Wishart far from impressed by Serco’s first year in charge of North Boats

A “groundswell of cynicism and resentment” is building up among islanders over Serco’s handling of the North Boats contract, accord­ing to ZetTrans chairman Allan Wishart.

Mr Wishart abandoned his hitherto mild criticism of the controversial global corpor­ation to deliver a withering verdict on its first year in charge of the lifeline ferry service. He told The Shetland Times people were getting “more and more disenchanted”.

Islanders are
Politicians say islanders are “disenchanted” with Serco’s running of lifeline ferry service.

To the surprise of many, including Scot­land’s transport minister, Serco was awarded the six-year, £243 million contract last sum­mer. The passenger and freight service between Lerwick, Kirkwall and Aberdeen had been run by NorthLink for around a decade.

Amid mounting local concern about Serco’s handling of the service, coupled with adverse publicity nationally, Mr Wishart – who chairs Shetland’s transport partnership – cited a raft of areas in which he believes Serco is falling short.

Those include less reliable deliveries of freight including fresh food for supermarkets; the removal of discounts for some of the
most vulnerable in society; higher fares, and “discriminatory” on-board offers including a fee-charging passenger lounge.

Various notionally minor changes, such as installing barriers preventing people from sleeping on sofas in the ships’ communal areas, have also done little to endear Serco to the travelling public.

“It’s peerie things that altogether are accumulating into, I think, quite a groundswell of cynicism and resentment on the new ferry service,” Mr Wishart told this newspaper.

“I was quite willing for a year to let it go, see how it worked out [and] bedded in, but people are getting more and more disenchanted with the service.”

During last week’s cabinet visit, SNP ministers admitted islanders ought to have had more say in how the contract was drawn up prior to going out to tender.

First Minister Alex Salmond told this newspaper he wanted to find a way of “involving island communities before things happen, as opposed to responding to concerns after they happen”.

Transport minister Keith Brown, mean­while, admitted it was “a surprise to me too” when Serco was announced as the successful bidder.

Mr Salmond said the contract was “absol­utely identical” to the previous one, but Serco had “chosen to interpret it in a different way”.

Mr Wishart said he would welcome much greater input when the contract next comes up for renewal, but “that’s five years away”.

He called on Transport Scotland and Mr Brown to intervene now to ensure the service is delivered in a more fair and effective fashion between now and 2018.

It follows last week’s publication of a council-run survey indicating there had been a 20-40 per cent price hike per journey for community and sporting groups and frustration about an “inflexible” application system for concessionary travel, including a need for applications to be submitted six months in advance of travel.

Mr Wishart said he was aware of mounting concern nationally over the lack of scrutiny firms charged with delivering public services, including Serco, face.

Along with another private provider, G4S, Serco is facing an investigation into allegations that the UK state was overcharged to the tune of £50 million for the electronic tagging of offenders. It has been suggested that as many as one in six of the tags the government paid for did not exist.

Mr Wishart said Serco had suffered some “very adverse publicity” recently. Asked whether islanders could have confidence that it is fit to run ferries to the Northern Isles, he replied: “That’s a problem that Serco has. I can completely understand and share the concerns of the public who see Serco as, rightly or wrongly, taking everything they could from the government.”

Transport Scotland yesterday pronounced itself “pleased” with Serco’s first-year performance on the Northern Isles route.

ZetTrans chairman Allan Wishart:
ZetTrans chairman Allan Wishart: “groundswell of cynicism and resentment” from islanders.

That prompted Mr Wishart to suggest civil servants had given Serco too much “leeway” in the way it worded the contract – allowing the company to “charge people to go into a restaurant, use a toilet or shower, and reduce discounts for a whole range of people”.

Despite that, Mr Wishart says he is able to have “very, very open” discussions with Serco NorthLink managing director Stuart Garrett.

Shetland MSP Tavish Scott largely endorsed Mr Wishart’s comments. He said a lot of people were “really annoyed” that the discount scheme was changed “without any consultation at all”.

“That’s meant an increase in fares for people who can ill afford to pay,” Mr Scott said. “That’s been a huge step backwards, and Serco show no signs of wanting to repair that damage.”

A Transport Scotland spokeswoman claimed Serco had delivered the service “to a high level of efficiency and professionalism”.

Its staff have “proactively engaged with the local communities and other stakeholders to ensure that the services meet the needs of all ferry users.”

Seemingly at odds with Mr Salmond’s assertion that the contract is “identical” to the old one, the spokeswoman said the wording “stipulates a broader range of fare discounts than has been specified in any previous” government ferry contract.

Transport Scotland conceded that Mr Brown last week sanctioned a review of the sponsorship scheme for schools, sports and community groups to “ensure it is fit for purpose and delivers on local objectives”.

Responding to Mr Wishart’s stinging criticism yesterday, Mr Garrett said the company had demonstrated a “willingness to engage with stakeholders from all aspects of the community”.

Serco NorthLink managing director Stuart Garrett defended the company's handling of the contract.
Serco NorthLink managing director Stuart Garrett defended the company’s handling of the contract.

It had delivered “significant onboard enhancements and introduce[d] a range of alternative seating / pod offers without disrupting the winter service” on time and on budget. “These changes have resulted in greater cabin utilisation by providing affordable alternatives and freeing up cabin berths.”

He said use of the charged-for Magnus Lounge had exceeded expectation, was “proving very popular” and had resulted in “a previously under-utilised area of the vessel being used to good purpose”.

“It provides good value, in particular for our premium and executive cabin users… these users include many of our senior citizen customers.”


Add Your Comment
  • Jenny Henry

    • August 2nd, 2013 12:30

    “First Minister Alex Salmond told this newspaper he wanted to find a way of “involving island communities before things happen, as opposed to responding to concerns after they happen”.”

    Duh! How long has this guy been ‘in charge’?!

  • ann henderson

    • August 3rd, 2013 9:19

    Whoever had the idea that sleeping in a chair for 14 hours is desirable, should be made to try it.

  • Colin Hunter

    • August 3rd, 2013 10:36

    What these people are forgetting is that these ships are first and foremost FERRIES. They are not cruise ships and people do not go on them wanting a “Cruise experience”. They use them primarily to get from A to B. If Serco insist on trying to move the whole thing up-market people will stop using them as they were intended.
    For instance, do they have any idea about cash strapped students who just need somewhere to “crash” and now find the couches they used to sleep on all blocked off. Most people I know are horrified at the “Two Class” system they have created by charging an exorbitant fee just to sit in a different area. It all smacks of snobbery and privelege!
    I have not personally been on the boat since I returned home from holiday last July, and after the way I was treated by Serco on that occassion I have no great desire to re-vist the “service”. It is now actually cheaper to fly and hire a car if it’s anything less than a fortnight anyway so that’s what I would suggest people do. It only takes an hour, and you even get a free cup of tea and a biscuit! £1.95 for the tea on the boat and you even have to make it yourself! Dick Turpin is alive and well!

  • Richard Paton

    • August 4th, 2013 19:05

    Regarding the fabled Magnus lounge, quote “a previously under-utilised area of the vessel being used to good purpose”.

    It wouldn’t have been under-utilised in the first place if they just opened it up to everyone instead of having the “masses” crammed into one side of the ship in that area. Having travelled up last night there was at best a handful of people in the lounge. Hardly a useful employment of space.

    Perhaps if they opened it to everyone and stuck a few second hand musical instruments in there the punters could make their own entertainment, failing that get Sean Batty back for another quiz as that actually was fun and most importantly it passed the time!

  • Johan Adamson

    • August 5th, 2013 9:06

    I always thought the restaurant was very popular and it was difficult to book a table, so I dont think it was underused. The cruise passengers now get a bit of the cafe fenced off for them and they shut the cafe service for an hour to let them through. let them eat in the Magnus again, this new arrangement is just silly.

  • John K Smith

    • August 5th, 2013 9:43

    Mr Wishart is correct, but it is not only Islanders that are distressed by the poor Serco service, we as regular visitors have seen every Serco change as a reduction in service quality from a friendly and helpful old Northlink to this money centred Serco approach. All firms have to make money or fail and visitors to Shetland do not want that. But neither do want staff talking in low voices about prices, full breakfasts or nothing, funny upper class lounges and most of all an aggressive attitude by Serco management. Think again Serco, ask the old staff, ask Islanders and ask visitors but do it quickly.

  • Matt Charles

    • August 15th, 2013 22:37

    Transport Scotland knew exactly what they was buying as this was a “transparent, competitive dialogue” so they must be well pleased with this!
    Rumour has it that Serco have a problem with the MCA now due to lack of adequate safety systems?

  • dave salmond

    • April 24th, 2014 18:14

    You islanders may do better in McPhails Lounge on the “Vital Spark” -with Para Handy for your MSP-as he knows all about puffers


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