Executive was sidelined over CalMac bids

The Herald, DAVID ROSS, Highland Correspondent February 16 2007

The Scottish Executive has been sidelined by Whitehall bureaucrats in a bid to have a controversial and costly tendering process for lifeline ferry services scrapped.

Now there are calls for the exact role played by Whitehall in the "fiasco" of the tendering of Caledonian MacBrayne's ferry routes to be disclosed to the Scottish Parliament.

The UK Department for Transport (DfT) has made clear it - and not the Scottish Executive - is in overall charge of the issue of CalMac tendering, when it comes to the all-important dialogue with the European Commission.

advertisementConcern among MSPs had already deepened since The Herald revealed last month that the Scottish Executive's top European official has warned ministers that Scotland's interests are being routinely forgotten, ignored and dismissed by Whitehall officials when they seek to influence policy and law-making in Brussels.

Now The Herald has learned that, ever since it received a letter from the European Commission in 2005 warning against any further delay, the DfT has been determined that CalMac routes should be tendered as soon as possible to justify to Europe the company's subsidy.

In fact, Whitehall has never been prepared to go to the European Commission and argue the case for exempting CalMac's routes from tendering. This has led to immense frustration among Scottish ministers, who have long held that a special case could easily be made for Scotland's island communities.

I think European transport policy from the European Commission is a basket case.
Tavish Scott

The DfT has refused to support the executive's argument that a special case could be made to Europe in respect of island communities.

Amid the embarrassment that nobody but CalMac is tendering for its routes, and the considerable amounts of public money being spent on what is now effectively a paper exercise, there is frustration among Scottish ministers at Whitehall's attitude. However, in public they criticise Europe.

In Holyrood Magazine this week Tavish Scott, the Scottish Transport Minister, said: "We have the ludicrous situation where they are forcing us to tender Clyde and Hebrides ferry services, but do not force the Paris Metro to bring market forces to bear there.

"I think the inconsistency and nonsense of European policy is laid stark by that one simple observation. I think European transport policy from the European Commission is a basket case."

But in this, as in all other executive statements about CalMac, the role of Whitehall goes virtually unmentioned.

However, when The Herald this week asked the UK DfT what representations it had made on the issue of CalMac to the European Commission, an official underlined the primacy of the department.

He said: "No specific representations', as you describe them. We have been fully engaged in discussions, involving also the European Commission and the Scottish Executive, on the tendering of the CalMac ferry services - and the need to comply with EU state aid requirements - on the basis that, while the operational and policy issues are a matter for the Scottish Executive, it is the UK as the EU member state that is ultimately responsible for seeing that EU obligations are met."

Expressing his deep concern, Fergus Ewing, the SNP's transport spokesman and MSP for Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber, said: "Aside from the snooty tone of this statement, reminiscent of the days of the Raj , this comment from Whitehall begs the question of who is in charge of the CalMac tendering exercise, and what role did Whitehall play in it?

"Which UK minister met the commission and when - and did the UK government force tendering on the Scottish Executive against their will? I will be lodging questions to establish the exact role played by Whitehall in this fiasco."

Artcle originally here