ORCADIAN 04/11/15

I know there are those who argue that I am too often critical of the Scottish Government. Similarly, there are others who feel I am not critical enough.

From my perspective, however, I have always held to the view that my role as Orkney’s MSP is to work constructively with others to deliver outcomes that are in the best interests of my constituents and Orkney as a whole. Little is achieved in politics by constantly berating those with the power to act.

By the same token, governments of any political persuasion need to be challenged and held to account for the decisions they take. Good government, after all, requires effective opposition, including from within its own ranks. This, sadly, has been sorely lacking over recent years and that is not a healthy state of affairs.

Effective opposition, though, is not just opposition at all costs. Politics is ill-served by a debate characterised by one side saying ‘black’ because the other says ‘white’. Apart from anything else, it rarely reflects what the public thinks.

I offer a couple of examples from last week to illustrate the point.

Firstly, I received a response from Rural Affairs Secretary, Richard Lochhead confirming a change of heart over an earlier decision to close SAC’s Disease Surveillance Centre in Inverness. Like many Highlands & Islands MSPs, I had raised concerns about the impact this decision could have on the ability of farmers and vets, including those in Orkney, to get timely access to diagnostic and veterinary advice and support.

The Minister has listened, responded and deserves credit for doing so. As indeed he does over the issue of support for a farming sector in Orkney, hit hard by a year of unprecedentedly wet weather. Things have improved lately, but damage has been done. Again, I welcome the willingness of Mr Lochhead and his officials to engage constructively to identify solutions.

This approach, however, stands in stark contrast to the on-going insult of the government’s cheap ferry fares scheme. As price reductions of up to 55% were introduced last week on the last of the west coast routes, it confirmed Orkney and Shetland as now the only island communities not benefitting from the largesse of SNP ministers.

Since its inception as a three-year long ‘pilot’ project on ferry routes to the Western Isles, due to conclude just after the 2011 election, funnily enough, the roll out of RET has been a litany of excuses, obfuscations and deceit.

Initially we were told that the SNP manifesto promise was only to introduce RET to the Western Isles. Then it was a ‘pilot’ project and would be rolled out everywhere in due course. The tune changed again as SNP Ministers argued they were saving Orkney and Shetland from increased fares. Yet their own published figures give the lie to this assertion. Even on the Aberdeen route, prices would be capped at current levels, in line with the approach taken on the west coast.

SNP candidates in the Northern Isles have appeared equally confused in attempting to justify their government’s position. As well as arguing that RET ‘is coming north’, they have revealed it is effectively already in place on the Aberdeen routes. More bizarre still has been the claim last week that such discrimination against Orkney and Shetland by the SNP is a good reason for both communities to vote SNP in next May’s Holyrood election. Oh really?

The truth is that, using a constantly changing formula, this scheme has been used to funnel tens of millions of pounds into cutting fares on west coast routes to the undoubted benefit of those communities. Fairness requires Orkney and Shetland to be equal treatment.

Would introducing the scheme in Orkney prove more complicated? Possibly, but then that is an argument for working through details during the initial pilot phase, not simply abandoning our islands.

Many in Orkney appear to agree, as growing support for my petition www.liammcarthur.org.uk/fairferries shows.

I would urge Scottish Ministers to listen, as they have on other issues, and respond constructively. At the very least, they need to get their story straight. Until they do, there will be no let-up in the criticism on this issue.

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