Highlands and Islands MSP Jamie Halcro Johnston has said that repeated failings by SNP ministers, compounded by a lack of accountability, have contributed to the ferry crisis which has afflicted island communities this year.
Speaking in a debate on Reserved Board Seats for Islanders, proposed by Western Isles MSP Alasdair Allan, Mr Halcro Johnston said that while he agreed that there should be reserved seats for islanders on the boards of Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd and CalMac Ferries Ltd, it was the repeated failures of successive SNP transport and island ministers to take appropriate action that had led to the summer of cancellations.
Speaking later, the Scottish Conservative MSP said: “It is plainly obvious that the boards of these two state-owned organisations should have representation from the communities most reliant on the ferry service and quite incredible, frankly, that such appointments have not been made.
“However, at the end of the day, the boards can achieve little if there is not adequate leadership, or even interest, from the departmental ministers who are ultimately responsible for the delivery of the service. And, as we have seen repeatedly, the ministers concerned have simply evaded their responsibilities by refusing to be held accountable during their terms of office, before moving on to other ministerial roles."
“How else can you explain the dismal state of the ageing CalMac fleet, and the fiasco of the procurement of replacement vessels?"
“Our island communities deserve far better than this but I very much fear that unless decisive action is taken, next year may prove just as bad as this year has proven to be.”
Jamie Halcro Johnston’s speech in full:
Thank you Deputy Presiding Officer.
I would first like to congratulate Alasdair Allan for bringing forward today’s debate to the chamber.
This summer we have seen unprecedented disruption to the lifeline ferry links to Scotland’s island communities.
The cost to island communities will run high. Visitors cannot come, businesses have been unable to operate. Individuals have faced tough personal choices on travel. And it comes, as we know, on the back of a pandemic that has brought its own destruction to jobs, businesses and livelihoods.
Some of our islands have been effectively cut off. For others, they have come to realise that a truly unreliable service is no service at all.
Last week, we saw yet more sailings withdrawn as more of the ageing fleet required repair. Undoubtedly we will see more. These disruptions are symptoms of long-term strategic failures that have seen our islands deprioritised at the highest level.
So today’s debate could hardly be more timely.
And Alasdair Allan is right to highlight that a gulf has opened between the decisions made on our west-coast ferry network and the interests of islanders.
There is anger, and rightly so. This summer, our islands could not have seemed further from Edinburgh – in so many ways.
To address the substantial points of today’s motion, it is undoubtedly the case that these boards benefit from a diversity of skills and knowledge. And existing board members bring a range of talents and experience. Many of them have maritime experience brought from elsewhere. A number bring skills that are more organisationally focussed.
This is no bad thing. But I suspect we would not be debating this motion today had the Scottish Government’s appointments process recognised the value not only of these attributes - but of local, island knowledge and an ability to reflect and represent the communities that CalMac and CMAL serve.
This should be fundamental – rather than requiring a debate or being forced into change.
But at the core of the problems we have seen is not just organisational ability, it is accountability.
CalMac is a state-owned operator. Next year the Scottish Government intends to bring ScotRail into public sector operation – the suggestion being that it will be better able to serve the public.
But I think we would be right to ask where the accountability lies. Ministers, including the First Minister, aligned themselves closely with the building of the two new – and very necessary - ferries in Port Glasgow and the operation of Ferguson Marine, also now under Scottish Government control.
Endless failings have been well-documented, including by a committee of this Parliament. But what has happened? The failings have continued, with the cost falling not to those who are responsible, but to our island communities.
Successive transport ministers – before our current ministers’ tenures - have failed to take the long-term decisions to make the service resilient. And yet, they have simply moved on, some to rather grander things.
While this crisis was ongoing, we inquired on whether a statement could be made to this Parliament during one of the virtual sittings over the summer.
The transport minister was on holiday, we were told. That is one thing. But we also have, in Scotland’s biggest ever Ministerial team, a Cabinet Secretary for Transport. And one for Islands too.
So on the whole, I hope they will forgive me for suggesting that they have seemed reluctant to come before this Parliament to answer for this unprecedented crisis.
Deputy Presiding Officer.
Building boards that can represent the interests of the islands is important. It will go some distance to bridging that gulf between island interests and operations.
But accountability is important too. That is what is missing in this equation.
As Alasdair Allan said in the press yesterday, “it is clear that what we witnessed over the summer can never be repeated.”
In a sense, I hope he right. But unless these is a vast change in strategic directions from Ministers, there is no reason to believe that it won’t.
And so long as islands are an afterthought in St Andrew’s House, their communities will suffer.
As an islander myself, I say that these communities deserve better than this.
Alastair Allan’s submission was:
Members’ Business Alasdair Allan S6M-00834 Reserved Board Seats for Islanders. That the Parliament acknowledges what it sees as the important role that Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd and CalMac Ferries Ltd play in the everyday life in the Western Isles and other communities in the west of Scotland; understands with regret that, at present, the board of neither organisation contains members who are resident on islands within the CalMac network; notes the view that there should be reserved board seats in both organisations dedicated for members who are resident on islands within the CalMac network, and believes that such a measure would promote more community input into decision-making processes.