The Scottish government has come under renewed pressure over its handling of the 2012 North Boats contract, with Holyrood politicians and union bosses demanding answers following the latest row.
Labour’s shadow transport and islands minister, David Stewart, has backed calls from local MSP Tavish Scott for
Audit Scotland to investigate the deal. The then publicly-owned incumbent operator NorthLink Ferries was controversially gazumped by major private operator, Serco. The Shetland Times last week revealed that NorthLink’s bid, said to be cheaper than Serco’s, was returned unopened.
The news prompted the RMT Union to raise fears the SNP government was heading down the “Blairite” route of privatising public services.
Mr Stewart last week accused the Scottish government of failing to answer questions over its decision.
“It seems to me procedures haven’t been followed correctly here and I’m very concerned that a well-respected public-sector company has lost a contract in which they were the incumbent,” he said.
The MSP also raised concerns about the renewal of the Hebridean contract next year, insisting he did not wish to see “history repeat itself”.
“Effectively what we’ve seen is a privatisation of the service.
“It seems bizarre to me that the incumbent contract was not opened and was being treated as non-compatible.
“If there is any evidence that this has not been followed to the letter of the law, then we need to get to the bottom of this. It seems totally bizarre that a contract that was the lowest bid from an incumbent in the public sector is not accepted for some bureaucratic reason which is not totally explained.”
Mr Scott said it was important Audit Scotland investigated the decision. He said he wanted his Orkney counterpart, Liam McArthur, to raise the matter in Holyrood tomorrow.
“The logical and correct body to investigate what did happen with the awarding of the contract for the North Boats is Audit Scotland. They are the nation’s book-keepers, they can have access to any information that they ask for including submissions made on tenders.
“Therefore the government who would not tell parliament about a commercially sensitive decision based on information that would not be released have to tell Audit Scotland.”
Mr Scott recalled the announcement of the contract going to Serco as being on the Friday when local election results were announced.
“If ever that was burying bad news,” he said. “You just don’t pick a big political day if you want to get a good news story out.”
Mr Scott’s comments came as the RMT union demanded a public inquiry into the matter.
National secretary, Steve Todd, said union members would be “very concerned” to learn of the Scottish government’s “instinctive contempt” for public sector bids – particularly now in the run-up to the invitation to tender for the 2016-24 Clyde and Hebrides ferries contract.
“There is a growing feeling that Transport Scotland and the Scottish government are heading, full steam to privatising Clyde and Hebrides ferries services, with the winning bid being announced after the Scottish parliamentary elections in May 2016.
“We hope the Scottish government does not continue to head down the Blairite route of privatising public services but the revelations over their treatment of CalMac’s NorthLink bid does not bode well for Scottish ferry workers and the lifeline services they provide remote communities and passengers.”
The Scottish government has insisted proper procedures were carried out, adding NorthLink’s quality submission failed to meet the minimum requirement laid out in the invitation to tender, which led to the financial submission being returned in accordance with normal practice.