We published an article on Friday (20th July), on ‘facts and fancies’ around Dunoon’s ferry services. Our objective was to lay out the incontrovertible facts of a matter characterised by chinese whispers and rank scaremongering, utterly removed from any care for the value of evidence.
For Argyll article of 20th July
This article enumerated the scale of the ferry services Dunoon uniquely enjoys in its current timetable – an average of no fewer than 199 sailings a day – or over 99 in each direction.
It showed how the Scottish Government cannot, under European law, attempt to subsidise vehicle ferry services on any route not classed as a ‘lifeline’ service – as the Gourock-Dunoon route is not. (It is permissible for the government to subsidise a passenger ferry service, as it does in the case of the contract awarded to Argyll Ferries for this route.)
It demonstrated how the Scottish Government could not support the provision of ‘new’ boats to Argyll Ferries for the current passenger service on this route during the life of the current contract, without incurring a challenge under competition law which they could not hope to win.
It showed why a vehicle service on this route cannot be competitive, would therefore be economically unsustainable – and that the complete lack of business interest in running such a service as a private sector operation is the most telling proof.
It accounted for the fact that the introduction of the Road Equivalent Tariff (RET )scheme on the Gouroock-Dunoon route is impossible under European law. It also showed that, were RET to be introduced despite this, some key fares (regular car and driver journeys) would actually cost more – up to 34% in this instance – under RET than under the discounts currently available but not permissible under RET.
It detailed the cause – essentially administrative – of the ‘improvement notice’ the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) had served in relation to MV Ali Cat, one of the boats used by Argyll Ferries to service the Gourock-Dunnon passenger route.
This article then voiced evidenced concerns at the unusual role Argyll and Bute’s MSP, Michael Russell has latterly chosen to play in a persistently bitter and irrational dispute.
His actions in this could be seen as inflaming an already sore and misdirected caucus.
These also appear to adopt a position in deliberate opposition to the actions of the government in which he is a senior cabinet minister.
Friday’s article queried why Mr Russell took his feelings into the public domain in a series of statements highly critical of a major ferry operator publicly owned by Scottish Ministers, of which he is one. He had – and has – access to this company at the highest level, not only as a senior member of government but as one of its select few shareholders.
All of these matters this article addressd are major, central to the issue in question and were substantiated. Each one of them demonstrates the inability of one or more of the planks of the case wielded in regular anger against a ferry operator in what is essentially no more than a battle of wounded pride.
Mr Russell’s response to this article
Mr Russell posted a comment on the article.
In it, he did not challenge a single one of the points it evidenced.
Rather he spent his entire comment focusing on the matter over which he had publicly agitated – the MCA’s issue of an improvement notice in respect of the Argyll Ferries’ MV Ali Cat.
In doing so, he paid no attention whatsoever to the facts of the case we had documented, but simply repeated the inaccurate statements he had made earlier.
These are demonstrably in error.
They are riddled with factual confusions of responsibility at a level no one expects from a senior cabinet minister.
They repeat a gross overstatement of a posited grave threat to public safety.
In this they compound the irresponsible fuelling of public fear and anger against a company which was set up by his own government, to deliver exactly what his government dictated, in circumstances set by his government – and in his name as one of the Scottish Ministers who own it.
It is the matter of this ministerial comment that raises the serious questions we point to in the title of this present article.
Facts and politics – the MCA exemption certificate and public safety
First is the matter to which Mr Russell singly devotes himself in his response to the article outlined above. This is the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s issue of an improvement notice for the MV Ali Cat on its need, as a Class 4 boat, for a certificate exempting it from carrying a safety boat where it is operating in Class 4 waters.
Mr Russell endorses the view of the constituent who raised with him the lack of this certificate as: ‘a serious and indeed grave issue which potentially affected passenger safety’.
The weight and public source of this statement cannot but alarm the man and woman in the street who know only what they hear.
The facts are very different.
That lack of the exemption certificate is no more than an administrative oversight. There has never been any question that the MCA will not award the certificate when Argyll Ferries applies for it.
The MCA has never said the Ali Cat must have a safety boat. It has said that she does not have a certificate exempting her from carrying one.
The MCA has previously issued Ali Cat with an exemption certificate allowing her to operate without a safety boat to the south of Cowal, to Loch Striven. in significantly more exposed waters and on a much longer passage.
Then there is the matter of the actual ‘risk’ involved in the boat’s lack of an exemption certificate in its current service – a matter of fully comic dimensions.
In the summer, the waters south of Dunoon to the Isle of Arran are Class 5 waters – meaning that passenger ferries need carry neither a safety boat nor an exemption certificate.
In winter, the waters to the north of a line from Cloch Light to the unspecific ‘Old Dunoon Pier’ are Class 5 waters, with the waters to the south of that line Class 4 – meaning that passenger ferries operating in them must be Class 4 boats and must either carry a safety boat or an exemption certificate.
The linkspan from which the two Argyll Ferries boats operate out of Dunoon is beside and immediately to the south of this pier.
The three photographs here demonstrate the precise truth of the situation.
The first one, above, is taken from an Argyll Ferries boat as it leaves the linkspan and passes just south of the end of the old pier at Dunoon. At this point, the boat is technically in Class 4 waters.
The second shows the linkspan used by Argyll Ferries, immediately beside and inside the pier – and sheltered from the south by a substantial breakwater also built by Argyll and Bute Council.
The third shows the end of the same section of the pier, with an Argyll Ferries boat leaving for Gourock, its wake demonstrating that it has just passed along the side of the pier.
The maximum distance and time in which the Ali Cat was sailing without an exemption certificate is a matter of metres in the entrance to the linkspan at the side of the end of the pier.
The public need have no alarm. While its paperwork was incomplete, the Ali Cat was only technically without a safety boat or a certificate exempting her from carrying one in thus tiny slice of water, sheltered by the breakwater. And this applied only to the last minutes of her approach to the Dunoon linkspan and the first minutes of her departure from it.
Yet a senior cabinet minister is happy to pronounce that this is ‘a serious and indeed grave issue which potentially affected passenger safety’.
What it really is can be seen here to be nothing but irresponsibly alarmist rabble rousing by a politician who got roughed up at a public meeting on ferries in Dunoon last Autumn and who has since been spinelessly anxious to be seen to be ‘on side’ – at all costs to whoever.
In fact, all that Mr Russell had to do – and as a government minister has always been in a position to do so – is ask his colleague, Transport Minister Keith Brown, to request the MCA to define ‘the old pier at Dunoon’ to include the new linkspan at its southern edge.
This would leave the two Argyll Ferries’ boats sailing in Class 5 winter waters throughout – but that would have left no fabricated cause for taking to the stump.
Facts and politics – the confusing of corporate responsibility
The relevant facts are these.
David MacBrayne Limited is a parent company, publicly owned by Scottish Ministers.
Within the David MacBrayne Limited group of separate subsidiary companies – each also, of course, publicly owned by Scottish Ministers – are:
- Caledonian MacBrayne Limited, the long established ferry operator providing services in the Clyde and Hebridean waters of Scotland’s west coast.
- Argyll Ferries Limited, the new kid on the block, brought into existence to bid for and awarded the contract for the passenger ferry shuttle service between Gourock and Dunoon.
These two companies are therefore sister companies. There is no other formal corporate link between them.
Argyll Ferries has its own board and operates under the Companies Act.
The two ships operated by Argyll Ferries on the Gourock Dunoon route are owned by David MacBrayne Limited, were purchased with that company’s reserves, and are leased to Argyll Ferries Limited, which operates them.
Caledonian MacBrayne has absolutely nothing to do with any of the issues for which Mr Russell has chosen to hold them responsible and has persistently named in his various outpourings.
In his comment on our earlier article he says:
‘.. the fact that the issuing of an “Improvement Notice” by the MCGA to a vessel within the Cal Mac fleet (albeit operated by a subsidiary) is an exceptionally unusual occurrence and may be unique’.
This statement is riddled with errors which, whether mischievous or simply ignorant, are damaging to CalMac.
As we have detailed above, Argyll Ferries is not a subsidiary of CalMac but a subsidiary of the parent company of both of them, David MacBrayne Limited.
The Ali Cat is not ‘a vessel within the CalMac fleet’ but is owned by David MacBrayne Limited and leased by it to the Argyll Ferries fleet.
The MCA (not MCGA) did not issue any improvement notice to a ‘vessel within the CalMac fleet’.
It issued the notice to the operator of the boat concerned, Argyll Ferries Limited, which is responsible for its own operations.
Apart from the temperature-raising tautology, Mr Russell is more than wrong to describe the issue of this certificate as ‘exceptionally unusual’ and ‘may be unique’.
The MCA has very recently shut down the actual service operated by Clydelink between Gourock and Kilcreggan until it was satisfied on compliance issues. This was a substantially more serious action than issuing an improvement certificate for missing paperwork on a boat it went on to describe as safely operated within due parameters.
It is inconceivable that Mr Russell was unaware of the recent action taken by the MCA with Clydelink and the subsequent temporary loss of that service to the community on the Rosneath peninsula.
In explaining his energetic recourse to the media on the issue, Mr Russell says:
‘It was the failure of Cal Mac to take the matter seriously – when raised by Captain Ferguson (from February onwards) myself or the Ferry Action Group – which eventually meant that I had to raise it publicly.’
As we have shown, CalMac has absolutely nothing to do with this matter and cannot be required to take it seriously or otherwise.
Even if it were the company with the responsibilities in question, Mr Russell is a senior government minister and a shareholder of David MacBrayne Limited and of its subsidiary companies.. He is in a position to call any of these companies formally to account.
If he considered that he got no satisfaction in his approaches, the evidence given above indicates that his requests for action were placed with the wrong company and reflect upon the degree of his effectiveness.
Facts and politics – Mr Russell’s stance within government
In our earlier article, we were unable to decode the strategic purpose of Mr Russell’s actions in this matter in terms of his position within government. We therefore speculated that he must be at odds with the Transport Department on the Dunoon ferries issue and that taking so public a contrary stance must indicate that he saw the matter as a potential resignation issue.
In his comment on that article the minister says:
‘My purpose in raising it with Government was to ensure that all facts were known by Government and that information was being built to judge whether the contractor was providing the service according to the conditions agreed. I had previously indicated I had doubts about that, as my constituents also have.
‘That does not mean I sign on to any campaign or manifesto from any other individual or organisation nor does it mean that I am in irresolvable conflict with either the company or my colleagues in government.’
That statement clarifies that Mr Russell has no intention of resigning.
It does repeat the public querying of an issue Mr Russell should have been able to inform himself of within government – whether ‘the contractor (Ed: Argyll Ferries) was providing the service according to the conditions agreed’.
On 19th July The Scottish Government published a written parliamentary question on this very matter, asked by Highlands and Islands MSP, Jamie McGrigor and answered by Transport Minister, Keith Brown MSP.
Here are the texts of that question and answer.
19 July 2012
Index Heading: Transport Scotland
Jamie McGrigor (Highlands and Islands) (Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party): ‘To ask the Scottish Government whether Argyll Ferries has met the terms of its public service obligation contract for a passenger-only service between Gourock and Dunoon in the last 12 months.’
Mr Keith Brown MSP :
‘Under the terms of its contract with the Scottish Ministers, Argyll Ferries Ltd (AFL) is required to provide timetabled ferry services between the town centres of Gourock and Dunoon. The contract levies penalties for any sailings which are not undertaken, other than those outside the control of the operator, principally weather conditions.
‘In the early months of the contract, there was an unacceptable level of cancellations and delays for technical reasons. These have now been addressed. In the first quarter of the contract (July-September 2011), technical reliability was 97.9% and punctuality was 89.1%. During the last quarter (April-June 2012), both had risen to over 99%. These figures do not include cancellations for weather or for other reasons outside the control of the operator.
‘In December 2011, in response to the early operational problems, we instructed AFL to produce an Improvement Plan for the services. This has been produced and is being implemented.
‘AFL are delivering the services specified by the contract and continue to take steps to improve their operation.’
Yet, despite this unequivocal public confirmation by the responsible minister that Argyll Ferries were delivering a service in compliance with their contractual obligations, three days later in his response here, Mr Russell was still questioning – and encouraging the concerned public to question – that compliance.
The minister may not have seen this as a resignation issue – and he would have been foolish to do so. However, Keith Brown, the Cabinet Secretary for Transport – dealing with the conflagration aroused by Mr Russell’s public performances on his territory – may not feel that Mr Russell is not ‘in irresolvable conflict with either the company or my colleagues in government’.
These are serious issues.
The picture evidences a government minister:
- continuing to feed public anxiety on a matter his responsible ministerial colleague has already formally put to bed in the parliament in which they both sit;
- grossly exaggerating potential risks to public safety – either from ignorance of the facts or from political mischief making – with the first inconceivable and the second inexcusable;
- inflating the ‘exceptionally unusual’ MCA action in issuing the improvement certificate;
- getting his facts wrong on core issues involved – the company responsible, the operator of the Ali Cat, the identity of Argyll Ferries parent company;
- deploying these factual errors to the reputational damage of a company utterly uninvolved in any of the issues concerned – Cal Mac.
In sum, these actions are and have been politically irresponsible in high degree.
The trust of the travelling public in a key public transport service has been unnessarily undermined, to the great detriment of a struggling town that cannot afford to lose whatever business it can attract.
The public perception of ferry services in general has been left less confident.
A young company just completing its first year of service against the background of continual subversion from Dunoon’s battle of wounded pride, has been thrust back, unjustifiably, into the stocks.
The real issues
The populist focus on the utterly unfounded – which best suits the scaremonger, diverts attention from the key issues that must be accepted if sanity is to return to this surreal dispute.
Mr Russell and the Scottish Government as a whole must tell Dunoon the truth.
Infrastructure Minister Alex Neil is instead commissioning ‘a study’.
Only a fool ever falls for this one – inevitably a kick into touch. And what ‘study’ could possibly negate EU legal directions, neuter competition law and magic impossible financial realities into sure profits?
The man in the street may reasonably be expected to know little of the insurmountable legal obstacles in EU and competition law and the economic impossibility of running an unsubsidised vehicle and passenger ferry service between Gourock and Dunoon – but a senior government minister?
It remains impossible to find any rational explanation to account for Mr Russell’s conduct on this matter. Its consequences have been unwarrantedly negative. For the legal and commercial reasons laid out, he could never have achieved anything. All he could do was win short term ‘favourable weather’ friends in Dunoon – and devout opponents when they find how they have been gulled.
These antics and the flames they have stoked must disrupt the government’s Transport Scotland in developing the calm strategic planning the country needs it to deliver. Keith Brown must be considering the value of a controlled landslide somewhere around Colintraive.
Note: The detailed article on the facts of the issues involved in the Dunoon ferry dispute is here: Dunoon ferry services: facts and fancies – and Mr Russell’s is comment number 10.