06 December 2017

Maritime Unions Join the Debate on Vital Freight and Passenger Lifeline Ferry Routes  

Government Debate on Funding as Licence End Dates Loom

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Shipping News Feature UK – It would appear that we are about to embark on another voyage around the choppy waters of Scottish inter-island freight and passenger ferry services as the Scottish Parliament begins a debate on the matter. Last year we saw a bitter fight between the incumbent Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) and multi industry group Serco which resulted in CalMac retaining services on the Clyde and Hebrides route. Now the subject of attention are those not currently subsidised by Transport Scotland, as are the Hebridean routes, along with the Northern Isles, currently contracted to Serco NorthLink Ferries until April 2018, and Gourock to Dunoon, served by Argyll Ferries Ltd (AFL) which has an extended contract ending one month earlier.

The successful CalMac bid was supported by the RMT union which is now taking a keen interest in how this latest debate develops. Unsurprisingly the union would like to see public ownership of currently non subsidised routes, again under the auspices of Transport Scotland. The RMT says Orkney Ferries is currently in dispute with both itself and other recognised trade unions, Nautilus and Unite, after union members rejected the employer’s latest pay offer.

The RMT wants the inclusion of inter-island ferry services currently owned, operated and funded by Orkney and Shetland local authorities in a re-drawn contract for Northern Isles Ferry Services from October 2019. It believes this option should be assessed as part of the Scottish Government’s ongoing Ferry Law Review. RMT General Secretary Mick Cash said:

“The failure to tackle the long standing gap in funding for inter-island ferry services on Orkney and Shetland is having a detrimental effect on passengers and staff. It is frustrating that the Scottish Government identified this problem five years ago in the Ferries Plan, including the need to replace the ageing fleet of vessels serving Orkney’s communities. Now is the time for the Scottish Government to take radical action by including Orkney and Shetland routes in the contract for Northern Isles Ferry Services.”

When the battle was raging over running the Hebridean – Clyde services the RMT proved very astute at the fight, having a senior lecturer from the University of Glasgow compile a report severely critical of Serco NorthLink’s history and the union seems as determined this time to secure the future of its members with RMT National Secretary Steve Todd saying:

“The record levels of investment in the Scottish ferry industry need to benefit inter-island services, which are also lifeline for remote Orkney and Shetland communities. This should be accompanied by reforms to bring those services in-house in the NIFS contract, under the David MacBrayne umbrella. The Scottish Government must nationalise NorthLink and inter-island ferry services at the earliest opportunity.”

This latest debate was initiated by the Scottish Lib Dems which argue that the government has reneged on its promise to Shetland and Orkney authorities to ensure that the ‘genuine lifeline links’ to and from the island communities would not be a burden on the respective councils. The ’Empowering Scotland’s Island Communities’ prospectus, published in June 2014, clearly indicates that the government understands the problems of the far flung communities and introducing what it calls the Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) which applies to the Clyde routes, with the prospectus stating:

”Recognising the different circumstances of the routes and fares to and from the Northern Isles, the Scottish Government will continue to engage with Orkney and Shetland Islands Councils to discuss the future arrangements for fares to and from the mainland. The Scottish Government is clear that RET arrangements would not always be beneficial on the Northern Isles ferry services, as the distances involved could mean increases across a range of ferry fares.

”As part of their responsibilities to their communities, the Islands Councils are responsible for setting and agreeing fares for the inter-island ferry services that they provide. Where the Scottish Government are not responsible for the delivery of those lifeline routes, the Scottish Government will discuss the appropriate form and timing of any roll-out of RET with the Islands Councils. The Scottish Government stresses its commitment to fair fares for inter-island ferry services.”

Photo: Orkney ferry in a storm © Charles Tait.

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