Last Updated on Thursday, 08 December 2011 03:06 Written by Aileen MacNicol Friday, 28 October 2011 10:38
ARGYLL and Bute MSP Michael Russell sailed into stormy waters on Monday when he hit out at Argyll Ferries over cancelled sailings.
Mr Russell issued a press statement in which he condemned the ferry company for its ‘cavalier and high handed’ attitude.
He also demanded that Argyll Ferries lay on an alternative vessel during November, when each of the existing vessels - Argyll Flyer and AliCat - will undergo refit in turn, returning the service to one sailing per hour.
But when such an alternative - bringing the MV Saturn back into service - was proposed to Mr Russell’s ministerial colleague, Keith Brown, it was turned down on grounds of cost.
Calling the company’s refit arrangements “utterly thoughtless”, Mr Russell said: “It is simply unacceptable to halve the frequency of the service as if their customers and their vital transport needs just didn't matter at all. No private company could or would operate in this way. No state subsidised company should do so either.
“It is not enough for CalMac to say that they agreed this arrangement in the small print of their contract. It is not right and it is not fair to those who depend upon the route.”
However, the contract for the route was agreed by Scottish ministers - Mr Russell’s colleagues.
An Argyll Ferries spokesman said: “The service arrangements during the refit schedule were dictated by the terms set out in the contract tendered by government with which bidders had to comply. This allows for the service being reduced to a one-vessel service while annual maintenance is carried out.
“Our regular timetable exceeds that originally specified in the invitation to tender. The reduced temporary timetable during the refit period matches the schedule originally specified by government. If the government wishes to change or vary the terms of the contract we are happy to discuss this.”
With his position apparently at odds with that of his ministerial colleague Mr Brown, the Standard asked Mr Russell for further comment.
He responded: “I think CalMac should always have intended to do this but the Saturn is not the right vessel and Keith was right to refuse it. The cost in any case of a suitable passenger boat should be met by Argyll Ferries within the contract.”
While Argyll Ferries’ response to Mr Russell’s press release was somewhat careful, those with a keen interest in the Dunoon-Gourock ferry saga were somewhat clearer in their views on where any blame lies.
Inverclyde councillor George White had made the original request to Keith Brown for the return of the Saturn.
Speaking exclusively to the Standard, he said: “People should be very clear that this situation has been caused by the Scottish Government and not CalMac, and it is the Scottish Government which has to fix it.
“Mr Brown declined my suggestion but maybe Mr Russell can make him change his mind. One would hope that as both MSPs sit at the same table in Edinburgh this matter could be solved fairly easily.
“I look forward to hearing a satisfactory outcome to this debacle to support the communities of Cowal and Inverclyde.”
Cowal-based ferry and economics expert Professor Neil Kay had a similar view: “It was Scottish ministers, of which Mr Russell is one, who agreed the Argyll Ferries contract and its late timing; failed due diligence by not checking the ‘small print’ on this contract that he refers to; and who collectively own and are shadow directors of the company.
“He should accept that from beginning to end he bears joint responsibility for this debacle and do something about it.”