1. This week, a third of the population of South Uist turned out to protest against ferry cancellations. They are rightly furious that, this month, every ferry to the island has been scrapped. Reports today quote Christina Morrison, who runs the Croft & Cuan near Lochboisdale ferry terminal. She said:
“We don’t want compensation, we ‘need’ compensation”.
First and foremost, I recognise what disruption has been caused by the failure of that ferry—[
.]—which has been caused by the breakdown of the ferry in question. Nobody in the Government—certainly not I, as First Minister—is doubting the significant impact on the South Uist community. The former transport minister visited South Uist and, indeed, North Uist. He also spoke to the South Uist business impact group, so we understand the level and degree of disruption to the community that is taking place.
Of course, we will look at what we can do to support business. I have looked previously at the issue of compensation, which has been raised in the chamber, rightly, by a number of MSPs across the political spectrum. The reason why we have not brought forward compensation is that the money that is deducted from CalMac in terms of penalties and fines is reinvested back into the resilience of the network. [
One example of that, of course, would be the £9 million that has been spent to charter the MV Alfred. That is being funded—or partly funded, I should say—by those performance deductions from CalMac of around £1 million to £3 million a year.
I will continue to listen to the calls for how we can support business—as I say, compensation is not off the table—because we know that the community in South Uist is often affected when there is ferry disruption. I will continue to keep an open mind on that question, but CalMac is, of course, doing everything that it can in its gift to ensure that it bolsters the resilience of the network.
I am not sure that the First Minister grasps how critical and urgent this is. He says that he will keep an open mind and that he recognises the problems in South Uist, but his answer was almost verbatim the answer that he gave to Donald Cameron two weeks ago about the issues affecting islanders on Mull.
These endless cancellations are leaving businesses in despair and costing jobs, so let us go back to South Uist. One islander, Gary Young, said that takings in his business were down 70 per cent since the ferry service was cancelled. However, the issue is about more than the damage to the economy. The disruption goes far further than that. Mr Young said:
“The ferries are affecting me at my work and family life.”
He added that his son has allergies and they are forced to wait for medication to arrive, and he gave this stark warning:
“It has made us question how long we’ll stay on the island.”
The SNP’s failures risk driving people away from island communities, so does the First Minister recognise that it is not only businesses that need compensation, but everyone who has had their lives turned upside down by the cancellations?
As I said in my first answer, of course we recognise the disruption that is caused not just to businesses but to island communities who depend on those lifeline services. We absolutely recognise that impact and that disruption, which is why we are committed to ensuring, for example, that we have six new vessels in the network by the end of the parliamentary session, and why CalMac has invested £9 million to ensure that the MV Alfred is chartered, in order to bolster that resilience across the network where we can.
When we look at the overall statistics in relation to the scheduled sailings that have taken place, we see that only 1 per cent have been cancelled due to technical issues. However, clearly, that 1 per cent—the almost 2,000 cancellations that take place due to technical issues—has a significant impact on the communities and, in this case, on the community of South Uist.
We have made another promise and commitment. We know that, often, it is the Lochboisdale service that is impacted because of what is called the route prioritisation matrix, which CalMac uses to determine where vessel redeployment has to take place if there is a breakdown. CalMac, which I believe will visit South Uist shortly to have a discussion with the community, has recognised that, often, it is the community of South Uist that is affected. CalMac has promised to review that route prioritisation matrix, and we will of course ensure that Parliament is updated.
We recognise the impact on island communities, which is why I have said that we will look to see what more we can do to support the community, including businesses. We will continue to ensure that we invest in those six new major vessels that will serve Scotland’s ferry network by 2026.
The First Minister has said that CalMac is looking to review the matrix but, actually, its chief executive is going to the island next week to explain it to islanders—he is going to explain why their services have been cut off for an entire month.
The disruption is not just affecting South Uist—it is destroying the way of life across many of Scotland’s island and coastal communities.
“I’m really at my wits end with all the disruption caused by our aging ferry fleet and the horrific impact this is having on my business ... When I should be increasing staff hours—I have had to cut them drastically ... It’s utterly appalling and really upsetting.”
Does the First Minister accept and hear what Louise is saying? Does he understand how many jobs his failures are costing?
I am happy to repeat for the third time that of course I, and we as a Government, do not just understand but are doing everything that we can alongside CalMac to ensure that there is not that disruption to island communities. So, yes, I recognise what Louise and others have said; I have read many comments from businesses in South Uist that have been impacted and affected.
That is why we have taken measures across our term in government to try to bolster that ferry network: we bought and deployed an additional vessel in the MV Loch Frisa; we chartered the MV Arrow to provide additional resilience and capacity; we commissioned two new vessels for Islay and two new vessels for the Little Minch route; we progressed investment in key ports and harbours; and we confirmed additional revenue funding for the operation of local authority ferry services.
I have already mentioned the fact that CalMac spent £9 million—some of that money is coming from the deductions from CalMac—to charter the MV Alfred, which is adding to the resilience of the network.
Where there are failings—clearly, there has been a failing in this case—we know that it is often the community of South Uist that is affected, because of the prioritisation matrix. I can therefore confirm that that route prioritisation matrix will absolutely be reviewed, so that in the future, if there are those unfortunate occasions when there is a breakdown of a ferry, it is not always that community that is impacted.
The First Minister got annoyed that he had to repeat what he had said. I am getting annoyed that there are so many cases of so many businesses and so many individuals who are affected by this issue throughout our island communities, and the blame lies squarely at the door of the SNP.
The failure of Humza Yousaf’s party to build a working ferry network is causing chaos. We spoke to Eileen MacDonald of the Doune Braes hotel on Lewis. She said:
“Enough is enough. The island is in such a terrible way. Hotel bookings are down more than 50 per cent. In 40 years of living on Lewis, there is no vibrancy. We are in despair. We cannot be fobbed off with empty words any longer.”
The First Minister needs to give Eileen and everyone else in our island communities more than empty words. The SNP’s failure to deliver a working ferry network is ruining lives, damaging businesses, costing jobs and driving islanders to despair. Why should everyone who is affected not be compensated for the SNP’s mistakes?
I am not saying this out of frustration; I am doing it to re-emphasise the fact that the Scottish Government understands the concern of many of the islanders who have been affected, including the person in the example that was given by Douglas Ross in the question that he just asked. We are investing in the ferry network. I have already given examples of the action that we have taken, including the fact that we have committed investment for six new ferries and look forward to their being part of the network by 2026.
The question of compensation is a very fair question for islanders to ask and for Douglas Ross to raise. I have looked at the issue of compensation, and I am happy to re-examine it. Any such scheme would need to be carefully considered, because it would require a stark choice to be made about funding priorities. We invest the funds from those penalties—the deductions that we take from CalMac—into the resilience of the network, such as by chartering the MV Alfred.
I completely understand the impact and effect that the disruption is having on the community of South Uist. We will continue to engage with the communities of South Uist and, where we can support businesses and livelihoods, I will explore what more can be done.