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Ferries

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

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Photo of Paul Wheelhouse Paul Wheelhouse Scottish National Party

I will start where I had to finish in my opening remarks because of timing. We are responding to short-term challenges that have arisen in response to feedback from island communities. We have put in place an action plan, not least influenced by a meeting that I had with Kenneth Gibson and Michael Russell and local ferry committees, to better manage what ferry users can expect by way of customer service and information from the ferry operator when services are disrupted. Transport Scotland will work together with ferry operators to get that right for passengers.

Kenneth Gibson and Dr Alasdair Allan raised the issue of the booking system; I think that Colin Smyth also referred to that in passing. To update members, Transport Scotland is fully funding the replacement of the existing system. As part of that, it is in active discussion with CalMac to explore upgrades to bring the current system into line with broader policy aspirations on smart ticketing. CalMac has already started a procurement process by issuing a notice in the

Official Journal of the European Union at the end of September. Following on from that, the company will be issuing an invitation to tender in the next few months. It is expected that a preferred bidder will have been identified by summer 2020, and the project will subsequently be fully rolled out over the following couple of years.

I appreciate that that is not a quick process. I hope that members understand that procurement, by its nature, has to be done in a formal way. I reassure Dr Allan and Mr Gibson that we are taking that forward as a high priority.

A number of members have talked about CalMac. For balance, I will say this. During the past 12 months, CalMac has picked up some of the most prestigious awards. In 2018, the company won the ferry operator of the year award at the national transport awards. On customer service—as Mr Gibson mentioned—CalMac’s customer service centre made it the first company in the UK to be measured against and awarded the new global accreditation standard by the Customer Contact Association. Indeed, the CCA assessor highlighted a number of strengths in the team, describing it as

“a competent, well managed, highly customer focused operation.”

I think—and this is reflected in Labour’s amendment—that we should never lose sight of the fact that the hard-working team that works at CalMac, along with the team at NorthLink, provide an excellent service. Over the nine-month period from January to September this year, 97.2 per cent of Serco NorthLink passengers surveyed rated the service as excellent or good. Surely to goodness we in this chamber should reflect on good practice when it is delivered rather than criticising services, as seems to be the case today.

I did not have time earlier to address Jamie Greene’s opening remarks. It is simply wrong to say that pressure on the network is greatest in the winter months. The greatest period of pressure and overstretch is during the summer months, when passenger numbers soar and—as other members have noted—are fuelled by RET. This is the time of year when it is deemed to be most convenient to carry out the annual maintenance schedule.

Jamie Greene’s interpretation of the data that I quoted is also wrong. I re-emphasise that we are talking about 0.67 per cent of all trips being cancelled for technical reasons. I think that he slightly misinterpreted the figure that I gave.

Mr Gibson will know well the difficulties of the solution that Mr Greene proposed to tackle the Arran situation, which displayed that he did not understand the issues regarding the different vessels, routes and conditions. I would rather leave it to the ships’ masters to decide on the suitable solution for that situation.

On points that other members made, Jamie Halcro Johnston and Colin Smyth referred to RET. I did not get the chance to intervene on Mr Halcro Johnston, but I point out that we cannot implement RET on the northern isles ferry services at present, although it is still our policy to implement it eventually. There is an outstanding state aid complaint on the matter and I hope that members understand that we cannot force forward RET in the absence of a decision from the European Commission. Unfortunately, the Tories are just playing games on that matter.

Mr McArthur and Mr Halcro Johnston raised the issue of internal ferry services. I point out for Mr Halcro Johnston’s benefit in particular that the Tories are responsible for the situation that has arisen in the isles, because it was a Conservative Administration back in the 1980s that decided to carve out internal ferry services and have a separate arrangement for them. Ironically, given the context of Brexit, that decision was made in order to attract European funding.