Scottish government lawyers are still deliberating on how to respond to a legal challenge to its decision to award the North Boats contract to Serco by a rival bidder.
Northern Isles politicians today demanded an urgent update on the status of the contract amid the uncertainty created by Streamline’s move to contest the choice of a firm with limited experience of operating ferries.
With only 53 days to go until the scheduled handover and a raft of details still to be hammered out, Shetland MSP Tavish Scott urged transport minister Keith Brown to provide clarity and details of any contingency plans that are being put in place.
The government has been forced to ditch plans to sign the new contract with Serco tomorrow. There are fears that a lengthy legal battle through the Court of Session could jeopardise plans to hand over the service on Friday 6th July.
Passenger and freight ferries between Lerwick, Kirkwall and Aberdeen have been run by NorthLink for the past decade. NorthLink confirmed it was continuing discussions with the government to “clarify certain aspects of the procurement process” which saw the six-year, £243 million contract awarded to international services company Serco 10 days ago.
Mr Scott said Streamline’s legal action had prompted many questions from the business community and individuals regarding the possible implications for the transfer of the contract.
“Obviously our constituents are apprehensive about what this challenge might mean for the move to a new operator, given the exceptionally tight timetable we already expected for the transition,” he said. “We need to know what contingency plans are in place.”
A Transport Scotland spokeswoman said the matter was still with its legal team and the department hopes to be able to issue a statement shortly.
Mr Scott said that he, the SIC and ZetTrans had all been saying last summer that the tight timetable for awarding the new contract was highly ambitious.
“It’s their job to sort out this mess – it’s a mess of their creation,” he said, adding that if pen is not put to paper on the new contract by the end of this week, it could create a “dangerous” situation for Shetland and Orkney’s lifeline ferry service.
On Monday morning the Scottish government said it was unable to add anything to a short statement issued over the weekend, but hoped to have answers to a series of questions tabled by The Shetland Times once legal advice has been received.
The government’s earlier statement read: “We can confirm that a legal challenge has been lodged and that ministers cannot enter into a contract until this has been resolved by the courts. We cannot comment further on that matter at this time.
“All parties involved hope to see a speedy conclusion and we will work with our partners to ensure that lifeline services continue to operate to serve the communities of Orkney and Shetland.”
The Streamline Group’s managing director Gareth Crichton, a former NorthLink employee, confirmed it had served papers challenging the awarding of the contract.
“We took time to consider our position and sought guidance on the best course of the action for the company given the results announced by the Scottish government,” he said.
Mr Crichton continued: “The feedback we have received demonstrates that the Shetland Line bid was judged to have been of much higher quality than that considered most economically advantageous by ministers.
“We firmly believe that the solutions Shetland Line put forward through its bid meet the needs and expectations of the islands communities to be served. On the other hand, we do not believe that the bid which [the] Scottish government indicated it intended to accept would do so. It was clear to us that [the] Scottish government was not comparing like with like. We therefore feel that our challenge to the tender process is well founded.”
A Serco spokesman said he could not speculate on what arrangements might be put in place should Streamline’s move lead to a delay of weeks or months in finalising the contract.
He said: “We are aware of the challenge to the Scottish government’s decision and that this may now be the subject of legal process, and we look forward to an early resolution which we believe will be in the best interests of islanders, customers and staff.”
While its contract is due to expire on 5th July, a spokesman for NorthLink moved to reassure customers that the company will “continue to provide our high quality ferry service to the islands for as long as it takes to resolve the current issues”.
He added: “Also, we wish to put on record our appreciation of the ongoing commitment of staff as they continue to meet customer needs during this period of uncertainty.”
Meanwhile, SIC chief executive Alistair Buchan on Friday wrote to Mr Brown asking for a commitment that there will be no reduction in freight services during the period of the new ferry contract, which runs until 2018.
The council has been approached by businesses and members of the public concerned by the lack of detail on the specification of the new contract, in particular relating to the freight service after well-document problems in January and February of this year.
Transport official Michael Craigie said: “This is obviously an issue of concern to all those who use the isles’ lifeline ferry service – we look forward to an early response.”