‘Keep CalMac in public hands’, report urges

A CalMac ferry off the coast of Rothesay. The operator is in a bidding war for routes with Serco. Picture: John Devlin
A CalMac ferry off the coast of Rothesay. The operator is in a bidding war for routes with Serco. Picture: John Devlin
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A new academic report makes an “overwhelming” case for keeping CalMac in public hands, according to the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, which commissioned the study.

Private-sector bidder Serco has been motivated to bid for the 26-route west coast ferry network as a “profit-seeking entity”, Glasgow University senior economics lecturer Jeanette Findlay said.

She found “much less evidence” that the firm would champion good working practices and customer service.

The study was published today ahead of the final bids for the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services (CHFS) contract, of up to eight years, which are due to be lodged next Monday.

The winner is expected to be announced around the end of May, with the new contract starting in October.

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Ms Findlay said Serco Group “has an extremely troubled history in relation to its public sector contracts.

“It has no significant experience in the maritime industry and its financial health and business model raise concerns in relation to any unforeseen aspect of the current contract as it proceeds.”

However, the academic was positive about the firm’s operation of the NorthLink ferry contract to Orkney and Shetland, which it has run since 2012.

She said: “The operation of the Northern Isles ferry service - a service considerably smaller and less complex than CHFS - by Serco Northlink, while not without incident, especially in the early period, has been of good standard.”

Ms Findlay wrote: “The public sector operator CalMac has employment policies and values which are fully in line with Scottish Government thinking in these matters, and with the direction in which the Government wishes the Scottish labour market to change.

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“It has the potential to be a leader in the sector and for the economy as a whole in delivering fair work, good quality work, training and innovation as well as a good quality service to the consumer/public. Indeed, to a considerable degree, it already is leading in these areas.

“There is much less evidence that Serco Caledonian could or would wish to play that role, and its motivation and focus in winning the CHFS tender is naturally based on its status as a profit-seeking entity.”

RMT general secretary Mick Cash, in a foreword to the report, said: “Privatisation would undoubtedly result in CalMac workers, passengers, communities and businesses paying for Serco’s business model of service and jobs cuts to maximise profit.”

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Jonathan Riley, Serco’s CHFS bid director, said: “The bid we will submit is based on improving quality for passengers and the islanders as well as saving money for the Scottish Government.

“We know both these factors are critical and our bid is based on the feedback we have received from islanders about the current shortcomings of the service and on our extensive experience of managing transport and maritime operations around the world.

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“CalMac’s vital role in the economy will continue whoever manages the service for {Scottish Government agency] Transport Scotland.

“Caledonian MacBrayne’s subsidy has increased significantly from over £85m to a forecast of £126m over the past three years whilst NorthLink’s subsidy has decreased.

“I’m not convinced the public will be filled with confidence about keeping CalMac in public hands knowing these facts.”

Ms Findlay has previously given evidence to MSPs in support of keeping CalMac in the public sector.

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