The current ferries plan delivered transformational changes, with new routes for Gourock to Kilcreggan and for Campbeltown, Lochboisdale and Mallaig, a dedicated Barra vessel and increased sailings to Mull and Arran.
The planned investment of £580 million will improve Scotland’s ferry infrastructure. The procurement of new Islay vessels and the purchase of the MV Loch Frisa demonstrate that.
We continue to explore possible options for second-hand tonnage for passenger and freighter purposes. Recognising the pressure that local authorities have been under since 2017, we have provided an additional £50 million of funding to help them to deliver the ferry services for which they are responsible.
Communities that rely on the Scottish Government for lifeline ferry services have been failed. The minister must involve operators, unions and communities in strategic planning to ensure that services meet their needs. Currently, there is no strategic plan, only service cuts and eye-watering continued delays in building our new ferries. Capacity has been cut due to lack of funding and no alternative services are proposed from Harris for six months while the Uig harbour is upgraded.
I could go on. The list gets longer daily.
How on earth does the minister propose to deliver lifeline ferry services in the face of additional budget cuts?
I have acknowledged in the past that we must improve the delivery of ferry services to our island communities. I have never shirked that.
There is a multitude of options for how we do strategic planning moving forward. For example, one that I have instigated is an enhanced role for the CalMac Ferries community board to enable the voice of communities to be heard through that body. We also engage with local authorities. Of course, we can and must do better.
I will pick up on the point about the services to Harris later this year because of the closure of Uig harbour, which is a reasonable point. The harbour is closing for an upgrade that the Scottish Government is funding. It is a substantial upgrade for a harbour that we do not own. That demonstrates our commitment—[
.] I see Rhoda Grant shaking her head, but £60 million is a considerable sum of money to invest in a port that has not been maintained to the standard that we require.
To be more constructive on that point, I recognise the community’s concern and my officials are working with CalMac to determine how we can mitigate the impact of that necessary work on the community.
CalMac has admitted that some of its skippers are neither experienced nor competent enough to sail to Ardrossan or Gourock as port of refuge in moderate, not to mention bad, weather, which leads to sailings being cancelled needlessly. What discussions has the minister had with CalMac regarding the training of skippers to minimise that problem?
I stress that, as I am sure Kenny Gibson agrees, decisions on the safety of passage and berthing at various ports must lie with the masters of the vessels concerned. It would be wrong for anyone to challenge those individual decisions, which are always taken on the basis of the safety of passengers, the crew and the vessel.
Officials have been in dialogue with CalMac on the matter over the past 48 hours because what has been suggested is concerning. It has emerged that all the crews are fully trained. Experienced masters are familiar with specific routes and, in normal circumstances, will be deployed in those locations. However, given the acute circumstances at the moment as a result of Covid-related absences, there have been crews on vessels that are less familiar with particular routes to ensure that the service operates.
It is, of course, ideal that crews be familiar with alternative ports and trained in using them. CalMac looks to work towards that but, to do that, vessels need to be taken out of service. Equally, I understand the impact that the issue is having and the concerns of ferry users. I undertake to discuss the matter personally with senior management at CalMac tomorrow.
The minister will be aware that the per head of population funding settlement that Western Isles Council receives is significantly higher than the one that Orkney Islands Council receives, but ferry replacement costs on west-coast routes are covered by the Scottish Government while OIC is left to pick up the significant tab for replacing the ageing vessels on internal northern isles services. Does the minister believe that that is fair and, if not, what will he do about it?
Mr McArthur and I have had that conversation on numerous occasions. I note that he did not, just now, acknowledge the substantial amount of funding that has already been provided to Orkney Islands Council—both funding for service delivery and capital funding for the replacement of a vessel, if memory serves me. Those vessels are the responsibility of the local authority, but I am aware that there is dialogue between the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy, Orkney Islands Council and others on the subject of what future ferry replacement funding would look like.
A combination of adverse weather and a rise in Covid cases among crew and shore staff has had a severe impact on service provision in recent days and weeks. What difference will the change to the isolation rules make, and what more can be done to encourage passengers’ compliance with the relevant protective measures?
Transport Scotland continues to engage daily with CalMac on the impacts to services and to monitor the situation as we move forward. The reduced isolation period already appears to be providing some relief from those pressures, although there remains the risk of disruption as a result of further infections among crew and staff. I place on record my appreciation of the work of the crew and staff throughout the pandemic, both on the west coast and in the northern isles.
As restrictions are eased, the emphasis will continue to be on personal responsibility, good practice and informed judgment. I encourage everyone who is using our ferries to ask themselves whether the journeys that they are considering on ferry routes are necessary at this time, in order that we can best protect services and ensure that space remains available for those from our island communities in particular.