Brian Wilson writes: Arguments against CalMac privatisation are the same as they have always been

Recent concerns about the high-handed ways of Caledonian MacBrayne prompted me to take a trip down memory lane to 1993 when the company was threatened with break-up and privatisation.

The Tories were in power, Michael Forsyth was in his prime, there was no Holyrood or MSPs. But neither, strange though it may seem, was there the centralised rule of Edinburgh to browbeat all who are within its orbit into silent submission.
Caledonian MacBrayne had a chief executive, Colin Paterson, whose commitment to both company and communities was beyond doubt. He spoke out fearlessly in defence of his organisation and intimated that, in the view of his board, “the island communities would be best served by CalMac left intact”.

I was Labour’s Scottish transport spokesman as well as MP for a couple of Clyde islands. The late Ray Michie, Liberal MP for Argyll and Bute, was a kindred spirit in these matters. Along with the west coast local authorities, we instigated a memorable meeting in Oban which, if I remember rightly, Colin Paterson attended.

It was as near as I can recall to a “west coast Parliament” even if it only met once. There was complete solidarity about resisting the course which it was known (probably thanks to Colin) that the Scottish Office intended to go down. They backed off and CalMac survived intact, as an integrated, public sector company. Local democracy prevailed.

It is a reminisce which challenges the assumption that Scottish democracy has been enhanced by anything which has happened in the intervening 21 years. We may have the trappings and a bus-load of additional politicians, but these do not translate into greater accountability, far less underpin the right to dissent.

On the contrary, it is now inconceivable that parliamentarians representing CalMac communities would present a united front; even more far-fetched that CalMac’s board would declare support for the community interest, rather than toe the political line. There would be no room for Colin Paterson in the current Scottish quangocracy.

The last CalMac chief executive who had tendencies in that direction, Archie Robertson, didn’t last long. Having, by all accounts, opposed privatisation and removal of the car ferry service from the Gourock-Dunoon route and also replacement of a CalMac company by Serco in the Northern Isles, he disappeared in 2012 without trace or explanation.

Thereafter, the Scottish Government kicked the tendering process for Clyde and West Coast ferry services into touch until “the autumn of 2014”. The leaves have now fallen from the trees and nothing has yet been heard of it. But with the CalMac contract extension due to expire in less than two years from now, it cannot be long delayed.

It was assumed that the extension was motivated by a desire to avoid controversy in the run-up to the referendum. But why should there have been controversy? It was because of the widespread belief that Serco were again waiting in the wings to take over the contract or the more lucrative parts of it. Privatisation and fragmentation were back on the agenda.

The late Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT, was not everybody’s cup of tea but in this matter his combative style served a vital purpose. “The carve-up of the Scottish ferry services for private profit continues apace under the SNP administration, regardless of the impact on jobs, services and fares,” he declared. “With CalMac routes next on the block, we are not going to stand idly by to wait for another stitch up”.

Nobody doubted him and there was the imminent prospect of a strike ballot. The last thing the Scottish Government wanted as the referendum campaign gathered pace was a prolonged industrial conflict over privatisation inflicted by their own hand. Delay was their preferred tactic and so, at a meeting with the unions, the contract extension was intimated by Keith Brown, transport minister.

More than that, according to Crow’s account of the meeting, Brown gave a promise that there would be no “unbundling” of the routes (as the civil servants of Transport Scotland had recommended) when tenders were finally invited. The RMT leader took comfort from this assurance that there would be “a single contract till 2021 at least” making the prospective pickings less attractive to private operators. Presumably that still stands.

It remains a matter of contention whether subsidised, lifeline ferry services need be put out to tender at all, under EU rules. But that argument seems to have been conceded completely. Indeed, CalMac management has spent much of their period of grace unsuccessfully chasing contracts to run ferries in Sweden and on the Thames, as fully paid-up players in this competitive world.

Their employees, and the communities they serve, would probably prefer them to concentrate on the role that the company exists to fulfill – providing an efficient, integrated ferry service to the islands of the Scottish west coast and making sure that it comes to no further harm.

As it happens, the chief predators, Serco, are in an awful mess. The chairman has just followed the finance director out the door. The share price is in freefall. Rupert Soames, brought in this year to turn the business around, has declared that they must focus on core functions rather than spread themselves around as operators of everything from prisons to call centres. The logic should surely be to back off from trying to oust CalMac from their only core function.

However, Serco seem to retain the good opinions of the Scottish Government, who recently awarded them the Scotrail sleeper services with a £60 million dowry for rolling stock. The unions certainly believe there is a likelihood, rather than possibility, that Serco’s patience will be rewarded when the CalMac routes are finally put out to tender, unless there is a campaign to stop it happening.

The arguments against privatisation and/or fragmentation are the same as they always have been. Indeed, there is now one powerful new factor pointing in the other direction. If support for the “Our Islands, Our Future” agenda means anything, why not transfer the CalMac headquarters to one of the islands served by the company and appoint a board with first hand knowledge of these services?

What is the counter-argument in favour of the company’s very survival being in the hands of a board which is wholly unknown to the islands and owes allegiance to the Ministers and civil servants who appointed it? The campaign to retain CalMac as an integrated, public sector operator should also become a rallying point for the entirely reasonable demand – “our islands, our ferry company”.

And if that could be achieved, we would not be living with the recurrent threat of what somebody in Edinburgh might have in mind for these troublesome ferry services, out there on the distant west coast.

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