John’s Speech on the Future of the Clyde and Hebrides Ferries

You can watch John’s speech using the link below by skipping to 1:09:38.


Alternatively you can read John’s speech on the future of the Clyde and Hebrides Ferries last week below.


John Finnie: I apologise to you, Presiding Officer, for missing David Stewart’s opening remarks.

Like many, I went to school on a MacBrayne’s bus for many years; MacBrayne’s Haulage was also operating at that time. CalMac has its origins in that Highland history—as I think one member said, it is part of the Highland DNA. That used to be the case with another public body, the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board. There was great affection for the board, from its construction, which was led by Tom Johnston at the end of the second world war, to its operation and the creation of a large workforce. There was a lot of housing connected with the board’s work, and the scheme had a special place in Highland communities. Such things no longer happen since the privatisation of the utilities. Privatisation and the profit motive ended all that, and I would not like the use of that privatisation model to be repeated in respect of these important services.

I am grateful to the many people who have provided briefings for the debate. I am sure that we can all quote selectively from them—I certainly intend to. We hear that, with regard to the procurement directives, “under the previous regime waterborne transport services were ‘non-priority’ services”.

I do not think that the importance of the ferry service to our communities can be underestimated.

The term “public sector obligations” can mean different things to different people. On a political level it means, “Do you see a role for the state in people’s lives?” I view transport services much as I view education, health and social care.

Members have spoken about the Teckal exemption—as I said, some may have chosen to use selective quotes. I share David Stewart’s view, although I admit that I did not get through the 26 pages or whatever of the advice. I got through 14 of them, however, and of course the meat is in the initial opinion. The advice is unequivocal. If, as Government back benchers have expressed, there is genuine interest from the Government in CalMac securing the contract, I commend that option to it. I may return to that subject later.

We know that there is support for the rail service to be taken into the public sector. There is plenty of evidence for such a move. Alex Johnstone declined to take my intervention earlier, but I say to him that, as we know, East Coast failed twice as a private franchise and ran very successfully as a state enterprise. I, and other members, may see that as an opportunity to extend the model to other rail franchises, but the UK Government does not, and it intends to hand over those profits to its friends in the City.

People are looking for consistency on the matter, and members have spoken about the various positions that the parties have adopted. I have to say that my Green colleagues have been consistent throughout, but it is right to say that events change and are shaped by case law, and it is important to pay attention to that. Of course, case law counts for nothing if there is no political will—that is the most important thing that will shape the situation.

Many obligations are placed on a Government. There is also an obligation placed on a limited company to maximise profits for its shareholders. There is no doubt that commercial concerns can run public services, and, unfortunately, many do, but at what price? My first speech in this Parliament was in a debate on the care of older people, when I voiced my concern that there was a profit motive attached to the care of older people, and likewise with prisons.

I declare my membership of the RMT parliamentary group. The RMT campaign describes Serco as

“‘the specialists in failure’ based on their appalling track record in public services”.

We do not need to take just the RMT’s word for that. As we have heard, Mr Johnstone’s colleagues in the UK Government have formed that view, too. It is a bad state of affairs if Tories in London say one thing, recognising the frailties of that organisation, yet we set that aside here.

The union briefings also tell us something that that we know already, which is that

“Profits amongst companies in the UK and international shipping industry are reliant on keeping labour costs down, at the expense of seafarers’ employment, pension and other rights.”

We have the transatlantic trade and investment partnership on the horizon and the Trade Union Bill, which, ironically, the Government seemed to express concerns about. We know that, as one of the briefings says, commercial involvement with public services is in many instances “driven by a policy of aggressive profiteering”.

I was grateful to my colleague Mike MacKenzie for accepting an intervention in which I raised the issue of precedent, because we can go on precedent. Incidentally, I said “short-term contracts” when I should have said “zero-hours contracts”. Despite assurances given to the RMT that it would not change crewing levels before winter, Serco announced redundancies in October without prior consultation, barely three months into the contract. That caused the first industrial action on Scottish ferry services for 30 years. Having corrected my earlier comment, I should mention that the company also uses zero-hours contracts for staff on those routes. That is not the sort of ferry service that I want to see.

CalMac has its critics, and they can be very specific: they might say that they are unhappy about the performance of a particular ferry or that they wish that the ferry had sailed on a particular occasion. However, the company is highly regarded and profitable. I am fascinated by the notion that what is happening is not privatisation, because we know that CalMac is profitable and that that profit comes back into the Government coffers. Where will any profit that a private company makes go? We know where it goes: it goes to the shareholders; it does not come here. We can play with words all day long, but as far as I am concerned that is privatisation.

I am an old-fashioned guy. I like my public services run by the public in the interests of the public. Johann Lamont, in a fine speech, talked about—

Chic Brodie:

Will John Finnie take an intervention?

John Finnie:

Yes, indeed.

Chic Brodie:

Can Mr Finnie tell us who owns, and who will own, the assets of the company?

John Finnie:

That is completely irrelevant to the people whom I represent. They are interested in the quality of service, and they are interested to know that the people who work for the ferry services are respected. We know that private companies will drive the hard-fought-for terms and conditions down.

I like my service and I think that we need to test any legal opinion on the case to destruction. If people have not had the opportunity to read an opinion, I do not think that they should be expressing a view on that opinion. I hope that the minister will be open-minded about it. The phrase “knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing” very much applies in this instance.

Derek Mackay:

Will the member give way?

John Finnie:

I would be happy to take an intervention from the minister.

Derek Mackay:

I was not sure whether the member had time to take an intervention, Presiding Officer.

Mr Finnie has asked repeatedly, as Labour members have done, whether we have tested the legal opinion to destruction. Is he aware that both trade union solicitors and Government solicitors spent some of the summer discussing matters and raising awareness, without sharing our legal opinions, in order to understand each other’s positions? I am convinced that we have tested to destruction the legal opinion that has led us to the conclusion that we have reached.

John Finnie:

As someone who, in a previous job, used to seek legal opinions, I can say that sometimes a request for a legal opinion can be couched as a request for everything that would support the assertion that A is B. I hope that the minister will take the opportunity to look at the legal opinion that has come in only recently, even at this 11th hour, because if there is a genuine commitment—everyone seems to be saying that they want CalMac to win the tender—I am sure that people would appreciate his taking that on board. I certainly want to see CalMac retain the service, and I thank David Stewart for bringing the motion before Parliament today.