Doubts raised over CalMac’s ‘traceless’ deal to keep routes

The Scottish Government has defended the three'year contract agreed with Caledonian MacBrayne. Picture: Stephen Mansfield
The Scottish Government has defended the three'year contract agreed with Caledonian MacBrayne. Picture: Stephen Mansfield
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Fresh questions have been raised over the controversial three-year extension to state-owned CalMac’s contract to 
operate Clyde and Hebridean ferries.

A freedom of information request by the Conservatives in Scotland has found there was “no written communication” between the Scottish Government and the company over the deal.

Ministers are also facing renewed pressure from campaigners to come up with a solution to problems with “bathtub boats” on the separate Dunoon to Gourock crossing, after pledging that a solution would be found by the end of last year.

CalMac’s contract for services to islands such as Mull and Barra was scheduled to run out in October this year. European rules make it clear that when state-owned firms are involved, contracts should be tendered on the open market every six years.

The announcement of a three-year extension last year led critics to brand the arrangement questionable, with CalMac due to receive a £200 million subsidy over the course of the lengthened deal.

The Tories are now demanding to know how such a 
significant agreement could be reached without formal correspondence.

Transport spokesman Alex Johnstone said: “It appears the Scottish Government and CalMac have struck this very significant, very lucrative deal without so much as a letter or e-mail between them.

“That raises all kind of questions over professionalism and legality. The SNP’s handling of ferry services has been questionable at best, and it already failed smaller firms and passengers by failing to unbundle routes, which would have improved competition.”

The Tories had asked for “all written communication between the Scottish Government, and government officers, and Caledonian MacBrayne” about the ferry contract extension between May 2011 and October 2012 to be released.

The Scottish Government reply states: “There is no written communication between the Scottish Government [and government officers] and Caledonian MacBrayne between May 2011 and October 2012 on the three-year extension to their current contract.”

But a spokeswoman for transport quango Transport Scotland last night defended the contract award.

“Claims of a ‘lucrative deal’ are quite simply incorrect. Any profits CalMac make during the period this interim contract covers will be reinvested back into lifeline ferry services,” she said.

“Ministers’ decision not to unbundle the Clyde and Hebrides contract was made for the benefit of ferry users, and is one that has been widely welcomed.

Meanwhile, Ken Barr, of the Dunoon Gourock Ferry Action Group, is stepping up calls for improved services on the crossing there.

The car ferry became passenger-only last summer, with locals claiming that the new vessels, which they liken to 
bathtubs, are too light and subject to cancellation in choppy conditions.

The group said infrastructure secretary Nicola Sturgeon had pledged a solution would be found by the end of the year.

Mr Barr said: “There has been a dramatic drop in footfall 
from tourists – they’ve virtually disappeared.”