MINISTERS and executives of the state-owned ferry operator CalMac have been warned they are acting unlawfully in the way that Scotland’s ferry services have been operating.
A ferry user group has written to the transport minister warning there has been a failure to conduct island communities impact assessments which are an integral part of the Scottish Government’s ground-breaking Islands Act, which was made law in 2018.
Public bodies are tasked by law to consider the specific needs of islands when developing policies and strategies.
The question of law has come as users demand changes to what they call a “discriminatory” first-come-first-service booking service for lifeline ferries which is seeing islandrs having to book three to four weeks in advance just to get on and off.
Transport Scotland has been told that the system is “prejudiced” against people who have to make journeys at short notice, and prioritises those who can book in advance.
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The Mull and Iona Ferry Committee has now written to the the transport minister Jenny Gilruth to warn that neither CalMac or the Scottish Government agency Transport Scotland have followed their legal obligations under the Islands Act.
The committee say that an impact assessment should have been undertaken to assess the much-criticised ‘first-come-first-served- booking policy that Transport Scotland instruct CalMac to apply.
“Unlawful if the right way to describe it,” said committee chairman Joe Reade.
“We can find no one on Mull who was consulted about the ticketing system. Regardless of the Islands Act, islanders are the most frequent users with most complex ticketing needs.
“Neither CalMac nor Transport Scotland seem to understand island life. But worse than that, what we have now learned is that they don’t understand island law either. The Islands Act was put in place by this government, but their own agencies don’t seem to have read it.
“The first-come-firstserved booking system is inherently prejudiced against islanders. It effectively gives priority to anyone who can book their journey far in advance. So holiday makers buy their tickets first, and local residents have to take what’s left over. When the network is so short of deck space, prioritising who can board based on how far ahead you can book your journey is crude and unfair. Family visits, hospital appointments, livestock movements, funerals and much more cannot be arranged weeks ahead of time – yet often these are the most important journeys of all.”
Demand has been stimulated by by a new charging structure which has led to an estimated average fare reduction of 34% for passengers and 40% for car traffic on the CalMac network.
Islanders are competing for spaces on ferries as those planning a Staycation breaks who can book weeks or months ahead of time, so those travellers fill up the bookings first.
With a new IT and ticketing system due to be introduced this year, islanders have called for the scrapping of the ‘first-come, first-served’ principle.
Moray Finch, general manager of the Mull and Iona Community Trust said: “The Islands Act is a powerful piece of legislation designed to overcome many of the unique disadvantages of living on an island. But unless it’s respected and understood by the people who should be observing it, there’s little hope it will have the impact it should. I’m quite flabbergasted that CalMac and Transport Scotland have had to have their legal obligations pointed out to them by a volunteer ferry committee. But hopefully we will now get the ‘effective and meaningful consultation’ the Islands Act promise.”
The issues have been exacerbated with a series of breakdowns to the CalMac fleet of 31 ageing ferries during the busy summer tourism period which have raised concerns about the continuing resilience of vessels.
Sam Bourne, chairman of the Arran Ferry Action Group supported calls for changes saying passengers were being hampered by what he called the “outdated booking system”
Ferry users say a proportion of deck space should be bookable for island residents only and essential travellers, such as GPs.
They say travellers should be encourage to use particular sailings.
Mull Community Council chairman Tom Nelson said it was time for change.
“We have no choice but to use the ferry, it is our lifeline,” he said. “If it’s full, we can’t travel. If a train is sold out, you can choose another route, or fly or drive instead. But if the ferry is full, that’s it, we’re stuck. Weather looking good and you want to go on a trip? No chance unless you checked the forecast weeks ago. Need to go on a business trip in a hurry? Forget it. Family member passed away on the mainland? Cross your fingers that a holiday maker has missed the ferry.”