Brian Wilson: Time for SNP to U-turn on ferries

Communities across the west coast of Scotland are concerned at plans to put ferry routes out to tender. Picture: Neil Hanna
Communities across the west coast of Scotland are concerned at plans to put ferry routes out to tender. Picture: Neil Hanna
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THE SNP’s determination to privatise ferry routes runs counter to EU advice, writes Brian Wilson

I have never quite understood why “U-turn” is used as a term of political denigration. Where U-turns reflect recognition that a policy is wrong or unsaleable, they deserve commendation without churlish reservation. George Osborne’s abandonment of tax credit cuts surely comes into that category.

The primary motivation for opposing them was not to make political capital but to protect working families from the cruelty entailed in an utterly disproportionate loss of income. If this effect has now been achieved, who cares if it is the result of a U-turn?

Claim a victory, by all means, but let’s not forget that the winners who matter are those who would have been the victims. I doubt if many of them are preoccupied with the process that led to this week’s outcome. Indeed, it would be dangerous to assume that the electorate sees U-turns as a sign of weakness rather than strength.

“He had the sense to stop digging,” is scarcely a damning epithet.

Perhaps the main lesson is about the importance of having a revising chamber to limit the absolute power of majoritarian government. The truly remarkable aspect of George Osborne’s statement lies in the reason given for dropping tax credit cuts – that they are no longer required! This is a startling indicator of how government would work if there was no mechanism for putting the brakes on it.

If the House of Lords had not voted as it did, we would never have heard of this alleged change in economic circumstances. The cuts would have gone ahead – unnecessarily, as we are now informed by Mr Osborne – with all their accompanying hardship and misery.

Debates about the nature of the House of Lords can be left for another day. What the tax credits episode confirms beyond doubt, and should become a textbook lesson of politics, is that scrutiny is vital to democracy, not least because it slows things down to the point at which even the authors of a misguided policy can concede that it is not needed.

One can only wish that the same democratic principle applied in the Scottish Parliament. Checks and balances were supposed to lie in the electoral system and the committees. Both have proved totally incapable of protecting the public against bad legislation and policy- making, in the face of determined single party government.

Let me offer one example, both because I care about it and also since it happened to be subject to debate at Holyrood simultaneously with Osborne’s statement. I refer to the prospective privatisation of Caledonian MacBrayne, the ferry company which provides lifeline services to the kind of place I live in and enjoys near unanimous public support for continuing to do so.

This has been going on since the Scottish Government published a Ferries Review in 2012.

This trumpeted the merits of competition and boasted about the number of private companies which would compete for the CalMac contract. The RMT union took a different view and the threat of industrial action persuaded the SNP to kick the tendering process into touch until after the referendum.

When it was taken out of cold storage, the timetable was set to reach its conclusion a month after next year’s Scottish elections. In practice, though, they probably needn’t have bothered.

Ferries don’t win or lose elections because, to the vast majority of the Scottish public, this is the small change of politics – a peripheral matter in which they have, at best, a sentimental interest.

For a scatter of communities, however, ferry services are exceptionally important and they have no wish to be sacrificed to the tender mercies of Serco – who, in practice, turned out to be the only other bidders in what was, supposed to be a flotilla of maritime entrepreneurs. This was always going to translate into Serco and Serco alone, the Scottish Government’s privateers of choice.

The tendering process was debated at Holyrood this week on the instigation of Labour’s transport spokesman, David Stewart, who had been to Brussels and was assured by officials there is no need to engage in a tendering exercise because of an opt-out clause for lifeline services known as the Teckal Exemption. Mr Stewart was able to quote counsel-opinion to the same effect.

The SNP’s transport minister, Derek Mackay, complained that Mr Stewart “keeps returning to the matter of legal advice. It is our opinion that we have to undertake the process”.

Unfortunately, this “our” involves exactly the same officials who have been driving a pro-privatisation structure for the past decade and are still in charge of the current procurement process. This is where the absence of any “revising chamber” or comparable process becomes vital, on both large matters and small.

The SNP claim they have no choice but to put the contract out to tender and present themselves as reluctant victims of EU directives – a distinct change in presentation since 2012 but with the same net effect. Nobody can compel them to reconsider.

In fact, the timetable has just been put back again – entirely for the convenience of Serco. By the same token, there is absolutely no reason why Ms Sturgeon and Mr Mackay could not instruct its suspension while the case for asserting the Teckal Exemption is re-examined – perhaps by speaking to the same people in Brussels to whom Mr Stewart spoke.

Mr MacKay’s sole line of defence is that Labour did the same thing in 2005 but that is, at best, a half truth with the important half ignored. Crucially, the then Scottish Executive worked with communities and unions to ensure that CalMac was the sole bidder. So, contrary to what the SNP suggest, there has never been a competition of the kind we are now witnessing.

As Manuel Cortes, general secretary of the Transport and Salaried Staff Association, said: “They frightened off privateers whose aim was to make a quick buck by slashing jobs and conditions. Consequently, CalMac stayed in public hands”.

The declared intent behind the current exercise is the precise opposite. What we are now facing is a dogged determination to plough on no matter what anyone says or whatever opt-opt our opportunities exist. Let me assure Ms Sturgeon that in the case of CalMac, nobody in west coast communities would be mocking a U-turn on this perilous journey – only welcoming it with open arms.