Over time, most Governments are eventually overwhelmed by the weight of the promises they make. Initially, faced with public anger on any issue, ministers will happily blame the previous Administration, before going on to promise faithfully that everything will be different from now on.
The Scottish National Party Government has raised the bar on blaming others—shoulders do not get much slopier. It has also racked up its fair share of promises over the past decade. In trying to be all things to all people in pursuit of independence, SNP ministers have, from day 1, carpeted the country in love bombing. They have popped up here, there and everywhere, the length and breadth of Scotland, offering assurances that they will sort things out.
To be clear, it is a good thing for politicians to get out and about, particularly ministers, who are most at risk of ivory tower syndrome. Over time, though, the promises and the nods and winks that are offered to find favour for political ends start to mount up. Individually, they may be deliverable; collectively, they are not. The more that that carries on, the more it speaks to a cynicism at the heart of government—playing one interest off against another, kicking the can down the road, and redefining each commitment as the reckoning approaches. That is not acceptable. It is treating people and communities with contempt, and it is where Parliament has a responsibility to stand firm.
I appreciate that most colleagues do not live and breathe lifeline ferries as Tavish Scott and I do. Likewise, I recognise that the future funding of internal ferry services in Orkney and Shetland is less of an immediate concern to those representing other communities that are facing their own pressures and challenges. However, I believe that the issue speaks to a wider interest that we all share: the need to shine a light on the promises made by ministers to communities across Scotland and for this Parliament to hold those ministers accountable.
Absolutely. After 10 years of the case being made, those fares were introduced on the west coast to competitive disadvantage and, with no good reason, they were not introduced in the northern isles.
However, I believe that the issue we are debating today speaks to that wider interest. On that basis, I hope that the Parliament will support my motion and reject Humza Yousaf’s request in his amendment to be allowed to keep kicking the can down the road for years to come. This Government’s attitude is entirely cynical. It is holding communities to ransom over lifeline links, as Jamie Halcro Johnston’s amendment rightly suggests.
In truth, some of our most fragile communities rely utterly on the connections that are provided by Orkney Ferries. For around 15 per cent of Orkney’s population, including those on the island of Sanday where I had the privilege of growing up, those ferries are the primary means of transporting people and freight, enabling people to access essential services including health and education. It is no exaggeration to say that, without those services, or in the event of them having to be scaled back, some communities in my constituency simply could not survive. Of course, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution knows that. As a former Minister for Transport and the Islands, he is well aware how crucial those specific ferry services are. He also knows that the current model of provision is unsustainable.
Mr Mackay and Mr Yousaf have heard it time and again from me and from Tavish Scott. They have also heard it directly, repeatedly and in detail, from the local councils in Orkney and Shetland over the years and, not so long ago, the message appeared to be getting through. Faced with a backlash in the islands against centralisation, and demands from Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles for more decision-making powers, the Scottish Government was forced to act.
So it was that, in June 2014, the former First Minister swept into Orkney with all due pomp and ceremony to declare that his Government
“understands the significant financial challenges that can fall on individual local authorities, and is committed to the principle of fair-funding in the provision of ferries and ferry infrastructure.”
It was as if there was a referendum pending and there were islanders to placate. In hindsight, we should have had Mr Salmond carve it into one of our standing stones. Yet, even after the referendum was lost, the promise held. The then transport minister, Derek Mackay, assured me that
“the provision of transport services should not place a disproportionate financial burden on any council, particularly with reference to revenue support for ferry services and ferry replacement costs for internal ferry services.”—[
26 November 2014; c 12.]
Running the internal ferry service in Orkney accounts for 14 per cent of the council’s total annual budget. Unlike the situation for similar services elsewhere in Scotland, however, the Government funds only 40 per cent of those costs. That leaves Orkney Islands Council in debt to the tune of £5.5 million a year. For Scotland’s smallest council, which is already having to deal with a £12 million budget shortfall over the next four years, the consequences are potentially horrendous: deep cuts to health, care, education and other core services, including lifeline ferries.
Some argue that Orkney Islands Council should just dip deeper into its reserves. Yet the same ask is not made of others, whose lifeline ferry services are funded by the Government. Moreover, imagine the reaction if, for example, Highland Council was invited to raid its common good fund to run the rail services north of Inverness.
The ferry services in Orkney are not Rolls-Royce ferry services. The Government’s ferries plan from 2012 showed that, on cost, frequency and capacity, island communities in Orkney are being short-changed. That is not a criticism of Orkney Ferries, but with ministers signing off further pay increases for Caledonian MacBrayne employees, the current disparity with their counterparts in Orkney Ferries is set to grow bigger. As a consequence, industrial action on Orkney’s internal ferry network is now a distinct possibility, which threatens the island communities that depend on the services and underscores the urgency of getting things sorted. That is why the Government must now honour the commitment that Derek Mackay made in 2014, and which Humza Yousaf repeated in March last year, to deliver fair ferry funding for the northern isles. There is an opportunity to do just that in next week’s budget, through direct funding rather than grant-aided expenditure.
The cabinet secretary can pick up that point in his winding-up speech.
Derek Mackay must take that opportunity in the budget if he is to have any credibility. If he does not, and if he continues to hold people in Orkney and Shetland to ransom, any trust in him, the Minister for Transport and the Islands and the Government will have been lost. Ministers must be held accountable for the promises that they make and Parliament has a responsibility to ensure that that happens. I urge Parliament to support the motion in my name.
That the Parliament notes the commitment from the Scottish Government to “the principle of fair-funding in the provision of ferries and ferry infrastructure” and the statement from the former transport minister and now finance secretary, Derek Mackay MSP, that “the provision of transport services should not place a disproportionate financial burden on any council, particularly with reference to revenue support for ferry services”, and therefore calls on the Scottish Government to set out to the Parliament how it intends to honour these commitments in relation to Orkney and Shetland internal ferry services.
I welcome this debate. It is a good chance to put on record all the good and great things that we are doing for our Scottish islands, including Orkney and Shetland.
Liam McArthur started what I thought was a generally ungracious and unfair contribution—it is not like him to make such speeches—by talking about promises. I find it difficult to take a lecture about keeping promises from the Lib Dems, but nonetheless I will soldier on.
This Government’s current priority and its 2016 manifesto commitment—its promise—was to reduce ferry fares on services between the Scottish mainland and Orkney and Shetland. In line with that commitment, on 22 August this year I announced that ferry fares to Orkney and Shetland will be significantly reduced in the first half of 2018. I know that Liam McArthur and his colleagues will welcome that.
Fare reductions will be delivered on ferry services between the mainland and the northern isles in the first half of 2018 through the roll-out of road-equivalent tariff and an RET variant, which will see foot passenger fares cut by an average of more than 40 per cent, while car fares will be reduced by an average of more than 30 per cent on the Pentland Firth routes and the routes from Aberdeen to Kirkwall and Lerwick.
We are also taking forward real, tangible, practical measures in our Islands (Scotland) Bill, which is committed to improving outcomes for everyone who lives and works on our islands. Evidence of that can be found in the suite of commitments contained in the bill.
Taking this year’s local government finance settlement, plus the additional £160 million announced on 2 February and other sources of support available through the actual and potential increases in council tax income, and the support through health and social care integration, the overall increase in spending power to support local authority services amounts to more than £400 million, or 3.9 per cent in cash terms.
I will make some progress first.
Liam McArthur is right that those who live on the islands have specific and special needs. There is of course the special islands needs allowance—Orkney Islands Council receives £5.8 million and Shetland Islands Council receives £5.7 million. I will take an intervention from Graham Simpson.
You are right, as always, Presiding Officer.
I could not help laughing when the minister said that local government had been treated fairly. The revenue budget for local government has gone down year on year. Thirty thousand jobs have been cut across local government since the Government came to power and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has said that it needs £540 million just to stand still. How is that treating local government fairly?
The member should not be laughing, because it is his party colleagues down in Westminster who are reducing the resource budget by £500 million over the next two years.
Let me stick to the issue at hand, if I can. I stress that Orkney Islands Council and Shetland Islands Council are currently responsible for their internal ferry services. We have never pledged to automatically assume responsibility for those services. Only last week, Orkney Islands Council changed its position, and instead of asking for a top-up I understand that it is requesting the transfer of responsibility, a decision that Tavish Scott seems to have described as “puzzling”.
The discussions that we have had with both councils have been extremely constructive—and those are not just my words. Derek Mackay and I chaired a meeting with the council leaders, and the leader of Shetland Islands Council, Cecil Smith, said that it was the most positive meeting that he had had and that it was extremely constructive. James Stockan, the leader of Orkney Islands Council, also described our meetings as extremely positive.
On the Scottish Government’s responsibilities, Liam McArthur mischaracterises the commitments that the Government has made. The Government has promised to engage constructively on the transfer of responsibilities. Let me quote from the “Scottish Ferry Services: Ferries Plan (2013-2022)”. In paragraph 27 of chapter 2, on page 12, it says:
“Agreement would also have to be reached about the levels of capital funding that would form part of any transfer of infrastructure taking account of its current condition and future investment requirement.”
On page 52, it says:
“Ultimately, however, it may not always be agreed that a transfer of responsibility goes ahead. In addition, the Scottish Government cannot guarantee to be in a position to provide any additional funding.”
The commitment is absolutely there to engage in meaningful dialogue and conversation.
There is a window of opportunity for Liberal Democrat members of the Scottish Parliament. Either they can engage positively in the budget, have a discussion about this important issue and side with their constituents, or they can play party politics. I look forward to hearing what they have to say over the next eight days. In the meantime, this Government will continue to move forward with our ambitious plans for the islands, in relation to not just the ferry services that we fund but a range of other initiatives that we are taking forward for the wellbeing of our island communities.
I move amendment S5M-09379.2, to insert at end:
“; welcomes the Scottish Government’s plans to significantly reduce fares on ferry services between the mainland and the Northern Isles in the first half of 2018 through the roll-out of Road Equivalent Tariff (RET), and an RET variant, which will see foot passenger fares cut by an average of more than 40%, while car fares will be reduced by an average of more than 30% on the Pentland Firth routes and the routes from Aberdeen to Kirkwall and Lerwick; notes that the Scottish Government is committed to improving outcomes for everyone who lives and works on all Scotland’s islands and that the measures in the Islands (Scotland) Bill will ensure that there is a sustained focus across government and the public sector to meet the needs of island communities, and notes the continuing constructive dialogue between the Scottish Government and representatives of Orkney Islands Council and Shetland Islands Council over the principle of fair funding for the provision of ferries and ferry infrastructure.”
I welcome the opportunity to debate this issue in the chamber. From my home on the mainland of Orkney I can watch the MV Hoy Head, the ferry that serves the islands of Hoy and Flotta, travel across the waters of Scapa Flow, carrying people to and from the islands, as it does every day and in all weathers.
For those of us who live in Scotland’s island communities, ferries are our lifeline. That is why, to many of us in Orkney and Shetland, the discussion around ferry funding strikes at the heart of fairness. The Scottish Government itself made a commitment to “fair” ferry funding. By implication, such a commitment means that the Scottish Government recognises that the existing situation is unfair. On numerous occasions, members from several Opposition parties have challenged the Scottish Government to outline its plans, but no response has been forthcoming.
We therefore come to the Parliament today to seek clarity on a pledge that the Scottish Government itself made. Liam McArthur’s motion and his speech have encapsulated that well. He pointed to some of the occasions on which commitments to “fair funding” have been made and repeated. Those pledges are longstanding.
I am afraid that I will not. The minister has had ample opportunity to make the position known.
Above all, it is the councils and the people of Orkney and Shetland who deserve clarity. That is what I have been seeking from ministers throughout the process. We know that action on the commitment has been moving at a snail’s pace—if it has moved at all. More than that—
More than that, we barely know what the commitment means or how the Scottish Government intends to deliver on it.
Let me give an illustration of the Scottish Government’s approach in recent months. When I raised the issue with cabinet secretary Fergus Ewing in the chamber on 2 November, he chose to answer a question about the ferries that run between the mainland of Scotland and the northern isles.
Today’s Scottish Government amendment seeks to do the same: to distract attention from the issue at hand—the need for clarity on fair funding of the islands’ internal ferries—by trying to focus on the ferries that run between the mainland of Scotland and the Northern Isles.
I then sought clarity from the transport minister by writing to him on 6 November. I received an acknowledgment on 16 November and today, 6 December, I am still awaiting a substantive reply.
Those who live on the islands that make up the Northern Isles deserve reliable ferry services that will be sustainable into the future. Those services are vital, lifeline connections that serve communities where alternative transport options are often either not available or prohibitively expensive.
The economic and social benefits that the internal ferries bring to the islands cannot be overstated. They are used by the farmer or crofter to take his produce to the mart; by companies that rely on the ferry to export their products or services; by the general practitioner to reach patients or connected practices; by the elderly person who frequently crosses to access medical services or whose carers travel to provide services to those they look after on the islands; and by children and young people who travel daily to access secondary education, college or apprenticeships.
This is not simply about transport. It is about ensuring that our islands have vibrant and diverse communities—communities with a long-term future.
I am just in my last bit.
Over the years, we have heard much from the Scottish Government about the sustainability of rural and remote communities. Yet here, where they could put action behind their rhetoric, we get only delay and distraction.
Orkney and Shetland are a long way from Edinburgh, and their interests often seem drowned out against the cacophony of larger and louder and closer mainland local authorities, but the Northern Isles authorities have done the right thing. They have worked together. They have worked with opposition parties and those of us who represent them. They have lobbied Government. [
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
They have made their case and they have brought it to the attention of this Parliament and Government, aided by those of us from the islands who recognise only too well the importance of their case. They deserve to be heard and they and the people of Orkney and Shetland whom they represent deserve to be told the Scottish Government’s plans on an issue that is of vital importance to their islands’ future.
Now is the opportunity for the Scottish Government to provide clarity on how it intends to meet its commitment to “fair ferry funding”, to recognise the potentially devastating impact of its obfuscation on the issue and to accept the vital, lifeline nature of Orkney and Shetland internal ferries.
I move amendment S5M-09379.1, to insert at end:
“, and recognises that these are vital lifeline links, which provide considerable social and economic benefits to the communities that they serve.”
The debate is about two important and related issues: how the Scottish Government funds local government and how the interisland ferry services in Orkney and Shetland are funded and provided.
Humza Yousaf said that local government has been fairly funded and then commented that people laughed, but that was because that was a laughable statement. Since 2011, £1.5 billion has been stripped out of council budgets. Right now, councils across Scotland are preparing for another round of cuts that is still to come. Local authorities have already had to find £1.4 billion of efficiency savings since 2012, resulting in the loss of 15,000 full-time equivalent staff across Scotland.
I do not know whether Mr Mason has been paying attention over the past couple of years. Scottish Labour has been making the argument for using the powers of the Scottish Parliament to raise revenue to invest in local services. He really should keep up.
He should also keep up with what COSLA is saying. As has already been mentioned, it needs £545 million more just to stand still. That should come as no surprise to John Mason or to the Scottish Government, because they have been warned time and again that their cuts to councils cannot be sustained.
For Orkney and Shetland, there are substantial additional costs and liabilities associated with providing interisland ferry services. Scottish Labour, and indeed the Scottish Government, I think, do not believe that those costs and liabilities should put Orkney and Shetland at a disadvantage—that is part of the Liberal Democrat motion—because cuts to councils are cuts to local communities.
Is Neil Bibby aware that the negotiations on local government finance take place in partnership with local government? Whatever one thinks about the quantum, distribution is a matter of joint agreement between the Scottish Government and COSLA. The distribution methodology is changed only if I have an approach from COSLA. Is Neil Bibby suggesting that my decision is unilateral, rather than made in the traditional manner by engaging with local government on distribution?
I am saying that councils should be properly and fairly funded; I am saying that Orkney and Shetland should be fairly funded for their lifeline ferry services. The cabinet secretary must take cognisance of the situation because Orkney Islands Council and Shetland Islands Council are warning him—and us—that unless they receive additional funds, their lifeline services could be cut.
Orkney and Shetland councils are in a unique position. Across Scotland, ferry services that are publicly owned through Transport Scotland attract significantly more funding. We know from Orkney Islands Council that, in 2016-17, there was a funding shortfall of £2.8 million, which is £381,000 more than its ferry service budget. On top of that, the nine vessels in the Orkney Ferries fleet have a combined age of 258 years, which is an average age of nearly 29 years. An ageing fleet requires repairs and replacement and it is extremely difficult to see how that will be done without an impact on services.
There are also pay issues. There is a pay dispute between Orkney Ferries and the recognised trade unions, RMT, Nautilus UK and Unite, after members rejected the employer’s latest pay offer. The dispute should be resolved but is unlikely to be resolved while working to the current budget.
The transport minister is well aware of all these issues. He has made much of the road equivalent tariff announcement, but he is yet to address the huge capital costs for new vessels and repairs, which is leaving the Orkney and Shetland councils in limbo. The Scottish National Party’s amendment provides no clarity; it simply refers to on-going talks
Providing the additional funding needed to run an appropriate ferry service, which is estimated to be £11.2 million a year, might only be a short-term solution. As the RMT points out, serious consideration must be given to the inclusion of interisland ferry services in a redrawn contract for northern isles ferry services from October 2019. That option should be assessed as part of the Scottish Government’s on-going ferry law review.
The question remains: when will the Scottish Government make good on its promises? We do not seem to have a firm commitment or, indeed, an answer from Humza Yousaf; we do not seem to have that from Derek Mackay either.
Today, we have no decision from the Government on the funding of a major lifeline for the people of Orkney and Shetland. The people of Orkney and Shetland need and deserve certainty about the future financing of the ferry services. Promises have been made; now it is time to deliver. The Scottish Labour Party will support the motion in Liam McArthur’s name.
The motion that we are debating is straightforward. Every MSP in the chamber should be able to support it at decision time. Why am I suggesting that every MSP should be able to support it? All that the motion does is ask the Scottish Government, in particular Derek Mackay, the finance minister, to honour the commitments already made to the Orkney and Shetland islanders.
I have just started. I am glad to see Derek Mackay in the chamber—it is good to see him here. He knows that, when he was the transport minister, his response to a parliamentary question from my colleague
Liam McArthur, which bears repeating, was:
“provision of transport services should not place a disproportionate financial burden on any council, particularly with reference to revenue support for ferry services”.—[
, 26 November 2014; c 12.]
However, as I understand it—and there is an opportunity now to correct me if I am wrong—Mr
Mackay has appeared to abandon that commitment as he does not intend including the funding in next week’s budget.
I recently visited Orkney with the other members of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee. We were there as part of the process of taking evidence on stage 1 the Scottish Government’s Islands (Scotland) Bill.
There is much to be said for the islands bill, but there is a real concern among islanders that if it becomes an act of Parliament, it may not lead to real change and may just be warm words. However, the Scottish Government could signal right now that it intends to promote real change for island life by supporting the motion.
If you say that you will support the motion and give islanders the money, I will be happy to do that. Obviously, if you are not going to do that, you can sit down.
Judging by its amendment, it would seem that the Scottish Government wants to wriggle out of its commitments, but that will not work. Its amendment deserves to be defeated. It should be seen for what it is—a poor attempt to pull the wool. The Government does not even have the courage to attempt to change the Liberal Democrat motion. The cabinet secretary and the minister know that if they were in the right—[
The minister and the cabinet secretary obviously do not want to do that and, therefore, they do not want to honour the commitments that they have made. They have the opportunity now and I have invited them several times to do so but they will not.
If they were in the right, they would have tried to amend our motion. They are simply trying to dodge the issue yet again—and we have seen it on the front bench—by trying to swamp the motion with other issues.
There is no wriggle room. If the Parliament supports the motion, then the obvious next step for the Government would be to include a financial provision in next week’s budget to honour the pledges that it has made. Words must be followed by action. If the Scottish Government continues to talk the talk but not walk the walk, then it is not just the people of the Orkney and Shetland islands that will notice—this will have repercussions throughout Scotland.
As this was headlined as a finance debate, for good measure, I remind the chamber that I am the parliamentary liaison officer to the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution, who is present. This is clearly a debate of significant interest to him—if anybody will let him intervene.
As an MSP for island communities, I share much of the sentiment of Liam McArthur’s motion and agree with the points that he made about our constituents’ dependence on lifeline routes. I firmly believe that rural residents should have access to equitably priced products and services, which is why I am speaking in the debate. I will happily thank anybody who brings forward debates on matters of importance to the people of the Highlands and Islands, because the principles of equity and fair funding are especially acute when it comes to transport. A ferry fare is an extra cost that is always tacked on to a holiday, an educational trip, a hospital visit, a shopping trip or a visit to spend time with family and friends.
The Scottish Government evidently gets that, too, as the minister is honouring the promise in our manifesto to reduce ferry fares on services to Orkney and Shetland, as he has reduced fares for my west coast constituents. In advance of the roll-out of the RET, in early 2018, which is not far away, and an RET variant on routes from Aberdeen to Kirkwall and Lerwick, I can say unequivocally that the tariff has made a tremendous difference to my island-based constituents because ferry fares have plummeted. The RET will, no doubt, make just as much of a difference to the constituents of Mr McArthur and Mr Scott, which is good news. It was the SNP that delivered the RET on the west coast routes, and it will be the SNP that will slash fares on the northern isles routes. That will be a promise delivered.
It is budget time again, which is not just my favourite time of the year but an opportunity for every party. Clearly and understandably, internal ferry fares continue to be of concern to people in Orkney and Shetland, but the cabinet secretary is in the chamber and he is listening. With the obvious caveat that internal ferries are a matter for councils, there is no better time than the week before the Scottish Government publishes its budget to discuss spending priorities.
The more support that there is for the Highlands and Islands, the better.
I agree with Liam McArthur, but I have a question for him. If the money for internal ferry fares was in the budget, would he vote for it or would he vote against it as he and his colleagues voted against the extra funding for education, broadband, house building and further empowerment of island communities in last year’s budget?
Every party in this chamber has the opportunity to deliver actual, real and tangible change by working with the cabinet secretary on the budget. Ultimately, the question for the Liberal Democrats and every other member who has spoken on the motion is whether, when it comes to the issue of internal ferry fares in the budget, their priority will be their party or their constituency.
For many thousands of people who live in our island and coastal communities, ferry transportation is a vital resource for day-to-day living. Whether we are talking about going to work or school, improving economic activity, the movement of goods and services or delivering public services such as policing and healthcare, ferries are of the utmost relevance in discussions about improving the lives of those in island and rural communities. That is not to mention the massive boost that the many thousands of tourists provide each year to local economies. The benefit of the ferry services is clear to see.
I was pleased to read in Audit Scotland’s report, which was published in October, that, last year, among the ferry services that it considered and after accounting for adverse weather, 99.7 per cent of scheduled sailings took place and 99.6 per cent of those sailings were on time. That record is better than ScotRail’s, and I pay tribute to all those who work tirelessly to maintain such high performance standards throughout the year.
The finance secretary has made a commitment to what he describes as fair funding. Although such a commitment is admirable, I am not alone in recognising that there are questions to ask about its implementation. Indeed, the joint statement from the leaders of Orkney Islands Council and Shetland Islands Council explained that, without an appropriate resolution, it is almost certain that ferry services will have to be reduced. One cannot overstate how grave the consequences of that would be for our island communities. Therefore, we need much more clarity from the Scottish Government on how it intends to address the issue and prevent the sustainability of service provision from being called into question.
I also note the disparity in funding mechanisms between the ferry transport that is provided to the Western Isles and that which is provided in the north of Scotland. Services to Orkney and Shetland are designated as non-subsidised ferry services, but their equivalents in the west are subsidised by Transport Scotland without any need for local authority involvement.
No. The minister will have his say later.
We cannot say that such a situation is close to fair. The finance secretary needs to set out clearly his approach to that fundamental issue in determining whether the funding settlement is truly fair and equitable to all who rely on the services across Scotland. Unfortunately, until now, the silence from the Scottish Government has been deafening. Those communities and their lifeline services deserve better than the delaying tactics that we have seen all too often from ministers.
Those communities deserve fair access to the opportunities that our economy can provide, and working with the island councils to address sustainability issues would be a good first step.
Although the Scottish Government’s commitments on the funding of ferry transportation are welcome, I am concerned that delivery has simply not matched the rhetoric. I hope that the finance secretary will take on board the legitimate issues that the Parliament and stakeholders have identified and return with a solution that properly satisfies every stakeholder.
I am grateful to the Liberal Democrats for bringing the issue up for debate. It is not new. Indeed, I have written to the Scottish Government on many occasions over the years about this looming problem, which is getting more and more serious as time passes.
I therefore find it incredibly cynical of the Scottish Government to respond by telling MSPs to back the Government’s budget, after which it will see what it will do. If that is not playing party politics, I really do not know what is.
Nothing that I have heard to date leads me to believe that the Scottish budget will be anything other than catastrophic for the islands and the rest of Scotland. So much for the pledge that the
“provision of transport services should not place a disproportionate financial burden on any council, particularly with reference to revenue support for ferry services.”
The same Government is taking the Islands (Scotland) Bill through the Parliament to ensure that island communities are not disadvantaged and, on the other hand, is refusing to treat the islands equally.
The Scottish Government-owned ferry company provides interisland services for most other council areas. It provides them between the Argyll islands and the mainland, and it provides interisland services in the Western Isles.
Does the member acknowledge that Argyll and Bute Council funds the Islay to Jura and Seil, Easdale and Lismore services; that Highland Council funds several internal ferry services, including the Corran ferry; and that Strathclyde Partnership for Transport funds the Gourock-Kilgreggan service? Orkney and Shetland are not the only councils to fund internal ferry services.
That was not a short intervention. If Mr Yousaf had been listening to me, he would know that I said “most”, not “all”. It is clear that an awful lot of interisland ferry services are funded by the Government.
The ferries that are in service in Orkney and Shetland are old and long past the time for replacement. Frankly, they are not fit for purpose, and some of them do not even have adequate disability access, yet the Scottish Government refuses to help. Had it intervened earlier, we would not now have such an urgent problem. Surely, it would make sense for Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd, which provides ferries to other councils, to provide ferries to Orkney and Shetland. At the very least, that would provide economies of scale and the ability to share ferries when there were problems. In other council areas, CalMac also runs ferry services, and that could be replicated throughout all our islands.
The wages that are paid to staff on the interisland ferries are out of line with those that are paid for similar jobs elsewhere. They are significantly lower than the wages that are paid by CalMac to its staff for providing similar services, and I understand that there is real concern that ferry workers will take industrial action because of that. No one disputes that they are underpaid compared to others who are doing a similar job, but the councils tell us that they do not have the resources to pay them fairly.
The Government amendment refers to services between Orkney and Shetland and the mainland, but there are also concerns about freight costs and the capacity to transport freight from the northern isles to the mainland. Although passenger fares have been reduced, other costs are rising, including those for freight and for access to berths for the ferries. In reality, that is a tax on every islander and the goods coming from the islands. If the Scottish Government is committed to supporting island communities, it must take the lead and provide them with a level playing field, redressing the disadvantage that living on an island creates.
Cuts in local government funding by the Scottish Government are making the situation worse. Therefore, it would be much more fitting for the Scottish Government, rather than posturing, to honour its previous promises and find a way of providing high-quality interisland ferry services for people living on those islands. Failure to do that would show that the Government has no interest in island proofing or supporting our islands, only in providing warm words and little action. The Scottish Government needs to honour its commitment to the northern isles.
I declare an interest as a member of the RMT parliamentary group. I thank Lib Dem colleagues for lodging the motion, and I thank various people for their briefings, not least my hard-working Green colleague Councillor Steve Sankey.
We do not live in an equal world, and to treat people equally and fairly does not mean that we treat them the same. However, on the ferries issue, we have neither equality nor similarity. The Scottish Green Party will support the motion at decision time. Nevertheless, I say to the minister that I do not know what the maritime equivalent of the long grass is, but that is how the Scottish Government amendment appears to us.
There are a number of ferries issues for me, as a representative of the Highlands and Islands. There is the issue of the Corran ferry, which has been alluded to, as has the issue of the Kilcreggan ferry, and there are the aspirations of people in Dunoon regarding the ferry there. However, the big difference with those routes is that none of them is a lifeline route. We will therefore support the Conservative amendment, which refers to recognising that those routes
“are vital lifeline links, which provide considerable social and economic benefits to the communities that they serve.”
We must not lose sight of that fact.
Both Orkney and Shetland councils want what is best. I have met the convener and leader, and I know that there is consideration of the transfer to Transport Scotland. If that ultimately happens and it is adequately funded, that will be good, but that is not what the Scottish Green Party would like to see. Local operation of those ferries by the local authorities is the appropriate way forward.
Not for the first time, I will talk about £6 billion of expenditure on two roads and £0.75 billion of expenditure on the M8. Government is about decisions and choices, and politics is about choices. With regard to the dualling of the A9 and the A96, the minister enjoys the support of all the other parties in the Parliament but he does not enjoy my support.
I will compare and contrast the options. Travel between our capital city and our largest city has a number of rail options, a subsidy for the bus service and a subsidy for the road—we have to start thinking in those terms. However, when a person on Hoy or Whalsay goes to the mainland of the islands, the local authority pays for that. Someone suggested that Highland Council should utilise the common good fund for road building—I take that as a tongue-in-cheek suggestion. There is no parity or equality.
It would be churlish not to acknowledge what has been said about the northern isles and the mainland ferries. However, the issue is choices, and there are important factors such as the suitability of the fleet, which Rhoda Grant alluded to. I find it distinctly embarrassing that a ferry that is not compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 is being operated in the public sector in Scotland.
There is a lot of talk about the building of military vessels and options for the construction of ferries. I thought that the Raasay ferry, which is plugged in and uses renewable energy at night, might be an option, but I am told that it would be unsuitable for the waters between the Orkney islands. I had better get the terminology right. Hydro, hybrids and hydrogen for the Orkney ferries, with electricity from the turbines in Westray, Rowsay and Shapinsay—what could be better than that?
There are decisions to be made, and I hope that they will meet all the interests and reasonable aspirations of the residents of the northern isles.
I want to state how important islands are to Scotland. I am a mainland MSP—in fact, I am a city MSP—but I love the islands. We have a responsibility as a country, including the central belt of Scotland, to ensure that our islands and other remote areas are in a healthy state. That is not just a duty or a responsibility. We all benefit from Scotland having so many islands; they are a key part of our heritage as a country and they are part of what defines us as a nation.
It was a bit sneaky of the Lib Dems to call this debate a finance debate and then focus on internal island ferry services. We should maybe call every debate a finance debate on the grounds that there will always be a financial angle to anything and everything that we discuss here. However, I am happy to take part in this debate for two reasons. First, I have a personal interest in islands and I have used internal island ferries to visit Yell, Unst, Bressay, Fair Isle, Hoy, Rousay, Shapinsay, Westray and Papa Westray, if memory serves me correctly—I might have missed one. Secondly, as Mike Rumbles said, the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, of which I am a member, has visited islands in recent months and has visited Orkney.
The bill is fairly high level, but on the islands that we visited, transport was the main topic to be raised with us by local folk on every occasion, and on Orkney that certainly included the issue of interisland services. When travel to the mainland is taken into account, it is clearly more expensive to live on islands, and that extra cost increases again for those who live on an island other than the main island. One example that we heard was that of a youngster from Rousay who wanted to play rugby in Kirkwall, but had to stay there overnight in a bed and breakfast because the ferries did not run late enough.
When I was in Shetland, I found the ferry fares pretty inexpensive and I was amazed at how little it cost me to get a boat to Fair Isle. However, I accept that the ferry journey is only part of the journey and, if other transport is needed, the costs start to mount up. I thank Orkney Islands Council for its briefing, and I think that we all accept that the islands face financial challenges on ferries.
The suggestion that the Scottish Government could take over all ferry services in return for a reduced grant to the island councils should be considered, and it sounds attractive on the surface. However, the downside might be a loss of local control. For example, we heard dissatisfaction in Mull that there was no direct ferry to Coll and Tiree, despite their close proximity, so that lack of local control would need to be considered.
When we think of ferries in Scotland other than those that are run by CalMac or NorthLink, it is important that we remember council-run and independently run ferries—some of which are lifeline services—because if money is to be found for Orkney and Shetland, it has to be found for those other services, too.
On finance, island authorities get more per head than mainland authorities, and rightly so. If there is to be extra money for island ferries, it has to come from somewhere and there have not been many suggestions this afternoon about where it would come from.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this afternoon’s Liberal Democrat debate and to speak in support of the Lib Dem motion.
In many ways, it is quite a straightforward debate. The Lib Dems have, in essence, made a demand that the Government must honour previously made commitments about fair funding of ferry services to Orkney and Shetland, and the debate should be about whether Parliament accepts that demand. It is a reasonable demand and the reason that it has been made is that, as members from all parties have acknowledged, ferries play an important part in the country not only in terms of links between the mainland and islands and between islands, but in supporting local people and local economies. As Neil Bibby pointed out, there are 20,000 sailings per year carrying 320,000 passengers to Orkney alone, which shows the scale of the operation.
The Government’s response, as Rhoda Grant noted, has been particularly disappointing, and its amendment to the motion wanders around a whole lot of other issues. It is as if the minister, Humza Yousaf, is auditioning for a role at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, because he tells a number of stories rather than dealing with the issue that the Lib Dems have brought to the chamber. There is an element of disappointment for us in that and it shows how the Government goes about business. As Liam McArthur said, the issue goes back to June 2014, when the former First Minister visited the islands and made that promise.
Who does James Kelly think is better positioned to say what the content of those meetings was: the politicians who are trying to score cheap political points, or the member of the Government who was in the room every step of the way in negotiating the position with council leaders, who are very satisfied with the progress that they are making? The question that the council leaders have is about why their constituency members are letting them down.
The fact of the matter, as Liam McArthur said, is that the proposal was outlined on two occasions, first by Alex Salmond in June 2014 and then later in the year by Derek Mackay himself, when he committed to a fair funding settlement. If he is challenging that, let him get on his feet and tell us that he did not commit to a fair funding settlement.
What was committed to in the islands prospectus and in the subsequent manifestos on which this Government was elected, specifically on inter-island ferries, was that we would engage in meaningful negotiations with the councils, which is exactly what we have done. The question that the councils are asking is: why are their constituency members not supporting an insertion in the budget that they would support if it was put in the budget?
There is only one thing to say, Presiding Officer. There you have it—another SNP U-turn.
The Lib Dem MSPs, as I said at the start, have brought a simple demand to the chamber, and the SNP has simply tried to talk it out. Parliament and the people of the islands deserve better than that. They deserve respect and they deserve a fair funding settlement.
As the famous travel writer Henry Morton wrote,
“If you want to be really well known go to live in the most solitary place on earth! In an island there are no secrets.”
Scotland is a unique part of the UK in that we host the majority of our islands communities—communities that contribute to our economy, heritage and culture. Orkney and the Shetland Islands are unique in the Scottish landscape, too. Secrets there may not be, but there is one thing that local people will always want to talk about, and that is ferries. As we celebrate the unique contribution that those communities make to life in Scotland, let us not forget the unique challenges that they face. The issue of transportation to and from the mainland and interisland travel is much more than a blether over a bitter in the bothy.
Today’s debate has illustrated quite well the social and economic importance of island connectivity. Getting from A to B affects tourism, inward migration, repopulation, access to economic markets and access to education, health and social care. How we approach ferry infrastructure and funding is arguably the most striking part of how we look after our islands.
The motion is an important one because it asks the Scottish Government for greater transparency on its plans for fair funding. The Scottish Government committed to the principle of fair funding, but little detail has been given since the position was outlined in “Empowering Scotland’s Island Communities” three years ago.
My colleague Jamie Halcro Johnston said that the issue is not simply about transport. It is about the preservation, and indeed the cultivation, of the diverse communities on our islands. We do not often talk about the importance of interisland trading, but we know that it is hampered if there is no way to transport goods and people from one island to another. Tom Mason illustrated that well when he talked about the potential impact of reducing interisland services.
When summing up, I like to include constructive contributions from across the chamber, and I had reserved a page in my speech for constructive SNP contributions. The blank page that I am holding up speaks for itself. We have heard nothing but excuse after excuse after excuse.
As a member for the West Scotland region, I know the enormous difficulties that island residents experience when services are disrupted. That is why we have added specific wording in our amendment to stress the fact that those ferry services are “lifeline links”. It seems an obvious statement to make but, alongside aviation, ferries remain the vital connector. Despite being paramount to the future of our island communities, Scotland’s ferries are suffering from a severe lack of direction, as was noted by Audit Scotland, which recently said that to date there has been no Scotland-wide ferries strategy.
Transparency is critical, and that is the basis of the Lib Dem motion. The Scottish Government should lay out its proposals, both for the future structuring of Scottish ferry routes and for their funding.
I am in my final minute. Perhaps the minister can respond in his summing up.
In 2016, Transport Scotland announced a Scottish transport appraisal guidance-style report on internal ferries. To my knowledge, no conclusions have been publicly released. Perhaps the minister can explain why. Island residents, ferry operators and businesses deserve to have clarity over their future so that they can plan ahead. Local authorities, which are already challenged by budgets, also require certainty. We share OIC’s and SIC’s concerns.
The Scottish Government has made public commitments about ferry funding. The Lib Dem motion asks it to set out how it intends to honour them. We support that motion and we await the Government’s response with bated breath.
I stress once again that the Government’s priority and promise was to reduce ferry fares on services from the Scottish mainland to Orkney and Shetland, in line with our 2016 manifesto commitment. This might be novel to a number of parties, including the Lib Dems, but we intend to honour the commitments and promises in our manifesto. That is exactly what we have done.
Let us address the central issue, because time is short. Mike Rumbles said that we could fix the issue next week, and the Liberal Democrat constituency members for Orkney and Shetland said that it is all about finance. Let us make it clear right here and now: will they intervene to tell me whether, if money for internal ferries for Orkney and Shetland is in the budget in eight days’ time, they will support it? [
.] Will they support it? They can intervene. [
.] There is complete and utter silence from the Liberal Democrats, who put their party position ahead of their constituencies. [
That was not an answer to the question whether he would vote for it if it was in the budget. That tells us everything, and it will not play well in Orkney or Shetland.
Let us talk about some of the other issues that were mentioned. It was somehow suggested that Orkney Islands Council and Shetland Islands Council are treated unfairly—they are not treated similarly to other local authorities. I record once again that it is not only Orkney Islands Council and Shetland Islands Council that fund internal ferry services. Argyll and Bute Council funds a number of internal ferry services, as does Highland Council and, as we have heard in the chamber before, SPT funds the Gourock-Kilcreggan route.
I will address the central point about what was promised and committed to. We have a trio of transport ministers on the front bench. At least a couple of us have been involved in the discussions, and were involved as recently as a couple of weeks ago. As we sat in that conversation with the leaders of Orkney Islands Council and Shetland Islands Council, Derek Mackay and I promised to continue constructive dialogue. The response from the leader of Shetland Islands Council, Cecil Smith, as reported in
The Shetland News online—members can check this—was this:
“I am more optimistic than I have ever been before”.
He said of Derek Mackay that
“He took all that on board, and I think the meeting has been more positive than” he could have thought. The dialogue continues constructively. The only people who are playing party politics with the matter are the Liberal Democrats.
We say that clearly in the ferries plan. I have already quoted page 12, and paragraph 4 on page 52. We promise constructive dialogue but, ultimately, the responsibility for fair funding lies with Orkney Islands Council or Shetland Islands Council. I do not understand how Jamie Greene has not a tad of shame for standing there and demanding that we spend more while his party cuts taxes and cuts the Scottish Government’s budget by £500 million over the next two years.
We will continue with the great initiatives that we are implementing for island communities: fulfilment of our manifesto commitment to reduce ferry fares from the mainland to Orkney and Shetland; the establishment of the islands housing fund, which is helping to tackle depopulation across the islands; and the introduction of the historic Islands (Scotland) Bill, about which some members have been rather negative, which surprises me because it is viewed positively on the islands where I have travelled. We will also continue the constructive dialogue with the leaders of Orkney Islands Council and Shetland Islands Council.
In my final remarks, I say to Liam McArthur and Tavish Scott once again that they can side with their constituencies and engage positively, as the leaders of Shetland Islands Council and Orkney Islands Council have done, or they can choose to play party politics. I sincerely hope that they choose to engage positively.
Our collective ambition is to see our island communities thrive. We will continue to move forward with that ambition: I hope that other political parties will join us in doing that.
After that performance, I can say that I could not be anything like as good at playing party politics as Derek Mackay and Humza Yousaf are.
Michael Anderson’s boat, Guardian Angel, will land boxes of whitefish at Cullivoe in Yell this week. His catch is trucked to Lerwick and finishes up in French and Spanish markets. His haddock and cod, which are part of Shetland’s annual £300 million-worth of seafood exports, are exported because of the interisland ferries. Those ferries carry people, freight and fish to the Shetland mainland. Only then can those exports be ferried to Aberdeen and beyond. To those who ask why Parliament is debating local ferries this afternoon, that is the answer. Government cannot talk about a food and drink strategy unless the food that makes up such a strategy—including fish, salmon and mussels—can get to the market, and that happens because of interisland ferries.
As Liam McArthur has explained—as our motion explains—nationalist ministers have accepted their financial responsibility, but what they have not done is pay. Ferries have become part of the usual nationalist game. Who can they find to take the blame? Messrs Mackay and Yousaf have spent the past four years telling isles’ councillors that all will be well. They have layered on the charm and the doublespeak. We have heard a lot this afternoon about the never-ending discussions with the island councils.
However, I will now present the reality—not the spin from the Government front bench. In addition to the Salmond visit in 2014, which Liam McArthur talked about, there was the November 2014 joint statement that was agreed by the then transport minister that set a target of having a fair funding position resolved by the middle of 2015. The crux example is this: on 10 March 2016, the leaders of the councils received a letter from the minister confirming the understanding of that financial ask, acknowledging the urgency of it and committing to reaching a fair funding position within five to six months of that date. What bit of that has the Government not answered? What bit of that has the Government misled the leaders of our councils about?
Finally, the councils have advised me that information on that financial ask has been presented by Transport Scotland to ministers as part of its budget proposal for 2017-18. I do not think that matters can be much clearer than that. The discussions are over: there are no more discussions to be had. The Government knows exactly what it needs to do and it should accept—
I agree with the leader of Orkney Islands Council, and I ask Parliament to do the same.
Next Thursday will be another acid test of another nationalist policy—in this case, island proofing. That means the Government ensuring that whatever it does takes into account the needs of islands. I agree with that approach, which is a sensible one. However, Derek Mackay cannot love the principle and then sell out on the practice, but that is what he is going to do next week.
This Government funds many other local ferries across Scotland, as many members have noted. It is right for those members to continue to make that case. Our argument is that much of the case that we have made today applies equally to other areas. All that investment would be absolutely fine if we had a level sea and a calm and evidence-based approach to ferries policy. However, as always, the SNP is playing politics with people’s livelihoods. Fishermen, fish farmers and other businesspeople in the outer islands of Orkney and Shetland deserve the same support as those in other areas. They do not deserve to be discriminated against; they deserve to be recognised for their commitment to the wider Scottish economy.
I ask Parliament to vote for the motion in the name of Liam McArthur instead of kicking the issue into the deepest part of the North Sea, which is what will happen if the Government amendment is voted for today. If Liam McArthur’s motion wins today, Derek Mackay should accept the will of Parliament and do what he promised to do in 2016 and make the payment to the councils.
My final point is something that people in the islands feel incredibly strongly about. I say this to Mr Yousaf, to Mr Mackay, and to every minister. When a part of Scotland does not vote for the SNP and rejects independence, that is not a reason for political, economic or financial discrimination. Read the ministerial code! Read the ministerial code! You are there to deliver for all of Scotland! [