Sunday, 20 February 2011

Rathlin Ferry Saga - Can Creditors Sleep Easy?

Department for Regional Development Responses

Rathlin Island Ferry Limited's accounts show increasing losses yet the DRD seeks to the reduce the £666,000 annual subsidy by £200,000 starting in 2013. How can the circle be squared? One or two new Ro-Ros have not been included in the 2011-15 budget.

The abbreviated accounts don't show the amounts of money transferred to directors or the amounts paid for leases of the Rathlin Express and the St Sorney, vessels which are believed to be owned by one or more of the directors. Is this not a curious state of affairs for a company in receipt of significant DRD funding? Is DRD acting in the public interest when it fails to insist that such details are put in the public domain?

Q1. Is RIFL solvent?

A1. Thank you for your e-mails dated 11 January and 14 January 2011 requesting information about the draft budget and the Rathlin Ferry Service. Some of the information that you have requested falls within the terms of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and I will highlight clearly where this is the case.

RIFL is solvent and has traded at a profit in the period April to September 2010. However due to the seasonal nature of the business, the best time to assess whether RIFL has traded at a loss\profit is when year end accounts are produced. The final accounts for 2010/11 have yet to be prepared.

["The company has incurred losses in its first two periods of trading with the result that its current liabilities exceed its total assets. [Deficits £35,774 - 31.05.09; £115,279 - 31.03.10; Authorised shares £100,000] The contract with the DRD is currently under review and the directors believe that the outcome of the review will enable the company to continue in operational existence and to improve its profitability" .. RIFL abbreviated accounts]

[A RIFL director withdrew from an Irish government subsidised ferry service in Co Cork at the end of February 2010 - financial difficulties]

Q2. Which Government department or agency monitors the trading status of Northern Ireland registered companies?

A2. You have asked which agency monitors the trading status of Northern Ireland registered companies. You may wish to contact the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, which has responsibilities in this area.

Q3. Is DRD participating in this review of the contract?

A3. You have quoted figures from the Department's draft budget proposals for 2011-2015 which are out for public consultation. This public consultation is due to close on 16 February 2011.

The savings set out in these proposals relating to the Rathlin Ferry subsidy are indicative amounts and it is not possible to give a precise forecast of reductions at this time. Any surrender of resource will be determined by a number of factors including the baseline level of provision in the existing budget, the value of fare revenue received, the level of future fare increases and any decisions reached on proposals for variation to the current contract. In addition, it is difficult to determ ine the subsidy budget for 2014/15 as the contract is due to be re-tendered before April 2014 and future terms are as yet unknown.

I can confirm that Department is considering proposals made by RIFL for a variation, as the operator is entitled to bring forward under the terms of the contract.

Q4. What is DRD's current view of the financial viability of RIFL and its ability to retain current staffing levels and to maintain the timetable of crossings provided in 2010?

A4. You have asked about the ability of RIFL to maintain the timetable of crossings provided in 2010. The operator has brought forward proposals for the 2011 summer timetable identical to the service provided in 2010. The proposed timetable will be subject to consultation with Moyle District Council and the Rathlin Development and Community Association.   Staffing levels are a matter for the operator and you should direct your query to RIFL.

The MV Canna is available for use on the Rathlin Ballycastle route until the end of the current contract (31 March 2014) under a charter between RIFL and Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL).

["The current vessel [MV Canna] is nearing the end of its working life and is providing a very basic service. DRD commissioned a Marine Consultant to review the current boat two years ago. He reported that the boat had approximately five years service left." ... DRD Budget proposal 25 April 2007]

Q5. What is the schedule for the introduction of new ro-ro vessels and how will this impinge on the future use of a passenger-only vessel in general and the Rathlin Express in particular?

A5. You asked about the future use of a roll on/roll off vessel on the Rathlin route. The Department proposes to continue with a roll on/roll off vessel on the Rathlin service when the next contract commences in 2014. Beyond that, the specification for the next contract has not yet been determined. I am not prepared to speculate on the future mix of vessels which bidders might bring forward. The use of the Rathlin Express beyond the end of the current contract is a matter for its owner.

Q6. How much remuneration has been paid to each director in each of RIFL's financial trading years?

A6. In relation to director's remuneration, the Department does not hold any details of payments made to directors of RIFL but is aware that one director is employed by the company.

Q7. How much has been claimed in each trading year for (i) the lease of the Rathlin Express and (ii) the lease of the St Sorney?

A7. Some of the information that has been requested relating to Rathlin Express and St Sorney is financial information and falls within the terms of the exemption under section 43 (2), (commercial Interests) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

In considering whether to release this information I have noted that there is a public interest in allowing effective scrutiny and oversight of the use of public funds in relation to the Rathlin Island ferry service.

However the disclosure of the financial information specifically relating to these costs would release commercially sensitive information. It would allow a competitor to calculate the equivalent cost of service on this or another route therefore commercially disadvantaging those who have supplied this information. If financial information concerning the operation of this contract were known then another ferry operator would have unfair access to information giving it a competitive edge.

On balance I have concluded that the release of this information would be likely to prejudice those who have supplied it and the public interest is best served by withholding the information at this time.

[Is DRD satisfied that the leases with 'connected persons' are at the appropriate commercial rates for leases of this kind?]

Updated February 21

Minister Conor Murphy's recent reply to Patsy McGlone re. NI Water Contractors (AQW 4273/11) has implications for the DRD's handling of the Rathlin ferry saga:

Newly formed companies, sole traders, partnerships and unlimited companies, or companies that can not provide full audited accounts for 3 years, are not excluded from participation in any competition but must satisfy rigorous financial scrutiny.

RIFL was formed after Ciaran O'Driscoll was awarded the Rathlin ferry contract on 18 April 2008. Did DRD officials subject O'Driscoll's Cape Clear accounts to 'rigorous financial scrutiny' or seek relevant assurances from the Irish government? Why was the need for a financial guarantee dropped from the second tenderWhy did the Minister award the contract to an individual rather than a company? Also, why has the Committee for Regional Development still not examined the investigations report that was published in December 2008, over two years ago?