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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 31 October 2018

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Ferry Services, Early Years, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Caledonian Pinewood Forest


Contents


Ferry Services

The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-14520, in the name of Jamie Greene, on concern over the state of Scotland’s ferry services.

14:41  

I thank those on the ground who care passionately about delivering Scotland’s ferry services, those who work on board our vessels in our ports and harbours, and those who weld the sheets of our future fleet. However, I do so in the knowledge that they are working in a difficult climate under contracts that are largely outside their control, on vessels that they often did not choose or design, and in a climate in which their repeated calls for adequate investment go unnoticed and ignored.

Our criticisms will reflect the strength of feeling across Scotland and are focused squarely at the door of the Government, which, after a decade in office, has yet to deliver a sustainable, fit-for-purpose fleet and network of ferries in Scotland. The Government is presiding over an ageing fleet of vessels, no real standardisation between vessel and port, and little to no resilience within that fleet, and it is dogmatic in its pursuit of directly awarding contracts.

If Jamie Greene is making assertions about the role of the Scottish Government, does he recognise that, over the past decade—certainly since 2010—we have faced increasing austerity? Jamie Greene might ignore this, but there is a £1.9 billion real-terms cut in the Scottish Government’s budget in 2019-20 as result of his Government.

Mr Greene, do not fret: I will give you your time back. However, you must not get up and stand while another member is speaking, anxious though you are.

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

My goodness, the minister has an absolute cheek to stand up and tell members that it is somebody else’s fault that the ferry services in Scotland are not up to scratch. It is always somebody else’s fault. I advise the minister to listen not just to what we have to say, but to what members across the chamber from every part of Scotland have to say. Listen to us and to the people out there who have to rely on those services.

We have initiated this debate because of those voices across Scotland—not experts in the marine industry, but people to whom the ferry services matter the most, such as the farmer from Arran who contacted me, who cannot get his livestock to the market on the mainland because of a lack of commercial space on the vessel, and the tourist whom I met sitting in a queue outside my office in Largs. He had come down from Glasgow for the day to take his family to Millport for a day trip, but had spent three hours queuing to get a seat on a vessel that takes eight minutes to cross to Cumbrae. Even worse, Monty Phillips, who is a carer, was forced to sleep in a grit bin overnight because the last ferry to Dunoon was cancelled and the terminal staff would not even let her sleep in the waiting room. There are outrageous and shocking stories of people being let down.

It is a fact that, since the Scottish National Party came to power, there have been more than 70,000 ferry delays or cancellations across Scotland. That is 177 sailings a week in Scotland being disrupted.

It is timely that this debate comes when the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee has just released a letter to the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity—I notice that he is absent from the debate—that summarises the committee’s findings on ferry funding as part of its budget scrutiny. The committee’s report makes for difficult reading, and I advise the minister to read it very carefully. Perhaps if he had read it, he might have lodged a more realistic and self-aware amendment than the one that he lodged for today’s debate.

The REC Committee was told that ferry services and ferry infrastructure have suffered from a lengthy period of underinvestment. In evidence to the committee, the managing director of CalMac Ferries Ltd described this summer’s disruption as

“the worst ... in eight years”.—[Official Report, Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, 30 May 2018; c 3.]

On back-up vessels, Mr Drummond told the committee that CalMac has no spare assets and no spare fleet and that its staff are working at their absolute capacity just to maintain the status quo. If a single vessel is out of service, the entire network is disrupted for weeks at a time, as was the case when the MV Clansman was out of service. To be fair to Mr Drummond, it is not CalMac’s fault. It is working with the contracts and the fleet that it has available to it.

The committee held a number of evidence-taking sessions with a wide range of stakeholders. Their concerns included the lack of vessel capacity for vehicles; investment not matching increased growth from tourism; insufficient integration with mainland transport; and a focus on procuring larger, more expensive vessels, which limits the ability to move vessels between one port and another or between one service and another.

I know that there are a wide range of views in Parliament on who should or should not operate our ferries, but when the Government ran a tender for the Clyde and Hebrides ferry service contract, the process was complex, inflexible and expensive, and it discouraged innovative bids.

The committee noted that investment in port infrastructure and vessels is not meeting demand. The chief executive of Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd told the REC Committee that the annual investment needed was £30 million on vessels and £20 million on harbours. It has been receiving just half that amount, so it is no surprise to anyone that there is so much disruption to our fleets.

There is a wider problem. Last year’s Audit Scotland report, “Transport Scotland’s ferry services”, warned that the lack of long-term investment and vision, along with skyrocketing subsidies and limited public finances, could be detrimental to the long-term viability of Scotland’s ferries. Audit Scotland said:

“There is no Scotland-wide, long-term strategy ... Transport Scotland will find it challenging to continue to provide ferry services that meet the needs of users within its allocated budget.”

That is not the future; I argue that it is already the case. In that context, I am pleased to agree with Labour’s amendment.

The Conservatives share Labour’s aspiration for a Government that produces a 30-year plan for shipbuilding and ferry replacement. That is a sensible addition to the debate, and I ask that other members support that call, too.

The industry has been saying that for years. The Scottish Government even acknowledged that itself as far back as 2011 in its ferries plan, when it said:

“We are faced with significant and growing increases in both resource and capital costs to maintain existing ferry services ... it is clear that we are not able to deliver all of our ... improvements to ferry services”.

Since the introduction of the road equivalent tariff, the reality is that demand has simply outstripped supply. Who is suffering the most? Our island communities.

The Government’s amendment does one thing: it deletes my motion. It notes that people are concerned and frustrated. Today’s award for the biggest understatement goes to Paul Wheelhouse.

We called this debate today because enough is enough. For too long, the Scottish Government has ignored repeated warnings from the industry. The public are sick and tired of the disruption, the delays and the cancellations. They were promised new vessels; they have not arrived. They asked for one type of vessel; another was delivered. They were promised that their needs would be put first; instead, they are queuing for hours on end to get on a ferry home.

I urge all members to listen to the many anecdotes that they have heard that come from the length and breadth of Scotland, and rather than pretend that the status quo is acceptable, as the Government wants us to do, to stand up and stick up for their island communities, because that is what we will do.

I move,

That the Parliament raises its concern over the provision of Scotland’s ferry services, which have seen significant delays, disruptions and cancellations over the last 12 months to the detriment of Scotland’s island and rural communities; notes that CalMac Ferries’ managing director described this summer’s disruptions as the worst in eight years and admitted that there is currently no resilience in the network based on the lack of additional available vessels in case of breakdowns; recognises the comments made by Audit Scotland in its 2017 report, Transport Scotland’s ferry services, in which it called for a new long-term ferry strategy; recognises the necessity of ferries in boosting tourism and providing vital public services to island communities, and calls on the Scottish Government to remedy these failings and restore public confidence in Scotland’s ferry network.

14:49  

The Scottish Government recognises that our ferry services must strive to match the aspirations of the communities that they serve by providing lifeline services and opportunities for economic growth. Indeed, our amendment makes reference to lifeline services; such a reference is missing from Mr Greene’s motion.

In the round, our ferry services perform well. To date, the Scottish Government has invested more than £1.4 billion in ferry services around Scotland, and in the year to date, performance under our three public sector contracts sits at above 95 per cent. I commend the work of ferry operators’ crew and staff in maintaining high levels of performance in circumstances that we all recognise are often quite challenging. We should not lose sight of that success, but we cannot be complacent. I acknowledge that Mr Greene welcomed the contribution of CalMac staff, but that does not feature in his motion. The Government’s amendment makes clear our recognition of the efforts of crew and staff. Members who are considering whether to vote for our amendment can register their support for the staff of CalMac, who provide a key lifeline service, by voting for it.

Given the financial pressures that we continue to face, it is important that we have an honest conversation about how we prioritise investment in our ferry services, so that we target resources as effectively as possible. Those pressures persist, and this week’s United Kingdom Government budget will result in a real-terms cut of £1.9 billion compared with the 2010-11 budget. Conservative members might shake their heads, but it is a fact—

The minister has twice said to the chamber something that is manifestly untrue. He has stated twice that the Scottish Government’s budget has been reduced by £1.9 billion since 2010. I suggest that he reads the Fraser of Allander institute analysis that shows that the Scottish Government’s total budget—resource departmental expenditure limit, capital, financial transactions and annually managed expenditure—is higher than it was, in real terms, in 2010. Does he accept that he has misled the chamber?

That was a long intervention, so I will give you the time back, minister.

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

I absolutely do not accept Mr Fraser’s assessment. I say with respect to Mr Fraser that to refer to financial transactions funding as if those funds can be deployed to support resource budgets for ferry services is to mislead the chamber. He ought to consider his own remarks.

The resource budget has been reduced by £1.9 billion relative to the 2010-11 budget. We should not forget, either, that Mr Greene’s party’s tax proposals for the current year would have reduced Scotland’s resource budget by a further £500 million relative to our tax proposals. I presume that Mr Fraser disputes that, too. Mr Greene accused me of cheek; in return—I will be diplomatic and polite—I accuse him of extensive brass neck in his approach to the resourcing of our ferry services.

Since assuming responsibility for the ferries brief this summer, I have been committed to engaging with all our stakeholders to ensure that their views are understood as we have those discussions. Mr Greene might like to let me know on how many occasions the Conservative Party has asked for additional funding in Scottish Government budget rounds since we took office in 2007.

I would like to reflect briefly on our activity to date. We published our ferries plan in 2012. That was an ambitious long-term strategy for investment in ferries. Despite the Tories’ age of austerity, we have invested more than £1.4 billion in supporting lifeline ferry services across the network.

Will the minister take an intervention?

I am short of time, but I will try to let Mr Scott in later.

That support has delivered the introduction of new routes, service enhancements and strengthened timetables, and it has enabled additional sailings to be provided in response to increasing demand. We are delivering, but it will take time to deliver in full. Eight new ferries have been added to the CalMac fleet since 2007, and a further two new vessels have been commissioned. That represents a total investment of £215 million in new vessels. In addition, we have recently committed to provide a further vessel to serve the Islay route.

Not insignificantly, five of the last six orders for new vessels have been awarded to Scottish yards. We see the contribution that ferries make to our supply chain and to securing growth in our maritime economy. All five of those Scottish-built vessels deploy hybrid and dual-fuel technologies to reduce the damaging effect of greenhouse gas emissions. We recognise the important contribution that ferries can make to our overarching strategy to reduce emissions.

Our programme of harbour investment includes £62 million of investment in the Clyde and Hebrides network over the past five years. Such investment ensures that ports remain safe and are fit for purpose. When funding allows, we invest in enhancements that enable a wider range of vessels to access the harbour, which adds resilience and flexibility and provides modern and accessible facilities for passengers. More recently, in response to the impact of disruption on customers, which we recognise, we introduced a £3.5 million resilience fund to support CalMac in its obligation to maintain vessels on the Clyde and Hebrides network.

We have achieved much, but we must continue to look forward and build on our investment to date. Transport Scotland is revisiting the ferries plan as part of the strategic transport projects review. We will also revisit the vessel replacement and deployment plan to ensure that it continues to reflect current circumstances and demands, and anticipates future demands. In particular, it will have to reflect the huge success of RET and the impact on passenger demand on some routes. We will work in close consultation with key business partners and community stakeholders.

We will engage with the trade unions on the work ahead to reflect on the operational impact of any proposals on staff and crew.

Will the minister give way?

May I bring in Mr Scott, Presiding Officer?

No. You are closing, so if do you, you are—

I thought that I had additional time, Presiding Officer.

You have, but you had only six minutes and you are getting just slightly over that.

Okay. I apologise to Mr Scott.

Those are quite properly long-term measures. Given the scale of investment, it is important that we take an informed, strategic and balanced approach.

I have been listening carefully to island communities since assuming responsibility for ferry services and I put on record that I understand the very real challenges that are faced as a consequence of service disruption, particularly at the level that was experienced during the summer.

I am determined that we must get this right. In addition to closely monitoring operational performance, we are developing an action plan with our ferry operators that will ensure that appropriate measures are in place to improve the customer experience when things go wrong.

We will continue to challenge operators to communicate proactively with customers when there are delays. They must also, with our support, ensure that appropriate measures are in place to ensure that lifeline services are not compromised.

I look for support from across the chamber for developing that action plan. In supporting my amendment, members can ensure that the commitment is recorded and that I will be held to account for any delays in its implementation.

Please conclude and move your amendment, minister.

I thank you for your forbearance, Presiding Officer. I ask members to support my amendment.

I move amendment S5M-14520.4, to leave out from “raises” to end and insert:

“notes the concerns regarding the provision of Scotland’s lifeline ferry services to island and rural communities and acknowledges the frustration to customers in the event of service failures; further acknowledges the significant actions that have been taken to address those concerns to support the continued socioeconomic development of Scotland’s remote and island communities; recognises the commendable work of ferry operators’ crew and staff in maintaining high levels of performance; notes the ongoing review of investment plans and priorities, including the development of an action plan to further address resilience issues on the Clyde and Hebrides network; recognises the continued significant levels of investment in upgraded infrastructure; acknowledges the commitment to an inclusive approach to vessel design and procurement, which includes communities, public sector partners and trade unions, and acknowledges the positive contribution that ferries procurement is making to Scotland’s ambitious strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions generated by its ferry operations.”

I call Colin Smyth to speak to and move amendment S5M-14520.3. You have five minutes, Mr Smyth.

14:56  

It is no exaggeration to say that Scotland’s ferry network provides a lifeline for communities. In evidence to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, Western Isles Council described it as

“central to the sustainability and wellbeing of the island communities”

and Argyll and Bute Council said that the network is

“the very means to survive and prosper.”

The summer of discontent on Scotland’s ferries, which was caused by a lack of capacity and resilience, has wreaked havoc in our island communities. Poor planning and Scottish Government investment that is not meeting growing demand mean that our ferry network is not fit for purpose—despite the at times heroic efforts of staff to keep the ferries going.

More than half of CMAL’s fleet is more than 20 years old, and more than one quarter is more than 30 years old. The ageing fleet has meant that there are more breakdowns and higher maintenance costs.

CalMac’s submission to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee states that, on the Clyde and Hebrides route,

“Between 2012 and 2017 the number of cars carried has grown by 37% to 1.43m per year and passenger numbers have risen by 17% to 5.2 million per year.”

The introduction of road equivalent tariff fares on some routes has resulted in drastic increases in use and has created serious capacity issues—most notably on the Stornoway to Ullapool route, with residents of Lewis and Harris often being simply unable to book ferries to the mainland.

We all welcome the introduction of RET fares, and I hope that the Scottish Government will make good on its overdue pledge to introduce them on northern isles routes, but that must be accompanied by the necessary investment in capacity in order to meet growing demand.

Transport Scotland might have calculated and funded the cost of lost ticket revenue that has been caused by RET, but it has not properly assessed the impact on capacity of increased use, and the current ferries plan falls short as a result. When the plan is revisited, a commitment to increase capacity to meet growing demand will be needed in the forthcoming budget.

Does Colin Smyth think that there is scope for varying fares, so that there could be a slightly higher fare at peak times, to try to even out demand?

I do not think that that would go down particularly well with the people who would be looking at the prospect of higher fares. The issue is that the RET, which is welcome, has increased demand, so we need to increase capacity to meet demand in order to follow the policy through.

Beyond revisiting the ferries plan, there are shortcomings in how the Government procures investment in ferry services. The poor track record is clear in the decision to replace the MV Isle of Lewis with one large ship rather than with two ropax vessels, as was recommended by the assessment that was done under Scottish transport appraisal guidance and supported by the local community. That not only required significant adjustments to the ports; it also weakened resilience on the route through reliance on a single ship.

The approach to ferry services has to be better thought through and needs greater forward planning. As the motion notes, Audit Scotland recently highlighted the need for a new long-term strategy for ferries to take into account the many proposed developments to services and assets. In fact, a decade ago, the then Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee called on the Scottish Government to produce a national ferries strategy that would detail long-term plans for routes, for ferry replacement and refurbishment, and for ports infrastructure, accompanied by an implementation and delivery plan with a clear programme of funding. Ten years later, the Government has not delivered that, which is causing uncertainty for those who provide services and the communities who rely on them.

We need a long-term ferries strategy more than ever, but it must be accompanied by a national shipbuilding strategy. Shipbuilding and the jobs that it delivers remain important to the Scottish economy. A national strategy setting out a 30-year programme of work would help to create jobs, to develop and retain skills and expertise in Scotland’s shipyards, to encourage investment and to improve the efficiency with which yards can produce ferries, which would create the steady drumbeat of consistent work that they need.

We also need to look again at the tendering process for shipbuilding contracts, with failings having been exposed by the current delays in delivery of the two new hybrid ferries. It seems that the flawed procurement process produced a design that the insurers were simply unwilling to underwrite, which has resulted in significant changes to the design. Despite that, and the impact that such delays have had on communities, the Government has been slow to intervene by bringing all sides together to find a way forward.

Will Colin Smyth take an intervention?

I will, if I have time.

You have not, really.

Overall, the Government does not seem to recognise that ferries—as all public transport does—provide a vital public service. That lack of recognition is summed up by its ambivalence towards public ownership, as seen in its failure to take the northern isles contract in-house permanently.

To add insult to injury, the Government’s decision to charter the MV Arrow from Seatruck Ferries Ltd in order to meet growing freight demand on the route means that staff are being paid less than the national minimum wage. That needs to be tackled in future contracts, which will mean setting out unequivocal requirements on pay and conditions for all staff and, ideally, tendering for more than two chartered freight vessels, in order to avoid such situations arising in the first place. That would also facilitate capacity increases and allow for seasonal changes in demand.

A contract must also include a claw-back provision to ensure that surplus profits are returned to the public purse, and must protect the jobs and conditions of all existing staff.

In conclusion, I say that it is clear that, across our ferry network, we are seeing problems that could have been avoided with better planning and more strategic investment. The Scottish Government must take action to improve not only how ferries are run, by bringing lifeline services into public hands, but how investment projects are planned, procured and managed, by creating a long-term strategy for ferries, and a national shipbuilding plan to support it.

I move amendment S5M-14520.3, to insert at end:

“; recognises that ferry capacity must be able to meet demand and that the funding and purchasing of new ferries needs to be transparent, and calls on the Scottish Government to bring forward a long-term ferry strategy, accompanied by a comprehensive implementation and delivery plan, and a national shipbuilding strategy detailing its long-term ambitions for the sector and setting out a 30-year programme of work.”

15:02  

The Scottish Green Party will support the Conservative motion tonight. It is very difficult to take issue with it, although I always try to take issue with everything that members of the Conservative Party say. However, the motion narrates a number of facts—significant delays, disruptions, cancellations, there being no resilience in the network and the lack of additional vessels—and calls for a long-term ferries strategy. That said, there is, in the motion, also a lack of self-awareness. Certainly, there is some denial about the impact of the budget settlement.

At various points, we have heard complaints about RET which, overall, is a success, although some aspects must be addressed. However, we heard where the Conservatives are really coming from when they stepped into the area of—

Excuse me, Mr Finnie. Could you pull your microphone towards you a wee bit?

We heard where the Conservatives are really coming from when we heard their references to tendering. I certainly align myself with Colin Smyth’s comments about the Scottish Government’s lost opportunity regarding the northern isles route. How such opportunities are treated sends a very clear message about its direction of travel and its philosophy. I have to say that that was a missed opportunity.

The Scottish Greens will also support the Scottish Labour Party’s amendment, because it narrates very important proposals, including on an implementation and delivery plan and a 30-year programme of shipbuilding work. That is important when considered in the context of the duration for which a ferry can survive.

I also want to thank the staff for their hard work. There is no doubt that the drip feed of negative comment that comes out has an impact, and we need to understand that increased funding is important. The Green amendment, which was not selected for debate, mentioned increased funding being essential. I am very happy to explain where we would get that funding from, because it is important that people understand that. We would not have spent £6 billion on two roads, or £0.75 billion on the M8, or money on the Aberdeen western peripheral route.

The replacement vessel on the Ullapool to Stornoway route might not have served Lewis and Leodhasachs well, but it has certainly served Lloyds Bank, which has benefited very much from it. The deal will cost taxpayers £67 million by 2022, at which point the bankers will still own the vessel and there will be a requirement to negotiate a new lease. When we read about funding models elsewhere, that is certainly not a model that we would want to see replicated.

The Government has a number of questions to answer regarding the situation, but Jamie Greene alluded to the report from the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee that came out this morning. It is significant that the Highlands and Islands transport partnership noted that no new major vessels entered the service between 2001 and 2011. That has a significant impact when we are looking at the lifespan of vessels, and there is a collective responsibility to resolve the situation. If difficulties had occurred on our road network such as have occurred on our ferry network, the issue would have been given a much higher profile.

I welcome the fact that we are debating the issue. What I do not welcome is the fact that I read about CMAL describing things as being “commercially confidential” and so on: it is public money. I hope that Conservative members will keep on nodding when I say that I want a ferry service that is run exclusively in the public interest—or not for profit, as we would say elsewhere. I see that their nodding has stopped.

The reality is that we need to ensure that we have a coherent plan and a coherent method.

15:06  

I thank Jamie Greene for using limited Opposition time to debate this important issue. It is a very current issue, as the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee wrote to the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity just two hours ago, as part of our pre-budget scrutiny. As a fellow member of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, Jamie Greene will be aware of the troubling evidence that has been presented to members by operators and island communities, highlighting that there are potential long-term problems for our ferry services just over the horizon.

I will quote from the letter, which is on the committee’s website, so members can see it for themselves. The first recommendation in the letter to the transport secretary—the minister may not have seen it—

I have.

The minister has seen it. That is good. At the first bullet point, the committee

“Calls on the Scottish Government to respond to criticisms of the lack of resilience in the fleet and to the evidence that CMAL has received less than half the amount of funding required over the last 10 years.”

That is the result of the committee’s investigation.

The effects of transport delays can be damaging for local economies and alarming for travellers. Significant delays to lifeline ferry services can severely impact on island communities, and the damaging effects of delays are often multiplied as repairs take place over weeks or months. In the worst cases, livestock and fresh produce are turned away at ferry terminals, essential supplies and service vehicles are held up, and vital income from tourism is lost.

Of course, delays are far less likely to be a problem if ferry operators have the resilience, flexibility and capacity to move passengers on to other available services and vessels. This year, the Scottish Government welcomed the principles of fair funding for local ferry services for the northern isles, as set out by my Scottish Liberal Democrat colleagues from Orkney and Shetland. By definition, the Scottish Government has accepted the responsibly to support vital ferry links for our island communities and to help operators to fund the snowballing cost of planned and unplanned maintenance.

Repairs at sea can get us only so far, and there is certainly no quick fix for our ageing ferry fleet. This summer, CalMac has reported that for many of its vessels, with nearly half its ferries already being beyond their 25-year life expectancy,

“and having been used intensively during those years of service—the risk of mechanical failures and breakdown is significant. It also takes longer to get older boats back into service when things do go wrong”.

I strongly agree with the motion and with Colin Smyth’s amendment. In fact, I believe that they do not go far enough. We urgently need a long-term plan for our ferry services, and a programme of investment that will provide transport security for island communities for decades to come.

The Scottish Government must set out clear targets for improvement and—this is important—work towards those targets must begin immediately. The northern isles lifeline ferry services are in a tendering process now and the Government must ensure that the islands’ future freight export needs are built into the contract specification. Industry has given the information that is needed by the Government, so the minister must do that. Will the minister say in his summing up that he will ensure that that will happen?

The level of Government engagement—past and present—in our lifeline ferry services has not been good enough. We are in danger of letting a bad situation get worse. We will vote in favour of the Conservative motion and the Labour amendment, but we cannot accept the words of the Government amendment, which seem to us to be somewhat complacent.

We now move to the open debate. We are very tight for time, so there is absolutely no more than four minutes for speeches. Jamie Halcro Johnston will be followed by Keith Brown.

15:10  

As an Orcadian with farming interests in Orkney, I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important subject.

Around Scotland, a range of problems face people who rely on our ferry services. The ferry routes are often essential links to our island communities, with few, if any, alternatives for travel or freight. They are a lifeline for people who seek access to public services to operate their businesses, or simply to travel for work or leisure.

It is unfortunate that there is such strong evidence of a lack of strategic direction in the Scottish Government’s provision of support to ferries across the country. Since Audit Scotland drew attention to that issue in 2017, there has been little change. We are left with a disjointed and fundamentally unfair patchwork of provision, funding and investment, in which island communities receive very different levels of service.

My experiences are obviously of the northern isles service, which is currently operated by Serco NorthLink. It is welcome that the Scottish Government is proceeding with retendering the northern isles ferry contract, following the announcement that the contract notice was published at the end of September. The contract will run for eight years and set the shape of the northern isles’ future services into the late 2020s. It is only right that the Scottish Government be ambitious about the future of the service. Although Labour and Green colleagues will disagree, I hope that the tendering process will bring an end to the SNP’s preoccupation with having a public sector operator for the northern isles routes.

The Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 was intended to support a new approach to Scotland’s island communities by recognising local needs and local opinion. However, it is striking to me that the Scottish Government did not recognise earlier that there is no groundswell of support in the northern isles for getting rid of tendering. We should see the new tendering process as an opportunity to set in motion the changes that are vital to keep the service operating successfully. That includes taking a view on the long-standing complaints about the accommodation and facilities that are available to passengers on the service. It means recognising the needs of business in moving freight, and it means ensuring that the service is able to adapt to the changing needs of the islands in years to come.

When our ferries are in for refitting, their replacements must meet the needs of local people and local businesses, which has not been the case recently. The stand-in for MV Hamnavoe was a freight boat with limited passenger facilities, and which was entirely unsuitable for disabled passengers.

John Mason suggested that fares could go up at peak times for some routes. One issue that looms over the discussions is the SNP’s manifesto commitment to introducing lower ferry fares for the northern isles, which has been fought for by island representatives and promised by the SNP at election after election. However, this summer the Scottish Government’s deadline came and went; in Shetland, the promise has been only part-delivered and in Orkney, fare reductions have been kicked into the long grass.

Will the member give way?

I am afraid that I do not have time.

The Scottish Government has tried to shift the blame on to private operators, but the need for those discussions was well known in advance. The Government had ample time to discuss proposals with all stakeholders, but a mess was left when discussions were commenced only at a late stage in the process. The commitments were not simply a gift from ministers, but were the result of lengthy campaigning for equality with the support that has been offered to other islands, and they reflect the needs that the islands’ geography has created.

Unfortunately, that situation followed the ugly stramash around fair funding for internal ferries, when ministers could not bring themselves to repeat in Parliament their party’s pledges. It was only after the voices from the community, the island councillors and MSPs across the parties could no longer be ignored that a one-year deal was worked out.

Will the member give way?

Mr Halcro Johnston has no time.

However, the islands still have no certainty about future funding of their internal ferries. They need the Scottish Government to meet its commitment to provide a settlement, with a clear indication that it will be regular and not simply a one-off win with a new fight every new year.

In Orkney and Shetland, the security of our ferry services has been hard won by local action against what often appears to be an indifferent Scottish Government in Edinburgh. Our island communities, like so many that are dependent on ferry services, deserve better.

15:14  

There is no question but that disruption and delays for local communities are causing frustration, especially where these are lifeline services. I am sure that both Kenneth Gibson and Alasdair Allan, speaking for their communities, will also highlight that fact.

There is also no question but that vessel procurement is a long-standing and continuing issue for the Scottish Government. I would urge the Scottish Government to cast its net wide and to think as imaginatively as possible to help CalMac procure the additional vessels that are required, not least to support the resilience that has been mentioned. As anybody who has been involved in it will know, it is an extremely difficult market. That means that we need to redouble our efforts to secure that additional capacity.

However, there is nothing in the Conservative motion that helps that. There is nothing about investment. There are no figures. There is no commitment to anything at all, which is standard fare from the Conservative Party. There is also a complete lack of self-awareness. I am somewhat surprised that the Labour Party and the Green Party are willing to ally themselves with the Conservatives, when they explicitly acknowledge that their party’s real agenda is to further privatise the ferry network.

Of course, back in 2014, better together told us that we were going to have a huge national ship-building boom when it won the referendum. What has happened to that? There is also no indication in the Tories’ motion about where they would find the money for that. We can only assume that they would rather spend money on tax cuts than provide direct ferry services for our communities up and down the country.

The simple fact, which was not acknowledged by the Conservative Party, is that the Scottish Government has a very proud record of supporting the communities that are dependent on ferries. As members have heard, that includes the building of new ferries—the MV Loch Seaforth, the MV Finlaggan and the other eight vessels that the minister mentioned.

Many areas of Scotland have benefited from investment in our harbours and ports. There seems to be no awareness among Conservatives that many of the ports are not owned by CalMac or the Scottish Government, and investment in that regard has to come from local authorities and other organisations. We should also be extremely proud of the huge investment by the Government in the ferries themselves.

No doubt, the Government’s record of investment and support is something to which the Tories object. They would like to see such support cut back and privatised. They do not like the idea of direct awards; they would rather consider where we might make savings from the ferry network than provide new investment.

I recognise that the on-going commitment to lifeline ferry services is reflected in the £1.2 billion that the Scottish Government has invested. I cannot recollect, over the past 10 years, the Conservatives proposing a single budget amendment on investing more in ferries—not one such proposal.

I cannot even recollect the Conservatives raising the issue regularly. The Liberal Democrats have raised it—perhaps not Mike Rumbles, the wannabe member for Tory central, but certainly Tavish Scott and Liam McArthur have been regular advocates for ferry services in their areas. That is fair enough: their communities rely on ferry services. As someone has said, work done by those two members helped to get a further advance for people in the northern isles in last year’s budget.

There has been investment in the road equivalent tariff for all ferry routes in the Clyde and Hebrides network, and there has been investment in new vessels. There was £41.8 million for the MV Loch Seaforth, there are the two new dual-fuel vessels, at a cost of £106 million, and there is the MV Catriona, which cost £12.3 million. There has also been substantial investment in harbour infrastructure in Ullapool, Stornoway, Brodick and Kerrera.

None of that investment has been mentioned by Conservatives when they had the chance to do so in this debate. Of course, Conservative Party members have questions, but they forget that one of their colleagues, Patrick McLoughlin MP, came to Scotland a few years back and said that the problem with our transport infrastructure here is that there has not been investment for decades, forgetting that he himself was a transport minister in 1989.

This Government has had to pick up the mantle on transport infrastructure, whether we are talking about roads, ferries or ferry infrastructure, that previous Governments failed to pick up. The Government has done a good job. There is no question but that there is more to do, because we all want to see improved services. I support the amendment in Paul Wheelhouse’s name.

15:19  

I welcome the opportunity to debate our ferry services, but given that I have only four short minutes, Presiding Officer, you will forgive me if I cut to the chase.

There is a need for a Scotland-wide, long-term ferry strategy for not just the Clyde and Hebrides network but all routes—one that covers investment in harbours and new ferries and considers how we get the best return from the money that we spend. Audit Scotland identified that need in 2017, but the Scottish Government has yet to act on all its recommendations.

At a time of public funding constraints, spending on ferries has grown by 115 per cent in real terms, but the funding has not been for infrastructure. That is a huge amount of money, given that passenger numbers are growing by only 0.3 per cent. That probably makes ferries the most subsidised form of public transport, so the Scottish Government needs to demonstrate value for money. However, I absolutely accept that ferry services are essential for our island communities.

The procurement of new ferries and the maintenance of existing ones are also issues that need attention. I am disappointed that the repairs and maintenance of our existing ferry fleet is carried out in Liverpool, and not at the former Cammell Laird yard at lnchgreen. The Scottish Government should aim to return the maintenance and repair of the fleet to benefit local employment and our local economies.

I turn to the two ferries that are being built at Ferguson’s. It is, of course, disappointing that there are delays, but I am clear that the design that was set out by CMAL was deficient in the first place. I have no problem with the Scottish Government providing Ferguson’s with loans. I have no problem with support for shipbuilding; that is what we should be providing. What frustrates me is that the Scottish Government recognises that CMAL is the problem but, instead of fixing the problem, it gives Ferguson’s loans. Unless the Government sorts out the problem at source, the money will prove to be a mere sticking plaster, and we will be back here yet again. The Scottish Government needs to sit down with CMAL and Ferguson’s and get the problem sorted out.

There is also the Kilcreggan ferry—the only ferry that is run by Strathclyde Partnership for Transport. Clydelink provided the service between Kilcreggan and Gourock until May this year. It is fair to say that it made Para Handy look good and, for periods of time, the ferry was off more often than it was on. Although Clyde Marine Services Ltd has subsequently taken over, and the improvement in the ferry service has been immense, it is still the community’s aspiration that the service should be run by the Scottish Government. I am pleased that Paul Wheelhouse has affirmed the Government’s commitment to do exactly that.

I cannot talk about poor service in one aspect of public transport—ferries—without mentioning travel by rail. It is fair to say that rail travel is shockingly bad in my area. Poor service also affects commuters in East Kilbride, so I know the issue is of interest to the Presiding Officer. The problem has been evident for weeks, but, for the past nine consecutive days, my constituents have endured cancelled and delayed trains. People have been late for work so many times that they are now in trouble with their employers, students at universities and colleges have missed lectures, patients have missed hospital appointments and children have been left stranded in childcare facilities because their parents cannot get back to collect them. Such issues apply to delayed ferries, too. All that is happening at a time when prices have gone up.

I used to complain about skip-stopping; now the new normal is for trains in my area to skip every stop by being cancelled. At a time when we needed the Scottish Government to stand up for commuters and to hold ScotRail to account, it has weakened the targets and let ScotRail off the hook. The Government must take urgent action to force ScotRail to improve its service.

Whether it is ferries or trains, the Scottish Government needs to provide a better service and better value for money. We talk about the fourth industrial revolution—

You must close, please.

We talk, too, about lunar tourism but, for goodness’ sake, the train to Dumbarton is still nowhere to be seen.

15:23  

Living on an island as I do, I know what ferries mean to every aspect of any island’s life and economy. In recognising that fact, the Scottish Government has more than doubled what it spends annually on ferry services over the past decade.

Let me put to one side, just for a moment, any doubts that I might have about the Tories’ motives today. The Conservative Party has seemed enthusiastic about privatising ferry services and has suggested that the recent tender for ferry services unfairly favoured the public sector—we have heard echoes of that sentiment today. More recently, the Conservatives seem to almost oppose the Scottish Government intervening to save the Scottish shipyards that are building new vessels.

Instead of dwelling on any of that, I will make some brief points about some of the things about ferry services that have caused my constituents genuine concern in 2018. I hope that the minister will be able to reflect on a few of the issues in his summing up.

The first is the situation this Easter, when, for several days, North Uist and Harris went without anything like a recognisable ferry service. That had real human and economic costs. I understand that there might have been people who did not get to funerals, that there were cancellations for local hotels and that shops were beginning to struggle to get many supplies in. I think that CalMac has realised that that was not its finest hour. The episode demonstrated what happens when a larger vessel—or two of them, in that case—is out of action at a busy time.

The problem is, of course, born partly out of a big success story. In 2007, the SNP Government began rolling out RET fares, making travel dramatically more affordable for islanders and tourists. That has been a huge benefit to our economy and to the community in which I live, with 10 per cent of Hebridean jobs now thought to depend directly on tourism. However, ferries in the Western Isles alone have now had to cope with an astonishing 184,000 additional passengers every year, compared with the figures a decade ago, and most routes now operate at capacity for six months of the year. I would be doing a disservice to my constituents if I did not record what many them feel about that. I can only ask members to imagine how the good people of Paisley or Motherwell might react if they were told that they regularly had to make arrangements three weeks in advance when they wished to drive into Glasgow.

There is no doubt that, in summer, a second vessel is now needed on the Stornoway to Ullapool route, and an extra sailing a day over the Sound of Harris, to give but two examples. Crews do their utmost and, as I have mentioned, the funding is certainly there, but I cannot say with any certainty that, without such improvements, those and other routes will be able to cope next summer.

I know that the Government is giving thought to those difficult questions and is thinking ahead. In time, there might be an argument for some of CalMac’s shorter routes to be replaced by tunnels, but that is an argument for another day and it is certainly not a cheap option. However, no option is cheap when looked at over the long term.

The Scottish Government has shown its commitment in funding ferry services far beyond any funding that has been provided by previous Governments—and certainly far beyond any named sum that has been committed to by the Conservative Party today. However, there are problems with services—that is obvious to all of us—and it is now time for all agencies to work together to reassure island committees about what shape these most vital of services will take in the future. We do not have for ever to answer that question.

15:27  

Before I start talking about ferries, I want to remind the Government about the expectations that have been raised by the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018, which the Parliament supported. The Government should be especially concerned, particularly because it has committed itself to island proofing all its decisions.

In my mind, the Scottish Government is falling short of those expectations by presiding over a ferry network in the west of Scotland in relation to which, as we have heard, there are long construction delays for flagship ferries, 10 years of underinvestment, no spare vessels in the fleet to cope with breakdowns, and a ferries plan that I believe is gathering dust on a shelf and which no one has looked at.

The Government is disempowering the island communities that it sought to support just months ago with its islands legislation. We are possibly seeing the worst of all outcomes, as Jamie Greene made clear, with islanders being unable to travel on to and off islands when they need to. I have been contacted by people who are unable to travel because they are disabled and the ferry is not suitable or they cannot get to it, or because the ferry that they want is overcrowded, meaning that they have not been able to get to funerals.

The Government has seen more than 70,000 cancelled or delayed sailings since 2007, and, as we have heard, the managing director of CalMac has said that last April’s widespread disruptions were the worst for eight years. That is a damning indictment and shows just how far our ferry service has declined under this Government, which has been in power for more than 11 years. It is clear that the Government must think again on its ferries plan in order to remedy the 10 years of mistakes that it has made.

I can give the Government some help in that regard. First, the SNP Government must learn that bigger ships do not always lead to better services. Having smaller vessels that are built to serve multiple routes will build much-needed resilience into the ferry network.

I am grateful to the convener of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee for taking an intervention. I want to make a point that I think he will recognise from a committee evidence session. It was made by CMAL and relates to the design of larger vessels, which are much more fuel efficient. I take on board the point that Edward Mountain makes about the flexibility of smaller vessels, but does he recognise that there are positive arguments for larger vessels, including in relation to resilience in bad weather and fuel efficiency?

I would like to see those figures. It was evidence that we heard—[Interruption.] I gave the minister the chance to intervene, so he must let me answer. We must see that those vessels work. Just saying on paper that they are better does not mean that they are better on the ground. Volkswagen might give some clues to that.

Secondly, there needs to be a move towards standardisation. We need to have more standardised ferries, more standardised docking stations and standardised training to allow crews and boats to serve multiple routes. That will create the much-needed flexibility that our ferries network currently lacks.

Will the member take an intervention?

I am sorry—I have taken one and I am pushed for time. I would like to take the intervention, but I cannot take more.

It is time to learn the lessons of the past. The island-class ferries that served routes to Raasay, Mull and Arran, for example, were versatile and readily interchangeable and could provide extra runs for commercial purposes. Those are the design principles that the future CalMac fleet desperately needs.

Thirdly, the SNP Government must support different models for operating ferries.

I am mindful of the time, so my final point is that that the Scottish Government should also consider moving freight on the busiest routes outside the hours of regular travel for islanders and island visitors.

Six years ago, the Government promised in its ferries plan to review its approach to providing ferry services and to continue to reassess the needs of our island communities. Having heard the evidence, I believe that that plan has sat on the shelf gathering dust and that nothing has happened to it. It needs to be dusted off and looked at, especially because the Clyde and Hebrides ferry service is up for renewal in six years. Now is the time to take some action

15:32  

I represent Arran and Cumbrae, and when ferry services let people down it is right that we heed their concerns and push for realistic solutions. Since 2007, this Government has dramatically increased investment on port infrastructure, vessels, and services, from £97.3 million in 2007-08 to £240.5 million this year—a 150 per cent increase. That is a remarkable achievement, after the neglect that our fleet suffered under Labour and the 27.5 per cent cut in the capital available to the Scottish Government in the first year of the Tory and Lib Dem UK coalition government.

Scottish Government investment was absolutely essential and its impact was enormously positive. For example, passengers now enjoy more summer sailings, following an extension of the two-vessel service to Brodick from seven weeks each summer to nearly seven months of the year. That has dramatically increased capacity and visitor numbers, and boosted Arran’s economy by 10 per cent in the year before last alone. Cumbrae has 40 sailings a day in each direction in the summer and 20 in the winter. Last April the new £31.2 million Brodick ferry terminal opened, completely transforming the harbour and providing 21st century facilities that will boost Arran’s economy. The terminal has a new 110m, two-berth pier that is designed to accommodate the new dual-fuel vessel, MV Glen Sannox, with a dedicated berth to serve other vessels, including cruise ships.

A huge benefit for ferry users was the introduction of the road equivalent tariff for passengers, cars, and coaches. Its roll-out to Arran services in 2014—after I pressed to have the Clyde islands included in the SNP’s 2011 Holyrood manifesto—saw fares drop by 46 per cent for passengers and 64 per cent for cars travelling from Ardrossan to Brodick. RET has had a greater impact on Arran than on any other island. Transport Scotland found that 11 per cent of visitors questioned on the Ardrossan to Brodick route, and 17 per cent on the Claonaig to Lochranza route, said that their journey had been wholly prompted by RET. Arran businesses are very positive about the impact, citing increases in both footfall and turnover. That boom has increased demand and I was, therefore, delighted to welcome the MV Catriona to Arran in 2016, having lobbied for the deployment of that £12.6 million hybrid vessel on the Claonaig to Lochranza sailing.

MV Catriona is almost twice the size of the Loch Tarbert that it replaced. It is also cleaner, more fuel efficient and more comfortable for passengers. Arran will also benefit from the £48.5 million new vessel, MV Glen Sannox, which was due to enter service this past summer. They say that a camel is a horse designed by a committee, and so it seems with the Glen Sannox. Despite the fact that it was agreed that it would ply our busiest ferry route, Ardrossan to Brodick, it was apparently designed to fit all harbours except, shockingly, Ardrossan. As yet, no one has been held accountable for that lamentable decision. The Glen Sannox is now expected to arrive a year behind schedule and islanders are understandably frustrated by that delay. The delivery of that vessel is essential to meet ever-growing demand.

I am delighted that Ardrossan harbour will shortly be upgraded to become a quality destination that supports growth through stronger links to Ardrossan town centre. However, the question of the Arran ferry service potentially relocating to Troon while those upgrades are carried out, which CalMac is arguing for behind the scenes, undermines the hard-fought save our ferry campaign to retain Ardrossan as Arran’s principal mainland Ayrshire port. I trust that the minister will confirm today that Ardrossan will continue to serve the Ardrossan crossing during the refurbishment of Ardrossan harbour, to alleviate those concerns.

Investment and improvement mean little if our ferry fleet is not resilient and islanders cannot rely on ferries to get them where they need to be. On 27 September, together with Mike Russell MSP and representatives of Arran and Islay community councils, I met the minister to discuss this summer’s service disruption to the network. The Scottish Government must take ownership of restoring reliability. If the ferry fleet is not maintained to an adequate standard and if CalMac is unable to find parts for repair and maintenance in a reasonable timeframe, a more effective response must be delivered for our island communities.

I am pleased that the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity launched a £3.5 million ferries resilience fund during a visit to Arran on 27 August. That should help to eliminate future disruption, but we can and must do more for our island communities.

I am delighted that the minister has confirmed his participation in the next Isle of Arran ferry committee meeting on Monday 12 November and I look forward to welcoming him, with a view to agreeing a plan of action to restore reliability in the short term, as well as guaranteeing a much more resilient ferry fleet in the near future.

15:36  

I, too, pay tribute to the staff who provide lifeline ferry services, both onshore and at sea. Those who work onshore often take the brunt of the Scottish Government’s failures when ferries are delayed and cancelled, so they need our special thanks for dealing with that and for helping customers who do not get to sail.

Our ferries are not an end in themselves; their purpose is to provide lifeline services. Our island communities and some of our peninsulas are totally dependent on ferry services. Without them, people could no longer live on those islands. We do not have to go very far back in time to see what happened on St Kilda, where people were evacuated from their homes and their communities because they could not access lifeline services. That is not a desirable situation. It is essential that the Scottish Government acts to make sure that other communities do not face the same situation—or, indeed, the chaos that the islands faced this summer. To highlight those issues, we would need a much longer debate, so I will emphasise just one or two issues.

There needs to be a much more transparent approach to financing ferries. We have seen the controversy around the funding of the Loch Seaforth and its ownership after a seven-year lease ends. What is the cost of the vessel? Surely it would have been much more cost effective to have gone with the community’s preferred solution of having two ships. That point was highlighted by Colin Smyth.

Jackie Baillie talked about the dispute with Ferguson’s over the Glen Sannox and the unnamed hull 802 that will serve the Uig triangle. What is the dispute about? Is it really a deficient design? If so, who is responsible for it? The money put aside for those two ships is £97 million and Ferguson’s is now telling us that the cost could well be double that.

We need new ships to deal with demand, which has increased hugely due to tourism; Jamie Greene talked about that in his opening speech. That increase due to tourism is very much welcome but we need the capacity to deal with it because locals cannot access ferries—they cannot get to hospital; they miss funerals, as Edward Mountain said; and they are not able to see their families. I have suggested before that, to deal with such emergencies, some ferry places be reserved for locals at peak times and then released closer to the sailing time.

I have also heard of stories where people have tried to book on a ferry that is apparently full, only to discover from friends who were on that sailing that there was space on the boat. Although locals go on to the standby list, many of them cannot take that risk in emergency situations and choose to fly instead, at a greater cost. We need to look at how we manage ferry bookings.

Reliability has come up again and again in the debate. This summer started with the issues with the Clansman. There was disruption on many routes for many months, including before the summer kicked in. We had 2,326 cancellations between January and July, which is far too many. I think that it was Jamie Greene who said that there have been 70,000 cancellations since the SNP took office. That is not good enough for our island communities. The problems have continued into the autumn: Alasdair Allan talked about the recent issues for Uist and Harris.

There is no capacity in the fleet to deal with those issues. There is no additional ferry that can be brought in. We have been asking the Scottish Government for a number of years to look at introducing an additional vessel, especially for the Ullapool to Lewis route over the summer, but it told us that it could not find one.

Will you come to a close, please?

My office googled and found one within five minutes, but the Scottish Government could not negotiate the terms of a lease.

I emphasise that our islands deserve better. These are lifeline routes and people depend on them for their way of life.

15:41  

I will try to respond to as many of the points that have been made as possible.

I do not want to spend too much time responding to Jamie Greene, because I think that I have made clear my views about the nature of his speech and the attack on the Government. I echo a point that was made by John Finnie and others: a bit of self-awareness on the part of the Tories would be welcome, given the age of austerity that we are living through, which has been directed, whether Jamie Greene likes it or not, by the UK Government. I stand by the point that we believe that there have been real-terms cuts to the Scottish Government budget, which has implications for resources. Notwithstanding that, as Kenny Gibson ably pointed out, we have increased spending on ferries in the face of that austerity, but a bit of self-awareness on the part of the Tories would be welcome.

I wanted to intervene on Colin Smyth in order to try to be constructive. I can agree with a lot of what he and indeed Jackie Baillie and Rhoda Grant said in the debate, although we have some issues with a 30-year shipbuilding strategy. I have sympathy with the idea but, in the context of year-to-year budgets, we have to be realistic about how we could plan for that. However, looking at demand and the longer term, I absolutely have sympathy with those points and I hope that we can find some common ground on the issues in the future.

Although there was much in Mr Smyth’s speech that I agreed with, he could perhaps have done more to recognise the positive impact of this Government’s investment in RET, rather than being entirely negative. However, notwithstanding that, there is perhaps room for agreement with Labour on some aspects of what it proposes.

I am disappointed that it looks likely that Mr Finnie and his Green Party colleagues will not support our amendment, principally as it contains specific references to working with the trade unions and communities in relation to the vessel replacement programme. By agreeing to our amendment, the Parliament would commit us to an action plan. Clearly, however, I will want to take forward an action plan, in which regard I should give credit to Mr Russell and Mr Gibson. I and Mr Gibson recently met representatives of the Islay and Arran communities, and out of that meeting and previous discussions we have agreed to take forward an action plan, so Mr Gibson takes some credit for those immediate actions.

Will the minister acknowledge that I raised the issue some months ago with Mr Yousaf and the first reference back to me appeared in paper form today? I of course welcome the involvement of the trade unions in procurement, but that was the first reference back. It is very welcome.

I thank Mr Finnie for his support in that respect. I recognise his long-standing interest in ferry issues and I do not mean to diminish that in any way, shape or form. I am keen to work with him and other colleagues across the Parliament as we try to address the concerns about both the Clyde and Hebrides ferry services and the northern services, if issues arise there.

Mr Finnie was correct in identifying—and he was right to do so—that there was a period when no major vessels entered service. I think that Ranald Robertson of the Highlands and Islands transport partnership referenced in his evidence to the committee that no major vessels entered service between 2001 and 2011. Of course, some minor vessels were commissioned during that period, but major vessels are, obviously, very significant to the resilience of the network.

I suspect that the Green Party and the Conservative Party do not agree on the overall strategy for ferries. I hope that Mr Finnie, if he does not support us today, will find it in his heart to support us as we go forward.

On the northern isles services, I apologise that I did not get a chance to take an intervention from Mr Scott, but I will be happy to engage with him hereafter. In response to Mr Rumbles, I say that we have recently started the procurement of the northern isles ferry services contract. As part of that, Transport Scotland officials are actively engaging with local stakeholders, including trade unions and community representatives, on the future service specification. That will try to build in sufficient flexibility to vary the contract in response to current and future demand. I hope that that offers some hope to Mr Rumbles that we are heading in the right direction.

Jamie Halcro Johnston started well, and I agreed with much of what he said in the first part of his speech, but I am afraid that he lost me about halfway through, when he started to change tack. I will make the point about the road equivalent tariff that I tried to make in an intervention. At the moment, we are prevented from implementing the road equivalent tariff in the northern isles because a challenge has gone to the European Commission on a state aid case by the private operator of Pentland services. Mr Halcro Johnston probably knows that, so it is perhaps unfair of him to accuse us of withholding RET from the northern isles. He knows that we cannot do that while a state-aid complaint has been made by another operator. We have to respect that process and wait for its outcome.

I am short of time, so I will end there. I have been listening carefully to all the points that members have made. I maintain the point that I make in my amendment, which is that I want to work with members from across the chamber, and I look forward to doing so.

15:46  

On behalf of the Conservatives, I belatedly welcome Mr Wheelhouse to his role as ferries minister in his first debate on ferries, although I am not sure how he is feeling about that after the debate. Many of the problems may not have occurred on his watch, but that does not absolve his Government and his party.

I welcome the opportunity to close the debate, not least because, alongside digital connectivity, which we debated yesterday, if there is one issue that most exercises any MSP for the Highlands and Islands, it is transport, and ferries in particular. Since my election to the Parliament, ferry services have dominated my mailbox. There is a sorry saga of delays, cancellations and insufficient capacity, and sometimes of one island community being pitted against another on account of the best boats being shunted around the network.

Let us pause and remind ourselves, as others have done, what that means for our constituents in their everyday lives. People are sometimes simply unable to get to work or important hospital appointments or to run their businesses effectively. That is the harsh reality. Given the immense importance of ferries in connecting people from the islands to the mainland and in enabling tourism, it is axiomatic that a reliable and robust ferry network is critical to delivering economic prosperity to some of our most fragile areas.

However, as we have heard from members across the chamber, the Government’s stewardship of Scotland’s ferry network has been shambolic. Jamie Greene noted that, since the SNP came to power in 2007, more than 70,000 ferry services have been either cancelled or delayed. To put that in context, in the near 12 years that the SNP has been in power, that equates to 123 delayed or cancelled sailings a week. That is unacceptable. ScotRail does not have its problems to seek, but we would not accept that kind of performance on our rail network, and of course there are next to no alternatives to a ferry when it is cancelled.

Ministers have long been aware of the problems. Back in 2010, CalMac, in its submission to that year’s ferry review, stated to the Government that a new ferry would have to be built every year just to stand still. Audit Scotland has noted that, too, but the SNP does not consider the issue to be a priority. A few months ago, I asked when the Scottish Government’s expert ferry group, which is supposed to meet up to three times a year, last met. When the answer came, it turned out that the group has not met at all since last December, which was almost a year ago. Nothing could better typify the Government’s approach to ferries. It always sees ferries as a problem for another day.

I ask Mr Cameron to reflect on the fact that, in the response that we sent, we suggested that we are establishing another meeting of the ferry group, and that we have 20 other groups that we meet with to discuss ferry operations.

I am glad to hear that but, as I said, the issue still reflects the fact that ferries are seen as a problem for another day and are not a priority.

The vast majority of the 70,000 delayed or cancelled journeys that I mentioned affected the Highlands and Islands. More than 10,000 of the cancellations or delays were to services that operate from Oban, 3,400 were to services from Stornoway to Ullapool and more than 7,000 were to services from Rothesay to Wemyss Bay. That last route provides a good example of how costly disruption can be. When the Rest and Be Thankful pass was closed a few weeks ago, the only practical way that farmers on Bute could transport livestock on heavy goods vehicles was to Wemyss Bay, but the terminal there was closed. The solution could have been a diversion to Gourock, but Gourock cannot land HGVs. As a result, Bute’s farmers were prevented from transporting livestock.

The residents of Dunoon are exasperated about the future of the Dunoon to Gourock ferry route, and they will have their annual general meeting next week. The Government has been invited to attend that meeting and I hope that it does, because the residents want a fair tender process resulting in a robust and reliable ferry service on that route.

I readily acknowledge that we cannot entirely eliminate ferry cancellations and delays. We face some of the harshest weather, and ultimately, passenger safety must come first. However, not all those delays and cancellations have been due to weather and many could have been prevented. On numerous occasions, including today in the chamber, we have heard about vessels breaking down and then consequent delays and cancellations—for example, the breakdown of the MV Hebrides in September. We all know that CalMac does not have enough back-up vessels to deal with breakdowns. The ageing fleet adds further problems into the mix and, as Audit Scotland noted, vessel maintenance costs increased by 136 per cent due to a larger and increasingly older fleet. Other members have spoken about the fact that there is inflexibility in our ferry fleet, whereby some boats cannot land in certain ports.

I will respond briefly to some of the other points that have been made across the chamber. Jamie Halcro Johnston referred to issues facing the northern isles. Edward Mountain and Rhoda Grant spoke of many personal stories of individuals who have trouble with travelling on ferries. John Finnie spoke about the cost to the taxpayer of the Stornoway to Ullapool boat. Most importantly, Kenny Gibson—I rarely quote Kenny Gibson with approval in the chamber—said that the Scottish Government must take ownership of the problem. Hear, hear to that. Yes, it must take ownership.

We want to stand up for the many local communities that rely on ferry services. The ferries are not just a mode of transport; they are a lifeline. The word “lifeline” has been overused but it remains important—the ferries are a life line. That should not need to be mentioned in a motion, as it is a fact. The ferry services are intrinsic to the people of our islands, their lives, their wellbeing and their existence.

The SNP Government has presided over a decade of failure and there is little evidence that it is willing to either acknowledge that or work to improve it. If the Government fails to act, it will be letting down communities across the west and north of Scotland, and we will not let that stand. We will fight for those communities and we will fight for the future of our ferry network.