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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Thursday, September 8, 2022


Future of Scottish Ferries

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The next item of business is a statement by Jenny Gilruth on the future of Scottish ferries. The minister will take questions at the end of the statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.


The Minister for Transport (Jenny Gilruth)

Every time a vessel has a fault, every time a service is delayed and every time a sailing cannot be made, lives are affected. I want the chamber to be in no doubt about how seriously I take the Government’s response to the challenges that are presented by the delivery of the services on the Clyde and Hebrides ferry network. Things have got to improve for our island communities. Project Neptune represents a key opportunity to bring about the necessary rigour and focus that will be required to deliver those improvements.

Earlier this year, I committed to publish the report in Parliament. A full copy, comprising sections on governance and future thinking, has been placed in the Scottish Parliament information centre for all members to access.

For absolute clarity of purpose, my statement will focus only on those services that are delivered in the west of Scotland by the Caledonian MacBrayne fleet. I will consider some of the learnings from project Neptune and the necessary challenge to Government; I will also set out a way forward that will look to work with all parties across the chamber and, fundamentally, to better meet the needs of island communities. We are time limited today, so I intend to return to the chamber for a full debate on what future delivery should look like.

Project Neptune considers, in an international context, recommendations for improvement in the current arrangements for delivering ferry services in the west of Scotland. There is much in the current arrangements that delivers well, but there are clearly actions for the Government.

In summary, Neptune first highlights the need for a statutory framework on the governance of ferries. Secondly, the tripartite structure is challenged. Thirdly, the report calls for improved vision and leadership to develop long-term strategic planning and improved collaborative working.

The project Neptune report is extremely technical, and I appreciate that members will not have had a chance to fully digest all the detail this afternoon. To that end, I make the offer to all members that Transport Scotland will host a session with Ernst & Young, which wrote the report, to explain the report in further detail.

Before today’s statement, I met all stakeholders who might be affected by any changes in the future. I give them the absolute assurance that there will be no takeover imposed on any one organisation. However, the Government must improve the delivery of ferry services on the Clyde and Hebrides network. We need a better culture of collaborative working to meet our island communities’ needs.

The tripartite structure of CalMac, Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd and Transport Scotland was brought in by the then Scottish Executive to comply with European Union law. Not unhelpfully, project Neptune evidences what that can sometimes mean in practice—when, for example, the members of the tripartite do not agree. The report notes challenges in holding the tripartite to account because of confusion over roles and responsibilities. It also points to a lack of a formalised process for ministers to engage with the tripartite. That needs to change.

The second part of the report evaluates different approaches to bringing together organisations that deliver ferry services. It considers the introduction of a ferries commissioner but notes that that innovation could bring

“another stakeholder into an already crowded sector”.

The report sets out a range of potential options for reform. The First Minister has been absolutely clear that we will not consider unbundling or privatisation, and the report sets out in further detail some reasons why that will not be pursued. However, alongside improving existing arrangements, I am open to exploring what improvement could result from more formal integration.

It would not be right to announce any changes without community consultation, but we also need to be cognisant of the organisations that are involved in service delivery today. A key part of the next steps will therefore directly involve staff at CalMac, CMAL and David MacBrayne Ltd and the relevant trade unions.

I am a mainlander. As with many of us, my family’s roots can be traced back to Benbecula, Islay and Arran, but I do not need to take a ferry to my work; I do not need to take a ferry to a food shop; and I do not need to take a ferry to a family funeral.

These services are lifeline services. My commitment today is to reform how we deliver the services, with the central guiding principle that our island communities have to be part of what comes next, so I announce that we will directly consult island communities on next steps. I am pleased to update the chamber that Angus Campbell, who is chair of the ferries community board, has agreed to lead this vital work. He brings with him a wealth of experience and I look forward to working with him.

Since January, I have spent a great deal of my time with the unsung volunteers who give up their time to be part of ferry committees. They might not all agree on how services are delivered, but they are all united in seeking better ferry services for their communities. That is a simple ask, and the Government—and the organisations that run ferry services on our behalf—need to do better at engaging with, listening to and acting on island communities’ needs.

We also need to ensure that such organisations are representative of the communities that they serve. To that end, I am delighted to confirm that Morag McNeill will take up position formally as the chair of Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd. She will be the first woman to hold the role of chair and I look forward to working with her.

Project Neptune requires action from the Government, so I can announce that we will re-establish and refresh the islands transport forum, which will focus initially on ferries provision and islands resilience. I will chair the forum, but it will also involve regular attendance from the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands and the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans, who has responsibility for resilience. That will ensure the cross-Government approach that is vital for the next steps.

For every period of prolonged disruption, I will convene a resilience group with the ferries community board, CalMac and local partners, so that Government’s response at a national and local level reflects the scale of the impacts that the loss of a lifeline service can have on our island communities.

Accountability also matters. As part of the consultation on the islands connectivity plan that will take place later this year, measurable performance indicators will be developed. They will be distinct from contractual targets and will better reflect the real experience of passengers. They will be visible, published performance indicators, against which we can monitor performance, but they will also help to progress regaining communities’ trust in our services.

Of course, I will also consider carefully and respond to any recommendations from the Public Audit Committee and Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee reports.

I know that island communities might be anxious about the winter. The beginning of this year brought some of the most unpredictable weather ever experienced and it directly impacted on service delivery. To help reduce the number of delays and cancellations related to weather, the Government will expand to third-party ports the tide and weather monitoring equipment that is currently in place at CMAL ports.

Ministers also need to ensure that we derive full public value from every penny and pound invested in our ferries. Currently, there is a lack of transparency about the application of harbour dues. There is no clear mechanism that guides increases in harbour dues, and there is an expectation that Government will always fund repairs, maintenance and enhancements, even where we do not own the harbours.

This year alone, the Scottish Government will invest £40 million in ports and harbour services. I want to explore with relevant local authorities and other third-party owners how we can improve matters. As part of the islands connectivity plan, I will set out the long-term investment programme for vessels and ports that project Neptune calls for and islanders need to see.

In conclusion, I thank everyone who works for us in David MacBrayne Ltd, CMAL and CalMac, as well as my officials in Transport Scotland. Those people are crucial to all aspects of the delivery and operation of our ferries. They often go above and beyond to maintain and enhance services and infrastructure. Their role has been key in the past and will continue to be so in the future.

We have a good track record of providing high-value, high-skill job opportunities to people from remote rural and island communities and of offering people lifelong career progression. During my engagements and visits this summer, I have met many people who started their careers young and have worked their way up to senior positions, staying and maintaining their lives in rural and island towns. That feels and looks like success to me, and it is a success that I want to build on, in order to provide more such opportunities in the future for young people from island and remote communities.

However, I also know that, increasingly, ferry employees and, often, the crew bear the brunt of people’s frustration. Many experience verbal abuse and intimidation, as I heard on my visit to Oban last month. That is not and never will be acceptable. There is more that we can do to nurture a culture of respect between passengers and staff—even across this chamber.

It is too easy for politicians to ramp up the rhetoric, to play fast and loose with the facts and to encourage headline-grabbing media stories about our ferries being broken, which gives the completely wrong impression that our islands are closed and, in some instances, unreachable. The statistics do not bear that out, and there has been anecdotal evidence of inaccurate perception becoming reality. Responsible, constructive debate and critique are possible, desirable and, indeed, essential. Surely, we should all be seeking more light and less heat.

I therefore look forward to hearing from all members today about their constructive ideas and views on how we create that sustainable, resilient ferry service in the future, to help island residents, communities and businesses to thrive. Surely, that has to be our shared goal.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The minister will now take questions on the issues raised in her statement. I intend to allow around 20 minutes for questions, after which we will have to move on to the next item of business. Members who wish to ask a question should press their request-to-speak buttons now or as soon as possible.

Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

I thank the minister for advance sight of her statement and the long-awaited project Neptune report. I first asked her to release the report on 24 February, and she said that she would. Had she released it then, I might have had time to digest it by now. It is quite a heavy read, as she recognised in her statement.

Had it been shared earlier, we could have had the kind of discussions that I am absolutely certain the minister wants to have. I will take part in any talks that she wants to set up. It would be hugely beneficial if we could all agree on what changes are needed to the way we do ferries. The clunky governance structure should change—it does not make sense to have the minister, Transport Scotland, CMAL and CalMac—because it does not deliver for islanders. Does the minister agree with that, and will she commit to changing the structure? I am not asking her what she wants that structure to be; I am asking whether she thinks it should change.

I will also ask about timescales, because there was nothing in the minister’s statement about that. What is her deadline for reform, what is her deadline for putting a new west coast contract out to tender—we are up against the clock on that—and what is her deadline for announcing a ramped-up ferry replacement programme, which is what we need so that we can improve ferries and get new ferries every single year?

Jenny Gilruth

I thank Mr Simpson for the tone of his questions. He is correct; I did give him an undertaking earlier this year that I would publish the report, and I am glad that he has welcomed that today.

It is important to remember that a number of different organisations are involved in the delivery of ferry services just now, and there are sensitivities involved, so it was essential that we got that right. I put on record again my assurance to those organisations that nothing will be happening overnight; however, we will now have those discussions. I cannot say on record whether we will all reach agreement, but I have given an undertaking that I want to work with parties across the chamber on what future delivery should look like. However, it is hugely important to recognise that it is not only about us; it is about island communities, the trade unions and the staff who work in those organisations.

Mr Simpson mentioned the “clunky governance structure”. To some extent, I agree with him. The report illustrates in more detail that a complex structure is currently in operation, which I do not think is beneficial to island communities at times, and it is certainly not beneficial to ministers either. Therefore, I agree with Mr Simpson to that extent.

I will not update members on the Clyde and Hebrides ferry services 3 contract, but I am aware that we are approaching the end of that contract, and any future decision will have to be considered. I am sure that we will have further conversations on that matter throughout the afternoon.

The future plan is what islanders need to hear about next. That is why I will come back to the chamber for a wider debate on next steps and the island connectivity plan, which sets out some of the progress in more detail. It will also give people dates and the opportunity to look forward to a timeline of investment coming down the track, which will allow them to be hopeful for the future.

I am sure that we will come to this later today, but there is a requirement on Government to consider what more we might be able to do in the interim period around second-hand tonnage and the opportunities that we can bring to bear. At this time, I am looking at all opportunities. Mr Simpson will be aware of the MV Loch Frisa, which was brought into the fleet in June, and we will have additional tonnage with hulls 801 and 802 and, later, the Islay vessels. However, there is a challenge in terms of having that additional vessel in the fleet, and I am alive to look at opportunities to bring about that investment.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I am conscious that after the previous statement, the Presiding Officer was not able to get in every member who wanted to ask a question. I am determined that that will not happen in relation to this or the subsequent statement, so I would be grateful for succinct questions and more succinct answers.

Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab)

I thank the minister for advance sight of her statement.

The serious problems with Scotland’s ferries have gone on for far too long, and the ultimate responsibility for that lies with the Scottish Government; however, we will work with the minister to try to fix them.

We cannot afford to make a bad situation even worse, which is why Scottish Labour welcomes the commitment to rule out privatisation and the unbundling of routes on the Clyde and Hebrides network. Why was a report commissioned and paid for by the Scottish Government to tell it to privatise CalMac and unbundle routes in the first place? If there is a tendering process, privatisation is evidently still possible. Will the minister confirm that there will not be a costly tendering process for the Clyde and Hebrides network?

Although we need to look at the governance structures, the Scottish Government cannot distract us from the fact that islanders have an unreliable ferry service, mainly because we have an unreliable ferry fleet. Therefore, it is disappointing, but not surprising, that the statement on the future of Scottish ferries does not give islanders one single more Scottish ferry. When will capacity be increased, by how much and on which routes?

Although I believe that Ukrainian refugees should be housed in homes rather than on ferries, it proves that the Scottish Government can charter ferries at short notice. Why have ferries not been chartered for Scotland’s islanders before now? Finally—

I call the minister—

—will the delayed and unfinished ferries be ready on the new timescales?

Mr Bibby! I call the minister.

Jenny Gilruth

I thank Neil Bibby for his question. He covered a number of points, and I will try to address them in detail.

In relation to responsibility, I accept responsibility as Minister for Transport—that is why I am here today sharing the report. Of course, the report should not be taken on its own. We have already had a report from the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee in the last parliamentary session, we have had the Audit Scotland report and now we have the project Neptune report. Two further inquiries are running in parliamentary committees at this time. However, it is important that we have cross-party consensus, where that is possible, on a way forward.

On the remit that was given to Ernst and Young, nothing was ruled out at that time. I appreciate and accept that that issue has concerned people, but I hope that, given the First Minister’s expression on this issue and my own, we will not be pursuing any routes that look to privatisation in the future, and we are always considering unbundling. I appreciate what Mr Bibby has said, but the remit that was given to Ernst and Young was wide, and that is why that was included in the report. I encourage Mr Bibby to look at the details in the section of the report on the future, which is at times critical of the privatisation option. That again strengthens our beliefs—certainly the beliefs of this Government—on privatisation.

On CHFS3, I think that Mr Bibby asked me to rule out that it would go out to tender. I believe that it is important that communities are consulted as part of any future delivery model. I also think that Mr Yousaf said on the record in 2017 that, if we were to pursue direct awards in the future, we could only do so if and when island communities were content to do that. I have announced today that Angus Campbell will lead some of the next steps in terms of consultations. I will be keen to speak to—and I will speak to—Mr Campbell early next week about how we can better consult communities on their views on direct award, because I think that that is hugely—

Minister, I have to ask you to wrap up, please.

Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

The minister will be aware of the longstanding desire of communities in North Uist and Harris to be served by a dedicated vessel each, rather than to share a vessel. That would bring numerous benefits. What can the Government do to engage with communities and develop a proper case for such an arrangement?

Jenny Gilruth

I would reiterate that that option is actually being looked at. In a recent engagement with the community and stakeholders, I alerted them to that work. Earlier this year when I was in Mr Allan’s constituency, I spoke to a number of stakeholders in Harris on that very point.

I will, of course, continue to keep communities updated as to the progress on those developments. We recently received a very helpful study that was undertaken by the Lochboisdale ferry business impact group as part of that work. The group has also been speaking to the local authority about the assessments that it has commissioned. I would encourage more people to get that sort of information and share it with Government where they are able to. I know that Dr Allan will keep encouraging his constituents to engage with this process so that a fully developed case can be considered. I want to reassure him that the option that he raises is actively being considered now.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

I welcome today’s statement, but what we do not have is a firm commitment to procure and build new ferries. Given that we know how long it takes to design, procure, build and manufacture, and fund ferries properly, if we are to replace the current fleet of ferries, we need to start building them now. When will we actually see a firm plan, so that islanders can have some faith that the Government will be replacing those ferries and that history will not repeat itself in five or 10 years?

Jenny Gilruth

In relation to additional tonnage, Mr Greene will understand that, as commercial discussions are currently on-going, I am not able to say publicly where we are in that respect. However, I am hopeful that in the coming weeks we will be able to say more on that very point. I recognise that, as we go into winter, there is a level of anxiety in our island communities, and I want to give them a reassurance. The best way that we can do that is to bring in an additional vessel.

I hope that that has given Mr Greene a level of assurance, although I am not able to give more detail, just as I would not have been able to for Mr Bibby, in relation to those on-going commercial discussions.

Fiona Hyslop

Does the minister recognise the view that this review of governance of the publicly owned ferry sector was long overdue, after two decades of devolution? As part of the next steps in response to the report, how will the Scottish Government ensure that more transparency and accountability are built in? Unlike the provision of roads, ferry provision is not underpinned by a statutory framework. Is it not time to change that? A legislative framework would provide greater clarity and accountability, which is what the public and the communities that are served by ferries are demanding and should expect.


Jenny Gilruth

I agree with Fiona Hyslop: the governance review was much needed and it is important that we consider all the findings and recommendations to ensure that what we do in terms of reform makes the improvements to delivery and governance that we and island communities need to see. That includes how we best demonstrate transparency, public value and accountability, including in governance.

As I set out in my statement, we have already made improvements within the tripartite itself on some of the issues that are addressed by the findings, but I accept that more needs to happen.

Vital in next steps is engagement with stakeholders, which includes employees and unions, because we want to take staff with us, as well as communities, residents and businesses. I want us to produce improvements that not only make sense but provide more clarity on who is responsible and accountable under the current arrangements.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

The ferry disruptions impact on the economy, leading to cancellations by tourists, freight being delayed and people being stranded at terminals overnight. What is being put in place to help people who are stranded due to cancellations and the businesses that are impacted?

Will the minister give a commitment that there will be no reduction in capacity to and from Harris and Uist during the winter closures and no disruption during the summer months while the work at Uig harbour is being progressed?

Jenny Gilruth

Rhoda Grant touched on a number of points. First, in relation to people being stranded, there would be a role in that not just for Transport Scotland but for the local resilience partnership. That is why it is important that we have a cross-Government approach. Therefore, we have officials from the rural affairs secretary’s side of the house and we draw in resilience expertise from Keith Brown’s side of Government. It is hugely important that we have a holistic and well-informed approach in Government that better equips us to provide support when people are stranded. Of course, CalMac would have a level of responsibility in that situation, too.

I have completely forgotten the second part of Ms Grant’s question. I apologise.

I am sure that you can follow up in writing.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

Does the minister share my disappointment at the intransigence of Peel Ports, which has dragged its feet on the upgrade of Ardrossan harbour since 2015? Will she confirm that, although the long-term mainland port for Brodick is Ardrossan, the Scottish Government is committed to the people and communities of Arran by investing, with Associated British Ports, £3.6 million in Troon to ensure that the Glen Sannox can sail to Brodick from next spring?

Jenny Gilruth

I share Kenneth Gibson’s disappointment that we have not been able to make progress on the works at Ardrossan, particularly given how much time has passed. We in the Government are frustrated—I am certainly frustrated—at the lack of progress.

As Mr Gibson has indicated, and as I mentioned in my statement, one of the issues is that we do not own the port, so the complexities around the legal and commercial arrangements have been challenging, although all parties are now back around the table on the matter. That is welcome, and I hope that we can make the rapid progress that we need, but there are limits to ministers’ and the communities’ patience.

I am pleased that work is almost complete at Troon to allow the vessel to operate from there in the interim, until the Ardrossan work is complete. Having invested in improvements at Troon harbour to allow that short-term activity to be undertaken, it feels appropriate to consider a longer-term purpose for it, and it is our intention to use the harbour as an alternative port of refuge in the longer term.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

We will work constructively on this matter. There is an inference in the minister’s statement that the current terrible state of the ferries service is, in part, a result of the tripartite structure. Is she really saying that? If that is the case, why is the pace of reform not more urgent?

Jenny Gilruth

I do not accept that that is what I said to members this afternoon. If Willie Rennie has read the report, he will realise that it is about the tripartite structure, which is why it was the central feature of my statement to the Parliament.

I welcome Mr Rennie’s offer to work constructively. Again, I do not accept that the issue is all to do with the tripartite structure, but I accept that the tripartite structure brings challenge. If and when he reads the report, he will recognise some of that challenge in further detail.

It is hugely important that we have a governance structure that works for people, but there are wider challenges on the network in terms of additional tonnage, as I mentioned in my answer to Jamie Greene’s question.

I recognise that the issue is not just about the tripartite structure. However, this afternoon we are discussing a report that focuses on governance, which is why it has been the focus of my statement.

Can the minister provide any further assurance about measures to improve the short-term resilience of the existing fleet this winter?

Jenny Gilruth

On infrastructure, I can confirm that we will complete the Skye triangle port investments at Tarbert and Lochmaddy by spring 2023 and at Uig by spring 2024. In the coming year, we will upgrade infrastructure at five ports for Islay vessels and progress construction of the two new Islay vessels. We will progress work to improve harbour infrastructure for Arran services. As I have just indicated, we will have a temporary solution in place at Troon to ensure that the MV Glen Sannox can operate. As the Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism and Enterprise confirmed on Tuesday, we expect the Glen Sannox to be delivered in the spring of 2023.

On Mr McMillan’s second question, a lot of work is under way to improve resilience in the short term. I have just announced that we will pay for and fund weather-monitoring equipment at harbours that are owned by third parties, including Stornoway, Lismore, Leverburgh and Eriskay.

Can the minister expand on how we ensure that the interests of island communities, including as full a range of voices as possible, will be at the forefront of decision making in future?

It is essential that we involve young people in the next steps on delivery. To that end, next week I will discuss further with Angus Campbell how we can get a broad range of views to inform our next steps.

Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

Residents on Harris remain worried that they will not have a ferry service during the 14-week closure of the Uig pier on Skye next year. Fresh concerns have been raised that, in addition to that, there may be a further 12-week period of disruption. Can the minister assure residents and businesses on Harris that there will not be any additional disruption? Will she explore securing a temporary ferry service for Harris during the period of closure?

Jenny Gilruth

I am more than happy to answer questions on the situation in Harris. As Mr Cameron may know, since I visited the community in Harris in April, I have spent a lot of time trying to find a better mitigation for the outage. Of course, the original plans for Harris would have involved a six-month closure of the port, which I do not think was sustainable for island residents.

We will now have a split in the outage period, which will be reduced from the 24-week period that was originally planned to 14 weeks over two shorter periods. That has involved a lot of work by CMAL, Highland Council, which is leading on the work, CalMac and Transport Scotland. Importantly, there has also been engagement with local communities.

I have heard about the risks that Donald Cameron highlighted, but I have been keen to work with the community to reassure it. On Tuesday of this week, I convened a resilience meeting with the community and all partners involved in the project. CalMac gave an absolute assurance that there should not be any more impacts on the network in terms of what regularly runs on the route. Therefore, service delivery should not be adversely affected.

Mr Cameron asked for an additional vessel during the outage period. As I said in my response to Mr Greene, I hope to be able to say more about that in the coming weeks.

Jenni Minto (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)

As an Islay resident, I welcome the commitments that the minister has given today, especially her commitment to improve communication with local island communities and businesses. We also need to ensure that more islanders are more involved in decision making on lifeline ferry services. What can be done to improve that?

I would also like to take the opportunity to invite the minister to Islay.

Jenny Gilruth

I will gladly accept Ms Minto’s invitation. I am sure that, like me, she will be delighted that Angus Campbell has agreed to support the engagement work on next steps. We are all agreed that hearing from and including the views and experiences of people, businesses and communities on our islands is key not just for our islands but for the more rural and remote communities that are connected by ferry to our islands.

My predecessor Mr Dey made a commitment to look at how we could improve the process of including people with island experience in board appointments, and I undertook to take forward that commitment. I agree whole-heartedly with Ms Minto that we need more islanders to be involved in decision making on lifeline ferry services. To that end, I can confirm the appointment of Murdo MacLellan to the board of CMAL. He is from the Western Isles and has a wealth of experience to bring to the board.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

The west coast of Scotland is not the only location where there is a need for extra tonnage. The northern isles face known pinchpoints, such as the current livestock sales seasons. The minister has indicated that Government needs to do better, but what can she say to businesses in Shetland, which have learned that a recent opportunity to charter a suitable vessel to alleviate the situation was rejected by the service operator of the northern isles ferries contract?

Jenny Gilruth

Beatrice Wishart may be aware that I discussed that issue at length with Shetland Islands Council and other stakeholders when I visited Shetland last month. I recognise the real challenges that exist for businesses during the busy livestock season.

I am told that a freight vessel was identified late in the process, despite Serco making an earlier approach to the owner, but that because of existing capacity on the current services, it has not pursued that option at this time. I would be more than happy to write to Beatrice Wishart in more detail on that point, because I recognise the challenges that stakeholders raised with me when I was in Shetland last month.