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Ferries

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

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Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

As other members have said, it is impossible to overestimate the importance to my island constituency and others of CalMac and the services that it provides. Everything in the island economies depends, in one way or another, on its vessels.

It is true that not everything is as it should—or could—be with our ferry services. However, in the past decade, we have seen many improvements. I am afraid that that is a fact about which Mr Greene seems to be unaware. As Mr Gibson said, the introduction of RET was revolutionary. We have come a long way from the days when the Western Isles MP Donald Stewart was a lonely voice in the House of Commons when he advocated it. The present Scottish Government has doubled, in real terms, the amount of money that is invested in ferry services. That has been necessary to deal with the previous decade of chronic underinvestment, during which, as other members have pointed out, virtually no major vessels were built.

However, there are challenges, which it would be remiss of me not to mention. Compared with the figures from a decade ago, ferries to the Western Isles now deal with an astonishing 184,000 additional passenger journeys every year. The number of visitors that we now host in May is typically what we would previously have expected to see in July, which is a good thing. It is also a fantastic tribute to the work that the tourist industry and others have done in making the Western Isles a must-visit destination for a huge range of tourists.

That obviously puts strain on the network, the negative effects of which are felt predominantly by islanders who are trying to get on and off the islands at short notice. Although local people are able to live with that on a few busy weekends, it is asking too much for them to accept it for the whole of the summer. It is clear that we need more capacity on routes to the Western Isles. We also need to listen to what islanders say about how to deal with capacity issues in the short term. Over the summer there were calls for measures such as reserving space for islanders or introducing staggered bookings, and it is right that CalMac should explore the feasibility of introducing those.

Meanwhile, the minister will be aware that one of the major issues that came out of the Uist ferry summit, which I hosted last year and at which he spoke, was the urgent need for CalMac to overhaul its ageing booking system, which regularly shows vessels as being full when they are not. I was encouraged to hear about progress on that front, so I would be grateful for any further information that the minister is able to provide today.

In the longer term, there are no easy solutions. The idea—I appreciate that it is a radical one—that some of CalMac’s routes could ultimately be replaced by tunnels is becoming more realistic as time goes on. It is certainly not a cheap option or one that is suitable for every route, but no option is cheap when it is looked at over the long term. It is worth while to look for lessons from other places, not least the Faroe Islands, and to have an open debate on the subject from time to time in this place.

Ultimately, everyone agrees that more capacity is needed on our island ferry routes. However, we should not be prepared to take lessons on the subject from the Conservative Party, whose interest in it is so fleeting that not a single mention of CalMac or indeed ferries was made in its most recent Holyrood manifesto. Indeed, a word search—I accept that it is only a word search—of all Tory manifestos that I can see since devolution in 1999 produces only two mentions of ferries, and one of them, in 2011, was to speculate where savings might be made in the provision of ferry services. That probably speaks for itself.