The CalMac Fiasco - Comment
The Herald and its correspondent David Ross ("Executive
was sidelined over CalMac bids", 16th February) have done an
excellent job of shedding light on what the editorial on the same day
rightly headlined as the "Ferry tendering
I gave invited evidence to the Scottish Parliament's Inquiry on the issue,
and in the Spring of 2005 I submitted a proposal to the Committee and
the Executive based on the Altmark ruling by the European Court. The proposal
showed how basic principles outlined in the Altmark case could enable
CalMac's lifeline ferry services to be made compliant with EC rules without
the need for tendering.
The proposal was supported by many members of the Scottish Parliament,
and also endorsed by leading legal experts in the field. The then Transport
Minister Nicol Stephen promised the Transport Committee that I would be
given an opportunity to discuss my proposal with the Executive.
That never happened. Instead, just before the debate in the Scottish Parliament
in September 2005, a briefing document appeared from the Scottish Executive
which attempted to discredit my proposal on spurious grounds, the central
argument being that Altmark was not relevant to the tendering of Scottish
lifeline ferry services. I was not consulted, and i was given no time
to correct the grievous errors in the report before the Parliament voted
in favour of the Executive's case for tendering CalMac services. Many
MSPs said they voted in favour because they saw no real alternative.
Last month the EC's Commissioner Barot confirmed in response to a question
from Alyn Smith MEP that the Altmark principles were not only relevant
to the question of ferry services like the CalMac network, it was essential
that the Altmark principles be complied with if subsidies to these services
were not to be treated as illegal State aid. It is now absolutely clear
that Altmark-based alternatives to tendering such as mine had been dismissed
on spurious grounds.
It was widely thought that it was incompetence on the part of the Executive
that led to reasoned alternatives to CalMac tendering being dismissed.
While incompetence may still be a factor, it now seems that impotence
was also a central issue. As the Herald has so clearly shown, the real
decisions and representations to Brussels are still made by the relevant
Whitehall ministry, and tendering is the default and obvious solution
there. Why should Whitehall-based civil servants go to the trouble and
inconvenience of working on and representing a novel solution for a part
of a region of the UK about which they know very little, and care even
less? Especially when they do not have to account for their decisions,
and someone else takes the flak and endures the consequences.
We do not know how hard the Executive's civil servants tried (if at all)
to argue alternatives to tendering, but in the end it would have made
no difference. It is clear from what the Herald has uncovered that when
the Scottish Minister of Transport goes to Brussels (and indeed Whitehall)
he is treated as a daytripper, not a policymaker. If Commissioner Barrot
had given him a souvenir pen of his last visit to Brussels, at least he
would have had something to show for it.
But it gets worse. Much like the US's never-ending political campaigning,
no sooner does one tendering cycle stop than the next one begins. It has
taken seven years (and counting) to set up the first tender for the CalMac
network, but the tenders are for a maximum of six years. Clearly (one
would hope) CalMac and the Executive will be able to draw on some experience
built up over the past few years, but if CalMac wants to win the tender
after this one, it will have to start planning for that bid not long after
it has started the present tender. A sort of multi-million pound seaborne
Groundhog Day which will have the side effect of crowding out any hope
of thinking about such off-agenda items like economic development.
The Herald editorial commented "Shambles? Fiasco? Neither is too
strong a term". I fully agree.
Neil Kay February 16th 2007