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Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 6th November 2019.

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Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

The Government’s record on providing ferry services has been abysmal. When the Loch Seaforth was built for the Stornoway to Ullapool route, the community wanted two smaller boats. That would have enabled more sailings in the summer and provided cover throughout the fleet in the winter for dry-dock maintenance. Instead, the Government gave the community one large vessel that does not provide sufficient capacity in the summer and sails half empty in the winter. The design also appears to be flawed, in that the cooling system left the flagship floundering in the Minch during the summer. The Loch Seaforth is a beautiful boat that can berth only in Stornoway, Ullapool or Oban. Therefore, if there is a problem in Stornoway harbour, it cannot operate at all. The community view has turned out to be right, and the Scottish Government’s view to be wrong.

Islands have been all but cut off by ferry breakdowns, which has caused huge inconvenience to our island communities. The people in Barra gave up and held a ceilidh on the pier instead. There is not enough capacity in the system to deal with breakdowns, or indeed with routine maintenance; that leads to inappropriate ferries on routes that they were not designed for, which leads in turn to more cancellations due to weather, because the ferries cannot cope. That problem arises especially in winter weather conditions—and winter is the time when most routine maintenance takes place. That is why many of the cancellations are down to the weather. We need boats that are fit for purpose on the routes at that time of year.

The Government brought in the RET, which is another flagship policy, but did so without providing any additional capacity. The very policy that was put in place to help islanders has had the effect of shutting them out of ferries. People who are travelling at short notice cannot get a place on the boat to make their journeys. People who need to get to hospital, to visit sick relatives and indeed to attend funerals find themselves unable to travel. Port staff do their utmost to help, but most people are now routed through a centralised call centre and so do not get to speak to them directly. The ferries are old and so break down, and there is no additional capacity on routes in the summer. Someone needs to measure all that unmet need. How can we plan ferry services for the future if we do not know the needs that are currently going unmet?

I turn to the MV Glen Sannox and hull 802 vessels, which the Government boasts about in its amendment. However, those two ferries are nearly two years overdue, and nowhere in its amendment does the Government provide dates for their completion. There needs to be an inquiry into that fiasco. Rumours abound about what has gone wrong; if they are to be believed, it appears that those vessels represent yet more vanity projects by the Scottish Government. Their design was not signed off and was subject to multiple changes. The fuel system is so innovative that it is rumoured to be highly inappropriate: it does not work even for the short journeys that are involved for those ferries and so will not provide the cut in carbon emissions that is sought. What on earth is going on? You could not make it up. It appears that the existence of such vanity projects means that Scottish taxpayers are paying much more than they need to for the new ferries that we desperately need.

None of this situation is the fault of the workforce at Ferguson’s, whose expertise is world renowned; it is down to the Scottish Government’s mismanagement. We now see delays happening on the northern isles ferry contract, too. Again, the Scottish Government appears to have shut out the lowest bidder. There are also concerns about capacity in the northern isles. They produce the bulk of our fish and a large amount of livestock, which means seasonal variations in freight needs. Will any of those needs be met? The cost of a cabin for the long journey to Shetland is prohibitive. People need to be comfortable when they travel such a distance, and the provision of that comfort should not depend on their ability to pay.

All that our island communities want are ferries and ferry services that are fit for purpose, meet their needs and are affordable.