War of words over ferry subsidies
The SNP candidate for Shetland at the Scottish parliamentary elections in May has accused MSP Tavish Scott of a “cheap smear”, by claiming the isles were being discriminated against over ferry costs.
Mr Scott said following the introduction of road equivalent tariff (RET) in the Western Isles today, which has seen ferry fares slashed, that Shetland was being discriminated against and had got a “kick in the teeth.”
But Danus Skene said that that Mr Scott knew full well that Shetlanders would pay more if RET was applied to the longer Northern Isles routes.
Mr Skene, who was narrowly defeated by Mr Scott’s Lib Dem colleague Alistair Carmichael in this year’s Westminster parliamentary election, said: “Tavish Scott has chosen to assert that the reduction in ferry fares coming into effect on the west coast routes constitutes ‘unfair treatment’ of the Northern Isles. He knows this not to be the case, which makes his further allegation that the isles are being punished in some way for not having in the past voted SNP a particularly cheap smear. It is time that the Lib Dems showed a little integrity in their arguments.
“The Scottish government is implementing RET on ferry routes for which it is directly responsible where this constitutes a saving compared to current fares. Because so much of the cost of ferry transport is associated with landing rather than the distance of the journey itself, the implementation of RET makes particularly dramatic savings on shorter routes. So yes, the west coast implementation of RET is a major support for west coast islanders.”
But in the case of Shetlanders’ long journeys to Aberdeen, the implementation of mileage-related RET would not be a saving, he added.
According to Mr Skene the ferry cost per mile for a car to Aberdeen is below the real cost of driving, which the AA calculates averages at over 60p a mile. “The Scottish government’s RET commitment will bring down Shetland fares if and when its implementation is to the advantage of Shetland passengers,” he added.
Mr Skene was responding to a press release from Mr Scott which said that “overt and political discrimination against the people of Shetland and Orkney” had been laid bare by today’s announcement.
The statement outlines that cuts to ferry fares of more than 50 per cent are helping 14 ferry services to Scotland’s west coast islands.
Ferry services to Barra, Mull, Eigg, Skye, Raasay, Cumbrae, Muck and Rum benefit from a cut to single passenger fares of an average of 44 per cent, while car fares will be cut by an average of 55 per cent. The Northern Isles have had “increases imposed on both passengers and cars in every year of the eight years of nationalist government”.
Mr Scott said: “Today is a transport kick in the teeth to the people of the Northern Isles. Many Shetland families returning after the October school holidays will wonder what we have done wrong. Why are Shetland travellers not benefiting from fare reductions of 50 per cent to take the car to Aberdeen? Why does this nationalist government only help the west coast of Scotland with fare cuts?
“This blatant discrimination is a disgrace. When I introduced cuts to air fares as a government minister all the islands were
eligible. It applied to the Western Isles who elected an SNP MP. It would be totally wrong to discriminate against an island because of how they vote. Yet that is now the inescapable conclusion that local people come to.
“Because we have the audacity not to vote SNP we are being punished. There can be no greater illustration of the cynical politics played by the SNP than their disgraceful ferry fares policy.
“In 2016 we must replace a cynically political government with one that has a fair transport policy based on need, not how islands vote. When and if people respond to the nationalist government’s islands consultation they will want to highlight this disgraceful, unfair and discriminatory policy.”
But Mr Skene said that Shetlanders travelling to Aberdeen are being massively subsidised by the terms of the NorthLink contract which Mr Scott signed off as the minister responsible in 2005.
He said: “We receive much more subsidy per journey than anyone on the west coast, but it is all being spent on the grossly inefficient contract negotiated by the Labour/Lib Dem coalition. For example, the present inappropriate ferries costing £100m will cost over £200m over 20 years because of the terms of the financial leasing arrangement with the Royal Bank.
“The effective subsidy of a passenger between Lerwick and Aberdeen provided by the taxpayer is in the region of £300. This is way above the support given on the west coast, however comparisons are made.”
Mr Skene said that the SNP government was “determined” that the next generation of ferries and their contracts will deliver better service and better value for money.
He added: “It will be got right by working in partnership with the isles councils and transport organisations – the ‘Stag’ process.
“Shetland (and Orkney) internal ferries are run by the councils. RET would bring their fares down. The SNP government recognises that running these essential ferries is an exceptional burden on the councils.
“The answer is not for the Scottish government to take over SIC ferries. Management should be local. But negotiations are in hand to provide new support for the SIC in meeting the costs of providing internal ferry services. This support will be a major equivalent to the support for islanders represented by the RET implementation on the west coast”.
He said that the government was committed to helping islanders to overcome the disadvantages they face because of ferry costs. That was true for islanders in both the North and the West, and “wild accusations” by Tavish Scott must not allowed to pit islanders against each other.
“Judging others by his own standards, Tavish presumes that the SNP government is rewarding SNP voters in the west at Northern Isles expense. It may have escaped his attention that the SNP vote in the Northern Isles has risen of late,” said Mr Skene.