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

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Photo of Donald Cameron Donald Cameron Conservative

I welcome the opportunity to contribute again to a debate on the very important issue of ferries, because it affects so many of my constituents across the Highlands and Islands. I say “contribute again”, because we have debated ferries several times recently, and it is hugely regrettable that we have to revisit an issue that is fast becoming a scandal that should shame the Scottish Government.

Like my colleagues who spoke earlier in the debate, I will focus on some specific issues as well as the broader discussion. For too long, people across the Highlands and Islands and other parts of Scotland have endured ferry services that are wholly unreliable and have little flexibility built in. As my colleague Jamie Greene noted in his speech, and as is noted in our motion for the debate, 82,000 delays and cancellations have occurred since 2007. That is a lamentable statistic that should concern everyone in the chamber, not least because more than 100,000 people who live in our island communities rely on those ferry services to connect to the mainland. They are lifeline services for local people, vital to many businesses for transmitting goods and the main mode of transport for tourists to visit our islands. However, despite the clear need and demand for a reliable and robust ferry network, the SNP Government has failed miserably to rise to the challenge. There are many reasons why it has failed to do so.

We still see innumerable problems with our service. I have made the point before, but it is worth noting again, that, in its submission to the previous ferry review in 2010, CalMac said that the Government would have to build a new ferry every year just to stand still. However, we now face a situation in which the two new ferries that are on order are in limbo; if they are completed, they will be definitely late and almost certainly over budget. Of the existing fleet of ferries, almost 50 per cent are beyond their 25-year life expectancy, meaning that they are at significant risk of mechanical failures and breakdowns.

Despite repeated warnings over a number of years, the SNP Government has failed to act, and we are now in the middle of a ferry crisis. It is our residents, communities and businesses that suffer: from the young woman trying to catch the ferry from Dunoon to see her sick parent in Glasgow to the dairy farmer from Bute trying to get his produce to a processor on the mainland and the hotelier on Lewis who has to cancel bookings because the only ferry service is oversubscribed. Those are just a few examples of the many cases that I have dealt with since becoming an MSP. Often, there is little that I can do because, despite warm words from various ministers over the years, people see little material difference in many of our ferry services, and some services are getting worse.

An issue that has dominated my postbag since my election to the Parliament is the ferry service between Dunoon and Gourock town centres. Many people remain unhappy that the service never underwent a full tendering process after the contract with Argyll Ferries expired. Many are unhappy that the same unreliable vessels are still being used to this day. Despite it being the newest service on CalMac’s books, it is the single worst performing service, with 995 cancelled sailings between January and September this year—that is almost 1,000 cancellations in nine months. It has accounted for more than a quarter of all of CalMac’s cancelled sailings so far this year.