Sat 21 Sep, 2019

John Finnie

Highlands and Islands

As you may know I do frequent columns for local papers across the Highlands and Islands. During the summer I submitted this article for one such column, but its publication was declined.

The ferries linking Orkney to the rest of Scotland are unquestionably lifeline services. They connect the island to the rest of the country and are relied upon by huge numbers of people. It is therefore in everyone’s interest that the services be run publicly, in the interests of the people they serve.

Everyone’s interest except perhaps the bosses of Serco, the company which currently has the contract to operate the ferries. The vessels are owned by the Scottish Government, but the operation is outsourced to Serco, who are all too pleased to retain the profits from the service.

This is a company which has a track record of making profit from a range of government contracts while providing services which rank anywhere from shabby to inhumane. In Glasgow the company’s policies have resulted in hundreds of asylum seekers being threatened with homelessness and destitution as they carry out lock change evictions throughout the city.

The company has also had a long running dispute with members of the RMT union over conditions for staff on the Caledonian Sleeper service, which has been plagued with issues since Serco took control of the franchise.

And on top of all that a Serco subsidiary was recently fined £22.9m following an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office for understating the profitability of its business in returns to the Ministry of Justice a number of years ago.

This is a company with a track record of callousness, incompetence and deceit. It is clearly a firm that the Scottish Government should have nothing to do with. Public services should be run in the interests of the public, not private profit especially when dealing with a company as morally bankrupt as Serco.

The RMT, whose members are on the frontline of operating the ferries on a daily basis, have long since campaigned for the service to be taken into public ownership and I’m proud to stand with them.

Later this month the Scottish Government will announce whether the contract will be transferred to the publicly owned Calmac or remain with Serco. If the contract isn’t returned to public hands then it will be very difficult to trust the Scottish Government if they make promises on prioritising vital public services. The party’s commitment to this course of action is already questionable, when last year then Transport Minister Humza Yousaf MSP missed the chance to award the contract to Calmac.

This level of prevarication from the Government is unacceptable on such a vital issue. They are either committed to ensuring these services are run in the public interest or they aren’t, and the uncertainty is not in the interests of the people of our Northern Isles.

The issue goes beyond the islands and cuts straight to the heart of how we as a nation intend to address the climate emergency. There is a very limited window in which we can develop a coherent, effective response to ongoing ecological collapse and a radical re-imagining of the role of public transport at all levels must be central.

Transit, of goods as well as people, is a key source of emissions but private interests have generally shown little enthusiasm for investing the time and money needed to change that situation if it might make even the slightest dent in their profit margins.

We need, and deserve, a transport system, which is reliable and affordable. People in Orkney should be assured not only that the lifeline services they rely on will be run for them, but also that any profits will be reinvested back into making sure the ferries are sustainable and able to improve where necessary.

That simply can’t happen until the service is taken back into public ownership. Serco aren’t motivated by ensuring the ferries continue to run, they’re motivated solely by profit. While that’s the case Orcadians will always come second to the company’s ‘bottom line’. Throughout Scotland and the rest of the UK Serco have shown a willingness to abandon morality in the pursuit of money. Taking the contract into public ownership isn’t just the prudent thing to do, it’s also the right thing to do. These ferries are for you. They should also belong to you.

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