Sunday, 10 May 2009

A New Scottish Twist to the Rathlin Ferry Saga

Conall McDevitt has drawn attention to a possible breach of Election Purdah by the Department for Regional Development.

However, this good news may also be an antidote to some bad news for not just the DRD (and DFP) but also for the Scottish government and some companies it owns.

Following a series of FOI requests, I've received some illuminating emails from the Scottish government's Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (CMAL). Calmac operates the ferries whereas CMAL owns and leases out the ferries.

A Scottish Ministry for Transport official assisted CMAL ".. to get colleagues in Northern Ireland (civil servants) .. to do all that they were supposed to do." Not a ringing endorsement of local civil service competence.

The SMT official was also involved in a process that should only have needed the attention of the ferry lessor and lessee. Have DRD officials and consultants intervened in a similar fashion?

A member of CMAL has also made disparaging remarks about other lessees - they probably know who they are - and has confirmed that the lease of the Canna was not signed until the eleventh hour and the financial bond was not expected to be in place until about three weeks after the lessee was operating the ferry service.

And then there's the unexplained Plan B as well as the little publicised EU Commission investigation into the state subsidy of public transport in the absence of a Public Service Obligation for the Ballycastle-Rathlin ferry route.

Why aren't the DRD, MLAs and the mainstream media informing the public about the Commission's activities?

Professor Neil Kay has published a detailed analysis of Scottish ferry policy in the Fraser of Allender Economic Commentary. I'd recommend it as essential reading for MLAs on the Committee for Regional Development in light of the EU Commission's scrutiny of aspects of the Rathlin ferry contract. I've placed a copy for their benefit on Scribd.

In short, it appears that the Executive Branch’s evidence on what they understood by EC law in this context was not only wrong on a number of counts, it was so badly wrong as to represent a complete misunderstanding and misrepresentation of what had been known for a number of years to be accepted EC law here, posing real problems and dangers for the public interest.

It should be emphasised that this is without prejudice to whatever the Commission might decide in their current investigation into alleged illegal subsidies to Scottish ferry services. The Commission may indeed take a sympathetic line to the Executive Branch’s interpretation of EC law here, the point is the Executive Branch’s approach to these problems has exposed the public interest here to completely unnecessary risks on these grounds, as well as failing to provide a coherent foundation for the formulation of past, present, and future policy in this context.