Highlands and islands Conservative MSP, Jamie McGrigor, has had a written answer from Transport Minister, Keith Brown, to the Parliamentary Question he recently lodged.
The question was put in the wake of the Deputy First Minister’s formally expressed intent to include Steering Group members along with Transport Scotland officials, in pre-tender discussions with potential bidders for any state-subsidised service on the route.
The Steering Group includes representatives of Argyll and Bute and Inverclyde councils and the Gourock Dunoon Ferry Action Group.
The McGrigor question
‘Jamie McGrigor (Highlands and Islands) (Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party): To ask the Scottish Government, further to the letter dated 1 July 2013 to the Gourock Dunoon Ferries Service Steering Group from the Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure, Investment and Cities, what (a) level and (b) type of involvement it envisages for the group in meeting with potential operators and whether it will involve action groups for other ferry services in a similar way.’
The Transport Minister’s response
‘Mr Keith Brown MSP :
‘In her letter dated 1 July 2013, to the Gourock Dunoon Ferry Services Steering Group, the Deputy First Minister explained the steps that would be taken following the publication of the MVA feasibility report.
‘Transport Scotland will be engaging with potential operators, to gauge market interest in the route. A timetable for this to occur has yet to be finalised.
‘The Deputy First Minister indicated that the Gourock Dunoon Ferry Services Steering Group, would be involved in this process in some way. Options for the level and type of involvement will be considered by Ministers before the start of the consultation/engagement process.’
The immediate issue
Firstly, the question was not answered by the Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure and Investment, the Deputy First Minister, whose action was its focus. It was answered by her junior, Transport Minister, Keith Brown.
It was the Deputy First Minister who had made the commitment in question. Why did she not speak for it herself?
Secondly, Mr Brown’s ‘answer’ does not even attempt to answer the plain and explicit issues raised in Jamie McGrigor’s question.
This is an avoidance worthy of keen attention.
The MSP asked:
‘what (a) level and (b) type of involvement it envisages for the group in meeting with potential operators and whether it will involve action groups for other ferry services in a similar way.’
There are three issues raised here:
- the level of proposed involvement by members of the Steering Group for the feasibility study – the Deputy First Minister had indicated that they would be involved with her Transport Scotland officials in pre-tendering discussions with potential bidders for the service contract;
- the nature of that involvement;
- the widening of such involvement in pre-tendering to local ferry action groups concerned with other routes.
The question addresses none of these.
It is no more than a dead-bat exercise in stonewalling.
The big question is ‘Why?’
Given the failure to get an answer from the Scottish Government on the issues he raised in his question, Jamie McGrigor is to submit a follow-up question in an effort to get the answers.
So what’s happening?
Why did the First Minister not offer the intended detail of her commitment in response to Jamie McGrigor’s utterly factual question?
Why did the Transport Minister choose not to address the practical issues on which Jamie McGrigor had enquired?
No one had asked the Deputy First Mister for the commitment she gave. She made it voluntarily and out of the blue. This means that it was not a compromise position on a difficult issue but a starting position towards new procedural values.
Nicola Sturgeon knew what she meant and presumably meant what she said. Ministerial communications are never unthought or uncrafted. This particular commitment was a consciously written version of an earlier verbal commitment to which the Deputy First Minister herself refers in the paragraph of her letter quoted under Background information, below.
Yet here we see the Transport Minister performing a fast u-turn in offering no detail on the questions asked by Jamie McGrigor and patently rowing backwards hard, dampening down expectations of the promised involvement.
He will not have been empowered to do this, to offer this response, without the consent of his boss, Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure and Investment, Nicola Sturgeon.
Logically, there are only three ways of explaining this curious behaviour:
- The Deputy First Minister has been unable to assert her higher authority within her own department, with her will to open up the tendering process subverted from within, a process she has had to accept.
- The Deputy First Minister gave her written commitment without necessary thought to the consequences; and has licensed the u-turn delivered not by herself but by her junior minister – a face saving device.
- The Deputy First Minister never meant the commitment she gave; and made it with political intent to pacify local activists to protect or buy ‘Yes’ votes in the September 2014 independence referendum.
The concern is that whichever of these interpretation is the case, it questions the authority, the competence or the integrity of the second-highest ranking minister in the Scottish Government, the Cabinet Secretary in direct charge of the campaign for Scottish independence and positioned to lead an independent Scotland when the current First Minister retires.
We can have no idea which of these interpretations is correct.
We are hearing from authoritative sources in Holyrood that the Deputy First Minister’s commitment to the involvement of the Steering Group was made only as a political move.
It is said to have been no more than a way of letting the Dunoon-Ferry Action Group get ‘from the horses’ mouths’ [potential bidders] the confirmation that there is no commercial interest from potential ferry operators in bidding for the service they have been campaigning to achieve.
We find this hard to accept.
It would show political weakness in the preference for the easy deception to the straight laying out of the known facts.
It would signal a culture at the heart of the Scottish Government capable of deliberately misleading for political ends. Whatever our differences have come to be, this is not a culture we want to contemplate as guiding the strategies of the government of this country.
If this story is new to you, the information below will give you the context.
The Deputy First Minister’s commitment
The final report of a feasibility study – on a competing private sector vehicle service between Gourock and Dunoon carrying a state subsidised passenger service – was published on 1st July 2013.
The Deputy First Minister sent a covering letter with the report to the members of the Steering Group she had set up to guide the study [which was quickly discredited for its incompetence]. The Group’s members, along with Transport Scotland officials are representatives of Argyll and Bute and Inverclye Councils and the Dunoon-Gourock Ferry Action Group.
In paragraph five of that letter – and the emphasis on one passage is ours, Ms Sturgeon said:
‘It was beyond the scope of the study to consider whether feasibility on paper will translate into commercial attractiveness sufficient for one or more operator to bid on this basis for a future tendered contract. Any potential operator will make their own assessment of the market potential and the likelihood and consequences of a competitive response. As I said at the last meeting, I am therefore keen for my officials in Transport Scotland to engage with potential operators, as they would in preparation for any new tendering exercise, and I indicated that I would like it to be open to the Steering Group to be involved in that process in some way. That is something we will take forward in the coming months.’
The democratising intent
In an article published on 7th August – Deputy First Minister set to bring welcome local engagement in ferry tendering processes – For Argyll welcomed the Deputy First Minister’s stated intention to open up part of the pre-tendering processes to engagement by local authorities and by local action groups.
It was clear that this sort of action could never be defended as limited to one situation and one group, so the Deputy First Minister’s commitment obviously envisaged a commendable move to new approaches to tendering public sector contracts, inclusive of local interests.
Comments to this article, invited and voluntary, demonstrated, as we had done, pitfalls to be avoided in the execution of this commitment while also welcoming the greater democracy on offer.