NE Scotland, Orkney & Shetland

CalMac sues Scottish government over ferry routes

Northlink ferry Image copyright Serco Northlink
Image caption The lifeline routes run between mainland Scotland and ports in Orkney and Shetland

The Scottish government is being sued by the publicly-owned ferry operator CalMac in a dispute over services to the Northern Isles.

CalMac is taking action against ministers over their decision not to award it the contract for the route.

The award of the contract to Serco has been suspended as a result.

Transport minister Paul Wheelhouse said arrangements would be made with Serco to extend its existing contract to ensure ferries continue to sail.

The CalMac legal action was confirmed in a letter from Mr Wheelhouse to the Scottish Parliament and political parties.

In the letter, he said: "As is required in such circumstances, the initiation of the formal proceedings have resulted in the automatic suspension of the award of the contract to Serco Limited.

"On Scottish ministers' behalf, Transport Scotland are liaising with the current operator, Serco Northlink, to make arrangements for the extension of the current contract to maintain continuity of service and full connectivity to and from the Northern Isles."

Mr Wheelhouse said plans to introduce fare reductions on the routes in January would not be affected.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Publicly owned Caledonian MacBrayne runs Scotland's Hebrides and Clyde ferry routes

Scottish Conservative transport spokesman Jamie Greene criticised the Scottish government for the "mess" it had made of ferries.

He said: "It's quite incredible that the SNP is being sued by one of its own quangos.

"It tells you everything you need to know about the mess the SNP government has made of ferry services that a publicly-owned company wants to take it to court, leading to more uncertainty and delay for travellers."

Orkney Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur called on ministers to do "everything possible" to resolve the dispute quickly.

He said: "It is deeply disappointing that CalMac has chosen to go down this route.

"It is not clear what the basis for the legal challenge is but communities in Orkney and Shetland will be appalled at this latest development."

Labour transport spokesman Colin Smyth described the challenge as a "fiasco", saying it exposed the SNP's "mishandling of this lifeline ferry services contract".

The Scottish Greens questioned whether Transport Scotland was capable of dealing with the issue.

"The fact that the publicly-owned ferry company is taking the government that owns it to court does not fill me with confidence, and certainly doesn't suggest that Transport Scotland has a handle on what's happening," said spokesman John Finnie.

Preferred bidder

The contract, due to run for at least the next six years and worth an estimated £450m, is to run publicly subsidised lifeline routes between Aberdeen and Lerwick and Kirkwall, and from Scrabster to Stromness.

The government had said previously the decision on who won the bidding process was 65% based on price, and 35% on the quality of the bids.

It is understood CalMac had made a bid which was more competitive on price.

But Serco, which won a six-year contract in 2012, was named the preferred bidder.

At the time, Transport Scotland said the bidding process was designed to "attract the most economically advantageous tender based on a combination of price and quality."

The new contract had been due to start in October.

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