Trade union warns of agenda to privatise CalMac

The Scottish Government has been warned not to “fatten up” Caledonian MacBrayne ferry services amidst growing fears that a privatisation agenda is being pursued.

In a briefing paper to MSPs, seen by the Free Press, the trade unions representing CalMac officers, crews and shore staff express fears that a planned 27 per cent increase in expenditure next year is to pave the way for a sell-off.

As well as concerns that this is “to fatten up the Clyde and Hebrides contract for privatisation”, the paper points to the “private interests heavily represented on the Expert Ferry Group” which is designing the new contract which they will then bid for.

The Free Press has learned that recent Scottish Government documents have floated the idea of “sub-contracting” routes to the private sector, which union sources describe as “back-door privatisation”.

The assistant general secretary of the Scottish TUC, Stephen Boyd, said this week he was “absolutely sure that a strong case could be argued with the European Commission that these are lifeline service which do not need to go out to tender”.

The unions’ paper describes the tendering process as “unnecessary, expensive, disruptive and pro-privatisation”. They accuse the Scottish Government of having “dodged the fundamental question” of whether tendering is necessary while pressing the commission to approve extending the length of a new contract.

The unions say that Scottish Government officials are now talking about a 12-year contract which would make privatisation virtually irreversible.

The Scottish Government is believed to have maintained a close relationship with Serco, the sprawling service provider to whom they previously awarded the Northern Isles ferry contract in controversial circumstances which are the subject of continuing legal action.

In 2012, SNP Ministers kicked the CalMac issue into touch until after the independence referendum by suspending the tendering process. At that time, there was a widespread expectation that if it had gone ahead, Serco were likely to have been the beneficiaries.

However, the unions’ briefing paper paints a grim picture of what has happened on the Northern Isles routes.  Serco “have quickly become unpopular with passengers” due to above-inflation fare increases, removal of concessions and the introduction of charges for on-board facilities – “even toilets”.

Serco are also accused of provoking industrial action by breaching agreements on crewing levels and attacking pension rights. The paper adds: “The same mistake of handing lifeline ferry services over to the private sector must not be made on the Clyde Hebrides Ferry Services network”.

On the theme of “fattening up” the attractiveness of the contract through a surge of public investment – a pattern adopted at the time of rail privatisation – the unions’ paper states bluntly: “Public sector investment in Scottish ferry services must not be used to attract private bidders to the CHFS contract”.

While arguing that the proposed tendering exercise is avoidable and should be ditched, the unions say that if it does go ahead, then “employment and pension safeguards must be at least as robust as those contained in the previous contract”.

As well as the STUC, the briefing paper is supported by the RMT (which includes the former National Union of Seamen), Transport and Salaried Staff Association, the officers’ union Nautilus International and Unite.