In the widespread concern over the Scottish Government’s intentions for the future delivery of Clyde and Hebridean ferry services, Dave Thompson MSP yesterday (11th September) asked the First Minister what assurances he could give about the future of the jobs of CalMac staff should CalMac lose the tender for these lifeline services.
The TUPE (Non) defence
The answer was ‘TUPE’, which Mr Thompson has accepted as reassuring, though many would not.
TUPE is the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations and allows for the transfer of staff on existing terms of employment from one service provider to an incoming one. It does not, however, oblige the incoming company to retain all those staff or to maintain the employment conditions on which they transferred.
TUPE obliges an incomer to take staff on – not to keep them or to keep them in the manner to which they are accustomed.
While the First Minister responded to Mr Thompson’s queries with ‘TUPE’, he went on say that CalMac workers should take ease in the arrangements made over conditions of service and pension rights made with the new operator of the Northern Isles service.
Such arrangements are outwith the reach of TUPE’ and result from special negotiations between the operator – Serco, in this case and unions – here the RMT union.
The First Minister’s answer was here deceptive on three counts.
The attempt to protect NorthLink staff was not a part of the government’s concerns in the contract which Serco was given to take over the Northern Isles services. This was taken on by the RMT union, working to protect the interests of its members.
We understand that the negotiations Mr Salmond mentioned for the staff on the Northern Isles ferry services to Orkney and Shetland are ongoing and not yet complete.
The situation and employment negotiations with the Clyde and Hebridean ferry services would be very subsstantially more complex than those over the Northern Isles services, with much greater human anxiety on one side and much greater cost implications on the other.
We know that CalMac skippers on the Clyde and Hebridean routes are transferring their union memberships to RMT in the expectation of tough and lengthy negotiations and possible strike action.
The intent to privatise
From the First Minister’s performance yesterday – which we watched live online, we saw nothing to cause us to change our evidenced view that the Scottish Government does indeed intend to privatise the west coast lifeline services, with Serco – the new Northern Isles service provider – a probable shoe-in.
The government does seem to have backed off flogging the route services in bundles to all comers but the nuances in yesterday’s exchanges indicated that CalMac is not seriously in the frame and that the contract will go in its entirety to a single private sector provider.
There are and will be serious questions to be asked on this and rigorous scrutiny to be paid to exactly what the government proposes, tenders and contracts.
The First Minster is famously slippery and he is no less oleaginous than usual on this issue, Any government minister who trots out the formula that there are ‘no plans’ for whatever, is a long way from being transparent. What the rest of us understand by ‘plans’ and what politicians mean by ‘plans’ are very different things.
The contract for the Clyde and Hebridean lifeline ferry services is due to go out to tender, with a new contract beginning on 21st September 2013. CalMac’s contract runs out on 20th September 2013.
This is just over a year away and still there is no tender specification and no foregoing publication by the Scottish Government of its final Scottish Ferries Review. This will carry the government’s strategic policy position on the provision of lifeline services – resulting, so they say, from what has been a pretty low rent consultation exercise and, strategically and intellectually, a poor quality draft review.
Commenting on yesterday’s exchange, Dave Thompson said: ‘The ferries not only provide a crucial service for our communities throughout the West Coast and Islands, but they are also a vital source of jobs.
‘While it is necessary (Ed: under EU law to which we are subject) to put the contract out to tender, it is important that any new service provider protects the jobs that Caledonian MacBrayne currently secure.
‘The vast majority of the current workforce are based on the West coast, and it would be a huge blow to these communities if these jobs were threatened.’
Mr Thompson’s remarks here make it clear that he too anticipates a change of provider – and all this is in advance of a tender specification and a tendering process.
The situation is much more complex than job security – which TUPE does not seriously protect.
Serco, the likely beneficiary, is a powerful and experienced business but has no real experience of ferry operation. A scoot across the Thames in London was its sole ferry experience before being given the NorthLink contract.
The west coast services – like the Northern Isles ones, are lifeline services but the situation is far more complex in every way.
The number and nature of staff, of routes, of types of boats, of piers and harbours, of sea conditions and weather systems, of ways of moving boats around the routes to cover for servicing, refits and technical problems, of service frequencies and community needs is neither knowledge nor experience a new kid on the coast can gain by inhaling.
CalMac appear to have the hex already applied to them. So much for due process and transparency.
The Argyll position
We understand that, as well as SNP MSPs, members of the administration of Argyll and Bute Council have been made aware of the intentions of the Scottish Government through the local MSP – and there is not a cheep out of any of them.
Yet this is an area whose internal ferry routes are utterly vital to communications, business and tourism, the only realisable target for economic sustainability and development.
Argyll and Bute could not be more affected nor more important in this issue.
Of the 25 routes on CalMac’s schedule, 14 of them – 56% – are services to Argyll and Bute.
This will be the area most affected by any change.
It will be battleground for the emergence of the correct result on this issue and those concerned about it from any perspective need to start now to make their views and their voices widely known.
Not only jobs but lifeline services
Mr Thomson also said of yesterday: ‘I am also very pleased that the First minister confirmed that there were no plans to unbundle the routes and that the contract would go out as a whole.’
He too knows the inside story and he too is saying nothing.
Of all things, lifeline services have to be the focus for the sort of serious exploration of issues we are not getting from government and have no reason to imagine that they have taken place to any serious degree within government.
This is the arena where the relative merits of public and private sector provision should be tested, because lifeline services are most germane to the issue.
There is also no reason why services provided by the public sector should be any less well managed, any less efficient and cost efficient than might be the case with the private sector.
The question is one of absolute assurance of service continuity (weather permitting) – without occasional or ongoing overt or, more likely, covert injections of extra taxpayers cash to a private profit taker.
Responses to this may raise questions of why special arrangements to ensure this imperative – which cannot be cost free – might me made available in the event of a private sector supplier but not with a public sector service which already delivers on those guarantees.