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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 27 October 2021 [Draft]

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Education (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Report), COP26 Global Ambitions, Urgent Question, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Ferry Services


Contents


Ferry Services

Before we begin the final item of business, I remind members of the Covid-related measures that are in place, and that face coverings should be worn when moving around the chamber and across the Holyrood campus.

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-01137, in the name of Jamie Halcro Johnston, on recognising the importance of Scotland’s ferry services. The debate will be concluded without any question being put. Members who wish to speak in the debate should press their request to speak buttons.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises the vital importance of lifeline ferry links to Scotland’s island communities; acknowledges what it sees as the severe problems that have affected Clyde and Hebridean routes, particularly in the Highlands and Islands region, over the summer of 2021; notes the impact on residents, potential visitors, businesses and public services of a service that is unreliable; recalls the conclusions of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee in its inquiry into the construction and procurement of ferry vessels in Scotland, and notes the view that there is an urgent need for a Scotland-wide ferries strategy that ensures the resilience of the network into the future.

17:32  

I apologise for being unable to attend in person. I thank all members who supported my motion and made the debate possible. I also thank all the crews, engineers, mechanics, catering and shoreside staff, and others, who have worked so hard during the past few years, often in extremely difficult circumstances, to keep ferry services running where they have been able to, despite growing challenges.

I am an islander. My home is one of 90 inhabited islands in Scotland, each with its own rich cultural heritage. Those communities are valued parts of our nation. They remind us of Scotland’s internal diversity: we are a place of many traditions. They are also living communities of people who depend on transport links, just as anyone on the mainland would, to find sustainable work, reach a hospital appointment or visit friends and family. We also depend on those links to bring people, services and supplies to our islands. No island is fully self-sufficient or exists in isolation.

Many characteristics of the islands are shared by remote mainland communities such as Knoydart, dubbed Britain’s last wilderness, or the Kintyre peninsula, divided in its own way by the sea. The importance of our transport links to one another, to the rest of Scotland and the United Kingdom, and to the wider world cannot be overstated. They are our lifelines.

That communities depend on our ferries also reminds us of our fragility. For much of our history, in common with other parts of remote and rural Scotland, the rural Highlands and Islands have faced the threat of depopulation. Some have not survived. On islands such as St Kilda and Stroma, we can see the echoes of societies that have been lost and the abrupt end of human stories that had endured for centuries, often against the odds.

I say that as a reminder of how important it is to get the operation of our lifeline links right and because, regrettably, things are going very wrong. We see a ferry crisis that has been unprecedented in its impact rumbling on with little sign of abating. Communities have been cut off at a time when economic recovery is most needed after the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

If Glasgow or Edinburgh faced such challenges, that would be considered a national emergency or even a national scandal. However, even at the height of the crisis in the summer, our calls for a statement from the Scottish Government were rejected because the transport minister was on holiday. The minister is entitled to a holiday, but surely his boss, the cabinet secretary, could have stepped in.

Such a dismissive response from the Scottish Government suggests that Edinburgh was not taking the growing issues seriously. That was disappointing, given that, in the previous parliamentary session, there were some signs that the Scottish Government was starting—albeit belatedly—to recognise the unique challenges that our islands face, through partial support for interisland ferries in Orkney and Shetland, albeit with annual fights for funding, and the extension of road equivalent tariff, although, as far as Orkney is concerned, the Scottish Government is now three years overdue on meeting its pledge. The Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 also promised new respect for island communities, although I would argue that many islanders feel that that respect is nothing more than rhetoric.

Not enough work has been done to address the backdrop of ageing infrastructure. Whether in our local interisland ferries or the CalMac Ferries fleet, vessels that are long past their operational lifespans are creaking under that load. The consequences are there for all to see.

Procurement must be a major part of any forward-looking strategy but, sadly, that is where the Scottish Government’s failings have been most visible. Since the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee concluded its damning report on the problems at Ferguson Marine, things have gone from bad to worse on the banks of the Clyde. On 30 September, Ferguson’s turnaround director warned the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee of further potential problems and an “unquantifiable risk” that components in hulls 801 and 802 had further deteriorated. The situation has become a farce and I suspect that other members will focus their time on that.

What is lacking generally is a unified strategic approach to Scotland’s ferries that dares to examine, spell out and cost how the long-term sustainability of those vital services will be guaranteed. That requires an acceptance that the current position is expressly unsustainable. Earlier this year, The Times noted that

“at the present rate of construction ... it would take more than 85 years to replace the entire CalMac fleet.”

I am sure that all of us—even the minister—would agree that our communities simply cannot wait that long.

My concern is that the problems that we see now, which are largely on the west coast, are a vision of the future for other island communities as the ferries that serve them continue to be pushed to operate well beyond their projected working life. When we hear that the ferry industry advisory group has not met since October 2019, it is understandable that there is real concern.

The Scottish National Party Scottish Government has a manifesto pledge to introduce an islands connectivity plan. That is welcome but, so far, the details have been scant. An integrated approach is positive, but it must be one that considers ferries in the round and addresses the weaknesses of the ferries plan for 2012 to 2022.

From a northern isles perspective, the continuing questions of fair funding and RET for Orkney and Shetland must be resolved. We must also address the importance of ferries for the carrying of freight. For many farmers and fishermen, ferry links are what brings their produce to market and makes so many businesses viable. There should be a clear role for, and a supportive approach towards, those independent operators that are also an essential part of our ferries fleet.

A great deal of anger is being felt in communities at the extent of the crisis. That anger is justified by the real and present failure in Scotland’s approach to ferry connectivity, and the many promises that have been made as easily as they have been broken.

Today, I have tried to be constructive and to outline what is needed for change to happen and the questions that will have to be tackled. However, I urge the Scottish Government not to think for one minute that the present situation has escaped the notice of our constituents. They have paid a heavy price in business, opportunities and jobs. They see the threat of closures and depopulation looming and will not be bought off with easy promises of help down the line.

What needs to happen, and what we can expect, is for the Scottish Government to take ownership of the crisis by admitting that there is a crisis, and one that risks getting worse, and to set out to Parliament and to people in the communities that our ferry network serves, how their links will be sustained, not for tomorrow or the next financial year, but for the long term.

17:39  

I congratulate Jamie Halcro Johnston on securing a debate on this important matter.

Scotland’s ferry service is perceived to be unreliable and to lack resilience. Last summer, of the 538 sailings to and from Brodick in July, not one was cancelled. In contrast, in August, Covid-19 infections among the crew of the Caledonian Isles and technical problems on the MV Isle of Arran led to the loss of 86 sailings. It is the experience of August, just as capacities were increased, that islanders and visitors remember.

Ferry reliability is vital for ensuring that residents can make essential trips to the mainland and encouraging tourists to visit our islands, which is vital to long-term business survival. Confidence is now at an all-time low. Although many factors are unforeseeable, CalMac’s approach to handling bad weather, as well as Covid-19 and technical difficulties, have given rise to resentment and frustration.

We had weather cancellations only yesterday, and the Isle of Arran ferry committee feels that there is insufficient flexibility to avoid a default position that restricts the delivery of supplies and services when the forecast is likely to result in further cancellations. That should be better recognised if we are to provide a service to the island. Such challenges need creative, customer-centred solutions, and I trust that those are being considered.

Island constituents do not accept that cancellation is always the only course of action. It cannot be the case that we head into another winter in the current circumstances. Islanders are also not happy that communications about cancellations are often haphazard and late in the day. Other arrangements must be considered, particularly now that Arran has only one winter sailing per day from Lochranza to Tarbert for supplies. With a high demand for services, the minister must urgently consider what other resources can be applied to ensure that our island communities receive an appropriate service.

Meanwhile, on the Largs to Cumbrae route, services are being halted to deep clean vessels after every third crossing. CalMac prioritises surface cleaning over the risk of airborne transmission of Covid, while pensioners are sometimes expected to queue for up to an hour for tickets. Instead, CalMac should work with Strathclyde Partnership for Transport to allow people to pre-book tickets and show valid concession cards as they board. That is a simple measure to implement, one would think, and it would be greatly appreciated by older island constituents.

Only a fortnight ago, damage to the hull of the Loch Shira meant that the smaller Loch Riddon had to take the strain on the Largs to Cumbrae route. Queues were long and, once aboard, passengers found the toilets inoperable. The MV Isle of Cumbrae also experienced technical difficulties when it was called to assist, and many irate emails from island constituents ensued.

Island constituents continually raise concerns about the lack of community engagement around service timetabling changes and details of the fleet renewal schedule, as Jamie Halcro Johnston said. CalMac must improve customer service and satisfaction. Port staff are not to blame, and they are often very helpful, but they sometimes bear the brunt of frustrations. The lack of relief staff who are available to work on the Arran service when Covid outbreaks occur has also contributed to feelings of insecurity, reduced regularity of trips and difficulties in securing bookings on ferries, which always seem to have fully-booked car decks.

In one instance that was highlighted to me by the Isle of Arran ferry committee, a sailing was supposedly fully booked 149 days in advance. In reality, relatively few sailings are fully booked in October. When I last sailed from Brodick a fortnight ago, the car deck was half empty but, if someone trying to book next week will not find it easy. The ferry committee has repeatedly asked CalMac why that is the case.

Island economies depend on tourism and, therefore, on ferry services. Following the pandemic, it is more important than ever to ensure that local businesses and communities are supported. Arran’s current staff shortages are around three times higher than the mainland average, which is partly due to concerns over ferry reliability, which makes commuting to the island difficult. It also makes families reluctant to move to the island, which is necessary to boost the workforce and the economy and to maintain a sustainable population.

It is vital to ensure that the changes that CalMac introduces are in the best interests of the islanders, who depend on a lifeline service, and that issues that are raised are investigated and acted upon so that the service runs as efficiently as possible.

Services must handle recurring and preventable issues that continuously leave those living on islands fretting about when they might access to and return from the mainland. All parties who are affected by the reliability of services must be consulted, with particular—

Mr Gibson, could you bring your remarks to a close, please?

—to improve the service, island connectivity and quality of life.

As for the minister, I have to say that I have always found him to be available seven days a week, early in the morning and late at night, whenever he is required, so I am not really sure about the comments regarding his holidays; he has certainly spoken to me when he has been on holiday.

17:43  

I congratulate Jamie Halcro Johnston on securing the debate. I start by apologising, as I think I may have to leave before the end of the debate, if that is okay. I suspect that quite a lot of members speaking—

Are you asking the chair now, Mr Simpson?

I am asking for permission—

Normal courtesy would have been to let the chair know before, but there we go. Thank you.

Okay—thank you very much.

This is not the first time that we have debated ferries and it will not be the last. The fact that we have to—and we do have to—tells us that there is a problem. Too many islands have suffered a dismally poor service. Breakdowns are common, which is not surprising with our ageing fleet. The chronic lack of investment in ferries over the years has led us to where we are.

We just have not had a proper ferries replacement programme, and now we are playing catch-up. That is exacerbated by the situation at Ferguson Marine, where two ferries are languishing years behind schedule and massively over budget. We do not know for certain when they will be finished, but we know that the nationalised yard is not considered good enough to bid to build two more ferries. They will be built in eastern Europe, and it would not surprise me at all if we see them in service before the Ferguson ferries.

We are also in the embarrassing position of having to buy a second-hand ferry from Norway to service the Craignure to Oban route. The MV Utne is being sold so that the Norwegians can replace her with a zero-emission battery vessel, so we get the gas-guzzling cast-off while they save the planet. We also have to fork out more than £3 million to prepare her to operate here. Quite what the justification is for that price tag is anyone’s guess, because the Government has not told us.

Jamie Halcro Johnston rightly says that our ferry links are lifelines. He notes the problems over the summer and recounts the damning report of the former REC Committee, which said:

“the Committee believes that there has been a catastrophic failure in the management of the procurement of vessels 801 and 802, leading it to conclude that these processes and structures are no longer fit for purpose.”

The committee went on to say that there should be

“a root and branch overhaul of current decision-making structures”.

It was really talking about whether we need CMAL—Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd—any more. The then minister in charge, Paul Wheelhouse, was completely dismissive of the committee and told it:

“we do not accept the Committee’s description of a ‘catastrophic failure’”.

Mr Wheelhouse is no longer here to continue the debate. I suspect that his election leaflet quoting me and Alex Rowley praising him during a debate—it was not about ferries—helped to put paid to his political career. [Interruption.] That is true.

Ferries are as vital to Scotland’s connectivity as decent roads and railways. The Government must accept that things have not been done properly. It must accept that there is merit in what we and others, including the REC Committee, have been saying, which is that we need to invest more in ferries; award longer contracts so that operators can procure the vessels; and consider whether we need CMAL. The issue has become a party-political football because of those failings. I make a genuine offer to the minister to put myself and maybe others on the ferry industry advisory group, which has not met for two years—I will even chair or co-chair it, if he wants—so that we can get our islands moving again.

17:47  

For many communities, ferry services are quite literally a lifeline. Their importance is exemplified by the fact that ferry usage has remained high even in the teeth of the Covid pandemic, more so than other forms of public transport. It is shocking to see the extent to which the Government has, for years, presided over the decline, decay and neglect of Scotland’s ferry services, to such an extent that The Times recently reported that the worsening ferry crisis is “driving people off islands”.

There can be no doubt that the CalMac fleet is old and exhausted and is now prone to breakdowns, delays and chronic disruption. That means putting good money after bad. Reliability is damaged, so that many in those communities can simply no longer rely on the services. In my West Scotland region, the ferry services to Arran and Cumbrae are a case in point. Services are operating on such a tightrope that, on 10 October, a single positive Covid case on the Ardrossan to Brodick route cancelled all sailings, which meant that the only way on or off Arran was via the route from Lochranza to Kintyre.

Just the following day, the Largs to Cumbrae route was out of commission until the evening. A replacement vessel was eventually sent from the Coll and Tiree route, but that meant that that service in turn had to be cancelled. Meanwhile, the ferry serving Coll and Tiree recently broke down for the second time in three weeks. That is little wonder when the ferry is 30 years old and counting, which is five years older than the recommended 25-year lifespan of a ferry.

Almost half of CalMac’s fleet is now over 25 years old and prone to mechanical breakdown. Those ferries should be being replaced, not pushed and pressed beyond safe and reliable limits in a failed bid to patch over the enormous ferry failings of the Government, which sat idly by while unions and experts warned of the perfect storm of operating an ageing fleet with growing passenger numbers. Passenger numbers increased by 23 per cent between 2015 and 2019, yet only one large and two small CalMac ferries were introduced in that period.

The Government has also presided over the fiasco at Ferguson Marine Engineering Ltd, such that, as we have heard, we are now buying second-hand ferries from other countries and a Scottish yard supporting Scottish jobs and owned by the Scottish Government cannot even make the shortlist to build new ferries in Scotland. The Government just piles insult upon injury. It would be completely unacceptable if there were any further delay to the ferries that are currently being built at Ferguson’s. I ask the minister to confirm that there will be no further delays to those ferries and to explain why he has not visited Ferguson’s to see the state of the project for himself, because that is inexplicable.

The Government needs to get a grip and finally to do the right thing by our island and coastal communities. We need a national ferry building programme to replace our ageing ferry fleet and bring jobs to the lower Clyde and the communities that have been so ill-served by the Government. As we go forward, there should be representation for passengers and workers in the governance of ferry services. Finally, there should be a full review of our ferry services in Scotland to ensure that the right vessels are on the right routes at the right time.

Due to the number of members who wish to speak in the debate, I am minded to accept a motion without notice under rule 8.14.3 to extend the debate by up to 30 minutes.

Motion moved,

That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[Jamie Halcro Johnston]

Motion agreed to.

17:52  

As I represent and live in an island constituency that is entirely dependent on CalMac, it would be fair to say that ferries represent the greater part of my daily work at the best of times. It would also be fair to say that this summer was not the best of times. As a result, ferries came, properly, to represent the overwhelming majority of workload for me and my staff.

This summer, as I think we can all agree, a combination of factors made ferry services nothing short of intolerable. Without minimising any of the problems that members have rightly debated, I point out that some of those factors were well beyond normal control—chiefly, the fact that vessels were on average running at only a third of their normal capacity, due to social distancing requirements.

Tourists have the luxury of booking tickets months in advance. Most other people do not plan their lives that far ahead—nor can they. This summer, that fact led to an unfortunate tension between the needs of tourists, who are vital to the island economy, and those of islanders. I live in Lewis and I am very aware that at one point this summer people simply could not travel anywhere, for almost any reason. People elsewhere in Scotland should consider what that might mean for them, were such a thing to befall their mainland town for some unaccountable reason.

For me, the low point was reached when people started telling me that they were unable to visit even very ill relatives. CalMac staff and crews went to great efforts to find ways of transporting people in that situation, whenever those people complained through me. The most extreme situations have eased since the lifting of social distancing restrictions and the tailing off, to some extent, of the tourist season. However, nobody is under any illusions about all the challenges that lie ahead.

As I indicated in my members’ business debate some weeks ago, services would be more likely to improve in future if anyone on the CalMac and CMAL boards lived on an island that depended on the ferry services that those companies provide. The minister, Mr Dey, provided a helpful reply to that debate. Indeed, the minister has been a regular recipient of my emails and phone calls and has been in regular touch, visiting the Western Isles and making clear efforts to address some of the issues.

On a more hopeful note, I hope that CalMac’s new booking system, which is due in the spring, will be an improvement on what everyone acknowledges to be the entirely inadequate booking system that exists now, which Mr Gibson described. I hope that the on-going review of ferries fares reflects more equitably the deck space that different types of vehicles, including camper vans, actually take up, and that the minister is able to say something about the issue in his summing up.

The commissioning of two new vessels for Islay and other islands, together with the addition of MV Utne, purchased recently in Norway, to the CalMac fleet will certainly make the fleet more resilient, as will the small vessel-building programme budgeted for the years ahead. As the minister is aware, the challenge is how to add resilience between now and then, and I hope that he is able to say something more about his efforts in that direction.

The minister and the Parliament do not need me to explain further the importance that ferries have to every aspect of life in my constituency. I appreciate the chance to hear from the Government about the plans for the years ahead in order to continue to improve services and ensure, I hope, that we do not return to the situation that we faced this summer.

17:56  

I congratulate Jamie Halcro Johnston on securing another members’ business debate, this time on my specialist subject of ferries.

Growing up in Sanday in the 70s and 80s, I developed a love-hate relationship with the MV Orcadia. She valiantly ploughed the seas around the outer north isles in Orkney every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Cargo was loaded using cranes and nets, and livestock was often marched onboard, up gangways at the steepest of angles. Weekends home from the school hostel in Kirkwall could often involve eight-hour trips round every other island before Sanday was finally reached.

Orkney’s internal ferry service has come a long way, but now, as then, it remains a critical lifeline for island communities. Now, as then, services must adapt to meet the changing needs of islanders and those communities. Now, as then, those services are crucial in sustaining livelihoods and populations in our smaller isles. Therefore, it should concern the Scottish ministers that Orkney’s lifeline internal ferry services fall so far below the minimum standards set out in the Government’s own national ferries plan, which was published almost a decade ago.

That is no criticism of those working for Orkney ferries, who do their level best, but the fact is that those services fall below minimum standards on fares, frequency and the accessibility of the vessels themselves. Nor is the service being run on the cheap, having cost Orkney Islands Council a small fortune over the years. A commitment from the Scottish ministers to cover the shortfall in funding is welcome, if overdue and, as Jamie Halcro Johnston suggested, subject to annual horse trading. However, we are still no further forward in the procurement of replacement vessels that are now desperately needed.

The current fleet is costly to run, increasingly unreliable and a disaster in terms of the environment. Unfortunately, CalMac’s calamities on the west coast have grabbed the headlines, as well as the attention of ministers, yet the situation in Orkney is scarcely less precarious. My constituents simply cannot afford for ministers to wait until crisis point before action is taken. We cannot continue with the mend-and-make-do approach to running lifeline ferry services. We need a proper, strategic plan, phased procurement of vessels and delivery on time and to budget. Sadly, none of those requirements appears to be a strong suit of this Government.

Last week, CMAL published drawings of a new hydrogen ferry earmarked to operate on the Kirkwall to Shapinsay route at some point in the future. Such innovation is certainly welcome, not least in the context of a climate emergency, but it does not reflect a strategic approach to ferry replacement in Orkney or across Scotland.

For 15 years, SNP ministers have failed to grasp either the importance or the urgency of the issue. For the sake of island communities, islanders and our hopes of meeting our climate ambitions, that simply cannot continue. I support the motion.

17:59  

Like others, I am grateful to Jamie Halcro Johnston for securing debating time on this exceptionally important issue. I acknowledge the contributions that have been made by colleagues across the chamber. There is obviously a lot of commonality in what we are saying.

For many, if not all, people in the Highlands and Islands, ferry services are lifeline services. They connect families and friends, enable businesses to function, help to increase tourism and are integral to local economies. Although that can be said for most modes of transport, our ferry services are different. Not only are they a vital part of island and rural life, but they make living in our islands and remote areas possible.

Therefore, when such services are cancelled or delayed—for sometimes indeterminable periods of time—it not only makes people feel more remote than they often already feel, but helps to increase the rate of depopulation in our island settlements. It adds to a sense of fragility in those places.

The Scottish Government has recognised the need to reverse the trend of rural depopulation, and that is welcome. However, the Government cannot have that worthy ambition and, at the same time, comprehensively fail to ensure that the very island communities that we seek to revitalise possess a robust and reliable ferry service.

In the past few months alone, we have seen reports of a series of breakdowns, including that of the MV Loch Seaforth, which serves the critical route between Stornoway and Ullapool, and that of the MV Isle of Cumbrae, which was redeployed following another breakdown, this time of the MV Loch Shira. We have had breakdown after breakdown after breakdown.

It must be acknowledged that the Government failed to do what CalMac told it to do back in 2010. I have referred to that a number of times, but it bears repeating. CalMac told the SNP Government that it would have to build a new ferry every year just to stand still. Since the SNP has been in power, it has delivered just five new vessels, of which only two can be considered major vessels. That is an appalling record.

Worse still, some 16 of the 31 active CalMac vessels are operating beyond their life expectancy of 25 years. The MV Isle of Cumbrae is now 45 years old—20 years in excess of its lifespan. All things considered, that is a damning failure of the Government in its time in office. As a result, we are in the middle of a ferry crisis.

Although the evidence of failure is compelling, there is a human cost to the crisis, too. As other people have noted, there are hundreds of stories of constituents who have been impacted by the many issues that affect our ferry network, whether it be from the problems that occur when ferries break down, when timetables are altered, when there are delays and cancellations or when there is a lack of capacity.

Someone from the Western Isles hospitality industry told me that she has lost dozens of bookings due to the lack of capacity on the MV Loch Seaforth. A person from Islay had the same issue. A constituent from Tiree contacted me some time ago, when the MV Hebrides had been redeployed elsewhere and the island was left without a service. This August, a man from Lewis could not get off his own island for three weeks—he could not leave his home for three weeks. In any other scenario, that would be inexcusable.

There are countless such stories from people in our island communities. It is not good enough. Yes, systemic issues such as the structure of CMAL and the operations of CalMac, as Kenny Gibson mentioned, should be looked at, but I am afraid that the blame for the crisis lies fairly and squarely with the SNP Government, which has run Scotland’s ferries for a decade and a half.

As Jamie Halcro Johnston and others noted, we need a Scotland-wide ferries strategy that will ensure that every island community in need of a ferry has access to a proper, reliable service. That is what the people whom we represent expect, and that is what they deserve.

18:03  

I thank Jamie Halcro Johnston for securing this important debate.

As an MSP for the Highlands and Islands, where many of Scotland’s ferries operate, I am all too aware that the ever-increasing levels of disruption to Scotland’s ferry fleet are causing huge distress, in particular to our island communities. Delays, cancellations, unreliability and a general lack of provision are caused, in great part, by our ageing fleet and by procurement and bidding processes that are, in the words of the session 5 Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, no longer fit for purpose.

The cumulative effect is that there is less employment for islanders, additional barriers to living on and doing business on the islands, and a deterrent to tourism, all at a time when island communities and industries have been hit harder than most by the pandemic.

However, there is another problem with Scotland’s ferries: the majority of them run on diesel, which is carbon intensive and damaging to our marine environment. There is growing recognition that that needs to change, as the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26—approaches and we all focus in on the nature and climate emergencies.

I agree that there is an urgent need for a Scotland-wide ferries strategy—ideally, sooner than the publication of the islands connectivity plan in 2023. The technology and the ideas for improvement exist, but we need investment, leadership and a long-term strategy from Government. I would like that strategy to include the following.

As has been called for, we need to expand and upgrade Scotland’s ferry fleet. New vessels should be zero or low carbon, as are the electric ferries that run on renewable energy in Sweden and Denmark, and Europe’s first green hydrogen ferry, which is being designed in Scotland. There should also be more diesel-electric hybrid ferries until we can phase out diesel completely. We must also decarbonise our existing vessels. Retrofitting an electric motor to a diesel ferry is a win-win, as it cuts pollution, emissions, noise and running costs.

By procuring more passenger-only ferries, and improving connections with buses and trains, we can future proof our fleet for increasing levels of active and low-carbon travel by residents and visitors.

The Scottish Greens have called for an end to the costly operator bidding process that eats into CalMac’s time and resources every six years and inhibits longer-term planning. Without that, the Government and CalMac could take a much more strategic approach to improving and greening our ferry services, ensuring alignment with our climate and biodiversity targets and enabling many more people to enjoy living and working on our islands.

Finally, for islanders, ferries are like buses, and I ask the minister to extend the free bus service arrangement to free ferries for under-26s.

I urge the Scottish Government to consider the need for a Scotland-wide ferries strategy, as called for by Jamie Halcro Johnston, and I support the motion.

18:07  

I, too, congratulate Jamie Halcro Johnston on securing the debate.

Ferries are lifelines to our island communities. If they do not sail, that affects every aspect of island life. Over the weekend, I watched on in horror as there was a relentless stream of cancellations and disruptions. Some were due to Covid, but most were due to technical issues and dry docking, and the knock-on impact of those.

In addition, the ferries that are providing temporary cover for those routes are not designed for them and are therefore unable to sail in bad weather. We need ferries that are built and designed for several routes so that they are suitable to cover for ferries that have broken down or are having routine maintenance.

The current situation simply cannot go on. The Scottish Government has failed to manage the services effectively, and that failure is causing untold misery to those who live on our islands. This is just the beginning of the winter, but almost two thirds of the Clyde and Hebridean ferry routes have been subject to cancellation or change in the past few days. How on earth can people plan their lives with that level of disruption?

The motion pertains to the Clyde and Hebridean services, but issues in the northern isles have also been on-going for years, as Jamie Halcro Johnston and Liam McArthur said. The boats on the interisland ferry services need to be replaced, and the freight service to the mainland is not coping with demand—another failure on the part of the Scottish Government. The issues are not due to a lack of investment. Indeed, the amount of money that has been squandered by the Government is eye watering. Had it been spent properly, the whole fleet would have been replaced.

There is a huge degree of arrogance directed at the communities by the Scottish Government and its agencies. When communities make suggestions, their ideas are ignored. Given that they use the services, they are best placed to know what would work, yet they are ignored. The community on Mull found a vessel for itself. It had research carried out on how the ferry could be made fit for purpose, yet that was ignored. Another ferry has been procured for that route, which is of course welcome, but the ferry that the community identified would have been infinitely better.

When people on Lewis asked for two smaller ferries rather than one large one, they were ignored. However, if two smaller ferries had been provided, many of the issues that we now face would be negated. We would have had a spare ferry to cover drydocking in the winter, when one ferry would manage to cover the lower demand on the Stornoway to Ullapool route. That ferry, built for the Stornoway route, would have been able to withstand adverse weather conditions on almost every other route.

The figures showing cancellations due to weather give a false impression. Cancellations are not due to weather; rather, they are due to the ferries on the route not being designed to withstand winter conditions.

On behalf of my constituents, I continually warned the Scottish Government about the issues, but it has ignored everyone. It is that arrogance that has led to this sorry state.

However, it is not the Government that faces the brunt of the anger and frustration of the travelling public; sadly, the staff who provide services hear it. Even without having to face that anger and frustration, it is incredibly stressful for staff, especially if they are part of the community, to know first hand that services are being cancelled, preventing people from getting to hospital appointments, sick relatives or family funerals. Added to that, there are empty supermarket shelves, caused by missed deliveries.

It is simply not fair—the Scottish Government is letting down hard-working staff. I appeal to people not to take out their frustrations on staff whose own lives are impacted by the Government’s mismanagement. Instead, they should tell the Government about their frustrations and the impact of the mismanagement on their daily lives.

The Scottish Government’s answer to all this is to have a review—to kick the can further down the road—while our communities suffer. Everyone knows the issues and they do not need a review to tell them what is wrong. This is long past being an emergency and the minister must act to save communities from catastrophe.

18:12  

I thank my colleague Jamie Halcro Johnston for securing this important debate.

It is no exaggeration to say that the current ferries crisis is a disaster for islanders and for Scotland. I agree with much of what has been said already in the debate. For the past 15 years, the SNP has failed to renew our ferry fleet, and we are left with 16 ships that are more than 25 years old.

The whole sorry saga of ferry mismanagement could become a film, the title of which would be “Carry On Without the Ferries”, with a working title of “£300 Million Spent With No Boats Delivered”. The farce has been funded by the people of Scotland at the expense of islanders. Transport Scotland staff are the directing agents, and they are ably assisted by CMAL.

The actors in the farce are numerous, and some deserve special mention. First, perhaps, is Alex Salmond, who played a key role in Jim McColl’s takeover of the Ferguson shipyard.

There is also the current First Minister, who announced the £97 million ferry contract and who went on to launch hull 801 with wooden windows, dummy funnels and no engines.

Humza Yousaf, who was the Minister for Transport and the Islands, failed to manage the contracts for hulls 801 and 802, and had no idea that they were so far behind schedule.

Derek Mackay was a key player, having signed off £127 million-worth of payments to Ferguson Marine, made up of 85 per cent of the contract payments for the two ferries. He also signed off a £45 million loan, which CMAL did not even know about. The result: half of one ferry, and even that was not fit for purpose.

Michael Matheson and Paul Wheelhouse announced delay after delay for the two vessels, but still argued that everything was fine and on budget.

Fiona Hyslop claimed that Ferguson’s had a “bright future” ahead of it, despite the fact that it would not be allowed to tender for any more ferries in the meantime.

Kate Forbes has ministerial responsibility for Tim Hair, the turnaround director of Ferguson’s, who is paid £2,850 a week and has received payment of more than £1 million. She has never renewed his contract and is oblivious to the fact that he has yet to deliver either vessel or that the previous company for which he was the turnaround director went into receivership.

As we have heard, Graeme Dey, who is now in charge of dealing with the situation, has failed to meet Tim Hair or even to visit the shipyard during the summer after his appointment.

The final actor in the farce is Ivan McKee, who, admittedly, has a very small walk-on part, but when he was challenged to defend the litany of failures, he said, “these things happen.”

I am sorry to report that I have heard that the Scottish Government has been nominated for the cash cow award, for awarding a £97 million contract that is likely to cost in excess of £300 million. If it wins the award, I wonder who will be asked to collect it. I do not suppose that there will be many volunteers, or many members of the Cabinet who have not had a role in the process.

It is an expensive failure, which is far from a joke. It is expensive to the people of Scotland and to the islanders who rely on our ferries and who desperately need new ones. Let us get the figures right—in the past year, our ferries have had 99 breakdowns and major disruptions to services, culminating in nearly 6,000 cancelled sailings.

I am sure that I do not need to remind the Parliament that the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, which I was convener of, concluded that the fiasco was caused by

“a catastrophic failure in the management of the procurement of vessels”.

It also criticised the Government for not having a ferries plan; it never seems to have had one.

A resilient network of ferries is vital for the future of our island communities. For us to have such a network, we need a new, Scotland-wide ferries strategy; even more important, we need a Scottish Government that can deliver it. After 15 years of failure, it is time for the SNP to improve on its dismal record of failure. Our islanders desperately need the Government to up its game.

Could you bring your remarks to a close, please, Mr Mountain? You are a bit over time.

Indeed. My real concern is that I do not believe that the Government is capable of doing so.

18:17  

I thank Jamie Halcro Johnston for securing this important debate.

Islanders know the vital importance of Scotland’s ferry services, regardless of which island community they serve. People in the central belt rely on roads for their connectivity to business and social activities, but Highland communities must rely on their lifeline services to provide the same connectivity. Caring responsibilities, hospital appointments and social situations, including funerals, weddings and holidays, all rely on robust ferry services. The same can be said for visitors to the isles. The strong tourism offer that our islands have built up over many years also relies on robust ferry services. The impact of unreliable services cannot be overestimated; it is felt across the community, socially, culturally and economically.

Shetland has growing seafood and aquaculture sectors and, with new fish markets, landings are likely to continue to increase. However, despite growth in key local sectors, the Government has failed to take that into account and deliver adequate freight capacity, even though I and local industry leaders have repeatedly warned Transport Scotland and ministers about the growing freight capacity difficulties. If products do not reach their destination on time, that impacts not only on the quality of perishables such as salmon and other seafood, but on the producers’ markets. The customer is king, but customers can be lost and, once lost, they are unlikely to return. The commercial pressures that are faced by producers, hauliers and their customers are, to quote one industry leader, “quite intolerable”.

Pinchpoints over the livestock season have been known about for years. They are clearly known and foreseen. In the summer, Liam McArthur and I warned about possible further disruption, after the MV Arrow, which previously served northern isles routes, was chartered to assist CalMac. That came just weeks before the northern isles peak season for the movement of livestock.

However, the issue is about more than just pinchpoints. The Government does not appear to recognise the contradiction in its policies between its encouragement of growth in food produce sectors and its stifling of the means by which products can be exported to the waiting global markets. When questioned about the failure to ship trailers when needed during the livestock period, the response has been that all trailers were shipped across the week. However, saying “across the week” demonstrates a lack of commercial understanding of how such markets work. If trailers are not shipped on time, the knock-on impact is very real, with local firms at risk of being hit by costly overnight levies while their trailers sit underutilised on the quayside. That happens repeatedly, despite local stakeholders feeding back information to Transport Scotland.

It would be helpful if the minister could tell me what evidence Transport Scotland has of unmet need on the freight service and the passenger service for the northern isles. How many times have companies been unable to ship their trailers or other vehicles at the time when they needed to do so? Is any system in place to record unmet need, or the number of times that customers, whether business or domestic, cannot get the booking that they need?

Just this week, I heard from a constituent who was advised by NorthLink Ferries that they cannot book their January travel because NorthLink is waiting to hear from Transport Scotland before it can open up bookings—January is just nine weeks away. I previously highlighted the case of a removals firm that had its ferry bookings cancelled at short notice. Its business reputation is just as important as that of other companies.

The construction of the Viking Energy wind farm is under way in Shetland, which means an increased volume of incoming freight. Any delay in getting construction materials into Shetland on time because of freight capacity constraints could impact contractual obligations throughout the supply chain. I note Viking’s reference to “sea freight restrictions” in the latest edition of “Building Shetland’s Energy Future”.

There is also the current policy for concessionary ferry vouchers, which has reduced the islander eligibility from two free return trips a year to one. I could continue at some length, but time is against me. Suffice it to say that islanders recognise the vital importance of Scotland’s ferries, and it is long past time that the Scottish Government acted as if it does, too.

18:22  

The debate highlights the crisis facing lifeline ferries, which has largely been created by the failure to invest in the renewal of the fleet over the past 14 years, but also by poor decision making. As has been said, most industry experts agree that the average life expectancy of a ferry is around 25 years, but around half of the 31 working state-owned vessels are older than that. More than 1,000 ferry sailings have been delayed in the past five years for mechanical reasons and only five new ferries have been fully delivered to CalMac since 2007, but only two of those have been for major routes. In comparison, 12 vessels were launched in the 14 years up to 2007.

Although the management of the project to build the two lifeline vessels at Ferguson Marine has been shambolic and a disgrace, that is not the only problem that we have. We need to learn lessons for the future from the mistakes that have been made. CMAL scouring the globe for second-hand vessels or, out of desperation, seeking to charter vessels such as MV Pentalina from anti-union operators is not the solution to the challenge that we face. The Parliament must realise and agree that the reason why we are in this situation is a long-term failure to invest in and plan for new vessels.

The current structures, however, are a mess and dysfunctional. CMAL owns the ferries and CalMac operates most of them, but the ports are owned by trusts, private companies or public bodies, depending on the area. We therefore have a fragmented structure. North Ayrshire Council is willing to take Ardrossan harbour into municipal ownership, given the considerable delay of more than four years in getting the private owner of the relevant land to agree to what is required to develop the harbour. I appreciate the Scottish Government’s position on wanting to get the best deal for the taxpayer, but at the end of the day it is those who rely on the ferry service and, indeed, the communities of Ardrossan and Arran who suffer.

In 2017, the Scottish Government said that it would build a case for making a direct award to an in-house operator for the Clyde and Hebrides services. Earlier this year, the Scottish Government was unable to confirm whether that was still its intention. I hope that the Government will be able to confirm that it intends to go down that path and that it will urgently produce a Scotland-wide ferry strategy to commission a new fleet and to integrate the fragmented structures that have led to poor decision making.

The Scottish Government brought in its flagship RET policy after the 2007 election. The policy cut fares but also led to a significant increase in passenger numbers, creating additional stress on the service that was not planned for or resourced. We urgently require a plan that recognises the need for long-term solutions to ensure that vessels are commissioned, ideally in Scotland, and launched over the next 20 years. The Scottish Government should put detailed proposals before Parliament for scrutiny and debate.

18:26  

Jamie Halcro Johnston’s motion is correct in recognising the importance of lifeline ferry links to Scotland’s island communities. I was pleased that he also talked about the importance of mainland-to-mainland connections, such as those from Campbeltown to Ardrossan and Dunoon to Gourock. I recognise the fantastic work that CalMac staff, both on-shore and aboard vessels, do to make people’s journeys as safe and enjoyable as possible. The current problems on the services have made the job more difficult for staff juggling the different travel needs and expectations of locals, businesses, visitors and public services.

I was not in Parliament when the RET debate took place, but I watched it on television and was struck by the consensus from all parties, all of whom brought possible solutions. The ferry issue is clearly hugely important to everyone who has spoken today. We should recognise how many sailings leave on time and complete their service every day.

Like Alasdair Allan, I have had regular conversations with the minister about issues that my constituents have raised. Delays directly impact on businesses’ bottom lines. They cause logistical problems, as Beatrice Wishart said, and they have an impact on hospital visits. I, too, would like to know about any progress on unmet demand through the new passenger booking system.

I spent last week visiting different locations in my constituency. I met with ferry groups, farmers, businesses and individuals. It will be no surprise to members to hear that they raised concerns, and expressed anger, about ferry services. I will write in more detail to the transport minister about those points, but it is important to give a flavour of people’s lived experiences.

One haulier could not get a booking to bring cattle feed to Islay. Farmers cannot get their livestock to market from Mull. As Donald Cameron said, B and B owners are losing bookings. Passengers without debit or credit cards still cannot buy anything on board, as purchases are still by card only. People who have hospital appointments on the mainland cannot get car space on the ferry. My constituents and I have spoken to the minister about those issues, and he is now asking difficult questions of CalMac and CMAL.

There have been small but important improvements. The requirement for camper vans to have bookings and not sit in standby queues has made a difference to local people who want to travel at short notice. The reduction in cost for school minibuses taking island youngsters to the mainland for sporting and cultural events is also welcome. I also hope that we are close to finding a solution to ensure that space is allocated specifically for locals.

Some improvements have happened recently. Alasdair Allan mentioned the two ferries for the Islay route and the purchase of the MV Utne. I am slightly at a loss to explain why Tory members complain that we have a poor service and then, when something is done, they still complain.

This year, the Scottish Government has provided an increase of £7.7 million in grant support for interisland ferries and has committed to maintain RET. I have reservations about the current structures, but I am confident that the islands connectivity plan, which will be published at the end of 2022, will deliver good outcomes for communities and that the minister will take the necessary action to create the best integrated transport system for the communities that rely on ferries.

18:30  

I make it clear that the Scottish Government fully recognises the importance of our ferry services. From the lifeline services that are delivered for the residents of our island communities to the support that ferries offer to island-based businesses, including those that depend on tourism, I understand the frustration and potential economic impact during periods of disruption.

The recent issues on the Clyde and Hebrides service were unacceptable to island communities. Although every effort is made to avoid breakdowns, it is impossible to remove completely the risk of them happening in technically complex vessels and—yes—some elderly vessels. During times of disruption, CalMac Ferries strives to provide additional sailings and to redeploy vessels if it is appropriate and possible to do so. However, I totally understand the anger felt by people who are directly impacted when the impacts cannot be fully mitigated. I assure members that I remain focused on the underlying issues with resilience on the ferry network and that we are working closely with operators in that regard.

Kenny Gibson made a good point about communication. Islanders accept that things happen at times, but I do not necessarily accept that the operator has always been as on point as it might have been in communication. I hope that we are starting to see some improvement in that regard.

To help to address those issues, the Scottish Government established a resilience fund in 2018-19 to invest in ferry services and to ensure the future reliability and availability of vessels. That funding is over and above the annual expenditure for maintenance and repairs, and it assists in ensuring the future reliability and availability of vessels. It can be invested in securing spare parts that have long lead-in times but, equally, it can be used to replace obsolete systems to avoid vessels going out of service. We continue to invest on that basis.

In addition, CalMac has now established a long-term yard strategy. The contracts involved in that allow for closer working relationships between CalMac and the respective yards, improved planning of overhaul work, improved remedies against delays and incentives for continuous improvement. CalMac is confident that the contracts will provide a tangible benefit for island communities and will deliver more resilient ferry services while we pursue the replacement programme. I expect that benefit to be delivered.

It has been a challenging summer, with additional operational demands on top of the continued impacts of Covid. As restrictions have eased, there have been outbreaks among crews, which understandably have led to disruption to timetables. I gently say to Kenny Gibson that, when that happens, deep cleaning is inevitably needed, as is testing of the crews. I know that he knows that.

The pandemic has been hard on CalMac staff. I hope that members will support me—I know that they will, because I have heard some of the comments—in thanking the front-line operatives who have been working flat out throughout the pandemic to support travellers. Over recent months, I have met and heard directly from ferry crews and ticket office staff across the network, and I have been saddened—in fact, angered—to hear of instances of them being subject to abusive behaviour. It should be said that, for the overwhelming part, those have been isolated incidents. Nevertheless, hard-working CalMac staff should not be subjected to any form of abuse.

I also thank the staff who deliver the northern isles ferry services. I met some of them while visiting Orkney, and I place on record my appreciation of their efforts throughout the pandemic. We are entirely aware of the pressures that have been highlighted with freight on the northern isles services. That is why we are working towards the provision of replacement vessels.

We recognise the pressures, particularly during peak livestock season, and NorthLink Ferries has worked hard, along with businesses, to ensure that just-in-time products have been accommodated and that all freight shipments have been carried timeously over the recent annual busy period. As I said, we are working towards the provision of new freight vessels, with larger capacity and shorter journey times. In the interim, we continue to consider initiatives and chartering opportunities to alleviate the current situation.

In February, my predecessor took part in a debate on the construction and procurement of ferry vessels in Scotland, highlighting the range of actions that we are committed to take towards continuous improvement. My colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy has been keeping the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee up to date on the progress with the vessels that are under construction at Ferguson’s, which sits within her remit. I have also recently written to that committee to provide an update on the actions that have been taken to improve ferry procurement.

I have been asking the Ferguson Marine shipyard management for a number of months if I could visit, to hear their side of the story. They have been much criticised, and a great deal of public money is obviously involved in the project. I understand that they might not wish to facilitate a visit for just one MSP, but I believe that other MSPs would be interested in visiting, too. Will the minister support us in visiting the shipyard to find out more about what is happening with the contracts?

As the member knows, responsibility in the area sits with my colleague Kate Forbes, but I am happy to pass that request on to her.

Building on lessons learned, CMAL, the procuring authority for new vessels for the ferry network, has strengthened processes to include additional diligence and independent verification of preferred bidders’ financial standing and ability to deliver. Financial monitoring will continue to be undertaken prior to any contract award; it will be continued at appropriate stages throughout the contract period. CMAL has also committed to obtaining further support from independent technical consultants to work alongside its experienced in-house team when undertaking technical assessments during the procurement process. That has been done in response to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee’s report. Those actions, and others, are now embedded in the approach on new procurements.

The motion calls for a “ferries strategy”, but we have the ferries plan, which is supported by the vessel replacement and deployment plans from 2018. More recently, we set out up-to-date investment plans and, in February this year, the infrastructure investment plan, which identifies—[Interruption.]

I wish to make progress, if I may.

That plan is backed up by £580 million of investment and a five-year pipeline of vessel and harbour projects, and we are working hard to deliver them. That builds on previous investment of £2 billion in ferry operations and infrastructure. I recognise that that covers more than the next five years. We will have to have a much more long-term approach, and we are committed to delivering that.

We are actively moving forward with delivery, as is showcased by the commitment to a second new Islay vessel, which demonstrates our determination to add resilience to the fleet as a whole, including through the consequent redeployment of the Finlaggan, which will bring benefits elsewhere in the network. That will be in addition to the Glen Sannox and the sister ship, the 802.

The minister has referred to the ferries plan, which I know exists, but I also know that it makes clear how the internal ferry services in Orkney fall significantly below the minimum standards. He has referred to additional vessels being added on the west coast. Can he update the Parliament on what progress is being made to ensure that services in Orkney, on which my constituents rely, meet at least those minimum standards, if not better?

I want to come to that in a minute.

Progress has been made on the Gourock-Dunoon-Kilcreggan vessel project and the small vessel replacement programme. Work has begun on other future major vessel projects for Craignure to Oban and Mallaig to Lochboisdale, as well as on the replacement of the two freight vessels for the northern isles services.

Members are right to hold ministers to account for shortcomings in the ferry network for which we are responsible. Equally, however, they need to recognise that responsibility for interisland ferries lies with the relevant local authorities.

As I have indicated previously to Liam McArthur and others, we are prepared to assist when we reasonably can—perhaps in the form of assistance with design and so on—in a way that can sit alongside the Clyde and Hebrides ferry services and the northern isles ferry services contracts, for which we are responsible. We will continue to work with local authorities in that space. However, let us be clear that local authorities are responsible for the replacement of the ferries.

I have also been clear in my extensive engagement with communities and in responses in the chamber that we have heard the strong views of stakeholders and we are actively exploring further future vessel deployment.

Presiding Officer, I hope that you will indulge me, as I have a lot to respond to.

That is generous of you, minister, but we have a deadline of 6.45. I presume that you will be—

We shall be finished before then.

Excellent.

Thank you for your indulgence.

We recognise that the new tonnage will take time to come into service, which is why we continue to task CMAL with sourcing additional second-hand vessels to improve services and bring additional resilience to the fleet serving the Clyde and Hebrides and the northern isles. I was delighted to announce that the MV Utne has been purchased by CMAL, which is proof that, when we can, we will take steps to improve matters now. I gently point out, as Jenni Minto did, that we are criticised for insufficient capacity in the fleet and then criticised for taking steps to alleviate the situation either by purchase or time charter.

Members have touched on the islands connectivity plan. We are preparing that as a replacement for the ferries plan, and we are very much taking account of the views of the communities in that regard. The connectivity plan will include an even longer-term investment programme for new ferries and developments at ports. Katy Clark is absolutely right to talk about ports, because we need to address that situation. We need to improve resilience, reliability, capacity and accessibility. We need to increase standardisation, cut emissions and meet the needs of island communities while providing value for money.

I do not want to interrupt your flow, minister, but, although it is excellent that several interventions were taken and duly responded to at length, equally, the initial time that you had was seven minutes. Therefore, you should look to bring your remarks to a close, for reasons of equity of availability of time for every speaker.

I apologise, Presiding Officer. I will do so.

Thank you.

I will finish by highlighting the fact that there have been improvements of late. We have had the purchase of the Utne, as well as measures around school minibuses, the thorny issue of motorhome carriage and enhancing the role of the community board. That refutes the idea that either I or my officials are arrogant when it comes to responding to reasonable suggestions and asks from communities. I recognise that there is much more to do but, over the past few months, we have demonstrated that we absolutely get the need for improvement and, more importantly, that we are taking tangible steps to deliver that.

Thank you, minister. That concludes the debate.

Meeting closed at 18:42.