Ferry Services (Public Ownership)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 21st April 2022.

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Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

I ask members of the public who are leaving the gallery to do so quickly and quietly, please. Thank you.

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-02902, in the name of Katy Clark, on keeping CalMac public, and publicly owned ferry services. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the view that lifeline ferry services should be in the public sector; is alarmed by the Scottish Government’s reported contract with Ernst & Young to review governance of Scotland’s public ferry contracts, including Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services (CHFS); understands that the current operator, CalMac Ferries, the entire fleet and the majority of harbours on the CHFS network are publicly owned, employing 1,600 people; considers that unbundling of CHFS routes would mean privatisation; is concerned at reports that the Scottish Government has reneged on the commitment it gave the RMT in 2017 to build the case for permanent in-house operation of the CHFS contract; agrees with the reported view of the RMT that the CHFS network lacks resilience and capacity due to vessel procurement failures and not due to the public ownership model; understands that the contract with the public sector operator, CalMac Ferries, ends in October 2024; further understands that CalMac staff have helped carry over 47 million passengers and 12 million cars in the last decade and that the Road Equivalent Tariff fares subsidy drove a 20% increase in passengers, pre-COVID-19 pandemic, and notes the calls on the Scottish Government to categorically rule out extending private ferry operations or privatisation of any routes in the CHFS contract and to commit to keeping CalMac Ferries public and expanding ferry capacity and resilience in the public sector.

Photo of Baroness Katy Clark Baroness Katy Clark Labour

I am grateful to the members who signed the motion to enable the debate to take place in the chamber today; to islanders, including members of the Arran Ferry Action Group; and to the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, with which I have worked on this issue.

The contract with public sector operator CalMac comes to an end in October 2024, and Parliament needs to debate what will happen at the end of the contract. Ferry services are currently in crisis. Yesterday, for example, all 10 ferry services on the Ardrossan-Brodick route were cancelled due to the withdrawal of the MV Caledonian Isles from service, which is causing havoc to islanders and, indeed, to the economy.

CalMac operates a fleet of 33 vessels across a network of 49 routes. Most industry experts agree that the average life expectancy of a ferry is about 25 years, but half of the working state-owned ferries are older than that. For example, the Caledonian Isles is 29 years old.

Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd owns and procures vessels, and ports are owned by a mix of trusts, private companies and public bodies, under a model that is the result of an obsession with privatisation over many decades. Some will try to blame the problems with the ferry service on public ownership but, in reality, the problems are a result of a failure to invest in new fleet for many years, the fragmentation of the service, a series of poor appointments of key decision makers, appalling management and political failures.

The motion argues that our ferries should remain in the public sector, and polling has repeatedly shown that Scots overwhelmingly support that model of ownership.

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

Is the member saying that she does not want any change to the current failed structure?

Photo of Baroness Katy Clark Baroness Katy Clark Labour

I am not saying that at all. If the member listens to the rest of my contribution, that will become self-evident.

In 2017, the Scottish Government’s procurement policy review stated that it was the Scottish Government’s intention to

“build a case for making a direct award to an in-house operator for the Clyde and Hebrides services”.

Last year, I asked the previous transport minister to confirm that that was still the Scottish Government’s policy, but he failed to give that undertaking. I hope that the current transport minister will confirm today that she is committed to a public sector model.

Despite the Scottish Government’s commitment in 2017, it commissioned the private accounting firm Ernst & Young to review the structure. It has paid the firm more than half a million pounds of taxpayers’ money since 2015. Documents that were leaked to the media from the project Neptune review revealed that ministers explicitly asked Ernst & Young to consider the unbundling of routes and privatisation as an option. Despite journalists having written articles quoting sections of the report weeks ago, the report has still not been published. Can the minister confirm today that it will be published?

We need a long-term plan for a publicly owned ferry service, and we need to learn from the mistakes of the past by having a structure that involves communities—particularly island communities—and the workforce in decision making.

We also need to address the problems that have been caused by the fragmentation of the structure. For example, vessels 801 and 802, which were debated yesterday, would not have been commissioned if the Scottish Government had been required to involve the Arran community in decision making and had listened to the representations that were made at that time. The delay of more than four years to the regeneration of Ardrossan harbour would not have happened if the harbour had still been in public ownership, rather than in the ownership of Peel Ports.

There is a widespread view that we need standardisation of the fleet, with smaller vessels. That will cut maintenance costs and ensure that ferries can operate across routes. Can the minister confirm that the Scottish Government is actively looking at that?

Today’s debate follows on from yesterday’s debate on the procurement of vessels 801 and 802, which are being built at Ferguson Marine. They are projected to cost £240 million. They are two and a half times over budget, they are four years late, and they have been described as “a catastrophic failure” by a Scottish Parliament inquiry. Audit Scotland’s report said that ministers chose not to restart the process after CMAL expressed concerns. The First Minister raced to Port Glasgow to launch the 801 all the way back in 2016. The Scottish Government continues to hold responsibility for a catalogue of bad decisions, poor appointments and eye-watering sums being wasted on executives. No minister—and definitely not the First Minister—has been willing to take responsibility.

We need the Scottish Government to come forward with a plan for a ferry service that will deliver for islanders and support the community. We know that the current structure is not working and that change is required, but we will get the best service only if we involve islanders and the workforce in a publicly owned service. I ask the minister to respond in detail to the points that I have made and to the other points that will be made in the debate. I look forward to hearing members’ speeches. I hope that the Government will commit to developing a publicly owned model with a structure that will deliver for communities.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I call Stuart McMillan, who joins us remotely.

Photo of Stuart McMillan Stuart McMillan Scottish National Party

I congratulate Katy Clark on securing this members’ business debate. I remind the Parliament at the outset that my wife works part time for CalMac. I have always felt that it is important to acknowledge that when I take part in debates about CalMac, even though I am not obligated to do so. I would certainly have thought that Katy Clark would have considered it appropriate to do likewise, bearing in mind her links to the TSSA trade union, which has members who work at CalMac.

It is all well and good to challenge the Tories on their transparency or lack of it, but the Labour Party must do likewise.

It is sad to say that this is really a non-debate. I would be the first in line to challenge my Government if I believed for one minute that CalMac was to be sold off or that the network was to be broken up. If either were to happen, that would have a negative impact on Gourock, in my Greenock and Inverclyde constituency. Gourock is the home and headquarters of CalMac, which is a hugely important local employer in my constituency. I would not want to see any adverse effects in my constituency. If CalMac were to be broken up or privatised, as has been purported by Katy Clark, that would present serious economic challenges in my constituency—challenges that we have faced since the early 1980s due to failed United Kingdom Government policies. Neither will happen and, although it is always important for parliamentarians to raise legitimate issues, scaremongering and causing alarm to CalMac staff and the local community is nothing short of shameful.

At First Minister’s question time on 3 February, the First Minister stated:

“I will be very clear in that commitment: we have no plans whatsoever to privatise public service ferries and, contrary to concerns that have been expressed in recent press reports, we have no plans whatsoever to split up the CalMac Ferries network. Those ferry services are delivered through public contracts”.

She went on:

“However, to come back to the thrust of the question, I did not seem to rule out privatisation—I ruled it out. I will say it again: we have no plans whatsoever for that—we will not privatise our public service ferries and, equally, we have no plans to split up the CalMac network. That is the Scottish Government’s position, and we will continue to invest in our ferry network to give people on our islands the service that they have every right to expect.”—[

Official Report

, 3 February 2022; c 23-24.]

During the ferries debate yesterday, Graham Simpson’s comments towards the end of his contribution were enlightening. He seemed to suggest that the network should be opened up to allow other companies to bid for routes. On the one hand, I can see why that might appear to be beneficial. However, breaking up the network would surely lead to the HQ being either shut or reduced in scale. Either way, that would lead to jobs in my constituency being lost and futures being wrecked. If that is what the Scottish Tories are offering my constituents, I sincerely hope that the population in my constituency give a clear message to the Tories in May.

Ultimately, ferries will be a political issue, irrespective of the Government of the day in Scotland. That is quite right. However, Labour scaremongering about the future of the network and the Conservatives appearing to advocate dismantling the network highlight that neither Labour nor the Tories are fit to govern any time soon.

CalMac needs to continue its improvement programme, and I warmly welcome that. Years of lack of investment and drive in the business have led to the business needing a major internal overhaul to make it fit for the present day. Ultimately, CalMac has a brand recognition that is second to none, but it needs new ferries to help it to turn into the business that we all want it to be.

Finally, I want to make members in the chamber aware that I have invited members of the CMAL team to come to the Parliament, which they will be doing in a few weeks’ time. I invite everyone to talk to them and ask them questions. Members will have questions, and CMAL will provide answers to colleagues from across the chamber.

Photo of Baroness Katy Clark Baroness Katy Clark Labour

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I appreciate that Stuart McMillan would not have been able to take an intervention as he made his contribution remotely, but he criticised me directly for failing to declare an interest. I would like to take your guidance on how to correct that and put that on the record. I do not believe that I was required to declare an interest. However, at the beginning of my speech, I said very clearly that I have worked on these issues with the RMT and TSSA trade unions and with islanders, including members of the Arran Ferry Action Group.

I am not sure whether that is a point of order, Presiding Officer, but I am grateful for the chamber’s time.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I thank the member for her contribution, but I do not believe that that is a point of order. There are mechanisms to correct the record. The Presiding Officer is not responsible for members’ substantive comments when they make their contributions. I am sure that the member is well aware of the rules on the declaration of interests and of when those rules are engaged and are not engaged. I trust that that is helpful.

Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

I congratulate Katy Clark on bringing the debate to the chamber.

I spoke in yesterday’s ferries debate on a number of overlapping issues: procurement, transparency and sustainability. One key ask was that the withheld project Neptune report be released. That is vital to ensure that communities served by the Clyde and Hebridean routes are not left in the dark but are partners in deciding the service’s future.

There can be little doubt of the importance of our ferry connections—the lifeline routes that serve to connect often remote places across our country. They support not only travel but bringing food to shops and produce to market, the delivery of essential public services and much more. I have long called for a proper, fully considered strategy for the future sustainability of Scotland’s ferry networks. Never has the absence of one been more keenly felt than now.

Thinking strategically, we must balance quality, sustainability, fairness to the taxpayer, working conditions and, perhaps most important, the views of the communities themselves. Solutions should not be imposed. Communities will not, and should not, accept a loss of local influence.

On Monday night, I travelled down from Orkney on a NorthLink ferry. The northern isles contract has a quite different history from the Clyde and Hebridean network. Although it covers long distances, it is less extensive and does not include interisland transport.

Interisland ferries are one aspect of the publicly owned network that is not mentioned in the motion. They remain the responsibility of local councils in Orkney and Shetland and retain a financial disadvantage, being only partly funded by grants from central Government. The Scottish Government has long held out the prospect of local control being exchanged for fair funding. That would be a terrible deal for islanders, because one size certainly does not fit all.

Back in 2018, the RMT was aggressively pursuing a nationalise NorthLink campaign that sought to apply the position on CalMac to the northern isles service. That ran contrary to the views not only of the local councils but of elected representatives, local stakeholders and local people. There was—and I believe there still is—a wide body of support for tendering.

I simply will not accept that privately operated ferry networks are a bad thing. The motion calls on the Government

“to categorically rule out extending private ferry operations”.

Does that mean that a private operator who wishes to expand and provide a new service should be prevented from doing so? That would be putting political ideology ahead of the needs of island communities.

We can see small, independent operators working well and delivering good services for communities across Scotland. Pentland Ferries, for example, is a family-run business that provides a valued and unsubsidised link between Orkney and Caithness. Unlike CalMac, it has managed to procure not one but two new ferries at reasonable costs. The MV Alfred, which I sailed on only a few weeks ago, was built on time and on budget and has already won an award for its environmental standards.

That is not to say, of course, that the current tendering model is the right one either. As Audit Scotland reported, the two companies tendering for the Clyde and Hebridean contract submitted more than 800 queries during the process. Significant weaknesses and confusion were identified. Arguably, short contract periods fail to give operators a chance to make significant change.

All those elements are significant points for discussion. However, that discussion needs to be held beyond the politics of the chamber. It needs to respect the communities involved and treat those of us who use our ferries regularly—those who rely on our ferry network—as the key stakeholders that we are. The people in our island and remote communities must have the greatest say, not the ministers and mandarins of the Scottish Government, who have become too used to dictating from afar with increasingly disastrous consequences.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The member has concluded his speech.

Photo of Jenni Minto Jenni Minto Scottish National Party

Scotland’s islands need lifeline ferry services. The key word is “lifeline”. As well as meaning a rope thrown into the water to save someone from drowning, “lifeline” is defined as something that someone depends on to lead their life in a satisfactory way. That includes not only food, fuel, building materials and medical provision, but the economic benefits of being able to travel to and from work or in search of work. It also means the wellbeing that is promoted by being able to easily meet friends and family, especially in times of celebration or when people come together for comfort in times of grief.

For islanders, “lifeline” mostly means ferries. My inbox is constantly brimming over with emails about ferries. If we get any two islanders from anywhere in Scotland together, their conversation will inevitably turn to ferries. For us islanders, ferries shape our lives.

I live on an island where the ferries not only connect people but directly connect a multimillion-pound industry—whisky—to the world market. I can see that shipping whisky to the mainland might be viewed as an attractive investment for an ambitious company and its shareholders. I am sure that, in its hands, the Islay ferry could be very profitable, especially if we add the benefits of the island’s farming, seafood and tourism industries.

The Scottish National Party is a party for all of Scotland, however, and I do not believe that we should deprive island communities of lifeline services simply because they do not make the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s eyes light up.

Photo of Jamie Greene Jamie Greene Conservative

Is the member suggesting that, if CalMac was at full capacity and the vital trade that her constituents rely on could not get on and off the island, and if another operator came along and offered that service, she would say no to it?

Photo of Jenni Minto Jenni Minto Scottish National Party

I am not suggesting that; I am merely pointing out the importance of lifeline services to islands.

There are 23 inhabited islands in my constituency and also peninsulas that have important ferry links. Portavadie to Tarbert, for example, is a key link for school children, businesses and tourists. I want people whose homes are in the remote or island areas of Argyll and Bute to be able to live their lives without being judged as a profit or loss. My constituents are people, not a balance sheet. If an island or peninsula community is struggling, cutting back on its unprofitable ferry services can only hasten that area’s decline.

Next week, I will visit the island of Jura—an island off an island, where the service is provided by Argyll and Bute Council. Jura’s population is growing, the school is at bursting point and new businesses are being set up but they are worried that an unreliable transport network could impede their growth. In an economy that is increasingly driven by renewable energy and with the ability to work from home, a decent and reliable ferry service may allow such areas to turn their fortunes around and reverse decline. Communities should be listened to when structures and ferries are being reviewed.

It is not just people who live on islands or peninsulas who rely on lifeline services. The definition of a rope being thrown into the water does not exactly apply to our railways, but the definition of something that we depend on to lead our life in a satisfactory way does define Scotland’s rail services for hundreds of thousands of Scots who rely on them for work, family obligations and leisure.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The member is bringing her remarks to a close.

Photo of Jenni Minto Jenni Minto Scottish National Party

I think I am in my last 30 seconds.

This month, the Scottish Government took our train services back under public control after years of disastrous privatisation. Let us not inflict Mrs Thatcher’s train-crash privatisation policy on islanders. Let us keep the island public’s ferry services where they belong—in public ownership.

Photo of Richard Leonard Richard Leonard Labour

I begin by reminding members of my entry in the register of members’ interests and by thanking Katy Clark, whose distinguished record on raising these issues is second to none.

We are often accused by Government ministers of applying the benefit of hindsight, but, as far back as 2010, the late Bob Crow, referring to the CalMac fleet, had the foresight to warn:

“many of these ships are thirty years old and the Fleet needs renewing ... there will be a lead time of around ten years before new ships come into service.”

It is a pity that his warning was not heeded. He also called for

“a unified service which is publicly owned and publicly accountable”.

He is greatly missed.

We note the First Minister’s undertaking to the Parliament to stop short of unbundling Clyde and Hebrides ferry services, but it is a matter of record that Transport Scotland and CalMac are currently carrying out what they call a “market assessment” of each route. What about a social assessment, an equality assessment or a community assessment? After all, people do not live in markets; they live in communities.

Let me set out the reasons why I think that the public ownership of CalMac is critical. First, the ferry links are, for the most part, monopoly services. They are natural monopolies and they should not be run as private monopolies. Secondly, they are lifeline services, so they must be run in the public interest for the public good, not according to the fiduciary duties of private capital to beneficial shareholders. Thirdly, this is one public service that works most efficiently when organised on a larger scale. This is not just the largest ferry operator in Scotland; it is the largest ferry operator in the whole of the UK, and such a concentration of power must remain in public, not private, hands.

Photo of Richard Leonard Richard Leonard Labour

I will not. To the Tories, I say that the real choice is not between monopoly and competition. That is a fiction.

Photo of Richard Leonard Richard Leonard Labour

The real choice is between monopoly capitalism and socialised public ownership—that is the choice.

Photo of Richard Leonard Richard Leonard Labour

As a democratic socialist, I do not believe just in ownership of our ferry services by the state; I believe in democratic, socialised public ownership of our ferry services, which is why we demand change.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Excuse me, Mr Leonard—could you resume your seat for a second? It is up to each individual member to decide, and it appears to me that the member is not taking interventions. Therefore, there is no point in standing about, Mr Halcro Johnston. The member has, I think, indicated that he is not taking an intervention.

Mr Leonard, please resume.

Photo of Richard Leonard Richard Leonard Labour

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

We demand change. We demand participatory democracy whereby islanders, passengers and seafarers—the workers and their trade unions—really share power and are not merely consultees, because what these ferry services provide is not only an economic lifeline but a social service, and one that, in my view, not only should be obtainable by payment but should be available as of right.

We need a developmental state where Government intervention is not simply defensive but is positive, radical and visionary. That means the implementation of a regional policy to iron out the social, environmental and economic imbalances within Scotland, to which ferries are an essential part of the solution. That means a planned economy—not economic planning that is piecemeal or expedient, but planning that is comprehensive and strategic, so that the programme of replacement CalMac vessels is back on time, is based on local labour and is properly planned and invested in.

My message to the Government is this: rule out privatisation, expand ferry capacity, deal with the backlog of fleet investment, invest in the workforce, put passengers before profit and let us truly secure at last a people’s CalMac.

Photo of Paul McLennan Paul McLennan Scottish National Party

I thank Katy Clark for bringing the debate to the chamber.

We can all agree that ferry services provide an essential lifeline to island and remote rural communities and their economies. We have heard from members who live on those islands, and I am aware how important the services are to the communities that they serve and what they mean to the economy and general wellbeing of such communities. We also have to acknowledge that technical issues have caused much frustration to islanders, not just in the past few weeks but in the past few months. It is also, as a balance, worth acknowledging that more than £2 billion has been spent on service contracts, new vessels and infrastructure since 2007, and that in the current five-year period a further £580 million has been committed.

The Scottish Government commitment to publish the islands connectivity plan by the end of 2022 is welcome. As we know, that will replace the current ferries plan. It will look at aviation, ferries and fixed links, and it will invest in more sustainable ferries. The islands connectivity plan will also be taken forward through the national transport strategy and the strategic transport projects review, which will enable us to consider other potentially viable options for connecting the islands.

Engagement and consultation on the islands connectivity plan, which, as I said, will replace the ferries plan by the end of 2022, will enable substantial public and community input. That is key as we move towards options in 2024. The island communities must be part of any solution.

Project Neptune’s remit is to review the legal structures and governance arrangements that exist between Transport Scotland, CMAL and CalMac, and to look at whether those “remain fit for purpose” to deliver an “effective, efficient, and economic” ferry service . That project has just started and it will deliver a final report later in the year.

The Scottish Government is also developing a revised ferries stakeholder engagement strategy and, again, there will be community input into that.

Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

Does the member think the current ferries network is fit for purpose, and, after 15 years, does he think that the current Scottish Government has any responsibility for the state that the Scottish ferry network is in?

Photo of Paul McLennan Paul McLennan Scottish National Party

Of course the

Scottish Government has an input in the matter. I previously mentioned the £2 billion and £580 million investments to which the Government has committed, and we are talking about how we will take them forward.

I come back to the ferry stakeholder engagement strategy, which will set out an approach to engagement on three matters—operational issues, which have been mentioned, strategy and policy.

The infrastructure investment plan for Scotland from 2021 to 2026 will produce and maintain a long-term plan for new ferries and development at ports to improve resilience, reliability, capacity and accessibility, and to reduce emissions, to meet the needs of island communities, including in relation to freight fares, which are an important part of the islands connectivity plan.

I move on to public ownership. Transport Scotland has said that

“Scottish ministers have already ruled out privatisation and have no plans to split up the CalMac Ferries network. The independent review of governance arrangements for Scottish Government lifeline ferry services will present a framework consisting of a range of options to the overarching objective of effective, efficient, and economic delivery of lifeline ferry services, to enhance passenger experience and support local island economies ... We will then engage with all key stakeholders to ensure the most efficient and best value arrangement to deliver our key lifeline ferry services.”

The First Minister has insisted that

“there are no plans to privatise lifeline ferry services to Scotland’s island communities” and made a commitment to keep ferry services in public ownership. She said:

“ensuring ferry services are delivered through public contracts gave them ‘control over service levels, timetables and fares’ on the routes operated by CalMac on the Clyde and Hebrides routes” and:

“Let me say it again. We have no plans whatsoever, we will not privatise our public service ferries and equally we have no plans to split up the CalMac network. That is the position of the Scottish Government.”

It could not be any clearer.

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

I congratulate Katy Clark on bringing the motion to Parliament. However, her speech left me completely baffled by what she was attempting to say. When I intervened and asked her what she would change in the current system, she promised to tell us later in her speech, but she did not. Had I been able to intervene on Richard Leonard, I would have asked him exactly the same question, but

I did not get to do so.

I think that Katy Clark is trying to intervene from a sedentary position—if I am right, I will give way.

Photo of Baroness Katy Clark Baroness Katy Clark Labour

I took an intervention from the member, so I am very grateful to his returning the favour.

To be absolutely clear, I am arguing against the fragmentation of the current structure. I am arguing that the ferries, CalMac, CMAL and the ports should be in public ownership, which would then enable better decision making. In my speech, I used some examples of the poor decision making that occurred as a result of the failure to have a model of that nature and to involve islanders and the workforce in that decision making.

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

It sounds like Katy Clark wants business as usual on the ferries, apart from the ports, which, it would appear, she wants to nationalise. Scottish Labour needs to put a cost on that if that is what it is suggesting.

Katy Clark’s motion says that

“lifeline ferry services should be in the public sector”.

Conservative members support lifeline ferry services but we do not come to that point with the ideology with which Labour approaches it. We want ferry services that work for the islanders, who are the most important people in relation to this issue.

Katy Clark was not a member at the time, so she might not be aware that the former Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee conducted an exhaustive inquiry into ferries, the Ferguson debacle and how to run ferry services.

One of the committee’s recommendations was that the Government should commission a review into how to procure and run ferry services, which led to the Government’s appointment of Ernst & Young to carry out the project Neptune review. The Government cannot be criticised for having done that after a cross-party committee of the Parliament asked it to.

It is entirely right that we explore options for a system that is clearly failing. The problem is that although Ernst & Young has completed its review and produced the project Neptune report, that report has simply been sitting with Transport Scotland. The minister has the report, but despite promising to issue it to Parliament, she has not yet done so, so we simply do not know what it recommends.

However, it is right to look at the governance and at questions such as whether we should unbundle the west coast services. That does not have to mean privatisation. The whole thing could still be run and paid for—subsidised—by the Government; it might just introduce other operators. For example, there is Western Ferries, which runs a very good service already, or Pentland Ferries—it probably would not be interested because of where it is based, but other operators like it could come in.

To be frank, if Labour listened to people such as those on the Mull & Iona Ferry Committee, it would know that that is exactly what they are calling for. At the end of the day, we need to put islanders first, and we need to be open to new ideas and get rid of the dogma in which Labour is bogged down.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Given the number of members who wish to speak in the debate, I am minded to accept a motion without notice, under rule 8.14.3, to extend the debate by up to 30 minutes. I invite Katy Clark to move the motion.

Motion moved,

That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[

Katy Clark


Motion agreed to.

Photo of Ariane Burgess Ariane Burgess Green

I, too, congratulate Katy Clark on securing this important debate. I pay tribute to my predecessor as Green MSP for the Highlands and Islands, John Finnie, for his attempts to see the NorthLink ferry service to Orkney and Shetland nationalised. Ferries should be run in the interests of islanders, not in the interests of Serco’s global shareholders.

Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

I am from Orkney, and I use that service all the time, as I highlighted in my speech. I am yet to meet any more than a handful of people who want a nationalised northern isles contract. How many people has the member spoken to? Does she agree with me that people in the northern isles just want reliable ferries, and not an Orkney and Shetland version of CalMac?

Photo of Ariane Burgess Ariane Burgess Green

I thank the member for his intervention

I will continue my speech and unfold my argument. We are looking for a joined-up, reliable approach.

Scottish Greens believe that public ownership of Scotland’s ferries is critical to reversing depopulation, supporting community regeneration and delivering a fairer and greener transport mix for our islands. The next 10 years are vital for the future of our planet, and public ownership enables an approach to procurement that centres on environmental impact and community wellbeing instead of shareholder profit.

I have been contacted by an island constituent who, as a result of ferry cancellations, had to fly to the mainland to assist her elderly parent with hospital visits. Other constituents have been unable to get things such as animal feed or, more importantly, to attend funerals.

In the draft STPR2, we have committed to moving towards reliable zero-carbon ferries so that constituents like those whom I have mentioned are not forced to fly or to flit. We must work to ensure that there are always islanders on the boards and staff teams of CalMac and CMAL. With a public ownership model, we can achieve that.

I will work with my colleagues in Government to ensure that lifeline ferries are viable and reliable, and that they are publicly funded where essential connectivity cannot be met by the market. [


.] I am sorry—I will not take an intervention, as I need to get on.

If ferry operators enjoyed the certainty of much longer contracts, they could seek investment on the back of future ticket sales to procure vessels without the need for substantial public investment. That would also allow operators to develop a strategic, cost-effective, long-term plan to upgrade and decarbonise the fleet. Perhaps that could be considered as part of the Bute house agreement commitment, in the “Scottish Government and Scottish Green Party Shared Policy Programme”, to

“assess the model of” ferry services delivery

“to ensure ... our approach delivers good outcomes for communities, value for money, accountability and transparency.”

We also want to see interisland ferries categorised as publicly owned Scottish national infrastructure, in line with requests from local authorities. Such council owned and operated ferries must be sufficiently funded to allow island councils to operate them effectively.

The Scottish Green Party believes that we should extend the policy of free bus travel for under-22s to ferries, bringing parity between islands and the mainland in Scotland’s public transport offer.

A lack of interconnectedness between rail and ferry routes renders islands inaccessible for many travellers who wheel and potentially unsafe for lone travellers. The train to Thurso is frequently late, which makes connecting with the ferry to Stromness from Scrabster challenging and can leave people unexpectedly stranded.

A more joined-up approach between ScotRail, the Highlands and Islands Transport Partnership, NorthLink Ferries and Pentland Ferries could resolve such issues. The fact that ScotRail is now also in public ownership—thanks to the Scottish Government and the Greens—paves the way for new, exciting ways of collaborating and working towards a more fully integrated public transport network. The Scottish Green Party believes that islands should not be an afterthought but should be at the forefront of Scotland’s journey towards net zero.

The public ownership of ferry services, especially when supported by publicly operated rail and bus networks, has the potential to reverse rural depopulation trends, revitalise communities and make islands more accessible for those who walk, wheel and cycle.

Photo of Emma Roddick Emma Roddick Scottish National Party

it is baffling to me that we are debating this motion. As others have noted, Katy Clark asked the First Minister directly to commit to keeping ferry services in public ownership only two months ago. As is clear in the quote that Paul McLennan read out earlier, the First Minister provided that assurance in no uncertain terms. I do not understand why I am looking at a motion that suggests otherwise. It is shameless—and frankly, reckless—that, after receiving the First Minister’s personal, unambiguous commitment that ferries are not being privatised, the member decided to bring a motion for debate that references calls on the Scottish Government to categorically rule out privatisation. The Government has already ruled out privatisation.

Sitting here listening to Richard Leonard talk as if privatisation has not been ruled out and there is no such thing as a PSO has been a waste of time. It is no surprise that he would not take an intervention on that point.

There are plenty of issues worth debating in relation to ferries and other transport services in Scotland. Personally, due to a health condition that has, so far, prevented me from driving, I rely solely on public transport and the goodwill of pals with cars. That is not easy in the Highlands and Islands. The Minister of Transport—and anyone else who will listen—hears from me and my office regularly on matters of trains, ferries, buses, bikes and more.

I care deeply about improving our ferry services. I am a regular user of CalMac and NorthLink services. I am very familiar with CalMac-and-cheese dinners and being rudely woken up when docking in Kirkwall en route to Aberdeen. I care about our ferry service and I will engage in debates about procurement, timetabling and privatisation, but this debate is a waste of time and a failed opportunity to talk about something that actually matters.

Photo of Baroness Katy Clark Baroness Katy Clark Labour

The motion is very clear that the CalMac contract comes to an end in 2024. I have been raising the issue over the past year and asking what model of contract we will move to. It is clear that the current model does not work for the reasons that I outlined in my speech and that others will no doubt cover. Does the member not think that we should be debating that? Surely, we should.

Photo of Emma Roddick Emma Roddick Scottish National Party

As I said earlier, there are discussions to be had and it is confusing to me that Katy Clark’s motion says that it is a matter for alarm that there will be public consultation on the future governance of ferry contracts and on project Neptune. Her party constantly claims that ferry contracts in Scotland are not up to scratch and her leader has been heavily critical of ferry contracts, so Labour should welcome the opportunity to debate the finer points and involve constituents in conversations. Submitting a motion outlining the dangers of a privatisation that is not happening is as legitimate as submitting a motion expressing concern about the potential loss of tourism caused by Nessie coming out as a republican.

Pressing over and over for a commitment that has already been given—clearly, unambiguously and repeatedly—by the First Minister is not one of those many worthy issues that we could be discussing today. The motion is purely political and deliberately misleading. The Labour Party should be ashamed that it has wasted a parliamentary debate slot on making a point that serves only to provoke anxiety for ferry users and ferry workers who have nothing to be concerned about because privatisation is not on the table.

Photo of Jamie Greene Jamie Greene Conservative

I do not know how to follow a speech that says that talking about ferries in the Scottish Parliament is a waste of time. My goodness, that really sums up the state of the debate about Scottish ferries.


Official Report shows us that in 2007 members made fewer than 100 contributions in the chamber that included the word “ferry”. This year to date, and we are only in April, there have been more than double that number of contributions. Does that not say something about the state of Scotland’s ferries? Not a day goes by when the media is not filled with stories of the utter fiasco that people in our island communities face. Today, the Arran ferry is again out of action because of engine problems.

Again and again islanders are scunnered, and they are scunnered of listening to contributions that say we are wasting our time by criticising the Government on the issue. It is absolutely right that we criticise the Government on it, because each and every one of us has the responsibility to stand up for island communities and tell the Government that the current scenario and status quo is simply not working, which is why I thank Katy Clark for bringing another debate on the subject to the chamber. We have brought many debates on the issue to the chamber—I brought one when I was shadow transport minister—and every time we are told that we are politicising the issue.

However, here is where I find fault with Labour’s proposal. It is a slightly odd debate, because Scottish Labour is attacking the Conservatives for proposing the privatisation of everything that moves, but that is simply not true, and I want to make that clear. A statement was made in the chamber yesterday that we want to privatise CMAL. You can check that in the

Official Report

. It is simply not true and I put that on the record.

This is an important point and it is a shame that we are not acknowledging it: there are private operators out there doing good work, including Pentland Ferries, NorthLink Ferries and Western Ferries, which services the Gourock to Dunoon route. Some of them are in receipt of public subsidy and some are not, and good on the ones that are not. If they are able to run an effective service that operates between mainland and islands or mainland and mainland, good on them.

I say to Richard Leonard that that is what matters to islanders. It is all very well grandstanding on the soapbox about the ideology of public versus private, but what islanders really want is a service that runs. They could not give two hoots about who owns it or what the ownership structures are. They do not have such a service at the moment and that is what they are asking us to debate.

The other points that I want to make are about the contract, which is the substance of the motion, which I find interesting. I agree with a lot of the motion, such as the concept of permanent in-house operation of the contract that Labour wants to see, which is fine, but the problem is that the contract is flawed, Ms Clark, and everybody knows it. We have ferries that do not operate in the ports that they are designed for, ports that do not fit the ferries that run, ferries that are not interoperable between ports and routes, and we have onerous contracts that only CalMac could bid for anyway, to be honest, and we knew that from the last contract. I am all for tenders because it keeps people on their toes and brings out the best in the operator. CalMac won the last tender, and rightly so, but the contract is onerous. The people of Arran do not want a cruise liner with beds, bunks and bars; they want a ferry that runs on time. I do not care who operates or owns it.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The member is concluding shortly.

Photo of Jamie Greene Jamie Greene Conservative

I do not have time. The other problem that I have is the idea of ruling out any form of private ferry operator. I ask Scottish Labour, who will meet the capacity? Who on earth will get the whisky off of the islands? Who on earth will get the grain and cattle? If someone could come along and do night-time routes, freight routes, winter routes and cover all the pinch points in the current services, I say bring it on. The ideological position of ruling operators out simply because of politics is narrow minded.

If we listen to islanders, that is not what they want—everybody knows that—and that should be lying at the heart of this debate. What do islanders want and are we doing enough to meet those requirements? Let us park the politics for once in this debate and actually deliver ferries for our islands now.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Paul Sweeney will be the last speaker before I ask the minister to respond to the debate.

Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Labour

It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, and I thank my colleague Katy Clark for lodging the motion. However, I have been disappointed by the paucity of analysis, particularly from members on the Government benches, of what is a critical issue for Scotland’s general prosperity and wellbeing.

CalMac has essentially been in some form of public ownership since 1948, when the railway companies were nationalised. It took its current corporate form in 1990. There has long been a settled recognition that ferry services are a lifeline for Scotland’s island communities and that the best way to future proof and operate them is to ensure that they are publicly controlled and not subject to market forces. However, to meet the requirements of a European Union guideline on state aid to maritime transport, Caledonian MacBrayne was split into two separate companies in 2006. Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd—CMAL—retained ownership of CalMac vessels and infrastructure, including harbours, while CalMac Ferries Ltd submitted tenders every so often to be the ferry operator. The fundamental bone of contention is that it is clear that that neoliberal experiment in corporate Chinese walls has utterly failed, just as it failed with regard to rail franchising. That failure is most spectacularly evident when we look at the procurement of vessels 801 and 802, which represents a tragedy for Scotland’s industrial base and ends any possibility of that model being seen as a success.

For far too long, vital lifeline services in Scotland have declined under this form of quasi-privatisation and absurd market simulation. Look at ScotRail under Abellio: services cut, prices rising and a constant battle of attrition between unions and management, as well as buck-passing among Network Rail, privatised rolling stock operating companies and train operating companies. The same failed model plays out in relation to the ferry system and it needs to end.

Look at bus services in Glasgow: routes and services cut due to a lack of profitability, drivers demoralised and leaving in droves due to poor pay and conditions and, ultimately, a dramatically reduced service for commuters. It is a common story of failure.

We cannot let Scotland’s ferry services continue on the same path and that is why they must remain in public control, fundamentally, and be fully reintegrated under one team—one owner of assets, one operator and, indeed, arguably, one shipbuilder. The expiry of the ferry contract structure in October 2024 gives us an opportunity to make that happen and today we seek an assurance from the Government that it will happen.

We need a conversation about why it is beneficial for the ferry service to be publicly owned—I think that there is general agreement across the chamber on that matter. Public ownership would provide a solid, stable foundation for management that improves standards, increases investment and harnesses the power of the state to provide for Scotland’s economy and common prosperity. If we use that model, we must reinforce it with a national shipbuilding strategy that focuses on the workforce, on a stable pipeline of work and on developing Scotland’s shipbuilding assets. As I have said before—Katy Clark also mentioned this earlier—there are 33 vessels in the CalMac fleet, each of them with a 25-year lifespan on average. That is a drum beat of one vessel every nine months for our Scottish shipbuilding industry. Why are we not ensuring that Scottish yards have that guaranteed permanent shipbuilding programme that would secure jobs and give shipyards the confidence to invest in the process, which would create a virtuous cycle, rather than drip feeding a free market feast-and-famine order cycle of the sort that has plagued Scotland’s industrial base for so long?

We need to change that landscape and have an assured long-term shipbuilding strategy. Babcock has just delivered a world-class new shipbuilding facility in Rosyth because it has an assured naval programme. We should be doing the same thing on the commercial side. Inchgreen dry dock is an example of an asset that should be in public hands but is instead being hoarded by its owners, Peel Ports, for no reason other than to give its Cammel Laird shipyard on the Mersey a competitive advantage. CalMac vessels are sailing south to Merseyside for refits while Clyde dry docks from Govan to Greenock lie derelict.

Ambition is what is needed from this Government for Scotland’s ferry services, not quasi-privatisation and weird market simulations that have not worked and have introduced chaos.

Ultimately, we need to ask ourselves what the purpose of our ferries is. They are not a commercial business; they are there to provide a fundamental public service. It is not good enough for the Government to attempt to wash its hands of the fundamental structural problem that it has created and left the taxpayer liable for. Scotland’s island communities, seafarers and shipbuilders deserve much better.

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

I start by thanking Katy Clark for securing time for this really important debate on the future of Scotland’s ferries and every member who has contributed to this afternoon’s debate, which I have found to be largely helpful and pretty informative.

We are all here because we share the desire for a more reliable and affordable service that meets the needs of our island and remote communities. As I think that Jamie Halcro Johnston pointed out, this discussion needs to go beyond the politics of the chamber. Indeed, that has been a fairly common theme in members’ speeches this afternoon.

The motion alludes to the fact that CalMac has carried

“over 47 million passengers and 12 million cars in the last decade” alone, which is to be lauded. However, as we have also heard, CalMac is facing many challenges in its ability to deliver an efficient service. In saying that, I will respond to some of the points that have been raised in the debate.

Katy Clark opened by talking about a publicly owned ferry company—I think that she referred to a twin structure—that works for and listens to communities. That issue has been highlighted to me in my three months in office, and it is something that I have made a commitment to look at. Indeed, I have started conversations with officials on how we might be able to do that, say, through the board structure, which is a suggestion that was also highlighted to me by Alasdair Allan in the debate that we had just recently.

Photo of Baroness Katy Clark Baroness Katy Clark Labour

I am grateful to the minister for seeming to be sympathetic to the idea of islanders on boards, but is she sympathetic to the idea of workplace and trade union representatives on boards, too?

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

Broadly, yes. I would like to come back to the member in more detail on that, as I do not want to make up policy on the hoof in a members’ business debate, but I think that it is important that we have boards that are representative and which listen to our trade unions as well as our island communities.

Ms Clark also mentioned standardising vessels in order to cut costs. One of the issues that we face is our relatively old port infrastructure, which raises challenges when it comes to standardising all vessels in any future procurement. However, I am happy to take the issue up directly with CMAL.

The member also asked for a plan. As Mr McLennan has pointed out, the islands connectivity plan will be published later this year. I ask all members, if they can, to contribute to its formation, because communities must be listened to. I think that the plan represents a way forward and an opportunity to do things better and differently and, ultimately, to improve the services that islanders are currently receiving.

Photo of Jamie Greene Jamie Greene Conservative

This is my second session as a member in this Parliament. In my first session, I sat on the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, so I know that we asked the Government for a ferries action plan six years ago. We said back then that 12 vessels were needed. Again, that was six years ago—they could have been delivered by now. The question is: where is the plan, and where are the vessels?

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

I do not think that Mr Greene’s characterisation of what has been delivered is fair or accurate. For example, we have recently seen the procurement of the two Islay vessels, so it is inaccurate to say that no vessels have been delivered in that time period. I say to him, though, that the islands plan offers a way forward, and I ask that all members, including Mr Greene, take part and collaborate in that process, because it is essential that we get this right.

Mr Halcro Johnston and a few other members highlighted issues with regard to project Neptune. I work closely with Mr Simpson as the Conservative transport representative, and I have been very up front with him about wanting to publish the report. However, we are not yet at that stage. Of course, we are now in purdah, and the cabinet secretary has advised that, as a result, we are not able to do that at this moment in time. I am more than happy to publish the report after the local government elections.

The other thing that we must take cognisance of, though, is the need to engage trade unions and staff in the process and to speak to island communities rather than rush the publication of a document that could ultimately have impacts on them and the future viability of the service.

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

It seems that we are making some progress on publishing the project Neptune report, but can the minister put a date on that? Will it be in May?

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

I apologise, but I cannot give Mr Simpson a date today. However, I will speak to officials about doing it as quickly as possible. I recognise the need for transparency on this, and, indeed, we have previously discussed that matter.

As members have pointed out and as the First Minister made clear in answer to a question from Ms Clark, this Government has no plans to privatise or unbundle.

To date, that has ensured control over service levels, timetables, fares and contracts, but I am acutely aware of the need to deliver a service for our island communities that works, and I am not clear that that is what is currently being delivered.

Over the recess, I had the privilege of visiting the Western Isles to meet communities in Barra, Uist and Harris and the Western Isles Council, and I had the opportunity to listen to their views and hear about some of the challenges they are facing. It was made very clear to me in those conversations that, for these communities, ferries are a lifeline, and their operations continue to affect day-to-day life. I have apologised to those communities, both in person during the recess and here in the chamber, and I do so unreservedly again today.

I am absolutely clear that communities are not getting the service that they need and deserve. Although the recent period of disruption has been particularly acute because of weather and Covid—indeed, in January and February alone, 92.75 per cent of all cancellations were due to either weather or Covid-19—it is clear that, as some members have pointed out, the ageing fleet and some of the infrastructure are having an impact, too.

There is also a challenge to CalMac in relation to communication with islanders. That was a fairly common theme in my meetings with islanders during the recess. Timely communication with island communities is essential to allaying fears and anxieties about service cancellations.

Photo of Baroness Katy Clark Baroness Katy Clark Labour

It may be that the minister is coming on to this point, but is she going to address the issue of ownership of ports? She will be aware, for example, that in Ardrossan, the ownership of the land and the harbour rights by Peel Ports has caused massive problems, with more than four years of delay. Is she also sympathetic to looking at how we bring ports back into public ownership, because that will make decision making easier in the public sector?

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

I am sympathetic to that. The member will know that Ardrossan is not in public ownership—I think as a direct result of UK Government privatisation back in the early 1990s. If Ardrossan was in public ownership now, we would have been able to move more quickly on the improvements that are required there. I am sympathetic to that point and I would be happy to meet Ms Clark to discuss that in more detail and to provide her with some reassurance that that is something that we are amenable to.

Ms Minto made the point that ferries connect not only people but the multimillion-pound whisky industry in her constituency. I recognise that, for her, having 23 islands in her constituency—the most that any MSP in the chamber has in their constituency, I think—that will not be without challenge. The wider issue that she alludes to of population growth and decline is very important and I can give her an assurance by saying that I have held initial meetings with the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands to discuss that in more detail to ensure that our officials are working together on how we can better support that work.

Richard Leonard mentioned market assessment. I will just clarify that that is a requirement for any public provision, but it is also combined with a community needs assessment. He asked about that community assessment and the point about language is important. I agree that they should be in public ownership and run for the public good, as he alludes to. He also asked about participatory democracy. Again, I am not against that. If he had listened to the debate that we had at the end of last term, he would have known that I gave an undertaking to Alasdair Allan to look at how we get greater representation for islanders on island boards, for example.

Paul McLennan pointed to the importance of the islands connectivity plan, which I think I previously mentioned. Mr Simpson spoke about ferry services that work for islanders; we all want that to happen. Ariane Burgess mentioned some of the issues around the under-22s scheme. Beatrice Wishart and a number of others have raised that point with me and it is something that we are considering as a result of the fair fares review, which will look at the modal challenges across the public transport network and how we can better connect the train network to our ferry network, for example, to give some resolution to some of the issues that she discussed.

Jamie Greene mentioned some of the issues in Arran. I will touch on that very briefly, Presiding Officer. Officials met the Arran ferry committee this morning and I will meet it tomorrow morning. I give an undertaking that I am prioritising this as a matter of absolute urgency. I know that the boat itself is in Troon at the moment for repair and it is being looked at today. I expect an update on the timescales tomorrow.

I am conscious of the time, so I will move to my concluding remarks. I think that I have touched on most members’ points, but we have had very wide-ranging contributions from members, so if any member feels that there are any issues that I have not addressed in these remarks, I would be more than happy to write to them directly on that.

From my perspective as transport minister, there are things that we need to improve and the next round of CHFS3 gives us an opportunity to do that. We have heard contributions from different members today on how we can best do that and I give an undertaking to all members that I am keen to work with every political party in the Parliament to ensure that we deliver a service that best meets the needs of our island communities.

13:48 Meeting suspended.

14:30 On resuming—