10 September 2008

S3M-2496 Ferry Services [Closing Speech]

Scottish Parliament

Wednesday 10 September 2008

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 14:00]

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Ferry Services

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Alasdair Morgan): The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-2496, in the name of Patrick Harvie, on the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee's 4th report 2008, on ferry services in Scotland.


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Stewart Stevenson: First, I welcome the fact that the number of Liberal Democrats shadowing me has doubled. Obviously, I presented a challenge to the previous single shadow spokesperson. I wish Ms McInnes and Mr Tolson well in their roles and every success short of actual victory.

The committee's report is a substantial piece of work that deserves a substantial debate in Parliament, and all who have participated this afternoon have made a substantial contribution to that debate. In the time available, I will try to pick up as many as possible of the points that have been made in the debate. I apologise if I do not cover them all, but there were a substantial number. Members can talk to me afterwards if they wish to pursue anything.

It is important to pick up Patrick Harvie's point about faster ferries, which was raised in a number of contributions. With faster ferries, there is a tension with the climate change agenda and the cost of fuel. Cutting a single knot off a vessel's steaming time can save as much as 10 per cent of the fuel bill, with a corresponding reduction in the carbon impact. Yes, we want more efficient vessels, but not necessarily in a way that will compromise other agendas. We will have to consider the subject carefully. I do not take a particular view on that at this stage, but it is important to put it on the record to inform all our thinking as we proceed.

Des McNulty made much of the 40 per cent discount scheme, which might have been thought up by the Labour Party in the immediate run-up to the election. Certainly, no steps were put in place to implement it. I do not apologise in any way for the road equivalent tariff scheme being an economic scheme. Of course it has huge social benefits, but it is central to the Government's purpose to improve the economy of Scotland.

Rob Gibson put the air discount scheme into context when he said that it was an excellent scheme for getting people off the islands to spend their money elsewhere. The road equivalent tariff scheme is based on getting more people on to the islands to spend their money there. We will of course monitor pilot and non-pilot routes to establish whether RET has had an adverse impact on areas that are not included in the pilot. We will do that on a monthly basis, with quarterly reporting, too.

In the Scottish Parliament information centre briefing that was made available to all members it is calculated that the subsidy to CalMac over the period 1996 to 2006 was only two thirds of the increase in the subsidy that went to the northern isles ferry service. One could argue that there is a rebalancing implicit in some of the RET interventions.

Alex Johnstone talked about unbundling and showed his enthusiasm for breaking up the network. Gavin Brown was correct to point out the risks of going down to route level. The review that we are undertaking is the opportunity to test the arguments on both sides. I remain someone whose instincts are to keep a single network and to keep CalMac as a fundamental player in it. However, I will be driven by the evidence and I want the review to test the arguments. The door is not shut, but it is not my hand on the handle that is opening it to changes, because I am coming from another direction.

Alex Johnstone made some points about the increase in subsidies. That has been driven by successive Administrations' agendas to seek to improve ferry services and the quality of the journey. Generally, that has meant bigger vessels with more capability, which are more expensive to build and operate. It is not surprising, and neither should it be a matter for adverse comment, that costs have risen.

This minister—and, I am perfectly content to accept, other ministers—has sought to put the users' and the communities' interests at the heart of ferry policy over a significant period.

Alison McInnes raised the issue of integration. I am happy to say that Transport Scotland and the relevant transport providers are considering what can be done to improve integration. If this were a subject for which there was a simple intervention, previous ministers would have made such an intervention. Each minister can make a contribution. We are seeking to provide further integration.

I will illustrate some of the difficulties that exist. Can anyone find the one sign at Waverley station that tells people where to catch a bus? There is one, but it took me six months to find it. Of course, I do not have responsibility for Waverley station—Network Rail does. I think that I have got the matter sorted, by the way. That is an example of how detailed interventions can often be required.

I should have said that the road equivalent tariff is a key benefit to businesses as well as to individuals.

Jamie McGrigor made several remarks, one of which related to Colonsay, and, in his closing speech, David Stewart quoted Andrew McGregor of Colonsay. I gently point out that the introduction of the air service from Oban to Colonsay is a significant investment in the island's infrastructure and a significant financial contribution to Colonsay's future economic health. I say that not to take anything away from ferry issues, but to point out that Colonsay has not been wholly ignored or neglected.

I thank Jamie McGrigor for adumbrating his oral parliamentary question for tomorrow; I will rewrite my response to it when I remember what it is. I take on board his comments about livestock, which are important.

I noticed that Liam McArthur wanted to compete with Alasdair Allan and got his blow in first; Liam McArthur has 18 inhabited islands, whereas poor Alasdair Allan has only 15, but ho-hum—there we are. Alyn Smith MEP's intervention, which he discussed with me beforehand, was helpful. Like him, I thought that it was time for the EU to put up or shut up. I hope that the issue will be laid to rest—it is important to do that. I confirm that my officials are talking to Orkney Islands Council.

I heard in the debate the longest advert for a private sector company that I have heard in my seven years in Parliament. It is clear that Pentland Ferries has a doughty advertising agency in Mary Scanlon.

I have travelled on many ferries throughout my life, several of which no longer operate, such as the service from Inverness to Eilean nam Muc; the Balblair service in the north of the Black Isle; the Kylesku free ferry, which has been replaced by a bridge; and the Connel ferry bridge, which was a railway bridge that was called a ferry.

Ferries are important to communities throughout Scotland. Being a part of the debate has been a privilege. I thank all who contributed to it. The Government has food for thought and I congratulate the committee.


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