A row has broken out over a delay in getting the coastguard’s emergency tugs back in service following the announcement last week of an 11th hour reprieve.
On Friday it emerged ministers had agreed to a three-month deal just hours before the outgoing contract expired.
Interim funding has been put forward by the coalition government which will allow the vessels to continue in the short-term while a more cost-effective arrangement is sought.
However the Scottish government’s rural affairs minister, Richard Lochhead, has criticised the coalition, claiming Scotland’s waters have been left unprotected in the meantime. This was flatly denied at Westminster.
Last week it emerged the tug based in Stornoway had been taken to Aberdeen for a refit, while the remaining vessel normally used for the Northern Isles was taken to Scotland’s north coast to cover both northern and western waters.
Mr Lochhead said: “Our latest information indicates that the tugs are not yet back on duty – leaving Scotland’s coastline at risk.
“I am glad that a three month reprieve is to be forthcoming but as these are emergency response tugs we need the UK government to progress this as soon as possible and get our vital tugs back in place protecting both our mariners and the environment.
“We also need a long term solution in place. It is just not good enough to cut an important service with no replacement. Decisions which may harm our coastline should not be made for cost cutting reasons.”
A spokesman for the Scotland Office – which has been given responsibility to take forward the group-work necessary to thrash out a new long-term deal – insisted emergency cover would be available if it should be required.
“If it came to the push and there was an incident it would be straightforward for the government to contract a vessel to get to it,” he said.
Meanwhile news of the interim deal has been welcomed by council and union leaders.
A spokesman for the SIC said: “Shetland Islands Council welcomes this three month extension which is in the interests of all communities in the Highlands and Islands. The government has recognised the merits of the campaign we and our partners have made. We now look forward to working with the UK government and in particular the Scotland Office in relation to the long term solution.”
A spokesman for the PCS union, which represents members at Lerwick’s coastguard station, gave a cautious welcome to the news.
“We obviously welcome this news as the ETV is an extremely useful tool to have in our toolbox, particularly with winter fast approaching.
“Yet again the government has been forced to acknowledge it got things wrong and hopefully this is a sign that they are now seeing sense.
“However this is only a short-term measure and we urgently need something more permanent put in place.”
A Scotland Office spokesman said: “The government has identified up to £3 million of interim funding for the tugs and is working through the detail of arrangements at present. This will allow a three month extension in the hope a long-term solution can be found and should be welcomed. The relevant parties will be involved in that process and arrangements will be announced soon.”