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”.
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.
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”.
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.”