David Stewart, Labour Highlands and Islands MSP and long term ferries campaigner, has welcomed the decision of the Scottish Government to delay the tendering of the west coast ferry services and award an interim three year contract to Caledonian MacBrayne as a significant first step in the campaign to protect the lifeline routes.
Mr Stewart sees the delay as a short term victory offering temporary protection to services and jobs but has a continuing concern over the long term future of the services.
He is disturbed by the timing of the tender and finds it suspiciously reminiscent of the management of the Gourock-Dunoon tender.
He says: ‘The fight for the long term future of CalMac starts today.
‘As a long time campaigner for ferry services in Scotland, I believe that this development is a step forward in protecting these lifeline services on our West Coast. I recently met with Caledonian MacBrayne management and staff and I know there were real concerns about the future of services and jobs, which was clearly seen in the ballot for industrial action.
‘Thankfully these concerns have been allayed in the short term not least due to the RMT ballot for industrial action that showed the strength of feeling amongst staff.
‘However it is also clear that this relief is only temporary and that real concerns remain about the long term future of the routes and the jobs and services that go with them.
‘I would love to believe that the Scottish Government have signalled a real change in long term strategy, however it appears that it may be more the threat of a long term strike in the run up to the referendum that has caused them to delay.
‘This action is suspiciously reminiscent of the Gourock–Dunoon tender that was delayed due to the 2011 Scottish Elections. Usually when governments delay in this way, it is because bad news is coming – however that is simply not good enough for people whose livelihoods depend on these lifeline services.
‘After the Gourock–Dunoon debacle, the privatisation of the Northern Isles services, the proposals in the draft ferries review, and the recent departure of the Chief Executive of the David MacBrayne group, confidence in the Scottish Government’s handling of ferry services is already at rock bottom.
‘There are already concerns about the contract awarded to run the Northern Isles services and it is paramount that the Scottish Government commit to the future of Caledonian MacBrayne and the staff that so effectively operate these lifeline services.
‘It beggars belief that a nationalist government would even contemplate a scenario where a wholly owned Scottish company would be outsourced to a multi-national that would almost certainly be based outwith Scotland, but I am glad that the Scottish Government have delayed on this plan, at least on a temporary basis.
‘What is now important is that the case is made to strengthen and protect these vital Caledonian MacBrayne services so they are safeguarded for the long term. The campaign for the long term future of Calmac starts today.’
This is the first eyes-wide-open statement from an MSP on the Scottish Government’s move to extend to seven years what will be the preparation period for letting a contract for the Clyde and Hebridean ferry services.
It is unsurprising that this level of awareness should come from an experienced MSP and a respected campaigner for ferry services.
There remains another curiosity in the government’s time schedule as announced by the Transport Minister, Keith Brown MSP.
The Transport Minister has now promised by the end of this year the publication of the Scottish Government’s long awaited policy document on the future of our ferry services, the final Scottish Ferries Review.
Since this will be the final detailed policy that will guide the framing of the tender for the services to be contracted, it is hard to understand why it should then take a further 22 months or so to prepare the tender to be issued for the services in the ‘Autumn of 2014′, according to the Minister’s schedule.
Indeed, it is equally difficult to understand why, once the tender is issued in the Autumn of 2014, the process of the letting of the contract should be anticipated to require a further 15 months minimum to the award scheduled for ’2016′.
All of this is especially confusing seeing that only a week before his announcement of this radically rescheduled process, the Transport Minster – who must be fully aware of just what stage the final Ferries Review has reached and just what it contains – formally envisaged a very different timeframe.
He spoke, in a government press statement, of the framing of a tender and the letting of the contract, followed [in a procedurally strange chronology] by the publication of the final Ferries Review policy document in time for the new contract to begin seamlessly when Calmac’s current contract runs out – on 30 September 2013.
Why should a process the Minister envisaged then as achievable within a year from now, assume one week later a level of complexity requiring around three and a half years work from now?
If one took the Minister’s first estimate of 12 months to completion from now and added that 12 months to the conclusion of the Independence Referendum in the Autumn of 2014, it produces a projected contract award date strikingly similar to the one now announced by the Minister – ’2016′.
A cynic might conclude that this rescheduling has been a move to mothball the entire exercise until the Independence Referendum is over, freeing the Minister – as with all of his fellows in government, to focus on the campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote’ in that referendum and then pick up the ferries stuff, with a spot of re-familiarisation before thrashing it into the direction it has always been intended to take.
In the meantime departmental officials can easily be getting into shape any arrangements thought necessary over local authority-run ferry services.
One thing is certain. The final Ferries Review to be published by the end of 2012 will be one of the most rigorously interrogated documents this government has produced in its two terms of office.
David Stewart will clearly be waiting for it with considerable interest. He will not be alone.
We are rather drawn to anticipate an unexpected delay in that publication.