In brief, the official Scottish Government position is that the two Argyll Ferries boats on this service are safe and meet regulatory requirements for the route – but that if Dunoon doesn’t want them, they’re ‘not fit for purpose’.
On Tuesday 28th August we asked Transport Scotland the following questions:
‘In the hypothetical situation of any specific change being actively considered by SG in relation to the nature of the current passenger ferry service between Gourock and Dunoon or in relation to its mode of provision – eg a specific boat:
- ‘Would a STAG appraisal be necessary?
- What are the criteria for carrying out a STAG appraisal?
- In what circumstances would change to the nature or provisioning of the service on this route NOT require a STAG appraisal?
‘Mr Neil is on the record as having declared that one of the Argyll Ferries boats on this route – the MV Ali Cat – is ‘not fit for purpose’.
- We are challenging Mr Neil to define precisely the ways in which he has judged this boat to be ‘not fit for purpose’?
- We are also interested to know how, if Mr Neil believes this to be the case and can legally defend the position, he has not had the MV Ali Cat withdrawn from service? ‘
In the last pair of questions above our purpose – a key one – was to establish Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure Alex Neil’s interpretation of the factual situation we described as below:
‘Mr Neil, as a Scottish Minister, is a shareholder of Argyll Ferries, the owner of the boat in question.
‘As the Cabinet Secretary ultimately responsible for transport, how does he not have a duty of care for the safety of the travelling public to have withdrawn from service a boat he has declared to be ‘not fit for purpose’ and which is owned and operated by a company owned by the government in which he serves and of which he is himself a shareholder?
‘In what ways is Mr Neil NOT legally responsible for a situation he is attempting to distance himself from in his public criticisms of it?’
Transport Scotland responses
Yesterday, 29th August, Transport Scotland replied (the emphases are ours):
‘The vessels deployed by AFL (Ed: Argyll Ferries Limited) meet the regulatory requirements for the route and are safe. However, feedback from users is that the comfort and weather reliability of MV AliCat are not at the level they want for this service and Cabinet Secretary Alex Neil announced the search for a short-term replacement which is continuing.
‘We are also working with the local councils and the Dunoon Gourock Ferry Action Group to carry out a feasibility study into the viability of a vehicle and passenger ferry service where only the passenger element would be subsidised, in line with the European Commission’s Decision of October 2009.’
‘Consideration of any change of vessel would require to be appraised in terms of costs and benefits although it is not considered that a full STAG would be required.
‘Feedback from users of the MV Ali Cat found that the comfort and weather reliability of MV AliCat are not at the level they want for this service. That is the context in which the vessel was described by the Cabinet Secretary as ‘not fit for purpose.’
Most of this is self-evidently supportive of the degree of mischief making in which – for whatever reason – the Scottish Government has indulged, to the detriment of the reputation of a company owned by itself and subject to its instructions.
The Argyll Ferries boats are here formally confirmed:
- to meet the regulatory requirements for the route;
- to be safe.
The grave and public allegation nevertheless made by the Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure that one of the two boats, MV Ali Cat, is ‘not fit for purpose’ is here said to have been made solely because it is not what the Dunoon contras ‘want for the route’ in terms of ‘comfort and weather reliability’.
The Scottish Government drew up the tender specification for the service. Did it include ‘comfort and weather reliability’?
Of course not.
They care about cost not comfort and contract accordingly.
Much more importantly, what ferry operator could be held contractually accountable for something vaguely called ‘weather reliability’ when they cannot control the weather?
No boat is wholly ‘weather reliable’ in the loose sense that seems to be enough for a cabinet minister to assault a company’s reputation these days and to undermine public confidence in its service.
In law, this could be a libel case for Argyll Ferries – against its own sole shareholder.
The other day, for example, in severe and forecast wind conditions, Argyll Ferries warned that services could be disrupted or cancelled. In the event, the company lost a very few services while the big vehicle and passenger ferry service from Ardrossan to Brodick on Arran was out for the whole day.
But the Dunoon-Gourock Ferries Action Group harpies were shrieking damnation on Argyll Ferries again.
You can only declare that something is not fit for purpose where you can show that a stated purpose has not been met.
If the Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure feels that what Dunoon ‘wants for the route’ and that (undefined) ‘comfort’ and (undefined) ‘weather reliability’ are essential purposes of this service, then his own department stands condemned by his own mouth for negligence in the tender specification upon which the contract was awarded and the boats to be used by the state owned Argyll Ferries were approved.
We also note that – significantly – the Cabinet Secretary has failed to address the key issue of his legal responsibilties in this matter: ‘We are also interested to know how, if Mr Neil believes this to be the case (Ed: that MV Ali Cat is ‘not fit for purpose’) and can legally defend the position, he has not had the MV Ali Cat withdrawn from service? ‘
Follow up questions
Yesterday we asked two follow up questions of Transport Scotland and have been promised a reply today.
- Did the tender specification describing the service that would be appropriate and was to be bid for, specify anything of the order of: ‘comfort and weather reliability’ ?
- How does ‘comfort and weather reliability’ square with the the regulatory requirements for the route? ‘Weather reliability’ is a phrase that must have regulatory resonance.
We will report on this when we have the responses.