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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Tuesday, November 7, 2023


Ferry Services

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-11075, in the name of Edward Mountain, on behalf of the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee, on “A Modern and Sustainable Ferry Service for Scotland”. I invite members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now.


Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I am delighted to open the debate as convener of the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee. I thank the committee’s clerks and its members for all their hard work in producing what I believe is an excellent report.

Let us be clear: too many of Scotland’s ferry services are below standard. Over 15 and a half months, the committee conducted an inquiry into how the situation could be improved. The question that we needed to answer was what could be done to constitute a modern and sustainable ferry service for Scotland. It was very much a forward-looking, solutions-based inquiry, which was designed to go beyond the specific problems with delivering the much-needed ferries 801 and 802. Those issues are being dealt with very ably by the Public Audit Committee, and I pay tribute to the work that it is doing on behalf of the Parliament in relation to those ferries.

The catalyst for our committee’s inquiry was a petition, which led to engagement with ferry-dependent communities. The need was established when we engaged with communities, which helped to shape the remit of our work to come. We visited Orkney, Arran and the Western Isles to meet community groups and we received hundreds of written submissions. However, we never lost focus on the human cost of unreliable ferries. I whole-heartedly thank all the people who contributed to the committee’s work on the inquiry. They told us to be bold, to end the endless cycle of meaningless consultations, and to deliver a commanding and compelling case for change. I believe that we have delivered that through the recommendations of our report, which emphasise the need for strong leadership from the Scottish Government, which has been lacking.

I am delighted that Fiona Hyslop, the ex-deputy convener of the committee during most of its inquiry, is now involved as a Government minister. She knows the challenges and I hope that she will rise to them. Sadly, however, the Scottish Government has allowed responsibility for various aspects of ferry services to fall within the portfolios of three cabinet secretaries. Therefore, it is still unclear who has ultimate responsibility for delivering the leadership and the long-term strategic thinking that the committee recommended. That is unhelpful and muddled.

The committee made a series of recommendations that were designed to progress improvement of the management of our ferries and the contracts for running them. I will begin with our recommendation on the structure for decision making on and delivery of ferry services. There was widespread agreement that the current tripartite agreement for managing the Scottish Government-funded ferries is not working effectively, especially for the Clyde and Hebrides ferries. The Scottish Government is considering the various options for reconfiguration, as outlined in the project Neptune report. The committee has recommended that the future of Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd must be considered. I make no bones about the fact that I believe that CMAL’s standing as an independent organisation should be ended, but the committee has offered various other options for its future role, including mergers with Caledonian MacBrayne and Transport Scotland. We believe that the status quo is completely unacceptable.

However, the underlying issue is the lack of clarity on whether the Scottish Government can amend the tripartite agreement. The project Neptune report was delivered to the Scottish Government in February 2022 and the matter is still to be resolved. The cabinet secretary does not appear to know whether the tripartite agreement can be amended. I suggest that we need a clear answer to that before we go any further—time is marching on. The next Clyde and Hebrides ferries contract is an opportunity to improve services by asking more from the operator in order to improve services and reliability. We need to grasp the opportunity to benefit the ferry-dependent communities.

I have some fundamental questions. When will the new contract start? Will it be awarded through a tender process or will it be awarded directly? Does the Scottish Government know whether a direct award could be made? We posed those questions in our report. We are 11 months away from the end of the current Clyde and Hebrides ferries contract.

There has been a lack of action on procurement, which will be resource intensive. Audit Scotland has warned that previous procurement exercises did not allow sufficient time. The committee is concerned that lessons have not been learned. Without endorsing how we get there, the committee felt that, from the current starting point, a direct award would have some advantages. As laid out in the project Neptune report, a direct award may save the resources of Transport Scotland and CalMac and allow ministers to focus on strategy. However, there is an important caveat. We stipulated that if our recommendation was carried forward, it must be done with the acceptance of communities. In September 2022, the then transport minister said the same thing.

The report of the chair of the ferries community board, which sadly did not come out until after our report, recommended that operator services should be put out to tender. The question that we have to ask now, and which I hope will be answered, is what is the Government’s view on that? Will the Government make an offer to extend the CalMac contract, given that there is now insufficient time for a tendering process of the magnitude necessary to end the current contract? What will it do?

The committee also recommended that the Scottish Government should consider extending the length of future contracts. The committee also considered the forthcoming islands connectivity plan as a strategy to replace the ferries plan, which ended in 2022. That plan currently consists of a series of proposed plans. The first—the long-term plan for vessels and ports—was published in a draft for consultation in 2022. The Scottish Government’s response to our report said that the revised draft of that plan will be published later this year.

Will the member take an intervention?

I will if I have time.

There is a little bit of time at the moment, but not much. Could Mr McArthur’s microphone be switched on, please? Maybe you could move seats, Mr McArthur?

Liam McArthur

Ah, there we go. I thank Edward Mountain for taking this extended intervention.

In the work that the committee carried out, which I warmly welcome, did it consider, as well as the confusion and lack of focus that was caused by the tripartite arrangement and the succession of different transport ministers and ministerial responsibilities, whether it was helpful for Orkney and Shetland’s internal lifeline ferry services to be excluded from the connectivity plan, which, as the member suggested, is in a sense the replacement of the national ferries plan?

Edward Mountain

There is a very long answer to that but, in very simple terms, we considered the internal ferries in Orkney, and I visited and saw some of them. They are beyond their lifespan at the moment, and it is quite clear that the Government needs to take positive action in conjunction with the local councils to make sure that islands are not left without ferries. [Interruption.]

I am sorry, but I am going to have to leave it there. The Scottish Government’s response to our report said that a revised draft of the consultation that was published in December 2022 would be published later this year. It is not clear to me when the other intended sections of the islands connectivity plan, including community needs assessments and the low-carbon plan, will be finalised.

The question is, when will the final comprehensive islands connectivity plan be published? Will it be published in advance of the next Clyde and Hebrides ferries contract? It needs to be. We sought commitments that it will include elements that the committee identified as essential to an effective plan. Some of those have been accepted by the Government.

I am running short of time, Presiding Officer, so I will move to the key issues and cut this down as much as possible. We also made recommendations that future ferry services need to be more accountable and that we need better measurements of performance and more transparent working by operators. We did not have much confidence that the statistics reflected the performance, so those need to be changed.

We welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to a fleet with an average age of 15 years, but we made it clear that we need more ferries than we have at the moment. That is long-term strategic planning. To deliver that we will need a rolling vessel-replacement programme and a maintenance and upgrade programme for ports and harbours. There is a lot to do, and rather than keep going on, because I am sure that all members in the chamber have read our excellent report, I will say that the Scottish Government needs to listen carefully to what the committee has said, and it needs to implement the recommendations of the plan, be decisive and make clear decisions, because allowing the status quo to continue is unacceptable to the people of Scotland and to the committee.

I move,

That the Parliament notes the conclusions and recommendations contained in the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee’s 11th Report, 2023 (Session 6), A Modern and Sustainable Ferry Service for Scotland (SP Paper 417).


The Minister for Transport (Fiona Hyslop)

I start by thanking the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee for securing time for a debate on what is a well-evidenced and considered report. I reiterate the opening points of the Scottish Government’s formal response to the committee, which welcomed the timely report as

“considered, balanced and forward-looking.”

I am pleased that, as a Government, we have accepted or noted recommendations to inform current and future decision making.

I want to make clear on the record that, prior to becoming a minister in June, I served as deputy convener of the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee throughout the evidence taking on the inquiry and left the committee before the report was finalised and published. The Government response was rightly issued by the cabinet secretary, but many of the actions are now being led by me.

One of the strengths of the committee’s report is its approach of centring the needs and views of islanders who use and depend on these services rather than the interests of the institutions or companies involved. As minister, I am determined that Government, our agencies and the operators must do likewise and engage widely and regularly with island communities as we shape services and contracts, and in doing so be informed by and reflect on the committee’s recommendations.

Since my appointment, I have met with many chairs of island ferry committees and a number of committees themselves, and will continue to do so. Most recently, last week, I met the Islay ferry committee online and, in October, I met the Harris ferry committee in person.

I also take this opportunity to thank the hard-working port staff and vessel crews, who are often the most responsive to events and challenges in the network, and I thank the CalMac and NorthLink Ferries back-office teams for the service that they provide.

Many of the report’s recommendations were already under way or being considered prior to the committee publishing its report, but the conclusions of the committee will help shape and inform the Government’s next steps in relation to some critical elements. The Government’s response accepted 43 of the recommendations in full or in principle, including, among many others, the recommendations on reviewing data collection and performance data; the operator in the new contract being required to work with local authorities and communities; identifying ways to support standardisation of ports and harbours; and reconsidering fare policy, islander priority and the impact of the road equivalent tariff.

We also noted 29 of the recommendations, where those were, partly, observations with no further action required. There were only two recommendations that were noted as not being taken forward.

On the headline requests set out in the executive summary of the report, I confirm that we aim to publish the islands connectivity plan later this year, and that it will be a strategic paper covering wider issues than ferries. The vision and strategic thinking for ferry services and ferry-dependent communities is a key part of that, and builds on the pre-consultation paper on the long-term plan for vessels and ports, which was produced in December 2022. We are establishing the governance and delivery structures that are capable of delivering that vision in governance—formerly project Neptune—and on Clyde and Hebrides ferry services 3. The fair fares review is also due soon. The committee wanted to bring a cohesive approach to all of those four elements, and that is what I am doing as the minister. I will announce to Parliament actions on those as appropriate.

The budget for support for ferries rose to a record £251 million, and the vessels and piers budget rose to £189 million in the current financial year. I note that the fulfilment of our long-term plan is dependent on funding allocation decisions that go beyond the current parliamentary session. We are committed to working in collaboration with ferry-dependent communities in informing future vessel procurements.

Liam McArthur

The minister will be aware of the commitment that the former Deputy First Minister gave that the ferries task force looking at internal services and procurement in Orkney was intended to feed into that budget process. Is there anything that she can say by way of an update on that process?

Fiona Hyslop

The ferries task force for both Orkney and Shetland is meeting very shortly, with the Deputy First Minister, who is also the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, chairing that. That is part of the on-going discussions.

On governance, we welcomed the principles set out in recommendation 12 around accountability, transparency, competence, value for money, meeting community needs and supporting the delivery of net zero. Those principles, along with the work of Angus Campbell, who led work on the ferry community consultation engaging directly with communities, will help to inform future decisions on that matter. I place on record my thanks to Angus Campbell for his work.

The committee recommended merging CMAL and Transport Scotland into a new ferries agency. However, it recognised in its work on that and on the CHFS3 contract that the ferries community board had yet to report, but the board recommended CMAL and CalMac be merged.

The Scottish Government agrees with the committee that the islands connectivity plan represents a real opportunity for fresh thinking on ferry service provision.

Does the minister agree that the current tripartite set-up should be changed?

Fiona Hyslop

Yes, I do, and it can be changed. However, the form that any change would have would require to be robust in terms of the impact that it would have for legal, technical and other reasons. A specific proposal will have to be put to answer the question that the committee put on that governance arrangement.

Will the minister take an intervention?

Fiona Hyslop

I am afraid that I will have to move on.

We have already issued a pre-consultation draft on the port and vessel infrastructure plan and, later this year, we intend to launch a formal consultation on that, along with the overarching strategic paper, which will help to bring together the various sections of the islands connectivity plan. That reflects on the committee’s recommendations that the “ring binder” approach to developing the plan needs to ensure that it is coherent.

Clearly and understandably, there is a great focus from the committee and wider stakeholders on the appropriate form of contract for the next Clyde and Hebridean ferry service procurement. As I confirmed when I appeared before the committee recently, that is a decision that will need to be made in consultation and agreement with wider Government and Cabinet colleagues. Clearly, there is urgency around that matter, given that we are within a year of the end of the current contract. I will set out the position on that matter as soon as possible, and will make a statement to the chamber shortly.

I again welcome the committee’s confirmation around not unbundling the services and again highlight that the Government will not split up the CalMac network. However, one thing is clear: regardless of the form of contract or procurement, there is a need for real and significant change in delivery to put communities at the heart of ferry services, and I am determined that that will happen, whether that involves a clear and revised set of key performance indicators, including lived experience involving actual versus contractual performance around cancellations, or greater local community involvement in decision making around their services.

The Scottish ministers have been clear that the reliability of ferry services needs to be supported by resilience in the fleet. That is why it is important that we are committed to the delivery of six new major vessels by 2026 as well as further investment in port infrastructure and the initial phase of the small vessel replacement plan. Design work is also progressing on the replacement freight vessels for northern isles ferry services.

Reports to the committee on the four new major ferries for Islay and the Little Minch, as asked for, are due to be with the committee shortly. I can confirm that they are progressing well and that they are all due for delivery at various points between October 2024 and September 2025.

I was pleased to recently open the new terminal at Tarbert in Harris and to note the progress at Lochmaddy and Uig. In particular, I thank the communities and regular ferry users for their patience and perseverance throughout the works, especially during the closure periods that have been necessary to deliver them. The works will help to deliver resilience, replace life-expired infrastructure and increase the range of vessels in the Calmac fleet that can use the facilities.

We have committed to the provision of a resilience vessel to minimise disruption across the network, so the MV Alfred has been chartered for another six months. I thank the crew of the MV Hebridean Isles, along with others in Calmac, Transport Scotland and CMAL, for their work to return that vessel to service in time for the busy winter overhaul period.

The committee produced a comprehensive report, and I have touched on only some elements of it and of our response. In my closing speech, I hope to return to some remaining elements, which will no doubt be expanded on in wider contributions. I thank the committee and its clerks for their work on the report.


Douglas Lumsden (North East Scotland) (Con)

I thank the members of and clerks to the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee for what is an excellent report, as has been said, that raises important questions for the Government and the members of the tripartite arrangement.

On reading the report, my first and immediate reaction was that what it says is not rocket science. The report says that ferry services should be efficient, competent, on time and reliable and that they should provide sufficient capacity, charge reasonable fares and be accessible. It says that the administration should be transparent, accountable and competent, provide value for money and be community led. That all seems blatantly obvious to everyone who is on the outside looking in, so why have ferry services been so difficult for the Government to manage? Why have the Parliament, its committees and our island communities had to wait so long for the Government to act? They are still waiting.

Damning evidence was submitted to the committee’s inquiry. The committee heard from communities that businesses are failing, goods are not arriving and urgent health appointments are being missed. The committee heard about constant, never-ending consultation that no action results from. It heard about delays, cancellations and a lack of available tickets. It heard about an ageing fleet that is unreliable and overpriced; about overdue contracts for ferry replacements; and about new solutions such as fixed links, catamaran fleets or more, smaller ferries being discounted for no reason.

I am interested in Mr Lumsden’s comment that ferry services are overpriced. Has he taken into account any of the cost reductions that have come as a consequence of the introduction of the road equivalent tariff?

Douglas Lumsden

I have, but I am sure that, as a Parliament, we all agree that more can still be done.

The lists that I gave include only a small amount of the Government’s failings, and I am sure that my colleagues will pick up more. To be frank, if I were a Government minister, I would be embarrassed to come into the chamber today, but I admire the Minister for Transport for coming forward with some positives. I look forward to cross-party working to try to improve the service for our island communities.

As a Parliament, we should not forget that those island communities have been badly let down by the state of our ferries, and it is those communities that are suffering. On the mainland, we are lucky to have choices. Depending on where someone lives and how rural their area is, they can drive, take a train or use a bus. Islanders do not have such choices. I fear that, without a reliable ferry service, depopulation problems on many of our islands will accelerate. The human cost, which the committee’s convener mentioned, is most important. We need improvements, and we need to send a message to our island communities that change is coming.

A clear message in the report is that the Government should look again at the administrative arrangement of the tripartite structure. I ask the minister to be very clear about how the Government will take that forward and what consideration has been given to the committee’s recommendations on that.

We are clear that the current structure is flawed in many ways. Communities are confused about who is responsible for which bit of the service and who is accountable. Much more transparency is required.

The minister should give us an update on the plans to include local representatives on the boards and management groups of ferry services, to ensure that the voices of local people are heard loud and clear in the day-to-day running of services.

As the convener said, recommendation 28 of the committee report states that contracts should be longer than those that are currently offered and be offered on a 10-year basis. Will the Government give an indication today of whether that will be the case for future contract rounds?

One message that came through clearly in evidence was the need to think a bit more out of the box when it comes to linking up our island communities. The Government needs to give greater consideration to a number of issues: the benefit of smaller vessels running more frequently between islands; more flexible ticketing options for locals making essential journeys; penalties for companies that book space but do not turn up; subsidised travel for those travelling for educational purposes; and fixed links between smaller islands that are close to their neighbours.

The Government promised that the islands connectivity plan would be in place by the end of 2022. It is good to hear that the plan will be released later this year, but why has it taken so long? Is the Government on target to achieve the aim of reducing the average age of ships in the fleet to 15 years by the end of the decade? Perhaps the minister could include that commitment in her closing remarks and give our island communities an assurance that that will be the case.

Let us be clear: an ageing ferry fleet has huge implications for our remote communities. They rely on a service that provides them with goods and services, and with vital education links for our young people. There were 1,678 sailing cancellations in 2021 to 2022, which was up from 1,064 the year before. Every one of those cancellations means that vital goods and services were not available to our island communities. Businesses lost money, children missed education and goods did not arrive. Those are not just numbers; we are talking about people’s lives and livelihoods.

When considering the awarding of contracts for ferry services, I must return to my list of the obvious. I am still flabbergasted that this needs to be said. In 2017, Audit Scotland told the Government that it had to improve its procurement process; to ensure that lessons are learned from previous processes; to build in sufficient time to the process to prepare documentation; to provide bidders with

“clear, good-quality and timely data”;

and to ensure that there is a

“sufficient number of people, with the right expertise, to effectively manage ferry contracts”.

I hope that all that is in place.

In closing, I want to highlight one short but incredibly important paragraph on staffing in the committee report. The report rightly recognises the importance of staff across all aspects of the ferry service from booking officers to on-board crew. In particular, it recognises their work throughout the Covid pandemic to maintain the vital link for goods to the islands. Any threatening behaviour to any member of staff is unacceptable, and I support the ferry operators in dealing quickly with any incident involving staff feeling or being threatened.

One aspect that came out clearly was that in no way were any of the staff responsible for any of the failings in the service that was being provided. The need for investment to train and maintain staffing levels was clear, but the staff themselves are held in high esteem. They are doing the best that they can with the ageing tools that this Government has given them.

I look forward to the minister’s response to the committee’s report, which is one that she helped to shape. It is a damning indictment of a failing service. It has failed our most remote communities with an unreliable, inconsistent and inefficient ferry link, bringing untold economic damage to fragile committees.

The report sets out a series of recommendations that should be obvious to anyone looking in, yet, time and again, this Government has failed to deliver a service that is reliable, efficient and has a capacity to match demand; that is locally based and inspired; and that meets the needs of communities.

In our discussions, the committee heard a lot about consultation fatigue. Our island communities are fed up being asked what they want. It is not rocket science. They want ferries that work, that run on time and that are affordable. It is time for this failing Scottish National Party-Green devolved Government to stop talking and to start acting. The report demonstrates just how much it has failed to do that, and I hope that the minister has come today with some answers, not more platitudes.


Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

This is an important debate. I thank the committee for its work in carrying out the inquiry and for its very informative report, which we are debating today.

It would be an understatement to say that the people of Scotland feel badly let down by the way in which our ferry services are currently managed. The impacts of poor services on island communities are well documented. The social and economic impacts have been particularly devastating.

The committee states:

“The root causes of the current problems include an ageing fleet, lack of resilience, increased usage and a pass-the-parcel of responsibility culture in governance structures”,

coupled with a

“lack of political leadership on these matters”.

On governance, the committee states:

“The tripartite arrangement”

between Transport Scotland, CalMac and CMAL

“is widely perceived as enabling a ‘pass the parcel’ culture in which no one takes ultimate responsibility for the effective delivery of taxpayer-funded ferry services.”

The project Neptune report, which looked at the issue, points to a lack of clear roles and responsibilities, which causes “conflict between senior personnel” and, as a result, a

“lack of a joint approach and an aligned position”.

Although the committee says that

“No clear consensus has emerged from this inquiry as to what form”

governance should take, it is clear that the

“tripartite arrangement is not working”.

The committee goes on to recommend that the Government

“should give consideration to a CMAL-Transport Scotland merger, to create a ‘Ferries Scotland’ as an arm of Transport Scotland.”

It is clear from the report that changes are needed. It is important that the Government tackles the matter by setting out what it considers to be the options and how it intends to proceed.

Will the member give way?

Will the member take an intervention?


Is Alex Rowley taking an intervention from Edward Mountain or Graham Simpson?

I will take an intervention from Mr Mountain.

Edward Mountain

I thank Alex Rowley for giving way. There are lots of permutations, but does he agree that, given that the Government does not know what it is legally entitled to do at this stage, we are stuck, with nowhere to go?

Alex Rowley

That is why we need clarity, which the committee has asked for. The evidence that has been presented suggests that, as has been said, the status quo is not on the table.

If any new body were to be established within Transport Scotland, it would be important for it to be properly resourced and to have the expertise and knowledge to guarantee that the current failings would become a thing of the past—there should not be a continuation of the present.

The committee also examined issues relating to the next contract for the Clyde and Hebrides ferry service. The report states that putting the services into a single bundle would have many benefits, including

“greater service resilience, economies of scale, the ability to maintain relief vessels and to redeploy staff and vessels to deal with periods of disruption.”

The committee points out that those are not being achieved under the tripartite arrangements that are in place just now, so those arrangements must be reviewed and changed as soon as is practical.

My understanding was that the Labour Party was in favour of keeping the CHFS contract as a single contract and was not in favour of unbundling. Are you suggesting that there should be unbundling?

Speak through the chair, please.

Alex Rowley

I am just coming to that. On the question of the next contract, the committee says that it

“understands the Scottish Government’s preference is to make a direct award for Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services and recognises the benefits of doing so.”

It would be good if the Government could clarify whether that is, indeed, its position. If that is the Government’s preference, it is important that it sets out its understanding of the law following Brexit. Can the minister clarify the specific procurement regulations and elements of the Subsidy Control Act 2022 with which a direct award must comply? That is important, because that will clearly inform the final decision on whether to accept the committee’s recommendation of a direct award or whether to undertake a highly risky tender process for the CHFS contract. Scottish Labour supports the principle of a direct award of the next contract, which is why it is important that the Government clarifies its position and its understanding of the legal position post-Brexit.

The report “Financing and Delivery of Lifeline Ferry Services in Scotland: A Critique of the Project Neptune Report”, which was commissioned from the University of Glasgow by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, highlights that

“key elements of the Scottish Government’s flagship policy of Fair Work are delivered via companies like CalMac”.

Will the member take an intervention?

Alex Rowley

I do not think that I have time.

The report states that CalMac is

“a leading provider of good quality jobs, security and career progression to island and mainland communities where such jobs are even more scarce than in urban areas.”

Therefore, the wider social and economic value of a publicly owned ferry operator must be taken into account when decisions are made on the awarding of the new contract. I suggest that the committee’s view that the contract should be of 10 years in length is right.

As stated earlier, the ageing fleet is highlighted as a major cause of the current problems, and the committee notes that

“previous commitments on fleet renewal have not been met.”

I expect that members will have the chance to debate exactly what went wrong with the ferries that are being built on the Clyde, but the message must be that the Government must get its act together. The committee suggests that

“The design of new ferries and ports and harbours should be standardised”,

and I look forward to the Government’s response to that. It is clear that we need to have a fully costed and deliverable ferry replacement plan because, without that, the rest is all academic.

Islanders are being let down, workers are being let down and Scotland has been let down. The Government must get its act together and deliver a modern ferry service that is fit for purpose and that meets the needs of 21st century Scotland.


Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

I, too, welcome the debate and thank the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee for its work on the issue. I also thank the clerks of the committee for their crucial work behind the scenes. The committee’s comprehensive report will go some way to addressing the present complexities surrounding Scotland’s ferries and the need for a modern and sustainable ferry service.

Ferries are a lifeline service for islanders. During the consultation stage, I submitted views from Shetland, as did other local stakeholders, including the Stewart Building Transport Group. Earlier this year, I asked Shetlanders for their views on the external ferry service between Lerwick and Aberdeen. It was clear from the more than 1,000 responses that were received that we need 21st century services for 21st century passenger and business needs. We need sufficient capacity for freight and passengers, accessible cabins, affordable prices and the ability to book up to a year in advance.

Staff work hard to assist passengers and keep things running, which has been an uphill battle over the past few years, not least with Covid disruption. Bad weather often delays sailings, but staff and crew expertise ensures that livestock and perishable freight can move and reach markets when it is safe for sailings to resume. Freight capacity can constrict the northern isles’ contribution to Scotland’s economy. Similarly, across Scotland, the agriculture, fishing and aquaculture sectors are impacted when sailings cannot go ahead due to vessel breakdown and lack of resilience. Haulage businesses, crofters, farmers and seafood exporters experience additional costs, and seasonal pinchpoints for livestock exports, which are well known to Transport Scotland, exacerbate the issue.

Coastal communities on the west coast have been let down. Businesses are forced to close, tourists are unable to travel—perhaps never to return—shops are unable to restock their shelves and there is misery for those living in the islands. Funerals are missed, health appointments are disrupted and there are extra travel costs to stay on the mainland. Small communities are impacted disproportionately. People in Orkney and Shetland see what has happened on the west coast and fear a repetition on the northern isles route. Plans must be in place today to secure the viability of communities tomorrow. We need a programme of renewal, and outgoing ferries must be retired in good time before they are unable to run a reliable service on the route. We need a swift move to carbon-neutral ferries to help dramatically reduce Scotland’s carbon emissions.

You will be aware, Presiding Officer, of my support for short subsea tunnels to connect islands in Shetland. In the chamber, I have often laid out the anticipated benefits of such tunnels, including the environmental impact of reducing ferry emissions in the islands. However, new ferries will still be needed in Shetland. That renewal of vessels needs to go ahead now, as operational limits are pushed, with the average age of the Shetland fleet being around 35 years. Our Nordic neighbours put us to shame, as, for some time, they have had electric ferries, which provide reliable transport and cut emission outputs. We can look to that sensible, workable model for sustainable and low-emission inspiration.

I highlight the recent announcement that under-22s will receive two free return journeys a year on island to mainland ferry routes. Although that is a welcome expansion of free travel, island young people are still disadvantaged compared with their mainland counterparts. The policy amounts to an island student paying to get back to university after the Easter break, while a student living on the mainland can travel for free on buses whenever they like.

The inequity for young people who travel on interisland ferries continues, despite such ferries being used like local buses. The policy means that some people get free travel while others in the same age group do not. For example, the only way for someone under 22 who lives on Bressay to get off the island is by ferry. There is no free bus that will take them across the stretch of water to Lerwick. I want Scotland’s interisland ferries to be included in the free under-22 travel provision. Members of the Scottish Youth Parliament have previously called for that.

I hope that the Scottish Government can be persuaded to further extend its islands to mainland offer. When I have pressed the Scottish Government on that, I have been directed to the fair fares review, the outcome of which is long awaited. The ferries need to be at the heart of the Scottish Government’s transport and net zero plans and serve the needs of islanders.

We move to the open debate.


Jackie Dunbar (Aberdeen Donside) (SNP)

As a member of the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee, I am pleased to speak in the debate. I thank the clerks, my committee colleagues past and present and everyone who gave evidence to the committee. Without their input, the inquiry and our recommendations would not have been possible.

The inquiry was more than a year long. The committee wanted its inquiry into a modern and sustainable ferry service for Scotland to be a chance for communities to relate their experiences and to give their views on potential solutions for the future. We wanted to hear about the current and evolving needs of ferry users and to put to the Scottish Government considerations for how to design future services to best meet those needs.

The report contains 74 recommendations that the committee felt were essential to ensure a sustainable and reliable ferry service for all. Those recommendations will, I hope, assist the Scottish Government in ensuring that our ferry services are fit for purpose, centred on the needs of ferry-dependent communities and responsive to those needs.

During the inquiry, we heard from island residents who try to get over to the mainland in winter, when the weather is unpredictable, and in summer, when the ferries are fully booked with tourists. That is great for the businesses that need visitors but not so great for the resident who needs to get to the mainland for a medical appointment.

A reliable and affordable ferry service is a lifeline for our island communities. Ensuring that folk have access to the mainland for services, shopping and leisure and to visit friends and family is key to the future success and prosperity of our islands. A lot has already been said in the chamber, even today, about the failures of the ferry service, especially in recent months. However, for me, the report is about looking forward and not backward.

I hope that the recommendations that are in front of us will be seen as a positive step in addressing the concerns of various communities regarding the connectivity of the islands. I also hope that we can get cross-party agreement that the needs of our island communities must be at the heart of our decision making regarding their ferry services.

Ferry services must be shaped by the communities that rely on them, and the success of our ferry services going forward will rely on the Clyde and Hebrides operators being responsive to the needs of island communities and providing the services that they require at the times that they need them. For example, we heard at committee that some folk were able to get a ferry ticket but were unable to get their car on to the ferry, meaning that their onward travel on the mainland was impossible due to a lack of public transport connectivity in some places.

I also welcome the recommendations about the input of local authorities into shaping the ferry services that will serve their communities. As a former local councillor, I recognise the valuable input and local insight that councillors will have in shaping a ferry service that best serves their communities. They are the ones on the front line, with the most first-hand experience of the challenges that their constituents face. Closer working between the operator, local authorities and communities is key to ensuring the success and longevity of our ferry services.

I truly believe that it is not just the islands that need a modern, economical and sustainable ferry service. An improved ferry service benefits the whole of Scotland. As I said, it is vital that we now look forward, taking into account the views that the communities and ferry users provided to the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee. We should focus not on what has gone wrong in the past but on what we can do to improve the connectivity of our island communities with the mainland in the future.

I appreciated the opportunity that the inquiry gave me to hear at first hand about the daily issues that our island communities face with connectivity to the mainland. I look forward to hearing the response from our transport minister, who, as a former member of the Net Zero Energy and Transport Committee, heard at first hand the issues with connectivity to our island communities. I know that she will do everything in her gift to ensure that a sustainable and reliable ferry service becomes a reality in the near future.


Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

I thank the committee for its work. It is a thoroughly decent and thorough report, all 161 pages and 74 recommendations of it, although I appreciate that not every one was a direct recommendation. It seems to me that it is a genuine cross-party effort, as these things very often are, and it made me quite nostalgic for my days on the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee. It will come as no surprise that, like many members, I have been speaking about what a modern and sustainable ferry fleet ought to look like in this country for more than seven years.

When I picked up the report, I was a little bit depressed, because some of it made for grim reading, showing how little has changed over the years and through so many debates about the same issues. It talks about the ageing fleet, the lack of resilience, the lack of new ferries, the lack of responsibility, the lack of governance, the lack of political leadership, the lack of meaningful data and the endless churn of Government ministers. I have to ask the Government whether we have learned anything from the multiple reports of 2017, 2020 and 2023, from the various parliamentary committees, from Audit Scotland and from independent experts.

However, the latest report focused on three very distinct areas. It rightly tried to look forward to the future, and that is what I want to speak about today. First, of course, I have to identify the root causes of so many of the issues that we face today. The report did justice to those to whom it matters—the island communities and ferry users themselves—who were absolutely clear when they said that services are not good enough and need to change. We all knew that already. It was also disappointing to read that the work of the committee was, in my view, hampered by a lack of data when it was gathering evidence. I was entirely unsurprised to learn that, in the committee’s own words,

“CalMac’s criteria for measuring reliability are opaque, poorly understood and apparently not widely trusted within ferry-using communities.”

Far too often, I read words such as “fatigued”, “damaged” and “hindered”. Those words jumped out of the pages of the report at me. How on earth can we measure operator performance if the parameters that we use to do that are not to be trusted? How on earth can we have a frank conversation about how to make direct awarded contracts to that same operator if we cannot measure the success of its existing contract? Perhaps that is for a debate in this place on another day.

However, the biggest issue that fills my inbox—and probably the inboxes of most members with an interest in island communities—is reliability. CalMac reports only what is required of it in the contract—that is, its contractual reliability statistics. It does not include, for example, proper information for islanders about cancellations due to weather. We cannot control the weather, but we can control something that is, in my view, more important: the vessels’ ability to deal with that weather. Too often, cancellations are due to the inability of vessels to deal with adverse weather.

As we all know, we have an ageing fleet with an average vessel age of 25 years, and the whole system is operating with no spare capacity. What does that mean? When there is a last-minute breakdown or an unexpected maintenance issue that means that a vessel is taken off a route, where does CalMac find another? It takes a vessel from another route. The report describes the result as a “cascading” effect, which is one way to put it. An Arran resident described it to me, more accurately, as the island wheel of misfortune, and that is before we consider the exploding costs of maintenance, which have risen sharply over the past few years. That money could be used to build or buy new vessels.

However, the past is the past. The report challenges the Government quite directly on what needs to change. Of course we need to build or buy more ferries; of course we need a younger fleet of vessels; and of course we need to change the ineffective governance structures that currently exist. We all agree on those things. In the past, I have spoken at length about the unholy alliance of the so-called tripartite agreement between CMAL, CalMac and Transport Scotland. We all know that the blame shifting and the lack of governance are the reasons why hull 801 is still floating in Port Glasgow and is not sitting in Brodick right now. The project Neptune review, which was a good piece of work, agreed. It said that CalMac and CMAL should merge. It seemed to be met with quite a mixed response from the Government, however, which pushed back using issues such as pensions as reasons not to make progress on that.

The real question is whether ferries Scotland would solve all the issues. Would having that single body really streamline decision making and end the problems that we have? In my view, we can tinker around with the agencies and the lines of responsibility all we like, but, if we do not have the required fleet of vessels and port infrastructure, the system will not be fit for purpose. The committee has made that abundantly clear.

The final word on the subject should go to the islanders. That is why so many people on the island of Cumbrae were demonstrating last week about the inability of Transport Scotland and CalMac to properly consult them. It is no surprise that they do not feel listened to, because they are not being listened to. They are sick of endless consultations with no tangible results.

Scottish ministers have a lot of questions to answer in response to the report. If they are to reject any of the recommendations, they must explain why in full. If they are to accept all the recommendations, they must deliver on them—end of.


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

This Parliament has, very understandably, had several debates in the past couple of years on ferry services. For obvious reasons, they have, completely legitimately, focused on the very real problems that services have faced. Equally legitimate, however, is the need to look to the future, and that is what the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee’s report does—and, I hope, what this debate is doing. I am therefore grateful to the committee for the work that it has done and the substantial report that it has presented to the Parliament.

As others have said, CalMac’s shore staff and crews do an outstanding job. They are not the ones we are criticising today, but there have been plenty of reasons to criticise wider aspects of Scotland’s ferry services in recent years, and I have certainly done my fair share of that. It is worth stressing, however, what I hope is the consensus that our island communities simply could not exist without the substantial and entirely merited public funding that ferry services receive. I will illustrate what I mean by that. I was genuinely shocked to discover recently what a ferry service looks like when it does not have a Government that is willing to give it that support.

Last month, I met local representatives from one of England’s very few inhabited island groups—the Scilly Isles. They explained to me that the United Kingdom Government provides no subsidy at all to their ferry service, leaving them with an operator that sails for only six months of the year, does not accept cars and charges foot passengers £200 a time to travel to the mainland.

Does Alasdair Allan recognise that we have private ferry operators in Scotland that do not receive subsidies? One of them, Pentland Ferries, is currently providing a ferry to help CMAL to plug gaps in routes.

Alasdair Allan

I accept those facts, although I am not quite sure what they have to do with the point that I am making. The reason why I gave the example is to point to the importance of publicly subsided services.

Over the past 16 years, £2.2 billion has gone into Scotland’s ferry services and infrastructure. I do not point that out to detract from the genuine problems that continue in a constituency such as mine, not least the recent issues on both the Sound of Harris and the Sound of Barra, where the interisland vessels are rapidly approaching the end of their working lives. For that reason, I have made a case to the Minister for Transport for the replacement of those vessels to be brought forward.

However, the focus of the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee’s report is, as I say, on the future and on real and tangible progress. Therefore, I note the substantial upgrades to vital infrastructure in my constituency that have been completed, including the piers at Stornoway, Tarbert and Lochmaddy, as well as those in Ullapool on the mainland and Uig on Skye, which serve our routes.

Those examples are relevant to one of the primary recommendations in the committee’s report: namely, the importance of increased standardisation of port infrastructure, where practical, and of vessel design. The benefits of building vessels to more similar specifications, such as the four that are variously under construction or under order in Turkey, will include lower maintenance costs and quicker repairs, with standard parts allowing easier replacement.

My constituents in the islands of Harris and North Uist have long called for dedicated vessels for Tarbert and Lochmaddy, and the Scottish Government has listened. One of the new vessels that are being constructed will be allocated to each of those two routes, improving capacity and, crucially, helping the network’s overall resilience, as well as representing a significant reduction in the average age of major vessels in the fleet.

In its report, the committee recommends that the Scottish Government considers how public ferry delivery organisations can include

“meaningful representations of the island communities they serve.”

I remain firmly of the view that significantly more seats on the relevant boards should be occupied by people who live on islands and therefore rely on ferries in their own lives. That would ensure that more decisions were informed by local knowledge and experience.

Concessionary travel for young people is another element that the committee and many others have recommended be explored by the Scottish Government. I am very pleased that action has already been taken by the transport minister, with the recent announcement of four free ferry journeys each year for all islanders under 22 years of age.

Does Alasdair Allan think that four free journeys goes far enough?

Alasdair Allan

I certainly think that that goes a long way towards what the committee has recommended. I am sure that communities will continue to work with the Government to see whether more can be achieved. As I said, it goes a substantial way towards achieving what the committee seeks from the Government.

Another key recommendation in the committee’s report is the simplification of Scotland’s ferry services’ governing structures. Recent consultation with island communities showed that there was a desire for CalMac and CMAL to be merged, while the committee favours an approach that would see Transport Scotland and CMAL merged. What is clear is that there is agreement that the current tripartite structure is not working and that restructuring will help to streamline decision making, improve accountability and provide better transparency, all of which our island communities want.


Katy Clark (West Scotland) (Lab)

I am pleased to contribute to the debate and thank the committee for its thorough report. The consistent message is that Scotland has an unreliable ferry service because it has an unreliable ferry fleet. Islanders repeatedly tell us that their livelihoods, and indeed the very future of life on the islands, are affected by frequent mechanical failures. Last winter, those living on Arran faced food and fuel shortages due to the unreliability of sailings and supermarket shelves were empty of vegetables and much else over the festive season.

I welcome the minister making clear that change is needed. The report considers proposals for reorganisation and I fully understand why committee members feel that the tripartite structure does not work. As someone who was involved in debates before the previous reorganisation, which cost tens of millions of pounds, and who campaigned against that reorganisation and is therefore no supporter of the current structure, I say that the Scottish Government’s history of poor decision making and its broken procurement model lie at the root of the lack of reliable ferries. I ask the minister to inform our debate by advising Parliament how much any future reorganisation might cost.

I welcome the committee’s recommendation of a direct award, which would provide certainty. I have asked various transport ministers whether they believe that they can legally make a direct award—a question that has been asked more than once today. I therefore also ask the minister to respond to that question, in order to inform our debate. I also urge the Scottish Government to look at governance structures and to put islanders and trade union representatives on the board.

Unbundling, which, to be clear, Labour believes is just privatisation by another name, would be a grave mistake and would leave operators grasping for what little profit can be made on lifeline routes.

Apart from putting islanders on boards, what does Labour want to change about the current situation? I am confused.

Katy Clark

I hope to make that clear during my contribution.

The Scottish Government’s ferry services procurement policy review concluded that an in-house operator is

“capable of delivering similar levels of operational efficiency, innovation and service improvement to those which might otherwise be obtained from tendering.”

Despite that, ministers still spent taxpayers’ money commissioning Ernst & Young to scrutinise how ferries are run. The Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee has since concluded that Ernst & Young’s project Neptune report failed to engage sufficiently with island communities or with the workforce.

I welcome the fact that the committee’s report does engage with communities and with the workforce and I also welcome the report’s references to the current, poor, procurement approach. CMAL has searched the globe for five years and examined 650 second-hand ships, but only the Alfred has been chartered, while the Chieftain is now leased by CalMac. Four projects to build ferries have been outsourced to Turkey, a country in which, according to the Trades Union Congress, workers face random arrests and unions operate in a climate of fear, which certainly makes a mockery of the Scottish Government’s supposed fair work procurement policy

The committee’s report says:

“Efforts by CMAL to purchase or lease existing vessels abroad are not working and should not be relied upon.”

If we agree that that is unsustainable and, as the minister says, that change is needed, where is the Scottish Government’s sustainable alternative? The Government’s draft islands connectivity plan contains very little detail on rebuilding shipbuilding capacity anywhere in Scotland, but rebuilding that capacity will be essential if the Scottish Government is to abide by its commitment to dramatically reduce the average age of the fleet.

As the tendering process opens for the small vessel replacement programme, I hope that the minister can provide some assurance that islanders, local communities and the workforce will be centrally involved in the decision-making process, so that vessels are commissioned that meet the service’s needs and the wider socioeconomic needs, which Alex Rowley spoke about in his speech. I have to say, as somebody who has represented island communities over many years, that islanders consistently do not feel that they have been listened to or, indeed, consulted.

Standardised vessels require standardised ports. I ask that the minister provides an update on the Ardrossan harbour redevelopment, which is essential for the Ardrossan to Brodick route.

I welcome the debate and the opportunity to consider the long-term future of Scotland’s ferries, and I urge the Scottish Government to come forward with its own proposals.


Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

I welcome the committee’s report, which calls for a comprehensive vision of a high-quality service for all ferry-dependent communities, and I know that my Arran and Cumbrae constituents will welcome it, too.

The understandable frustration of island communities has long been recognised, and it is present throughout the report. I look forward to seeing meaningful action being taken by the Scottish Government to create a resilient, transparent and reliable ferry service. I am also pleased that the Scottish Government will take forward 43 recommendations, with 29 having been noted.

The ageing nature of our ferry fleet is a key issue that causes regular delays and cancellations. Only yesterday, I was unable to travel to Cumbrae for a meeting with local government committee colleagues due to a technical fault with the MV Loch Fyne. Although CalMac had the MV Loch Shira in operation on the route less than 90 minutes after announcing the fault, difficulties were undeniably caused for those waiting, not least because it was communicated that the ferry would not sail for longer than transpired.

The continuing delays surrounding the MV Glen Sannox and the recently named MV Glen Rosa have failed to instil confidence in our ferry communities, and as those vessels continue to meet issues impacting timing and budget, a number of Scottish islands are being denied a full, flexible year-round service. Those delivery problems suggest difficulties throughout replacement programme processes, including funding, procurement, design and specification.

The Scottish Government’s £695 million funding to progress ambitious fleet-renewal plans was welcomed in 2021. However, as islanders wait for new vessels to come into operation, frustration grows. An achievable rolling vessel-renewal programme is required to build islanders’ confidence in the service and ensure that delays and cancellations are significantly reduced.

Yesterday’s announcement to continue operating the MV Alfred in the Clyde and Hebrides ferry service network for a further six months, providing much-needed additional resilience over the winter period, was welcomed by islanders. Nevertheless, news that the MV Caledonian Isles may be approved for deployment to Islay or Mull has created concern that the Alfred will be used to provide a single-vessel service to Arran with a reduced timetable over the winter period. I hope that the minister will be able to confirm that that will not be the case.

The rescheduled timetable allowing the MV Caledonian Isles to participate in the sea trials was announced only days before its implementation. My Arran constituents would appreciate frank and regular updates and opportunities to provide feedback on the situation, to ensure that decisions are made with ferry users and local island businesses in mind. The Alfred has only half the capacity of the Caledonian Isles, so I share concerns that timetabled sailings are already vulnerable to weather-related cancellations.

Arran and Cumbrae rely heavily on tourism, and an improved ferry service would significantly boost island businesses and, in turn, employee livelihoods. A rolling programme of investment in new ferries would ensure that the network no longer operates at full capacity, which would prevent problems cascading through the service when a vessel is inoperable.

The introduction of the road equivalent tariff for the Clyde isles in 2014, for which I had long campaigned, more than halved the cost of visiting Arran by car. That greatly boosted visitor numbers and Arran’s economy. Capacity was increased, with the six-week two-vessel summer service extending to six months, and the dilapidated MV Saturn, which the Scottish Government inherited, being removed from the fleet. It had a 14.2 per cent cancellation rate, which is eight times the fleet average. Even so, summer capacity remains at a premium, and the Glen Sannox capacity is a reduction to 852 passengers, which increases that concern.

It is essential that CalMac provides accurate performance metrics to drive improvement and, in turn, ensure that accountability is accepted when issues emerge. Considering the project Neptune report, it is essential that governance structures are streamlined and transparency improved. Decisions made following the report’s key findings must recognise both the network feedback provided and the detailed study, which was informed by more than 50 ferry-linked communities, demonstrating a Scottish Government commitment to working in collaboration with ferry users.

Kenny Gibson sits on the Ardrossan harbour task force. I wonder if he can give us an update on progress there.

Kenneth Gibson

I cannot give an immediate update on where we are at this precise moment: it is a moveable feast. There have been a number of issues, particularly relating to the fact that the Tories privatised the harbour some 30 years ago, which means that the Scottish Government is not able to build at the harbour or redevelop it without having to negotiate with Peel Ports, which is driving a very hard bargain. For instance, even when a deal is agreed after a long time, inflation eats into it, and Peel wants the public sector to meet the shortfall. In actual fact, the roots of the situation go back to the Tories’ privatisation of the harbour. I hope that we will have meaningful progress in the weeks and months ahead.

The committee refers to the need for meaningful engagement with communities throughout its report—something that the Isle of Arran ferry committee has called for over many years. Islander seats on the boards of CalMac and CMAL could only be advantageous. That would allow islanders’ knowledge and lived experience of island life to influence decision making, which would in turn improve customer focus.

Increased public engagement would help CalMac to ensure that timetabling decisions meet the needs of both islanders and visitors, boosting island economies while ensuring that timetables are in sync with other modes of public transport and allowing ferry users to continue their journey in a timely manner following their crossing.

In my constituency, the volunteer members of the Arran ferry committee and the Cumbrae ferry users group, which represent community and business sectors, effectively voice ferry-related matters on the two islands. They are dedicated to working with CalMac, CMAL, the Scottish ministers and others to improve services and, importantly, to increase the engagement of ferry service providers with islanders.

Change is urgently needed. As members of the Isle of Arran ferry committee explained to the First Minister when they met him in Brodick on 23 August, change must start at the top of the company operating the contract. For Arran, the current situation represents an all-time low regarding engagement and communication with community representatives. Any suggestion of a direct award to the current operator, even with significant management restructuring, would not be well received by the communities served. They assert that customer respect and customer care are totally missing, and that they must be improved first.

I welcome the Scottish Government’s decision to extend the free ferry service for young people to all island residents under the age of 22, allowing islanders to save money and removing cost barriers to transport. If Graham Simpson had intervened on me, rather than intervening earlier on Alasdair Allan, he would know that I am asking the Government to consider increasing the number of journeys permitted, given that the young persons free bus travel pass has no restriction on journeys made throughout the year. I agree with Beatrice Wishart in that regard.

The Scottish Government’s new vision for a high-quality ferry service must make it clear that the prosperity of island communities is the priority. Communication and an opportunity for constructive feedback are key to achieving that, as is a comprehensive rolling programme of investment to deliver a fleet that meets the need of islanders and the lifeline services on which they are reliant.


Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

I start by thanking all the ferry-dependent communities, as their evidence has been absolutely central to our inquiry. I also thank the workers, who operate in what are often incredibly difficult conditions to connect our island communities to each other and to the rest of Scotland.

For me, the central conclusion of the inquiry is that the experiences of those ferry-dependent communities need to be at the heart of how services are designed, delivered and monitored in future. I very much welcome the comments made earlier in the debate by the Minister for Transport, and I acknowledge her early work to engage intensively with those communities. Indeed, I recognise that now is a time for intensive engagement with them. It is clear that there has been an erosion of trust over a number of years, and that communities themselves should be involved in the co-production of services, which includes their ability to propose new services and alterations as appropriate.

Ferries, unlike trains and buses, do not have a regulator or a customer champion who can ensure that services stick to agreed standards. If bus services do not stick to timetables, the traffic commissioner for Scotland can, and sometimes does, step in. There is no such regulator for ferry services, however. For years, ferry-dependent communities have relied on ad hoc parliamentary scrutiny or consultation exercises in order to be heard. That has led to a situation where people’s expectations have often risen, only for them then to be let down. There was a strong sense of consultation fatigue throughout our inquiry.

In the absence of ferry services that communities can shape to meet their own needs, some communities have even gone as far as proposing their own services, and they have made the case that the CHFS bundle should be unpicked.

It is welcome that the Government has resisted calls for unbundling, but I can understand where some communities are coming from in making them. The view of many people who gave evidence was that the tripartite arrangement between CalMac, CMAL and Transport Scotland was not working and had led to a pass-the-parcel approach of transferring responsibility. As we have heard from the committee’s convener, it had no consensus view on the exact model that it would recommend for the future. If it were to emerge that there will be a new ferries Scotland body that would link CMAL with Transport Scotland’s functions, I am sure that many people would welcome that, but only if it resulted in more accountability, transparency, competency and responsiveness. If a 10-year direct award for CalMac were to emerge, it will be critical that a change in culture based on the principles of good service takes hold. The involvement of unions and community members at board level will be important to effect such culture change.

I note that the Government has rejected the option of a ferries commissioner as being overly bureaucratic. I recognise the intense parliamentary scrutiny on budgets for commissioners that exists at the moment. However, the decision puts the emphasis back on any new structure that emerges to show that a commissioner function is unnecessary. The Scottish Parliament is not set up to scrutinise the minutiae of timetable changes and individual reliability issues. From time to time, such issues will arise in parliamentary questions and through committee work, but they should be dealt with first through customer operator forums. With that in mind, I welcome the Government’s commitment to continue the ferries community board and to ensure that the next CHFS contract comes with clear key performance indicators.

I also warmly welcome the fact that there will be a renewed focus on accessibility, with a role for the Mobility and Access Committee for Scotland in the on-going development of services. Recording the reliability of services will help to rebuild trust, but that data should reflect the real experience of ferry users. Understanding and communicating the reasons behind cancellations will also be important, especially when cancellations come from problems with other services that have cascaded down the system.

The committee also considered ferry ticket prices, and I was pleased to hear the recent announcement of the extension of the free ferries scheme to all under-22s. I look forward to the Minister for Transport’s concluding the wider fair fares review. I recognise that the Government has the most ambitious scheme of concessionary public transport fares anywhere in the UK and that, in these financially difficult times, the minister will be wrestling with difficult choices. However, offering help to young people to continue living on our islands is a shared priority for the SNP and the Greens.

The principle of road equivalent tariff remains important, but the model of implementation and any possible extension need to take account of unintended consequences, while remaining firmly focused on supporting island residents first.

The procurement of new ferries is a highly charged issue, but it is important to note that vessels being built in Turkey are on track for launch next year and in 2025. As we move forward, the climate emergency must feature strongly through our choosing all sustainable transport options. That will mean looking carefully at whether fixed links make sense in terms of both lifetime cost and lifetime carbon emissions. Like Beatrice Wishart, I hope that the small electric vessels that will come through the replacement programme will be far easier to design and build than hulls 801 and 802, and that the low-carbon ferries plan will strongly drive our future options.

Our ageing ferry fleet and the difficulty of procuring boats on the international market have dominated the performance issues for island communities. However, as the light appears at the end of the tunnel and new ferries are on their way, we now have an opportunity to put communities first and to redesign service delivery in a way that is accountable and responsive. That is what communities deserve, after years of waiting.


Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I am pleased to speak in the debate, which is on a subject of such importance to my Highlands and Islands region, both as convener of the Parliament’s cross-party group on islands and as an islander myself. I thank the committee, its clerks and all its witnesses for their work in conducting the inquiry and helping to produce the report, which, in its first few lines, succinctly summarises the problem as being that our

“ferry services are not good enough and need to change.”

I doubt whether anyone who lives on any of our islands or in one of our ferry-reliant communities would argue with that.

We need change and we need it urgently. Over the 16 years that the SNP has been in power, our ferries network has lurched from crisis to crisis and from scandal to scandal. The focus today for many will be on the west coast routes, but I have long warned that the crisis engulfing those services will eventually have an impact on other areas such as in the northern isles where I am from.

It is already happening. The MV Alfred, a relatively new ferry that was built on time and on budget and operated by a private company without any Government subsidy, has had to be chartered to plug the gaps in CalMac’s operations. That has meant that Orkney, my home, has seen capacity reduced with a smaller and older ferry providing cover. Yesterday that charter was extended, meaning that a key Orkney route will continue to rely on that older vessel and its reduced capacity for most of the next summer season. I understand that the cost of that to the taxpayer will be around £15 million in total. That is £15 million to charter for 15 months a vessel that is reported to have cost between £14 million and £17 million to buy new. What could better highlight the utter failure of the SNP’s procurement processes and the financial consequences of its panicked response to those failures?

It is not just the islands that suffer. One of Scotland’s busiest ferry routes is across the Corran narrows in Lochaber. Its usual ferry, the 23-year-old MV Corran, has just spent an entire year out of service. Its cover vessel, the 48-year-old MV Maid of Glencoul, broke down, was reintroduced with restrictions, and then broke down again. The communities served by those vessels have been left without that vital link through the busiest time of the year.

I want to make it clear that that is a Highland Council-run service—[Interruption.] It is a Highland Council-run service, but the council seems to have no clear timetable on delivering a solution, while successive SNP transport ministers have just washed their hands of the problem. I was able to use the crossing a few months ago as part of my summer surgery tour and having travelled through local communities and met residents and local businesses the impact of the disruption was clear.

Footfall in local businesses was reported to be considerably down and some businesses were considering whether they could even continue. Local accommodation providers and hospitality businesses have seen bookings cancelled at the last minute because there was no ferry to carry their guests, with others struggling to take long-term bookings because confidence in being able to reach the area had plummeted. There were real concerns about depopulation for the area if a reliable ferry connection could not be delivered.

Fiona Hyslop

I, too, met communities in the Ardnamurchan peninsula and heard their concerns. Would the member welcome the fact that CMAL has been working with Highland Council to look at how it can help the council in future procurement?

Jamie Halcro Johnston

I would welcome that, but we need to make sure that those meetings are more than just talks and hand-wringing—which has often been the case—and instead actually look to deliver a solution. That will be absolutely vital, because those local communities need to see action from the SNP-led administrations in Edinburgh and in Inverness.

It is vital, as the report recommends, that local authorities and the Scottish Government collaborate to ensure that communities can rely on our lifeline links, and vital that fixed links such as bridges and tunnels, which many people want to see in the longer-term across the Corran narrows, are seriously considered by the Scottish Government, as others have mentioned today. Stronger consideration for fixed links would certainly find favour in other areas, such as in Shetland, as Beatrice Wishart highlighted. In the summer, in Shetland, I met campaigners for tunnels, as well as the local council, who see fixed links as a viable and realistic option. However, it will need Government help to support and facilitate that.

The report is extremely welcome, but in itself it will change nothing. We know that change is needed. That is clear in the report, in the testimony that we heard from the cross-party group on islands and from many of the speakers in the debate. However, change requires an admission and an acceptance from the Scottish Government that it has got things terribly wrong so far.

Is it a scandal? Yes. The United States got to the moon quicker than it has taken this SNP Government to plan and build the two ferries. It still has not delivered. Is it a crisis? Yes. Worse than that, it is a tragedy for the ferry-reliant communities. My concern is that the cancellations, restrictions and unreliability that we see now will only get worse. More islanders will be impacted, more businesses will be damaged, and the very future of some of our most fragile communities could be at risk. As the report says, ferry services are not good enough and need to change.


Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

I remind members that my wife works part-time for CalMac.

I am pleased that the motion before us is to note the report, not to support it, because I certainly cannot support everything in it. I will start with two brief points. First, the layout would be helpful to a reader who is exploring the issue for the first time, and secondly, when the Opposition parties call for a ministerial sacking in the future, I am sure that the report will be referenced.

The executive summary provides a good understanding of what is covered in the report and, importantly, highlights the challenge of providing standardised ferries and ports. However, the report fails to explain how that would be done. It also fails to recognise what comes first and how it would be paid for. Page 57 onwards does not provide the answers.

The job that CMAL has undertaken in relation to ports infrastructure certainly fulfils that task. The point that appears to have been forgotten is that ferry procurement in the past was based on the existing infrastructure, instead of planning ahead. That could tie in with the proposed shift to 10-year contract awards.

Recommendation 29 of the report mentions the Scottish Government

“ensuring that it delivers real improvements for communities.”

In the past, CalMac was possibly not challenged anywhere near enough, but the current contract award had 350 suggested improvements, which is indicative of how little attention had been paid to modernising the business until Martin Dorchester became the chief executive.

The first of the key points for my constituency and me are recommendations 21 and 22 on the direct award. I support that in principle, but I recognise the many hurdles that it would face. I also support a direct award for the small vessels programme to be built at Ferguson Marine, for that matter.

However, recommendation 63 will sound alarm bells in my constituency. The potential to tie in moving the headquarters staff from Gourock to elsewhere in the network would be challenged across my constituency. I am sure that there would be some understanding of moving a small number of positions, but a root-and-branch removal of CalMac from Gourock would not be accepted. I note from the RMT briefing for the debate that it supports the direct award, but it is silent on the jobs that could leave Gourock, which I am sure it will end up campaigning on in the future.

The executive summary mentions an evaluation of the road equivalent tariff. My reading of that leads me to suspect that it is about increasing costs for business while offering up cheaper fares for younger passengers. The socioeconomic impact is mentioned in recommendation 25, and it would certainly be of interest to hear whether the islands business community would pay more to ship their goods to the mainland in order to subsidise younger passengers. I realise that the Scottish Government is undertaking a fair fares review to consider all aspects of travel, but I am sure that businesses would not want to be penalised, especially if they are making a profit. On that point, I reference recommendation 49 of the report.

Recommendation 11 on the tripartite relationship is the second key point of the report for me and my constituency. It is clear that there has been a long-held vendetta against CMAL and, by extension, its workforce, even after Audit Scotland’s positive report in March 2022. The vendetta was obvious during the previous parliamentary session and, sadly, it continues today. However, it is clear that the relationship between all three tripartite partners needs to be more transparent, which project Neptune aimed to address. Sadly, project Neptune left more questions than answers, which was clear at the two briefings that I attended along with other MSPs from across Parliament.

Recommendations 15 and 16 highlight suggestions of merging CMAL with either CalMac or Transport Scotland, based on the project Neptune report. I have grave concerns about such suggestions. The committee’s report highlights the rationale for breaking up CalMac in 2006, which is very helpful in terms of the historical element of why we are where we are. However, in comparison, CMAL’s focus on investing in port infrastructure is testament to its skills in relation to that long-overdue task.

Merging CMAL with Transport Scotland to create a Ferries Scotland could be worthy of merit, but it should not happen at any cost. That is where the local socioeconomic impacts come into consideration. CMAL is based in Port Glasgow, in my constituency, and employs 50 people. Not everyone lives locally, but the staff contribute to the local economy. If a structural change were to happen that placed the workforce elsewhere, it would have a serious socioeconomic impact on the town and my constituency.

I do not believe that the authors of the report fully considered the impact of recommendation 16 being pursued. As co-chair of the Inverclyde socioeconomic task force, alongside the council leader Stephen McCabe, I cannot ignore how devastating the loss of 50 jobs would be to Port Glasgow.

If a merger occurred, as per recommendation 16, or some form of new structure were implemented, there would need to be a no-detriment policy for my constituency. Why should my constituency be negatively impacted when it is, sadly, already top of the list in respect of many negative socioeconomic factors?

On something else that has been touched on in the chamber before, I do not agree with the calls to shut Ferguson’s and base the yard down at Inchgreen dry dock. Even without considering the vast amounts of capital money that would be required for that, it would have a devastating effect on Port Glasgow town centre. Local businesses have already told me that they would shut. The town centre would be decimated if the yard were to relocate. The town would never recover, and the population decline would increase at a rate not seen since the decimation of the shipbuilding industry under the Tories in 1979.

Although there are some aspects of the report that will be positive for other parts of the country, the report raises grave concerns, and it could be detrimental for my Greenock and Inverclyde constituency.

We move to the winding-up speeches. I call Rhoda Grant.


Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

I thank the committee for its work on the report, and I thank ferry and port staff for the services that they deliver.

The ultimate responsibility for the Clyde and Hebrides ferry fiasco lies squarely with the SNP Government. Its relentless incompetence has left island communities waiting for years for new lifeline ferries and taxpayers picking up the ever-increasing bill, which is likely to be over £400 million by the time that we are finished.

Shetland and Orkney interisland ferries have similar issues. The councils on those islands do not have the funding to replace their ferries—Liam McArthur and Beatrice Wishart have made that point. The same is true of the Corran ferry, which belongs to Highland Council. Again, that is ageing infrastructure. The island connectivity plan needs to include those ferries as well.

We know about the problems. The fleet is ageing. The average age of the CalMac vessels is 37 years old. The Scottish Government has committed to lowering that to 15 years old by 2030. We need to see a detailed plan for that that says how the Scottish Government will achieve that promise.

There is a lack of resilience in the system. Breakdowns are common, there are no spare parts, and there is no spare capacity. We need political leadership to make the difference, and that has not been forthcoming in the past while, with very few transport ministers staying in post for over 18 months.

Katy Clark made the point that that lack of resilience in the system led to food and fuel shortages. That happens all too often.

Many members have talked about the tripartite system and the need for restructuring, because that system does not work. As Alex Rowley said, that ends up with people passing the parcel of blame to other organisations in the tripartite system.

Just about every speaker in the debate has made the point that decisions have to be made closer to the community. Alasdair Allan talked about islander seats on the board. The committee made the point that trade unions should also be on the boards of the companies.

I am not convinced that the answer lies with Transport Scotland, because it seems to be more distant from communities than anything else and, indeed, it may well be part of the problem. However, whatever new structure we have, it needs to have the resources and expertise to deliver the services, as Alex Rowley said.

I turn to the award of the contract. Edward Mountain told us that there are only 16 months left of the contract. There is no time to put it out to tender. However, we have long advocated the direct award of the contract. Indeed, in the previous parliamentary session, my colleague David Stewart talked about the Teckal exemption and how that would have exempted those services from being put out to tender. Alex Rowley and Katy Clark asked about the current legal advice post-Brexit and whether that is now possible. We urge that it should be, because any disruption will cause more trouble to our islands. The contract needs to run for an extended period so that people know who is delivering the service and that it can receive proper investment.

We also need to consider all who deliver the service. We should be committed to fair work in every contract, so that everybody who delivers the service has the same terms and conditions—the RMT made that point in its briefing for the debate.

We need standardised designs for harbours, ports and ferries. Having three interchangeable designs for ferries would mean that harbours could accommodate them; the minister made that point when she referred to Tarbert’s new harbour development. If our shipbuilders knew what designs were to come forward, that would allow them to plan and invest for the long term and deliver ferries more cost effectively.

We should look at delivery and maybe listen to people in the community on the Isle of Lewis, who asked for two smaller ferries, rather than one large ferry, to get better efficiency benefits and better interchangeability when boats are in dry dock in the winter.

We must learn the lessons of the past and make sure that we do not repeat them. We need to make sure that our ferry services are fit for purpose and are accessible to all users. That applies particularly to the northern isles interisland ferry services, which are not accessible to disabled people.

The ultimate responsibility for this fiasco lies with the SNP Government. From it, we need transparency and collaboration with local communities to deliver a ferry service that is fit for the future.


Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

I, too, thank the committee for its outstanding work in producing the report; I recognise the contribution of all the committee’s previous and current members.

I will talk about the report, but we cannot discuss ferries without looking at the wider issues. The upshot is that Scotland’s islanders are being let down by the SNP, and the situation is reaching a critical point. This fine report is just the latest to be produced by a parliamentary committee. After previous reports, nothing happened.

The report starts by talking about leadership. If we had had leadership, we would not be in the current predicament with an ageing and unreliable ferry fleet and paralysis of decision making that means that the Scottish Government is ducking tackling the big decisions. For example, what are we going to do about the next Clyde and Hebrides ferry services contract? The current contract has just 11 months to go. Will that go out to tender? If not, why not? How long will the next contract be for? If it is for 10 years or more, as the committee suggested, will the ferry operator be responsible for owning the fleet and buying new ferries? That would be similar to the successful model that operates in British Columbia, where dual-fuel ferries are successfully run.

It cannot possibly be argued that the current rather bizarre set-up, in which one part of the Scottish Government buys and owns the ferries and another runs them, works well. That is all with Transport Scotland sitting above that and reporting to a succession of transport ministers going back a long way. I hope that the current incumbent will achieve something that is meaningful—a ferry system that works. Maybe we will find out about that next week.

To come back to the questions that I asked, why does the Government rule out private sector involvement? Why does it rule out islanders taking on services? Why is it boxing itself into a corner when that can have only one outcome—the same failed model that we have now? That is the very model that is putting island economies at risk and making people think about leaving islands.

It is not as if we do not have other models in Scotland—we do. Councils run ferries and so does the private sector. The one bit that gets all the headlines, for the wrong reasons, is run by the SNP. Today, Labour figures such as Katy Clark have said that they want all that to continue.

The committee said:

“Scotland needs modern, economical and sustainable ferries. The Scottish Government should set out how it will deliver on its commitment to reduce the average age of vessels to 15 years by 2030.”

Well, indeed. The committee also said:

“Scottish ferry services must be reliable.”

As Douglas Lumsden said in his excellent contribution, that would be good, wouldn’t it?

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

The member mentioned that the only time that ferries are in the news is when there is an issue to do with CalMac. Does he not remember when P&O Ferries sacked its workers? That is a private company.

Graham Simpson

That point is rather irrelevant to this debate, but I think that everyone in the chamber criticised the actions of P&O at the time.

The committee also called on the Government to make ferries more affordable for young people. It has gone some of the way towards doing that, but providing four passes a year is not the full-time arrangement that is needed. We would never put up with that on mainland buses, which is the equivalent. I urge the minister to go much further—a point that was made by my good friend Kenny Gibson and Beatrice Wishart.

The committee agreed that the tripartite arrangement needs to change but could not agree on what should replace it. I imagine that some members were maybe waiting for a steer from the Government—they still are. As time runs out on the next Clyde and Hebrides ferry services contract, no one can plan ahead. Therefore, we are, possibly by deliberate default, heading towards more of the same.

The minister has a lot of decisions to make by the end of the year and no shortage of reports and consultations to fall back on. We had project Neptune, which told us nothing that we did not know already. We have had Angus Campbell’s review. We have also just had the musings of Barry Smith KC, who asked whether there was anything fraudulent in the procurement of the MV Glen Sannox and MV Glen Rosa—an allegation that, precisely, no one has made. We still do not know what Mr Smith was paid to produce his report. We do know that the former procurement manager at CMAL, George MacGregor, said that his claims that senior staff broke procurement rules and the yard should not have been shortlisted were not included in the report. Is that not just the sort of thing that a King’s counsel should have been tasked with looking into?

Those two ferries have swallowed up a huge chunk of a budget that could have gone on more new vessels. If the SNP had not been hellbent on giving the work to a yard that was plainly not up to the job of building two large ferries, islanders would have been enjoying travel on new ferries now, and other routes could have been enjoying new ferries, too. What a scandal. It is certainly a scandal, all right, but—

Just close the yard, then.

Graham Simpson

I can hear some chuntering. I will come on to that.

However, in true SNP style, no one has taken the blame, no one has been sacked and no one has resigned because of it.

The Scottish Conservatives have argued that the current tripartite system should end. The committee has argued for that, too, and the minister has agreed today that it is not fit for purpose. We have called for longer contracts, and the committee has done so, too. We have said that CMAL should be scrapped. The committee does not go quite that far, but it suggests that there should be a new body—ferries Scotland.

We have criticised the Government’s dithering over the awarding of the next Clyde and Hebrides ferry services contract. As I have said, in all likelihood, that will lead to CalMac getting it again. We have said that we need an on-going ferries replacement programme in order to lower the age of the fleet. We have also called for clarity over the future of the Ferguson Marine yard. That was not part of the inquiry. Only Neil Gray can address that, and he is, rather typically, dithering. Maybe we will find out more about that next week.

At the heart of this are islanders. They are the ones who are suffering and they are the ones whom we should be looking out for.


Fiona Hyslop

I again thank the committee for its report. There was a range of views on it. Graham Simpson called it “outstanding”, Douglas Lumsden said that it was “excellent”, and Jamie Greene, who was a bit more lukewarm, said that it was “decent”. However, I hope that, in reading the Government’s response, members will recognise that it has accepted 43 of the recommendations. We also heard a critical view from Stuart McMillan.

This has been a good debate because sincere, informed perspectives and different views have been aired. It is clear that issues around the delivery of ferry services remain an important topic for all parties. It is incumbent on all of us to continue working together to improve the current position in the interests of all those who rely on the services.

I am pleased that we all agree on the impact that the forthcoming islands connectivity plan can have. The plan represents an opportunity to address a number of issues through our approach.

I want to turn to those issues, some of which have been raised by members in their contributions. First, we recognise that a ferry journey is often only part of an overall journey, and it is therefore important to consider onward and connecting travel as an essential element. In particular, we need to look at how we encourage more journeys across Scotland to be undertaken using low-emission vehicles, public transport and active travel. I also point out that the strategic transport projects review 2 refers to tunnels. The islands connectivity plan will have a workstream devoted to aspects relating to onward travel.

We are also conscious of ensuring sufficient opportunities and facilities for interchange at individual ports and of ensuring that there is sufficient scope in timetables to allow connections to be made. In particular, the needs of disabled travellers must be taken into account, and we must benefit from their input in designing decisions. Mark Ruskell referred to that. There is already engagement with communities on those issues when timetables are reviewed, but people with lived experience and knowledge of services are invaluable in informing improvements that are made to those services and facilities. And, yes, that means that we expect people from the islands to be members of boards.

We have a clear objective to ensure that the development of replacement tonnage and infrastructure plays a key role in decarbonising operations and the pathway to net zero, to which Beatrice Wishart and Mark Ruskell referred. Again, an element of the islands connectivity plan will deal with that. We are already taking significant action in that area by investing in more efficient vessels and looking at electric vessels for the small vessel replacement programme where the technology can support that. At the same time, we are modernising that part of the fleet in other ways, including by improving accessibility for people with disabilities. I assure Alex Rowley that the strand of work on vessel replacement will contribute to our future thinking in relation to the islands connectivity plan.

Will the minister take an intervention?

Fiona Hyslop

I want to address a number of points that members made in the debate, if Paul Sweeney does not mind.

I have now been Minister for Transport for six months, and I have spent a lot of time engaging directly with ferry stakeholders, including communities, CMAL, operators and trade unions. I recognise all the efforts that people are putting in, and the suggestions that are being made, to improving ferry services. I have also heard about the direct challenges that they face. Their input in providing an outline of the strategic direction that is needed to move to a sustainable and reliable service across our networks will inform my decisions and that work.

Edward Mountain

I appreciate that the minister has been in her role for six months. Is she now in a position to tell us what she is going to do about the award of the new contract? Will the contract go out to tender or will it just be awarded to CalMac? We would like to know, because that is a key question.

There is a little bit of time in hand, minister.

Fiona Hyslop

The issues that have been raised will be addressed in a statement that I hope to be able to give to the Parliament once that is announced by the Parliamentary Bureau. To be clear, I will set out as many answers as I can to questions on the future of the CHFS contract when I make the statement to the Parliament.

I place on the record my thanks to the ferry committees, the ferries community board and all the representative bodies that give their time to represent ferry users and that work in the interests of improving services. I know that the committee heard directly from a number of those bodies.

Improvements are already being made. There has been the recent development of a pilot project on island essential travel that will involve a different approach to releasing bookings on the CalMac network. That should allow greater opportunities for island communities and those who require to travel at shorter notice. The project involves retaining a proportion of deck space on services to Coll, Tiree, Mull and Iona and releasing those bookings closer to sailing time. I particularly thank the communities that were involved in shaping that work. We will look to see whether that approach is successful before rolling it out further.

We also continue to listen to communities in relation to the provision of additional vessels in the fleet to minimise disruption in the event of an outage of a major vessel for any period. I am pleased that arrangements relating to the MV Alfred have been agreed between CalMac and Pentland Ferries, and communities recognise that it is helpful that the MV Hebridean Isles is back to support services.

There was a reference to, and question about, Ardrossan harbour. I am pleased that many members referred to ports and harbours, which are very much part of the issue. The procurement process for the Ardrossan harbour redevelopment has been paused in order to deliver a refreshed business case. It is a complex project. Additional infrastructure works have been identified and work to reassess project scope and costs has begun. All funding partners are involved in that exercise.

Jamie Halcro Johnston and Beatrice Wishart, among others, referred to local authority ferries. We fund those ferry services. We have agreed to support the local authorities with their revenue funding, with a fund of £178 million over the past five years. That has increased fairly recently to support the operation of the services that are in their remit.

On the tripartite issue that Graham Simpson addressed, I was asked whether it should be changed and my answer was yes—that is the specific quote, in case he ever wants to use it again.

Will the member give way?

I want to finish, unless we have some time, Presiding Officer.

We do.

I will give way to the member.

On the tripartite agreement, clarity is required about whether it could be changed or whether it has to remain, legally. Can the cabinet secretary say whether it can be changed?

Fiona Hyslop

A number of issues are involved, which depend on different moving parts in the system. When we ask for legal advice, it is on a specific proposal. My view is that it is possible to change the tripartite arrangement in some way but, on the legal and technical impact of that and whether it is wise and advisable to do so, that will be part of the diligence work that I would undertake in looking at any of this.

I remind everyone that there are four parts to the process. There is the contract issue for CHFS, the islands connectivity plan, the fair fares review and the governance issue. One of the committee’s recommendations was about how we ensure that there is coherence with all those moving parts. I assure members that I have been spending my time making sure that there is order to that, and I will, of course, inform Parliament when we are ready to do that.

Will the minister take an intervention?

Paul Sweeney rose—

Fiona Hyslop

I want to move on, if that is okay.

I want to address the issue of local authority ferries. I reiterate that the Deputy First Minister has been chairing task forces looking at the options and costs for the replacement of ferries and infrastructure that are owned by Orkney Islands Council and Shetland Islands Council. That work is on-going—the meetings of the task forces are on-going in this month, for Orkney and Shetland.

Will the minister give way?

Fiona Hyslop

I want to address some of the points that were made in the debate, if the member does not mind.

Alex Rowley asked about procurement compliance. Of course, any future procurement would have to be compliant with the current subsidy control legislation, and that can be set out at the time.

Will the minister give way?

Fiona Hyslop

I can see that the Presiding Officer is asking me to wind up.

I record my thanks to the committee for its work in preparing this forward-thinking and positive report. People will read it in different ways, but I think that it gives a direction and a way forward. I assure members that the Government will continue to work through the recommendations and, along with communities and key ferry stakeholders, seek to improve the ferry services that we deliver. I will continue to work constructively on the issue and other transport issues with the committee, and I again thank it for producing an evidence-based, well-considered and timely report that I think shows the Parliament and its committee structure at their best.

I call Ben Macpherson to wind up the debate on behalf of the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee.


Ben Macpherson (Edinburgh Northern and Leith) (SNP)

I am grateful for the opportunity to close the debate on behalf of the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee. I joined the committee recently and, for clarity, was not part of the committee or present during the inquiry. However, I am pleased to speak to the body of work that my colleagues have undertaken, which, as has been widely acknowledged in the chamber today and elsewhere, was thorough and comprehensive. That has been demonstrated by the discussion and the range of contributions that we have heard.

I thank everyone who has been involved in the publication and assimilation of the report, including our clerks and everyone who gave evidence. I also thank all members who have taken part in the debate. If any of my fellow committee members in particular wishes to add or emphasise anything in the minutes ahead, I encourage them to intervene on me.

The convener outlined the context for the committee’s inquiry. He spoke of its conclusions on the future of the governance model for the delivery of ferry services. Specifically, the committee called for a

“comprehensive vision for a high quality service for all ferry-dependent communities”

to be set out in the islands connectivity plan. That is vital, and I will highlight some of the elements that the committee recommended for inclusion in the final plan. They start with the fundamental need for more capacity on our ferry networks, which starts with investment and a rolling programme, as others have said, of vessel and harbour upgrades.

The committee’s report recommended that the Scottish Government should mirror the UK commitment to ensure that, by 2025, all vessels that are ordered for use in UK waters are designed with zero-emission propulsion capability. The Scottish Government’s response indicates that CMAL will consider that “where possible”. A new UK plan is anticipated this year, and international counterparts are already operating fully electric and hydrogen ferries, as Beatrice Wishart emphasised in her speech. The committee urges the Scottish Government to demonstrate ambition, and we are grateful to the minister for setting that out in her response and in her speeches.

We extend that ask for ambition to all vessels that are in need of replacement in Scotland. Local authorities must be supported in the procurement of low-emission vessels. The low-carbon aspect of the islands connectivity plan is essential to that, but the committee felt that it was not being sufficiently prioritised. Indeed, almost a year after the first element of the plan was published, it is still being developed.

Another key area considered by the committee was fares, including for businesses and freight, as was emphasised by Graham Simpson, for example. We noted calls from stakeholders on the need to conclude a review of freight fares, and we look forward to the publication of the much-anticipated fair fares review later this year. Also due later this year is the second strategic transport projects review delivery plan, which will outline how we can achieve integrated transport to and from ferry terminals.

Graham Simpson

I thank Ben Macpherson for taking an intervention. I know that he wanted members to intervene, so I am happy to help out and to spin it out as long as possible to give him a hand.

What is Ben Macpherson’s view of the Government’s offer on under-22 ferry fares? He will be aware that only four passes a year are being offered. Does he agree with other members that that offer should be extended?

I will state the committee’s view shortly. I note the contributions from other members. The debate has provided a good forum to discuss those issues.

Paul Sweeney

Does Ben Macpherson recognise that the 30-year cross-Government shipbuilding pipeline identified in the national shipbuilding strategy refresh is critical to the Scottish shipbuilding enterprise? Does he also recognise that, to maximise the economic opportunities of that pipeline of orders, there needs to be a consistent, stable design and a consistent, integrated approach to procuring ferries in the Scottish shipbuilding industry?

Ben Macpherson

I thank the member for that contribution and I know that the minister will have been listening attentively to it. The member has engaged significantly on those matters, not just with regard to shipbuilding but with regard to other aspects of Scottish industrial strategy, and I commend him for his interest in that.

The committee was of the view that ferry departure and arrival times must marry up with public transport options for travelling to terminals. That will reduce car kilometres and help to reduce demand for car spaces on ferries. That demand has been growing in recent years, which is an unintended consequence of the road equivalent tariff.

Fiona Hyslop

The committee identified that the RET had been a success but had had unintended consequences, such as an increase in the number of passengers on ferries of 11 per cent and an increase in the number of cars on ferries of about 20 per cent. That has had consequences for the availability of space, so we might want to think about what vessels can or should carry in future, and what the end-to-end of different vehicles might be in terms of electric hire and so on, particularly as tourists start to look for more green options for travel.

Ben Macpherson

Those are important points, and the committee was also grateful to consider them. The fair fares review is also considering an evaluation of the RET from 2021. The committee sought assurances that any changes to and expansion of the RET scheme resulting from that would not have further unintended consequences. Those are points of consideration, as we appreciate the minister has outlined today in response to the report.

The views of young people were important in the inquiry, and the committee thanks the Scottish Youth Parliament for its work on ferry services and for meeting the committee to share its findings. Members were also pleased to hear the views of young people on visits in the Western Isles and Orkney, and the committee recommended that young people should have concessionary fares for ferry travel. In some places, after all, catching a ferry is just like catching a bus, as members have emphasised. Therefore, the extension of the national ferry concessionary travel scheme to islanders under the age of 22 is a welcome start, and the committee looks forward to hearing how that can be built on when the fair fares review report is published.

The committee takes the view that it is unacceptable that some of Scotland’s ferries are not equally accessible to everyone. Therefore, the committee called for an audit of vessel accessibility to identify priorities for investment, and we are glad that the Scottish Government will consider that.

The final theme of the report was about ensuring that ferry services are shaped by the voices and experience of those who use them. That process must include staff and trade unions. The committee heard calls for representation from island communities on the boards of public ferry delivery organisations, and the Scottish Government requires an understanding of island life as a key criterion for appointment. However, the committee is of the view that “an understanding of” and “lived experience of” are very different.

Increased regulation and oversight of the activities of public ferry delivery organisations is needed. The committee considered that that could involve an independent ferry regulator, and the ferries community board went further and recommended that. The Scottish Government has ruled out such a regulator, but that does not remove the need for oversight and a champion for passengers, and the committee calls on the Scottish Government to outline how it will provide that.

I turn to the ferry services that are delivered by councils. The committee strongly supports the principle of local management of lifeline ferry services. However, it also recognises the scale of the challenges that councils face in running services and replacing their ageing assets. Commitments by the Scottish Government to funding the operation of ferries have been well received by local authorities. The committee called for effective collaboration between the Scottish Government and local authorities on vessel procurement. It also called for long-term capital and revenue support to ensure that communities have a reliable local ferry service now and in the future.

The committee heard calls for the option of transfer of responsibility for ferry service plans to remain on the table in the islands connectivity plan. In addition to requiring new vessels, some local authorities also wished to pursue fixed links, such as tunnels and bridges, for longer-term reliability. Again, the scale of the up-front investment that is needed requires collaboration between the Scottish Government and councils. As the committee said in its report, unless capital is forthcoming from the Scottish Government, few, if any, projects are likely to progress. The committee recommended a review of the feasibility at sites around Scotland.

In conclusion, over 15 months, service users told the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee that ferry services in Scotland are not what they should be, and that that needs to change. The committee believes that

“Leadership in the form of long-term strategic thinking and investment is required to bring all Scotland’s ferry services to an acceptable standard.”

The committee hopes, therefore, that its forward-looking, solutions-focused work will contribute to delivering an improved ferry service for all Scotland’s islands communities, and I urge that Parliament notes the report.

That concludes the debate on a modern and sustainable ferry service for Scotland.