McArthur demands a fair deal on ferry fares for Pentland Firth routes

31 May 2024
Liam and a boat

Orkney’s MSP, Liam McArthur, has today accused the Scottish Government of “stringing people in Orkney along” over its repeated failure to introduce Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) on Pentland Firth ferry routes.

Speaking at General Questions in the Scottish Parliament, Mr McArthur challenged the Transport Secretary, Fiona Hyslop, to confirm whether the government had any intention to introduce fairer ferry fares on lifeline routes across the Pentland Firth, after responses to earlier parliamentary questions confirmed no work had been carried out on extending RET to the northern isles.

RET was first introduced on west coast routes in 2008, and SNP Ministers have long promised to extend it to across the ferry network. Having raised the issue repeatedly at First Minister’s Questions and with a succession of Transport Ministers over the years, Orkney’s MSP has received a succession of different excuses for the failure to deliver.

In June 2023, Ms Hyslop claimed that a Pentland Firth RET would ‘distort the market’ under subsidy control rules introduced by the UK Government post-Brexit. However, this regime is not materially different from previous EU state aid rules, which the European Commission had previously made clear would not prevent the implementation of RET on Pentland Firth routes, following an unsuccessful legal challenge.

The Scotland Office has also subsequently confirmed that the UK subsidy control regime, “allows Devolved Administrations and local authorities to give subsidies that are tailored to local needs”, and that it is “for the Scottish Government to take a view on whether the Road Equivalent Tariff is consistent with the principles set out in the Subsidy Control Act 2022”

Commenting on this latest exchange, Mr McArthur said:

People in Orkney have been waiting 16 years for the SNP to deliver on its promise for a fair deal on ferry fares on Pentland Firth routes.

“Over that time, the excuses have changed almost as often as the Transport Minister: from ‘not in our manifesto’ to ‘less of a need in Orkney’; from ‘pesky EU competition rules’ to ‘it’s all the fault of Brexit’. The only constant has been the government’s determination to string along islanders while failing to work out how RET could be delivered.

“Last year, the Transport Secretary argued RET on Pentland Firth routes would ‘distort the market’ but we’ve heard all this before. Previously SNP Ministers blamed EU rules despite the European Commission confirming it had no objection. Now the UK Government is in the firing line, despite insisting it is for the Scottish Government to make a decision on RET.

“While no progress is being made on RET, SNP Ministers signed off on an increase of almost 9% in ferry fares back in April. The Scottish Government is leaving islanders out of pocket as it wriggles out of its commitment on cheaper fares.”

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