Transport Scotland deny RMT claim of sell-off of west coast ferry routes

Following the announcement by the RMT union that it is to ballot its members on taking strike action against Caledonian MacBrayne, Transport Scotland has issued a public statement.

The mooted strike action relates to the protection of working conditions and pension rights in what RMT describes as a coming ‘sell-off’ of specific routes  – the isle of Arran route between Ardrossan and Brodick; the Isles of Cumbrae route between Largs and Millport; the Isle of Bute route between Wemyss Bay and Rothesay; and the Isle of Mull route between Oban and Craignure.

In reporting on 1st August on the RMT action, For Argyll pointed out that the union needed to redirect its fire.

CalMac is owned by Scottish Ministers, would presumably be a bidder on any tendered routes and, if contracts were awarded elsewhere, could only ensure that its staff were transferred to any incoming company under Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) – TUPE-  arrangements.

CalMac, which would not then be their employer, would not be in a position to shape their working conditions or influence their pension rights. These would be the responsibility of their new employer.

We suggested that RMT should be addressing its concerns to the Scottish Government through Transport Scotland. It is the Scottish Government whose decisions will determine the nature of west coast ferry services.

The issues raised by the RMT are a matter for Scottish Ministers and then for bidders, not for Calmac.

The Transport Scotland statement

‘Claims that we are planning to sell off these routes are simply untrue.

‘The Scottish Government is absolutely committed to supporting our island and remote communities and ensuring we deliver on a progressive basis safe and reliable ferry services that meet the needs of users.

‘To meet our commitment we are continuing to invest millions in new cutting edge ferries, ports, harbours and associated infrastructure fit for the 21st century.

‘That is also why we published in December our draft ferries plan which sought views on how best to deliver ferry services across Scotland.

‘We are currently considering and reviewing in detail the 2000 or so responses received, and will publish the final ferries plan, which will provide a clear way ahead for ferry services in Scotland over the next decade in Scotland, by the end of the year.’


This statement says less that it seems to do.

The commitment to services to island and remote communities, expressed in the second paragraph, could be said to be delivered by awarding ferry route contracts to private sector operators.

The investment in infrastructure described in paragraph three is neutral information. It cannot be used, as it stands, either to confirm or deny any planned shift to the private sector of any or all of the west coast ferry routes.

The way the publicly owned (via Scottish Ministers) ferry provision currently works is through the separation of the ownership and management of the infrastructural elements involved – the ships, ports and harbours etc; and the management and delivery of the ferry services.

The infrastructural provision is the responsibility of the also publicly owned Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (CMAL).

The delivery of almost all of the west coast ferry services is the responsibility of Caledonian MacBrayne Limited. They own no infrastructure. They lease their boats from CMAL and they pay harbour dues and landing fees to CMAL and to other owners of harbours and piers they use, Argyll and Bute Council being one of them.

Any other operator with a contract for a route or routes could do exactly the same – and would do the same where the contract was service-only with the infrastructural supply line written in to the tender.

So boasting about investment in infrastructure is no reassurance whatsoever on the Government’s intentions either on retaining or changing the delivery of the ferry services.

Transport Scotland’s last defence is that they conducted and published a review of ferry services in Scotland on which they consulted and will publish their final plan by the end of this year.

That Ferries Review included a review of the Northern Isles routes which were going out to tender – on a system scored 80% on cost and 20% on quality. The service contract has since been awarded to a private sector bidder with little serious ferry service experience, Serco – and taken away from CalMac’s north coast sibling, NorthLink.

Only in the world on the far side of the looking glass could this be said to offer RMT or concerned ferry uses any reassurance at all on the government’s will to retain west coast lifeline services in the current mode of arms length public sector delivery.

Why should they not do on the west coast what they have done on the north?

Divining intent

When For Argyll saw the outcome of the  Northern Isles tender – and the nature of the winning bidder – we too believe this to be a signpost to the Scottish Government’s direction of travel in the provision of ferry services to the west coast.

Serco has very limited experience as a ferry service operator but it is a ‘trusty’ as a private sector contractor to governments. It is a long time defence industry service provider. It has made publicly known its ambitions to move into the west coast ferry service business.

With the Northern Isles services, Serco will lease the former and purpose built NorthLink ferries from their banking sector owner – as NorthLink did. It would do the same with west coast routes and CMAL.

The west coast routes cited as of concern to RMT are, interestingly, the best used and therefore the most attractive to a private sector bidder – Arran, Bute, the Cumbraes and Mull. Coincidence?

The Ferries Review

The Ferries Review itself is a disappointingly feeble and unfocused document, almost entirely lacking in strategic vision. It is dangerously populist in giving rise to expectations that cannot possibly be fulfilled.

Some of its proposals could not be more culturally and practically damaging – as those, for example, to scrap the ferries between Ardnamurchan and Mull, between Lismore and Oban and between Lochranza on Arran and Claonaig in north Kintyre.

There is no economic analysis to show how the savings in cutting these services could finance the extravagant promises the Review wafts before some more populated routes, like Mull and Arran.

In general its stance was – sometimes overtly, ‘We want to give you what you want’ with  no intelligent analysis of those ‘wants’.

Who would  not like to be able to walk on to a ferry to anywhere at any minute of the day? Such a service is not in any way the ‘lifeline’ service that qualifies for subsidy from the public purse.

Shocked by the lack of analytic foundation in the review and noticing that, in the case of the Gourock-Dunoon route, the review referred to a ‘needs analysis’ it had carried out but which it did not detail along with others in the appendices to the Review.

For Argyll asked to see this analysis under a Freedom of Information request and was refused with the following ‘explanation’:

‘As noted in the Draft Ferries Plan published on 21 December 2011, where we have sufficiently robust data, we have applied our needs based assessment to all main communities. Appendix 1 of the Draft Plan includes information to allow us to apply the methodology in full. We have, however, been able to establish that the town centre to town centre route is consistent with a commuting dependency. Information used to reach this conclusion is exempt under Section 29 (1) (a) of FOISA (Ed: Freedom of Information Scotland Act) as it relates to the formulation of government policy. In reaching this decision we have concluded that withholding the information outweighs the public interest in disclosing it.’

What this says is: ‘We didn’t actually have as robust a basis for the the review material on the Gourock Dunoon route as we did for other routes so we didn’t publish it – but it’s exempt under FOISA as contributing to “the formulation of government policy”.’

This is admitting that government policy can be based on insecure and unsupported foundations – which, in effect means, ‘We do as we like and we don’t need evidence’.

So our own reading of the picture of what is going on – from Serco, to the Gourock Dunoon morass, to the identification of routes first to be tendered – indicates a government that is reactive not strategic and that its direction of travel suggests a move to privatisation.

Genuine strategic management has no fear of making known the evidence behind its thinking and its decision taking.

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One Response to Transport Scotland deny RMT claim of sell-off of west coast ferry routes

  1. Newsroom (aka soapbox) who are the “Caledonian MacBrayne Limited” that you mentioned in your article?

    Is that not a dormant company formed in 2006 ?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

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