Ferry Services (Highlands and Islands)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 20 April 2023.

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Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

6. To ask the First Minister what immediate action the Scottish Government will take to improve the situation regarding ferry services across the Highlands and Islands, in light of recent reports of unprecedented disruption. (S6F-02011)

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

As I already said in my response to Anas Sarwar’s question, I recognise the significant impact that delays and disruption have, regrettably, had on our island communities during the annual overhaul programme. We know that not only individuals but businesses in our island communities rely on those lifeline services.

I am committed to investing in our ferry services and we will be delivering six new major vessels to serve Scotland’s ferry network by 2026: that is a priority for me and for the Government that I lead. We have already procured the MV Loch Frisa, we previously chartered the MV Arrow and we look forward to shortly welcoming the MV Alfred into service to provide additional resilience in the network. In the meantime, we will continue pressing Caledonian MacBrayne to consider all options to minimise the impact on communities and businesses.

I know that the Minister for Transport is engaging very closely on that issue. He has held resilience calls with CalMac and Transport Scotland in the light of the latest disruptions and has proactively engaged directly with local stakeholders, with our operators and with Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd to improve reliability and resilience right across the network.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

The transport minister refused to take responsibility for the ferry crisis and also refused compensation payments for local businesses that are going to the wall because of ferry failures. Now that constituents on Uist will have no mainland ferry services from Sunday, which is in three days’ time, is the First Minister going to do the same, or is he going to tell us what emergency provision he will put in place? Has he asked the Ministry of Defence for help and what compensation will he give to the businesses that will close as a result of this?

The First Minister:

I already said in my response to Anas Sarwar that we will consider the issues of compensation and of what more we can do to support businesses when there is disruption. I do not agree with the premise of the member’s question. I know that Kevin Stewart has been directly involved in engaging with CalMac and with the island communities that have been affected.

I go back to my responses to both Anas Sarwar and Rhoda Grant: we have the MV Alfred coming on board—I hope—in the coming days, which will provide further resilience to our network. However, I take the points that have been made. Of course, any disruption to our ferry network is regrettable. The other point that I know that Kevin Stewart has been engaging on is that we want to ensure that we improve our communication and CalMac’s communication with islanders when such disruption takes place.

Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

The Scottish Government has now officially asked the United Kingdom armed forces to step in and provide a temporary replacement service across the Corran narrows. Although that service is run by Highland Council, it highlights the lack of resilience and the growing crisis in Scotland’s ferry network.

Can the First Minister advise me if he was involved in signing off that request to the MOD and, if so, when he did that? Given the need to ensure that this kind of disruption, and the severe impact that it has on local communities, does not happen again, will he today commit to either he, or his new transport minister, visiting the area at the earliest opportunity to meet with local residents and businesses?

The First Minister:

I have a slight correction to Jamie Halcro Johnston’s question: it is our MOD. Our Scottish taxpayers’ money helps to fund the MOD, so when he talks about the MOD stepping in, it is important to say that it is using assets that Scottish taxpayers contribute towards. That is a really important point of clarification.

The Scottish Government has been helpful. We have helped to facilitate engagement between Highland Council—because we know that the Corran ferry is its responsibility—and the MOD. It was my colleague Ian Blackford, the MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, who helped to ensure facilitation between Highland Council, the MOD and the Scottish Government.

We will do everything that we possibly can in relation to that military aid to the civil authorities request. My understanding is that the MOD is currently doing initial assessments. Whatever the next steps are in relation to that process that involve the Scottish Government, we will be as helpful as we can possibly be.

I also remind Jamie Halcro Johnston that it was the former Deputy First Minister who announced in his final budget that the Scottish Government would provide full revenue funding to councils that run their own ferry services. Our officials are in very proactive engagement with Highland Council about these costs. Kevin Stewart would, of course, be happy to visit the Highlands and talk to the local community about the Corran ferry route.