THE Scottish Government has axed a high-powered group of advisers set up to inform ministers over the key issues affecting the nation"s beleaguered lifeline island services in Scotland despite the nation's ongoing ferry fiasco, the Herald on Sunday can reveal.

The Scottish Government-formed Ferry Industry Advisory Group set up to inform the Scottish Government and its Transport Scotland agency over the way forward for ferry services has not met since October, 2019.

That's despite the fact that the state-owned ferry operator CalMac is having to handle an ageing ferry fleet with new lifeline vessels MV Glen Sannox and Hull 802 still languishing in the now state-owned Ferguson Marine shipyard, with costs of their construction more than doubling from the original £97m contract and delivery nearly five years late.

It comes after a summer and winter of disruption on the Scottish ferry network.

A letter from Mrs Frances Pacitti, Transport Scotland director of aviation, maritime, freight and canals, has advised group members they should consider that the advisory group has been "wound up".

The move has been strongly criticised with some believing it is because ministers did not like the sound of dissenting voices.

The ferry group which first met in 2014 is run by Transport Scotland and was chaired by Ms Pacitti. The agency says it is supposed to meet up to three times a year and is "intended to inform ministers" policy development having regard to a wide range of views".

The expert group was formed after the publication of the ten-year Scottish Ferries Plan in December 2012, laying out the Scottish Government"s desire to have ongoing consultation for all ferry-related issues.

It came after ministers rejected proposals for an independent ferry regulator subsidised by the Scottish Government and commercial operators saying there was "limited support" for the idea.

But plan documents stated: "We are keen to involve key local expert interests in our arrangements for wider consultation. This will ensure that we have access to the widest possible expertise before key decisions are made."

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This led to the formation of the group which included a range of experts and industry chiefs from consultants Alf Baird and Roy Pedersen to Kevin Hobbs, chief executive of the state-controlled ferry fleet owners Caledonian Maritime Assets, CalMac executive Brian Fulton and Western Ferries managing director Gordon Ross.

One ferry user group official said the development was "unbelievable" adding: "Quite how it is deemed sensible to throw this away at a time when communication about the state of our ferry services and how it can be resolved has been so widely criticised beggars belief. We need more informed solutions from the people that know what they are talking about, not a shut down."

Mr Pedersen, one of the members of the committee questioned the decision in the light of the escalating issues with Scotland's ferry services.

He said: "In view of the utter dysfunctionality of the state-owned Clyde and Hebrides ferry system, its phenomenal and growing cost and unconcealed anger among communities at the abysmal service received, it would seem wise for the Scottish Government to seek expert advice as to how to change course.

"That the Ferry Industry Advisory Group, formerly Expert Ferry Group, has been summarily wound-up may seem unwise. The group was originally established to inform the Scottish Government and its agency Transport Scotland on the way forward for ferry services.

"Unfortunately, the group’s agenda was so tightly controlled by officials, that almost all of the evidence-based recommendations made, or queries raised by the independent members, were ignored by Transport Scotland and its ferry agencies.

"Had they been acted upon, many of the present difficulties facing the Scottish state owned ferry sector would have been avoided, with very significant savings of public funds and improvement in services. For these reasons I had for some time had serious doubts about the value of continued involvement with the group."

In January, the two independent members of the group, Mr Pedersen and Dr Baird, forwarded a report setting out their concerns directly and formally to the then minister Graeme Dey MSP and subsequently to successor Jenny Gilruth MSP, seeking a meeting to outline how matters could be improved.

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Mr Pedersen said they stressed that they sought "wholeheartedly to support the Scottish Government in securing the best connectivity to aid the economic and social well-being of our island communities commensurate with economy of public funds".

No response has been forthcoming to date.

"There is a growing body of professionals, familiar with both the requirements for Scottish ferry operations and with domestic and international best practice, appalled at the wrong-headedness of the actors in the state owned sector. This expertise includes: naval architecture, shipbuilding, ferry operation, ship-broking, economics, community representation, etc. It’s time this body of expertise was listened to," said Mr Pedersen.

Eight years ago leading academic Prof Neil Kay resigned from the advisory body months after it was created and accused the organisation of sidelining the interests of passengers.

In his resignation letter, he criticised the group for secrecy and closed door meetings and that it should be replaced by a panel of independent experts as the interests of service users and communities were "peripheral"

Transport Scotland later said the EFG's papers were to be made public.

A spokesman said: "We have been clear from the start of this process that all discussions and advice relating to the EFG would be confidential to allow the group to have frank and open discussions on the future of the ferries sector."

An investigation by MSPs on the Scottish Parliament rural economy and connectivity committee into the procurement of ferries set to serve the Western Isles found over a year ago that the fiasco was a “catastrophic failure”.

The Scottish Government took the yard into public ownership in December 2019 after the directors of Ferguson Marine filed a notice of intention to appoint administrators in August 2019.

The company collapsed as the ferries contract was plagued by design changes, delays and disputes over cost, with Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL), the Scottish Government-controlled taxpayer-funded company which owns and procures ferries and Ferguson Marine owner Jim McColl blaming each other.

HeraldScotland: Nicola Sturgeon with Ferguson Marine owner Jim McColl

Warnings were raised about the country’s “ageing fleet”, with the committee accusing multiple government administrations of failing to deliver a competent strategy for replacing them.

While industry experts agree the working life of the ferries is 25 years, as of last year 14 of the 33-strong ferry fleet run is older than that, with eight, including MV Hebridean Isles, past their 30th birthday.

A Transport Scotland spokesman said: “The Ferry Industry Advisory Group was set up to bring interested stakeholders together, rather than to specifically take decisions on policy development. It was decided to stop meetings because the members, by mutual consent, felt that the format needed a refresh.

“A ferries stakeholder engagement strategy is being prepared looking in detail at the engagement structures around projects, operational matters and policy development.”