26 May 2010

S3M-6331 Pentland Ferries

Scottish Parliament

Wednesday 26 May 2010

[The Presiding Officer opened the meeting at 14:30]

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Pentland Ferries

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The final item of business is a members' business debate on motion S3M-6331, in the name of Mary Scanlon, on Pentland Ferries. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament congratulates Andrew Banks of Pentland Ferries for the work that he has done since its inception in 1997; notes that Pentland Ferries receives no state aid to support its services; considers that the recent addition of the MV Pentalina is a welcome boost and that these services provide a crucial lifeline for island communities and businesses, particularly the agriculture and fishing industries, through a substantial volume of passenger and freight transport; commends the perseverance of Andrew Banks who has literally built up the business since 1997, constructing the pier at Gills Bay, and commends the continued service that Pentland Ferries provided, when the MV Hamnavoe was diverted to Bergen to assist stranded passengers during the initial volcanic ash disruption, by ensuring that a link between Orkney and the mainland was maintained.

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The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson):

As other members have done, I thank Mary Scanlon for giving us the opportunity to discuss an extremely important topic. I share the admiration that others have expressed for Andrew and Susan Banks, and for the efforts that they have made in providing their service.

I will address one or two of the points that members have made. Mary Scanlon said that Pentland Ferries faces

"a cash-rich competitor with limitless taxpayers' funds".

In fact, the contract tightly constrains the funding that is available. That does not necessarily negate the member's general point, but it ought to tidy up that particular expression of it. Even if it is in the book that members have mentioned, it is not true.

Mary Scanlon: It was a quotation from Lord George Robertson.

Stewart Stevenson: I am sure that the Official Report will recognise the source, now that it has been put on the record.

The Pentalina is a different design to the Hamnavoe: it is a more modern design that would not necessarily have been available when NorthLink procured its vessels and put them into service. That reflects the general point that designs change over time and can improve.

The Pentalina is run by a private company, so we do not have access—as we do for NorthLink services—to figures on reliability. We do not know how many carryings there are, but the figure is probably of the order of a quarter of the traffic of the Hamnavoe. Charlie Gordon suggested that about 80 per cent of freight and 80 per cent of sheep are carried by Andrew Banks. I do not have information to rebut or endorse that, but I note it as an interesting point.

Mary Scanlon highlighted tourism as being an important industry for Orkney, which of course is the case. She highlighted the fact that the subsidies for NorthLink have risen. Indeed, the ferry budget as a whole has continued to rise. Fuel costs are now an increasing proportion of the costs of operating ferries, which is reflected in the subsidies that we have to provide.

Although there are routes in Scotland that are capable of commercial exploitation, they are very much in the minority in terms of the number of routes, if not necessarily the number of carryings—it is clear that the routes with the greatest number of carryings offer commercial opportunities. In the ferries review, we are not discounting that there are many different approaches to providing ferries other than provision by the state.

Jamie McGrigor: While we are on the subject of routes, has the minister any news on the Campbeltown to Ballycastle link?

Stewart Stevenson: I suspect, given the terms of the motion, that it would be inappropriate for me to respond on a matter that is clearly outside the topic of the Orkney route. However, I recognise and understand Jamie McGrigor's continued interest in the subject. I met him recently, and the matters that we discussed in confidence are progressing.

Rob Gibson made the point that Pentland Ferries has been successful, which is absolutely correct. I am not familiar, as Liam McArthur and Rob Gibson perhaps are, with the difficulties that were experienced with Orkney Islands Council in relation to the provision of harbours. I do not find that Orkney Islands Council behaves in an irrational way, but I would be interested to hear more about that.

Dave Stewart talked about the difficulties of synchronising the changeover between summer and winter timetables, which is fundamentally more difficult even than he described it. Airlines worldwide have a common date on which they swap from summer to winter timetables. I have tried, but not yet succeeded, to persuade the train operating companies—and bus and other operators—in the United Kingdom that it would be useful if they aligned the dates, because it is clear that we will not get the airlines to change worldwide. We will continue to engage on that subject, but it is formidably difficult to achieve, although it sounds so simple and obvious.

Members have spoken about the common design of vessels. We are working with the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Republic on using European money to build common designs, so that one could, in effect, order from a catalogue instead of having to design every new vessel.

It is disappointing that at present no UK yards are bidding for ferries, to the extent that when we went with the Islay ferry, I phoned managing directors to find out why no bids were coming from them. I am afraid that I do not see any early change in that situation.

David Stewart: Will the minister give way?

Stewart Stevenson: Presiding Officer, I will do so unless I am out of time.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Please be brief, Mr Stewart.

David Stewart: Does the minister recognise that one of the problems in vessel commissioning across the world has been the scarcity of engines? As that is now getting slightly better in the world market, will that help to speed up the commissioning of new vessels?

Stewart Stevenson: Yes. One of the fundamental issues that prevented the Fairlie yard from bidding for the earlier contract was that the vessel would have had to sit complete on the slip for a year before the engine could be provided. The member makes a very good point. He clearly understands and is on top of the issue.

Liam McArthur pointed to the loyalty of Pentland Ferries' customers. I agree that Andrew Banks is very much to be commended for the work that he has done. When we had to remove the Hamnavoe from service so that it could go to Bergen to rescue people from across the United Kingdom and from further afield so that they could be repatriated to the UK mainland—something that was very much welcomed by those who were rescued—it was clear that, at that time of year, Pentland Ferries could pick up the service to Orkney. Let me absolutely agree that Andrew Banks is to be commended for his entrepreneurial spirit.

I encourage everyone to engage in the ferries review, on which we have sent out formal notices to communities over recent months. We will produce the consultation document shortly—it has come to my desk once and I have requested some changes, so we are in the final stages—but, as the document needs to be approved by other ministers, I am not in a position to make absolute commitments as to when it will be published.

Clearly, given the large number of ferry routes and entrenched ways of working, it is time to look again both at how we organise our ferries and, more fundamentally, at the transport needs of communities. In some cases, roads might substitute for ferries if the right approach is taken. In other cases, it might be better to improve air links rather than ferry services. We need to look not just at ferries. Ferries serve economic and social purposes for communities, but there may be other ways of delivering on those. Let us open our minds to a wide range of possibilities and ensure that we all engage in the most useful and open-minded way on the subject.

I very much look forward to bringing the results of the consultation and discussion to Parliament in due course.

Meeting closed at 17:42.

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