry, perhaps she will take the chance to say so now.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

I explained that point to the minister earlier. He obviously has not understood. Maybe I will explain it later in words of one syllable. However, will he go to the people of South Uist and get their costings for running a ferry service? They would do it an awful lot more efficiently than he would.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

Again, there was no answer from Rhoda Grant as to whether she will commit herself to what I described. If the Labour Party is not committed to it, what is it making a fuss about? That is the big question.

The motion is disparate. To go back to the Hamnavoe, I was asked what the contract says about unscheduled unavailability. The contract with Serco explicitly covers what will happen in the event of vessel failure. It is obliged to respond to that efficiently and effectively by making best use of its existing maritime expertise and industry contacts. That is a fairly standard provision in such contracts.

We have seen the efforts that Serco has made to get the Hamnavoe back as quickly as possible. As I mentioned when I said that I would try to update the Parliament, we have the chance that the Hamnavoe will come back into service tomorrow, which is a day earlier than was originally intended, because a great deal of work has been done. There is no question but that the failure was substantial. Playing with words such as “debacle” does no credit to the members who have done that.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

No. I cannot, as I need to finish what I have to say.

A crank shaft had a major fault. I have seen it; it had a substantial fault right through it. That was fairly unusual and impossible to predict. Serco dealt with it very well and got the vessel down to Rosyth to be repaired as quickly as possible. As Alex Johnstone said, the service has continued to run; I mentioned the various services that continue to run to Orkney. The situation is not ideal and we want to have the Hamnavoe back. People describe it as the Rolls-Royce service, despite some of the comments that have been made in the chamber today. It is described as an excellent service and people want to have it back as quickly as possible.

I hope that the MV Hamnavoe will be back tomorrow, but people have not been prevented from getting across to Orkney and businesses in Orkney—especially hoteliers—are keen to say that people should come to Orkney. There are a number of ways of getting across to Orkney by boat, and people should still come. After tomorrow, I hope that they can go across using the MV Hamnavoe.

The third element of Richard Baker’s motion relates to the TSSA. If an employer wants to make changes, it is absolutely right that it consults its workforce and the recognised trade unions. That is what has happened in this case. From what I understand, this is not about CalMac picking on a series of employees to reduce costs in that way. Of course, CalMac has one eye on the next contract and wants to ensure that it is in as good a position as possible to win that contract, but that should not be done at the expense of individual members.

I have said to CalMac and I have said publicly that I expect the trade unions to respond to the proposals that have been made—as they have now done by responding with their own proposals, which CalMac is considering. That dialogue should and must take place. I have asked for that to happen. We have all said that we want that issue to come to a satisfactory resolution.

We have not had much mention of it today, but Kenneth Gibson mentioned the £45 million new vessel that will operate between Ullapool and Stornoway. That is a massive investment. The current ferry budgets are at a record high, although members would not think it from some of the speeches around the chamber. There is a record amount of investment and of course tomorrow the new Ardrossan to Campbeltown service will run, for the first time in 75 years.

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour

I was interested to hear the minister welcome the opportunity to discuss the MVA Consultancy report on RET on commercial vehicles in the Western Isles, because Labour asked for a ministerial statement on that report and it was refused. Of course, the minister made a statement to Parliament on NorthLink Serco’s failure to maintain a lifeline service from Scrabster to Stromness because repairs were required to the MV Hamnavoe. However, we felt that the Parliament should be discussing a number of other issues to do with ferries. That is why we brought what the minister described as a “disparate” motion to the chamber—because we were refused the opportunity of a ministerial statement.

Photo of Joe FitzPatrick Joe FitzPatrick Scottish National Party

Might the Labour Party have considered using the time that it had the week before it asked for that statement to discuss the issue?

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour

It was an appropriate matter for a statement and we had other important issues that we wanted to discuss two weeks ago, as the Minister for Parliamentary Business will probably recall. The Minister for Transport and Veterans came to Parliament on 24 April with a statement on the Scottish Government policy on canals, which, to be frank, was a fairly flimsy document that told us that canals were an asset to the country and that Scotland should make the most of them—something that not one of us across the chamber could possibly disagree with—and yet when we asked for a statement on ferries and some of the important issues, it was refused. It therefore fell to Labour—as it did in the case of the Edinburgh to Glasgow improvement programme—to ensure that important transport issues were brought to the chamber for debate.

One of those important issues, of course, was the MVA Consultancy report—rather delayed in its publication—which had been published. After the report’s publication, one of the minister’s SNP colleagues—the Western Isles MP Angus Brendan MacNeil—apparently accepted that commercial RET had been beneficial to communities and that it was “regrettable” that the SNP Government had imposed increases. That is one of the SNP MPs who seems to believe that.

On 23 February last year, the Government amendment to a Labour motion on the issue asserted that

“only 7% of hauliers passed the full benefits on to consumers” and, in his closing speech, Mr Neil stated:

“a lot has been made of the hauliers not agreeing with the Scottish Government when we say that the benefits to the hauliers of RET were not passed on. It is not the Scottish Government that says that; it is the hauliers.”

He then said that I

“should listen to this and ... be educated.”—[Official Report, 23 February 2012; c 6539.]

Perhaps it is he or his successors who should listen to the results of the MVA Consultancy study that the Scottish Government commissioned and then delayed publication of for several months. As others have said, the MVA study found that the introduction of RET had a positive impact for local businesses and that the removal of RET for commercial vehicles had significant negative impacts on hauliers and a variety of businesses across the islands, with businesses in the primary sector affected most.

If Mr Neil was correct in stating that hauliers were not passing on the benefits of RET, how could its removal possibly have had such an effect—which Mary Scanlon and Rhoda Grant have detailed—on businesses across the islands? Perhaps Mr Neil—or Mr Brown or Ms Sturgeon on his behalf—would like to apologise for his assertion.

Kenny Gibson listed a number of new routes in his constituency and spoke about the benefits of RET to his constituents; I wondered whether he was trying to prove the point that Liam McArthur made in his opening speech. Rob Gibson suggested that the results of the MVA Consultancy report were due simply to trade downturns, but that rather suggests that the consultants were incompetent in producing their report, in which the Government had specifically asked them to investigate the effects of the RET reduction on commercial vehicles. I doubt that the consultants that were employed were so inefficient that they could not do that.

As other members have said, I hosted a drop-in session on 8 May on behalf of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association to discuss CalMac’s proposals to reduce the salaries of around 70 port staff by approximately 25 per cent. That would be the result of a number of proposals to remove weekend working premiums, night work payments and annual holiday bonuses and to cut shift allowances. There was also a proposal to change rostering, which would increase the working week’s length by two hours.

Other members, such as Margaret McDougall, detailed CalMac’s proposals for service changes, and the employees at the meeting told us about the effects that the proposals would have on them, their salaries, their ability to pay their mortgages and their standards of living—[Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer:

Order. There are far too many conversations going on.

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour

Indeed, some of the employees said that they would no longer be able to afford to pay their mortgage or use a car to get to work, despite the excellent service that they have provided to their employers over the years.

At that time, the TSSA expected to meet CalMac management on 15 May. I was pleased, as I think that all of us who were at that meeting were, by the genuine cross-party support for the workers. Members of four parties—four political groupings in the Parliament—were present, and every single person who was there expressed their support for the workers. We felt that the best way in which we could express our support for the TSSA members was to lodge a motion, which Kenny Gibson kindly offered to do on behalf of all the MSPs. We hoped that the TSSA members would be able to take that motion with them to the meeting with CalMac in order to demonstrate the cross-party support for them, and I was pleased to hear that 41 signatures to the motion have now been recorded.

Margaret McDougall was right when she advised us that CalMac is no ordinary company. It is the principal subsidiary of David MacBrayne Ltd, which is wholly owned by Scottish ministers, and it provides services under public service contracts with the Scottish Government, for which it receives a grant. We therefore ask the minister to join MSPs on all sides of the chamber in saying to that publicly owned company that it is unacceptable for it to treat its workforce in such a manner and to reduce its staff’s wages by 25 per cent.

I was pleased to hear the minister say in his intervention on my colleague Rhoda Grant that CalMac is considering the TSSA’s counter proposals. I hope that the message comes out of the debate that all members oppose the imposition of such conditions on the workforce and that we would not expect hard-working employees to be treated in that way.

On the NorthLink issue, Keith Brown told us in a statement to Parliament last year that

“One change that users ... will ... appreciate” with Serco taking over the contract

“is that Serco NorthLink is taking a fresh approach to vessel overhauls”.

He said that he understood that

“during the winter there will be no interruption to services, in contrast to the long dry-dock period of last year.”—[Official Report, 5 September 2012; c 11050.]

That raises the question whether that “fresh approach” and cost-cutting by Serco led to the problems that we have discussed today.

Liam McArthur raised important questions about the contract that Scottish ministers agreed with Serco and whether the same requirements were placed on other bidders.

The Presiding Officer:

I ask you to bring your remarks to a close, please.

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour

I thank members for the opportunity to discuss those three important issues. I appreciate that the debate has been short, but it is important that the message goes out to CalMac about the changes in wages and conditions that the company is trying to impose on its workforce.