The North Boat service has become the latest battleground for a political fight between the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union and Serco, the multinational transport and services firm chosen by the Scottish government to operate it from May.
Days after declaring it would ballot ferry workers who stand to have their pensions cut back on strike action, RMT general secretary Bob Crow claimed there was a £107 million “black hole” at the financial heart of the contract. The stated value of the six-year contract on the London Stock Exchange is £350 million while the Scottish government has it at £243 million.
The difference is explained by the revenue from fares and freight charges, which are set by the Scottish government and to which there will be no change until January.
But Mr Crow chose to make political capital out of the difference. He said: “This whole botched privatisation plan has been a shambles from start to finish and RMT demands to know why a contract that the politicians said is worth £243 million has been ramped up by the company to £350 million on the Stock Exchange.
“This isn’t small change down the back of the sofa, it’s £107 million and the taxpayers and ferries staff have a right to know just what is going on here. It stinks of the usual capitalist chicanery but it’s down to the politicians now to explain this one and it reinforces our case for binning this whole deal.
“Add the fact that Serco are looking to rip up long-standing pension commitments to the staff who deliver these lifeline services and as RMT always said you can see that this northern ferries stich-up is about maximising profits at the expense of services, fares and the workforce.”
In response, Serco said it had been transparent about the value of the contract.
A spokesman said: “Serco will work in partnership with local stakeholders and with Transport Scotland to improve service standards by more effectively meeting the needs of islanders, businesses and the increasing number of visitors to the Northern Isles whilst delivering better value for money for the taxpayer.”