Islanders have angrily rejected calls for CalMac to get an extended ferry contract - revealing that 250 residents had a vote of no confidence in the Scottish Government-owned ferry operator.

It comes after a Holyrood committee inquiry said ministers should consider scrapping Scottish Government-controlled ferry and port owner CMAL to create a new ferries agency while giving the beleaguered ferry operator CalMac a longer contract to continue lifeline services.

The Net Zero, Energy & Transport Committee says it wants to bring an end to the system for managing Scotland's lifeline services which "is not working".

It says that state-owned ferry operator CalMac should benefit from a direct award of an extended ten-year rather than the current eight year contract to run lifeline services on the west coast of Scotland.

It said it would support such a move to increase the length of contract from eight to ten years as it was needed to "ensure continuity of service and avoid disruption" with the current contract due to expire in September, next year.

But it has also said it would be caveated on the Scottish Government, as the owners of CalMac ensuring it delivers "real improvements for communities".

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The committee says it would have to be acceptable to communities and there would have to be no legal barriers over a failure to go to a public tender.

But the suggestion to continue with CalMac is being opposed by some ferry user groups.

The South Uist Business Impact Group which organised a major protest earlier this month over a month-long cut to sailings to the mainland because of ferry breakdowns to the ageing fleet, saying a recent public meeting had a vote of no confidence in CalMac to handle the ferry service.  

The meeting was one of a series held over two weeks in which CalMac representatives including chief executive Robbie Drummond attempted to explain their decision making.

"We disagree with the support of a direct award of a new, 10 year ferry contract to CalMac," said an Impact Group spokesman, adding that CalMac has proved "time and again that it is incapable of providing the ferry service Scotland needs, incapable of effective contingency planning, and incapable of communicating information to customers in times of disruption".

"The Scottish ministers’ failure to put in place a tendering process for the new ferry franchise in a timely manner is not reason to reward a failing company by making long-suffering islanders suffer inadequate service for another decade.

"The Hebridean & Clyde Ferry Network urgently needs new management in order to improve the service offered to customers. Any temporary extension of the current franchise while a new franchise is tendered, or new agency set up, should come with strict guarantees of service requirements."

John Daniel Peteranna of the South Uist Business Impact Group said CalMac senior management have lost the confidence of the public and" a new team, customer focussed, needs to be brought in to actually see through improvements in our ferry service".

An estimated 500 residents, 200 cars, 40 vans and 20 lorries converged on Lochboisdale - the port which links South Uist to the mainland - to protest about the decision to shut down services through a route scoring matrix which aims to target disruption to the least number of people.

The Mull & Iona Ferry Committee objected to giving CalMac a 10 year award saying that it could mean no change to the status quo.

Joe Reade, chairman of the committee, said that rewarding CalMac with a longer franchise from the normal eight "kicks the can down the road" and that no more than a one or two year extension was needed to ensure that there was meaningful change.

"It’s inevitable that the current contract will need to be extended, since there is simply insufficient time for the tendering process, let alone consideration of significant reform of the contract. But that temporary extension should be minimised, to ensure reform is delivered within this parliamentary term," he said.

"A 10 year direct award to David MacBrayne as an intermediate solution would kick the can down the road yet again, way beyond the horizon of any current politician or manager in Transport Scotland, CMAL or CalMac. The intention may be to provide ‘breathing space’ for reform, but the outcome could well be more of the same for a decade.

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"Whatever reform is enacted, it must have the needs of island communities at its heart, who currently have little say in the service on which they depend."

The Herald: Robbie Drummond of CalMac

The committee, which has been examining the future of ferries in an inquiry, says that consideration should be given to CMAL and Transport Scotland being merged to create a new Ferries Scotland agency which "could streamline decision-taking and improve the understanding and importance of ferry services" within the Scottish Government agency.

Ferries Scotland would become an arm of Transport Scotland, with CMAL merged with parts of the Scottish Government agency which is linked to ferry provision and services.

The inquiry report said that the current tripartite arrangement over control of ferries "is not working and must be reviewed" while suggesting the merger.

Sam Bourne, chairman of the Arran Ferry Action Group said the problem is in finding another operator to take the place of CalMac.

He said a direct award contract should only be made with assurances of improvements to services, proper consultation on changes, and better island representation on the CalMac board.

"The problem is that I cannot see other operators committing to a 10 year contract on the basis of the current set up where they are obliged to use the vessels they are given," he said.

"Any award must be seen as a privilege and come with a proviso that it is not business as usual and that changes must be made.

"Is the answer to throw everything out? That might be a step too far. You may end up piling more chaos on top of chaos.

"What we need is a service that runs today, tomorrow and next year."

Robbie Drummond, the chief executive of CalMac said: “Throughout our current contract we have averaged around 99% of sailings of more than 120,000 sailings each year running to contracted schedule, reducing to around 95% during poor weather conditions outside of our control. We will continue to work with all relevant parties to deliver the contracts we hold to the highest standards we can with the vessels we have access to. We remain committed to engaging with island communities and doing everything in our power to deliver the services communities deserve.”