The next northern isles contract will provide flexibility to allow for additional sailings and vessels to be made available to meet demand.
Transport Scotland regularly discusses freight services with the haulage and aquaculture sectors through established forums. That close engagement will continue, and we will review all mitigation options, including flexing timetables as and when appropriate, being mindful of the prevailing resource pressures.
Options for this year are being considered, and we will analyse all evidence and liaise with the operator to ensure that there is sufficient freight capacity to service the northern isles.
Last September, the First Minister assured me that the Government was committed to addressing the growing demand for additional freight capacity on the northern isles ferry routes to meet the needs of key sectors in the Orkney and Shetland economies.
Through freedom of information, we now know that Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd proposed the purchase or long-term charter of the Clipper Ranger to meet that need, with the vessel operating for four to five months on the northern isles routes and two months on the Ullapool to Stornoway route, and providing much-needed dry dock cover and resilience for the northern isles services. Will the minister explain to my constituents why no action appears to have been taken in response to that sensible proposal or to deliver on the assurance that Nicola Sturgeon gave me in the chamber last September?
Mr McArthur should acknowledge that we provided additional freight capacity last autumn to help the agriculture sector—we worked with local stakeholders to do that. It is inaccurate to present the Scottish Government and our agencies as not providing help.
We looked closely at the Clipper Ranger. Mr McArthur might have access to the freedom of information document, but not all the commercially sensitive information is in it, for understandable reasons that I am sure that he will appreciate. We looked closely at the vessel, and it did not represent a proper value-for-money transaction for the Scottish Government. It could only really have operated on the Ullapool to Stornoway route and in the northern isles, so, although I appreciate that that would have helped those communities, it did not represent good value for money.
We are keeping our options open and continue to look for vessels that could supplement the fleet. I am happy to meet Mr McArthur and Tavish Scott, who is also interested in the issue, to discuss what further action we could take.
The Scottish Government’s promise to reduce ferry fares on the northern isles routes is still tied up in legal action, leaving the islands facing yet another summer season without that long-standing issue being resolved. Has the minister spoken—or will he speak—to Government colleagues about whether the funding that was set aside to reduce fares, which cannot be used at the moment, could be deployed elsewhere to promote tourism on the islands, particularly to encourage out-of-season visitors?
I have engaged with Councillor Stockan of Orkney Islands Council on a number of occasions to discuss the issue that Mr Halcro Johnston raises. Although we are sympathetic to the idea that ferries are important to the development of the tourism economy of the Orkney and Shetland islands, and we are looking closely at what we can do to augment services where possible, we have to live carefully within state aid considerations.
Mr Halcro Johnston rightly mentioned that Pentland Ferries’ case against the Scottish ministers is subject to judicial review, so I cannot comment on it, but we have committed to introducing the road equivalent tariff, and we will deliver that, if we are able to do so.